JOYFULL Horses: Guide Work: Yes, She Can!

Saying “No”
I ended the previous post by saying that intelligent disobedience shouldn’t just be limited to guide horses.  My wish would be that our big horses could have the same freedom to say “no” that Panda does.

If I have taught well, my horse will understand what I want.  If I have taught well, my horse will want to do what I ask.  If he says “no”, I need to trust that he is aware of something I have missed.  Instead of forcing him to comply, I need to find out what that is.  If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, it makes sense to acknowledge that intelligence and let it be expressed through the training.  Choice is part of clicker training.  Real choice only comes when our horses know that it is safe to say “no”.

Saying “no” to cues that are well understood is part of the job description of a guide.  A guide says “no” to the cue to go forward when it would take the team into the path of an on-coming car.  Wouldn’t it be equally useful to have a riding horse say “no” to going forward down a trail his senses are telling him is unsafe?  Wouldn’t it be empowering – not to mention so much safer – to have a horse stop well before a jump he isn’t sure he can clear?

Instead of forcing a horse to go forward into something he perceives to be dangerous, we could become better at preparing him for the tasks we set. When our horses say “no”, there is a reason.  Taking the time to ask what that reason is would transform horse training.

The importance of Panda is not that horses can serve as guides, but that we can teach them an appropriate way to say “no”.

Guide Work: Yes, She Can!

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

This is one of my favorite photos of Ann and Panda.  Look at how relaxed they both are.  They have just passed through a construction zone, and they are back on an undisturbed section of sidewalk.  Panda is trained just like our riding horses.  We want connection not pull.  Panda is guiding Ann, providing her with all the information that is needed, but there is no strain in either of them.  They are both able to walk in balance, passing information back and forth through harness and lead as needed.  It looks like what it is: a relaxed, enjoyable outing.

Panda shows how much the environment cues behavior.  Ann can’t see when there’s a curb coming up. She can’t see the trash can that’s fallen across the sidewalk, or the overhead branch that’s been weighed down after a summer’s rain.  Panda’s training has taught her to respond to these environmental cues.

As I write this, Panda is fifteen.  She has been in work with Ann for thirteen years.  Well before this age most guide dogs would be retired, but Panda is still a relatively young horse.  She has a job, but to watch her guide, it would be hard to describe it as work.  Panda was trained exclusively through clicker training.  She was never punished for mistakes.

During her training with me, if she missed an obstacle – meaning I got bumped or I tripped over a tree root pushing up through the sidewalk, we would stop and rework the obstacle.  Normally that’s all she needed.  Once she saw the consequence to me, she would make the necessary adjustments and take me safely around not just this obstacle, but all others that resembled it.  She was wonderfully clever at being able to generalize from one example out to a whole class of similar obstacles.

But, But, You MUST Need to Correct Her
When Ann was first transitioning from her guide dogs who were traditionally trained with corrections to Panda who was clicker trained, she told me about a conversation that was occurring on one of the guide dog users on-line discussion groups.  Ann had been describing some of Panda’s training.  The question people had was how do you correct her?  Ann responded that she never needed to correct Panda.  She would then describe, yet again, how Panda was being trained.

“Yes, yes,” they answered back.  “We understand that’s how you taught her, but what happens when you’re out in the real world, and she makes a mistake?  How do you correct her?”

They were truly insistent.  They needed to know how Ann dealt with these transgressions.

Ann wrote back that Panda didn’t make mistakes.  That sounds very smug, but it happened to be true. That was right around the time the three of us went to the Equine Affaire, the big horse Expo that’s held every year in Springfield Massachusetts.  All day Panda guided Ann through the chaos of the trade show.  She navigated her through aisles crowded with people, and from building to building.  There were plenty of distractions, plenty of opportunities to bump Ann into a pole or miss a curb crossing, but Panda’s focus was on her job, not the other horses in the back parking lot, or the kids reaching out to pet her as she walked by.

She did all that plus she served as my demo horse in the presentations I was giving on clicker training.  In the evening we decided she had done enough.  We left her happily munching hay in her stall while we went out for dinner.  There were several us in the group, and at various points in the evening Ann used us to go sighted guide.  That means she took our elbow, and we served as her guide. Every one of us during the course of the evening either tripped her up at a curb or bumped her into a pole.

As Ann wrote later, she didn’t think punishing us for the mistakes would have helped us to be better guides.  Nor would it help Panda.  If a mistake is made, Panda is not reprimanded for it.  She is simply given another opportunity to try again.  As needed, we break the overall task down into smaller segments and teach her any missing skills.  Once she understands how to navigate through a particular type of obstacle, Panda doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

Horses can live a very long time.  Hopefully, Panda and Ann will be partnered together for thirty years and more.  As our cities and towns become even more congested, the challenges a guide faces will grow increasingly complex.  Keeping it fun, keeping it more like play than work is an important part of maintaining this life-long partnership.

Panda Ann Scrabble

Panda gets plenty of opportunities to play as this video shows.  It was taken on New Year’s Day, 2016 during a holiday visit to the barn.

Coming Next: Chapter 2: Using Environmental Cues

You can read about Panda’s early training on my web site: Visit:

Also, there is an excellent children’s book that was written about Panda:  Panda: A Guide for Ann written by Rosanna Hansen with photographs by Neil Soderstrom, published by Boyd Mills Press 2005.

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:          

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