Imagine you are riding your horse towards an enormous brick wall. There will be a few horses who are athletic enough and riders who are skilled enough to go directly over the wall. If they’re successful, that will tempt them to take the next horse straight over, and the next. And it will also tempt them to make the wall ever higher. Eventually they will either make the wall so high no horse can jump it, or they will try and force a horse over the wall who truly can’t make it. Either way, eventually they will crash.
If you lower that fence, more horses and more riders will be able to jump it successfully, but there will still be some who can’t. They either lack the physical ability, the skills or the confidence to jump it.
Lower it a bit more and some who couldn’t jump it before will now be successful. Turn it into a cross rail and more will manage it, but you will still have some individuals who can’t manage even a small jump. You may have to turn it into a ground pole, or draw a line in the dirt – or you may need to find a way to go around the jump altogether rather than over it.
When I’m confronted by a “brick wall” of a behavioral problem, I prefer either to find a way around it, or to dismantle it so I only have to ask my horse to go over a few small bricks. If you pull enough layers off the brick wall, you will eventually get to the point where every horse and every handler can be successful.
Peregrine’s mother taught me this. She was bred to be a racehorse. The trainer who had her kept a small string of racehorses and broodmares in addition to his jumpers. If I hadn’t stepped into her life, she would have ended up at the track – at least that was the goal. Given the injuries she sustained in the name of training, she never would have made it that far.
Racehorses take baths, so as a weanling it was expected that she would take baths. The assignment of teaching her about hoses was turned over to a teenager who took her straight out and tried to give her a bath. The result was predictable. She reared up and struck out at his head.
He never managed to give her a bath, but he did make everyone believe she was a “witch”, a nasty horse you didn’t want to get close to. Interesting how it is the horse who takes the blame for our bad training.
He also created in her a lasting fear of hoses. When I started working with her a few months later, I could not take her directly down the barn aisle and out into the arena because it meant walking over the hose that was used to fill water buckets. When I wanted to go into the arena, I had to take her out through the back which meant climbing over the shavings pile so we could get in by the back gate.
I’m sure the trainer would have had a different solution. He would have “made” her comply. There would have been a fight, and in the end she would have walked over the hose. She would still have been afraid of it, but she would have learned that she had no choice.
I was a very green handler. I knew I didn’t have the skills to get into this kind of a fight, so I used a different approach. I have always said I did some of my best training when I knew the very least. All I had was patience and persistence, and I put those to good use.
Every night I would take her out of her stall and tie her to the aisle rail so I could groom her. Tying was something she had already learned how to do so it was safe to use. I began about twenty feet away from the hose. When we were done, I would turn her away from the hose and walk the long way around into the arena. Each night I tied her a little closer to the hose, but always we turned and walked away from it. I never confronted her with it.
We finally got to the point where she could be tied right beside the hose, and she would stand quietly throughout her grooming session without seeming to worry about it. One night instead of turning away, I asked her to follow me over it. She did so without hesitation. And after that, she always followed me wherever I asked her to go.
I didn’t try to plow over the brick wall. I found a way to dismantle it brick by brick until she was ready to cross over it.
She discovered she could walk over hoses without fear. More than that, she now understood that she could trust me to take care of her.
I wasn’t expecting this larger result. I simply wanted to find a non-confrontational way to help her understand that hoses were harmless. In the process I showed her how I could be trusted to behave. I could be counted on to be consistent and to be on her side. I wasn’t going to be petting her one moment and beating her the next.
One of the many things that you learn from horse training is the longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you’ll find that it gives you. Focus on some little achievable piece of the training, something you and your horse can accomplish together, and all kinds of other good and often unexpected results will emerge out of it.
This small step over a garden hose was one of the many steps that led me to clicker training. When we clicker train we dismantle the brick walls, and we find ways for all of our horses to succeed. This is one of the many gifts Peregrine and his mother gave me.
Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine. You helped teach me the gift of small steps. That was a great gift indeed.