When I talk about Modern Horse Training, I’m referring to a shift away from command-based training to cue communication.
What does that mean?
Commands represent where we were in the horse and buggy era of horse training. Horses were a tool we used to plow fields, to provide transportation, and sadly to wage wars. Orders were given and orders were obeyed – or else.
Commands do not invite a conversation. They are a one way street. Within this frame of reference, a failure to respond is considered the fault of the horse. Riders are told a horse is being lazy, or stubborn. He’s testing you. You need to show him who is the boss.
Cues take us to a different way of thinking. Cues invite a conversation. I signal to my horse. His response in turn cues me. It’s a back and forth flow where I allow my behavior to be influenced by my horse. The behaviors we teach become the “vocabulary” our animals use to communicate with us.
It wasn’t a horse, but one of my cats who pointed this out to me. When she and her sister joined the family, I had just begun to explore clicker training. One of my clients found them starving in a barn, and I took them in.
Once she had been with me for a few weeks, this particular kitten decided she wanted to share in my breakfast. She would hop up next to me and nose her way towards my plate. I didn’t want to encourage that kind of sharing, but I also didn’t want to push her away. Instead I experimented with a technique I had seen dog trainers use to teach dogs to sit. They would use a food lure held above the dog’s head to encourage the head to go up and the rear end to go down.
I tried it. I put a dab of margarine on the tip of my finger and held it up above my kitten’s nose. As she looked up, her rear end went down. Click, I let her lick the margarine off my finger. Two clicks later and she was satisfied. She left me in peace to finish my breakfast.
The next morning she was back. I repeated the process. Her rear end was now sinking all the way down so she was in a sitting position. Click and treat. A couple of clicks later and she was again satisfied.
We continued with this breakfast ritual. Now she would jump up next to me and sit. Click, I would give her a dab of margarine. One morning she lifted a front paw up slightly up off the seat cushion. I liked the possibilities that this opened up so I clicked and gave her a treat. Soon she was not only sitting, she was rocking back on her haunches and sitting upright with both front paws up above her head. I was charmed. She wasn’t being a pest at breakfast time. Instead, I was getting this very fun behavior.
But cats being cats, that wasn’t the end. They are such good trainers!
A few days later I was in the kitchen. When my kitten came into the room, I was over by the sink. She stopped near the refrigerator. When I glanced in her direction, she sat down, rocked back on her haunches and lifted both paws up in the air. I had to laugh. She was cueing me!
Dog trainers use hand cues to signal to their dogs. She was using paw cues.
I could be a well-trained human.
I walked over to the refrigerator, opened the door, reached in and took out the tub of margarine. I opened the lid, put a little dab of margarine on my fingertip and offered it to my kitten. That was quite the complex behavior chain she had just cued!
I recognized that she had turned the tables on me. She was using a behavior I had taught her, but she was using it in a new context to get what she wanted from me. Clever cat!
This is what Modern Training shows us. If we are open to it, the behaviors we teach our animals can be used by them to communicate back to us.
They can say: “Yes, please, come and interact with me. I want more of this particular activity.” Or they can say: “No, I don’t want that right now.” They can add nuance: “Wait! I’m not ready! I’m confused.” We can read all this and more when we recognize that they are using behaviors we have taught them to communicate with us.
Modern Horse Training recognizes that saying “no” is an acceptable response. Horses have always had ways to say “No.” When handler’s aren’t tuned in, horses “raise their voices” by threatening to bite, pawing, looking away, acting bored, etc. They “shout” by rearing, spooking, bolting, bucking, kicking, and not just threatening to bite, but actually doing so.
In Modern Horse Training handlers learn to listen to whispers so their learning partners don’t have to “shout”. They adjust their behavior and willingly let themselves be cued by their horses.
For many people who have been brought up in the command-based paradigm, saying “No” isn’t an option for a horse. If a horse refuses a fence or baulks at the bottom of the trailer ramp, the whips come out. For those trained in this type of handling this is standard practice. Enforcing your commands isn’t abuse. It’s considered good training.
We’re taking a different training path. In the cultural norm that I started out in there was no safe way for a horse to say “No”. Now in the clicker training world, we’re giving our horses a rich vocabulary that expands the conversations. We’re creating a safety net for both the horse and the handler. Fear and confusion are replaced with confidence and enthusiasm – on both sides.
By expanding the repertoire of behaviors that are available to them, handlers can become much more nuanced in their reading of a horse’s emotional state. Body language expands to include all the behaviors that training has generated. The horse can use this richer “vocabulary” to engage in conversations with us.
At this point I expect every one of you are now saying: “I recognize what you’re talking about! My animals do that. My horses, my iguana, my parrots, my guinea pigs, my cat, my dog, my sea lion all use the behaviors that I’ve taught them to let me know what they want. Here, let me give you these ten anecdotes that show how my animals are using the behaviors I’ve taught them to communicate with me.”
Modern Horse Training reminds us to look for the ways in which our animal learners are using the behaviors we have taught them. Often they will be using them in unique situations, or in ways that we had not originally intended the behavior to be used.
One of the most important aspects not just of Modern Horse Training, but Modern Animal Training in general, is this: good training expands the conversation. It makes us partners in creating choice and control for both of us. That truly is a great basis for a life-long friendship.
My new book, Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend” will be published on April 26, 2023. Just a week to wait!
It will be available through my web site, theclickercenter.com, and through amazon and other book sellers.