My Horse Is So Smart!!!


The cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse” – published 20 years ago this year.

This post is another in the series I have been writing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  Each month I have been giving special recognition to individuals who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.

Today clicker training is firmly rooted in the horse world.  There are people all around the planet who know two things about it: 1.) clicker training is fun and 2.) it’s good for horses.

But twenty years ago any time I mentioned clicker training very few people knew what I was talking about.  I always had to add a lengthy description of what it was, followed by detailed instructions for how to introduce it to your horse.  When I sent these posts out to the very limited number of horse groups that existed twenty years ago, here’s the response I would get back:

My Horse is so SMART!!!!!

That’s how the replies would begin.  They always made me smile.  Someone else was discovering clicker training.  More than that, that individual was seeing her horse in a completely new light.

The 1990s don’t seem that long ago to me, but they were truly pioneer days on the internet.  The entire community of clicker trainers was so small there was only one list – the Click-L list.  That’s where everyone posted.   And I mean everyone – dog trainers, parrot specialists, horse owners, exotic animal trainers, we were all on the same list.  I loved that.  You didn’t have to monitor dozens of separate forums to know what was going on. Everyone was in the same forum talking to one another.  You could read a post from Karen Pryor followed by one from Bob Bailey.  You could read about different species, dogs, parrots, and yes, even horses.

Any time I sent a post to the Click-L list I was reaching the entire clicker training community.  But I wanted to reach out into the broader horse community as well, so I also posted on one of the early horsemanship lists.  I was always careful how I used that list.  I didn’t want to intrude where I wasn’t wanted.  The list was a general one, but even so, clicker training didn’t always fit in to the discussions.

I chose carefully both which posts I responded to and what I said.  I knew if I came in like a steam roller telling people that my way was the best and everything they were doing was wrong, I’d get nothing but resentment and push back – and rightfully so.  If you push against what somebody else is doing, of course they are going to push back even harder against you.  That wasn’t the way to get people to try clicker training.

Instead I would wait until someone asked a question in a way that indicated that they might be open to the use of treats.

I’d respond with a lengthy description of clicker training and a detailed lesson plan that would help them with their specific training issue.  I don’t think I ever failed to get back an enthusiastic response.  It was always filled with caps and exclamation marks.  And it almost always began with:

“My Horse Is So SMART!!!”

Why was this such a surprise?  Traditional command-based training is built on a belief that horses are stupid animals.  This is not subtly implied.  It is stated as fact.  The corollary of this is: because horses are stupid animals, we need to use force to train them. But don’t worry dear, (and it was always said in this patronizing tone), they don’t feel pain the way we do.

Clicker training puts the lie to that core belief.  We can see how smart our horses are. When you remove the threat of punishment and instead train with positive reinforcement, horse or human, you see a blossoming of personality and enthusiasm.  It isn’t just our horses who suddenly seem so much smarter.  It is every individual who is training in this way.

Not everyone responded with such enthusiasm to those early posts.  Clicker training was both wonderfully well received and strongly pushed against.

There was one individual in particular, an Australian, who felt it was his moral duty to stamp out clicker training before it could spread.   He wrote angry posts declaring how wrong all this hand feeding was!!  His posts were also filled with caps and exclamation marks.  The difference was there was no joy in his posts.  There was no laughter – just angry sputtering.

I never responded to his posts – at least not directly.  Clicker training was truly the new kid on the block.  I knew if I pushed against what others were doing, they would push back even harder against me.  That’s only human nature.  There was a lot of horrible training going on at that time, but I was careful not to say anything negative.  I wrote about what I was doing and why.  I worked hard to avoid saying why I thought some other method was wrong.

I also knew that if someone posted something I didn’t like on the internet the best way to guarantee that that post would stay alive and gain traction was to comment on it.  As fast as things move on the internet, if you don’t respond to something, it disappears in an instant to be replaced by the next puff of an idea.  But as soon as you respond to a post, you give it legs.  You can think you’re helping out by offering a rebuttal to someone’s huffing and puffing, but all that does is guarantee that their comments will gain more traction.

I am always mindful of the oft repeated line in Lewis Carol’s “The Hunting of the Snark”: “What I tell you three times is true.”

We’ve seen the power of that in American politics, but I don’t want to disappear down that rabbit hole!  Instead I’ll just say I want to be careful how I post so that I don’t give added life to ideas that need to go away.

