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Teaching the Nod

By Yvonne Lehey:
Yvonne's Website

Teaching a horse to nod (or shake his head) isn't a big deal, especially with the help of clicker training!

For teaching the nodding, stand at his shoulder and tickle him with the tip of a sharp knife (thus imitating a fly!), or a horseshoe nail or something similar, at the base of his neck, in front where it meets the chest. Keep going until your horse moves his head. And don't forget to C/T him ;-) Once the response is consistent, you can tickle him with your finger tip, and pretty soon, you will even obtain the nodding by pointing with your finger towards his chest.

Same procedure for asking him to shake his head. Only that you, this time, tickle either his ear or his neck, close to the poll and behind the ear.

When Harry Whitney showed this to his audience at our clinic here in Adelaide, he was a bit surprised that it took his guineapig horse a rather long time to react. But then, my friend Di pointed out "that after all this is Australia, and our horses would go crazy if they reacted immediately to each and every fly". We have so many of them in summer.....

Good luck with this nice little trick. You will have a lot of success with it when showing it to visitors. I then ask my PP mare: "Magia, do you think that peppermints are bad for you?". And when she shakes her head, guess what she gets?!


Start with c/t'ing a slight head raise, and gradually ask for it higher. The head will automatically lower to end the behavior.

You can ask the horse to follow your hand (holding the treat). Then withhold the click and they would naturally in search for the right answer to unlock the treat machine do it a few more times for good measure. Then you could click after 2, then 3, then 4 nods...and so on, until they nod the appropriate number of times.

After the behavior is reliable, throw in a question right before the behavior is to be exhibited. After a few of these, you would only c/t when you ask a question first.


Actually, I do it the other way around. I will "tickle" the horse on the center of their chest. When the head goes down as if to nip a fly or scratch at the tickle, you click. After awhile, you can point at the chest and then finally incorporate it with asking a question, pointing, etc. Always clicking when you get the desired behavior.

To teach your horse to say "no", tickle them in their mane right in front of their withers. When they shake their head no, click, reward. You can refine the cues as you go along.


Jim follows my hand raised and lowered. I like the chest tickle idea. He seems to be mentally connecting the words "yes" and "no" to proper responses. He watches me intently and will mimic.

"No" is a familiar word to him. He will often shake his head "no" if he doesn't want to do something. He had me laughing a few days ago. I was asking him to back away from me - farther and farther. He got to his comfort limit. At that time it was about 8 feet. I kept signaling and saying "back, more back". He just stood there and shook his head "no". I believe he was answering appropriately.


"Yes," Dan nods if someone asks him if he likes clicker training.

I've enjoyed hearing about how different people have trained this-there are a variety of ways to do it that can be equally successful.

Dan's nod sort of evolved from his head down cue, which came about from some of the directional cues that we talked about in the "Big T-Little T" posts. Our food hunts, that I wrote about, really taught him to watch for hand cues and to understand that they had meaning and that there was value in moving where my hand directed.

I was thinking of all of the little hand cues that have developed through clicker training. A slow hand movement to the ground means, "head down," but if I point, with energy to his front foot, he'll pick it up, if I add a little more energy, he'll stomp his front foot. If I make the same movement, but with "soft" energy, his head will go down again. So there is similarity with the cues but the energy is different.

"Head up" I keep my hand about chest level and point to the sky. Eventually I can just sort of wag my finger up and down and get a nod (which is different from wagging my finger at him to ask him to back up!)

Dan got clicked and treated for the progressing steps along the way.

How horses read energy is really fun to work with! It's another ace in the hole concerning training! I really think alot about how I want Dan to be able to bring his energy up, then calm down smoothly and easily (this could make a good discussion too) but I'm trying to do the same thing with myself. Learning how to use my energy as communication. I need work on it, but all of you are probably really good at using it in groundwork and while riding I would bet, but it has just never come easily for me. Dan's helped me understand it better. With the clicker and how we control that energy, boy, there's alot of effective power there!

I've seen Rex Peterson, who trained the horses for Black Beauty and The Horse Whisperer, teach the nod using a blunt object and gently poking the horse under the jaw or on the poll to get the horse to start the nod, then rewards from there. He then refines the cues so he can give them at a distance. He also teaches the head shake "no" by tapping with the blunt object high up on the horses neck. It's more of a tickling annoyance that the horse moves his head away from then Rex rewards. He used the flat end (not the point) of a nail gently, you could probably use the non-pointy end of one of those Bic pens for the same result.


We bought a horse recently that had some "bad habits" at feeding time. Or many people would have called them bad habits- incessant pawing from the time I started scooping up the food until he saw me with the buckets,and shaking his head up and down in a big motion when he saw the food bucket coming towards him. My daughter and I immediately saw these as easy opportunities to train Sundance to count and also to answer "yes".

So now we have put those behaviors on cue. I ask him how many buckets of grain he wants today and cue him to paw. With the clicker training, he starts and then stops when I tell him to. (Our friends have gotten a big kick out of Sundance saying he wants 8 - 10 buckets of grain, although sometimes we only let him sa he wants one or two buckets.). And I ask "do you want all those buckets of food now? and point to the chest (I began by touching the chest when he was doing the big nodding motion) and he nods big "Yes" until I quit pointing there. Then he gets his food.

Now everyone who visits thinks he is not an old horse with bad habits, but rather an intelligent and entertaining one who can learn tricks! It is all in the perception.


Haven't taught Cita how to nod but since she has a disdain for work, I'm teaching her to shake her head no when I ask, "do you want to work?" I tickle her ear and click when she shakes. I differentiate by not uttering the words when I want to handle her ears so she doesn't shake her head everytime I touch them. She's starting to figure out to shake when I ask the question and point at her ear. Funny horse.

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