Giving The Ball A Push

2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  I am celebrating by writing thank yous each month to people who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.

Are you trying to guess who it’s going to be this month?  Anyone who has followed my work knows the stories.  You’ve met the horses through my books and DVDs. Who will I single out this time?

I could turn it into a guessing game.  This person has appeared in the game show: “What’s my line?”.  Does that help?  Maybe not.  But if I tell you that the panelists correctly guessed that she was a dolphin trainer, now some of you will know who I’m talking about.  July’s tribute belongs to Karen Pryor.

So many of us were first introduced to clicker training through Karen’s book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.  I discovered her book through a friend who bred and trained Irish wolf hounds.  We were having lunch together (with one of her wolf hounds literally looking over my shoulder).  Needless to say, we were talking about training.  I’ve forgotten the exact subject, but I do remember my friend saying, “But of course, you’ve read “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.

Don't Shoot the Dog

She said it in a tone that implied that of course I had.  How could I not?  But in 1993 I had never even heard of “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.  Perhaps if Karen’s publishers had called it “Don’t Shoot the Horse”, the horse world would have been exploring clicker training ahead of the dog world.  We’ll never know.  But in any event, I tracked down a copy of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and read it with great interest.

Those of you are familiar with Karen’s book know that it is not a training book per se.  Karen was writing about learning theory, a subject which can sound very dry and off-putting.  “Don’t Shoot the Dog” is anything but.  You read it, nodding your head in agreement.  “That’s why that horse, that dog, that person responded in that way.  It all makes so much sense!  How could they do anything else.”

When I read the chapter on punishment, I remember thinking, “The horse world needs to know about this.”  The horse world needs to understand that when you use punishment, there is ALWAYS fallout.  You always get other unintended, unwanted consequences.  Punishment doesn’t work with laser-fine precision.  You may shut down the behavior you’re after, but the effect spreads out and creates negative consequences and a general dampening down of behavior.

Use it often, and you will get what in the horse world is often called a “well behaved” horse, meaning a shut down horse.  Punishment stops behavior.  That’s the definition of punishment (versus reinforcement).  When you use reinforcement (plus or minus), the behavior you’re focusing on increases.

When you use punishment, the behavior decreases.  So you may punish biting.  Strike hard enough, fast enough, the biting may indeed stop – for the moment.  But punishment isn’t a teaching tool.  It doesn’t tell the horse what TO DO to avoid the unwanted consequence.  However, it is reinforcing for the punisher.  That’s what makes it such a slippery slope.  It may not get the results that you’re after, but in the moment, oh it can feel so good.

When skilled positive reinforcement trainers talk about the four quadrants meaning positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment, they don’t take the use of punishment completely off the table.  They recognize that under the right conditions punishment – applied well – may be a necessary and correct choice.

In many of her presentations Dr. Susan Friedman talks about the hierarchy of behavior-change procedures.

 

Susan Friedman's hierarchy

You begin with the least intrusive interventions.  You begin by exploring medical reasons for the behavior, then you move to changing the environment, and positive reinforcement procedures.  Only after many steps and pausing always to consider if there might be other alternatives, would you consider the more intrusive methods and sitting last as a possibility would be punishment.  And before people puff themselves up and say – I would never use punishment, remember Dr Friedman spent much of her career working with children with major behavioral problems that included self-injurious behavior.  So what would you do with a child who is trying to gouge her eyes out?  Is punishment of that behavior always off the table?

Punishment is certainly not where you begin, but there may be extreme situations where it is where you end up.  If a fire were fast approaching, and you needed to load a reluctant horse on a trailer NOW or leave him behind, would you resort to punishment?  Until you’re faced with that situation, it’s an open question.

Ken Ramirez, another trainer I greatly admire, doesn’t take punishment off the table either.  However, when he was overseeing the training program at the Shedd Aquarium, the novice trainers were only allowed to use positive reinforcement.  They could reinforce behaviors that they liked, but they had to be non-reactive to behaviors they didn’t like.  Only when they were more skilled could they begin to use more advanced techniques.  In his talks on this subject Ken explains why he puts these limits on his young trainers.  At some point early in their career they will come to him, asking for permission to move up the hierarchy.

“Ken,” they will say, “I could so easily solve this problem we’re having with this animal if only you would let me use this procedure that I’ve read about.”  Ken won’t let them.  He wants them to become very experienced with the basics.  If you let them begin to add in other techniques too soon, they really never learn how to be skilled and creative with the basic tools.  They jump the queue too fast and head for more intrusive techniques.

As they become more skilled, he lets them expand into the rest of the hierarchy.  His senior trainers can use any technique, including punishment, that they deem to be appropriate.  But he knows that these trainers have the experience and the skill to apply punishment well, meaning with good timing and at the right intensity to create the desired effect and minimize the fallout.  He also knows that they are so skilled and experienced that they don’t need to use punishment.  They will find other alternatives.

The odd thing in the horse world is we flip things upside down.  We reach first for punishment.  The horse bites – we strike.  It’s the horse’s fault.  And if he bites again, we’ll hit him harder.  We don’t look first for medical conditions.  Maybe that horse is full of ulcers.  Treat the ulcers and his reason for biting will go away.  We don’t rearrange the environment.  Use protective contact – put a barrier between you and the horse so he can’t bite you, and then use positive reinforcement to teach him alternatives to biting.

Instead we give six year old children riding crops (often pink riding crops with pretty sparkles), and we tell her to hit her pony harder.  We give punishment to the least experienced, most novice riders.  That’s completely upside down.  No wonder what we get back are so many sad stories, so many bad endings for both people and horses.

When I said the horse world needs to understand what Karen was saying about punishment in “Don’t Shoot The Dog”, I’ve always though some genie of the universe heard that.  “Got one! She’ll do.”  I was sent the clicker training bug.  More than that, that genie sat on my shoulder and kept urging me to write about what I was experiencing with my horses.  Lots of people, including Karen Pryor, had used clicker training with their horses before I ever went out to the barn with clicker in hand.  I was by no means the first person who ever used it with a horse.  But they didn’t disappear into their computers to write about it.  That good genie on my shoulder made sure that I did.

“Don’t Shoot the Dog” sparked my interest.  I wanted to know more about clicker training.  I read “Lads Before The Wind”,  Karen’s chronicle of the founding of Sea Life Park and the development of the first dolphin shows.  She shared with us the many training puzzles that had to be solved in order to figure out how to train dolphins.  Old-style circus training wasn’t the answer.  She turned to science and the work that was coming out of B.F. Skinner’s lab.

“Lads Before The Wind” took me a step closer.  I wanted to know more about training with a marker signal.

My friend brought me a copy of a magazine article she thought I’d find interesting.  I have no idea what the article was about.  I’m not even sure that I read it, but down in the left hand corner, in very small print, was a tiny ad for two of Karen Pryor’s early VHS videos.  I sent away for both.

The first one was recorded at a seminar that Karen gave with Gary Wilkes to a group of dog trainers.  Gary was the canine trainer who approached Karen with the question: “Do you think clicker training would work with dogs?”

In a conversation I had years ago with Karen, she said she had always had dogs, but they weren’t really trained, not like she had trained the dolphins.  They were just around.  But when Gary wondered if clicker training would work with them, Karen thought, of course!  Why not!  So she and Gary teamed up to give a series of seminars to dog trainers, and we all know what grew out of that for the dog world.

The clip from that seminar that intrigued me and sent me out to the barn to try clicker training my horse showed Gary training a twelve week old mastiff puppy to sit and then to lie down – all without touching the puppy.  These days that’s become so the norm, it wouldn’t get a second look, but in 1993 the dog training I had seen involved leash pops and pushing on the puppy to make it sit.  I was intrigued by the ease with which Gary got this puppy to lie down and stay down.

