I’m beginning this post on October 27. Who knows when I will actually get it done and published, but the beginning date is important. All year I have been writing thank yous to the many people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse community.
Obviously I can’t thank each and every person. There are too many of you, and I would be bound to forget someone. I would hate to create a long list and then hurt someone’s feelings through an omission of error. So I will send out a general, and most heartfelt thank you to everyone who has given clicker training a try, found it to your liking, and made it part of your life.
I have chosen October 27 to begin this post because it marks two special events. On October 27, 1968 I became a horse owner for the very first time. Since that day I have never been without a horse in my life. And on October 27, 1998 I received a package in the mail. It was an advance copy of my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, sent to me by my publisher, Sunshine Books, Karen Pryor’s company.
So I’m going to say thank you to my first horse because in so many ways he transformed me from a rider into a trainer. I didn’t know at the time all the good things he would be bringing me. When we first started out together, it was anything but good. He was a totally unsuitable horse for a child, but I never said anything to my parents. I was afraid if they knew how dangerous he was, they might send him back to his previous owner, and that would be the end of having my own horse.
I met his previous owner only once, on the day I tried the horse he was selling. He was a large, overweight man. He probably weighed over two hundred pounds. He rode in a western bit with a long shank so when he pulled back he could exert a tremendous amount of force. He liked to go trail riding – at speed. He was one of those riders who got on and took off at a gallop and didn’t stop until he was back home.
So it was no wonder that the first time I rode my new horse out of a ring he took off at a gallop. I’d only had him two days. I had been riding in a small ring just outside the barn. For some reason that made sense to her, the owner of the boarding barn told me to take him out of the ring. Since he was there for a week’s trial, maybe she thought I should be doing more with him.
“You need to ride him out in the field” she declared. I listened. I took him out into a hay field that had an oval track cut into the grass. At the far end of the track he took off at a gallop.
I was no match for him. There was no way I could pull back with the force of his previous owner. I tried to stop him but my feeble attempts made no dent in his determination to get back to the barn. I’d been told when you want to stop a horse you pull back. That’s what I was doing, but it had no effect. As we galloped across the hay field, I remember shouting at him – “You’re supposed to have stopped by now!” I really did! It made no difference.
He didn’t stop until he was back inside the barn standing in his stall – which thankfully was on a straight line in from the barn door. It was feeding time, so of course he wanted to get back, and I couldn’t stop him.
I lost track of the number of times he bolted with me after that. His favorite and most terrifying “trick” was to run straight at a tree and only at the last second to duck to the side. Sometimes I managed to stay on. Often I fell off, but I always got back on and kept trying to stop him. We eventually worked out a truce, and we were able to ride together at a pace that was more to my liking. He was wonderfully sure footed so trail riding was fun. He was one of those horses that you pointed in the general direction of where you wanted to go and then let him find the best way. He was fearless riding out. I don’t remember him ever spooking at anything. It was just the bolting for home that was unnerving.
I can’t tell you how many times I got so frustrated with him that I almost gave up. Almost, but never totally. I don’t really know what finally made the difference. I think it was simply that we gradually built a relationship. He never showed much affection, and he was a hard horse to love. I don’t think he expected people to be kind so he kept his true self very much hidden. Now that I have seen how expressive horses can be, the contrast seems all the greater.
In the spring of my last year of high school he became lame. It was one of those subtle, on-again-off-again lamenesses. The vet diagnosed him with navicular disease. Today we would say he had heel pain, and we would change the way he was trimmed. But at that time changes in the navicular bone meant a diagnosis of permanent lameness. I was delighted. It meant that I wouldn’t have to sell my horse when I went away to school. You couldn’t ethically sell a lame horse, so all through my years at Cornell I supported my horse.
I couldn’t take him to school with me, nor could he stay at the boarding barn without anyone to look after him, so he went to live with a family who had room for another horse. I was lucky to find him such a good home. He lived in retirement with them for seventeen years. He finally passed away at the grand old age of 33.
I’ve never followed norms. It’s the norm in the horse world to discard horses that are too lame or too old to ride. This has always bothered me. We have a responsibility to see to our horses’ lifelong care. I feel as though I have earned the right to stand on the soap box that says people need to take care of their older horses. As a student at Cornell, my budget was already tight. Stretching it to cover my horse’s expenses made it tighter still. I’m sure there would have been many people who would have sent him off to an auction and been done with him, but every month I wrote out a check to cover his expenses. And every time I was home, I went up to visit him.
