Modern Horse Training: What is Constructional Training?

I’m counting down the days to the publication of my new book: “Modern Horse Training A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”.

Everything is set to go (I hope). The publication date is April 26. While we are waiting, I’ve been sharing with you, not excerpts from the book, but some stories that explain the genesis of my training choices. Here’s today’s installment:

Yesterday I wrote about the link between ground work and riding. That sits at the core of the constructional approach to training that my horses have been teaching me. Here’s an example to help you understand how this works.

Suppose you are working with a youngster who hasn’t had much handling. You want this horse to pick up his feet for cleaning. That’s one of the universals we all need to teach our horses. It doesn’t matter if you want to ride English or western, or you don’t ride at all, horses need regular foot care.

But before you can pick up your horse’s feet, you need him to stand still and to be comfortable being handled. So there are some component skills that are handy to teach before you start trying to handle his feet.

You’ll be starting with the foundation lessons. You’ll be teaching him to stand still, to back up and come forward, to orient to targets, to stand on a mat. You’ll be starting in simple environments that make these lessons easier to teach. The new book covers this in detail so I won’t say more here. Let’s assume that you have taught your horse to stand on a mat, and you are now teaching him front leg flexions. As you develop this lesson, you are able to point at his shoulder and your horse will lift his foot up well off the ground into your waiting hand.

Robin shows a good example of a leg flexion. He’s targeting his knee to my hand. The balance these leg flexions teach make routine foot care very easy, and they also contribute to the good balance I look for under saddle.

Teaching leg flexions to your young horse will mean foot cleaning is easy. He’s lifting his foot up for you, and he’s become so well balanced he’s not leaning on you for support.

Foot care may not seem to be connected to riding, but it very much is. Those leg flexions are a wonderful prep for riding. They help your horse find the good balance that makes riding easier for both of you.

When you clean your horse’s feet, you could skip all this training. You could pry his feet up off the ground and accept having him shifting around and leaning on you for support. Cleaning his feet would be a chore, but you’d get it done.

You could skip all the “niceties” of the preliminary groundwork and get straight on, but your job will be much harder. You’ll be getting on an unbalanced horse who is much more of a challenge to ride.

I prefer to stack the deck more in favor of both my horse and myself. So another important lesson my horses have taught me is: If a lesson is becoming difficult for either the horse or the handler, it’s time to break the lesson down into smaller steps.

Remember I want to avoid “brick-wall” training. The sooner I recognize that a lesson is presenting puzzles my horse and I aren’t ready to solve, the easier it becomes to avoid crashing into metaphorical brick walls. I want to fine tune my detectors so long before a puzzle begins to generate frustration, anxiety, fear, or any other emotion that could get us into trouble, I’m already looking for the smaller, easier-to-teach underlying steps.

My horses have taught me to keep looking for smaller steps. If I break a lesson down into what I think is a small step, if it is still too hard, I will keep looking for the even smaller step that it can be divided into. Sometimes finding the smaller step means asking for less. It means asking for just a weight shift instead of a full step. It can also mean looking for the missing component part that is needed to make the lesson easier to understand. What do I need to teach first? If I haven’t introduced my horse to basic targeting, asking him to target his knee to my hand could easily become a frustrating lesson for both of us.

Looking for the smaller step has evolved into this “loopy training” guideline: To find a starting place for your training, you will keep dividing a lesson into smaller and smaller component parts, until you find something your learner CAN consistently do, even if that step seems very small and very far away from your goal behavior.

What am I describing?

Constructional training. This term comes from the work of Dr. Goldiamond, a behavior analyst and clinical psychologist. In a nutshell Goldiamond didn’t want to “fix” behavior. He wanted to build new repertoires of behavior – hence the name constructional training.

This fits perfectly with clicker training. Instead of focusing on what you aren’t liking, and setting goals that are centered around eliminating unwanted behavior, you reframe everything. You focus on what you want your horse TO DO, and you teach that. A constructional training approach matches the approach to training that for me began to evolve over 40 years ago.

Something else I learned a long time ago is good ideas are good ideas. They aren’t unique to any one person or any one source. When you find a convergence like this coming from two very different sources – clinical patients in Goldiamond’s case, and horses in mine, that’s a good indicator that you are on the right track.

The new book, “Modern Horse Training” is designed to help you become a skilled constructional trainer. It explains in detail how the concept of constructional training provides a wonderful framework for positive reinforcement training. Everything is connected to everything else makes perfect sense when you see your training from this perspective.

“Modern Horse Training” will be available as a hardcover, a paperback, and as an ebook. The publication date is April 26. You’ll be able to order it through my web site, and also through Amazon and other booksellers.

Modern Horse Training: Core Principles of Good Training

I have a new book coming out on April 26, 2023: “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”

The new book – coming April 26, 2023

I am no good at writing quick elevator pitches to let you know what the book is about. Instead while we are waiting for the publication date, I have been sharing a series of short posts that describe the overall development of my training.

I ended yesterday’s post by asking what were some of the component skills that helped me transform clicker training from an interesting concept into a workable training program for horses?

For starters my horses had helped me to formulate some guiding principles. These pre-dated my exploration of clicker training. I learned these principles directly from my horses. I also saw trainers I admired using them. So these principles are not specific to clicker training. I would say they are part of good training in general. These concepts take you to horse-friendly, learner-centric training choices regardless of the actual procedures used.

So what are they?

They begin with:

Safety always comes first – for both you and your horse.

That sounds as though it should be a given, but it’s not. I’ve watched far too many horse people ignore this basic principle. Trailer loading is a prime example. Look at all the fights you see around trailers. A given trainer may have gotten away with forcing frightened horses onto trailers. But load enough horses, and you’ll will meet that one individual who fights back with more power, more speed, more fear than you can handle. Someone will get hurt and those are odds I’m just not willing to take on.

Here’s a way safety always comes first plays out for me. Peregrine’s mother taught me the value of ground work. Her neurological condition gave me this one simple rule. I never asked her for something under saddle which she had not shown me she could do on her own. If she couldn’t walk beside me around my work space without spooking at the goblins, she wasn’t ready to be ridden. If she couldn’t trot in balance without a rider, I wasn’t going to get on and expect her to know how to trot.

