Happy New Year Everyone! I know you’re expecting the next installment of the Goat Diaries. I’ll get back to those in my next post, but first I am going to do something a little different.
2018 is the 20th anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for Your Horse.” Before 1998 clicker training was not part of the general horse world. I’ve always said that first book was like my space beacon: “I’m here! Is anyone else out there?” The answer is yes. Here you are, reading this post. We are people who love the animals in our care and who want the training methods we use to support the relationship we want.
I’m one of those people who ignores most anniversaries, but twenty years is something to pay attention to. It represents a huge commitment of time, energy, and love for our horses. I’m not talking just about my contribution. I’m thinking about all the many thousands of people who have helped pioneer clicker training and whose efforts have helped to spread it around the planet.
I would love to thank each and every one of you by name – but I don’t know all of you personally. Even if I did, I would be bound to leave someone out. I don’t want anyone to feel like the fairy in the children’s stories who wasn’t invited to the party, so instead I’m going to single out just a few people. Every month this year I’ll be publishing an article commemorating the contribution of one of the many people who helped me bring clicker training into the horse world.
The first article features my long time client and friend, Bob Viviano. For many years we boarded our horses in the same barn. Bob’s appaloosa, Crackers, lived in the stall opposite Peregrine. Soon after I moved Peregrine to the barn, Bob asked me to help him with a jumping problem he was having. That was in 1993. Little did he know what he was getting himself in for!
When I watched Crackers go under saddle, it was clear the jumping problem was balance related. That meant peeling back some layers and introducing them both to lateral work. One of Bob’s hobbies was country line dancing. Line dancing used a lot of the steps we were teaching Crackers. Why not teach him an actual dance? Forward – back – side – side: Bob taught Crackers the Electric Slide.
It didn’t matter what you called it – dressage or line dancing – the changes of bend and the weight shifts forward and back were exactly what Crackers needed. Once Crackers had the dance figured out, Bob got others to join in. The kids from the local 4-H group formed a line dance with Crackers in the middle. That was just the beginning. Eventually Bob and Crackers joined a group that was trying out for a Guinness Record of most people ever to perform in a line dance. They got close with over a thousand people. They certainly should have gotten the record for most people plus one horse!
In those early pioneer days we had no idea what you could do with clicker training. We were just having fun. We started out teaching our horses to touch targets. That was step one in introducing a horse to clicker training. Our horses all caught on fast to the targeting, and then we were confronted with the question everyone faces: now what? What do you do with targeting?
Well, one answer is you teach your horse to retrieve. My young horse, Robin was our first retriever. Once he showed the way, the rest followed. We very quickly had a barn full of eager retrievers. And then what? If a horse can retrieve, could he open a mail box? Bob built Crackers his own mailbox so we could find out. The answer, of course, was yes. And not only can he open the mail box, he can also reach in, get the mail and hand it out to you.
He can also retrieve a basketball and dunk it through a hoop, kick a football, swing a hula hoop over his head, answer the telephone, play a piano and paint you a picture, to name just a few of the many tricks Bob taught Crackers.
Lots of people teach their horses tricks. What set Bob apart was the way in which he shared them. He started taking Crackers to outdoor fairs and festivals. Bob loved seeing people’s faces light up as they watched Crackers perform. “He’s so smart!” they’d exclaim as Crackers opened his mailbox and handed people the presents Bob had stashed inside.
I visited them at one festival where Crackers’ pen was right beside an area where people were flying enormous kites. It didn’t matter that brightly colored dragons were swooping over his head, Crackers went right on performing for the people who had come to see him.
At Christmas Bob would take Crackers to local shopping malls to raise money for the Salvation Army. I remember watching them outside a busy supermarket one snowy December evening. People gave so generously because it was Crackers ringing the bell. Bob took him to nursing homes and to the Hole in the Wall camp for children with cancer. One of the many stories Bob shared was of a little girl who decorated her hospital room with pictures of Crackers.
It was always Bob and Crackers. They were a team. If you knew Bob, you knew Crackers. And Crackers was always up for anything. From tricks to line dancing, he would perform for hours. As long as there were people who wanted to see him, Crackers was always willing. At the barn whenever someone came to visit, they were always treated to a show. Crackers loved it. Bring out his mailbox, and he was always eager to perform. Bob not only made Crackers’ life better through clicker training, together they enriched the lives of the thousands of people they met.
Bob and Crackers helped us discover what you could do with clicker training. It wasn’t just that Crackers could open a mail box or ring a bell. It was that he could perform wherever Bob took him whether it was at a crowded festival or in a snowy parking lot. Clicker training had given Crackers a confidence Bob could rely on.
Bob played another very important role in the development of clicker training, one that not as many people know about. He was my horse sitter. There aren’t many people I would entrust my horses to. I always knew I could rely on Bob.
In those early days, there were just occasional trips away. Most of my teaching was done locally, but word of mouth was beginning to bring requests for clinics. The people who signed up for my clinics didn’t yet know I was experimenting with clicker training. They were coming because they had heard I was good at solving training problems. During our time together, I would introduce them to clicker training, but it wasn’t yet the primary focus of the clinics.
In 1996 I launched my web site: theclickercenter.com. That was also the year Karen Pryor asked me to write a book for her new company, Sunshine Books. At clinics I still kept clicker training “under my hat”. I waited until my book was published in 1998 to announce that I was giving clinics that were specifically about clicker training. That’s when my travel schedule exploded. For many years after that I was away teaching almost more than I was home.
Whenever I was out of town, it was Bob who came every day to look after my horses. Without him I would never have been able to give those clinics. And without the clinics I would never have been able to connect to all the other clicker pioneers who helped me spread clicker training around the planet. So I owe Bob and Crackers a huge debt of thanks for joining me in this amazing adventure we call clicker training.
Crackers sadly is no longer with us. He died in 2012 at the grand age of 30. He is buried, as he should be, at the Clicker Center Barn where he will always be remembered with much love. At 80 Bob is still going strong. He may not have Crackers at his side, but he’s still sharing clicker training. He continues to pass on Crackers’ legacy by volunteering at a local horse rescue. So the ripples we started over twenty years ago are still going out into the horse world. Thank you, Bob and Crackers! It has been a great pleasure and honor to share clicker training with you.
Crackers and Bob are featured in all three of my books: “Clicker Training for your Horse”, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker”. They also appears in The Click That Teaches DVD Lesson series.
Next month I’ll be celebrating this 20th Anniversary year with another story featuring one of our clicker-training pioneers.
Happy 2018 Everyone!
Coming next: The Goat Diaries returns.