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The Tools of Positive Reinforcement for Horses

When we start exploring Force-Free and Positive Reinforcement-based training, a lot of the tools that are being used can seem strange and unfamiliar to us. We're usually used to working with halters, lead ropes, lunge whips, crops, carrot sticks etc. But those tools are of little use to us when we try to avoid pressure and release in our training!

So instead we use different kinds of tools.

Today I would like to clarify some of them to you.

The Handheld Target

You’ve probably seen trainers who use positive reinforcement, guide their horses around with a long stick with a ball or something similar at the end.

That’s what we usually call a “target”

Targets are used to teach a variety of different behaviours. We can use it to lead our horses around at liberty, to teach under saddle cues, lunging, Groundwork, tricks and many other things!

Most of the time the horse is taught to touch and/or follow the target with their nose.

Most horses can learn this within one session!

However, you can also teach a horse to move other parts of their body towards the

Target, which can then be utilized to teach things like lateral movements.

It’s basically what a whip is in traditional training, except it works the opposite way around.

In traditional horsemanship, the horse is taught to avoid the whip, to move away from it when the handler moves it towards the horse.

A target works by moving the horse towards it, rewarding the horse with food, anytime they make contact with the target.

It’s a great first behaviour to teach any horse new to R+! It’s easy to learn, fun to teach, and gives the horse a chance to start learning “the game” of positive reinforcement.

Because it often becomes a highly reinforced behaviour, bringing out the target can even become a

The Clicker/Marker Signal

If you’ve ever watched a Positive Reinforcement-Based trainer work, you’ve probably heard them make a cluck, a click, or a say a word before feeding. That’s a Marker signal!

The marker is a chosen stimulus that is classically conditioned to predict reinforcement.

In other words: the marker, will tell the horse the very moment they will be rewarded for.

Normally that reinforcement is food, but in theory it could be conditioned for other reinforcement although that is normally not advised.

Using a marker has the benefit of bringing clarity, efficiency and flexibility to the training.

When we don’t use a marker, often something else (that we aren’t aware of) can become the predictor for reinforcement. like reaching into your food pouch for. Which ends up being more unpredictable as we are unaware of it and that can cause the trainer to unintentionally reward a behaviour that they didn’t mean to.

So it makes it more efficient by limiting the errors, and increases clarity by giving the horse a clear “that’s right” signal.

Audible cues also have the benefit of being able to mark at a distance, in any position, or movement! (Think riding or driving for example)

Any chosen stimulus can be a marker signal. The “clicker” is just a handheld, Mechanical tool to use as a marker signal for ease of use. Because it always makes the same sound, and It’s easy to use, a lot of equestrians like to use the clicker. However, many others don’t like having an additional tool to carry in your hand so they prefer to use a verbal sound (such as a cluck) or a word instead.

This is completely up to personal preference!

You can also use tactile or visual stimulus instead. Which can be preferable for horses that are deaf or blind.

The clicker/marker is classically conditioned. This is done by pairing the stimulus, with food.

A correctly conditioned marker, will actually create the same physical response in the horse that bringing food out would.

This means the horse feels that “excitement” the moment they hear the clicker, not when they get the food! How powerful is that!reinforcer in itself!


When we work with positive reinforcement, we utilize many different strategies to teach our horses new behaviours. Since many trainers choose to avoid using pressure to initiate certain behaviours, this means we guide our horses in other manners.

Cones are a popular choice for this purpose!

The way cones are usually used, is to teach the horse to touch their nose to it, and then eventually walk towards any cone the trainer points to.

This can then be used to teach the horse to stand tied, lead, station, turn, walk forward or stop under saddle or in harness and more!

The benefit of cones as opposed to handheld targets is that cones can be placed somewhere in the distance, and then the horse can learn to move towards it, away from The trainer.

However the target is more easy to use for isolating different body parts and convenient to transport.

Cones come in various sizes and colours, which makes them versatile for different used and preferences.

They’re easily visible, and because the goal is to have the horses nose/front end towards it, it makes them very easy and fast to teach for curious horses.

Which Is, in my opinion, one of the greatest advantages of using Cones.


Mats are another tool positive reinforcement-based trainers use to teach different behaviours without the use of physical pressure to guide the horse.

They can really be made out of anything, and vary greatly in sizes, colours and textures. Really anything that can be laid flat on the ground for the horse to step on can be a mat. Old door mats, rubber mats, carpet, yoga mats etc.

Mats works very similarly to the cones & the target in the sense that they both are used for directing the horse in different ways, and can be used to teach them similar things, like driving or riding cues, stationing, parking etc. The key difference in the mats, is that mats specifically control the placement of the horses feet.

So they’re an excellent use for behaviours where feet placement is important, or where we want to isolate specifically the shoulder or hindquarters of the horse.

This makes using mats great for proprioception, as the horse has to be aware of where their feet are being placed rather than just their whole body or leading by the nose.

However, this can make it slightly more challenging to teach certain horses, as it doesn't come as instinctually to many, to step on a odd surface, as touching their nose to something. But once they understand the mat, it is an incredibly awesome tool for many things.

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