Contemplating the Welfare and Training of Horses

Positive reinforcement in Practice – Including interviews with Ben Hart, Becky Holden, Alexandra Kurland and the Natural Animal Centre, By Catherine Bell

Most of us learn to use positive reinforcement via clicker training. And when starting clicker training it is true that most of us start with simple targeting exercises that may be perceived as "just tricks" by the uninitiated. But targeting is considerably more than just a trick...

A common criticism of those who train horses using positive reinforcement is that we are so busy discussing behavioural theory that we do not do anything practical with our horses, just a few “tricks”. Or that our training is so constrained by theory that there is no “feel”. Or that what little practical work we do with our horses takes so long it is not viable for most people. Or that we have dangerous horses who gallop into busy roads and leave us waiting desperately for them to stop so we can click and treat.

I’m not being facetious, I have been accused of all these things and I would argue that none of them is true. So what do we do with our horses?

Most of us learn to use positive reinforcement via clicker training. And when starting clicker training it is true that most of us start with simple targeting exercises that may be perceived as “just tricks” by the uninitiated. But targeting is considerably more than just a trick. It involves the horse spontaneously touching a novel object in order to earn a treat. The handler clicks at the exact moment the horse performs the correct behaviour and this helps the horse to understand which behaviour has earned the reward. In order to succeed, via a certain amount of trial and error, the horse must overcome any fear or wariness of the target, it must inhibit any other behaviours such as mugging or biting and it must make a choice to act autonomously. The horse also starts to associate us and our training with good things happening. So even in the early stages of clicker training, we are using the clicker to help the horse develop in confidence, self-control and personal growth, as well as potentially helping to improve our relationship. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.

A free-shaping session such as this (i.e. using pure positive reinforcement without cues or lures) can be particularly valuable for a horse who is reluctant to offer behaviours as a result of previous aversive training. It provides a safe environment where mistakes are tolerated and not corrected. The horse can learn to make choices, secure in the knowledge that there will be no negative consequence of choosing the wrong answer. Free-shaping can therefore be an extremely valuable tool in the rehabilitation of mistreated horses, with very strong analogies with human counselling. An acute level of “feel” is crucial, taking this approach well beyond the crude “stimulus- response” training of the 1950’s behaviourism movement.

But for the average horse-owner who is not trying to rehab a rescue case…..

Clicker training can be a great tool for solving minor problems. On one livery yard I had to take my horse across a dairy pasture in order to reach his field. All the horses would dive for the grass and we would struggle across, trying unsuccessfully to hold their heads up. I thought it would be a nice clicker exercise and used shaping to teach my horse that it was OK to graze when he heard the click. Initially I would click every couple of strides *well before* he tried to dive for the grass. He started to wait for the click because he knew he was then allowed to have grass. Gradually we increased the number of strides before the click. It wasn’t long before we could cross the dairy pasture before grazing – unlike all the other horses who continued to dive for the grass. I like this example as it illustrates nicely that, although clicker training and shaping may initially appear to be long-winded, they actually save time and solve problems more quickly in the long-term because we are appealing to the horse’s choices rather than fighting them.

Some clicker trainers choose to have a clicker with them at all times so as to “capture” any behaviour they like at any time. Thus clicker training can be used alongside any general handling or riding that people do. For various reasons (and a whole new article in itself), I prefer to reserve clicker training for well-defined clicker sessions but those sessions might specifically be for teaching behaviours such as picking up feet, loading, leading, standing still or learning to move away from light physical pressure. Most commonly I use clicker training for free-shaping over, under, through or around obstacles, picking up a toy or pushing a football for increasing confidence, patience and enhancing a relationship based on mutual trust and choice. I also use it as a way to give my horse scratches on his itchy spots without him demanding too “emphatically” – he will spontaneously back away from me to “ask” for a scratch which is much safer than his previous barging.

Perhaps another key point is not so much what I do as what I do not do. I try to be aware of any inadvertent reinforcement I might be giving my horse which encourages him to behave in ways I see as undesirable. I take note of any behaviours he gives me and, instead of trying to stop them happening, I try to ignore them* and learn the circumstances under which they arise. This takes me to the root cause of the behaviours and so I can remove the cause, rather than worry about the behaviour which typically then disappears of its own accord. Ignoring unwanted behaviours is an essential part of training with positive reinforcement and is perhaps one we tend to over-look when we are thinking about “what to train”. Learning to just sit and observe is difficult, particularly if we perceive that our safety is at risk, but the more I trust in the horse’s innate cooperative nature, the more I can avoid confrontation, increasing both our safety and our mutual trust yet further.

