Food for Thought: some musings on clicker training and other related subjects                  back to HOME


To get this section started, I have posted here some of my posts to clickryder. These are not specific training posts, but just thoughts on how clicker training has changed the way I look at things and what it can do for your life both with and beyond horses.


This was originally posted March 29, 2003 on the clickryder list (

Thanks, Mr. Rogers

I was sitting reading the newspaper this morning and there was an editorial about Mr. Rogers.  As most of you probably know, Mr. Rogers died recently and there have been a lot of tributes to him for his work on children's television.  I, myself, have fond memories of watching him as a child, and my children have watched him some too.  Anyways, what the writer said was that she was tired of all the talk about who would replace him, not on television, but as someone who we could look to for guidance to teach us to how to be kind and gentle. She was upset because Mr. Rogers' whole message had been that each one of us is special, and it was not for just for us to appreciate people who were kind and gentle, but to be kind and gentle.
So what does this have to do with clicker training? Well, I attended the Groton clinic (which was truly awesome, just to make you all even more envious!) and Alex asked the attendees to come up with some thoughts on clicker training to share with people she met at Equine Affair. She was looking for ways of explaining clicker training to people who enquired about it. And she was looking for ways to explain how special and different clicker training truly was. 
We threw around a lot of great ideas about improved communication, motivating the horse, teaching horses how to learn, building relationships, thinking in positives, and improving our own training skills.  I could make a long list of similar benefits and they are all wonderful and worthwhile things.
But this little editorial really got me thinking. In some ways for me, clicker training has been about the power of an average person to change a horse's life.  And I don't mean just by being kind and nice to the horse, although that is part of it. I mean that clicker training empowers us. It shows us that each and every one of us is special and capable and has the ability to teach our horses. We don't have to rely on finding a qualified professional to train our horses. With clicker training, we can take our time and break things down into little pieces and build things at our own speed. It doesn't mean we might not need guidance from other horse professionals, but I think it gives us the confidence to say "yes, I can do that."  It gives us the freedom to work at our own speed and in our own way to achieve a desired result.
And...speaking of everyone being special, I think this applies to the horses too. Years ago, I remember reading an article by Alex and she said something I have always remembered.  I can't quote it directly but she said that everyone dreams of finding that special horse and that with clicker training, your dream horse could be the horse that was already in your backyard.  If I think of all the stories on this list, I think many of us can agree with that. I read every day about horses who had an owner who loved them enough to chip away at whatever problems they encountered. Owners who found the special horse inside.  And also about owners who had an unexceptional horse, and found that he or she blossomed with clicker training into the kind of horse they never could have imagined.
Hmm..I think I might be getting too mushy here and I'm sure you all get the idea, so I'm off to hug my special horses and go to bed...


On Babies and Horses...or... the Power of Free Shaping and Creativity


I was sitting in my living room the other day with my youngest daughter just having a quiet moment and thinking about how much fun babies are at her age. She just turned 5 months old and is working really hard on controlling her hands. For those of you who arenít familiar with the developmental stages of babies, they really blossom between 4 and 6 months. They learn to control their heads much better and can start to sit supported on the floor. Even more important, they start to really get control of their hands. They go from wild flailing and just random waving of arms to really concentrating on how to move their hands. Sometimes I catch Geneva just studying her hands very intently.  Two weeks ago, if I held up a toy, she would very carefully work her hand (one) over toward the toy,  and if she was successful, she would grab it. Now she is starting to do that with both hands at the same time. It takes a lot of concentration and I can see her determination in her face.  But, interestingly enough, at this age, she doesn't get frustrated. If she doesn't get it, she either stops trying and does something else or she continues until I help her.


While watching her the other day, I realized that there are a lot of similarities between my fascination with babies and my fascination with clicker training. I love to watch horses think.  I love to watch them try to figure things out.  I truly believe that if you give them a creative task, they go beyond just working for the carrot and actually start to enjoy the task.  This is easy to see with my yearling and the other young horses. But I can also see it with Willy, who is 19 and still loves to try new things.  I used to play with the horses a lot in the evening after the kids went to bed and since it was dark, I did a lot of tricks and free shaping in either the aisle or the stall. This space limitation meant we had to be pretty creative about coming up with new things and I did a lot of little games.  Sometimes I would just put a new object out and see what they did.  The great thing about free shaping is that it is just like watching my baby learn. I can sit back and watch the horse thinking. If I keep the reinforcement rate high enough, the horse will continue to work out the problem. If he or she gets frustrated, I can step in and help or change the game a little. In addition to teaching my horses a lot of new tricks, I learned a lot about the horses as individuals. I now know who is more bold in their offered behaviors and who needs encouragement. I think you can learn a lot from taking the time to just sit and watch a horse work through a puzzle.


Earlier this year, I attended a clicker clinic where we played a game that Alex called the "creativity game." She had gotten the idea from another clicker trainer (Kathy Sdao, I think..) and the idea was to set up a training session where you encouraged the trainee to offer new behaviors.  This was done by using the following rules. You could only click a behavior once and you had to click any new behavior.    There was some discretion involved if the trainee got into repetitive patterns. So, for example, if the trainee touched an object, click, touched the same one, no click, touched a new one, click and so on. Except if they really got in a rut and just touched everything, you could withhold the click to get them to offer a new behavior.  The trainer would start the session with no goal behavior in mind, but just watch the trainee interact with the environment. It was really a chance to see what the trainee might do.  We played it with people and it was fascinating. I had expected the trainee to get frustrated at not being clicked for repeating behaviors, but the rate of reinforcement was so high that that frustration never developed. She said later that as long as she was getting clicked, she was ok.  I also found it very interesting that the trainee really was driving the game. In our game, the trainee decided that we wanted her to make hot chocolate. Since each step was a different behavior, she was clicked along the way, even though that chain of behaviors was not what we had in mind. 


This whole session made me think that we sometimes limit ourselves and what we do with our horses, because we just don't have ideas for things to try. I know that I have periods where I spend a lot of time doing "serious" stuff with my horses and some of this is because I am working through something or getting ready for a clinic. Other times, it is just because I can't think of anything new to do with my horses. So now I feel that it's ok if I don't have a new toy, or a plan. I can still go out and play with the horses and see what they can come up with if I let them do what they want with all my regular stuff.  It would be a nice break from our usual training routine where I am directing the training.


I also think that if you don't spend much time free shaping, your horse will be more hesitant to offer behaviors. I can't say this definitively, but I do know that my horses seem to become braver about looking for and offering possible answers when I have spent recent time on free shaping. I love offered behaviors. For me, they are one of the great pluses of clicker training. With some behaviors, I use the horse offering the behavior as both a sign that we are ready to move on and add a level of complication, and also as a way for me to make my job easier. I have been teaching Willy how to do haunches-in from the ground. He found this really confusing as he was willing to move his haunches toward me, but only in the wrong bend. When I asked him to move them toward me while keeping the same bend, he would get confused. We struggled with this for a long time, until I got him to the point where he just knew the right answer was to move his haunches toward me and offered it very freely. Then I could start to adjust him. Before he got to this point, he would back off as soon as I said "well, not quite that." I had to have that piece really solid before I could move on. I had worried that he would consider the bend part of the haunches moving, but he seemed to just learn that stepping his hind end over was the right answer and we could adjust things from there.


In addition to being a nice exercise for the horse, I think free shaping is a great way to introduce novice clicker trainers to clicker training. If you pick a task that has no "wrong" answer, you will find that as the trainer, you don't get trapped into feeling frustrated if your horse is doing something wrong. I always recommend that new clicker trainers just spend some time teaching their horse's simple tricks where it really doesn't matter if the horse gets it or not. You can use it to practice your own timing and problem solving skills and might even teach your horse some fun party tricks to impress visitors. 


So, for those of you who haven't done much free shaping, give it a try. You might be surprised at how much fun both you and your horse can have. 




August 15, 2004




Putting our heads together (mine and my horses), and what can come of it...


Everyone loves horse heads. The horse head must be the most photographed part of the horse. We love their big soft eyes, their flowing forelocks, the curve of their neck.  Think of all those little girls in math class doodling on their pages. What do they draw? legs, backs, tails, is always the head..rows and rows of horse heads.  If you talk to a number of horse people, they will all have an opinion on horse heads. I was taught that horses don't actually like you to touch their head, they prefer their neck. I have met people who think they like to be rubbed up between their eyes, others rub around their eyes or nostrils.  Everyone seems to have an opinion and everyone seems to want to touch their horse's heads.