This rule kept us safe. It’s a good rule that I have extended to all the horses I work with. It means that ground work is an essential part of good riding. That’s also not a given. In 1993 when I first started exploring clicker training, ground work for most people meant lunging. That was pretty much it. You lunged your horse before you rode him to “get the bucks out”. Often that meant sending an unbalanced horse at speed around you on a circle. It wasn’t much fun for either the horse or the handler.

For me ground work meant so much more than this. I got Peregrine’s mother as a yearling and later I bred her to get Peregrine. Because I raised both my horses, ground work meant all the handling of young horses – teaching them to accept grooming, haltering, basic leading, foot care, blanketing, basic medical care, etc. When you have only been around older riding horses, it’s easy to take these universals for granted. You forget that horses have to learn how to accept all these different intrusions into their personal space. When an older horse is hard to groom or doesn’t stand well for the farrier, he’s labelled as a “problem horse”. Clicker training helps us to reframe how we see these horses.

Ground work also meant teaching my horses the basic skills that let me go for walks with them. It meant the T.E.A.M. ground work skills that began to move me away from the conventional handling that I saw around me in the local riding stables. It also meant the classical work in-hand that I was learning from Bettina Drummond, Nuno Oliviero’s principle student. And it meant round pen training that I first figured out based on a magazine article and later expanded upon after watching John Lyons. So I brought to clicker training an extensive and varied repertoire of ground work.

I also understood the connection between ground work and riding. The first time I watched John Lyons at one of his symposiums, he said “I solve ground problems on the ground and riding problems under saddle.” I could see that wasn’t what he was doing, but he really believed what he was saying. Yes, he was using his version of round pen training to prepare a young horse for riding. That connection was there. But after that in his mind there was a separation.

A couple of years later he stopped making that distinction. His stallion Zip had shown him how connected ground work and riding really were. I never heard him talk about this directly, but you could see the difference. The first time I saw Zip, I loved his topline. He was round, he was soft, he was well balanced – all things I enjoyed looking at. But Zip had short, little pony gaits.

Lyons had not yet resolved this major training puzzle: horses will naturally change leg speed before they soften at the poll. In the new book I describe in detail what this means so I won’t go into it here. When you don’t solve this puzzle, the gaits are effected. Horses no longer have the big, beautiful, clean gaits that you would have seen in them as youngsters. Their gaits become compromised. It is so normal, we often don’t even see anymore how unbalanced and lame horses are becoming because of the way in which they are being ridden.

In his symposiums Lyons would use Zip to demonstrate a ground exercise Lyons referred to as the east, west, north, south lesson. It is a form of hazing. The horse wants to dodge to the left to escape from you, you drive him to the right. He ducks out to the right, you drive him back to the left. He tries to back up, you send him forward. He barges over the top of you, you drive him straight back. No matter which way the horse tries to duck out the escape route is blocked. After a while, the horse stands still in front of you. And when you tell him to move to the left or right, forward or back, he does.

This can be a brutal lesson if you take the brick-wall approach to it. (See It can be an elegant lesson if you break it down into small steps and teach it with positive reinforcement.

I watched Lyons over a number of years, and I saw a lot of changes both in his horses and in the way he talked about his training. With Zip he demonstrated another core training principle: the longer you stay with an exercise the more good things you see that it gives you.

Every week Lyons would use Zip to demo the east, west, north, south lesson and every week Zip would get better at it. Lyons kept seeing more of what staying with a lesson gives you. In Zip’s case it resolved the leg speed puzzle. Zip gave at the poll before he changed leg speed. Solving the puzzle transformed his gaits. He became a beautiful mover. His gaits matched the promise of his topline. When he was in his twenties and completely blind, he moved better than he had in his early teens.

My horses had also shown me the clear connection between ground work and riding. So one of my favorite expressions is:

Ground work is just riding where you get to stand up and riding is ground work where you get to sit down.

Everything is connected to everything else.

This connection between lessons and especially between ground work and riding is key to the approach I have taken in “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”. The fun of this way of structuring your training is it is very sneaky. You are never working on just one thing. Every lesson truly is connected to all other lessons. And because I am breaking complex lessons down into small components and I am using positive reinforcement procedures, safety always does come first – and fun is the result.

The new book, “Modern Horse Training” will be published April 26, 2023. It will be available as a hardcover, a paperback, and as an ebook. You’ll be able to order it through my web site, and also through Amazon and other booksellers.

Coming next- What is Constructional Training?

Modern Horse Training: Connections

Everything is Connected to Everything ElseIncluding Dolphins and Horses

I stumbled across clicker training in 1993. A friend who bred and trained Irish Wolf hounds told me about Karen Pryor’s book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”. I read it, loved it and wanted to learn more. What was this clicker training that she was talking about? How did it work?

I read her second training book, “Lads Before the Wind: Diary of a Dolphin Trainer” which described how she and her husband, Tap Pryor, developed Sea Life Park in Hawaii. Karen was given the task of figuring out how to train dolphins. It wasn’t anything she set out to do. The task fell to her because the people they had hired to train the dolphins weren’t getting anywhere. These trainers were trying without success to use old-style circus training methods. That didn’t work with an animal that could just swim away from them.

Karen was intrigued by the work that was coming out of B.F. Skinner’s labs. So armed with the lab notes from some of his graduate students, she set to work. She figured out how to use marker signals and positive reinforcement to train dolphins.

Her books were great. I loved both of them. I enjoyed “Lads” even more than “Don’t Shoot the Dog” because Karen shared the puzzle-solving aspect of training. But those books weren’t training manuals. They didn’t teach you HOW to train. They just teased you with the possibility that you could remove the threat of punishment that sits behind most horse training methods.

I was intrigued, but in 1993 other than Karen’s books, there weren’t any readily available resources for learning more about clicker training. Through a bit of luck, I did manage to find a VHS recording of a seminar that Karen produced. It included two short video clips showing animals being clicker trained. One was of an African bull elephant at the San Diego zoo being trained with protective contact to present his feet for trimming. The other was a 12 week old mastiff puppy who learned to sit and lie down in minutes without ever being touched.

