The dictionary would tell me that I should write this as playful. But just as Panksepp wants to emphasize that when he writes PLAY in capitals he is speaking of one of the seven fundamental affective systems, I want to remind you that playful means we are full of play.
The six properties of PLAY which I wrote about in the previous section remind us why being PLAY FULL with our horses is important. Being full of play helps us find creative solutions to training problems. It keeps us in a relaxed mental state that makes it easy to reach for the positive solutions instead fear-based corrections. Play creates a safety net for our horses. Especially when you are working with difficult or potentially dangerous situations, being in a play state helps you find horse-friendly solutions.
Playing with Horses
But how do you play with a horse? After all safety always comes first. I can’t play with the Icelandics in the same way that they play with one another.
At a recent clinic I was sitting in the host’s living room. Her three dogs were having a rough and tumble play session. It looked for all the world like a miniature version of the Iceys. There were the same mock bites, the same leaps up into the air.
My host walked boldly through this maelstrom bringing me a cup of tea! If they had miscalculated and bumped her leg, the worst that would have happened was the tea would have been spilled on her carpet.
If the Iceys miscalculate, I could end up in a full-body cast. So what is the answer? How can I safely play with my horses?
Playing with Behavior
Without a great deal of skill and experience, I may not be able to engage with my horses via their natural play behaviors, but I can play via the behaviors that I teach them. That’s the beauty of clicker training. If I am in a state of play as I teach new behaviors to my horses, they will turn those behaviors around and use them as a way to play with me.
Even seemingly hard behaviors can function in this way. Playing a Beethoven concerto can seem like either an onerous task imposed by your teachers or the greatest joy in your life.
How a behavior is perceived is more important than what it is. Our senior horse Magnat loved to piaffe. Give him the least hint that piaffe might be on the table, and he would be offering it with gusto. He also loved to retrieve. At the start of a training session in the arena, he would insist on being turned loose so he could retrieve any dropped objects that might have been left in the arena by others.
Magnat belonged to Ann Edie. Ann is blind. Many know her through her other horse, Panda, the mini she uses as her guide.
For years Ann and I boarded our horse together in a large lesson barn. The Iceys and Magnat belong to her.
Playing with Play
Because Ann is blind, it was very useful to her to let Magnat clean up the arena at the start of every session. She was handed gloves, riding crops, Kleenex, cones. If there was nothing else to retrieve, he even brought her larger than normal pieces of the shavings that made up the arena footing.
Piaffe and retrieving are two very different kinds of behaviors. Retrieving was taught in an afternoon. Piaffe took many months of structured work, but for Magnat they were clearly both regarded as play. They were taught with laughter and they brought laughter.
Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 7: Training Playfully Mixed with a Little Science
I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends. But please remember this is copyrighted material. All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra Kurland, via theclickercenter.com
Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: