Clicker Training: Target!
By Brigid Wasson
Now that you have your "Manners" lesson firmly established - that is, keeping your horse from mugging you for food and invading your space - you’re ready to begin clicker training. "Target" is the first exercise usually taught; it’s an easy behavior you can always fall back on, like "Sit" for dogs. In this exercise, we will take advantage of the horse’s natural curiosity to teach him the meaning of the click sound, and in doing so, your horse will learn how to learn in a whole new way.
Traditional horse training revolves around pressure and release; the horse learns to do what is asked by avoiding pressure. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, many traditional exercises pair up just fine with the clicker; however, with positive reinforcement methods you also teach your horse to think, try, and even guess what you want to earn a food reward. The difference in attitude is amazing! One of the ways we teach the horse in this new way is by presenting him with an object or a situation and letting him figure it out.
To do this exercise, you’ll need a target object. One of the many great things about clicker training is that, aside from the two dollar clicker, you don’t need any special equipment - whatever you have around the barn will probably work just fine. I like to use a riding crop with a large leather popper for a target, while some like to use a sweat scraper, a wooden dowel with a tennis ball attached to the end, or a traffic cone. The object needs to be visible to the horse (so something thin like a dressage whip is not good) and of course safe.
Most horses, when presented with a new object, will sniff it. This is when
you click and dispense a treat, remembering to reinforce treat-taking manners.
Present the object again; if your horse starts to mug you, great, he’s
motivated! Stay safe (behind a barrier if necessary) and wait it out; eventually
his attention will return to the target and he’ll touch it. Click,
treat! Repeat this exercise until it’s apparent that he understands
the game. Interestingly, "dead broke" horses seem to take the longest
to learn targeting; it’s as if they have no concept of trying, guessing,
or playing a game. Don’t give up - practice 10-15 minutes a day and
eventually every horse will get it. Youngsters and unstarted older horses
often catch on after just a few repetitions.
When your horse understands and performs targeting consistently, you can make it more difficult by moving the object. In the photos you’ll see that I asked the horse to target the cone in my hand (Photo 1), then I put it on the ground (Photo 2). He not only touched it, he picked it up! (Photo 3) Such playful and creative responses are to be encouraged. Have fun and stay tuned for next issue’s continuation of this topic, "Practical Uses for Targeting".