The elephant was the most interesting. He had attacked his keepers on several occasions so the decision was made to that no one was allowed to go directly into his pen with him. That meant that for ten years he had not had any foot care. Clicker training was being used to see if they could teach him to orient to targets and present his feet through a small opening in the gate of his enclosure. During the video, you could hear Gary Priest, the director of training at that time, saying “I cannot impress upon you enough how aggressive this animal was, but he’s standing there cooperating for just the social attention and a bucket of food treats.” I watched that and thought – we in the horse world have a lot to learn. I was thinking of the twitches, the lip chains, the hobbles, etc. that I had seen people use to force horses to comply.

The other video showed the use of a treat held up above a puppy’s nose to get the puppy to sit. Within just a few clicks, the puppy was sitting, then lying down and staying down while the trainer walked around her. There was no pushing, no shoving, no use of force. It was simple, elegant training.

Those two videos were all I needed to be up and running. They gave me what I needed to go out to the barn to ask Peregrine what he thought about clicker training. He got the proverbial ball rolling, so it is fitting that the new book, Modern Horse Training, is coming out on the anniversary of his birthday, April 26.

A Perfect Fit

I could say that clicker training was a perfect fit for me. Or I could turn it around and say that I was a perfect fit for clicker training. There were no horse books out there to guide me, or even any other trainers I could visit to see how it was being used. I was on my own. But I was primed. To use the language of constructional training, I had the components that were needed to turn the idea of clicker training into a fully formed, detailed, soup to nuts training program.

So what were those components? What were the skills, the mindset, the repertoire that prepared me so well to embrace the idea of clicker training? I will say that I have met many others who shared similar components. For so many all that is missing is the understanding of marker signals. Give them that, and, like me, they are off and running. But for many others clicker training represents a huge shift in thinking. Can you really use food in training? Isn’t it a distraction? Won’t it teach your horse to bite? What do you do when your horse says: “No”? The old style of thinking dictates that you must punish unwanted behavior or your horse will become dangerous. “Fear of and fear for” becomes an underlying motivator even if it is not spoken of in that way.

We can begin with that same underlying motivator and end up with a very different result. That’s what I wrote about in yesterday’s post. You can also use treats in training and still stay wedded to the belief that unwanted behavior needs to be corrected.

Using positive reinforcement describes a procedure. What I’m addressing now is the question of what motivates your training decisions? Even kind people can end up choosing punishment because they are motivated by “fear for” risks. You’re afraid that your dog might rush out the front door and be hit by a car, so you use punishment to teach him to stay back when you open the door. That’s one example of how this plays out.

You don’t have to use punishment to solve this problem. There are other options. You begin by acknowledging that you are concerned for your dog’s safety, and then you search out solutions that are a match with your core ethics and the type of relationship you want with your dog.

The same applies to horses. Wanting to keep bad things from happening is a powerful motivator that can take us to some wonderful learner-friendly procedures.

Sometimes it’s okay to start out by running away from something. Clicker training teaches us how to reframe that so you begin to run TOWARDS the good things that you want. You stop focusing on the unpleasant outcomes that you don’t want and you teach instead all the good things you do want.

You don’t want your horse crowding into you, stepping on your toes, mugging your pockets, biting at your hands. You can certainly suppress these behaviors through the use of punishment. Or you can look at what you do want. When your horse is standing next to you, what does that look like? Can you describe what the “perfect version” of your horse would be doing? He’d be standing four on the floor, in his own space, with his head between his shoulders so his nose is well away from your pockets. The more detailed your description is, the easier it is to train what you want. Each element you describe becomes a lesson you can teach. What are his ears doing? Where is his head – level with his chest, down on the ground? You can shape all of this using a marker signal that is linked to positive reinforcement.

Those are nice sounding words, but again how do you make this work? What were some of the component skills that helped me transform clicker training from an interesting concept into a workable training program?

That’s tomorrow’s post. I’m splitting what was originally a much longer single post into two installments so it’s not too much to read in one sitting.

“Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend” will be available April 26. It will be available as a hardcover, a paperback, and as an ebook. You’ll be able to oder it through my web site and also through Amazon and other booksellers.

Modern Horse Training: Contrast Teaches

In Search of Excellence

In March we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Clicker Expo. The theme for the Expo was centered around excellence. The Expo organizers wanted the presenters to talk about what made their work consistently stand out – what accounted for our success in training and teaching. This was originally supposed to be the theme of the 2020 Clicker Expo, but then the pandemic got in the way, so we had a lot of time to think about this topic.

Yesterday I wrote about Peregrine’s mother. She had neurological damage which meant, especially early on, she would frequently lose her balance and fall. I was told by my vet that there was no treatment for her, and in all likelihood her condition would worsen and I would be forced to put her down. The risk of her falling on someone would mean she would simply become unsafe to handle.

I saw her fall. I knew the risks and I chose to work with her anyway. How could I not? I loved her.

When I was around her, I was always careful. And I was always afraid in a way that I had not been before when I was around horses. My fear shaped my training choices.

So when I thought about this question for my Expo presentation: in general what are the procedures, the techniques, the principles that help people to excel in their training, I came up with what might seem to many to be an unexpected answer.

But before I give you my answer, I first want to ask what is excellence anyway? What does it mean to you?

The dictionary defines it as: “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.”

That’s a nice feeling to think that we are outstanding in something. And we are. Every one of us is an expert. We are an expert in our own life experience. Nobody knows more about your life than you do.

So when I was thinking about this question of excellence, I was thinking about what for me is the difference that has made a difference?

Here’s my answer: what helped me to be a better trainer comes down to one word and that’s fear.

This is an interesting answer because, of course, I am a positive-reinforcement trainer. I want my learners to be moving towards activities that they enjoy, not away from aversives. I work hard to set up positive-reinforcement scenarios for both the horses and the people I work with. But scratch below the surface of my training and what motivates my search for training excellence is fear.

There are two kinds of fear. There’s the fear of something. Horses are big. That’s such an obvious statement it almost seems silly to point it out. But I think this is one of the reasons that horses make us look more deeply below the surface of our training choices than working with dogs typically does.

Dogs can certainly be dangerous. They are predators, after all, but for the most part they are harmless family pets. They jump up on people and lick their faces. They run around their feet and bump into them. They pull on leashes and for the most part people manage to stay upright. The same behavior in a horse could land you in the hospital. Horses are bigger than we are. They are stronger than we are. They are faster than we are. When they are excited or afraid, they can very definitely hurt us. Plus we get on their backs! We compound the risks by riding them, so fear of being hurt represents a rational response to being around a large, potentially volatile animal.

Then there’s the fear for something. Dog owners know this kind of fear. It very definitely can effect their training choices. Think about this situation: You don’t want your dog running out the front door because he could end up in the road and be hit by a car.

That fear motivates many people to adopt punishment-based solutions. They aren’t cruel, mean owners. They love their dogs. They don’t want to lose them. That’s the motivation that sits behind choosing training methods that cause fear or pain. They want to stop the behavior of running out the front door to prevent something much more horrible from happening. Interesting. Give them a kinder solution and they’ll switch – provided it’s effective. If we want to move owners away from punishment-based solutions, education matters.

Size Matters

Horses are big. And as strong as they are, they are also very fragile, so horses confront us with both kinds of fear, and often at the same time. Training minis revealed to me how much size effects our training choices. Panda, the mini I trained to be a working guide for her blind owner, came to me when she was nine months old. The first day she was with me I brought her into my house. It was such a novelty. There’s a horse in my house! She was so small I wasn’t worried at all. She was the size of a large dog. She weighed only a hundred pounds. In horse terms she was 7.5 hands tall (28 inches at the withers). If she had gotten under a table or trapped somehow in a tight space, I could easily have helped her out. But when a full sized horse gets cast in a stall or trapped under a fence, you may need four or five strong people to get the horse untangled. Size makes a difference. If you have only trained big horses, I very much recommend that you find a mini-sized mini to work with. Panda revealed how much size makes a difference. For me I know it certainly colors the risks I am willing to take and the training decisions I make.

Size matters in others ways. When I took Panda for walks in those early days, she used to stand up on her hind legs like a goat. She was amazingly well balanced. When she reared up, I just laughed. She was so tiny. She was only 28 inches at the withers. So when she reared up, it was cute. If she had been a nine month old warmblood, I probably wouldn’t have been laughing. Size matters. Training minis is a useful exercise. It really does reveal how much our training is colored by the size of the animal we work with.

My horses have free run of the barn, that includes the barn aisle and other spaces that horses don’t typically have free access to. I am very comfortable with them. I couldn’t give them this life style if I wasn’t very confident that they are safe to be around, even in tight spaces. But even so I respect their size. I am mindful of how I move around them so we all remain safe. Fear isn’t on the surface. I know my horses are mindful of me, as well. They have shown me that they will actively avoid bumping into me, but mistakes can happen. So fear sits in the background and influences how I evaluate the safety moment to moment of every horse-human interaction.

In the horse world fear is everywhere. It’s easy to spot. All you have to do is look for tension. You’ll see it in the horses. And you’ll see it in the riders, even riders at very high levels. Look for the tension in their arms, the tightness in their bodies, the hold on the reins. Only we don’t call this fear. We call it being tough, being assertive. Being afraid in the horse world isn’t acceptable. Riders who are afraid are shamed. Horses who are afraid are punished.

Another place you can see how afraid riders are of their horses is at tack stores. Look at all the leverage devices that are used to control horses. Why do we need to control them? Because we are afraid of them. Only that fear is hushed up, glossed over, called something else.

The Legacy of “Get Back On Your Horse” Training Attitudes

In the horse world when you take a tumble, it is get back on your horse. You aren’t allowed to be afraid. Unless you are so hurt you are being airlifted off to a hospital, it is get back on. Conquer your fear and conquer that horse. We have inherited this attitude from the age in which horses were used for transportation. The phrase “get back on your horse” has become part of normal speech. If you have a disaster at work, you are instructed to get right back out there. People who have never been near a horse in their entire life are told: “You have to get back on your horse.”

In a previous post I wrote about my experience at a hunter jumper barn. There I saw attitudes that are all too common in the horse world. In lessons people were told to get over their fear.

They were told to push past it, “to get back on their horse”. If a horse refused a fence, he was just being lazy. He was testing you. He was stubborn.

The solution that was offered was to get after him and make him do it. Get tough. Go straight at the brick wall and go over it. Being afraid wasn’t an option.

The horse world has no patience for those who can’t. You have to be brave and make the horse do it.

So I went to the dictionary again to find out what brave means. The horse world agrees with the dictionary definition: brave – adjective: ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.

Next I went to the thesaurus. That was interesting. The synonyms the thesaurus gave me made me feel as though I was in the swashbuckling era of the early Hollywood movies. They evoked images of the three musketeers or old John Wayne movies.

Brave is synonymous with: courageous, plucky, fearless, valiant, valorous, intrepid, heroic, lionhearted, manful, macho, bold, daring, daredevil, adventurous, audacious, death-or-glory; undaunted, unflinching, unshrinking, unafraid, dauntless, indomitable, doughty, mettlesome, venturesome, stouthearted, stout, spirited, gallant, stalwart.

Interesting. These were certainly words that were valued in “brick-wall” training. But my horse was showing me these weren’t qualities that helped her. And they certainly didn’t describe me.

Finding Alternatives

So what is the alternative to being brave? I was just beginning to learn about training. Compared to the people around me I had very limited skills. But I had two things going for me that they either ignored or steam rolled over because they could.

I was patient.

And I was persistent.

Plus I loved my horse. I wanted to put off for as long as possible the day her neurological impairments would force the decision to have her put down.

So you can definitely say that FEAR sits at the center of what drove me to become a better trainer.

Instead of pushing FEAR aside, instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there, or feeling as though I wasn’t good enough because I felt afraid, I turned things around and learned to listen to that fear.

I was afraid of my horse and for my horse, both at the same time. Instead of running from fear, I listened to it. I used it. It shaped my training in a good way. I found solutions that were horse friendly, that sidestepped fighting with horses and instead helped me to become what the subtitle of my new book celebrates – my horse’s best friend. The new book, “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide To Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend” is very much a product of the forty year journey my horses have sent me on.

I know from teaching thousands of people that I am not alone in feeling afraid of my horses and for my horses. And I also know that many of these individuals have encountered the same message that I observed in that hunter jumper barn: Get over your fear. Get tougher. Get back on your horse and show him who is the boss.

I have taught people who now struggle to ride because they listened to someone else instead of to their own fear. When they got back on, their horse sent them flying. Broken bones were the result. The brick wall that is their fear now looms so high it can’t be ignored. There are still ways around the wall, but it’s a longer journey than it needed to be.

This isn’t universal. You may have been lucky enough to start out in a barn that taught through compassionate, learner-centric methods such as Sally Swift’s Centered Riding or some other equally kind form of instruction. But the old attitude sadly is still there in far too many barns. It is so embedded in the training world, you may not even be aware of it. It is just the norm, the way things are done. If you’re an instructor, of course you find yourself telling a student to get back on after a fall. It’s what you were told. It’s what you did.

But it’s not what our horses are asking for, and it’s certainly not a match with the kind of relationship that many of us are looking for when we get a horse. We want to ride, and, yes, absolutely we want adventures. But we want them want them with our best friend, not a sparing partner.

The title of the new book, “Modern Horse Training”, refers to this shift in thinking. The older forms of thinking used punishment to suppress fear. There is an alternative.

Modern Horse Training” offers another way forward. I’ll show you what emerges when instead of trying to suppress the fear, you acknowledge it, you listen to it – both in yourself and in your horses. It lets you develop teaching strategies that build confident, eager, resilient, enthusiastic learners. There’s no pushing through brick walls. Instead there is good instruction built around the much kinder path of constructional training and positive-reinforcement procedures.

The new book will be published on April 26, 2023. You will be able to order it through my web site: and also through Amazon and other booksellers. It will be available in hardcover, paperback and as an ebook.

In the coming posts I’ll share with you some of the many good things that have evolved in my training because I learned to listen to that little voice inside me that was telling me to be careful. Coming next: Everything is Connected to Everything Else

The book is coming! The arrival of the book proofs was very exciting!

Constructional Training – What That Term Means to Me.

I have a new book coming out on April 26: Modern Horse Training

The subtitle of the book is: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend.

In the clicker training community we’ve been talking a lot recently about constructional training. Dr Jesús Rosales Ruiz has brought to our attention the work of Israel Goldiamond. Dr Goldiamond was a clinical psychologist. Instead of trying to “fix” problem behavior, he constructed new repertoires. The analogy would be instead of trying to fix a falling down, hundred year old barn with a leaky roof, cracked foundations and ceilings that are too low for horses, you build a new barn that’s purpose-built for what you need. It has none of the problems of the falling-down barn. The old barn may still be on your property, but you don’t have to use it for your horses. The old, unwanted behavior may still exist. Nothing is ever erased or unlearned, but there is a clean, new behavior in repertoire that you can call on instead.

The term constructional training appeals to me. I like building things. The idea that we can teach complex behaviors by first breaking them down into smaller component parts is not new to me. My horses showed me this decades ago.

Nor is this a new idea in the horse world. It is how good trainers train. But that doesn’t make it the norm. Far from it. What we see around us are people who confront problems head on. The horse world is full of instructors who tell their students to send their frightened horses forward, to make them obey, to show them who is boss. Sometimes this works and sometimes it puts the rider in the hospital and the horse on a trailer to the auction yards.

My Path to a Constructional Mindset
I have always been horse crazy. Like so many others I grew up in a family that just didn’t share my obsession over horses. My parents did at least provide me with the opportunity to ride. Over time I developed a decent seat. I could ride, maybe not that well, but riding out over rough terrain, riding at speed, riding bareback were all well within my capabilities. As a teenager, I thought I knew how to ride. As a young adult, I decided I was wrong. Yes, I could ride, but I didn’t really know how to ride. There’s a difference. And I certainly didn’t know how to train. I wanted to learn, so I started to take lessons at a local hunter jumper stable. To choose the stable I opened the phone book – yes, this was a time before computers when there were actual phone books with yellow pages directories. When I chose the stable that was closest to my house, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The owner had been around horses all of his life. He had grown up poor with very little formal schooling. I’m pretty sure he would not have been able to read the words I’m writing here, but my goodness he could read horses. He was a superb horse person. Talk about horse whisperers – he was definitely one of them.

He was running a hunter jumper barn because that’s where the money was in the northeast, but that wasn’t where he started out. At one point he had been top ten in the country – in bull riding.

That’s certainly not a typical background for a trainer at a jumper barn, at least not in this region. It made for “exciting” lessons. He had no physical fear. And he didn’t understand fear in others, not in people and certainly not in horses. His approach to fences was to go straight at them, the higher the better.

In New York where I live the thoroughbred racing industry is strong. That means if you are looking for a riding horse, you will encounter a lot of thoroughbreds. The horses in the school line were all thoroughbreds with only one exception, and they were all literally off the track. On Sunday the horses would be racing. On Monday they would be on a dealer’s van heading for the riding stable. The dealers knew Pick was looking for cheap horses, horses that weren’t fast enough, or sound enough for the trainers to hang onto, but who might do as riding horses.

These were horses who had never jumped a fence in their lives – at least not with a rider on board. Pick would set up a line of fences. He’d have one of the teenage boys who rode for him get on and they’d send the horse over the jumps. If a horse balked, they would build a chute. Two men would stand on either side of the chute with lunge whips while the rider drove the horse forward with a crop.

When the horse cleared the fence, the rails went up. They wanted to see what the horse could do.

The horses that took the fences down, or that came up lame afterwards were put back on the trailer and were sent back to the dealer’s yard. The others stayed and were put into the school line. I rode some amazingly athletic horses. I also rode some very frightened, unbalanced, and untrained horses. And I learned a lot about brick-wall training.

Brick-wall Training
Brick-wall training refers to an approach to problem solving where you go head-on into the problem. It was the reality I saw at this stable, and it’s a metaphor for much of what we encounter in the rest of society. If there’s a brick wall in front of you, you head over it, no matter how tall or how wide it is. You either make it over, or you crash. Oh well.

Brick-wall problem solving is fine if you are athletic enough, strong enough, sound enough, brave enough to make it over the fence. Many of those thoroughbreds were. But many of the riders weren’t. Pick lost a lot of potentially good riders to broken bones and just plain old fear.