I was even more intrigued by a clip that was on the second video.  It featured Gary Priest, the Director of Training at the San Diego Zoo.  Gary talking about an African bull elephant named Chico.  Chico had tried to attack his keepers on several occasions so the decision had been made that no one could go into his enclosure with him.  So for ten years Chico had gone without foot care.  At that time the farrier literally got underneath the elephant to trim the front feet.  Gary showed a video of a farrier standing under the elephants belly to trim a foot.  “One wrong move from the elephant,” Gary says in the background – point taken.

So they had to come up with a different approach for Chico.  Gary decided to try clicker training.  They built several small openings in the gate to Chico’s enclosure.  Then they used targeting to bring him up to the enclosure gate.  It took many months, but they finally taught him to put his foot through the opening and to rest it on a metal stirrup bar for cleaning.

The video showed the keepers using targeting to guide Chico to turn around so his hindquarters were to the gate.  Then following a smaller target, Chico lifted his hind foot through the opening for his first trim in ten years.

Gary says in the voice over:  “I can’t impress upon you enough how aggressive this elephant was, but he’s standing here quietly all for the social attention and the bucket of food treats.”

I know how all too many horses even today get handled when they refuse to pick up their feet.  With some trainers, sadly, out come the lip chains, the hobbles, and three men and a boy to hold the horse down, all to force compliance.  We in the horse world do indeed have a lot to learn.

Those two videos gave me what I needed to get started.  I’ve told this part of the story many times.  My thoroughbred, Peregrine, was laid up with hoof abscesses in both front feet.  I wanted to keep him mentally engaged during what was likely to be a long recovery.  What a perfect time to give clicker training a try.  I went out to the barn with treats and a clicker.

In “Lads Before the Wind” Karen had talked about charging the clicker.  With the dolphins you blew a whistle then tossed a fish, blew a whistle then tossed a fish – until you saw the dolphins begin to look for the fish when they heard the whistle.   Now you could begin to make the blowing of the whistle contingent on a specific behavior.  For example, now the dolphin has to swim in the direction of a hoop suspended in the water.  Swim towards the hoop, and wonders of wonders, you can make the humans blow the whistle and throw you a fish.  That’s a powerful discovery.  Suddenly the animal feels in control.

I tried charging the clicker.  I clicked and treated, clicked and treated.  Peregrine showed no signs that he was connecting the click to the treat.  I remember thinking: “If this is going to take a long time, I’m not interested.”

I decided to try targeting.  There was an old dressage whip propped against the corner of the barn.  That would do.  I held it out. Peregrine sniffed it.  Click, treat.  I held it out again, same thing.  The ball was rolling.

I couldn’t do much more than ask him to target.  His feet hurt too much to take more than a step or two, but as he began to recover, I could ask for more.  I started to reshape all the things I had taught him over the years, everything from basic husbandry skills to the classical work in-hand I was learning.  When I started riding him seven weeks later, he was further along in his training than he had been before he was laid up.

Hmm.  Long lay-ups aren’t supposed to work that way, especially not with a thoroughbred.  Normally, as they recover, you go through a rough patch where they’re feeling very cooped up and your job is to convince them to walk not rear during hand walking.  With Peregrine there was no rough patch.  And he was understanding what I was asking of him so much better that he did before the lay-up.

The good genie that sat on my shoulder had picked well.  It was no accident that clicker training gained such a strong toe hold with me.  I’ve known so many people who gave clicker training a try, loved their horse’s response to the initial targeting, and then got stuck.  What do you do with it?  For them ground work meant lunging – and often lunging badly.  Ugh.  We just want to ride!

I wanted to ride as well, but I also loved ground work.  I had raised all my horses, so ground work to me meant so much more than lunging.   It meant teaching a young horse all the skills it would need to get along with people.  It meant learning how to stand quietly for haltering, grooming, foot care, medical procedures, saddling, etc..  It meant learning to lead and from that core foundation, learning about balance through the classical work in-hand and all the performance doors that opened up.  It meant expanding their world by introducing distractions and new environments.   The list went on and on.  And finally it meant connecting the ground work into riding.  Riding truly is just ground work where you get to sit down.

So as Peregrine began to recover from his abscesses, I had a lot to play with.  My training was already structured around systematic small steps.  It was easy to add in the click and a treat.  At first, you could say that all I was doing was just sugar coating same-old same old.  I would ask in the way I knew and then click and treat correct responses.  But even just that first step into clicker training was producing great results.  And when I explored targeting and free shaping – WOW! – was that ever fun!

I was liking this clicker training!  So I began to share it with my clients.  Together we figured out how to apply it to horses.  So fast forward three years to July of 1996.  I had written a series of articles that I wanted to put up on the internet.  I had built a web site, but I wasn’t sure if I could use the term clicker training.  Gary Wilkes had trademarked “Click and Treat” and the llama trainer, Jim Logan, had trademarked “Click and Reward”.  It was frustrating.  If people kept trademarking all these phrases, pretty soon there would be no way to refer to the training.

So I emailed Karen.  I introduced myself and sent her the articles I wanted to publish on my web site.  I needed to know if she had trademarked clicker training.  Could I use the term in my articles?

Twenty-four hours later I received an email back from Karen.  She had read my articles.  Would I like to write a book about clicker training horses for her publishing company?

You know the answer.  Karen gave the “ball” a huge push down the hill.  So thank you Karen.  Thank you for that initial support.  For me personally it was a great pleasure working with you on the editing of that book.  And over the past twenty years I have treasured our continued friendship.

At one of the early Clicker Expos when you were introducing the faculty, when you got to me, you began by talking about conventional horse training.  You described it as what it is – organized horse abuse.  Wow.  To be brave enough, bold enough to say it out loud.  It was shocking to hear, but so true.  You understood the horse world.  You knew about the wide-spread use of punishment.  You knew the importance of bringing positive reinforcement into this community.

You couldn’t be everywhere, doing everything yourself, but when you asked if I wanted to write a book, you gave the clicker training ball a huge push.  Twenty years later, the book we created together is still helping horse people to find alternatives.  And the horse world is changing!

Thank you Karen.

My Horse Is So Smart!!!

CTFYHbookcover

The cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse” – published 20 years ago this year.

This post is another in the series I have been writing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  Each month I have been giving special recognition to individuals who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.

Today clicker training is firmly rooted in the horse world.  There are people all around the planet who know two things about it: 1.) clicker training is fun and 2.) it’s good for horses.

But twenty years ago any time I mentioned clicker training very few people knew what I was talking about.  I always had to add a lengthy description of what it was, followed by detailed instructions for how to introduce it to your horse.  When I sent these posts out to the very limited number of horse groups that existed twenty years ago, here’s the response I would get back:

My Horse is so SMART!!!!!

That’s how the replies would begin.  They always made me smile.  Someone else was discovering clicker training.  More than that, that individual was seeing her horse in a completely new light.

The 1990s don’t seem that long ago to me, but they were truly pioneer days on the internet.  The entire community of clicker trainers was so small there was only one list – the Click-L list.  That’s where everyone posted.   And I mean everyone – dog trainers, parrot specialists, horse owners, exotic animal trainers, we were all on the same list.  I loved that.  You didn’t have to monitor dozens of separate forums to know what was going on. Everyone was in the same forum talking to one another.  You could read a post from Karen Pryor followed by one from Bob Bailey.  You could read about different species, dogs, parrots, and yes, even horses.

