Tongue Clicking: Important Vocal Cue or Very Annoying Habit?

“Tongue Clicking?” I hear you ask.

Actually, all I can hear are birds tweeting and one of my mares yelling her head off.  This makes me think the Shetland may have got out again.

You know the noise I mean, don’t you? That one you make when the tip of your tongue is gently placed at the front part of the roof of your mouth just behind your top teeth. And with your teeth almost closed, you rhythmically draw in small amounts of air to one side of your tongue.

And yes, I did sit there clicking away while attempting to deconstruct an instinctive thingie into its component sensations. All for you, my dear reader. Just so you can understand exactly what the fu(k I am on about.

Incidentally, while doing that I discovered that I naturally click to the right side of my mouth and that doing it on the other side is not as easy. In fact, feels a bit odd.

I want you to stop reading for a second and try this. I am right, aren’t I?

I didn’t know if there is a horsey-specific name for this noise.  Turns out there isn’t.  Horsey people use the same words as the rest of the English-speaking populace:  ‘clicking’ or ‘clucking’. 

Although, I don’t know why anyone would call it clucking.  It is definitely a clicking noise.  Careful!  Might start another controversy.

One American woman I know uses kissing noises. Is that to achieve the same thing? If so, please can someone explain in the comments section? We are always happy to learn new stuff.

Using a variety of focus groups to aid my qualitative research I set about interviewing, observing, and analyzing opinions to find out more about this phenomenon. No, I didn’t. I drank wine and asked loads of people on Facebook.

In typical horsey-people fashion, everyone went off on a tangent within about 3 seconds.  My word!  Talk about a divided nation.  Civil war, even.  Mother turned against daughter.  Sister against brother.  Passions rode high and tempers rose hot.

It turns out that loads of horse riders are adamantly against the use of clicking your tongue as a vocal aid when working with or riding horses.  I got to age 54 and had no idea. In my naivety, I accidentally started fights all over social media. Popcorn, anyone?

I wanted to find a short video on Youtube to demonstrate the noise I am talking about.  I found lots of odd stuff.  Some of it is quite pervy. None of it was what I was looking for.  So I was forced away from the computer and had to film myself making the clicking noise.

Never work with children or animals.  And definitely not with animal children.  But needs must, so I bravely filmed myself clicking my tongue in a field of Belgian Warmblood yearlings. Could have been worse.

I am aware the quality is total pants. But I am not a professional, you know? And I have a cheapo 50 euro phone because I keep dropping them from galloping horses. Or into water buckets. But at least I didn’t bale mine into hay like someone I saw online. Was that SEU, by any chance? Brilliant.

Baby Goons

Why is the ‘to click or not to click’ debate so divisive? What is it people have against it? Let’s find out.

Against Tongue Clicking to Your Horse

The tongue click and the use of it were described as ‘desperate’, ‘annoying’, ‘stupid’, “a bad habit”, and ‘irritating’.  Mmm.  I feel the emotion here, but not very informative. Can we be more constructive?

“It can wind up sensitive horses.” 

That is a much more valid reason.  And the sensitive horse is not necessarily the one you yourself are riding.  When riding in company be that on a hack, in a lesson, or warming up in a ring before entering your class I have now learned you should not click to your horse when another horse is close by. 

It could make their horse shoot forwards which is potentially dangerous.  It could also be perceived as disrespectful. That had never occurred to me before. But it should have done. Bad Ellie.

“You are not allowed to do it in the show/dressage ring.” 

I tried to surreptitiously tongue-click without moving my lips and lowering the volume.  I do get their point. But in the interest of science, I had to try. It would be remiss of me not to.

Many dressage riders do talk to their horses during a test. But they have mastered the art of speaking in a low voice through teeth gritted in such a fashion as to resemble a smile. Much like Keith Harris and his green duck Orville. Shame he wasn’t a chicken.

“Clicking at your horse is as useful as clicking at a lorry going up a steep hill.” 

I disagree with this.  Maybe because I used to lean forwards on my motorbike to try to go faster uphill. But even if your horse has not yet associated the click with forward movement you will still get her/his attention. And can then use that attention to aid your communication.