I very quickly decided to opt out of the group lessons. I watched as many as I could, but I chose to take private lessons instead. I wanted to control what I was being taught. I wasn’t interested so much in going over the fences. That was a fun outcome, but only if the fence was jumped well. I wanted to know how to ride a correct corner that would bring me into a balanced approach to the fence. In other words, I was looking for the components that made for a successful ride. Because I had ridden before, I knew what I wanted to learn.

I baffled Pick. He thought riders just wanted to jump. In my lessons I would stop and ask questions. It turned out he knew a lot about balance. If you asked the right questions you could learn a lot from him. I asked a lot of questions, and I did indeed learn a lot about good riding. By watching the group lessons I also learned what I didn’t want.

I couldn’t go straight at brick walls, not with my horse. This was Peregrine’s mother. I bought her from Pick just before she turned a year old. He had bred her to be a racehorse, but he was just as glad to sell her early. She passed a pre-purchase vet check. Now that I’ve seen more pre-purchase exams, I know the vet was pretty superficial with this one. He wasn’t expecting to see any problems in such a young horse so he didn’t look for any. Not long after that exam, I began to see the first small signs that there was something terribly wrong.

At first, I saw her dragging her hind feet. When I asked Pick about it, he said she was just being lazy. How many times since then have I heard people say that about a horse?

When I saw her fall for the first time, I called the vet back in. This time he looked more closely, and he diagnosed her as a wobbler. She had spinal cord damage. When I started asking questions and doing some digging it was clear that the cause was a handling incident that had gone wrong. She was tied tight to a post while a teenager pulled her mane for the first time. She protested. He persisted. She fought back. She was against the four foot kick board of the arena. Her only escape was over the rail so she jumped it with her head tied tight. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the rest of that scene.

The incident occurred shortly before I bought her. I wouldn’t have known anything about it except one of the visible signs of the event was a swollen hind leg. If I hadn’t seen the swelling during one of my visits to the barn, no one would have said anything about it.

The swelling went away, but the damage to her spinal cord remained. The injury left her with limited awareness of her hindquarters. Wobbler syndrome is descriptive even if it doesn’t tell you very much about what has happened internally. It can be caused by injury, and there is also equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) which at that time was just beginning to be understood. In either case, even the vets at Cornell had no treatment to offer me. My local vet told me I would never be able to ride her, and he advised me to put her down.

I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t end her life simply because I wouldn’t be able to ride her. That wasn’t right. Nor could I afford to retire her to a pasture somewhere while I got a second horse to ride.

The vet told me that her condition would deteriorate over time, and I would eventually be forced to put her down for safety reasons. That was the future I had in front of us, but in the meantime I needed to deal with what she was struggling with on a day by day basis.

For starters she had trouble going in and out of her stall because there was a sill over the threshold that was intended to keep the bedding from spilling out into aisle. I thought if I taught her to go over ground poles, she would have more confidence stepping over the sill. So I set out a round jump pole. That terrified her. She refused to go anywhere near it. I could have forced her over it. That’s the “show them who’s boss” approach to training I had seen modeled all around me at the riding stable. I didn’t want to fight with her, so I took a different approach.

A ground pole was too hard. That was too big a “jump”. I swapped it out for a flat board that wouldn’t roll if she stepped on it. She was still afraid. She couldn’t manage it.

I tried a lead rope. That was still too hard. So then I drew a line in the sand. That she could walk over. From the line in the sand, I reintroduced the lead rope, then the flat board, and the round ground pole. She was eventually able to jump a small cross rail.

I didn’t approach the problem head on. She taught me how to break complex tasks down into smaller and smaller steps until I found something she could do.

Over time she learned to compensate for the nerve damage. My vet warned me never to ride her. He told me it was just too risky. She might lose her balance and fall on top of me. I listened to him. I had seen her fall often enough to know he was right, but when she was ready, I rode her. She was the horse who introduced me to classical dressage. She was the first horse I taught to piaffe. It was because of her that I became balanced obsessed. That’s what kept her from falling. That’s what kept us both safe, and that’s what formed the core of everything I teach today.

Here is the simplicity of what she showed me:

Break complex tasks down into smaller, simpler components.

Find something – no matter how small, no matter how far away from your goal behavior it may seem to be – where you can get a “yes answer” response and begin there.

Build in small steps.

Build in repeating patterns.

At that time I didn’t know anything about clicker training. I didn’t have the clarity of the marker signal. I wasn’t talking about movement cycles or loopy training. I didn’t call any of what I was doing constructional training, but the elements were all there. I was primed to be a clicker trainer. And I was primed to be drawn to the language of constructional training that Goldiamond has given us.

The new book, “Modern Horse Training“, has grown out of those powerful lessons learned over forty years ago. What we have now are the words to describe what the horses have been showing us. Horses are truly our best teachers. We just need to listen to them and they will open their hearts and their wisdom to us.

The publication date for “Modern Horse Training” is April 26, 2023. I’ll share more about where it can be ordered as we get closer to the date.

Coming next: Contrast Teaches

Modern Horse Training – The Proofs for the New Book Have Come!

I have a new book coming out on April 26: “Modern Horse Training”

Modern Horse Training: book proofs: hardcover and paperback editions plus a peek inside.

Just two weeks to go!

The proofs came Monday evening! So exciting. The book looks great. I’m so pleased. The pages are inviting, so readable. That matters a lot to me. You can have the best information in the world, but if the page isn’t inviting, no one is going to read it. And I know that sometimes what looks fine on the computer screen just doesn’t translate to the printed copy. So it’s always a worry.

So Monday evening there was the package, waiting to be opened. The new book was inside. But there was some avoidance behavior that kicked in. I need to take the deer fencing down before it gets dark. I need to go through my mail pile. Tomorrow won’t do. But now I have procrastinated long enough. It’s time to rip open the package and see the new book for the first time.

And it looks great! I love it!

So the proofs have been okayed. The book is ready, but I’m still going to make you wait until April 26. That’s the official publication date. I wanted to give myself a little leeway in case there were glitches that needed to be fixed. And besides it seems so perfect to bring the book out on the anniversary of Peregrine’s birthday. I want to stick to that date so we all have to wait. Two weeks! Very exciting!

While we’re waiting, I’ll share some background stories related to the book.

