Positive Horsemanship – why use clicker training

rescue horse
man with rescue dog
12 years in the same cage
positive reinforcement

Why use Clicker Training for rescue horses?

Written for us by equine behaviour consultant Louisa Marais from TrulyTrust Equine.

Why is it that certain equine rescue centres use clicker training in the rehabilitation process?
What makes this any different from pressure and release and is it any better?

Before we get to why clicker training is a better training option for rescue horses, let’s first identify what clicker training really is and how it works.

What is clicker training exactly?

When I talk about clicker training, I refer to positive reinforcement. Which is a very different form of learning compared to pressure and release. Positive reinforcement is when the individual learns through the addition of a reward to increase the frequency of a desired behaviour in the future. Pressure doesn’t have to play any part in the learning process. Which is very different from most training methods where pressure is essential to teaching a horse a new task. Contrary to popular belief, positive reinforcement training isn’t solely restricted to teaching the horse tricks. But in fact can be used to teach the horse anything your heart desires. Many clicker trainers can use this form of training to teach anything from husbandry behaviours to riding. Along with standing still for medical procedures, to teaching fancy dressage moves. If you can imagine it and you can dream it, then you most likely can teach it too. Within positive reinforcement training, a clicker is used. Which is one of the many tools these trainers can use to communicate with the horse. It’s introduced to the horse right in the beginning of the training process. And it teaches the horse when he hears the clicker that:

1) he/she did something right and the trainer wants to see more of that particular behaviour


2) that the horse’s reward will follow.

This makes it a really useful tool since the trainer can now communicate to the horse which behaviour he would like the horse to do more of. And in this way teach the horse a new task, without ever needing to apply pressure. This also means that a halter or a lead rope isn’t necessary and doesn’t have to be used. All that is required is a clicker and a reward (most often food) and then the training can start. This is just a simplified version of what clicker training entails and how it can be used. Then we are faced with the question of why it is a particularly good approach for the rescue horse.

Why use a different approach for rescue horses?

You might be wondering why it would be a good idea to avoid applying pressure in the first place. Especially when it comes to rescue horses. Applying pressure usually has a factor of discomfort involved. Because in order for the pressure and release to work the horse has to seek the relief/release, as it’s the release of the pressure that he learns through, and the horse only wants the pressure to be taken away if the pressure is uncomfortable.

The avoidance we see here is often linked to the FEAR emotion. Now if there’s only a low FEAR response, seen as slight discomfort and avoidance, then we can still handle the situation fairly easily. But if there’s a high FEAR response then the situation is likely to get out of control. Rescue horses usually have a long history of bad experiences and interactions with humans. Thus, without us doing anything, they will already be experiencing a high level of FEAR. And anything unpleasant or uncomfortable such as applying pressure, will only add to the already elevated stress levels and quickly create an uncontrollable situation which can be dangerous for both human and horse.

Applying pressure also often involves the use of certain equipment. Whether that be in the form of a whip/crop, a halter or a lead rope, all of which most rescue horses have a negative association and/or negative experience with. And it can thus easily cause the horse to expect something bad to happen again, increasing the FEAR once more. A different approach is thus required to keep the horse as calm as possible not only for everyone’s safety and the success of the rehabilitation program. But also for the medical attention most of these horses desperately require.

How can training be approached differently?

The training part of the rehabilitation process requires us to:

1. Recognise what is causing the stress.

2. Avoid situations that are going to aggravate the stress.

3. Train in such a way that will help build a positive relationship with the horse. Which will keep stress levels low.

4. This comes later on, introduce more equipment. And change the associations the horse has with the equipment, while preparing the horse for a new home.


                                                      positive horsemanship

Recognising stimuli

After recognising what is causing the stress for the horse, actions can be taken to avoid situations and stimuli that will elevate the already high FEAR levels even further. Thus, by choosing to rather train a horse through positive reinforcement, unnecessary stressors can be reduced or avoided, and a positive relationship can start to be built with the horse which
will contribute to the horse accepting human interaction once more. This is because positive reinforcement is reward based training. If done correctly it creates a very enjoyable training environment for the horse, which helps the horse experience positive and “feel good”emotions. This all helps him see that his new human caretakers are not there to hurt him,
but to help him, and that they can be trusted, which helps heal the horse physically and mentally.

Why is it a good idea to use clicker training for rescue horses? Because:
 *It’s an effective way to rehabilitate a rescue horse
 *It’s a great way to keep people safe
 *It’s one of the best ways to help the horse heal from emotional trauma
 *It can be a very ethical way of training these horses (especially considering
everything they have been through),
 *And it brings so much joy to both the human and the horse.
It can be a long and difficult process, but it is definitely worth it in the end.

Check out the TrulyTrust website 

A course about rescue and “problem” horses written by Louisa on The Equine Academy

A short video of Emma and Quarentino putting this into action

"Positive reinforcement is when the individual learns through the addition of a reward to increase the frequency of a desired behaviour in the future."

Thank you so much to Louisa for writing this amazing blog post for us..

if you would like to publish your words here contact us via [email protected]

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  1. Jan Stoneman says:

    Thank you for this. It must be such a rewarding way to work with animals, for the humans too.

  2. […] You can read more about how we train our horses this way here […]

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