When not engaging in a clicker session I am happy to use mild pressure to make requests of my horse, particularly when riding. But that does not stop me from using the basic principles of learning theory – I am careful to release pressure with good timing and I try to keep the pressure constant so that the horse has a chance to learn how to release it . And, perhaps most crucially, I continue to use shaping. Shaping – i.e. the breaking down of any task into its tiniest component steps – is arguably the factor that is the difference between keeping safe and becoming a liability. If I do not want to exert excessive pressure on my horse in order to keep us safe then I need to have completed sufficient early training that excessive pressure would never be required. It is shaping that almost guarantees that we will not have a dangerous horse who gallops into traffic because we would have never put him in a situation like that – we would have devised a shaping plan with an end goal of “riding safely in traffic” and broken the task into many training steps. There may be the odd rare occasion for which we cannot prepare, but the more we use shaping and a non-confrontational approach, the less we find that our safety is compromised.

(* it may sometimes be necessary to extract myself as quickly and as safely as possible, perhaps resorting to aversives if need be – but this would be a one-off situation into which I would avoid getting again without additional prior shaping/training)

By Catherine Bell


Interviews by Catherine Bell

Interview with Ben Hart (

Prominent trainer Ben Hart was asked five questions regarding his use of clicker training and/or positive reinforcement. These are his answers:

1. What sort of behaviours do you typically train with positive reinforcement /clicker training?

I try to train everything I train with as much positive reinforcement as possible, with clicker training the most common behaviours are standing still, picking up feet, over coming ear shyness, leading

2. What behaviour/reward would you use most often to introduce the horse to the clicker?

Standing still or targeting depending on the animal their confidence, history and individual nature

3. What are your thoughts on free shaping versus combining negative reinforcement and punishment with clicker training?

I love and prefer free shaping, it takes a lot more skill, awareness, timing and imagination. I don’t think you should ever combine positive reinforcement and punishment you end up with too many problems and associations with punishment, and anyone who combines pressure halters and clickers is misguided and wrong. As for Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement my general rule would be only if the negative stimulus is mild enough not to to cause a negative emotional response and that the negative stimulus is not escalated. So the negative stimulus may be mild enough to help the equine respond – an example might be my hand on the leg of a horse that does not like picking up their hooves. They can feel it and respond but not fear it or increase their flight reaction.

4. Under what circumstances would you feel clicker training is inappropriate?

There are limitations as described in my clicker training book (The Art and Science of Clicker Training for Horses). I would say it is inappropriate if it is used while the animal is in pain or if the trainer has bad timing or if the trainer is using it to replace a lack of their own ability i.e. if you don’t have the ability to train a behaviour without clicker training you shouldn’t try to do it with clicker training. Or if the clicker training is combined with punishment.

5. Do you have a favourite case study you could share with us?

My favourite example of the pitfalls and limitations of clicker training is a horse called T. He had a very bad start in life. His new owner rescued him and, as she was learning about clicker training, she tried to help him overcome his problems, you couldn’t even go safely into the stable with him. Long story short, but in the first few lessons T become frustrated and more aggressive and actually badly bit the owner. Following my advice they stopped clicker training and spent two years building his confidence and her own. She shaped T’s behaviour using positive reinforcement whenever possible. Once his owner had done all this work and was safely able to confidently enter the stable were they able to re-start clicker training and he is even being ridden now. The owner was brilliant but clicker training in the wrong place with the wrong person at the wrong time simply wasn’t the answer.

Interview with Becky Holden (

1. What sort of behaviours do you typically train with positive reinforcement/clicker training?

I mainly use clicker training for general schooling. From backing to high school movements. I also use it for problem behaviours, picking legs up, standing still etc. But I mainly use it to back up the classical principles of schooling both from the ground and under saddle.

2. What behaviour/reward would you use most often to introduce the horse to the clicker?

I usually introduce the clicker with target training. I like to teach something fun first; especially if the clicker is going to be used in an area the horse has problems… Also this gives the owner who may also be learning time to come to terms with the method and see how it works.

3. What are your thoughts on free shaping versus combining negative reinforcement/punishment with clicker training?

Through the introduction I always free shape as I feel this is where the horse can truly think for themselves and work out what the click means. I also enjoy liberty schooling where I will totally free shape. But for me personally I cannot get away from combining negative reinforcement with clicker training.  When positive and negative reinforcement is combined eventually the negative aspect of the request isn’t a response to something the horse doesn’t like but becomes a request the horse understands.

Horses cannot learn anything effective when they are stressed, punishment causes stress. Punishment doesn’t tell the horse what to do instead, so controls instead of teaches. Pre-clicker days I was the kind of trainer that used praise and punishment as a way of teaching both horses and dogs, the results, inconsistency! The most valuable thing I learnt when I first started to clicker train is to focus on what I wanted. I realised to punish my focus was on the past and focused on something I didn’t want. Clicker training changed my thought process completely around!

4. Under what circumstances would you feel clicker training is inappropriate?

When the horse owner isn’t ready or open enough to learn about it. Clicker training can sometimes awaken horses and this can scare the poor horse owner half to death!

5. Do you have a favourite case study you could share with us?

I have lots,  it is hard to decide which one to tell you about!

I was holding a demonstration with Heather Moffett and she arranged for her friend to bring along their home bred show pony, she was a 5 year old mare. They produced and backed show ponies for a living so the pony was backed at home. They had attempted some clicker training but never got past the targeting stages, but now they were having problems under saddle and wanted to see how the clicker would help. Now, this little mare arrived like a fire breathing dragon! It was then pointed out that as well as the problems under saddle she was terrible to deal with at a show which isn’t good for their business. I did begin to wonder slightly if this was the best candidate for a demonstration! I began by just walking around the school the mare was very stressed and alert in her new environment but dealt with it in a very boisterous and pushy manner, she had been known to rear when at the show ground and would never stand still. So each time I got a tiny step in the correct direction I would click and treat. Each time she halted politely click/treat; I soon had her attention and went on to some target training. She had sure remembered what this was all about so we left the first session there.

Now the problems under saddle where the same as in hand but she would run backwards and threaten to rear each time the leg was used, her owner was told to use more leg and this just made the problem worse. So in the 2nd session we tacked her up in saddle and bridle and I worked her from the ground, we worked on the pony moving off leg aids from the ground with my hand giving the aid to walk on,  her reaction to this was to run backwards, I just kept my position and walked back with her, clicking all the correct calm responses. It was amazing to see this highly breed highly sensitive mare say ‘oh that what that feel means’, I wouldn’t of expected anywhere near this much achievement if working with the horse on a daily basis but the demo ended with the owner riding walk and halt transitions with no resistance. When she dismounted she was in floods of tears at the transformation that had been made. The poor pony had been screaming out ‘I don’t understand’ so, until the demo, the behaviour had just gotten worse and worse.

Interview with Alexandra Kurland (

(Abridged by Catherine Bell ( ) with the author’s permission, from an article by Alexandra Kurland)

1. What sort of behaviours do you typically train with positive reinforcement/clicker training?

Over time I have developed a systematic, very detailed training program for clicker training your horse. This includes (1) foundation exercises (i.e. simple exercises for introducing the horse to clicker training), (2) improving ground management skills, (3) safety (on and off the horse), (4) training for performance (i.e. meeting your riding goals)

2. What behaviour/reward would you use most often to introduce the horse to the clicker?

The foundation lessons are: Targeting, “The Grown-ups are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt”, Head Lowering, Backing, Ears Forward, Stand on your Mat. These foundation lessons are not a check list: “Yup, got my horse to back. Did that one. Next . . . ” These are lessons you will be using and perfecting through the rest of his life. Once your horse understands these basic lessons, they give you tools for managing his emotions as you work on more complex behaviours You want to take your time with this foundation work. The more you perfect these simple lessons, the easier everything else becomes.

3. What are your thoughts on free shaping versus combining negative reinforcement /punishment with clicker training?

Free-shaping is a part of the program. You will be learning about timing, free shaping, capturing behaviours, targeting, incorporating negative reinforcement into a positive reinforcement training program, breaking your training down into small steps, developing cues and bringing a behaviour under stimulus control, chaining, training by priority and many other important concepts using these simple behaviours.

4. Under what circumstances would you feel clicker training is inappropriate?

Clicker training works with all horses. Having said that, any training method, if not done correctly, can produce behaviour you don’t want. When I start a new horse with the clicker, I use protective contact. That means there is a barrier between me and the horse. If I am dealing with a pushy, aggressive horse, or one who is simply over-excited by the training process, I can simply step back of his space to keep myself safe. “Aggression comes from a place of fear”. That’s an important statement to remember. And it isn’t just horses who become more aggressive when they’re afraid. People do, too. And that often means they end up choosing harsh training methods. In clicker training we avoid the things that might trigger our fear by making good use of protective contact.

Interview with the Natural Animal Centre (

1. What sort of behaviours do you typically train with positive reinforcement /clicker training?

Positive reinforcement and clicker training can be used to train many different behaviours, in our Positive Horse Magic system (a training system for horses based entirely on positive reinforcement) we begin by teaching ground skills to promote calmness in the horse, by building on this base we encourage movement whilst the horse remains calm. Included in this is targeting behaviours, follow behaviours and even things like trailer loading all at liberty!

2. What behaviour/reward would you use most often to introduce the horse to the clicker?

When teaching the horse what the clicker means we often use targeting onto an object such as a cone, the final goal being to have a horse touch a cone on the floor to encourage calmness though head lowering.

3. What are your thoughts on free shaping versus combining negative reinforcement/punishment with clicker training?

To get true enthusiasm from your horse where he is never fearful of getting the “wrong answer” we would only use positive reinforcement with clicker training. The set up of the task is what is most important to encourage easy wins for your horse. The use of negative reinforcement or punishment (even the removal of food while you wait for the next behaviour) can be detrimental to the training process and damage the power the clicker brings. From a scientific learning theory and physiology perspective in makes no sense to confuse the situation with the use of anything but positive reinforcement.

4. Under what circumstances would you feel clicker training is inappropriate?

If you are training a horse who is fearful or frustrated we would not start with clicker training – the possibility of the horse automatically associating those negative emotions with the clicker is too high and more work has to be done first from a management perspective to alleviate those frustrations