JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, “JOY Full Horses”.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the previous installment I talked about patience and persistence.  I ended with: “One of the many things that you learn from horse training is the longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things it will give 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.”

Now in this section I’ll share more lessons my horses have taught me.

“They Don’t Feel Pain the Way We Do”
Shortly before she became mine, Peregrine’s mother was injured in a handling incident.  One of the teenagers at the barn had been given the assignment of pulling her mane.  In case you aren’t familiar with this technique, it is literally what the name implies.  The mane is shortened and tidied up by pulling out the longer strands.

The horses I grew up with never had their manes pulled.  The first time I watched this being done it was to a young racehorse, a two year old who was literally climbing the walls trying to get away.  The trainer stood outside the stall door watching as a groom struggled to control her.

I couldn’t help but ask what they were doing.  It looked to me like some horrific form of torture.  The trainer dismissed my concerns.  “They don’t feel pain the way we do,” he said.  In his view, the mare was climbing the walls not because of pain, but because she was being disobedient.  That’s a great example of the stories we tell ourselves – and come to believe – to make things okay.

Peregrine’s mother wasn’t in a stall the first time someone tried to pull her mane.  Shortly before she officially became my horse, it was decided she should have her mane tidied up.  For her introduction to this procedure she was tied tight to a post supporting a four foot high fence.  To get away from the pain she presumably didn’t feel, she jumped the fence.  You could say it showed how athletic she was that she was able to jump the fence with her head snubbed up tight to the post.  Really, it just says how desperately she needed to get away.

I only learned about it because I saw scrapes on her hind legs and asked about them. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the full scope of the injuries she sustained.  Her spine was damaged in what was a very avoidable accident.  My beautiful, athletic, perfect horse had become a wobbler.  That is exactly what the name suggests.  She sustained neurological damage as a result of that incident.  She could no longer tell where her hind legs were so she wobbled about trying to stay on her feet.

The Evolution of Belief
I learned over time just how severely compromised she was. What began as a slight dragging of her hind toes eventually deteriorated into such a profound loss of balance that it became hard for her to walk without falling.  All the dreams I had had for her were shattered.   All that was left was helping her relearn the most basic of motor skills. It was my early training experiences with her that taught me about small wins, and about finding ways around the many brick walls in her life. Long before I ever heard about clickers and positive reinforcement, she taught me how to break things down into the smallest of small steps.  The power of those lessons formed the core of what clicker training means to me.

If belief is a major part of changing habits, she taught me to believe in the power of change.  You cannot NOT change.  How’s that for a sentence!  But it’s true.  We are constantly changing.  The question is: are you changing towards something new, or are you simply boomeranging back to familiar patterns?

If you don’t believe that change is possible, you will always be reverting back to the same reality you are currently in.  Eventually you may find yourself so bogged down in that state that change truly does seem beyond your reach.

I didn’t know what change, if any, was possible for her.  The vets at the time painted a very bleak future for us.  They told me they could do nothing to help her, and eventually she would deteriorate to the point where she would be unable to stand.  It was a grim future to consider.

Since I couldn’t ride her, the vets recommended that I put her down.  That I couldn’t do.  Whether I could ride her or not, her life still had value to her.  Together we would deal with the challenges each day presented.  When things got too hard for her, that’s when I would make that decision, but until then we would keep going as best we could.

Stepping over the sill of her stall door was hard for her. But it was something she needed to be able to do, so we worked on stepping over ground poles. Those were terrifying for her, so I put a rope on the ground instead.  Even that was too hard, so I drew a line in the dirt.  That she could manage so that’s where we began.

She was showing me that no matter how small a step may seem, there is always, ALWAYS a smaller step you can find.

That is truly at the heart of all good training.  It is certainly at the heart of how I think about clicker training.

Eventually she was able to walk over those ground poles, and the sill of her stall was no longer a problem.  She could even manage a small cross rail.  We didn’t know what was possible.  We just kept working on the little things that challenged her.  Over time the little things grew into wonderful things.  She became my riding partner and introduced me to the world of classical dressage. She was the first horse I ever taught to piaffe.