Any time I sent a post to the Click-L list I was reaching the entire clicker training community.  But I wanted to reach out into the broader horse community as well, so I also posted on one of the early horsemanship lists.  I was always careful how I used that list.  I didn’t want to intrude where I wasn’t wanted.  The list was a general one, but even so, clicker training didn’t always fit in to the discussions.

I chose carefully both which posts I responded to and what I said.  I knew if I came in like a steam roller telling people that my way was the best and everything they were doing was wrong, I’d get nothing but resentment and push back – and rightfully so.  If you push against what somebody else is doing, of course they are going to push back even harder against you.  That wasn’t the way to get people to try clicker training.

Instead I would wait until someone asked a question in a way that indicated that they might be open to the use of treats.

I’d respond with a lengthy description of clicker training and a detailed lesson plan that would help them with their specific training issue.  I don’t think I ever failed to get back an enthusiastic response.  It was always filled with caps and exclamation marks.  And it almost always began with:

“My Horse Is So SMART!!!”

Why was this such a surprise?  Traditional command-based training is built on a belief that horses are stupid animals.  This is not subtly implied.  It is stated as fact.  The corollary of this is: because horses are stupid animals, we need to use force to train them. But don’t worry dear, (and it was always said in this patronizing tone), they don’t feel pain the way we do.

Clicker training puts the lie to that core belief.  We can see how smart our horses are. When you remove the threat of punishment and instead train with positive reinforcement, horse or human, you see a blossoming of personality and enthusiasm.  It isn’t just our horses who suddenly seem so much smarter.  It is every individual who is training in this way.

Not everyone responded with such enthusiasm to those early posts.  Clicker training was both wonderfully well received and strongly pushed against.

There was one individual in particular, an Australian, who felt it was his moral duty to stamp out clicker training before it could spread.   He wrote angry posts declaring how wrong all this hand feeding was!!  His posts were also filled with caps and exclamation marks.  The difference was there was no joy in his posts.  There was no laughter – just angry sputtering.

I never responded to his posts – at least not directly.  Clicker training was truly the new kid on the block.  I knew if I pushed against what others were doing, they would push back even harder against me.  That’s only human nature.  There was a lot of horrible training going on at that time, but I was careful not to say anything negative.  I wrote about what I was doing and why.  I worked hard to avoid saying why I thought some other method was wrong.

I also knew that if someone posted something I didn’t like on the internet the best way to guarantee that that post would stay alive and gain traction was to comment on it.  As fast as things move on the internet, if you don’t respond to something, it disappears in an instant to be replaced by the next puff of an idea.  But as soon as you respond to a post, you give it legs.  You can think you’re helping out by offering a rebuttal to someone’s huffing and puffing, but all that does is guarantee that their comments will gain more traction.

I am always mindful of the oft repeated line in Lewis Carol’s “The Hunting of the Snark”: “What I tell you three times is true.”

We’ve seen the power of that in American politics, but I don’t want to disappear down that rabbit hole!  Instead I’ll just say I want to be careful how I post so that I don’t give added life to ideas that need to go away.

So I would never respond to this man’s nasty remarks.  It must have frustrated him no end that I never took the bait.  You could see the extinction burst he was in as he tried harder and harder to draw me into his rants.  Instead I would make note of his comments, and in my next long post I would address each of his concerns, but never directly.  If he stated that hand feeding treats would teach horses to bite, I would give detailed instructions for the teaching polite manners around food.  If he said clicker trained horses would become pushy and always be demanding treats, I would describe in detail the teaching of the foundation lessons and show how they create horses that move readily out of your space.

Whatever arguments he had, I countered them with detailed descriptions of the training – never pushing against him, never even mentioning him.  I just addressed point by point each blustering statement by providing people with good instruction for introducing their horses to the clicker.  The contrast in tone was startling.  I’m sure many of the people who were brave enough and curious enough to go out to the barn to it a try were in part attracted to clicker training because of the contrast in tone.

What people wrote back were posts filled with excitement.  The delight in their horses was crystal clear.  You could see it in every exclamation mark and underlined phrase.  We weren’t using emojis back then, but they found other ways to express their excitement.

Their enthusiastic posts encouraged others to give it a try and the snowball effect began. The angry, blustering posts sent by this one detractor had the opposite effect from the one he intended.  If he meant to stamp out clicker training before it could spread like wild fire from horse barn to horse barn, he was too late.  Clicker training spread even faster than a wild fire.  It’s an infectious idea.  It brings with it great joy and that’s certainly something we all want to share.

In 1998 when I published my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, I gave the “snowball” a big push.  I was quickly joined by many other people who got the ball rolling ever faster into the horse community.

Each month I’ve been writing thank you posts to the many people who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  I’ve been singling out individuals to thank by highlighting their training.  This month is different.  I want to thank all those early adapters and their exclamation marks.  Your horses are indeed smart!!

I want to thank all those brave people who were curious enough to take treats and a clicker out to their barns and to ask their horses: “What do you think?”.  Your exclamations of delight helped spread clicker training around the planet!

exclamation points 3

Celebrate!

Years ago at a clinic I gave in Florida one of the attendees brought a horse she had only recently bought.  She was a novice, first-time owner.  She had done many things right.  She bought a horse she had been riding at a local lesson barn.  She was still boarding the horse with her instructor, but this was about to change.  She was going to be taking her mare home and caring for her herself.  That’s where the worry began.  Her mare was one of those horses who makes really ugly faces whenever anyone approaches her in a stall.  Her new owner was afraid to go into a stall with her.  That had been okay as long as she was boarding her and there were people around to help her, but once she took her home, she would be on her own.

So that weekend we focused on “happy faces”.  That’s all we worked on with her mare. Whenever anyone went past her stall, if even one ear perked forward, click, she would get a treat.  It was very opportunistic training.

We covered a lot of training topics that weekend – as we always do, but for that horse the focus remained squarely on “happy faces”.

The following year I gave another clinic in that area, and this team were back.  This time they were the clicker superstars.  She was our demo horse for exploring lateral work and introducing people to single-rein riding.  That was a huge jump from our first clinic together.

At the end of the three days we did a wrap up.  Each person talked about a highlight of the weekend.  When it was her turn, she started out by saying that at the end of the previous clinic she had been so mad at me because all I had let her do was reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward.  But when she took her horse home she began to understand why I had made that the central focus.  She continued to reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward.  It wasn’t all she worked on, but it continued to be an important element in every training session.  We could all see the results.

There’s a lovely training principle – The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things that you see that it gives you.  When you focus in on what can seem like a very small and seemingly insignificant detail, it begins to collect other good things around it.

So this was her comment after this second clinic.  She said: she had always known her horse was beautiful, but now everyone could see it.

As more and more people are clicker training their horses, that statement takes on even more meaning.   We always knew our horses are beautiful.  Now we also know they are very smart, and because of clicker training more and more people can see it.

Thank you to all my exclamation mark posters!  Twenty years on you are still bringing good things into the horse world.

Keep it positive!!!!

Share the JOY!!!

Seeing Steps

We’re Mid-way through May.  Time to send another thank you out into the world to all the people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.

1998 was very much pioneer days.  There was no trail ahead.  We were blazing it.  Everyone who went out to the barn with a pocket full of treats and a clicker in hand was truly a pioneer.  We were stepping out into unknown territory.  The first people who went on that journey with me were my clients.  These were people I saw on a regular basis, some of them I had been working with for years.  They were familiar with how I operated.  I’d read a book, I’d go to a clinic, I see some interesting training, and then I’d try it out.  My horses were always the first guinea pigs.  If they liked what I was testing, I’d share it with a few of my clients, and, if they liked it, I’d share it with everyone.