He was becoming so much more affectionate. It was as though I had been a bridge between his old life and this new one. We had struggled together. When he bolted off with me, the adults at the boarding barn told me I needed to get after him, to punish him.
He had scared me. When he came to a stop after one of his flat-out gallops, hitting him with the ends of my western reins was easy. It changed nothing. He kept bolting, but in the moment it did feel good. Oh that slippery slope called punishment – it can be so reinforcing to the punisher. Somehow I recognized that and managed to stop. Punishing him wasn’t the answer. Persistence was. And now that he was in a quiet place being cared for by kind people, he was becoming trusting enough to show affection.
But I thought I was done with horses. I know – that’s a surprise considering how completely they have been in my life. He had not been an easy or fun horse to own. I was heading off in a different direction, one that didn’t include horses. But shortly after graduation, I got a call from the person who was caring for him. He was showing signs of heaves, and she wanted to let me know. I’d heard of heaves. I knew vaguely what that meant, but I needed to know more. So I got a book from the library on horses. I read the short section that described heaves and then kept on reading. That was my undoing.
When I started reading the chapter on raising foals, I thought I could do that. By the time I had turned the final page I had switched from I could do that to I want to do that. The overwhelming addiction to horses was reawakened. I could think of nothing else. But I didn’t jump in right away. I read everything I could get my hands on about horses, and I began taking lessons – English lessons from a very skilled horseman. And I began to search for my foal. I was going to have a horse I raised myself. Only I wasn’t going to use all those harsh techniques that surrounded me in the horse world.
I was taking lessons at a hunter/jumper barn. The instructor bought cheap thoroughbreds off the track and put them into his lesson string. He was one of those riders who could get on an agitated horse and in minutes have it settled. He couldn’t teach what he he did, but it was impressive to watch. He had no physical fear on a horse, and he didn’t understand that anyone else might. He thought that he needed to get people jumping as quickly as possible or they would get bored and go away. Mostly that meant people got injured and went away.
I wasn’t yet balance obsessed, but I knew enough to know that I wasn’t ready to jump. I took charge of my lessons. I insisted on working primarily on the flat. I thought it was more important to learn how to get to a jump in good balance than it was to go over it. I jumped in the weekly group lessons, but in the private lessons I added in I took charge of what we worked on. It helped that I had ridden before and had my own horse. I asked endless questions. He wasn’t used to this kind of riding student, but it meant I was learning what I needed. I had to be ready for the foal I was going to raise. Of course, he tried to talk me out of starting with a baby. I heard all about green on green, but I was determined. The hunt was on!
I was still supporting my first horse. Adding a second horse was going to stretch my budget even tighter. When I found her, my beautiful thoroughbred yearling, I wasn’t sure if I could really afford her. I kept going over the numbers. If I gave up this, if I cut back on that, could I stretch things enough to get her? No matter how many times I tried to balance my budget, the numbers kept coming up short. But I had to get her. When I finally said yes, it was a real leap of faith that things would work out. And somehow they did.
I get often get emails from people saying they are on a tight budget. I totally understand. I remember when videos first came out being really excited. Here was a way to expand my knowledge even more. The very first video I ever bought cost $89. That was a huge stretch of the budget for me. The video was a disappointment. It was a simplistic overview that had no depth to it. It was something you watched once and never needed to see again. What a waste of precious dollars.
That’s why I have always been determined to pack as much as I can into all the books and videos I have produced. They contain layer upon layer of information. You can return to them many times and always find new things in them. I want to give good value for money. If you are on a tight budget, I still want you to be able to access good information. And I want you to have an alternative to the force-based training that is so prevalent in the horse world.
In those early days the books I was reading didn’t help me to know how to train. If anything, they taught me more about what NOT to do. They were filled with advice on how to be a better punisher. That wasn’t what I was looking for.
I had already had my first great teacher – my first horse. I began by learning from him what I didn’t want. In the years to come I was going to have many more lessons in patience and persistence. I moved from knowing what I didn’t want to breaking lessons down into very small steps. I learned about consistency and focus. I learned to choose kindness over force. My horses prepared me well so that when I finally stumbled across clicker training, it made perfect sense to me. It was a good fit. I was ready for Peregrine to teach me about this new way of training.
In this year of celebration I have thanked many people, but on this day I am thanking my horses. It truly is my horses, my teachers. I am so very grateful to them. They have carried me across many stepping stones to what I have today – a deep and loving connection with my horses. And I am delighted to be able to share what they have been teaching me with all of you. We don’t have to listen to the people who are telling us to get tougher. Our horses are showing us a different way, a way they understand and want us to know about.