Balance – The Core of Everything
She is why at the core of everything I teach there is balance.  For me balance is everything.  It gave her life.  When some people talk about dressage, they see competition rings and rosettes.  I see balance.  That’s what dressage means to me.  The end result may indeed take you to the show ring, but first it takes you to a feel that is heaven itself.  Balance is everything.  It is life giving, life sustaining.  It is beauty, grace, power.  It is love.

Some wonderful things have grown out of that terrible training accident, but I am never very far removed from the consequences.  It reached past her life and changed Peregrine’s.   During his foaling, she got down against a stall wall and couldn’t get up.  He was boxed in by the corner of the stall, trapped in her pelvis.  If I had not been camped out beside her stall, ready to help, I would certainly have lost him and possibly both of them.

Peregrine’s spine was damaged by the foaling.  That in turn led to his locking stifles which led to a challenging first few years of training which led – through a series of twists and turns – to clicker training.  So again, good things came out of a hard beginning.

My “Soap Box”
It has also given me the right to stand on the soap box that actively promotes positive training methods.  When I first started introducing clicker training to the horse world, I was very careful what I said about other training methods.  Clicker training was the new kid on the block.  If I came in like gang busters denouncing what everyone else was doing and saying my way is the best, I’d have been pounced on and crushed – and rightly so.  If you push against someone, of course, they are going to push back.

So I chose not to comment on what was occurring in the rest of the equine training community.  At times this was incredibly difficult.  There have been so many emerging trends over the last thirty years.  Many, very horse-friendly advances have been made.  Acupuncture, chiropractic work, physical therapies of many varieties are now common.  But why do we need so many interventions?  It is because we also have so many “methods” that are so very hard on horses. Strip away the rhetoric, and you will see revealed some horrific things being done in the name of training.

The words often sound great.  Everyone talks about partnership, harmony, etc..  But when you turn the sound down on the videos and watch what is actually being done to horses, it is often times nothing more than abuse.

I remember watching one video where the trainer’s solution to a needle-shy horse was to run him to exhaustion in a round pen.  The trainer was riding a stocky quarter horse, controlling from the saddle a rope that was lassoed around the horse’s hind leg. At the other end a strong twenty-something handler anchored down a lead attached to the horse’s head.  Between them he was well and truly trapped.

Every few minutes the trainer would tighten his rope, and the horse would go bucking and pitching around the pen.  Then they would back off and give the horse a short break.  The horse’s sides were heaving as he tried to catch his breath.  The trainer, meanwhile, was telling stories about how much he was helping this horse to get along with people.  He was like a skilled magician distracting the audience away from the things he didn’t want them to see.

After about forty minutes of this, his assistant did indeed manage to wrestle the horse into a head lock and give him a pretend shot. As the horse’s owner walked him out of the round pen, the trainer told her he might be a bit stiff for a few days, and he’d need some ointment for the rope burns on his hock.

I was horrified.  Whatever happened to safety always comes first!?  Whatever happened to common sense and humane handling!?

The trainer never asked about the physical history on this horse.  Did he have any hock or hind end issues that might be made worse by this kind of handling?  Suspending a horse as they did between the two ropes could easily have resulted in an injury to his pelvis, his spine, his hind legs.  He could have ended up with the same kind of neurological damage that had so crippled Peregrine’s mother.  Was it worth it?  All this just to give a shot!  When you see the videos from the zoos and aquariums showing wild animals – whales, dolphins, cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos, baboons etc. – voluntarily presenting themselves for shots and blood draws, you have to question these methods.

This is a soap box I have earned the right to stand on because for over thirty years I have lived with the consequences of this sort of training approach.  We do get to stand up for our horses and say find a different way, find a better way. Find a humane way.

And always, always – safety does come first.

Coming Next: Standing Up For Our Horses

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

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

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: