Anniversaries

I’m beginning this post on October 27.  Who knows when I will actually get it done and published, but the beginning date is important.  All year I have been writing thank yous to the many people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse community.

Obviously I can’t thank each and every person.  There are too many of you, and I would be bound to forget someone.  I would hate to create a long list and then hurt someone’s feelings through an omission of error.  So I will send out a general, and most heartfelt thank you to everyone who has given clicker training a try, found it to your liking, and made it part of your life.

I have chosen October 27 to begin this post because it marks two special events.  On October 27, 1968 I became a horse owner for the very first time.  Since that day I have never been without a horse in my life.  And on October 27, 1998 I received a package in the mail.  It was an advance copy of my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, sent to me by my publisher, Sunshine Books, Karen Pryor’s company.

So I’m going to say thank you to my first horse because in so many ways he transformed me from a rider into a trainer.  I didn’t know at the time all the good things he would be bringing me.  When we first started out together, it was anything but good.  He was a totally unsuitable horse for a child, but I never said anything to my parents.  I was afraid if they knew how dangerous he was, they might send him back to his previous owner, and that would be the end of having my own horse.

I met his previous owner only once, on the day I tried the horse he was selling.  He was a large, overweight man.  He probably weighed over two hundred pounds.  He rode in a western bit with a long shank so when he pulled back he could exert a tremendous amount of force.  He liked to go trail riding – at speed.  He was one of those riders who got on and took off at a gallop and didn’t stop until he was back home.

So it was no wonder that the first time I rode my new horse out of a ring he took off at a gallop.  I’d only had him two days.  I had been riding in a small ring just outside the barn.  For some reason that made sense to her, the owner of the boarding barn told me to take him out of the ring.  Since he was there for a week’s trial, maybe she thought I should be doing more with him.

“You need to ride him out in the field” she declared.  I listened.  I took him out into a hay field that had an oval track cut into the grass.  At the far end of the track he took off at a gallop.

I was no match for him.  There was no way I could pull back with the force of his previous owner.  I tried to stop him but my feeble attempts made no dent in his determination to get back to the barn.  I’d been told when you want to stop a horse you pull back.  That’s what I was doing, but it had no effect.  As we galloped across the hay field, I remember shouting at him – “You’re supposed to have stopped by now!”  I really did!  It made no difference.

He didn’t stop until he was back inside the barn standing in his stall – which thankfully was on a straight line in from the barn door.  It was feeding time, so of course he wanted to get back, and I couldn’t stop him.

I lost track of the number of times he bolted with me after that.  His favorite and most terrifying “trick” was to run straight at a tree and only at the last second to duck to the side.  Sometimes I managed to stay on.  Often I fell off, but I always got back on and kept trying to stop him.  We eventually worked out a truce, and we were able to ride together at a pace that was more to my liking.  He was wonderfully sure footed so trail riding was fun.  He was one of those horses that you pointed in the general direction of where you wanted to go and then let him find the best way.  He was fearless riding out.  I don’t remember him ever spooking at anything.  It was just the bolting for home that was unnerving.

I can’t tell you how many times I got so frustrated with him that I almost gave up.  Almost, but never totally.  I don’t really know what finally made the difference.  I think it was simply that we gradually built a relationship.  He never showed much affection, and he was a hard horse to love.  I don’t think he expected people to be kind so he kept his true self very much hidden.  Now that I have seen how expressive horses can be, the contrast seems all the greater.

In the spring of my last year of high school he became lame.  It was one of those subtle, on-again-off-again lamenesses.  The vet diagnosed him with navicular disease.  Today we would say he had heel pain, and we would change the way he was trimmed.  But at that time changes in the navicular bone meant a diagnosis of permanent lameness.  I was delighted.  It meant that I wouldn’t have to sell my horse when I went away to school.  You couldn’t ethically sell a lame horse, so all through my years at Cornell I supported my horse.

I couldn’t take him to school with me, nor could he stay at the boarding barn without anyone to look after him, so he went to live with a family who had room for another horse.  I was lucky to find him such a good home.  He lived in retirement with them for seventeen years.  He finally passed away at the grand old age of 33.

I’ve never followed norms.  It’s the norm in the horse world to discard horses that are too lame or too old to ride.  This has always bothered me.  We have a responsibility to see to our horses’ lifelong care.  I feel as though I have earned the right to stand on the soap box that says people need to take care of their older horses.  As a student at Cornell, my budget was already tight.  Stretching it to cover my horse’s expenses made it tighter still.  I’m sure there would have been many people who would have sent him off to an auction and been done with him, but every month I wrote out a check to cover his expenses.  And every time I was home, I went up to visit him.

He was becoming so much more affectionate.  It was as though I had been a bridge between his old life and this new one.  We had struggled together.  When he bolted off with me, the adults at the boarding barn told me I needed to get after him, to punish him.

He had scared me.  When he came to a stop after one of his flat-out gallops, hitting him with the ends of my western reins was easy.  It changed nothing.  He kept bolting, but in the moment it did feel good.  Oh that slippery slope called punishment – it can be so reinforcing to the punisher.  Somehow I recognized that and managed to stop.  Punishing him wasn’t the answer.  Persistence was.  And now that he was in a quiet place being cared for by kind people, he was becoming trusting enough to show affection.

But I thought I was done with horses.  I know – that’s a surprise considering how completely they have been in my life.  He had not been an easy or fun horse to own.  I was heading off in a different direction, one that didn’t include horses.  But shortly after graduation, I got a call from the person who was caring for him.  He was showing signs of heaves, and she wanted to let me know.  I’d heard of heaves.  I knew vaguely what that meant, but I needed to know more.  So I got a book from the library on horses.  I read the short section that described heaves and then kept on reading.  That was my undoing.

When I started reading the chapter on raising foals, I thought I could do that.  By the time I had turned the final page I had switched from I could do that to I want to do that.  The overwhelming addiction to horses was reawakened.  I could think of nothing else. But I didn’t jump in right away.  I read everything I could get my hands on about horses, and I began taking lessons – English lessons from a very skilled horseman.  And I began to search for my foal.  I was going to have a horse I raised myself.  Only I wasn’t going to use all those harsh techniques that surrounded me in the horse world.

I was taking lessons at a hunter/jumper barn.  The instructor bought cheap thoroughbreds off the track and put them into his lesson string.  He was one of those riders who could get on an agitated horse and in minutes have it settled.  He couldn’t teach what he he did, but it was impressive to watch.  He had no physical fear on a horse, and he didn’t understand that anyone else might.  He thought that he needed to get people jumping as quickly as possible or they would get bored and go away.  Mostly that meant people got injured and went away.

I wasn’t yet balance obsessed, but I knew enough to know that I wasn’t ready to jump.  I took charge of my lessons.  I insisted on working primarily on the flat.  I thought it was more important to learn how to get to a jump in good balance than it was to go over it.  I jumped in the weekly group lessons, but in the private lessons I added in I took charge of what we worked on.  It helped that I had ridden before and had my own horse.  I asked endless questions.  He wasn’t used to this kind of riding student, but it meant I was learning what I needed.  I had to be ready for the foal I was going to raise.  Of course, he tried to talk me out of starting with a baby.  I heard all about green on green, but I was determined.  The hunt was on!

I was still supporting my first horse.  Adding a second horse was going to stretch my budget even tighter.  When I found her, my beautiful thoroughbred yearling, I wasn’t sure if I could really afford her.  I kept going over the numbers.  If I gave up this, if I cut back on that, could I stretch things enough to get her?   No matter how many times I tried to balance my budget, the numbers kept coming up short.  But I had to get her.  When I finally said yes, it was a real leap of faith that things would work out.  And somehow they did.

I get often get emails from people saying they are on a tight budget.  I totally understand.  I remember when videos first came out being really excited.  Here was a way to expand my knowledge even more.  The very first video I ever bought cost $89.  That was a huge stretch of the budget for me.  The video was a disappointment.  It was a simplistic overview that had no depth to it.  It was something you watched once and never needed to see again.  What a waste of precious dollars.

That’s why I have always been determined to pack as much as I can into all the books and videos I have produced.  They contain layer upon layer of information.  You can return to them many times and always find new things in them.  I want to give good value for money.  If you are on a tight budget, I still want you to be able to access good information.  And I want you to have an alternative to the force-based training that is so prevalent in the horse world.

In those early days the books I was reading didn’t help me to know how to train.  If anything, they taught me more about what NOT to do.  They were filled with advice on how to be a better punisher.  That wasn’t what I was looking for.

I had already had my first great teacher – my first horse.  I began by learning from him what I didn’t want.  In the years to come I was going to have many more lessons in patience and persistence.  I moved from knowing what I didn’t want to breaking lessons down into very small steps.  I learned about consistency and focus.  I learned to choose kindness over force.  My horses prepared me well so that when I finally stumbled across clicker training, it made perfect sense to me.  It was a good fit.  I was ready for Peregrine to teach me about this new way of training.

In this year of celebration I have thanked many people, but on this day I am thanking my horses.  It truly is my horses, my teachers.  I am so very grateful to them.   They have carried me across many stepping stones to what I have today – a deep and loving connection with my horses.  And I am delighted to be able to share what they have been teaching me with all of you.  We don’t have to listen to the people who are telling us to get tougher.  Our horses are showing us a different way, a way they understand and want us to know about.

Have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

Do It Differently

It was bound to happen.  At the start of this year I said every month this year I was going to use this blog to write a thank you to some of the many people who helped bring clicker training into the horse community.  This is my way of marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for Your Horse”.  Sometimes it was just by a whisker, but I managed to get this done every month – except August.  I will blame the extreme heat that slowed me down to a snail’s pace.

I can’t blame my travel schedule because I travel every month.  August was no exception.  I was out in Washington State at Ken Ramirez’s Ranch for his “Animal Training for Professionals” course.  For twenty years he taught this as a semester long course at the University of Illinois.  He also taught a concentrated week-long version of the course at the Shedd Aquarium.  Most of the time is spent in the classroom but twice a day students get to have some animal time.  For the week-long course at the Shedd attendees got to watch the trainers working with animals.  At the Ranch attendees get hands-on experience working with goats, miniature donkeys and alpacas.

IMG_5425 Ken Ramirez with alpacas

Ken Ramirez with his alpacas

For this course I got to be Ken’s assistant which was a great fun, especially since most of the training sessions involved his herd of dairy goats.  I enjoyed very much seeing what Ken was teaching his herd of clicker-trained goats – what was a match up with what I was teaching my goats and what were some good ideas to take back to them?  It was also very interesting to see how Ken structured the course.  What did he put in his foundation?  What stair steps did he use to take people into the more advanced aspects of training?

Ken Ramirez teaching husbandry behaviorsOn the third day Ken focused on husbandry, especially as it relates to medical care.  He is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject.  Both at the Shedd and through his consulting work, he has overseen the teaching of cooperative husbandry procedures not just to more animals than most of us will ever handle in a lifetime, but to more species as well.

Ken’s basic strategy can be summed up in a very simple phrase: do it differently.  Every day in your training you should be practicing some form of husbandry skills, but the key to success is don’t try to mimic a procedure someone else is going to be doing.  Your touch is going to be different, so even if you try to make everything the same as the real thing – you won’t succeed.  And besides, you don’t know what you are preparing your animal for.  Is it to stand quietly while you doctor a wire cut on your horse’s leg, or to put eye drops into an infected eye?  We don’t have crystal balls that can tell us what medical procedures our horses will need to tolerate.  X-rays might be standard, and certainly shots, but beyond that what are you preparing your animal for?

So Ken says do it differently.  Get your animal accustomed not just to being touched all over his body, but to being touched in different ways.

Do it differently also applies to getting an animal comfortable with changes in the environment.  Every day introduce some change, something different.  You aren’t trying to scare your horse.  You just want him to get used to the idea that change happens and it’s nothing to worry about.

Do it differently is a great life metaphor.  Sometimes we need to follow the rules, to do things the way “they have always been done” because the way they have always been done works.  The motto here would be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But even if it “ain’t broke”, can it be better?  Are we stuck in a rut just mindlessly copying what has been done before?  Horses have been trained for thousands of years.  On the surface the training that I learned from experienced horse trainers didn’t appear to be broken.  They could get on and ride their horses.  They could make them jump and cross scary streams.  They could make them go where they wanted.

“Make” was the operant word.  The end result could be very appealing, but if you scratched too far below the surface, you discovered a very broken system.  It was littered with discarded horses and far too many frightened would-be riders.  Something needed to change.

I was very lucky to be learning about horse training at a time when two very important change makers were shaking up the horse world.  One was Sally Swift who brought the Alexander technique into the horse world and changed the way riding was taught in the United States. Sally came regularly into my area so I was very fortunate to have been able to attend many of her workshops.

The other change maker was Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of T.E.A.M. training (Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Method).  Through Linda the horse world was introduced to the Feldenkrais work.  Early on I encountered T.E.A.M. training through a magazine article.  In it Linda described the body work she had developed, including the T.E.A.M. circles.

Peregrine’s mother was a wobbler.  She had a spinal cord injury that impaired her balance and made her very body defensive.  When she was a yearling, if I tried to touch her anywhere, I was met with gnashing teeth and pinned ears.  Her whole body couldn’t hurt, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong because she wouldn’t let me in to ask questions.

I was reading everything and anything related to horses, and I was eager to learn.  These funny T.E.A.M. circles Linda was describing sounded intriguing.  I tried them on my mare and her world changed.  In minutes her eyes had grown soft.  Her head was drooping.  She was letting me in all over her body – except in one area around her right shoulder.  That was where the pain was.  For the first time she could relax enough to let me know what was wrong.

Within a few weeks I was on an airplane headed to the mid-west to attend a workshop Linda was giving.  I had to learn more!

That was the first of my many travels for horses.  At first I was traveling to learn, and then I was traveling to teach (which really means to learn even more!)

At one of the T.E.A.M. workshops Linda was letting us experience for ourselves the T.E.A.M. body work.  She let me feel one version of the T.E.A.M. circles, and then she did it another way.  She had her hand on my back so I couldn’t see what she was doing, but, oh my goodness!  It felt so very different!

I turned to face her.  “What did you do!?”

Her answer meant nothing to me.  “I breathed up through my feet.”

Now I’ve been trained in the biological sciences.  I’ve studied anatomy and physiology.  I’ve done dissections.  I know we breathe through our lungs, not our feet.  And beside, I had hay fever when I was little.  I was constantly congested.  Even breathing through my lungs felt like a foreign notion.  My breath got clogged somewhere at the top of my chest.

But I knew that breathing up from her feet meant something to Linda, so I went in search of the translation to that phrase.  One of the teachers I found lived in my area. She had a horse with a hard-to-diagnose lameness.  She contacted me to see if I could help her with him.  It turns out that the lateral work I was learning helped enormously.  When he carried himself in good balance, there was no sign of the lameness.

His owner, Marge Cartwright, was an Alexander practitioner, and she had also studied the Feldenkrais work.  So we ended up doing trades.  I worked with her horse to help him to be sounder, and she worked with me. Overtime I learned not only what it means to breath up through my feet, but to breathe up from the ground.  Learning that changed how horses relate to me.  It isn’t magic.  It isn’t some mystical gift of a horse whisperer.  It is simply the systematic unblocking of tension.  One metaphor that I love is the shining of a light on the dark places.  These are the places where movement become stuck, and we hide from ourselves the reasons for the stiffness.  This image comes via Anita Schnee, a Feldenkrais practitioner and regular attendee at the clinics I give at Cindy Martin’s farm near Fayetteville Arkansas.

The work Marge shared with me stands as one of the central pillars of what I teach today.  It is woven into every lesson both the ones that I give directly to horses and the lessons that I teach to their handlers.  Unless you live in my area and had the good fortune to learn from Marge, you won’t know her name.  But I owe her a huge thank you for enriching my life beyond measure.  Her work is woven into what I mean by equine clicker training.  If you have participated in a body awareness lesson at one of my clinics, you have been the direct beneficiary of her work. If you have thought about your own balance as you feed your horse a treat, that’s Marge’s influence again.  If you are learning about school figures – circles, lateral work, diagonals, etc. – by walking them without your horse, Marge has a hand in that, as well.

An awareness of balance, no much more than that – an appreciation for balance, an understanding that balance and soundness go hand-in-hand is something that I explored with Marge.

Clicker training for horses might have been little more than the teaching of tricks if it weren’t for this fascination and appreciation for balance.  Instead clicker training is a complex, wonderfully rich and diverse training system that can meet all needs. It includes the fun of tricks, but it doesn’t stop there.  The central core, the pillar that supports everything else is balance.

So thank you Marge for sharing your work so generously.  When you suggested we trade services, I’m sure you had no idea the ripple you were about to set into motion.  You helped make clicker training so much more than simply the pairing of a marker signal with treats.  What we teach and how we teach have become woven together to create a magnificent whole new way of doing things.  We dared to to it differently and look what grew out of it!

Thank you!

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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!