Coming Next: Constructional Training: What That Term Means To Me

Modern Horse Training: Why Another Book?

A new book is coming: Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend

I’ll be telling you soon how you can pre-order it. This isn’t a marketing ploy. I am still getting the book set up so you can order it on line. As soon as that’s done, I’ll let you know. The publication date is April 26, the anniversary of Peregrine’s Birthday.

The book is coming out on Peregrine’s birthday, but it is really celebrating Robin. I think of this as his book. So let me show you why I want to share this work with you.

I’ve said over and over that balance matters. I fuss handling details in the food delivery. In clinics we focus in on the minutia of balance and here’s why.

Look at the changes in the way these horses are standing. In the before images we see the higgledy-piggledy stance of horses that are tense in their backs and unaware of their balance. They can’t stand square and be comfortable. And then we see the changes that occur, often within just a couple of sessions. We aren’t compelling these horses to stand square. They are finding this balance on their own. We teach them the underlying components and what emerges is a horse who can stand in beautiful balance.

You may be thinking: “Okay. That’s nice. It’s pretty. But so what?”

Why does this matter? Why should you care about these changes? Why should you join me in my obsession about balance?

Here’s why:

This is one of the images I have chosen for the cover of “Modern Horse Training”. This is Robin. The photo was taken last year. For years when people have asked me how old Robin is I have always said he’s four going on five. In the last year or two I finally decided it was time to update his age. In this photo you are looking at a 27 year old horse – (who still thinks he’s four going on five!)

Balance matters.

Here’s what I write about this image towards the end of the book:

“Robin joined my family as a yearling. He is not only my training partner, he is my much loved best friend. I treasure every every ride, every day we have together.

Good balance is woven into every lesson I have shared with you. My goal throughout this book has been to help you build your own great equine partnership with the horses in your life. Here’s to many great rides on your beautiful horses!”

If there’s an elevator speech way to describe the new book, that’s is it. Balance matters. For all of us who love our horses, these horses show us why.

Coming next: Constructional Training: What that means to me.

Modern Horse Training: The Story Behind the New Book

I have a new book coming. It will be published April 26, on the anniversary of Peregrine’s birthday. You’ll be able to pre-order it soon. I’m still getting all of that set up. I’ll have more details about how you can order the book coming soon.

For now let me tell you a little more about it.

In 2020 I was asked by an editor working for a popular line of self-help books if I would consider writing a horse training book for them. The request was interesting. It did no harm to say I would consider the idea. For a couple of months I heard nothing more from him. Then I got another email. This one took the idea a little further. They were definitely interested.

The email exchanges continued. The editor asked me to write a sample chapter. I did. In the fall of 2021 I was offered a contract to write a horse training book for them. The contract was very one-sided, but their marketing would bring clicker training to a much broader part of the horse community than I am able to reach on my own. So, even though it felt more than a little bit like I was selling my soul, I signed the contract.

I was still working on my on-line clinics so it was nose to grindstone all winter to get that project finished. I launched the clinics March 11, 2022. The following day I started on the new book.

It turned out the clinics were the perfect prep for writing a book. I was well primed. The words literally flew onto the page. The contract stipulated a July deadline for submitting the final chapters. I beat that deadline by two months. By mid-May I was sending in the final chapters. The editing had already begun on the sections I had already submitted. I had a meeting with the editor the end of May, and then I heard nothing.

Weeks went by in email silence. I started emailing others in the team who would be involved in the book’s production. Nothing. Finally, at the end of June I got an email from the production manager. The editor no longer worked for the company, and they would not be going ahead with the book. End of story.

I told you the contract was very one-sided.

So I was left with a book, but no publisher.

I put the book aside for a while. I had other projects that needed my attention, and I wanted some time to consider my options. I could look for another publisher. I could publish it myself. Self-publishing seemed like the best option. I like the editorial control that gives me over the content.

So there you have it. I wasn’t intending to write another book. That wasn’t on my radar. The book is very much the product of the pandemic. At the start of 2020 I had a full schedule of clinics planned for the year ahead. When we went into lockdown, one by one those clinics were canceled. My initial thought was I couldn’t possibly transfer my teaching to an on-line format. I needed to see the horses, to work with them directly to know what to advise. But in-person clinics were out, so I started to experiment. Rebekka Schulze, the organizer of the North Carolina clinic that was scheduled for the spring of 2020, invited me to test out a zoom clinic option. I discovered I loved the format. Using video we could focus in on the training details make such a difference to horses. People didn’t have the expense or the stress of travel. We could watch the horses in their home environments. There were so many advantages.

I put together more on-line clinics. I built each clinic around a major topic. I think my favorite was the rope handling clinic. Who knew that you could teach something as tactile as rope handling via an on-line platform!

Those clinics created the structure for the new book. When I heard back from my contact at the publishers that they weren’t going ahead with the project, I was actually relieved. They had done me a huge favor. I would not have written the book without the prompt from them. But in the end I am glad to have the book back in my own court. Their contract placed too many restrictions on how I could use my own work.

I set the book aside over the summer and came back to it in the fall of 2022. When I read it with a fresh perspective, I loved it. It’s a very good book. It needed to be published, so the editing and formatting process began.

The gestation period for a horse is roughly eleven months. It has taken me just a little bit longer than that to write and prepare my new book for publication. Every day I get a step closer to having it ready. April 26 is my target for publication – Peregrine’s birthday.

Coming next: I’ll answer the question – why another book? And very soon I’ll have information about how you can pre-order your copy. This isn’t a marketing tease. So much has changed in the publishing world, I’m on a steep learning curve putting all the pieces in place for a smooth book launch April 26.

Modern Horse Training

I have a new book! And I have a publication date. Very exciting.

The new book is “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend.”

The publication date is April 26 -27, 2023.

That may seem like an odd way to write the date. I chose the dates in honor of Peregrine. He truly was my beloved best friend. He’s the horse who introduced me to clicker training so how perfect that the newest book will be published on the anniversary of his birthday/first day.

He was born shortly before midnight on April 26, 1985. I have always celebrated both his birthday and his first day. For his 30th birthday I wrote a series of blog posts through the month of April. You can read them here:

So a new book! What’s in it? What’s it about? How is it different from the other books? I’m sure you have lots of questions. I’ve been so busy writing the book and getting it ready for publication I haven’t really come up with the “elevator speech”. I don’t yet have the quick two or three sentences that grabs your attention and makes you want to know more.