So I would never respond to this man’s nasty remarks.  It must have frustrated him no end that I never took the bait.  You could see the extinction burst he was in as he tried harder and harder to draw me into his rants.  Instead I would make note of his comments, and in my next long post I would address each of his concerns, but never directly.  If he stated that hand feeding treats would teach horses to bite, I would give detailed instructions for the teaching polite manners around food.  If he said clicker trained horses would become pushy and always be demanding treats, I would describe in detail the teaching of the foundation lessons and show how they create horses that move readily out of your space.

Whatever arguments he had, I countered them with detailed descriptions of the training – never pushing against him, never even mentioning him.  I just addressed point by point each blustering statement by providing people with good instruction for introducing their horses to the clicker.  The contrast in tone was startling.  I’m sure many of the people who were brave enough and curious enough to go out to the barn to it a try were in part attracted to clicker training because of the contrast in tone.

What people wrote back were posts filled with excitement.  The delight in their horses was crystal clear.  You could see it in every exclamation mark and underlined phrase.  We weren’t using emojis back then, but they found other ways to express their excitement.

Their enthusiastic posts encouraged others to give it a try and the snowball effect began. The angry, blustering posts sent by this one detractor had the opposite effect from the one he intended.  If he meant to stamp out clicker training before it could spread like wild fire from horse barn to horse barn, he was too late.  Clicker training spread even faster than a wild fire.  It’s an infectious idea.  It brings with it great joy and that’s certainly something we all want to share.

In 1998 when I published my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, I gave the “snowball” a big push.  I was quickly joined by many other people who got the ball rolling ever faster into the horse community.

Each month I’ve been writing thank you posts to the many people who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  I’ve been singling out individuals to thank by highlighting their training.  This month is different.  I want to thank all those early adapters and their exclamation marks.  Your horses are indeed smart!!

I want to thank all those brave people who were curious enough to take treats and a clicker out to their barns and to ask their horses: “What do you think?”.  Your exclamations of delight helped spread clicker training around the planet!

exclamation points 3


Years ago at a clinic I gave in Florida one of the attendees brought a horse she had only recently bought.  She was a novice, first-time owner.  She had done many things right.  She bought a horse she had been riding at a local lesson barn.  She was still boarding the horse with her instructor, but this was about to change.  She was going to be taking her mare home and caring for her herself.  That’s where the worry began.  Her mare was one of those horses who makes really ugly faces whenever anyone approaches her in a stall.  Her new owner was afraid to go into a stall with her.  That had been okay as long as she was boarding her and there were people around to help her, but once she took her home, she would be on her own.

So that weekend we focused on “happy faces”.  That’s all we worked on with her mare. Whenever anyone went past her stall, if even one ear perked forward, click, she would get a treat.  It was very opportunistic training.

We covered a lot of training topics that weekend – as we always do, but for that horse the focus remained squarely on “happy faces”.

The following year I gave another clinic in that area, and this team were back.  This time they were the clicker superstars.  She was our demo horse for exploring lateral work and introducing people to single-rein riding.  That was a huge jump from our first clinic together.

At the end of the three days we did a wrap up.  Each person talked about a highlight of the weekend.  When it was her turn, she started out by saying that at the end of the previous clinic she had been so mad at me because all I had let her do was reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward.  But when she took her horse home she began to understand why I had made that the central focus.  She continued to reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward.  It wasn’t all she worked on, but it continued to be an important element in every training session.  We could all see the results.

There’s a lovely training principle – The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things that you see that it gives you.  When you focus in on what can seem like a very small and seemingly insignificant detail, it begins to collect other good things around it.

So this was her comment after this second clinic.  She said: she had always known her horse was beautiful, but now everyone could see it.

As more and more people are clicker training their horses, that statement takes on even more meaning.   We always knew our horses are beautiful.  Now we also know they are very smart, and because of clicker training more and more people can see it.

Thank you to all my exclamation mark posters!  Twenty years on you are still bringing good things into the horse world.

Keep it positive!!!!

Share the JOY!!!

Using Clicker Training Versus Being a Clicker Trainer

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 7 of 12

Using Clicker Training
Science, relationship, repertoire, persistence are the four main elements that go into the creation of clicker super glue. That was the focus of the previous post.  Put these four things together, and you will have someone who shifts from simply giving clicker training a quick look to someone who is actively using clicker training on a routine basis.  But that still doesn’t mean someone is a clicker trainer.

This is not a judgement about who is technically the better trainer.  You can be very skilled and consider yourself a user of clicker training, not a clicker trainer.  These labels refer more to the mindset that you bring to training and the impact that this has on both your training choices and your learner.

