Today’s Peregrine Story: #6 Ground Work Redefined

Peregrine in hand cropped

1993: Peregrine setting up for haunches-in.

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  In 1993 when I went out to the barn with my pockets full of treats, I had no idea the journey that first step was going to take me on.  I wasn’t thinking about writing books, making videos, traveling to clinics and conferences, sharing clicker training on the internet with people from around the planet.  I just wanted a way to keep Peregrine entertained while he was laid up with foot abscesses.

As he began to recover, I used the clicker to reshape some of the many things I had taught him over the years.  Clicker training had landed in a good place.  I had a lot in my tool box to play with.  In 1993 if you said ground work to most people, that meant one and only one thing – lunging.  It’s no wonder when I started to write about using clicker training to improve ground work so many people ran in the opposite direction.  It wasn’t just the treats that they didn’t like, it was lunging.  Rarely did you see it done well, with a real understanding of a horse’s balance.  It was used to “get the bucks out”.  In my area the norm for lunging was horses racing around, out of balance, being jerked on, often in side reins.  It was at best mindless.  At it’s worse, it was a physically exhausting battle between horse and handler, repeated daily before the rider dared to get on.

I was learning something very different.  For starters I had raised both Peregrine and his mother.  Ground work for me meant so much more than lunging.  It meant all the early handling and socialization.  It meant teaching horses to pick up their feet for cleaning, to stand well for grooming and saddling and all the other basic handling you take for granted when you’ve only had older horses.  It meant going for walks together to learn about the world.  Peregrine’s mother had spinal cord damage – the result of a handling accident that occurred shortly before she became mine.  So for her ground work meant even more.  It meant literally reteaching her how to walk without falling.

Early on in my horse training experience I was able to spend time with some very skilled horsemen. They didn’t mess around with the kind of small steps I teach today through clicker training. They went straight to the big stuff. Most of the time they were successful because they had the skills to get into a fight with a horse and win. But occasionally things would turn into a train wreck.

I remember one such occasion where a trainer was trying to “sort out” a mustang. This was a powerfully built draft type horse. He’d already come to grief with several other trainers, and now this man was trying out his skills. The mustang came within a hair’s breath of kicking his head in.

I was watching this as a very young and very inexperienced horse owner. My takeaway message was I didn’t want to get into a fight with a horse. Apart from the fact that it was just too dangerous, even then I knew it didn’t create the kind of relationship that I wanted.
I also knew that I didn’t have the skills or the strength to guarantee that I would win. If you can’t guarantee a victory in the big battle – don’t start it in the first place.

I concentrated instead on the little victories. I was boarding at the time in a hunter jumper barn. I saw horses who had never been jumped before being sent over enormous fences. Most of the time they were athletic enough to make it over, but sometimes they would simply crash through the fence or refuse to jump altogether. The horses that stopped or tried to run out past the jump were all treated in the same way. They were punished. They learned fast that no matter how scared they were about jumping, the only safe route for them was straight over the fence.

I was finding a different way.  My own, beloved horse – Peregrine’s mother – had neurological damage. Never mind jumping.  Stepping over the raised sill of her stall was a daily challenge. She couldn’t go over a ground pole without panicking, but she could step over a line drawn in the dirt.  So that’s where we began.  Stepping over that line was a first step on a journey that has carried me many places.

It has brought me here to this morning where I am thinking back over the thirty years I have had with the foal that she gave me.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine. You are much beloved.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #5 Intelligence

Peregrine lying in stall with Ak croppedIf you’ve read my first book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, you might have noticed that there are very few pictures of Peregrine in it.  That’s because throughout the period that I was working on it, Peregrine was on stall rest.  I was writing a book that he had helped in large part to create, but on the eve of having it published it was not at all clear that he would ever be sound again.

The culprit was Potomac horse fever.  It had left him with damage to his feet.  It was a frustrating situation to be in.  Peregrine’s big, gorgeous trot had dwindled down to a shuffle.  I would say to my vets, he’s lame, but they couldn’t see it.  That was just how the horses that they saw horses moved.  He wasn’t asymmetrically lame.  What was wrong?

