When I started Peregrine under saddle, my trainer said to me that he didn’t have the back strength to perform all the movements of upper level dressage, but he could still carry himself in the equilibrium of a high school horse. She didn’t mean in a few years. She meant now, as a young horse, we could expect him to lift up and carry himself in an engaged equilibrium.
That became the training criterion. When Peregrine was engaged, his stifles didn’t lock. I was learning to manage him so our rides no longer felt quite so on a knife’s edge of control. When I first started riding him, his stifles would lock up without warning. He would release them by catapulting me forward in a hard, rolling buck. As long as he was engaged, I could keep him from locking up, and he was a lot of fun to ride. But as soon as I got off and left him to manage his own balance, his stifles would be locking again.
He was eight years old. Clearly he was not going to outgrow this condition. And then he got Potomac horse fever. And then he was laid up for seven weeks with foot abscesses. And then we started exploring clicker training.
There had certainly been lots of people before me who used clicker training with their horses. So why did it stick with me? Why was I the one who buried herself in a computer for two years writing that first book on clicker training horses? And why have I continued to be so fascinated by it? The answer lies with Peregrine.
He was an interesting mix. He was a well trained horse, but he was also a horse with a lot of issues – all stemming from his locking stifles. I also had a huge repertoire to work with, both on the ground and under saddle.
Ground work for me meant a lot more than lunging. It also meant classical work in-hand and a huge liberty repertoire. As Peregrine recovered from his hoof abscesses, I began to add the clicker into all of this other work. Before his lay up we’d been working on Spanish walk. I reshaped the leg lifts using the clicker. He was so elegant, and he clearly enjoyed the new way this lesson was being taught.
Spanish walk required a huge shift in his balance. In order to lift up into the front leg extensions, he had to engage his hind end to free up his shoulders. This was taught in conjunction with all of his other in-hand work. It was not presented as a separate “trick” behavior. I was asking Peregrine to carry himself forward in engagement – something the guidance of the marker signal helped him to figure out.
I was a month or two into this work when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Peregrine lock in his stifles in quite a while. I started paying more attention. I was right. His stifles weren’t locking – not under saddle and, even more telling, not on the ground, either.
For eight years we had been battling his stifles. After just a few months of clicker training, they had stopped locking. That’s when I knew that clicker training wasn’t simply another way to teach behavior. Yes, it’s great that we have a kinder way to teach horses to pick up their feet for cleaning, or to load into a trailer. That’s important, but clicker training goes deeper than that. It awakens our horses’ intelligence. I say it in this way because so much of training teaches horses only to follow, not to take any initiative. Clicker training lets them to be full partners in the learning process. They truly own what we are teaching them. The lessons aren’t simply things you do when someone directs you. Peregrine was learning how to manage his own body to keep himself more comfortable – all of the time – not just when I was around.
If clicker training had simply been another way to teach standard behavior, it would have been an interesting stepping stone, but it would not have held my attention in the way that it has for over twenty years. Peregrine showed me that it is so much more.
Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine. What a wise horse you are. Thank you for being my teacher.