With Ciel as my beautiful assistant, I demonstrate tongue-clicking as a way to get a horse’s full attention. Ciel has never been tongue-clicked at before. I think he liked it. I really should start putting makeup on before doing impromptu videos. My perfect man might be reading this.

He’s a goon too

For Tongue Clicking to Your Horse

I am an unashamed tongue-clicker.  I click at horses, dogs, cats, and a variety of inanimate objects.  I am a firm believer in using vocal cues with horses. 

And I frequently use them to hurry along little old ladies who are blocking my speedy carrot shopping in the supermarket. I would like to think I draw the line at doing that slow, wide-armed, soft clap thing to shoo them down side aisles, but apparently, I don’t. I have caught myself several times starting to do it and had to stop. I am sure it would be perceived as being quite rude by some.

They are very intelligent animals (horses and old ladies) who are capable of understanding a large vocabulary.  It is a shame not to incorporate this into our communication with each other as they readily respond to the sound.

As a groom, who has worked for several yards where several different languages were spoken I find it very handy that this universal cue exists.  It is a good, sharp sound that generally gets the horse’s attention.  The theory has been posited that if a predator steps on a dry twig it makes a noise as it snaps, thus alerting the horse.  We have replicated this with the click.

Personally, I think that is bollo(ks – if that were true, would not more horses be afraid of the tongue click?  CLICK! Aaaaaaaaaa! Werewolf!!!

Some riders are unable to use leg commands effectively and have to rely on voice commands.  And some horses are too sensitive to the leg making a voice command a safer option.  A tongue click would be very useful in both of these instances.

Tongue Clicking Conclusion

Some riders were taught to do it and others were taught not to do it. Each has based a like or dislike purely on this with no deeper thought into why (or why not).  I suppose until I discovered the divisiveness of this tongue-clicking malarkey I came into this category too.

I am intrigued by the whole concept of this tongue-clicking controversy.  I want to learn more!  I implore every reader to go to the comments section and type “2 tongue-click” OR “not 2 tongue-click”. 

That is my question. Whether ’tis nobler …


Update

Since this article was posted there has been a massive response on social media. It took me quite by surprise. I am amazingly proud that I inspired over 30,000 people to chat about which side of their mouth they click out of.

A new vocabulary has evolved. AmbiCLICKstrous. Right Side CLICKer. Left Side CLICKer. CLICK Ambivalent. CLICKless.

Thank you, every single one of you for the lovely compliments I have received for this article.

If you would like a CLICK mug you can buy them from the Mare-o-pausal Equestrian Shop. Just CLICK anywhere on this paragraph.

58 thoughts on “Tongue Clicking: Important Vocal Cue or Very Annoying Habit?”

  1. I tongue click, and I make kiss-kiss sounds.
    Both are different verbal cues for different things.
    Kiss-kiss means gait for my horses.
    I click left. 😛

    1. Yes to clicking. Left side for choice (left-handed), can do right side with some thought. Use on horses and dogs. Not tried it on husband, but don’t think it would work so well

      1. I use a tongue click to reiterate the action of which I am already asking. It can be used to reinforce forward, backward, lateral, etc. It is more like a tap of the whip to supplement the closing of a leg to which the horse may not have as readily responded as I liked. So, to me, it is more of a supplemental aid of further communication than just a “go forward” cue. I will also use a kiss specifically for canter when training or restarting green horses.

    2. I click for trot and kiss for canter both verbal cues my horse can’t see me when lm up top but can hear cues. I click left but am right handed‍♀️

  2. Clicking needs grading. … there are clearly not only different sides, but different levels… (trundling off to see if I can post video…… that would be a nope 🙁 )

    1. It is such a shame as the video was really funny. I tried to download it too. It said I could. It started doing it. It stopped my entire laptop for 3 minutes. Well … possibly a minute. But basically, it was Tracey sounding like a chicken. 🙂

  3. Donna Riley Brollier

    I click left sided easily, if I try it on the right I look like I have nerve damage. Clicking is the cue I use for backing up.
    Smooching or kiss kiss is my mare’s cue to move forward. No wonder no one can get the right response from my mare.

