Today’s Peregrine Story: #11 What Good Trainers Have in Common

I have watched and learned good things from force-based trainers. How am I defining force-based training? This is training that is backed up with a do it or else threat of escalating pressure. The trainer applies light pressure. If the horse complies, the pressure is released and all is well. If the horse fails to respond, the pressure increases until the horse gives a correct response. The more the horse resists, the greater the pressure becomes.

A skilled trainer using these methods can look unbelievably light. Raise an eyebrow and the horse backs up twenty feet. The final result is very impressive and compelling. How magical. Of course we want that. But it is like a magician’s illusion, all built out of slight of hand. We need to remember that the reason the horse backs up for that raised eyebrow is because he knows that if he doesn’t, the subtle directive will turn into the sharp crack of a whip. The threat is always there even if the audience fails to see it.

I make this sound unbelievably harsh, but good force-based trainers can create good results and end up with eager, happy horses. Good trainers no matter what methods they use share many of the same characteristics.

Good trainers are splitters. They break their lessons down into many small steps. If you are a force-based trainer and you are heading straight for the towering brick wall, you will end up in a fight. But if you tear that wall down and build it up brick by brick, layer by layer – in other words if you are a good teacher – then the amount of do-it-or-else pressure you will be adding at any one step will be small. You will be building confidence in your learner that he can succeed. He can figure out what you want, and he can do it.

If your small steps are accompanied by good timing, your requests will be clear and fair. You will truly be working for the good of the horse. Safety will be built into your training, and you will be a trainer I can watch and learn from.

It is important to make these distinctions and not put all the eggs into the same basket. It’s only the rotten eggs that need to be left out.

When we see training that violates safety, we need to speak out. It can be hard. Punishers are good at punishing. And they will all tell you it is for the good of the horse.

But good trainers know there is always another way to train everything. If I am working with someone who isn’t comfortable with one of the choices I’ve made for their horse, I’ll change the lesson plan. There is ALWAYS another way to teach what we are after.

If you are working with a trainer who tells you that lassoing the horse’s hind leg to get it over it’s fear of shots is the way to go, it’s okay for you to say you aren’t comfortable with that method – it isn’t safe for your horse and to please find a different way. A good trainer won’t belittle you or make you feel bad. A good trainer will listen to your concerns for your horse’s welfare. A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse. And a good trainer will find another way. There is ALWAYS another way.

That wasn’t what I expected to write when I began writing Peregrine’s birthday stories, but these are important lessons he has taught me.  So let me share a fun clicker story.
Peregrine’s early experiences left him with a deep distrust of all things veterinary, but during his long recovery from the after effects of Potomac horse fever, he had many lameness exams.  I had by then settled on a very good vet who I have used for the past twenty years.  One morning he arrived at the barn to do nerve blocks to evaluate Peregrine’s recovery.

I brought Peregrine out into the barn aisle.  My vet prepped Peregrine’s ankle and then popped the first needle in.  Peregrine stood perfectly.  He never picked up a foot, but he did quiver his skin so the needle popped out before the anesthetic could be given.

My vet took a deep breath and tried again.  He was trying to be patient but he was exhausted.  He had been up all night with emergencies, and he was heading next to a large thoroughbred breeding farm to vaccinate yearlings.  He did not need to start his day out fighting with Peregrine.

He had met Peregrine first many years before when Peregrine was three.  He was an associate in the vet practice I used at that time.  Another vet had just joined the practice, and they were traveling together that day.  Peregrine was colicing.  We needed to get a tube down him to give him fluids, but even sedated and twitched he was fighting hard.  Both stifles were locked tight which made things even worse.  He kept plunging forward trying to release his joints, and no matter what they did, they couldn’t get him to swallow the tube.  The more they tried, the harder he fought.

Finally the new associate suggested that they get the smaller pony tube from the truck.  He had found that sometimes the smaller diameter made a difference.  Sure enough, the smaller tube went down without a fight.  Peregrine simply couldn’t swallow the larger tube.  That’s why he had been fighting so hard against them.  Once again, I learned he was always right.

On the next visit my vet told me that as they were driving away the new associate said he couldn’t believe “that horse” wasn’t in a hole in the ground.  With stifles that locked so badly he couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother with such a horse.

My vet moved out of the area, and I changed barns several times as well, but when he came back into the area, I switched to his practice, and he has been Peregrine’s main vet ever since.  He knew Peregrine when he was a young challenging horse with severely locking stifles, and he has seen the transformation that clicker training helped create.

So on this morning he knew that twitching Peregrine was only going to lead to a fight.  With his history, twitches didn’t subdue Peregrine.  They frightened him and made him fight harder because way back when he was learning about vets, he couldn’t swallow a full sized nasal tube.

Besides, how was a twitch going to help?  Peregrine was standing perfectly still.  He hadn’t moved a foot.  He was simply twitching his skin so the needles fell out.

I could tell my vet was becoming increasingly frustrated so I intervened.

“Look,” I said.  “Peregrine has a tool in him that we’re not using.  He’s clicker trained.”  I explained briefly what this meant, and then I gave him some simple instructions.  I had him stroke down Peregrine’s leg.  I clicked, but I had my vet hand Peregrine his treat.  After the second click, I could see Peregrine visibly relax.  This vet was speaking his language.

My vet wanted to jump directly to popping the needle in, but I had him stroke down Peregrine’s leg a little further.  Click, he handed him another treat.  Now he was stroking down around his ankle.  Click.  He handed him a treat, then he stroked down the leg and popped the needle in.  This time it stayed in.  Peregrine was relaxed.  There was no more quivering it out.

The whole process, including the explanation, had taken less than five minutes.  We got the job done without a fight.  Everyone won.  I got the information I needed from the nerve blocks.  Peregrine had a good experience with the vet.  And my tired vet didn’t add to his fatigue by starting his day with a fight.  It was a great lesson for all of us.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  What great gifts you have been sharing with us.

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