What was wrong was this wasn’t the way MY horse moved.  Finally one of the young associates in the practice decided that maybe there was something wrong – with Peregrine’s hocks.  Sigh.  I knew where the problem was, in his front feet.  I could feel it.

Just to humor me the vet did nerve blocks on Peregrine’s front feet.  His comment as I trotted Peregrine out for him: “I’ve never seen a horse get so sound so fast in his hocks from a nerve block to his front feet.”

For the few minutes that his feet were numbed and he felt no pain, we could all see the beautiful big trot that was Peregrine’s.  And then the pain returned and with it the shuffling reluctance to move.

We tried various strategies.  He’d be okay for a little bit and then lame again.  Finally his feet deteriorated to the point where we were forced to do hoof wall resections on all four feet.  Peregrine was put on total stall rest.  The only time he was allowed out of his stall was to walk the few steps down the barn aisle to the wash stall where everyday I had to treat and rewrap his feet.  This went on for nine months.  By the end I never again wanted to see another roll of duct tape!

Now I am sure there will be people reading this who will be horrified.  Nine months of stall rest!  Just remember this was over twenty years ago.  We might well have better options today that wouldn’t involve confining a horse to a stall, but all I can say is it worked.  The new hoof that grew in over those nine months grew in healthy.  In December we were ready to let him have some limited exercise.  That’s when I got the call from a producer from the BBC.  They were doing a series on animal intelligence.  Could they come film my horses?

You don’t say no to the BBC.  Of course they could come, but I wasn’t sure what I could show them.  The day they arrived was Peregrine’s fourth day off stall rest. So far we had walked around the arena for about ten minutes each day.

The first horse I brought out for them was our senior horse, Magnat.  He was always our consistent superstar.  You could rely on Magnat to show off, and he didn’t disappoint us.  He and his owner, Ann Edie, were just learning piaffe.  We filmed a short lesson, and then it was Peregrine’s turn.

He came into the arena eager to work.  For nine months there had been no clicker training, and suddenly, today everything was allowed.  He was tireless.  We worked mostly at liberty.  Peregrine could have quit at any time.  Instead he kept offering and offering.

It was a wonderful experience.  This was the first time that I had shared clicker training with reporters, and this producer set a high standard for everyone else who was to follow.  He was a superb interviewer.  He knew how to ask good questions which made it fun to share the horses with him.

We’d film a bit and then pause to discuss what I would be showing them  next.  There were six of us in a tight cluster discussing the details of the filming: the producer, his assistant, the camera man, the sound man with his enormous boom, myself and Peregrine.  He joined in every conversation, looking over our shoulders, clearly interested in everything that was being said.

He must have been listening because he pulled out all the stops, showing off his canter in hand and for the first time ever producing piaffe at liberty.  I had no idea this was in him.  We had only worked piaffe in hand or under saddle. This was very much the early days of clicker training.  Peregrine had picked the perfect time to show me what was possible.

The video the producer shot that morning was so good he ended up creating a twenty minute segment just on Peregrine. Unfortunately, as he was preparing the final edit, he learned that he had to cut down on the overall length of the series.  The easiest way to make the time was to cut out the section on clicker training, so Peregrine never did have his moment to shine on BBC television.  That’s all right.  He shone for me that day.  Somewhere buried in my stacks of old VHS tapes I have a copy of the original program before the producer had to cut out Peregrine’s section.  I’m biased, of course, but he should have left it in!

In the horse world one of the deep seated beliefs is that horses are stupid animals. That’s why we need to use force to train them.  “It’s all they can understand.”  But of course, there’s the corollary belief that horses don’t feel pain the way we do, so its okay.

When I first started sharing clicker training on the internet, people would post about their first clicker experience.  These were the early adopters.  They had no idea what they were stepping into.  Their posts always made me laugh.  “My horse is so SMART!!!” they would exclaim.  Their surprise and their delight was so evident in their words.  Their enthusiasm attracted others and encouraged them to give this strange new way of interacting with horses a try.  They quickly joined the chorus of: “My horse is so SMART!!!”

Clicker training helps us to see what I have always known.  Only its not just our horses that are so smart.  It’s all animals.  It was very appropriate that our first interview should be one for a program devoted to Animal Intelligence.

Happy 30th Birthday, Peregrine  When I first went out to the barn with clicker in hand, I had no idea all the adventures you would be taking me on me on.  Thank you for a wonderful journey!

Today’s Peregrine Story: #4 Determination

Peregrine taught me about determination. I was told that most horses outgrow locking stifles.  I just needed to wait.  Peregrine’s stifles got worse, not better. By the time he was two, they had infected our entire training relationship.  Everything was difficult.  Everything was dangerous.  I never knew when his stifles would lock up, and he would explode forward in an effort to release them.

I was told by my trainer that horses with bad stifles do one of two things to relieve the pressure on their joints.  They rear up, or they bolt forward through the hand.  Thankfully Peregrine never chose rearing, but blasting forward was definitely something we experienced often.

I taught him to lunge to try to strengthen his hind end.  Keeping to a circle was a nightmare for him.  His stifles would lock up, and he would explode forward to release them.  I didn’t let go of the lunge line. I didn’t need to.  Peregrine’s leap forward sheared the top off the metal snap of the lunge line.  I was left with a line in my hand, but no horse at the other end.

Talk about a horse being instantly reinforced.  And how do you stop that!

I was incredibly frustrated. Peregrine as a two year old was a tough horse to love.  His stifles always meant he got the “last word in.”  I’d ask him to back up out of my space.  He’d comply, but when he stopped, his stifles would lock up, sending his weight forward again into my space.  The result: he was always pushing into me.  That’s not a good thing for a young horse.  You don’t want them thinking they can push you around.  He began to feel threatening.  His stifles were most definitely creating an attitude I didn’t like.

I was told there was a surgical option.  They could cut the medial ligament that held the patella in place, but the surgery might increase the risk later of a fractured patella.  I teetered on the brink of choosing surgery many times, but always I held back.  I was determined to find a training solution.  And I was determined to get things right with Peregrine.  As much as he frustrated me, frightened me, angered me, he was “my kid”, and I would stick by him.

Slowly we worked things out.  I heard John Lyons say that the strongest lead rope is the one in a horse’s mind.  I needed that lead rope, so I taught Peregrine to be a super liberty horse.  This was long before I ever heard about clicker training.  By the time I went out to the barn that first time with a clicker and treats, we had become friends.  He was a good working partner both on the ground and under saddle.  I didn’t need clicker training to help me fall in love with my horse.  I had already done that.  What clicker training gave us was a true conversation.  The more I have put our old ways of working behind us, the richer and more interesting that conversation has become.

Clicker training has given Peregrine a voice that can be heard loud and clear.  He has a voice that I listen to.  And I have a way of talking to him that he can truly understand.  When I fill my pockets with treats, I am filling them with so much more.  I am filling them with information, with appreciation, with love.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine!

Today’s Peregrine Story: A Study of One

Peregrine 3 shots edit no caption

My how they grow! Peregrine at 1 hour, 1 month and 4 months.

When Peregrine was about four months old and beginning to fill out, he started fussing when I groomed him around his belly and hind legs.  This was a decided change in his behavior, and I was worried.

I called my vet out again.  When he got to the barn, Peregrine popped his head over the stall door to say hello.  The vet turned his back on him and walked away.  The other horses were due for worming.  This was still in the dark ages when tube worming was the routine way to control parasites.  I had a lot of questions to ask, so we left Peregrine and his mother to the end.  Big mistake.  The horse in the stall next to theirs was a big, broad chested thoroughbred.  He hated being wormed, and he fought hard against the vet.  I waited with Peregrine in the adjacent stall.  We listened with growing concern as the horse spun around the stall, crashing into the walls until the vet finally succeeded in trapping him in a corner long enough to get a twitch on him.  Worming was a necessary evil, so in those days you used whatever methods you had to to get the job done.

He was the last horse to be done before Peregrine, but now Peregrine was afraid.  Instead of going up to the front of the stall to greet the vet, he hid behind his mother.  The vet made no effort to greet Peregrine or to help him feel more at ease.  He went into the stall and walked straight up to his hind end.  He put his hand directly onto Peregrine’s stifle.  Startled, Peregrine cow kicked his hind leg up against his belly.

