Reflections on a Horse Clicker Training Clinic by Peggy Hogan

In early October I attended a horse clicker training clinic taught by Peggy Hogan. I used to ride and jump horses and some day I hope to do it again. When I rode, I was knowing for having strong legs and being able to make any horse move. I was given the stubborn lesson horses because many people did not kick hard enough to make them trot or canter. This clinic was eye-opening for me because I had absolutely no idea how food motivated horses could be. Thinking they were prey animals, I never even thought about using food to manipulate their behavior. Just like with dogs, I thought that respect had to be earned by showing them they had to do what I asked, or else.

When I paid attention to the words people used to describe the changes they had seen in their horses, bells went off in my head. I heard words that many dog trainers have used to describe changes in their dogs: less worried, more confident, not shut down, seeking attention. These horses were the most engaged horses I had ever seen. Instead of avoiding the humans, they were alert and sought out training with their people.

“Ride the horse in the direction it is going.” – Peggy Hogan

Thinking on your feet is something all clicker trainers learn. Each animal learns at a different pace and will offer different behaviors. With horses, especially those who have never experienced clicker training before, it is even more important. The rate of reinforcement (the frequency in which you tell the animal they are RIGHT) should be high. It is important to keep them engaged and trying. If your expectations aren’t ment, you have to throw them to the wind and work with what you have.

With the horses, I noticed that a little more effort was asked from the human to set the horse up for success. Rewarding for position and asking for even smaller movements than with dogs were two things that were incredibly important. Horses are large which makes their movements slower (unless startled of course) and their momentum can be used to keep the behavior going. One example we saw was teaching them to back up. At first we waiting for any slight muscle tension backwards, then for a shift in body weight, then a step, and so on. We would reward under their chin to encourage more backwards movement and keep clicking/treating for backwards movement. As one participant described, you get a rhythm going to keep the rate of reinforcement high.

Safety Over Tricks

One of the things most dog owners and trainers take advantage of is that their dogs are small and can’t easily do bodily harm. However, horses are BIG and can easily step, push, or other harmful behavior without much notice. Peggy’s priority was making sure the horses knew how to properly ask for food/training. Having a horse seek you out is something most have never dealt with before, but it can be extremely dangerous if you aren’t prepared for. In dog training, we often teach “default” behaviors for many daily activities such as sitting before going through a doorway. The same concept is taught to horses. During the clinic, all the horses learned to turn their head away from the person in order to receive food. Trying to mug the treat pouch was ignored and never rewarded.

One of the most dangerous issues to arise was a rise in “resource guarding” from one of the mares. The horses begin to value their humans in a much different way than I had ever seen. Humans become extremely valuable because they provide delicious primary reinforcers and horses don’t necessarily want to share. This issue was addressed in a couple different ways: making training time more specific – not 24/7, make a clear “all done” cue such as a handful of treats in a bucket, and making sure default behaviors are stillness and backing away. Taking precautions to avoid dangerous situations is extremely important before you go full force into clicker training a horse.

Lowering Frustration During Training

Making sure you are communicating effectively to the horse helps prevent frustration – which is very important with a such a large animal. There are several ways to prevent frustration:

  • High rate of reinforcement.
  • Putting behaviors on strong stimulus control.
  • Horse should know how to wait for the cue (waiting is a behavior in itself).
  • Rewarding with the right treat and timing.
  • Establishing a consistent “all done” or “game over” cue.

Peggy brought a new awareness to the amount of frustration I can cause in my dogs when I haven’t appropriately trained them or am being too stringent on rewards during training. I want training to be fun for everyone involved so I’ve really started to pay attention to my actions and their body language. Sometimes that is hard when you’re working with your own dogs!

Peggy Hogan

These were just a couple of the things we talked about at the clinic. I might mention a few more later on, but if you have a chance to see Peggy Hogan in person, I highly recommend you do! She was very kind and extremely knowledgeable about clicker trained horses and horsemanship. You can find out more about her here:

I absolutely LOVE Peggy’s saying:

“The best ‘whisper’ is a ‘click’!”