It can also be a description of where you are in the learning process.  No one starts out as a clicker trainer.  We all start out by taking a look and seeing if it is of interest.  Then we gradually move from seeing it as a tool, to seeing it more as the organizing framework for our training.

A great example of someone who actively uses clicker training – and uses it very well – but is not a clicker trainer would be Bob Bailey.  Bob has had a long and very distinguished career as a trainer.  In the fifties when open ocean work with dolphins was first being developed, he headed up the Navy’s training program.  He moved on to become the Project Manager and later Vice President and General Manager of Animal Behavior Enterprises, the company founded by Marian and Keller Breland, two of B.F. Skinner’s graduate students. In the early 1990’s when the dog community discovered clicker training, people were hungry for teachers.  They drew Bob out of retirement to give his now famous chicken training workshops.

Yes, you read that right – chicken training workshops.  Bob used chickens to teach people the science upon which clicker training is based.

Bob will tell you he uses clicker training because it is the most efficient, effective training method he knows, but if he found something that worked better, he would change in a heartbeat.  He is very much a user of clicker training.  By his own self-labeling, he is not a clicker trainer.

In a completely different category,  there are people who call themselves clicker trainers but whose understanding of what that means is light years away from what I mean.  Yes, they may click and treat, but they also cling to the need to punish their animals.  The dog gets a reward for sitting when he’s told to, but if he doesn’t sit fast enough – or worse – if he offers some other behavior, out come the corrections.  Using a clicker most definitely does not make you a clicker trainer.

The Clicker Umbrella

clicker umbrella 1
When I talk about clicker training, I often refer to the image of a huge umbrella under which a wide variety of training methods and solutions fit.  No one of these training strategies by itself defines clicker training.  You might rely heavily on targeting, but that is only one of many training strategies.  You could also use freeshaping or luring to form the behavior you want.

Pressure and release of pressure can fit comfortably under the umbrella.  If I want to figure out the answer to a treasure hunt, clues are welcome.  You’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder.  That’s the function of pressure in a clicker world.  The pressure is not escalated into a do-it-or-else threat.  It is information only.  It offers hints that help the learner get to the reinforcement faster.

If pressure remains at a level where it is information and never a threat, then even very traditional horse training techniques such as advance and retreat procedures can be modified and adapted to fit under my clicker umbrella.

So it isn’t the teaching strategy itself that determines if something fits under the clicker umbrella, but how it is used.  That includes not just pressure and release of pressure, but even targeting and feeshaping.  You can be using the tools of clicker training without really being a clicker trainer.  What does all this mean?  What is it that makes someone just a user of clicker training and not what I mean when I say someone is a clicker trainer?

Just Because You Can . . .
Ethics matter.  Here the mantra becomes:

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Using a marker signal and treats, I could easily teach a horse to stay oriented between two targets.  If I slowly raise the targets up higher and higher, I can get the horse to rear.  With a little practice I could teach that horse to balance on his hind legs and walk the length of the arena.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  Standing up on his hind legs like that can’t be good for the long term health of a horse’s hocks.  I might be able to teach this kind of circus-trick behavior, but I can’t imagine ever doing so.

You could easily get a yearling to jump over large fences at liberty, but again just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  The same considerations apply to older horses.  Should you be asking a horse with arthritic hocks to work at speed or to travel long distances on a horse trailer?  What we want and what our horses need are not always the same thing.

With the clicker you can train many things.  It’s not enough that you are using positive reinforcement to get a job done.  We need to consider not just HOW something is trained, but WHAT we are training.

There are lots of behaviors that look impressive, but they are hard on the individual.  It may simply be that the people who are teaching them have not fully thought out what they are doing.  They are still in the phase where they are excited by the behaviors they can train.  They aren’t yet looking at the broader picture of the animal’s long-term welfare.

Experienced clicker trainers include a consideration of balance – both physical and emotional – in everything they train. They are looking at how the behavior benefits the animal now and in the future.

just because you're using R+Good intentions are not enough.  Just because you are using positive reinforcement does not mean your animal is having a positive learning experience.  If you are fumbling around trying to get your treats out of your pocket, if your timing is off, or you are inconsistent in your criterion, your animal could be having a very frustrating time.  Instead of being clear, you’re surfing a giant extinction wave that leaves a wake of confusion behind you.

To prevent this your learner needs you to have:

  • the science to know how to create and carry out a shaping plan.
  • the relationship to care about his emotional well-being.
  • the repertoire to be adaptive to his learning needs.
  • the persistence to develop your own good handling skills.

That’s what creates clicker super glue and a complete clicker trainer.

Coming Next: More Questions

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: