Speaking the language – Part 27

A series by SUSAN McBANE explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training

(This series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientific terms published in ‘Equitation Science’ by McGreevy and McLean, 2010, the standard book on the subject. The glossary definition is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)

CLICKER TRAINING: ‘An application of secondary reinforcement where the secondary reinforcer is an auditory signal to the horse (or any other animal) that the correct response has been performed and that a primary reinforcer (usually food) is about to be delivered.’

CLICKER training is a refinement of positive reinforcement, part of the scientifically developed ‘learning theory’ used to train many animals. Readers who have followed my articles on equitation science (ES) in Equi-Ads will be familiar with the terms used here, but to recap briefly:

A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood of a horse repeating a response to a stimulus (such as an aid), so ‘reinforcement’ is used in the sense of reinforcing, or strengthening, the likelihood of a horse repeating a behaviour. It is not, in the strictest sense, a reward although in practice it can be.

‘Positive’ and ‘negative’ are used in the mathematical sense of, respectively, adding something or removing something. So, positive reinforcement means to add something pleasant which will probably make the horse want to repeat the behaviour he was performing the instant before he received the reinforcer/reward. He will quickly associate or make the link with his behaviour and the reward. Negative reinforcement means to remove something which the horse may initially, in the early stages of training, find irritating or unpleasant, such as squeezing from the rider’s legs to ask him to move forward; the instant he does so a good trainer/rider will stop the squeezing (removing the aid) so the horse learns that he can stop the pressure on his sides by moving forwards.


In horse training, the two best types of reinforcement from the horse’s point of view are food and scratching or rubbing at the base of the neck just in front of the withers. These are called primary reinforcers. There are also secondary reinforcers such as vocal praise or some other signal, such as the noise of a clicker, which tells the horse that he has done something right and something really good is about to arrive – food or rubbing.

‘Primary’, therefore, does not mean that this reinforcer is given first: it means that it is of primary interest to the horse. ‘Secondary’, likewise, does not mean that it is given second: it is less desirable to the horse but acts as information that he has responded correctly and something really good is coming.

Primary reinforcement

It pays trainers to find out what food treats the horse loves. Strips of carrot are popular, but less so if the horse regularly has them in his feed. Mints are loved by most horses, but not all. Nuts/cubes may not be so popular if they are the horse’s normal feed. It’s best to find something the horse really loves, and to only give it for training purposes. Be careful what you give, though. A client of mine told me she thought she would give her horse caramel toffees as a food treat but when they stuck her horse’s teeth together and he panicked she changed her mind! Perhaps the same could happen with non-crunchy mints. Sugar-free Polos are a good choice for many horses.

Rubbing the horse’s withers takes place in the mutual grooming area that horses use most and is known to lower the heart rate and relax the horse. This reward has the great advantage of of being able to be given very quickly from the ground, if you are very near the horse, and from the saddle. Food rewards can often be given quickly and easily enough from the ground but not from the saddle, so rubbing is the primary reinforcer of choice in that situation. Competitive dressage enthusiasts note that it is also silent and can be given surreptitiously during a test, if desired!

Secondary reinforcement

Most people know what clickers are even if they don’t use them: they are small, hand-held devices with a button or strip of metal which the trainer presses to create the click. The noise of the clicker is fairly distinctive and easily heard, and so can be used instantly even when training at some distance from the horse, such as on the lunge or when free schooling.

The secondary reinforcer of a sound signal can be the sound of the click, a ‘clucking’ noise made with your tongue (deeper than and quite distinct from the usual tongue-click which many use to encourage the horse to produce more energy), or simply your voice. The big advantage of the clicker is that it is completely consistent every time and, so, is unmistakable. The disadvantage of using a clicker is that you have to have it with you all the time, and the same goes for food rewards. The ‘cluck’ takes a bit of practise to get it consistently sounding the same each time.

Many people today seem to overlook the great value of the voice when training, which seems to stem from the inappropriate and outdated rule in competitive dressage that you cannot speak to your horse. (The Classical Riding Club dressage tests do allow you to speak to your horse, so perhaps you’d like to give them a try as they have other advantages over conventional tests as well.)

‘Good boy’ is absolutely fine as a secondary reinforcer and should be delivered in a pleased, low tone with the same inflections to your voice every time you say it, so that the actual sound (which is all it is to a horse) is pretty well identical. The words ‘good boy’ won’t have the same impact as a reliable secondary reinforcer if they are said differently, such as in a higher pitch, at a higher volume or with different inflections, because the horse isn’t listening to the words, only the complete sound. Remember, you are using it not in casual conversation with your horse but as a more formal training device, so it has to be used correctly – always (to inform of something good coming), instantly the horse does something you want, and with the same words, tone and inflection every time.