I don't know what got me thinking about horse heads. Maybe it was an ongoing frustration with Willy who still has nippy days. Maybe it was a lot of reading I had been doing. But suddenly it seemed to me that horse's heads are really important, and not just because they are beautiful. They are an important piece of the work that I am trying to understand with my own horses. I have horses with physical and mental issues, and then I have just plain green horses that are learning how to work with people, bridles and lead ropes for the first time. A lot of early work with green horses involves teaching the horse what to do by controlling his head.


But what do the horses think of this?  Do you think most horses enjoy having their faces touched?  How well do you really know your own horse?  There are some horses that will bring their heads up to you and rub you, or nudge you. Are they looking for food or attention? It's hard to say. Others are decidedly head shy and don't want you anywhere near their heads.  My yearling didn't want his head handled at all as a foal, and I understand that this is typical. Foals are very protective of their heads and since most of them learn haltering and leading skills as their first formal interactions with people, these early lessons can set up the pattern for later life. But even with my foal who was haltered very gently, we had to work through a lot of head and mouth issues.  Since I already had some horses with issues involving their heads, I started to think about horse's heads beyond the basic handling.


My first clues that it might be worth spending more time with my horses' heads was when I noticed that a lot of trainers have one or more exercises that involve manipulating the horse's head.  Some are just meant to desensitize the horse to your touch, others are meant to actively manipulate a horse that is holding tension in his jaw or poll. Some exercises use the head and neck to access the rest of the spine and body.  I recently read about a series of exercises that Peggy Cummings does with horse's heads. Bettina Drummond shows how she uses contact with a young horse's head to help her settle down in her videos. She places a hand on the bridge of the nose to back the horse up and get it to release its back.  Linda Tellington-Jones also spends time on horse's heads.  With all these exercises available, I decided that it was worth spending some time working with my own horse's heads. I had done some work previously, but mostly it was limited to teaching the horse to accept my touch and that biting me was not acceptable. 


When Willy came to me 10 years ago, he was just generally grouchy. He came to me after a racing career and then passing fairly quickly through several other owners. He was very suspicious of another new owner.  He didn't particularly like being touched on his head, although he would tolerate it. He also hated pressure on the lead rope, which showed itself by his unwillingness to be tied. If he was tied up, he would set his weight back and just lean until something broke.  If I was leading him and put a lot of pressure on the line, he would fly back.  Over time, and with some re-schooling, he learned to tolerate having his head handled and I learned that he had quite a fondness for head games, as long as he instigated them. He loves to use his lips and mouth and is very careful and deliberate. I have many times seen him take his teeth and hold someone's watch in his mouth (yes, while it is still on their wrist). This is not something I ever encouraged, but other people seem to think it is funny. I have seen him take someone's jacket collar in his teeth and hold it. He did try this once with me and I made him let go.  That was a little too close for my comfort.


Anyways, the point of this is that while he had his own head games that he liked, he was not truly comfortable having me in his space, especially around his head. He was no more comfortable with me being near his head, than I was having him near my head. For years, we just watched out for each other, and I was certainly able to perform all the routine horse care that he required.  But recently as I started to think more about the importance of how we handle horse's heads, I realized I wanted him to be very comfortable with me all over his head.  This started when I learned that I could use his reaction to my proximity to his head as a clue to his state of mind. I had noticed long ago that on some days, he would be a bit nippy. I originally just put this down to high spirits, but as time progressed, I realized that he was nippy on days when it was cold, windy etc.. He seemed to be nippy on days when he was nervous or not as comfortable in his body. So I started using the nippiness as another way to evaluate his mood.  And while I can respect Willy's wishes for me to leave his head alone, I decided that in the long run it is better for him to learn that a touch on the head is no different than a touch anywhere else, and that he can trust me to come into his space and help him through direct physical contact.

