I Can’t Do What You Want
“I can’t do what you want.” What I wanted was for the horse’s owner to show some enthusiasm, some appreciation for her horse’s good effort. He was giving her very solid work. She asked for a lateral flexion. He presented himself in good balance. Click and treat. She handed him a single slice of carrot. He barely bothered putting it in his mouth. She asked again. He responded. Click. “I gave at the office.” That was his level of interest in the exercise. He was shutting down. Why?
Remember you always want to tell a story that works in your horse’s best interest. Was there something physically amiss? This was a three year old. Were his teeth bothering him? He was certainly of an age where this could be the case. He was a big horse. Was he going through a growth spurt that made the work difficult? Did he simply not like carrots?
I filled my pockets with the same treats he had been getting from his owner, and took a turn with him. I asked for a lateral flexion. It wasn’t great. To me he felt a bit like a car with four flat tires, but it was well within the range of the work I’d just been watching. Workmanlike but not brilliant. I clicked. I gave him a couple of carrot coins – and I made a fuss. I scritched his neck. I told him he was clever.
I asked again. He gave me an okay response. Click – carrot coins and more fussing. He ate the carrots and went straight back to work.
His “tires” were beginning to inflate. He took his treats with enthusiasm. He interacted with me. The work became more fun for both of us.
“I can’t do what you do,” his owner told me. “I can’t be happy.”
Our horses bring us to our truth. He needed her to do more than give him carrots. The treats in your pocket are not a substitute for love and appreciation. They are an expression of that love. In my book “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker” I wrote:
“Before I ride, I fill my pockets with appreciation. That’s what the treats I feed my horse represent. Each time I click, I’m providing my horse with information: “That step you just took was a good one” or “I liked the extra lift I just felt in your back.”
Appreciation is information, and it turns into love. With the clicker I’m not just telling my horse he did something that will get reinforced, I’m also thanking him for a job well done.”
I would add – I am telling him I love him.
Every time I fill my pockets I am filling them with appreciation. At times I may be on a fast rate of reinforcement. It may be click – treat – repeat with no time for extra scritching, but my focus tells my horse that he is doing great. And when we take a break, I tell him he is “so smart!” I tell him he is wonderful. I turn every session into a time of play. That’s when I do my best training.
Sometimes I am tired, or just distracted by “Life”. I forget to play. I give a horse a work session. It is competent, fair, even productive, but it is not creative. And it’s not really even any fun. It is what I do “at the office.” That’s not the training I want to share. I want people to see the joy of clicker training. Play gets us there. It is a doorway. You step through it into love.
Play is important for so many reasons.
We learned from Stuart Brown that it is a dress rehearsal for life skills.
We learned from Jaak Panksepp that it is one of the seven core emotional systems. We need it for good brain development.
But this last reason, play is a doorway that can open up our hearts is the what our horses teach us.
For all these reasons we need to play. We need to be PLAY FULL.
I am writing this sitting in the stairwell of my barn. It’s early morning, June, 2014. From my perch on the middle landing, I can watch Peregrine and Robin dozing in the barn aisle. They have just come in from grass and are taking a nap side by side. I can also look out over the arena. The long side is open so I can look out over the trees and listen to the early morning bird song. I would like to say it is otherwise very quiet but in the distance I can hear a tractor. One of the local farmers is cutting hay.
It’s going to be a warm day, but sitting here in the shade of the arena, I get a soft cross breeze. I have a cup of tea, my horses are nearby. It is a perfect place to write.
Peregrine and Robin have helped me face many of my own truths. They have shown me that what I want by myself is not as important as what the three of us can want together. I want to ride. I love to ride. But riding has never been about me. It has to be about us, what we can do together. They are herd animals. They love doing things together. They love to play. That’s one of the great truths of horses.
Peregrine is teaching me a new truth. He is 29 with some health issues. He has a heart murmur and other metabolic issues. I don’t ride him anymore. When I wrote about the similarity between extinction and grief, I know what those emotions feel like. There is a grieving process when you can no longer ride the horse who has been your teacher and partner for almost three decades.
This is a quiet time for us. The barn is organized around Peregrine’s needs. He wants Robin for company. He gets Robin. He needs to be able to move around the barn. He has the freedom to do so. The doors are left open so he can choose where he is the most comfortable. He can hang out in the barn aisle or take long naps in the arena. He can sun bathe in the barnyard or wander out for grass. It is all available to him. He wants to play clicker games. I play with him.
This could so easily be a sad time, or a time to set aside my old friend in favor of younger, stronger, rideable horses. Instead we share the joy and comfort this great truth brings us. We have learned to Play, and it has opened many doors.
Coming Next: Epilogue: To Love A Horse
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.
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