  4. Different clicks mean different things!
    Un-voiced “tch” = attention please
    Snick sound = please move
    Click = excuse me ma’am, I was talking to you – move now
    Higher intensity tch/snick/click – move faster (varying degrees of politeness)
    Kiss sound = canter (shorter kisses are more polite, longer or more frequent smacks are more insistent)

    I am starting to wean my mare off the vocal cues though – if there’s other people around I have to talk gently to her while other people cue their horses or she’ll respond to them

  5. I am an 63 yr old American clicker. I am old enough now that I click to move horses, dogs, grandchildren and any other living thing that needs to move along. It is a very useful tool. I never thought of it being offensive, but often need to remind my demented self not to click during a Dressage test. Judges are totally against clicking and will write uncomplimentary things about you in their comments.

      1. I use clicking at lot, even on patients and nurses at work I’m sure they think this Cleaner is a little crazy. I can click on both sides or though I prefer the right side. When competing I try to stay quiet, but sometimes I quietly use the word up for “forward” or art for “don’t even think about it.”

  6. Right side clicker by nature, but just discovered I can click on the left too.

    Now I’ll be able to click covertly to horses that are to the left of me without insulting non clickers (who I didn’t know were so passionate about this) very handy.

  7. I find I can click side either side and both sides at once, no problem. I am probably one of the people who is complained of. I did work in racing for a while and only once got told off for clicking. Did I listen though, no still a clicker.

    1. Me too. Both sides, so an ambidextrous clicker. Click for trot and move, kiss for canter. As the horses get older and more educated the click decreases, but it is pretty useful when they are just started and have a cue that is consistent from their ground work to their ridden work!

  8. I never knew the importance of clicking or the controversy surrounding it. I am left handed and notice I also click on the side of of my mouth. As a side by note, I can only clean se my right that eye when winking.

      1. A re-rider from the USA. I’d done alot of 4-H club and only a bit of rated showing and as a kid wasn’t a huge clicker with my own pony mare, but, I’m sure I was on lesson horses.

        When I bought, it was a horse sensitive to the leg. He was 4.5 Thoroughbred, and I was only 6 months into re-riding after 25 years.

        I remember trying him, feeling somewhat blissful about how sensitive to leg he was…Thinking, THANK GOD, the dead to the leg lesson horses have been killing me!!

        Then, that gave way to incredible dismay, as my Winter Jacob would do his LIGHTNING TROT, and…while I’d heard the TERM half-halt, if you’d asked me to describe it, or DO IT, well, that’s a completely different story, now isn’t it?

        We barely competed. BARELY. But, I became staunchly anti-click, merely because…well if it’s NOT done in the show ring, then the horse had aught to be taught properly when being ridden to respond to our invisible ( ROFLMAO) aids, right?

        I mean, I was a SERIOUS rider now…

        Oh, the things I laugh at myself for, looking back to 2015-2016…

        I DO support “Clicking Respectful Behavior” now, though, and care little about it other than that.

        Because, he was SUPER responsive to voice…and, to lunge, what else do you use?

        But, when you’re sharing a smaller indoor, and there’s someone inside lunging, you’re trotting at a normal pace…and all of a sudden you’re desperately holding yours back from continuously breaking into canter, because he’s massively confused by the incessant clicking by the lunging person, and your aides to slow down…well that’s when I learned “Clicking Etiquette” should definitely be a thing

        I sadly had to sell in 2020, but, I had 4.5 blissful years, with the best horse I could have ever asked for. Thank you Universe

        Click-Ambivilent? Is, oike, “I’m not really into clicking,” the same as saying, “I’m not really into politics..”??

        I’m a right-sided mostly clicker, that can click left sided fairly easily. I’m right-Handed.
        ~ Padmin, Adult English Equestrian Forum Facebook Group

  9. I drive, so vocal cues are important. I am right clicker but can click left. When I used to ride I would click too, but not as much as when driving.