Then I decided that I could go beyond that.  Alex says that you can change a horse's emotional state by changing their physical body position. She uses "head down" to settle a horse and make them calm down. I have used this a lot with Willy, and I have to say that it really does work. I decided that, as an experiment, I would see if I could make him so comfortable with my handling his head, that I could make it comforting to him. Now of course, this involved a lot of stroking and rubbing. He does have things he enjoys and I learned them. I now know where he is itchy and where he is ticklish. I also spent time teaching him to lead with my hand on his head. It might be under his chin, or under his nose, or even on the front of his head. I directed him by putting my hand directly on his head, instead of on his halter, whenever I could. In the beginning, he was clearly unhappy with the whole business, but I have to say that he has become very accepting now.  And he has become a lot less nippy. Maybe it is just because he is more used to my hands being near his head and has become desensitized.  But what I have decided is that it doesn't matter. If you are going to lead and ride a horse, you want him to be really comfortable with you around his head. You are going to attach reins and leads to his head, and while they are less of a direct connection than touching the head with your hands, you want them to be welcomed too.  I spent weeks working on teaching him that every time I touched his head, it meant something, and there was a possibility for reinforcement if he just listened to what I was asking.  I then went on and did this with my other horses too. Since I keep my horses at home, I have many chances to interact with them and I tried to spend as much time touching their heads as I could. I would rub their ears, rub under their jowls, stroke their faces, lead them by their chins, move them around their stalls by a hand on the head. Any time I could, I used their head to direct them.  And they got happier about it. With a soft touch,  I could direct them anywhere.


I think some of this idea for training came from work I had done with both my young colt and with my mini. When my mini came to me, he had a biting problem. He had been cared for by a woman in a wheelchair and they played a lot of mouth games since she was limited in what she could do.  With small children, I didn't want him biting at anyone and I used clicker training to teach him to hold his head and lips still when someone's hand was nearby. I got to the point where I could hold my hand next to his mouth and he would hold his lips very still. I also worked on the idea of being able to put my hands on his chin and just hold his head steady by cupping his chin.   This idea of "stationing" came from work with other animals where the animals are taught to rest their heads in the trainer's hand as a way of marking the location or position that the trainer desires. So, rather than just having a horse that allows you to hold his halter to steady him, I wanted a horse that would rest his head in my hand so that my other hand could do something else. This has already been useful for looking at eyes, applying medication etc.. Somehow when the horse is concentrating on keeping  his chin in your hand, he is much stiller than when you are just holding on to him.


My young colt also liked to explore things with his mouth, as is typical of horses this age. But with two horses in my barn who had come with nipping and mouthiness problems, I was determined that he would not be like that. My first goal was to teach him to allow me to touch his head without biting at me. I found that pressure and release was not enough to communicate this to him, as it was too easy for him to turn it into a game. So I waited until he would eat treats (grain or carrots) before teaching him. Then I spent hours (in tiny intervals) teaching him that I could put my hand anywhere on his head and he needed to just hold still and keep his mouth quiet. In the beginning, it was quite a challenge as young horses do love to play with their mouths and explore everything. But over time he improved to the point that I could hold my hand under his nose and he would not even try to nibble at it, or look for a treat if I hadn't clicked. Visitors are always surprised that he does not lick them, or look for a treat. I have to confess that I am surprised at how many people go up to a strange horse and offer their hand. Plenty of horses like to lick hands, but plenty of horses also like to take a nibble here and there too.


Since then I have continued my work on Willy's head. Most recently I have started working him with one hand on his halter and the other on his shoulder, using my feel on the halter and sometimes my hand directly on his face to communicate what I want. I use this position when we are working on liberty work in the round pen and I am trying to adjust his position or direct him.  It is a very different feeling that working with a lead. With a lead, if he is in a nippy mood, I try to be lighter and stay out of his space and if he is feeling tense, he might bite at me every now and then. This usually improves as the session goes on, but I really wanted to figure out why he felt so threatened and come up with a way to help him work through it.  With that in mind, I started working directly on his head.  I had originally started by holding the halter so that I was less likely to get bitten and so I could really feel what he was doing with his head and neck. Then I decided that I rather liked having my hand directly on his head. I could really feel when he started to get tense and when he was soft and accepting. I do have to be careful about holding him if he gets upset, as I don't want either of us to get injured or set up a situation where he thinks he can just blast through and I will let go, so I usually have the lead looped around his neck too.  But most days he seems to eventually settle and allow me to manipulate his head and neck with my hands. In this way, I can use the head handling exercises as both a way to get him to relax and accept my touch, and also as an indicator of how his body is feeling that day. 


