Step 1. Look Away
To begin clicker training the first thing we need to teach the horse is to turn their head away from us to earn a click and treat. It is important that this is the first thing that the horse learns with clicker training because this will keep you safe and will ensure that the horse learns to take treats gently.
Where should I start?
Start with the horse behind a stable door, gate or fence. You stand on one side of the fence or gate and have your horse on the other side. Don’t use an electric fence or star picket fence for this exercise, it needs to be a post and rail or gate or something safe that the horse can reach their head over the top of the fence. You could also start with the horse tied up. You need to be able to stand just out of the horse’s reach.
What do I need?
- A clicker (one with a wrist strap) you can order clickers on the shop page.
- A bumbag full of treats such as pellets or small slices of carrot etc. You can order bumbags on the shop page.
- A horse
- You will probably find it easiest to hold the clicker in one hand and feed the horse with the other hand.
How do I start?
Stand on the other side of a fence or if the horse is tied up stand just out of their reach.
Stand on one side of the horse not directly in front of them.
Click the clicker once and then give the horse a treat. The horse will now be keen and interested in the food and the horse will start to sniff you and the bumbag hoping to get more treats. Stand where the horse can just sniff you but not so close that they can bite at you or the bumbag. The horse will sniff you and nose around near the bumbag and the food, as soon as they quit sniffing you and move their head even slightly away from you, click and then hand them a treat.
(Make sure you feed them with your hand flat and your hand out away from your body.)
This will again make the horse interested in you and the feed and they will start sniffing at you and the bumbag, as soon as they move their head away from you even slightly, click and give them a treat.
Click and treat any time they move their head away from you.
The horse will then focus on you and the treat again, wanting to get more treats, just stay out of reach and wait for the horse to look away from you again. As soon as they move their head away from you, click and give them a treat.
It is important to click while the horses head is moving away from you.
Look Away Further
Repeat this process and gradually raise the criteria so that the horse has to turn its head away from you further to earn the click and treat. After about 5-10 repetitions the horse will get the idea and will be turning their head away from you on purpose. You can then start to wait until they turn their head a little further away from you before you click and treat.
Make sure you are standing on one side of the horse and not directly in front of them.
Just work on the one side of the horse until they can turn their head right away from you.
When the horse will turn its head right away from you to earn the click and treat then you could raise the criteria again so that the horse has to turn away from you and wait there for a very brief moment to earn the click and treat.
Look away, click, look away, treat
When the horse is really good at turning it’s head away from you to earn the click and treat you can then start to make a rule that you will not feed the horse unless their head is away from you. So once the horse has the idea to look away, you then make sure that you take the food quickly to the horse’s mouth after the click. If the horse hears the click and come charging back to get the treat, just close your hand and don’t give them the treat until they look away again. When they are looking away again, quickly take the food to their mouth.
So you get them to look away, then you click, then you make sure they are looking away when you quickly take the food to their mouth. In other words you get them to look away, then you click, then they should keep their head away while you take the treat to their mouth. If they turn back towards you after the click just wait for them to turn away and then take the food to their mouth. So you go look away, click, look away, treat. Try to feed the horse immediately after the click. Try to take the food right to their mouth straight after the click, but if they turn towards you when they hear the click just wait for them to turn away before you feed them. This teaches the horse that the food comes to their mouth they don’t go to the feed.
When you give them the treat take your hand right over to them, instead of letting them come back to you to get the treat.
You could also start to test it out a little, have some food in your hand and open your hand so that the horse can see the food in your hand. Hold your hand out to the horse, if the horse comes towards your hand just close your hand. If the horse moves away from your hand, click and take the treat to them.
Then repeat the whole process standing on the other side of the horse.
When you go to the other side of the horse start from the very beginning and click and treat for any tiny head movements away from you.
Gradually progress to only clicking when the horse turns its head further away from you on this new side.
Eventually get the horse to turn its head right away from you and wait there for a moment to earn the click and treat.
When the horse is really good at turning all the way away from you on this side you can then start to only give the treat when their head is away from you. Look away, click, look away, treat. Make sure you are clearly on one side of the horse not directly in front of them. This teach the horse that whatever side you are on, they should turn their head away in the opposite direction.
Then try changing sides again
Go back to the original side and repeat the process 10 times.
Then switch sides and do the second side 10 times.
Then mix it up a little so that which ever side you are standing on the horse should turn its head away from you.
Best results will be achieved by doing short but frequent training sessions.
e.g 5-10 minute sessions 2 or 3 times in a day. Most horses catch on to the idea within the first or second session but some may take a little longer, just have patience and be persistent.
Never give the horse a treat unless it turns its head away from you
Now that the horse has learned to look away it is important that you are absolutely consistent from now on and never give the horse a treat unless they have their head turned away from you.
Looking away is an important starting point for all horses but it is especially important for pushy horses, or horses that have learned to bite or nip. If the horse is really pushy try teaching them this after they have had a meal so they are not quite as hungry and use a fairly low value reward such as lucern chaff. Give them a big handful of chaff each time you click so that they don’t accidentally bite you. When they have learned to take treats gently you can then start to use the clicker training at other times when they have not just been fed and you can start to use other more yummy treats. If the horse is pushy you might need to come back to this exercise from time to time just to remind them that they need to turn their head away to get a click and treat and that the food goes to their mouth, they don’t go to the food.
By getting the horse to wait with it’s head to the side for the treat to come to it’s mouth it acts as a mental barrier, and they get very gentle about taking the treats.
What if the horse is not really interested in food rewards?
All horse will learn to be highly motivated by clicker training and food rewards. If the horse seems to be not very interested in food rewards at the start there are a few things you can try. Use better treats, try different treats to find something that the horse does like e.g pellets, oats, barley, grain, cereal, licorice, carrots, apple slices, muesli etc. Also try doing very short sessions with really yummy treats. Try doing short training sessions when they are naturally more hungry such as right before you give the horse their dinner.
Then try it without a fence or barrier between you both.
So your horse should now be able to look away, then you click, then the horse should keep its head away from you and wait for you to bring the treat to its mouth. The horse should be able to do this equally well on both sides. So whichever side you stand on the horse turns it’s head away in the opposite direction.
When you can do this really well on both sides you could then repeat the process in different locations. Try it with no fence or barrier between you. Try it without the horse being tied up. Whenever you change venue or change anything go back to the start and retrain the behaviour from the beginning as though they have never done it before. Every time you start a new training session start from the beginning. They will learn it faster each time and eventually they will offer it right from the beginning of the session.
Get other people to repeat the process with your horse
You could then test it out and get a friend to repeat the process this will help teach the horse that the rules are the same with anyone that has food, not just with you.
Look away at feed time
You could also repeat the process when you feed your horse his dinner. Wait for the horse to look away before you put their feed in the feed bin, then when they are looking away, click and let them eat. This is a great way to teach horses to be polite around food.
No need to give a cue…the cue is the food
You don’t need to give the horse any kind of cue to look away. The cue is you being there with food. The horse knows when you have food so the food itself becomes the cue.
So it is actually better if you don’t give the horse any signal to tell them to look away. We want looking away to be a default behaviour that the horse will offer anytime it wants food and this is why it is the first thing we teach the horse and it is also why we don’t use and kind of cue to ask the horse to turn its head away.
Moving on to the next step
Okay so your horse probably starts turning its head away everytime it sees you now…great! That means you have done a good job. The horse should not be pushing on you at all and should be waiting patiently for the food to come to their mouth. So now you are ready to move on to the next step, backing off.