That’s how clicker training got started, first with Peregrine and then with a few of my client’s horses.  That’s all it took to get the snowball rolling down the hill.  The first few steps into clicker training were easy.  You taught basic targeting.  You cleaned up the horse’s manners around food, and then what?  That’s was what my clients were helping me to figure out.

So this month belongs to them, to all those willing pioneers who joined me in that first approximation in.  As usual, I am going to single one person out, but in doing that what I am really doing is saying a huge thank you to all of my many clients who followed me into this exploration of clicker training.  So this month I am going to introduce you to Sharon and her Arab Missfire.  They were the inspiration behind Chapter 5 in “Clicker Training for your Horse”.

The title of Chapter 5 is: All Aboard! Mounting Blocks and So Much More: The Power of Goal Setting. You could say Chapter 5 is about teaching your horse to stand still at a mounting block, or you could say that it is about breaking training down into small steps.  Both would be right.

Sharon was a first-time horse owner who kept her mare at home.  She had what was a very common situation.  She had a couple of small fenced-in fields with access to a run-in shed, but no separate designated training area.  All the work was done out in Missfire’s paddock.  Missfire didn’t come with too many warning labels attached.  She was comfortable being groomed, okay to lead, she was afraid out on trails and would rush for home, but in her home paddock she was safe to ride.  The problem was she frustrated Sharon.  It was all the little things that Missfire didn’t do well.  Yes, you could groom her, but she fidgeted.  Yes, you could put a saddle on, but she fussed.  Yes, you could get her to the mounting block, but getting her to stand still long enough to get on was a challenge.

Sharon was a special ed teacher.  She taught math to teenagers who had been removed from regular classrooms because of their disruptive behavior.  When I first introduced Sharon to clicker training, I thought – she’s going to love this!  This will be right down her alley.

I was right.  She did love clicker training, the parts of it she understood, but oh how she struggled to make it work.  She just couldn’t see the steps.  She understood the overall concept, but she needed me to guide her through each lesson.  In between my weekly visits she was still struggling with her horse and feeling frustrated.

Clicker training has brought me many great things.  I’ve been able to travel and meet people I would never have connected with if not for the adventure called clicker training.  One of the connections I very much treasure is that with canine trainer, Kay Laurence. Kay feels about dogs the way I feel about horses.  The species we are passionate about may be different, but our regard for the animals we love is the same.  It was Kay who highlighted for all of us in the clicker training community the difference between guided and self-directed learning.

There’s a time and a place for both.  Knowing which to use when is the skill.

In the horse world many traditional riding lessons are designed to create dependent students.  There is a very clear hierarchy.  The trainer is the expert.  The learning is very much directed.  In group lessons you’re told when to trot, when to canter.  You’re not taught to become an independent thinker.  When you buy your first horse, you are still very much dependent upon the trainer.  You need him/her to fix things when the training goes wrong.

Clicker training changes that.  The role I play is that of guide not guru.  My favorite definition of a teacher is “someone who started before you”.  When someone asks me to help them with a horse, that’s all that I am.  Someone who started before that individual.  My job is not to make that person dependent upon me.  It’s to help her realize that she can be a teacher for her horse.  She can be an active, effective problem solver.

Even someone who has limited handling skills can be a good teacher.  The first requirement is understanding how to apply basic principles.  It’s: safety always comes first.  It’s: train where you can – not where you can’t.  If you don’t have the riding skills yet to handle rough terrain, sudden surprises, and an excited horse who wants to bolt for home, then ride where you can be safe.  Ride in your home paddock.  Or ride from the ground first.  Remember – ground work is just riding where you get to stand up.

Here’s another core principle: find a step in the training where you can get a consistent yes answer.  If you are just learning how to handle a horse, what CAN you ask for?  It might be as simple as having a horse touch his nose to a target.  That may not seem like much, but it’s a beginning step.  Each step opens the door to learning new skills which you and your horse are learning together.

The stumbling block that many people encounter when they are first experimenting with training is they become very outcome oriented.  Instead of focusing on the process, they want to jump to the end result.  That means they tend to lump criteria, and they miss seeing all the places where the horses are asking for more information.  That’s where Sharon was.  When she brought Missfire up to a mounting block, she expected to be able to just get on.  She was missing all the small steps that could be inserted into this process.  She just didn’t see them.

This was over twenty years ago – long before any of us knew about Hogwarts and Harry Potter.  But thinking back on it, that’s the image that comes to mind.  When I stood on the mounting block next to Missfire, I could see all the steps, but it was as if there was an invisibility spell cast over her when Sharon stood in the same place.  She just couldn’t see all the little questions she could be asking Missfire.

Can I put my hands on the saddle?  Yes.  Click and treat.

Can I wiggle the saddle?  Yes.  Click and treat.

Can I touch the stirrup leather?  Yes.  Click and treat.

That’s great.  That was a nice unit.  Now I’m going to step off the mounting block, and we’ll walk off together in a big circle so we can go back to the mounting block and ask those same questions – and maybe one or two more – all over again.

Slowly the invisibility spell lifted.  Sharon saw the steps.  She got it.  She was able to take Missfire to the mounting block and ask these small questions.  She was understanding how these small asks accumulated into a solid owning of the behavior – for both of them.

The following week when I arrived Sharon showed me how she had taught Missfire to “self bridle”.  And the week after that she showed me another new skill they had worked on together.  She was owning the process!  She was becoming what clicker training allows us to be – our horse’s teacher.  She wasn’t dependent upon me.  We still enjoyed our visits together.  There were lots of new skills that I could help her to learn, but she didn’t need me.

In “Clicker Training for your Horse” I used specific lessons such as foot care or the mounting block lesson to teach broader principles.  Sharon’s struggle with the mounting block became the inspiration for a chapter in “Clicker Training for your Horse“.  The week after her lesson I wrote Chapter 5: All Aboard! Mounting Blocks and So Much More: The Power of Goal Setting.

Here is the opening section from that chapter:

“Some of you who are more experienced may glance at this and think: a whole chapter just on getting your horse to stand next to a mounting block!  You’ve got to be kidding.  When is she going to talk about some real training?

This book is intended for people of all experience levels.  In my own teaching I work with many highly trained riders and instructors, but I also work with beginners and first-time horse owners.  If you haven’t spent much time around horses, no exercise is ever too basic to be taught.  I’ve given lessons in how to lead a horse into a barn, turn it around, and close the door behind you.  Sound simple?  If you’ve been around horses for years, of course it does, but to a timid, first-time owner with a pushy horse it can seem like an impossible task.

You may know how to teach your horse how to stand quietly while you get on.  It’s no problem for you, but for someone who has never dealt with this issue, it can be extremely frustrating.  You may take bridling for granted.  Then you buy that green, three year old you’ve been dreaming of for years, and he throws his head up into the rafters whenever you come near him with a bridle.

I don’t know what issues you’re struggling with, or what you already know, and what you don’t.  I don’t want to skip over anyone, so I’ve chosen to talk about some very basic training issues here.  That way everyone can participate.  Embedded in the discussion are the principles and concepts that will help you with every step of your training.  If you’re an experienced rider, you’ll be able to generalize easily from these examples and apply the principles to your own training situation  .  .  .  .  Foundation is everything in horse training.  So even if you’re working with upper level horses, I think you’ll find a great deal in this chapter that will interest you.

Training is easy once you know where to begin.  Getting started is the hard part.  You want to ride.  You’ve got a picture of your dream horse in your head.  You can see yourself clearing every fence on the course; galloping along a winding trail; or executing the perfect canter pirouette.  That’s your dream, but right now you and your horse are just starting out together.  What are you going to work on today to get to all those wonderful tomorrows?  What are your immediate training goals that address the issues you are working on today?

Goal setting is an important part of training.  When I’m working with someone on a regular basis, I’ll ask them what they want to focus on today, in this lesson.  Very often they’ll say they don’t know.  They have an overall dream of what they want to do with their horse, but they don’t have a specific goal in mind for that day’s training.  That’s fine.  The horse will always tell us what he needs to learn.

We’ll take him out to the ring and he’ll refuse to walk up to the mounting block.  Great.  He’s just given us the lesson for the day.  Yes, we could get on somehow, but we’d be missing a wonderful opportunity to train.

We might have been planning to work on canter departs, but that’s not what the day’s lesson is going to be about.  We’re going to teach him to stand next to the mounting block.  In the process we’ll be working on leading; on ground tying; on lateral work; on loading into a trailer; and, oh yes, on canter departs, and even on flying lead changes.  How is that possible when all you’re doing is getting on?  The answer is, you can never teach just one thing.  You’ll see what I mean as we go through this lesson.”

It’s great fun reading this chapter so many years after it was written.  I feel as though I could be writing it today in response to someone’s email query.  The words wouldn’t be that different.  I may know a lot more ways to teach the lessons I was writing about, but the core, underlying principles are the same.  What Sharon showed me was the power of those principles.  When you learn how to use them, they set you free.

So this is my thank you to Sharon and to all my other clients who showed me how to transform these principles from words on a page into actual practice.  Those pioneering days were great fun!  I am glad we took the journey together.  Many of you have split off and gone off on your own.  That’s as it should be.  The best part of clicker training is it teaches you how to forge your own path.  We will be friends always, and I am sending you a thank you for the time we journeyed together and the discoveries we made.  Thank you for helping to bring clicker training into the horse community.

Have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering

Each month this year I’ve been writing a post in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  These posts are thank yous to all the many people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  In January I began with a tribute to Bob Viviano and his horse Crackers.  February belonged to Ann Edie and Panda.  Last month I turned the spotlight on all the clinic organizers.  To represent them all I singled out Kate Graham and her horse Lucky.

This month is different.  April can belong to no one else but my beloved Peregrine.  April 26, 1985 was his birthday.  For thirty years I celebrated that event with him.  Now I remember the day without him.  Today I am getting ready to fly out to California to teach a clinic.  Peregrine put me on the path to all these great adventures.  I learned about clicker training for him, through him.  When I went out to the barn all those many years ago with treats in my pocket and a clicker in my hand, I had no idea of the journey he was sending me on.

When I lost Peregrine’s mother, I promised her I would write her a love story.  I didn’t know at the time what form that would take, just that I would do it.  My book, “Clicker Training For Your Horse”, was that love story.  It was written for her and for Peregrine.  Clicker training was not a story to keep to myself.  I have been sharing it with all of you because of them.

When Peregrine turned thirty, I wrote a series of posts in celebration.  They are a tribute to him and a history of equine clicker training.  You can read them beginning with https://theclickercenterblog.com/2015/04/13/todays-peregrine-story-early-lessons/ 

For most of his life Peregrine lived at boarding barns.  It was only in his final years that I was able to move him to a home of his own.  The barn is still so full of his memories.  We moved July 4th 2011.  It was truly Independence Day for all our horses.

Peregrine shaped how the barn is used.  He taught me to open all the doors.  Throughout his life he was always opening doors.  The most important one was the door to clicker training.

He is greatly loved, and he will always be greatly missed.

Peregrine Foal and in winter

Peregrine April 26, 1985 the day he was born, and Peregrine when he was 29

“I Need Goats!”

Preparation – it’s a wonderful thing.  All winter long “I need goats!” has been my call to bring the goats back into their pens.  “I need goats!” means food awaits.  Come fast!

Yesterday “I need goats!” was put to a new test.  We took our little herd of seven goats – Trixie and her triplets and Thanzi and her twins – into the indoor.  I put Thanzi on a lead and had her follow a food-in-a-cup target stick.  She boldly – or perhaps I should say greedily – led the way.  Trixie held back but couldn’t resist when all the babies started surging through the outer gate of the Goat Palace.  We had the side door of the arena open so it was a short walk into the arena.

I had put a bucket down with some grain in it.  Thanzi made a bee line for it which helped draw all the others in.

Goats Thanzi eating in bucket.png

Everyone in

We got everyone inside, closed the gate, turned Thanzi loose and stood back to watch the fun.  At first they packed closely together.  Thanzi led them on a survey of the arena.  We’d set out some mats for the youngsters to climb over, but Thanzi and Trixie needed to check out the arena.

Goats - checking out arena.png

Checking out the arena

I left them alone for a bit.  When they had made the full circuit of the arena and they were back by the gate, I wandered out into the center of the arena.

“I need goats!”  It was Thanzi who picked up her head first.  She turned and trotted straight towards me bringing a stream of goats with her.

Goats coming first time 5 panels.png

“I need goats!”

At first Trixie was too worried to come all the way to me.  I clicked and treated Thanzi then turned and walked away from the group.

“I need goats!” They streamed towards me again.  Trixie was becoming braver.  Thanzi was always the first one to reach me, but now Trixie was coming up to get her treat.  When I turned to leave them, they followed behind me.  And when I called, they all came running and clustered around me while the two does got their treats.

Goats clustering around.png

Getting braver!

When I’m trying to teach a horse to be okay riding out by himself, there are times when I wish we hadn’t domesticated such a social animal, but watching as these goats came running towards me all as a group, I could definitely see the benefits of a herd species.

I could also see the benefits of a little preparation.  Without the connection that had been well established, Thanzi and Trixie might have spent their time in the arena keeping their babies as far away from me as possible.  Training – it’s a wonderful thing!

Goats going to far end of arena

goats coming 3 panels

Preparation let me become the Pied Piper of my little goat herd.

We saw another benefit of training when we brought the boys into the arena.  We set the mats out in a line at a distance from the mounting block.  The three of them would run to the mounting block, turn and race back to their mats.  When we first brought the three goats into the arena together, there was a lot of sparring.  Pellias and Elyan would drive Galahad away.  He was interfering with their play.  He was on the wrong mat – theirs, which ever one that was.  And he might just get one of their treats.

Now there was no head butting.  Not between Elyan and Pellias and not between the two of them and Galahad.  Even when they crossed paths, they just kept going without needing to spar.

Training it’s a wonderful thing!

Goats Pellias the acrobat.png

Play Time!

This past weekend I gave a clinic at Cindy Martin’s farm.  We worked with her yearling mule.  Rosie’s mom is a draft cross and her dad is a mammoth donkey, so Rosie is definitely not petite.  What she is is wonderfully endearing.  She is so very sweet.  And so wonderfully well mannered.  We played an early version of Panda catch with her.  All the participants stood in a circle around her.  Each person had a target.  One by one they held the target up and invited Rosie to approach.

Rosie targeting

Darling Rosie approaches a target. 

To keep things safe with so many people around her Rosie was on a lead.  Cindy handled her at first.  As the target was offered, Rosie walked confidently up to each person, ears forward, totally relaxed.  This was a completely new set up for her, but she had no worries about approaching people she didn’t know.  After getting her treat, Cindy asked her to back up.  At first, she was sticky.  Why leave?  As she caught onto the pattern, it was easier to ask her to back up.  Backing led to another opportunity to go to a target.

It’s a great lesson for teaching emotional balance.  Yes, you want to go to the target and the treats, but backing also produces lots of goodies, so leaving the person is okay.