Rosie was a different story. When Rosie came, she was not comfortable with people at all. She would not come up to you, or if she did, it was with teeth bared and ears back. When I handled her, I was very respectful of her space and didn't push her beyond her comfort level. That's not to say that I let her do whatever she wanted, but if she didn't want to be touched somewhere, I left it alone for a while. I didn't feel like I had a positive enough relationship with her to tackle some things, and they were not crucial to her daily well being, so we left them alone.  Once I had caught her, she was actually ok with her head, but she certainly didn't seem to like it. And because she had some aggressive tendencies, I spent a long time teaching her to stay out of my space and to keep her head away from me. Back then I was worried about mugging behavior so I was really strict about not letting her put her head too close to mine. We worked along okay for a while and then one summer I realized that since I had reinforced her so much for staying out of my space, she was not comfortable being in my space, even when I invited her in. So this started a whole new series of exercises. I had to teach her that it was ok to come up to me and I could pat her head and ask her to come closer.  It was pretty clear that she was nervous when she was too close, as if she thought she was doing something wrong.  So then I started reinforcing her for letting me touch her and move her head around. I reinforced her for coming politely into my space. There is a fine line here. I found with all my horses that there is a very narrow margin between a pushy and in-your-face horse and a friendly and affectionate horse.  Not only that, what I consider appropriate might not be the same for someone else or with a different horse. With clicker training,  I find it easy to communicate with the horse so they know what is allowed and what is not, and I can do this without getting negative. I think it's so important not to be negative with a horse's head.  Not just because a horse who is head shy or ear shy is difficult, but because I think that if they give you their head with total softness and trust, then that is the key to being able to get to everything else.


And last but not least, spend some time just stroking your horse's head with love.  Sometimes when I was doing these head handling exercises, I got caught up in treating the head as just any other body part and that was fine. But I found that it was nice to take a quiet moment and really just enjoy spending time with my horse.  I would gently rub those favorite spots and tell my horse just how special he was and how much I enjoyed spending time with there with him.  And, you know what? They look like they enjoy it too.  Rosie now drops her head and relaxes her eyes and I can just feel her giving a big sigh of relief.  And I give a big sigh of relief too because it's so nice to know that we can share this peaceful moment together and that she enjoys it as much as I do.


August 20, 2004



You Get What You Click: Looking at the bigger picture.


This was originally posted to clickryder on 2/1/2005 in response to a question about how to decide what to click and what to work on. The person who posed the question had a mare who was a quick learner but also impatient.


Hi Jill,

I think I will stick by my earlier suggestions of working on head down and mat work because these are two exercises that are both calming and good for working on duration, and that sounds like what Zuni needs.

When I am training a horse I try to be very aware of their mental state and choose exercises that will help them maintain an appropriate level of interest and eagerness without getting too excited. The easiest way to do this is to alternate exercises that get the horse excited with calming ones. This is similar to the good strategy of training both sides of each behavior (if you train head down, train head up too), but I think of it more as training exercises that help you balance energy.

In addition, you can help balance your horse's energy by adding duration to many exercises which can promote calmness, so it doesn't mean you are stuck forever with alternating between head down and other things.

In your specific case, it sounds like you have given her a really good start and she is catching on and eager to play. That is great, now you just have to get to the next stage which is where she is eager to play but understands that she has many opportunities for reward and she doesn't have to be so excited about things.

I have done a lot of thinking this fall about clicking while riding and how to take advantage of the power of the clicker without getting myself in trouble (which I have done, but luckily clicked my way out of it - phew!).

One of the things I realized is that when I click a horse, I am clicking for one of three things: a change in response to a cue, duration, or an offered behavior. This is oversimplified, but you will get the idea. How much I click for each of these (compared to the others) affects the kind of horse I will end up riding. There is no right answer here. It is a matter of personal preference, and might vary from horse to horse, even for the same rider/trainer. With my two riding horses, one is higher energy than the other so I choose different exercises for him and I also structure my lesson so that I am clicking for different reasons.

