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Clicker Training for Horses

I hang out in a lot of clicker training forums but sometimes it gets uncomfortable for me. I don’t use clicker training for everything. In fact, I mostly use it for bombproofing.

The clicker work I’ve seen under saddle has been cringeworthy.

It is possible that it can be done correctly, but I haven’t seen it. Though I do think training a nice square halt might be well served by CT.

I’ve tried it myself and found it awkward, plus if my horse is foamy and on the bit, it gets gross!

Lots of clicker people think you should never use any form of training other than +R. They try to convert me into seeing the error of my ways.

I don’t want to be converted to pure +R. I don’t want to struggle to reinvent the wheel. I barely know where the wheel is in my chosen discipline!!! (Dressage.) And I choose to follow those who I KNOW understand far more about the wheel than I do.

I don’t see CT experts teaching dressage. (I barely see CT teachers even doing under saddle work let alone dressage work.)

If you want to learn something, and you are a good student….you go to the people who are DOING what you want to do. You go to the people who know more than you do. You go to the people who have some proven mastery of the topic. You don’t go to people who tell you there’s a newfangled, better way, but don’t have any proven track record with that.

If I started telling my trainer that I have a better way to train dressage, she’d rightly tell me to go eff myself.

I am a student. I am not an expert and I don’t claim expertise.

If I had my own accomplishments and my own mastery, then….MAYBE, I’d decide I knew enough to play around with other methods to get the same results.

But I believe it would be folly for me to think I know how to get there by not using the classical methods when I barely know what I’m doing.

That said, I’d still LOVE to see someone has done it. I’d love to learn that an Olympian or at least an FEI level rider used pure +R to get there. I’d LOVE IT. I’d have a new role model and new ways to think about things.

But it would be supremely arrogant for me to decide that I know better than those who have mastered what I’m trying to learn.

We’ve had a lot of wind lately. I used to dread wind because it meant I couldn’t ride. But now, I’m grateful for the training opportunity.

For the non-horsey readers, winds make horses spooky. Aside from surprises of things blowing around, the wind will also put a sensitive horse on higher alert as he tries to smell and hear possible danger and they are a bit more covered up.

I had Zahra not only wearing the tarp but walking around with it. Walking forward is a bit easier, though she’s still tentative about it. Backing is another degree of emotional difficulty for her, but she did great!

Horses need to learn that the world isn’t such a scary place. A tarp is a cheap tool that can teach this lesson in so many ways. Before jumping in with both feet, make sure you have read about the basics so that you don’t end up with a train wreck!

Using normal household objects in creative ways can help you turn your horse into a more solid citizen.

10 Ways to Bombproof Your Horse by Using a Tarp

  1. Let the horse sniff the tarp. Start with it folded up and work your way to unfolding it.
  2. Get the horse to walk on a flat tarp on a calm day.
  3. Get the horse to walk on a crumpled up tarp.
  4. Get the horse to walk on a tarp that is in between a tight space. I used two lawn chairs (after teaching the horse to walk through that space without a tarp)
  5. Get the horse to wear a tarp.
  6. Get the horse to wear the tarp and walk forward.
  7. Get the horse to wear the tarp and walk backwards.
  8. Flap the tarp around.
  9. Put the tarp on some poles and get the horse to walk through/under the tarp.
  10. Do it all again on windy days!

I haven’t written much about basic tarp training because Zahra did that a long time ago. But I will get to it soonish.

This exercise assumes the following things about your horse:

  • he is comfortably walking over a tarp that is laid out flat
  • he is fully desensitized to the sounds that a tarp makes when it flaps around
  • he is fully comfortable having things wrapped around his feet
If your horse can’t do all of these things, please don’t try this yet.
You also want to make sure the tarp is in good condition. If your horse gets caught in a hole in the tarp, he could panic.
Click any thought of forward.
Just because you can get one foot on doesn’t mean you can get two. Just because you can get two doesn’t mean you can get four. Each foot is a goal unto itself.
Also, stepping backwards on the tarp isn’t the same as stepping forward. These are separate exercises. The video shows mostly forward but at one point, I am giving her the cue she knows to move backwards.
Pardon the vertical orientation of the video camera. This was my first time taping a session.
Zahra did get her hind feet on the tarp but the wind knocked the camera over!

You know how to read a horse’s body language, right? If you don’t, you don’t want to try to bombproof because you might make a mess. These isn’t rocket science, but it can be tricky and the consequences can be bad.