  10. 56 y.o. Middle Californian weighing in here… right side clicker ..(it was how I was taught mid 70s) started western & flat English (think high point trophy LOL).. high school brought rodeo/barrel racing, found Eventing in my early 20s and fell in love with dressage. Had the kid, she did Pony Club (where the hell was that in California in the mid 70s!?.. I wanted to do it).. during Pony Club and English jumping shows we learned “click to Trot / Kiss to Canter”.. I’ve even had a clinician recently gently remind me to Kiss during Canter to back up my other aids to encourage a better jump in the canter.. we were trying to break into 4th level last summer whew the changes are hard back to back lol.. but yes! Right side clicker and Kiss to canter right here!!

    1. Yes!! I love your response. And I think from now on I am going to introduce myself to people as 54-year-old, Welsh right-side clicker LOL Perhaps I should start selling mugs on the blog with the whole variety of possibilities.

  11. I think the Americans “kiss” up a horse for canter. Various trainers have different noises for different things… Steve Young clicks for go, kisses for canter, and tuts for back… Tristan Tucker has a range of noises for go, go faster, go really fast, and back… I teach click, squeeze with the leg, tap with the whip. Dr Andrew Maclean suggests adding the vocal cues later, for some scientific training reason, (that I cannot remember), but is probably in one of his books…

  12. As a rider of dressage tests I should not click, but I do, I cant help myself! I’m a right clicker. I click for more energy, I click for canter, I click to load, I click to call my horses in from the field, I click to tell my horses its feed time. It’s a habit – like smoking…I need to give it up ☺️

    1. Nope, don’t give it up. It sounds like you have the skills well down and you should stand your ground. Why toss an important part of the vocabulary that you and your horses effectively use. I’ve spent years cultivating a language of English words, sounds, and body gestures, and I won’t be tossing out any of the progress my horses and I have made together. Good luck to you.

  13. Left clicker, right handed 😉
    Used to use clicking for many diffetent things, but since I join TRT method, I’m more carefull. So kissing sound means “forward” “more energy”, shhhhh sound means backward and clicking is for “up” – lift leg, jump, double is for galop.
    I find it more clear and understandable for my horse.
    My dogs change direction on clicking 😉

  14. I click, can do both sides but usually on the right (right handed) and also use the middle of my tongue on the roof of my mouth to “cluck”. I also use varying levels of the sound for various urgencies (usually cluck while longeing for a trot and a kiss for the canter). Its usually only to back up a seat cue though before I introduce more drastic methods to move my horse forward or gain their attention. ‍♀️

  15. I’m a right clicker! I click everything, including inanimate objects ( my boyfriend) My trainer is a clucker….he has a specialist duckcluck sound…it makes my mare very prancey!! ( extension)To make her more prancey still( collection) I use the kiss sound. I can’t do the duck sound so without my trainer we are stuck in piaffe!!

  16. Southern American clicker/kisser here I realized while lunging my horse one day I was a clicker and kisser. It occurred to me that when I’m finally ready to ride again (I had a fall that has prevented me from riding for nearly 6 months) my horse could possibly be so confused because most of the clicking and or kissing sound is always the same so I’ve since incorporated vocal cues as well. He’s learning the difference thankfully. I’ve also made sure he knows that WHOA means STOP because that was our biggest obstacle!! He’s got a go on him that doesn’t end until I hit the ground!!

  17. Right handed, left side clicker here! Although, I have just discovered, I can now click on both sides! We teach click to trot, kiss to canter. Kissing noise at the canter means go faster and encouragement at a scary jump. I also click when on the ground to move horse over, forward or back. I have caught myself clicking at my dogs and kids when they are lagging behind. I also had no idea about clicking controversy!!

  18. Definitely tongue click to increase to a trot. Then a kiss sound for canter ask. This is useful tool with lunging as well in the queues.

    One thing you didn’t mention is the pigeon purr for the down shift! I had never heard that until last year where apparently ever dressage rider users the pigeon purr to downshift their horse or as a verbal half half. This also seems to work on the lunge!

  19. Catherine Chatfield

    Left side clicker, right handed, long drawn out kisser when appropriate. I make a much bigger face when clicking right, funny I never thought about it. I think this deserves several hundred thousand dollars (euros, etc) to study and lots more wine!