I am wondering if this way of looking at how to choose clickable moments would be helpful to others, especially new clicker trainers, so I will throw my ideas out here and you can use them if they are useful...

I think that when you start out clicker training, it seems so simple. You click for what you like and build from there. And that works, but once you are beyond basic work (and with some horses, even within the basic work), there are layers of complexity and it is important to be aware that you are influencing your horse's behavior not just by what you click at each individual moment, but by what aspect of the behaviors you are working on and the general pattern of things you click.

So, for example, if you click a lot for offered behavior, you will get a very eager horse that does lots of wonderful things, but maybe not on cue. Or maybe your horse will end up using visual aids for cues (such as a concrete object (mat, ball, cone..) . This is great if you want to do a lot of free shaping or tricks or you want to have a creative horse. I have to confess that I love offered behaviors and I think while most of us might say that we want behaviors on cue, the line between asking for something and having it offered is not always clear. And most of us have default behaviors, so even though we might think most of our training is under stimulus control, there are still parts that are not.

If you click a lot for changes, you will end up with a horse that has a large repertoire but is quick to move on to trying something new, and you will probably find it difficult to get duration. I think everyone goes through this stage because you have to get any new behavior started before you go for duration. But I think that if you get too caught up in the details of improving the quality and clicking for every improved effort without adding a little duration, the horse doesn't get the message that sometimes they just need to do the right thing a little longer. You can use clicking for changes to build duration but only if you don't click every effort.

If you click for duration, you will get a steadier horse but one that might be less quick to catch on when you want to add the next level of refinement to the current behavior. They might also have spent more time practicing the behavior in a less polished form. But we need duration. If you don't have duration, then you don't see enough variation to know what your horse can do. One of my common errors is to stay with clicking each and every effort. I might make the horse do it a little longer before clicking because I am waiting for a specific detail, but I don't tend to stop the horse and restart. I guess this is more true for some types of exercises than others but I think it is important to praise the horse for trying and ask again before the horse gets in the habit of being rewarded for each effort. You donít want the horse to get frustrated, but you do want the horse to become persistent about continuing to try.

This leads to one way to build duration which is to just decide not to click every effort. So you might click randomly for head down until the horse starts to show that she is thinking a little more. I find that when I start head down, the horse is in such a yo-yo phase that sometimes there is no significant difference between tries. So as soon as I am reasonably sure the horse will offer some form of the behavior, I start clicking less often. Sometimes I just randomly omit a click here and there and see how the horse responds. I say randomly although I am, of course, watching the horse's body language and trying to click the better efforts, but I am not worried about it. If I miss a click, I just ask again and sometimes I let the horse put her head back up and ask again so that I can show her that head down is still the right answer. I also like to click if I can see the horse change her mind by starting to put her head up and then dropping it again. In this case, I don't wait for duration on that effort, but click her for thinking and decided to put her head back down without me asking again.

Another way to teach duration is to just extend the amount of time/steps before you click. Or you can click and allow the horse to eat while continuing the movement. So, you mentioned clicking Zuni and feeding her low. This is a great way to build duration in head down because the horse figures out there is really no point in putting her head up.

Well, I think I am rambling a bit here and it is getting late. I hope this makes some sense. I guess what I am suggesting is that you work on getting Zuni to do head down for longer periods and use head down to have her settle when she gets excited about other exercises. I think that some of the initial excitement is often just because the horses can't believe we are playing this great new game and they chill out a bit once they realize we are going to keep playing. But, in the meantime, if you are working on targeting and she gets grabby or upset, just have her put her head down for a minute.

...I would add to this that I didn't include captured behavior in my list of possible things to click.  I tend to think of capturing a behavior as capturing a complete behavior instead of the beginning piece. For example, I did capture the behavior of lying down with my mini. I clicked for the final laydown instead of the steps leading up to it. My mini was not offering to lie down because he thought I wanted it. He was just lying down and when I clicked it, he thought "wow, what did I just do?" In that sense it is different from an offered behavior. But since I don't find myself capturing complete behaviors very often I didn't include them in my list of reasons to click.