The next day when we repeated the lesson, Rosie was eager to play.  Cindy started her, but I couldn’t resist having a play.  Rosie didn’t know me, but she was very accepting of a new handler.  She very quickly became super light.  A touch on the lead was all that was needed to initiate backing.  We’d back to the center of the circle, then Rosie would put those wonderful mule ears forward and off we’d go to the next target.

I directed people to shift their position on the circle.  Through a series of small weight shifts I asked Rosie to yield her hips.  That lined her up with the next person on the circle.  Each one of those weight shifts was clicked and treated so for Rosie a serious lesson remained a playful game.  Softening her neck and stepping under behind will let her handler interrupt her should she want to head off in a direction other than the one indicated.  It also lays the ground work for lateral work.

She was such a delight to work with.  Preparation!  It’s a wonderful thing.

That’s what Rosie and the goats were showing us.  Training usually feels as though you aren’t doing much of anything.  You’re teaching your young mule foal to follow a target. You’re calling your goats in from a play session.  Little things add up.  It isn’t just that you now have an animal that stays with you and responds to your cues.  What really stood out for me with all three of these groups – the does and their babies, Pellias, Elyan and Galahad, and now Rosie – was how solid they were emotionally.  Because of the training, they were able to handle changes in their environment.  The does became much more confident in the arena.  Their babies switched from being worried to being playful.  The boys could play without fighting, and Rosie could be a superstar learner.

Training.  It’s a wonderful thing.  Don’t leave home without it!

Rosie walking to a target

Good training.  It’s a wonderful thing!

Learning Fast!

Learning!  That’s what we’re born ready to do.  That’s what the baby goats are showing me.

Thanzi’s twins were born on Wednesday, March 21.  On Friday, March 23 I was on a plane heading to the Art and Science of Animal Training conference so I barely got to say more than hello to them.

At the conference I presented a new program on a very familiar topic – balance.  I had some great before and after photos showing how much a horse’s balance can be transformed just using the foundation lessons.  I also had some new videos showing how those changes were made.  You don’t need advanced skills and complex lessons.  You just need to direct your attention to your horse’s balance to make a huge difference for him.

By the time I got home, Thanzi’s twins had met Trixie’s triplets.  The two family groups were living and playing together in the front pen.  And it was still cold.  In fact it has continued to be cold even into April.  This morning when I looked out there was fresh snow on the ground!  Not much, but still it snowed overnight – and it’s April.  The cold limits how adventurous I want to be getting them out.  But it doesn’t limit their need for enrichment.  So every morning I have been building a new play ground for them to explore.

For Trixie’s triplets, their very first obstacles had been my outstretched legs as I sat with them in the hay.  They were determined to master climbing up and over.  And they delighted in trying to climb up onto my shoulder.  Patience, in particular, was determined to get to the top of the “mountain”, even if it meant stepping on Felicity who preferred to curl up in my lap.

Goats First Obstacles

Their next obstacles were blocks of wood, and then plastic jump blocks. Every day I gave them something new to explore, so for them novelty is something you play with, not run from.

When I got back from the Art and Science conference, both sets of babies were clearly ready for even greater challenges so their playground expanded.  My raw materials were a couple of two by fours, six plastic jump blocks, some odds and ends of wood, and three pieces of plywood.  It is amazing how many different ways you can set up these elements to create a fresh challenge every day.

I began with the two by fours elevated just a little way off the ground.  The goats were immediately testing out their balance.  They wobbled a couple steps along the boards, fell off, got back on again, got bumped off by another goat, fell off, got back on again.  A day later they weren’t wobbling any more.  They could very nimbly walk the plank.

Goats learning to walk the plank

The next morning I added the plywood, but I set it so it sloped from the two by fours to the ground.  The goats slipped and slid down the plywood.  The two by fours were yesterday’s game.  This new challenge had them crowding onto the plywood.  One would be trying to go up the down escalator.  Her feet would be scrambling as she slid inexorably back down the plywood.  Another would be sliding towards her.  They’d collide mid-way, fall off and be right back for another turn.  What resilient, eager learners!

Goats Adding a slide to the playground

Goats every day something newAs their skills increased, I raised the two by fours, and added a couple more props.  One day I made a loop so they could run along the two by fours, slide down to a lower level, bounce from there across a plywood plank to another jump block and from there scramble up another slide back to the two by fours.  They made lap after lap, always with the obstacle of another goat wanting to go in the opposite direction.  Head butting on the slide was the best.  The mornings routinely begin with laughter as we watch the goats play.

Goats the playground changes every day

Goats carboard boxes make great playgroundsLast weekend I shared the laughter with Caeli Collins, the organizer of the up-coming clinic in Half Moon Bay, California.  What a treat it was having Caeli visiting.  She attended the Art and Science conference then flew out last Wednesday to spend a few days enjoying goats and horses.

Caeli is an experienced clicker trainer.  When you are meeting a new group of animals, it is never clear what you’re going to work on.  Will they settle right in and show you the leading edge of what they know, or will they ask for some other lesson?  With the baby goats the goal was laughter.  That was easily provided.

With the older Clicker Center residents there were other important lessons to be explored.  Caeli was learning how to transfer her clicker training skills to animals (and species) she didn’t know.  And I was learning how to introduce the goats to someone new.

On the first day I opened the back gate into the boy’s section to let them out into the hallway while I fed.  They all poured out and raced to their stations.  That was before they realized there was someone new in the hallway.  I filled the hay feeders and then gave Caeli some hay stretcher pellets.  Pellias was willing to take a treat from Caeli, but not Elyan.  When I called the goats back into their enclosure, he scooted past her as fast as he could.  That was our baseline.

Day one was spent quietly letting the goats get to know Caeli.  She interacted with Elyan through the fence.  “Hmm.  This person knows how to play the clicker game.  Maybe she isn’t quite so scary after all!”

On day two they could both engage with her a little, and by day three I could step outside their pen and let Caeli train the goats on her own.  She worked with each one on targeting and platform training.  Pellias surprised her by deciding that after he got his treat from her, he should back up to the platform that was behind him.  And Elyan wanted to offer her his foot, something I had been working on a lot with both goats.

Goats Elyan working with Caeli

In addition to training time in the hallway, we took them into the arena so they could run around and play on the mounting block. And we went out for walks with them. We took advantage of one sunny, almost warm day to venture out on their longest walk yet, out into the back field.

And then there were the babies.  Every morning we set up a new playground for them.  As soon as we started moving pieces into place, they would be climbing all over them.  There was no worry, no concern over some new element we’d introduced.  These are confident, eager puzzle solvers, exactly what I want.  So our mornings started always with laughter.  Mixed into that was amazement over how fast they were learning.

Caeli also got to play with horses.  Robin and Fengur thought she was an entertaining guest, but mostly Caeli worked with the newest equine resident in the barn.  His name is Tonnerre.  He’s an eighteen year old, very pretty paint.  In his previous life he worked hard, and he has the stiffnesses and on-again-off-again lameness to show for it.

Through the winter the lameness has been more off than on, so I am hopeful that the microshaping gymnastics will help keep him comfortable.  That’s my main interest in having him at the barn.  I want to document the change in his body over time as he works more consistently with these lessons.

Last fall when he arrived, he really struggled to settle in.  For the first month or more the sessions were all about helping him not to panic when Marla took her mare into the arena.  For the first couple of weeks Marla had to spend most of her training time keeping Maggie in the barn aisle or just going into the arena briefly and then coming right back out again.  Thank goodness Marla was willing to play this game and had the skill to know how far and how fast to take Maggie out of sight.  Both horses were latching on to each other.  If we hadn’t spent the time to build their confidence that the other could go out of sight, we would today have two horses joined at the hip instead of two independent workers.

During those sessions Tonnerre was always loose.  He had his stall, outside run and part of the barnyard to move around in.  I had just pulled his shoes, and I didn’t want him doing a lot of frantic running back and forth.  So I stayed with him whenever Maggie was out and offered him the opportunity to target, to drop his head, and to back up, three very familiar behaviors.  He was able to stay with me, playing the clicker training game and only occasionally would he feel the need to break away and check on where she was.

Gradually, I was able to move away, engage with him less, and Marla was able to work her horse more normally.  It was very time intensive in the beginning, but definitely worth it to have both horses comfortable being out of sight of the other and able to work independently in the arena.

Tonnerre is proving to be an excellent student.  He’s always eager for his training sessions, but he’s not so sure about the goats.  He hasn’t quite come to terms with the strange sounds that come from that side of the arena.  When they are playing, goats make a lot of noise!

The first time he was in the arena with Caeli, they were just making the occasional banging sounds, but the wind was blowing hard. And of all things a squirrel decided to jump into the arena and run up a post into the rafters.

Tonnerre didn’t know Caeli, but he did know this was a scary day.  He wanted back into the barn away from all these strange noises and alarming creatures.  He was at liberty.  The door back to the barn aisle was open, so that’s where he went.  We had our baseline.  Relationship matters.

So we back tracked through his training, letting Caeli and Tonnerre get to know one another through the structure of the foundation lessons and in an environment where he was more comfortable.  It is always: “Train where you can, not where you can’t.”

And it is: “Go to a place in the training where you can get a consistent yes answer and proceed from there.”

Caeli could get a consistent yes answer in the barn aisle which then became a consistent and much more relaxed yes answer when she returned to the arena. Often the most important lessons come not from the fancy “stuff” a horse can show you, but from the simple things applied well.

Caeli and Tonnerre

At the Art and Science conference I talked about balance.  The baby goats are learning fast about physical balance.  When I turned the older goats and Tonnerre over to Caeli, the focus was very much on emotional balance.   Both are part of a complete picture.

I’d like Tonnerre and the goats to be good teachers even for novice clicker trainers.  Caeli was helping them make that leap to being comfortable with people they don’t know.  Her visit showed me that they will all be great co-teachers for anyone who wants to sharpen their clicker training skills – and enjoy some laughter along with it.

I made a short video of our daily play ground for the youngsters.  Enjoy!

 

Caeli wrote a wonderful post about her visit which I am including here.  It is fun to read about the same event from two different perspectives.  And Caeli added in her visit to Ann and Panda – always a treat.

A visit to Alex’s (long) – written by Caeli Collins and posted in The Click That Teaches facebook group April 7, 2018.

I spent four wonderful days with Alexandra Kurland at her barn in Albany just about a week ago. The goat babies were better than a movie, providing endless entertainment as they bounced around. Alex and Marla Foreman built new puzzles for them on a daily basis and they just kept bouncing to the challenge – walking a 2×4, turning a slanted board into a sliding contest, and chewing any clothing we didn’t quickly redirect. We decided a YouTube channel streaming baby goat antics would be a huge stress buster. Trixie and Thanzi are good moms and have amazing patience with them.

That was the several-times-a-day funfest. I also got to meet Ann and Panda, and go for a walk with them. Ann and Panda walk out! They walk faster than Sebastian and I doing in-hand trot work. But what I was really, really blown away by was Panda’s decision-making abilities. She watches for unevenness in the road, driveways, changes in slope, finds the crosswalk buttons, moves over for cars and more. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another thing to see it in person. They are an amazing pair.

All of this was wonderful, but I was really there to expand my training knowledge and practice, which was so much fun. The boy goats (Pellias, Galahad and Elyan) and a horse named Tonnerre contributed to my education. Tonnerre is new to Alex’s barn since the fall, and is in long-term training with her to be a clicker training school horse (he’s the very good looking paint in the pictures). Alex has been working with him for some time.

My breadth of training is not wide – I work with my horse, Sebastian, and my dogs, but I’ve been a practicing and committed clicker trainer for about seven or eight years. I’m not a novice, but I’m also not a professional. For those of you who don’t know me, I organize and host Alex’s clinic in Half Moon Bay, CA, which is coming in three short weeks.

I learned so much. More than I ever hoped for. For me, it wasn’t about how do I teach shoulder-in or half-pass, it was how can I take what I know and use it with other animals as well as do better with my own. How do I make good decisions about what to work on with a different horse, or a different species. And with the help of Alex and the kindly animals at the barn, I have started on the building blocks to do this.

Here are some of the things I learned:

• Training begins with a relationship. If you are working with an animal you don’t know, you have to get to know each other. It’s that first date feeling, where everything feels a little (or a lot) awkward. And the less experience you have with the species the longer that might take
• Species appropriate foundation lessons are so important. The ones we use with the horses help them establish self-control and give them a measure of control over their learning. All animals deserve that
• Goats are really, really fast. Their heads can go in circles, and it’s very distracting. If I focused on what I was working on, and ignored the bits that don’t contribute I could get past this, but it was sooooo easy to get drawn in. I can see where this is true for my dog and my horse as well.
• Unexpected things happen. Really, they do! Can I be flexible enough to make the learner right? Pellias hit me with one – we were doing a bit of off leash practice and I was feeding where I wanted him to be (by my side) and he turned that into backing to the mat! It was funny and clickable and oh so not what I was thinking, but worth every bit of the click. And that became our routine in that spot, and I learned to take what was offered
• Food delivery is so, so important. The poor goats. Until I got consistent at putting the food where the perfect goat would be, the heads were twisting sideways to get it. But very much like the horses, the right food delivery moved them out of my space and set up the next cue, and calmed some of the frenetic activity down. The food delivery was predictable. It was very cool, and helped establish rhythm and stability

Tonnerre really helped me understand the importance of relationships. He was part of all that I learned, but deserves a few words of his own. Tonnerre can be safely handled, but he was pretty indifferent to anyone but Alex when we started. Alex suggested just grooming him while we got to know each other. There was no ear pinning or any overt aggression but he did grind his teeth. That became my cue that whatever we were currently doing was too much for him. So move to something else, or stop. Mats in the aisle, targets, the pose, walking from mat to mat, targeting while working in protective contact, mats and cones in the arena were all available. Working in the arena was too much, too early, and between a squirrel and noise from the goats he left – back to his stall. But the good news is that he had the choice to leave. Isn’t that cool? How often are our learners given the ability to say “sessions over, I’m done?”

Tonnerre reminds me of Sebastian, only kinder. He responded to short sessions of things he knew and we could expand on those. Alex could coach me on how to work with him, and we both could learn to work with someone new. Since Sebastian started out similar to Tonnere in his opinion of people, only more overt in expressing it, it wasn’t unfamiliar territory to either of us. And now I have better skills to deal with it (however did Sebastian and I survive those early days of clicker training?) and I had Alex there every day to help. And nothing but admiration for how Alex deals with the strange horses she’s presented with at every clinic.

And there you have it. Sorry for the length but it was an amazing, wonderful experience. This write-up was very worthwhile for me – it helped imprint the four days. And there is one other great thing – sitting there with Alex dissecting things over tea, while we took a break.

If you are interested in exploring this for yourself, Alex is doing private/small group sessions at the barn, so please contact her directly. It is amazing, and I highly, highly recommend it. And I can’t thank Alex enough for the opportunity. If I can figure out a way, I will be back.