  20. Right side clicker, right handed…but I can do it with the left if I try hard…click to trot, kiss to canter…..love the article

  21. Right clicker here…left feels and looks weird.

    Kids to canter, click for trot and move ..click at everything… See low cars… students…

  22. I’m a clicker….from way back. My mom wrote in my baby book my first words: mama, dada, horsie, clicks to make a horse go. Neither of my parents had anything to do with horses. I was born like this, and at 63, I don’t think it’s a phase! Lol.

    1. Hopefully you’ll make your last breath and cluck many years from now! I’m 69 and don’t intend to quit. I too have no idea of when my horsephilia began….perhaps in the womb.

  23. I definitely cluck (I do say cluck – is that American?) to trot/move on, but only kiss to canter. My horse knows the difference and when lunging I usually only do verbal cues, some hand/body motions. I found it very useful in training when pairing verbal and physical cues on the ground and then being able to transition the same verbal cue with the slightly modified physical cues under saddle. Sometimes still if my horse is cranky, I use only verbal cues to ask him to move on and see if something about what I’m doing physical cue-wise is bothering him or if his body hurts on its own from something (or he’s being a dink).

    Also he has a back-up verbal cluck and a good job cluck. He knows them all. This makes me think I need a video too because goodness knows I can’t describe them all!

  24. “2 tongue click” OR “not 2 tongue click”

    I grew up with “clucking” and I’ve always done it. I’ve been riding and working around with horses for 27 years and it’s always been used and taught. I’ve used it as an attention getter for the horse and as a riding or lunging cue. Voice, seat, leg, and finally artificial aids during riding and voice, body language and artificial aids for lunging. I’ve always ridden English but I have ridden a friend’s horse who was predominantly trained Western but could be ridden English and the only way to get him to canter/lope was to “kiss” to him, you could kick all you wanted but he wouldn’t canter/lope unless you “kissed” to him and then off he went. I think communication is key when training horses whether it’s on the ground, under saddle, or being driven and I think voice should be used first for various reasons like obtaining the horse’s attention and then giving the cue, amongst other reasons.

  25. I commented on a Facebook post that I click with my whole mouth, not just one side. In the time it took me to read through the article, I realized I do only engage one side of my tongue to click. But the side changes and I don’t seem to be able to control which side will be clicking. I also kiss to canter.

  26. 2 click most definitely I find you can tel your horse rhythm whilst schooling or lunging long drawn out loud for bouncy collected trot a quick three click to up the pace ……
    And I definitely works on the children in busy places although there are definitely frowns from the crowds

  27. I tongue click left?!
    Yep taught to use voice to back up leg aids. Find no negatives to the use of a click ?
    I’m trying to master the ventriloquist trick for dressage tests using clicks and whoas without moving lips

  28. Hi, I believe the kissing sound is used by the French too, mostly for a canter depart. I find vocal cues, clicking and a kissing sound to be very effective when the association is made by the horse and useful when you have been injured in the lower half of your body so as to not be able to use leg aids properly. Also really useful when lunging or having your child ride your horse! The horse only listens to you 😀
    However, it can be a bummer in the Dressage ring and my new OTTB responds too well to the click so legs are safer! Jockeys obviously used it with effect!

  29. I use a lot of different voice cues that aren’t words. Clicking is “go forward”. Kissing is specifically to canter. I make a “popping” noise to get the horse to go sideways and a “tsk tsk tsk” to go back.

  30. I tongue click I’m a right sided, just now discovered that I feel fairly untalented if I try to click on my left side, which is odd since I’m left handed…..but what do you do!
    I’m also American, and I use a kiss noise as well. For my horses and clients, jog/trot is a click, kiss is for lope/canter. We start that way lunging and ground driving and carry it up into saddle work.

  31. Yes to both clicking, kissynoices and whisteling! I use many different variatons of them with different meanings on my animals and have never seen any stressreactions on their part

  32. I click. My equestrian career began in 1973, I’ve participated in 7 disciplines, I currently drive. I’ve had more instructors than I can count, some for, some against. For my mares, it means “move your feet.”
    In driven dressage, unlike ridden, your voice is an aid and you can be penalized for using or misusing it. I have found the horses are good at knowing the intent and not responding to cues or even longe whip cracks intended for other horses.

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