Horse Bombproofing 101

There are two general methods of getting through fear….flooding and systematic desensitization. In flooding, you simply put the horse (or the person) into the traumatic situation and leave them there until they burn through all of their adrenalin and relax.

Smaller, less traumatic ways of doing flooding might be to post plastic bags around the horse’s corral so that they are blowing in the wind while the human may not even be around. This can be helpful but it’s not clicker training so we’re not going into those details.

Systematic Desensitization and Clicker Training for Horses

Clicker training uses an approach called Systematic Desensitization, which is a progressive method that never overloads or floods the animal. In systematic desensitization (SD), the exposure to the feared thing is gradual and waits for a calm response before proceeding to the next step.

With SD, we don’t ever want to flood or overwhelm the horse.

We also want to make sure we are clicking RELAXATION. This is so important. If you click the horse stepping backwards away from the scary thing, you are reinforcing fear responses. Even if you don’t click, but you retreat the scary thing by moving it away and then click, you are reinforcing the wrong thing.

Just as in every aspect of clicker training, first figure out your tiniest steps and if the horse looks overwhelmed at any time, back up.

So, in tarp training, your smallest steps might look like this:

  1. handler holds a folded up tarp in her hand within eyeshot of the horse
  2. handler holds a folded up tarp a bit closer and sees if the horse will move towards it either by moving the muzzle towards it or moving the feet to get closer
  3. horse sniffs the folded up tarp
  4. handler pets the horse with the folded up tarp
  5. handler unfolds the tarp a little bit so that it’s still folded, but a bit bigger, and repeats the steps above
  6. handler holds the tarp near the horse and makes the (still folded) tarp make a small crinkly noise
  7. handler repeats all the steps above while making crinkly noises
  8. handler unfolds the tarp some more, preferably on a day when the wind isn’t blowing and does all of the above again
Each step of the way….the horse must show a relaxation response before the handler moves on to the next step. Also, the handler clicks the relaxation response, not the fear response.
In fact, if you get more than a tiny fear response, you need to back up. We are not practicing flooding! We are practicing systematic desensitization.
If my horse snorts at the scary thing, that’s okay and I don’t back down. But I will wait until she looks more relaxed to click.
If she flinches, the thing will repeat over and over again until she’s not flinching.
If she’s backing away or even looking like she wants to back away, she’s telling me that I’m going to fast and need to back off.


Horses are Prey Animals

I often ask children, “do you think a horse is more like a lion or more like a bunny rabbit?” Most children rightly answer, “bunny”, but they aren’t sure why that is. Or they know it’s because horses and bunnies eat grass.

I then talk to them about horses as prey animals and what that means to the psychology of a horse.

Horse owners will tell you that their horses spook over crazy things….a butterfly, a discolored part of the ground that is discolored because the same horse urinated there, a small bird. Humans can look at these things and think it’s ridiculous that a 1000lb + animal would be scared of something so tiny. But the prey animal mind is ever vigilant to small changes in the environment that may mean danger is near by.

Some horses are more sensitive to these small changes than others. My horse Zahra, is very sensitive and can spook easily. So when you see pictures of her wearing a tarp, she does not come to these things easily or naturally.

How Can I tell When My Horse is Relaxed?

These are signs of relaxation

  • licking
  • chewing
  • lowered head
  • relaxed sigh
  • blowing air (there is another blow that is stress….but they are different sounds…..the relaxed one is closer to the sigh and the horse’s muscles are relaxed)
  • cocking a foot
  • closing the eyes and looking drowsy
  • relaxed, soft looking eyes

These are signs of stress or tension

  • showing the whites of the eyes
  • “hard” eyes (hard to describe but sometimes it’s not as extreme as showing the whites, but you can still read stress or grouchiness in the eyes)
  • high head
  • arched neck
  • snorting (may sound somewhat similar to the soft blowing of a relaxed horse, but the entire body language is different….and this snort means SOMETHING IS WRONG)
  • trying to flee
  • moving backwards away from the stimulus


Being able to read these signs is critical to successful clicker training for bombproofing!

Keysfins, namer of this website, and former marine animal trainer, has challenged me to think about the smallest steps to teach a horse to target.

Horses are, by nature, curious animals. So even though they tend to be driven by a lot of fear, they will generally explore things with their nose and mouth, sniffing or mouthing unfamiliar things.