Caeli Collins

March Discoveries

March is slipping away fast and I have not yet written this month’s celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  It’s been a jammed packed month.  The Clicker Expo and the Art and Science of Animal Training conferences were back to back this year.  Both conferences become endurance tests because I can’t resist the late night conversations with the other faculty members.  We typically don’t stop until one or two in the morning, and then only because we know we have presentations to give the next day.

For most of the month I had the added endurance test of night checks on the goats while I waited for Trixie and Thanzi to give birth.

Prepping for the conferences would have been enough to fill this month, but I also added the launching of the new Equiosity podcast with Dominique Day.

Episode 3 just went live yesterday.  The conferences are done, the goats are all doing great, so finally I can write my thank you to the people who helped open the doors to these great adventures.

It’s always a challenge to pick one person out of the many hundreds who have played principle roles in bringing clicker training so actively into the horse community.   This is the last day in March.  Spring is coming which means the clinic season is about start up again.  So it seemed like a good choice to celebrate the clinics and the many organizers and attendees.  I couldn’t possibly list all the names.  I’d be bound to leave someone out, so instead I am going to thank just one person, Kate Graham who, along with Lin Sweeney, for years hosted the Groton New York clinics.

I’m choosing Kate for two reasons.  One, the Groton clinics were one of my first clicker training clinics, and the first that turned into a recurring event.  Two or three times a year we would gather in Lin’s living room for the start of a great weekend.  Many people who became very instrumental in helping to expand clicker training were regulars at these clinics.

My main memory of the first Groton clinic was not of horses but of snow.  Saturday night we went out to dinner as a group.  We drove through near white out conditions to get to the restaurant.  In spite of the cold weather that weekend people were hooked.  We’d just scratched the surface of what is possible.  None of the horses in that first clinic had any clicker training experience so most of the training involved basic targeting.  But even so people were excited by the changes they were seeing in their horses.

I will always be grateful to Kate and Lin for saying – “Let’s do this again!”  If I had spent all my travel time just giving start-up clinics, I would never have been able to take clicker training past the basics of simple targeting.  My own horses would have known the joys of beautiful balance and all the other great gifts that clicker training brings us, but I wouldn’t have been able to share it with others through the clinics.  Instead clinic by clinic we moved the work forward.

We had a core group of regular attendees which meant I got to see horses advance through the stair steps of the training.  Katie Bartlett was among this group.  I got to see her senior horse, Willy, turn into a clicker super star, and then I watched her young Dutch warmblood, Rosie, develop from gawky youngster into a beautiful riding horse.

One of Lin Sweeney’s horses, a standardbred named Button, became a school horse for clinic attendees. Button became a super teacher for anyone who wanted to learn about lateral flexions. And then there was Lucky, Kate’s horse.

Lucky is the second reason for saying thank you to Kate.  Watching the two of them together always made me smile.  Lucky was a Connemara cross (or so Kate was told.)  He started with that all too usual story.  The first time Kate rode him after she bought him, Lucky spun and bolted as she was getting on him.  Kate fell off and broke her ankle.

To get him to the point where he could be ridden safely Kate looked at John Lyons’ work.  She found one of his instructors living within driving distance in Canada.  She helped her enormously.  When I first met Lucky, Kate could ride him, but he was incredibly wiggly.  Straight lines were not in his riding vocabulary.

I knew about that stage from my own exploration of single-rein riding.  Teaching a horse to be soft is done through lots of bending into lateral flexions.  Your horse now feels wonderfully light.  He is safe to ride.  You don’t have to worry about the spooking or the bolting off.  Those terrors are now a thing of the past, but your rides seem to be mostly about going in small circles.  Lyons knew how to sort out all this bending for his own horses, but he was just beginning to figure out how to teach it to others.  So Lucky was stuck in the stage where going in circles and wiggly lines was the norm.

I had also studied Lyons work and was familiar with the single-rein riding, so I understood what Kate was working on with Lucky.  Peregrine had taught me how to insert clicker training into the process which dramatically changed the conversation.

With Lucky we began on the ground, first with the basics of targeting and the other foundation lessons.  In 1998 I was focused on three foundation lessons, targeting, backing and head lowering.  It was through the clinic process that I expanded the list to six.  The other three behaviors had always been something I taught, but I hadn’t yet understood how universally important they were.

What did the clinics add to the list?  Standing on a mat, “happy faces”, and the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.  Grown-ups gives us a base position, a calm settled launching point to balance out all the more active behaviors we ask for.  It simply means that your horse is standing beside you in his own space with his head oriented evenly between his shoulders so he’s looking straight ahead.  He’s not doing all the “I don’t want my horse to . . . ” behaviors, such as mugging your pockets or crowding into your space.  Grown-ups begins the process of focusing on what you want your horse TO DO, instead of the unwanted behavior.  So it is as much for the handler as it is for the horse.

I gave it that long, somewhat cumbersome name because I wanted to make it clear to people who were peeking in at clicker training that we may be using food, but we are not permissive trainers.  Our horses have good manners.

Getting a horse to stand still beside you can be a challenging behavior to teach well.  It’s easy for force-based trainers.  You simply say to your horse – move and I’ll hurt you.  Say it with conviction, back it up with action, and your horse will stand still until you tell him to move.

In clicker training we are taking away the threat of enforcement.  Instead we reinforce behaving.  Horses get reinforced for offering behavior.  Standing still is very much a behavior.  Getting to a point where your horse will stand still long enough for the grown-ups to truly have a conversation takes time to build.  You have to convince your horse that all those other charming behaviors that you’ve been teaching him – lifting his feet, walking off into lateral work, picking up your grooming brushes, backing up, rushing off to find a mat, etc. none of these things are what you want right now.  Standing quietly beside you is what will get you to click and hand him a treat.

So grown-ups lets you discover how to build duration.  It introduces cues and stimulus control.  It shows you how to balance one behavior with another, and how to expand a simple stand-beside-me behavior in many different directions – from neutral balance into the pilates pose, and from simple duration into solid ground tying.  Through the process it also shows you how the behaviors you are teaching become transformed into conditioned reinforcers which can then be used to help support other newer behaviors.

The clinic horses were helping me to see connections.  I was discovering things about these foundation behaviors that working with my own horses had not yet revealed.  They were showing me details that are now embedded into the core teaching.  They helped make clicker training better, more universally applicable, and so much more fun!

Lucky loved clicker training.  And even more he loved Kate.  Watching the two of them together was always a highlight of the Groton clinics.  It wasn’t just that Lucky was beautiful – which he was.  With each clinic he became more and more suspended, and more and more stunning to watch.  He was a head turner for sure.  But what made Lucky stand out was his sense of humor.  He and Kate laughed their way through every training session.  They never worked on anything I shared with them.  For them it was always play.

That’s the joy they shared and that I have been lucky enough to share with others.  Thank you Kate!  And thank you to all the other clinic organizers.  You played an important role in planting the seed of clicker training.  Look how it is growing now!

Lucky-canter-for-web

This is one of my favorite photos.  Lucky is cantering beside Kate.  I love the canter in hand.  Kate is walking.  She’s not running to try to keep up with a cantering horse.  Instead Lucky is staying beautifully connected to her so she can walk beside him with her hand on his neck.  Talk about an addicting sensation!   You can feel all the power of your horse, and all the control.  It is magnificence itself, an experience like no other, especially when you know that your horse is offering you this connection, not because he has to but because he joyously seeks it out.

Every time I look at this picture I smile.  It represents so many of the good things clicker training can give us: laughter, fun, a great connection with our horses, an opportunity to explore – and succeed in training advanced performance skills, beautiful balance, and most important of all – a happy horse.

Thank you Kate and Lucky, and thank you to all the other clinic organizers.  Your desire to bring clicker training solidly into your own area has helped to build a world-wide clicker training community.