target training point head down position
Horses,  Positive Reinforcement

Clicker Target Training & Positive Reinforcement for Horses

There are two basic ways to train a horse, Negative Reinforcement and Positive Reinforcement.  Clicker Training for horses is a form of Positive Reinforcement. 

  • Negative reinforcement means we take something away when the horse does something right (Negative = to subtract). Typically pressure is what is subtracted.

This is the most common way of training a horse.

  • Positive Reinforcement means we add something when the horse does something right (Positive = to add).  Typically a reward is what is added.

Clicker Training with a horse begins with teaching the concept of Mark and Reward. To do this, we use specifically use targets, aka Target Training. Think of the target as the common point of communication between you and the horse.  We use a Marker Word rather than a Clicker device simply because we need the sound to be transferable when we are riding. Here at Blackjack Farm, we make a “tisk” sound as the Marker.  This sound “marks” the moment in time that the horse did something correctly.

Target Training Basics

The target gives the horse the opportunity to make the connection between the Marker Word and the forthcoming Reward. These are not random treats. The reward is purposefully associated with the desired behavior.

Touching the Target

In order to have a barrier between us and the horse, we begin inside a stall. This boundary is very important in the beginning. Without it, the horse will tend to move towards you for the treat and not have enough opportunity to learn that this is not like any other hand-fed treat they may have had in the past. This reward is one they work for and one they wait for. The message to the horse is simple: successfully touch the target, you’ll hear the “tisk” sound and you’ll get a reward. Uncomplicated, straightforward and fun for the horse! This elementary behavior of touching the target is the beginning of an entirely new way to train your horse.

From Target to Hand Gestures

Interestingly, we don’t actually need to use the target for too long. Using a visual Target helps the horse recognize the new information. However, once the horse makes the connection, we will begin to trade out the target for a hand gesture. We are tapping into the horse’s natural use of body language as a way of communicating. Usually, this transition from target to a hand gesture is a pretty quick process. It typically will take about three days with most horses. Once they learn to touch the target that knowledge will not go away. You can use it in the future for working on issues like tension in the crossties. The target will create a stress-relieving environment that you can tap into any time you need it.

Understanding the Horse’s Motivation

In addition to the clarity Target Training brings, the horses tend to really love the learning process. They see it as a game and they get more and more interested in playing it. The horses love the work because it doesn’t seem like work, it simply feels like a game that has lots of breaks and lots of rewards. Nothing motivates like the promise of a reward! In the video below, you’ll see Crush on his first day of Target Training. He’s relaxed, engaged and having fun.

Crush: Day 1 Target Training

It’s important to remember that horses do not have the same brain development as we do. Without the level of development in the frontal lobe that we have, the horse does not have the capacity to plan ahead. An easy way to think of it is that horses have two basic mental places; their memory and the moment.

If you want your horse to work for something you must motivate them by giving them a reason in the moment. They simply can’t decide to put the effort in today for the promise of success tomorrow. We can plan for their future but they can’t. Rewarding them in the moment creates curiosity that quickly morphs into motivation. Once you’ve worked with a horse that’s motivated you’ll never go back to the old way of doing things!

An important note here: it is possible to create an unintended compulsive response in the horse.  These horses tend to be the ones that are very easily trained.  Be careful that you’re training behaviors you want to be repeated because once they’ve learned them they are not likely to go away.  If you want to learn more about the horse’s amazing brain, and the difference between impulsive and compulsive behavior, I highly recommend: Training the Brain with Dr. Andrew Hemmings.

Training not Tricks

The truly wonderful thing is that we can use this training method for results far beyond a simple trick. We are able to build more complex behaviors using something called Shaping. Shaping is the breakdown of a larger behavior into its smaller parts. What begins by touching a target with their nose can relatively quickly become a complex collection of movements we never thought possible from the ground.

It works equally well for a horse with a busy mind as it does a horse who is typically disinterested. Both ends of the spectrum seem to perk up and be present as soon as they hear the “tisk” sound! Their curiosity and interest will start to be something you’ll see from them on a daily basis. It’s like they are asking you, “What are we going to do today?”

Target Training Supplies

  • a target, we use a hard disk
  • a pocket or pouch full of low sugar treats
  • a stall or other boundary between you and your horse

Getting Started: Target Training Day 1

In your first session with the horse, you’ll introduce the target, the marker word, and the reward. Keep it short. About 5 minutes is usually good. We start with the target directly in front of them and just below the muzzle. After a few times in front, we place it on the right and left sides of their head. When you feel like the horse is starting to understand you should give them a short break. Horses need soak time for new information. With a little time to process, things start to become really clear. Usually, I give a 5 to 15-minute break. Then I go back and do each target position again. When they easily touch the target in all three positions we are done for the day.

Day-to-Day Target Training 

On Day Two we start the same way. You’ll notice the horse is eager to show you what they know. They are usually looking for the target before you even begin. This eagerness is just the tip of the iceberg in your horse’s newfound interest in working with you.

Going to the Ground

As a result of mastering touching the target in the 3 basic positions, we are ready to move on. With most horses, we go to this on Day Two. We begin asking for our foundational body position which is Head Down. This body position allows us to place the horse in a state of biomechanical correctness and positive mental engagement. Want to learn more on this? Check out Body Position and the Horse’s Nervous System.

Target TrainingTarget Training

Hange first learns to follow the target down low then quickly makes the transition to following my pointing finger to the target on the ground.

Head Down/Target

For this, we enter the stall with the horse. As a quick refresher, we ask the horse for the 3 basic target positions. Once affirmed, we start moving the target towards the ground.

Making the mental leap from the target in your hand to the target on the ground is a challenge for most horses. As a result, you may need to reach or crouch towards the ground with the target until they begin to stretch down for it. Here you should use discretion about when to reward. If the horse is clearly having a hard time understanding the change, reward them for trying. This goes a long way to help them figure it out. Give them whatever amount of time they need. Some horses get it right away and others need a couple of days.

Head Down/Pointing

Once you have placed the target on the ground use your finger to point to the target. Remember that in the end, we want the horse to follow our finger not the target. This is the very beginning of transferring the targeting behavior to following our finger.

Camvall learns to “Go to the Ground”

Once the horse is consistently going to the target on the ground when we point our finger we will take the target away completely. Now we are asking the horse to follow our finger to the ground. At this point, it’s important to discourage them from touching your finger rather than touching what your finger is pointing to. Touching the ground with their nose is the specific behavior we mark with the “tisk” and then reward. The removal of the target can also take some getting used to. Be patient, they typically get it pretty quickly.

Now it’s time to head out of the stall and begin to use the new language you have with each other. There is no better place to start than with leading. Read my post on How to Lead a Horse here.

Providing Helpful Horsemanship skills to horse-people of all disciplines. Curated by Robin Martinez, a lifelong horsewoman with a passion for learning and teaching. Together with her husband Dionicio, they own Blackjack Farm in San Diego, CA where they train and compete their own jumping and dressage horses.