Clicker Training: Practical Uses for Targeting

By Brigid Wasson 

Last issue you learned clicker training’s most basic exercise, Targeting. Now that your horse is reliably touching the target and not mugging you for food, you’re ready to put this exercise to practical use. Leading is an issue for many horses; they forge ahead, lag behind, bump into the person leading, or dive for grass. Use of the target can help solve all these problems and turn your horse into a leading gentleman, even without a halter!

To keep the horse's attention, I frequently stop and take a few steps back. He keeps his nose at the target and stays right with me. Good boy! Photo by Candas Klossner
This big Fjord would have no problem pushing me around. Here I use a brush for a target and encourage him to follow me at a respectful distance. Photo by Candas Klossner

Always start simple with clicker training. Begin your sessions with an exercise the horse knows; making it easy for him to succeed gets him in a learning mood. When he’s attentive and cheerful, start adding new behaviors or making known behaviors more difficult. If he seems to shut down or stops trying, move back a step. For this exercise, your horse is wearing a halter and lead rope. Start targeting while stationary, holding the target object in front of him, on the ground, and to each side. Now stand in your usual leading position on the left side. Keep the target in your right hand and level with your hip - this is as far as you want your horse to go. Now take a step forward. He should follow you and bump the target with his nose. Click! Repeat this process, clicking as soon as his nose touches the target. If he is reluctant to follow you, cue him to lead as you usually do with the lead rope. Lots of praise. If he forges ahead, ask him to back and wait till his nose touches the target, then click. Some horses are very pushy and need many repetitions to correct forging. Continue to ask for back up, and don’t click until he’s in position.

That's better. Photo by Candas Klossner

Here the horse is positioned between me and the fence. When he gets in my space, I block him with my body. Photo by Candas Klossner

The fence can be used as an aid for target leading. With a pushy (but not frightened) horse, position yourself so the horse is between you and the fence.

When you get ready to halt, cut the horse off with your shoulders. Use your body to prevent him from forging ahead. Eventually he will learn the futility of his pushiness, and stay in position to earn treats. With a more spooky horse, this position could be unsafe; if startled, the horse might run into you when you block his way. Therefore, a different position is called for: you walk between the horse and the fence. When you walk forward, this type of horse might cut YOU off with his neck and shoulders. That’s okay, because you’ll just keep walking, waving your hands if necessary to keep the horse moving along. Because he can’t get all the way around you as he might if you were in the open, he is unable to stop your movement and will eventually drop back in position. Click! The pushy and spooky horse is probably the most difficult to work with, but with consistency he can become the most polite leader. The clicker tools you use enable you to safely establish the leadership this kind of horse needs.

The horse realizes that barging ahead does him no good, so he drops back to the correct leading position. Click! Photo by Candas Klossner
Here I am positioned between the horse and the fence. When he barges forward, I continue walking and I keep the target where his nose should be. Photo by Candas Klossner

When your horse is able to reliably walk forward, keeping his nose on or near the target, start incorporating whoa and backup into every stop. Whoa is one of those cues I am obsessive about; it is the one cue my horses must obey instantly without question and I drill them often! So, take a few steps forward, say, "Whoa," stop and immediately back up. Click when the horse is in position and touching the target. The immediate back up sharpens the stop and teaches the horse to put weight on his hindquarters (if you’ve ever come to a screeching halt on a forehand-heavy horse, you’ll understand the importance of this exercise). Now try making turns, both towards and away from the horse.

As you progress, resist the urge to pull on the lead rope; the goal of target leading is to teach the horse to follow the leader without relying on the halter. If you are in an open area or sharing space with others, hold the lead very loosely in your hand or toss it over the horse’ back, ready to be picked up in an emergency. If you are by yourself (no other horses) in an enclosed area and it is safe, try working without a halter or lead. There’s nothing like the feeling of a horse who follows the leader!fin

About the author:
Brigid Wasson, a California native, is currently owned by two Norwegian Fjords and a Shetland Pony. She teaches clicker training in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is available for private lessons or clinics.
(650) 921-0184