Pet Care

Teaching Your Horse to Target

Horse standing behind a white paddock gate

You can teach your horse lots of fun things just by catching behavior and building on it until you and he have created something dazzling! What’s “catching” behavior? It’s a style of training that you can use to teach your horse just about anything. People have taught their horses to turn on the lights, to open their stall doors (not always a good idea!), to bow, to play tag—and even to walk on a giant ball—all by catching behavior and building on it.

When you catch behavior, you use a signal (usually a sound) that pinpoints for your horse the right behavior the exact instant he does it. Then you quickly give him a treat or do something else he loves to teach him that doing the behavior earns him great rewards. The sound you use doesn’t matter, but you can’t use one that startles your horse and you shouldn’t use one he already knows. Many people like using clickers, little hand-held toys that make a double-click sound when you press on them. (There are even fun books written how to clicker train horses.) But any sound will help you catch and train behaviors. You can say “Yes!” or “Good boy,” you can snap your fingers, or you can give a brief whistle. Be creative! The key is when you make the sound, you must quickly deliver a treat or something else your horse really likes.

The trick to catching behavior is great timing. If you want to teach your horse to wiggle his ear, your timing is going have to be darned good to catch that first wiggle (and the second wiggle, and the third, and so on). The sound itself is not the magic. The magic happens when your perfectly timed signal catches the behavior you want your horse to learn. The trick is to say or make the sound at the instant your horse does what you want—while he’s still doing it, not after. He needs the signal to let him know when he’s doing something that will get him goodies. That’s how he’ll know what to do again.

Building Behavior

When you catch small bits of behavior, you can gradually build big behavior from the bits. This type of training is known as shaping, and it involves teaching a behavior in small steps. Sound confusing? Astonishing? Magical? Well it is astonishing and it might even be magic, but you’re the magician! Building big behavior from small bits simply means that when you catch behavior, you should start very small, like with an ear twitch, and then progressively build on that until you have your horse wagging his ear whenever you give him the command or cue. You can build a head drop—all the way to the ground—just by catching the slightest dip of his head at first, even if that dip is only half an inch. By taking very small steps and catching and rewarding each new bit of behavior that your horse does toward your final goal, your horse will think that learning is fun and he’ll soon be performing the goal behavior with enthusiasm.

Want to know more? Then get your horse and learn with him! Here are step-by-step instructions for teaching your horse a fun behavior known as “targeting.” It means that your horse touches his nose to something when you ask him to. Once you teach your horse to target things with his nose, you can use it to teach him many other behaviors, like turning on lights, opening stall doors and bowing.

Teaching Your Horse to Target

As long as it’s always the same, you can use any sound that you can deliver quickly and easily to catch behavior. In the directions below, you’ll see that we’re using the word “Yes!” When you say “Yes!” as a catch word, you need to say it quickly. It should pop out of your mouth. Also, say it in a happy voice. Say it with a smile—after all, your horse is brilliant!

Timing Practice

Your timing has to be excellent. But don’t worry. Having perfect timing is a skill that’s not too difficult to acquire. Practice with a friend. You be the trainer, and pretend that your friend is your horse. She’ll target the palm of your hand by touching her fingertips to it. Hold up your palm, and ask your friend to touch it. Your job is catch the touch with “Yes!” Try not to say the word after she touches your hand—which is what you’ll probably do at first, because that’s what we all do. It’s normal to wait until someone has done something and then say “Yes! Thanks!” But you aren’t thanking your friend for doing something, you’re giving her information. By catching her behavior with “Yes,” you’re telling her exactly what you want her to do. So you need to say your catch word while your friend’s fingertips are still touching your palm. Since that lasts about half a second, you’ll have to be darned fast! The trick is to anticipate the touch, and start saying “Yes!” when your friend’s fingers are so close you can’t really see any space between her fingers and your hand. When you can do that, your timing will be perfect.

Equipment You’ll Need to Start Training Your Horse

  • Treats your horse loves   You can use cut-up carrots, apple pieces, grain or horse cookies. Keep the treats in a pail next to you when you train, and keep your horse on lead so you can prevent him from helping himself to your treat stash. If you can’t give your horse treats for some reason, wisps of hay work fine, as does stroking his neck or rubbing his withers. Some horses even like it if you exhale a gentle breath into their nostrils in time with their breathing. Just be sure before you start his training that your horse really likes whatever you plan to give him or do to him as a reward.
  • A target   You can use a plastic plate, a tennis ball, a stick with a ball on the end or just about anything that doesn’t frighten your horse. Many trainers like to use sticks with balls because they can use the stick to hold the ball in places they might not be able to reach otherwise. This way, they can get their horse to target to those out-of-reach places.

How to Teach Your Horse to Target

Set your pail of treats somewhere where your horse can’t just take them. (If possible, have a friend hold them for you.) Pick up your target and show it to your horse, holding it out toward him. Once you’ve presented the target, don’t move it toward your horse. Instead, wait for him to move his muzzle toward it. The instant his nose brushes the target—not just after, not when you give him a treat, but the exact moment his nose makes contact with the target—say "Yes!" Then get a treat from the pail and give it to your horse. It doesn’t matter if it takes you a moment to get the treat—even if your horse moves while you’re getting the treat, the "Yes!" word has marked your horse’s behavior, and whatever he did when you said "Yes!" will be what he’ll try to do again.

Targeting can sometimes be frustrating during your initial training. You may find that your horse touches the target readily the first couple of times, but then he suddenly stops and simply stares at you or starts to graze. This is because he was just sniffing the target before, knows how it smells now and isn't inclined to sniff it any longer. Be persistent in your training. Don't give up. Moving the target a bit may help focus your horse’s attention on it, but be careful not to train yourself to move the target toward your horse rather than waiting from him to move toward it. Your horse must do the work if he’s going to learn. If things are going too slowly, rub a treat on the target. Realize, though, that if you do use the scent of the treat as a way to prompt the behavior at first, you'll have to work your horse through this to a point where he targets without the scent. You can do this by gradually reducing your use of the scent until you finally stop scenting the target altogether. If you don’t, you'll simply teach him to touch his nose to things that smell like treats—something he probably already does quite well. Lastly, it can help your horse if, when he gives you the right response and you say "Yes," you give him a few treats instead of just one.

If it seems like your horse will never touch the target, don't give up. Remember that through shaping, you can build the behavior you want. To shape a target touch, say "Yes!" when your horse's nose comes near the target—or even if he simply looks at it. Keep marking his attempts with "Yes,” but go a bit further with each repetition, gradually requiring him to move his muzzle closer to the target before you say "Yes" and reward him. Perhaps after he looks at the target, he nods toward it say, “Yes” and reward that. Next, you could say, “Yes” and reward him when he moves his head toward the target, then again when his head gets closer to the target, and so on. Soon you will have built an actual touch.

Perhaps your horse moves toward the target, but he doesn’t catch on that you want him to touch the target. Instead he’s taken to touching your hand or your wrist or something else—something that isn’t the target. If this happens, you can use the same type of training that you use when shaping. You wait to say "Yes!" until your horse gives you a new behavior. Say "Yes!" and give him a treat the first time he does something other than touching what he was touching before. This simple change should get your horse on his way to trying new things—like touching the target!

Key points in teaching your horse to target:

  1. Extend the target toward your horse, but don’t move it to his nose. Let him do the work.
  2. Wait for your horse to move his nose toward the target and touch it.
  3. Say "Yes!" the instant your horse brushes his nose against the target.
  4. Quickly give your horse a treat.