The vet pulled his hand away and announced that there was nothing wrong with this horse.  He was just bad mannered.  He was a spoiled, backyard foal.  I needed to stop coddling him and make him behave.

The words stung.   What a horrible, horrible thing to say.  If he had waited, if he had asked, he would have seen Peregrine coming up to me and letting me put his halter on without fuss.  He would have seen a foal who stood well for handling, who willingly and easily picked up all four feet, but who was now showing concern about being handled in one particular area.

A week after this incident I saw Peregrine’s stifles lock for the first time.  He tried to take a step and his leg wouldn’t bend.  There had been a reason for his behavior.  It had nothing to do with his manners, and everything to do with physical discomfort.  Because this vet was convinced that I was spoiling this foal by handling him, he couldn’t see past his own biases to the physical issue that was brewing.  That was the first of the many thousands of times I would see Peregrine’s stifles lock.  For the next eight years his stifles haunted our training, turning even the simplest of tasks into a struggle.

I said in my previous post that I learned many important lessons from that vet.  Actually, I should say I learned them from Peregrine.  I learned that Peregrine was always right.  Whenever he protested and resisted against a training request, I always discovered that there was an underlying physical cause.  It might not be obvious at first, but when I stopped trying to make him do something and instead listened to him, I would find that he had been right.  He really couldn’t do what I was asking.

That lesson has carried over to other horses.  In my teaching I’ve found that whenever someone has been struggling for a long time with a persistent behavior problem, once we scratch below the surface and do some detective work, almost without exception we find there is an underlying physical cause.

Peregrine and that vet taught me that every horse is a study of one.  We need to treat them as the individuals that they are instead of lumping them all into one category.  That vet saw horses as livestock.  He handled Peregrine in a way that was consistent with his world view.  Peregrine showed me the value of treating each horse as an individual.  And clicker training gave me a way to free up his voice so I could really hear what he needed to say.

Happy Thirtieth Birthday Peregrine.  Sometimes the gifts you have given me have been hard ones, but always they have been worth opening.

Today’s Peregrine Story: Early Lessons

Peregrine foal 11 days 2 head downPeregrine foal naptime 2Peregrine was a perfect foal.  I know.  I know.  We all want to say that about “our kids”, but he really was.  He was so people oriented, so easy to handle.  He was exactly the foal you want when you are breeding that “special” horse who is going to be not just your future riding horse, but your best friend and companion.

I’ve met the rambunctious colts who seem to be nothing but biting teeth and rearing legs.  Peregrine was nothing like that.  He was the sweet foal you hope for when you are breeding your one special horse.

When Peregrine was three weeks old, his mother stepped on his hock.  It was puffy so of course I was worried.  I had my vet out to take a look.  This was thirty years ago.  I’ve learned a lot of important lessons since then, and this vet certainly taught me some of them.  For starters he taught me that first impressions matter.

His practice was just outside of Saratoga Springs, home to one of the premier thoroughbred race tracks in the country.  The track and the related breeding farms that were thriving in our area at that time provided him with the bulk of his equine clients.  If you had a lameness question, he was the vet to use – if you were a professional trainer whose horses were as interchangeable as golf clubs.

I can see him so clearly as he and his assistant walked into the stall where Peregrine was waiting with his mother.  They didn’t even try to say hello or to earn Peregrine’s trust.  They were used to the big thoroughbred breeding farms with their wild, untamed colts.  Peregrine walked up to the assistant expecting the same gentle handling he had come to expect of all the humans who had been visiting him.  She threw her arms around him.  She wrapped one arm around his chest and with the other she grabbed hold of the root of his tail and wrenched it straight up in the air effectively immobilizing him.  The vet did a quick exam of his hock and declared it to be nothing to worry about.

Peregrine was released back to his mother.  The exam had taken just a few seconds, but it changed him forever.  He lost his trust of the world.  He had been the softest foal.  Now there was tension in his body.  Where before there had been an openness to engage, now there was newfound fear.