But what if your horse doesn’t do that? Some clicker people talk about crossover animals. They’re usually talking about dogs who have been so highly trained that they don’t offer behaviors on their own. They have to learn to explore their world and know that they can try things.

In clicker training, if you’re having trouble, probably your steps are too big. So, as an exercise…think about the smallest steps you can possibly fathom. I’m calling them the “smallers” in contrast to the bigger steps and goals.

Before you can teach targeting, you have to load your clicker.

Once you have that done, here are the smallest steps I can think of.

  1. horse looks at cone (or other target) – click
  2. horse moves nose towards target or takes a step forward or leans forward. In fact any kind of forward moving thing is clicked
  3. horse sniffs cone

Keysfins, do my smallers win yet? 🙂

Advanced Bombproofing Horses

Seriously?? You want me to do what?

Tarp wearing horse
(Before reading this, you may want to read about Horse Bombproofing Basics)

In the ever increasing indignities forced upon her, the mean owner has asked the nice horsey to wear a tarp.

In fairness to Ms Zahra, today was very windy and most horses would find tarp wearing a chore under the best of circumstances.

Zahra had some experience with tarps going back years, but that was mostly limited to walking across tarps that were flat on the ground on calm days.

Advanced tarp walk includes horse walking on crumpled up tarps and then being under one.

As always in clicker training and most especially bombproofing….fast is slow. I didn’t just whip out a tarp and throw it on her.

But after a bit of time, she looked like she was falling asleep while the tarp was flapping around on her.

Horse wearing a tarp
Bombproofing Horses with Clicker Training: A Few General Notes

In my continuing quest to have this blog be a resource for any who may choose to clicker train their horse, I’m adding more details here.

Horses are prey animals and when training for bombproofing, we can never ever lose sight of this. Horses spend their lives worrying that something is going to eat them.

Tarps and umbrellas as well as a myriad of other things can terrify horses. And if we don’t have that front and center, we can end up making our horses more afraid of things rather than less.

When clicker training for bombproofing, you need to be able to read horse body language because you need to be sure you’re clicking relaxation, not stress.





Sadly, I have no video. It’s windy and the camera kept getting knocked over.

Zahra and I have come so far in the fetch game, but I’m puzzling over how to get to the end.

I was trying to use my “come to me” hand signal after she had the cone in her mouth…but she’s dropping the cone and then coming to me. I’ve been clicking it, but I think I’m both asking the wrong question and clicking the wrong behavior.

A friend whose only name is keysfins (who is an ex marine mammal trainer) has made some suggestions.

  1. Get more clear on the outcome I want
  2. Make a more detailed training plan.
  3. Break 3 steps into 12. (These aren’t necessarily literal numbers, but a solid reminder that with clicker training everything needs to be broken down into the tiniest bits. There is no other way to progress.)
  4. Consider using back chaining (more on that after I figure it out better!

Here are the tiny steps we’ve done just to teach TOUCH. One step becomes 7.

  1. touch a cone with nose while I hold the cone
  2. touch nose to cone when I hold it up high
  3. touch nose to cone when I hold it down low
  4. touch nose to cone when I hold it left
  5. touch to cone when I hold it right
  6. touch to cone when the cone is very very low but I’m still holding it
  7. touch to cone when the cone is on the ground
Big steps = failure
Tiny micro steps = success
Tiny steps seem slow but actually, the progress is rapid if I get the right tiny steps.
Currently, she can come to me with a hand gesture, so I’ve been trying to get her to come to me when the cone is in her mouth.
That’s a giant leap. That isn’t clicker training.
I’m also losing track of shaping and that’s not clicker training either. She can pick up the cone and she can come to me, but that doesn’t mean she can pick up the cone AND come to me.
My next big step:
Have her hand me the cone
So how does that ONE step become 7? (Or some other bigger number)
Maybe nudge the cone towards me on the ground?
I’m not sure if that’s a next good step.
Or maybe, when she’s already holding the cone, click for her moving it near me then?


Zahra is now walking to the cone, picking it up off the ground and either dropping or flinging it. She’s picking it up inches from the ground or sometimes several feet before dropping it. I’m clicking for anything that gets it off the ground from about 5″ and up and jackpotting if she picks it up by at least 3 feet before dropping it.

Since she already knows how to come to me, I still think we are about a week away from playing fetch.

I proof her at the park and people are starting to notice. They must think this is one crazy endeavor.

I will try to get photos this weekend.