Part 2: Getting started with Clicker Training - how to ‘Charge the clicker’
Updated: Feb 15, 2021
There are some very important steps to getting started with Clicker Training, one of which is getting your horse to associate the sound of the clicker with a reward. This is called ‘Charging the Clicker’. The best way of doing this is with a simple but crucial default behaviour that in the barn we call the ‘Head Away’ exercise.
Before we start. Many people (rightly) have concerns about using treats and tidbits to train their horses. Horses can become highly motivated by food so it is very important to establish right from the start that food does not mean the right to mug or even worse bite. Teaching a default behaviour such as the’ Head Away’ exercise covers several purposes:
Teaches the horse not to mug for food
Teaches the horse a default behaviour ie stand quietly with your handler
Charges the clicker - bridges a click with a reward
Remember the clicker is used to mark the exact moment a desired behaviour occurs and acts as a ‘bridge’ to a reward. Fundamentally this default ‘Head Away’ exercise charges the clicker, and trains default behaviour simultaneously.
In an article written by Patricia Lincourt says;
“There are two ways to start this default exercise depending on your horse’s status/temperament, for example”;
“You have a nervous, fearful, or shy horse, maybe one not handled, young, feral or even mishandled. This group of horses you should charge the clicker by coming to the horse's enclosure and pressing the click once and placing the food immediately where the horse can reach it. This could be done from outside the stall or pasture. Repeat. Click first, feed second. Click, feed. Click, feed. Click, feed. Short sessions multiple times a day until you can see the horse connecting the click with the food reward. For very feral or fearful horses, any interest or acknowledgment of your presence should be clicked and fed.
The other group of horses are ones that are more accustomed to people. You can charge the clicker and train the first default behavior at the same time. I like this method especially for horses that are friendly and/or are beggars. We want to deal with the begging (also called soliciting) the right away.”
The Default behavior is that the horse stands next to you shoulder to shoulder with you as if you were going to walk together. The horse's head is straight and relaxed. Start with the horse loose in the stall with you, if you can safely. If your horse is very used to begging for food or bites then put them in ‘protected contact’ ie behind a gate so that you can move away if you need to.
How to get started
To start, you will need a clicker and horse food/treats.
The first thing to do is teach the horse what the click means.
Take your clicker without any food and take your horse to the stall or pen and leave it loose. The horse should be free to move or leave your area if they choose to.
Press the clicker and observe the horse's reaction.
Did the horse notice or react at all?
If not the click has no meaning to the horse. Something to ignore. Basically background noise to the horse.
Did the horse startle, or move away? The horse may think it's dangerous.
Did the horse show interest, curious?
Did something else happen? Take note.
Go ahead and leave the horse and think about your observations.
With all of this understanding through your observations, return to your horse with the clicker and some low-value treats (don't try to reward with food they don't like). If your horse is picky, use something that will hold their attention. Choose low calorie/value treats like pellets (often Timothy or alfalfa pellets will be a good start), something that doesn’t contain much sugar and is high in value so they have to chew.
Make sure you have plenty to distribute and be generous when you reward.
Keep in mind your session should be very short. Let's aim for 10 minutes or less.
It is useful to also have a fanny pack/bum bag to store your food so that you can have your hands free for the clicker and also observe the horse carefully without having to reach for the treats.
Remember, the purpose of these first sessions will be giving the click sound a value or “charging the clicker”. The horse does not get free food, they only get fed when they perform the behaviour of keeping their head straight or away from you.
How to teach the default ‘Head Away’ exercise.
Stand at the shoulder of the horse facing the same direction.
One hand has the clicker, the other hand is empty at your side. Now here is the hard part….you will not make the horse do anything….you will capture the moment the horse puts his head straight….click that moment and feed the horse where you want the head to be positioned.
This sounds simple….but can be challenging until practiced a bit.
The horse will start to search you for food or move around you out of position. The more often you can capture the moment the horse moves its head away from you with the click/feed the faster the horse will understand the click means something and that a certain behavior will be rewarded…..the very first moments of problem-solving!
In a couple of short sessions, you will have charged the clicker and started the default behavior.
Things to watch for…
Don't correct the horse for attempts at other behaviors. Just ignore them.
Don't repeat commands or cues at this point.
Do capture the right moments and work on your click timing. Timing, observation and consistency are key to success.
Do be generous with rewards and give time for the horse to chew.
Do practice the timing of the click and reward.
Do reward at the location you want the head to be i.e. straight in front of the horse.
Do give the horse some extra food as you leave, so they are not distressed about the end of the session.
Sessions should be short and one or two times a day to really charge the clicker to begin with. You can skip days with no problems. There are a lot of layers here to observe in this very basic start. Be patient with yourself! If you are just starting, building this default position for the horse and your clicker timing skills will lead to the next steps very quickly!
If you are interested in learning more about how to get started with Clicker Training we have a starter course online which is coming soon. For those in the LA area we can teach Clicker Training techniques at our location at the Paddock Riding Club in Los Angeles. We can travel to clients in the So Cal area or we can offer advice remotely.