Start Button Behaviors

The whole process of creating a Start Button for moving forward is an exciting concept. I have been working with Start Button behaviors for many years and I am extremely excited to be participating with Eva Bertelsen and Emelie Johnson Vegh at this year’s Clicker Expos, giving lectures on just how potent CHOICE and Start Button behaviors are when dealing with horses.

In my mind this is cutting edge training that horse trainers will find compelling when they invest the time and energy to learn the process.

Laurie Higgins started a thread on our Facebook group in the January challenge and it is the beginning process of how to develop a Start Button behavior of moving forward. I invite you to check out the challenge and participate.

In this thread I’m going to post an overview and a video of the process.

CAVEAT: Before I go on and explain this, there are some pre-requisites to how I teach this. You need to have a cue for “whoa” in place. I teach the whoa behavior without pressure, along with all of the other necessary movement behaviors I use in my training. Be sure you have already trained the action of “whoa” and its cue.

Also your horse and you need to understand the basic principles of operant conditioning. Your horse needs to know that his behavior has an effect on you and the outcome of his efforts bring him something he wants. He should understand that he needs to repeat behavior he was doing when he hears the click. Teaching a Start Button is not a technique for newbie horses or newbie owners.

Moving on, why do we teach a start button for walking forward?

First the lesson for the human is to pay more attention to the horse and when the horse is ready to move. Many of us have heard of “Why Would You Leave Me” (WWYLM) a great technique by Alexandra Kurland. I like to challenge people and have them learn the flip side,  “Why Would I Leave You?”
I teach this because of the numbers of people I see who walk off ahead of their horses allowing the lead rope to tighten so that the first step the horse takes is because it feels the forward pull on the halter. It not only adds unnecessary pressure to the poll, head and neck, over time this kind of repeated action sets up the horse to be heavy on the forehand.

People do this for many reasons. They have been taught that walking ahead without regard to the level of preparedness from the horse is one sign of being a good leader. They think making the horse feel the pressure and yielding to it is a “must” if they’re ever going to ride. For some, they think the horse needs to learn it has no choice. People also walk away before the horse is ready because they’re distracted; they have grown to EXPECT the horse to follow, because they were told to ignore signals that the horse might be bothered and just keep walking forward with focus. The list is endless.

So my first goal in this lesson is to slow down the person and help them wait until the horse actually initiates the forward motion. It is not the end goal, but an important step. This can be a real eye opener.

Another goal is to have the horse learn through their own experience that the desired behavior is moving forward. In the beginning, I just watch the horse very closely for a sign that it’s going to move forward.  When it does, I follow the horse. We only go maybe two or three steps.  At this point, I cue the horse to stop and click and treat when he does.

The order is: Watch the horse. Follow the horse when he starts to move. Resist the temptation to make the horse move forward with your body language.  Right now you are following the horse.

Take two or three steps with him, then begin to cue the stop. Click/treat the stop.

Repeat the exercise several times.


Observe your horse very, very carefully. You will notice that after the horse has stopped, it will begin to prepare to walk forward again. This is your magic moment.

WATCH for any kind of repeating behavior. Sometimes it’s a head turn.  Sometimes it’s a slight rock back.  Sometimes the eyes look forward as if seeking a new goal. It can even be an ear flick.

Once you have identified the repeating behavior, use that behavior as your signal to move with the horse.

It will look something like this:  The horse is stationary.  She flicks the ear forward or rocks back. Then she begins to move.  At the moment she begins to move, follow her.

If you would like a concept to make this exercise more salient, think of “moving forward” as a primary reinforcer. You are reinforcing the ear flick or rock-back by moving forward with the horse.

In the process of building this behavior, I will often do several repetitions of waiting for the signal or start button from the horse and then I move forward.

I also include a few sessions where I reinforce their understanding of the “Start Button”/rock back by clicking the actual rock-back itself.

As is the case with teaching cues, I add some sessions where I begin to move my own body forward slightly ahead of their “Start Button” behavior. In this manner, I am giving my own cue to their behavior. However I continue to train this with many repetitions of allowing them to initiate forward motion after they give the their Start Button signal.

So the next question is why?

My answer would be in the form of the examples. I have used this technique in situations where horses are fearful.  Previously while they might have gone forward with a cue, the fear would begin to build. Sometimes they would become more tense as we progressed. Now when I’m in a situation where I think the horse might be fearful, I cue the stop, click/treat, and I wait for them to initiate forward motion.

In my experience, once they have a chance to look around, they turn to me and signal that they are ready to move forward. Really it’s a form of a mutual agreement to move forward. At this stage the Start Button is a two way street. Sometimes the horse is given the opportunity to initiate forward motion, and I also have a chance to initiate forward motion with an established formal cue.

Now when I take my horses out to go for a hack or a walk-about, they are eager to go and forward motion is very reinforcing for them. As soon as they feel comfortable, they want to move forward. Giving them the opportunity to express their choice in these situations has created even more safe and calm behaviors in my horses and the horses I work with.

You can see an example of this on YouTube


About clickertraininghorses - Peggy Hogan

I teach people and train horses using positive reinforcement. The horses I work with are given choice, the freedom to volunteer behavior. The joy is that they strive to volunteer what works for both of us.
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