Timing is crucial to successful reinforcement training, whether positive or negative. Because of the way the horse’s mind works, reinforcement has to be administered within one or, at most in my view, two seconds for the horse to make the connection and, therefore, produce the response the trainer wants.

If we want to positively reinforce something we have asked for (given an aid, cue or signal for), we need to give it fairly instantly because if we delay and the horse starts doing something else, then we give the reinforcer/reward, we are, in the horse’s mind, rewarding him for doing that something else, not the behaviour we wanted. More precisely, we are creating a link in his mind with what we didn’t want and food – which we don’t want! Food can be problematic because it cannot always be given fast enough for the horse to link it with his behaviour.

This is where the use of a secondary reinforcer comes into its own: give the secondary reinforcer (a vocal word or phrase, a cluck or a click) to alert the horse to expect something good, then give the primary reinforcer within a very few seconds.

If we want to negatively reinforce something, similarly we have to remove it pretty instantly for the horse to make the connection. For example, if we give a ‘stop’ aid with the bit (pressure on both sides of the bit) and the horse halts but we don’t remove the pressure instantly, the horse cannot connect the aid/pressure with his action of stopping. Even if we give a secondary reinforcer, such as a vocal word or phrase or a cluck, the sustained bit pressure will confuse him, and will not train him to obey light aids. He may try some other move which we don’t want such as wriggling around, swinging his quarters or leaning on the bit, which are all common responses from the horse when the rider obeys the ubiquitous and wrong instruction to ‘ride your horse up to the bit’. This involves applying pressure from the legs and bit simultaneously, so the horse is being told to ‘go’ and ‘stop’ at the same time; in his confusion he tries anything he can think of to remove both pressures and does not learn to stop from a light aid.

In the early stages of training, it is most important that we do not use a secondary reinforcer alone, but always without fail follow it with a primary reinforcer. So, if we say ‘good boy’ in response to a good ridden movement, which we must do precisely when he does it, we must rub the withers within a couple of seconds of giving the vocal praise.


To teach your horse, or ‘install’, clicker training, a ‘target’ on the end of a stick is used, such as a plastic bag or a plastic plate. The horse will probably want to investigate it although a very few may be a little frightened of it. Obviously, do not wave it around at first (that might come a bit later if you are trying to desensitise the horse) but keep it close and still and let the horse sniff it, which will probably involve him touching it. (Don’t talk to him at this point as you want all his attention on the target, the click and the food.) If he doesn’t touch the target, gently touch his nose with it. As soon as this happens, click (secondary reinforcer) and then quickly give a food treat (primary reinforcer). Repeat this around five times, until the horse is reliably seeking to touch the target.

You will soon be able to carry this over to his other behaviours. When leading him in hand, give the aid to halt. As soon as he does, click, then give the food. If you are riding, give the aid to halt. As soon as he does, say ‘good boy’, then rub his withers, and so on.

Once your horse is responding well to your normal aids (called cues or signals in ES), either on the ground or from the saddle, clicker training can be used to improve and lighten his response to your aids, lightness in everything being the constant aim of all good horsemen and women. The principles of clicker training, whether or not you have an actual clicker, can be used for just about anything, from teaching tricks to piaffe, loading into and unloading from transport, preventing mugging for tit-bits by only reinforcing when the horse turns his head away from you, and many more situations.

IN CONCLUSION, clicker training is a valuable addition to the training repertoire. It is not essential to actually have a clicker, as you’ll have realised from the above. It is the principles of clicker training, as described, which are so useful. However, if you do start using a clicker, make sure you use it all the time in the early stages of training and gradually get your horse used to other sounds to replace it, if you do not wish to keep using it.

You can find some good books on clicker training which will give you very detailed information about equine learning theory and applying clicker training, plus precise instructions on just how to use it for myriad behaviours you want to develop in your horse. Just Google ‘Horse books clicker training’ and there you are.

LEARN MORE AT: The Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (www.aebc.org.au), EquiSci (www.equitationscience.co.uk), the International Society for Equitation Science (www.equitationscience.com), the Classical Riding Club (www.classicalriding.co.uk), and the Equine Behaviour Forum (www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk). Also, follow up the links and publications on each site.

(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine, ‘Equine Behaviour’. A hard copy costs £3.50 and a digital copy (include your email address) costs £2.50. Please make your cheque payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ and send it to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6 Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)

SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, co-founder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ magazine. For information on lessons and clinics, visit www.susanmcbane.com, ring 01254 705487 or email horses@susanmcbane.com

Author: Features Editor

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