I’ve never written about this before.  The damage that vet did to Peregrine was deep and life lasting.  This may seem like a trivial event to many.  He was just a horse after all and horses need to learn to deal with people – all sorts of people.  But I know the foal I had before the encounter, and the foal I had after.  They were not the same.  I’ve had many reasons for choosing to champion horse-friendly training methods.  This was one of them.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  Thank you for all the gifts you have given me.

Today’s Peregrine Story: Then and Now

Peregrine in snow head shotPeregrine will be 30 in two weeks.  You can see his age in his face.  Just like an elderly person, his flesh has melted away from his bones.  But there’s something else I see his face.  I see the foal who greeted me thirty years ago.

I was there at his birth which was a very good thing or he might not have survived his first day.  His mother had neurological damage to her spine resulting in limited proprioception in her hind end.  She panicked during the foaling.  As Peregrine began to emerge, she fell down against the stall wall and couldn’t get up.  He was trapped in the corner of the stall with not enough Peregrine halter close editroom to get free of her pelvis.  If I had not been camped out just outside her stall and heard the first sounds of her struggle, I might have lost them both.

I was able to pull Peregrine out and then summon the help I needed to move her away from the wall.  While his mother rested, he struggled to his feet.

I’ve watched people trying to catch new born foals.  They have to corner them, trap them, grab them up in their arms and hold them tight.  Peregrine was never like that.  I’d been talking to him for months before his birth.  He was born knowing my voice, knowing me.   He was every bit as at ease with me as he was his own mother.  This foal picture was taken just eight hours after he was born.  The halter was a non-event.  I slipped it on, and he wore it as though it was the most natural thing in the world for a horse to do.  He fell asleep that first morning with his head in my lap, something he still does, thirty years later.

When I look at this picture, I see my beautiful Peregrine.   He’s curious, open, eager for the life that is ahead of him.  When I look at Peregrine now, I see the same horse.  He’s still beautiful and still eager for what the day will bring.  I wish we could say the same for all old horses.

Happy Birthday Peregrine.  Thank you for the gift of 30 years.

Help me celebrate his 30th birthday on April 26, 2015.  Details to be announced.

Peregrine just a few hours old.

Peregrine just a few hours old.

Peregrine enjoying an afternoon nap in the arena.

Peregrine enjoying an afternoon nap in the arena.

You’re invited!

In just a few short weeks I will be celebrating Peregrine’s 30th Birthday, and you are all invited to his party!
Where: Here on the internet.  Details to be announced.

Peregrine foal sleeping standing

When:  Peregrine was born at 11:35 p.m. 1985.  On Sunday April 26, 2015 I will celebrating his 30th Birthday.

And on Monday April 27 the festivities continue as I celebrate his First Day.

Throughout the day on April 26 and 27 Peregrine and I will be receiving internet “visitors”.

What to bring: Your stories!

Peregrine is our original clicker-trained horse.  He’s the one who got the whole ball rolling back in 1993.

I first learned about clicker training from a friend who trained Irish wolf hounds.  I was curious to see what Peregrine would think about it so I went out to the barn with clicker and treats.  He was laid up with abscesses in both front feet at the time – the after effects of Potomac horse fever.  There wasn’t much he could do.  He was too sore to walk, but he could touch a target.  I used a dressage whip which he was perfectly happy to bump with his nose, especially when he discovered that doing so got me to reach into my pocket and give him treats!

We both thought this clicker game was entertaining.  As he became more mobile, I added bits and pieces from the things he already knew.  The result: after seven weeks of stall rest, he was further ahead in his training than he had been when he was laid up.  I was hooked, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Peregrine was my original clicker pioneer and experimental “guinea pig”.  He helped spread this wonderful way of training around the planet.

I’d like to celebrate his 30th Birthday – a major milestone for us – by hearing about your clicker horses.  Share your pictures, and your stories.  Celebrate with me the love we have for our horses.

How:  Share your stories and your pictures here and on facebook.   I’ll be celebrating 30 years with Peregrine.  What special relationships do you cherish and celebrate every day?

Alexandra Kurland