I have three weeks to the book’s publication so I’m going to use this blog to help me develop my elevator speech. Why did I write this book? There’s a story behind that. But before I share that story, let me begin with the title.

“Modern Horse Training”

Why that title? All my other books have referenced clicker training, so why the change?

What does “Modern Horse Training” really mean?

To answer that kind of question I like to begin with the dictionary.


relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past

characterized by or using the most up-to-date techniques, ideas, or equipment•
denoting a current or recent style or trend in art, architecture, or other cultural activity marked by a significant departure from traditional styles and values

noun (usually moderns)
a person who advocates or practices a departure from traditional styles or values.”

I often think about what life was like for horses (and people) in times past. I’ll say a hundred years ago ___, using that phrase as a benchmark against which to measure changes that have occurred. It occurred to me recently that while I use this phrase a lot, I haven’t kept it updated. So when I say a hundred years ago, I don’t really mean 1923. I mean a hundred years ago from the time when I was a child and I was forming my ideas about the world I lived in. What was the historical context in which I lived? I was growing up with a television in the house. My parents had listened to the radio.

I got my first horse in 1968. So a hundred ago at that time meant 1868. Think about what the world was like in 1868. That was the world Anna Sewell wrote about in “Black Beauty”.

I remember reading a monograph from England that was written in the 1840s. It described the care of the horses that were used to pull what were essentially city buses. The horses came mostly from Ireland, strong Irish draft horses. They used mostly mares which I thought was interesting. The horses were put to work when they were four or five and they were dead by age seven or eight.

Think about what a hundred years ago means to you. If you’re ten years old, that’s 1913, a year before the First World War. Think of the horses who lost their lives in that terrible war. It wasn’t machines that pulled the canons up to the front lines. It was horses. That included the strong Cleveland Bays that my Robin is descended from.

Wherever your hundred year benchmark begins, the world has undergone some incredible changes. We’ve seen tractors replace horses in the fields, cars replace them on the roads. I can watch a movie on the same device that I use to type this blog. Just incredible.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the many cultural changes that have occurred. Horse training and child rearing used to share the same motto: spare the rod, spoil the child. At least with children, that has changed. Yes, I know children are still beaten, but now it is called what it is – abuse and family services can step in. All too often with horses, it is still called training. Much has changed and in in some ways nothing has changed.

I want to celebrate the much that has changed.

This is the perspective that I was thinking of when I decided to call my new book “Modern Horse Training”. Horse training is not what it was a hundred years ago. It now includes clicker training and all that that means.

So before I tell you more about my new book, let me leave you for today to think about what a hundred years ago means to you. What was the world like a hundred years ago? And what are the changes that you have seen, that your parents and grandparents have seen. We are living in a different world from anything the people living a hundred years ago would have imagined. “Modern Horse Training” belongs to this new world. In the coming days I’ll tell you more about it. I may not end up with an elevator speech, but hopefully you’ll have a good sense what the new book is about.


It’s been a summer filled with swallows for me. Swallows in the barn and “Swallows and Amazons”. I never read Arthur Ransome’s children’s book series when I was little. I knew of the books, but I thought they were something else, something I wasn’t interested in. I don’t remember why I listened to his first book this summer – “Swallows and Amazons”. Why did it turn up in the list of books the algorithms thought I would be interested in? I don’t know, and I don’t remember why I added it to my audio library – probably because I thought it was time I knew what was in this book that I had encountered so many times but never read. I listened to it while I did the daily pick of the veggie garden. Swallows and Amazons forever! It was, for me, a perfect summer read.

The swallow in the book was a boat. The swallows in the barn are birds. They discovered the barn two or three years after it was built. The first year we had one nest. The second three or four. Last year 75 swallows fledged. This year I lost count but I am sure it was well over a hundred.

That’s just from the nests in the barn aisle.  I don’t try to count the many nests that are tucked away in other parts of the property. This year we had four waves of clutches.  I’m used to a second cohort of eggs being laid – not a third and then a fourth.

The babies in the first cohort hatched just as the monsoon rains started. I worried over every clutch. How were the parent birds supposed to find enough insects in these heavy, cold downpours? But somehow they did. All the babies survived and fledged from the nests.

No weather for swallows: Monsoon rains at the barn
The monsoon rains never seemed to stop. Last year I watered the veggie garden almost every evening. This year I watered it three times and that was in May when I first planted the garden.

Then the second cohort of eggs was laid and the process was repeated.  One pair built a nest on top of a duster we use to clean away cob webs.  It was propped up in the wash stall.  There were so many more likely spots up in the rafters, but these parents chose the duster.  

June 9, 2021: Five eggs have appeared in the nest. The nest is a duster we use for cobwebs that was propped up in the back corner of the wash stall.

When the eggs hatched, I climbed up on a stool every day and took pictures of the babies.  They were so very tiny at first, five little fluffs of down.  

The rains continued all through July so again I worried that the parent birds wouldn’t be able to bring enough insects for them. But somehow the parents managed. The babies very quickly became five not so very tiny hatchlings. The nest was so tiny. It seemed impossible that they could all fit. I moved all of the water buckets out of the wash stall. I didn’t want any little bird falling into the water on their first flight from the nest.

June 17, 2021: Shortly after hatching
June 22: Five hungry nestlings
June 25: Growing fast!
June 28: The nest is becoming crowded.
July 1: We don’t all fit!
July 3: Stacking birds – This nest should have come with bunk beds!
July 4: Somebody has to move out!
July 4: Almost ready!
July 6: First Flight – This little only made it as far as the water faucets in the wash stall before it needed a rest.
July 6: All five have fledged.

I watched them grow and finally fledge.  They joined the dawn chorus of swallows that perched every morning on the roof of the composter.  

A beautiful evening sky. The roof line of the composter was the meeting place for the dawn chorus. Every morning it was lined from one end to the other with swallows and many more would be swooping overhead.

At night they returned not to their nests but to the metal conduit that runs the length of the barn aisle.  It contains the wiring for the lights.  And apparently it is the perfect place to perch at night.  I remember returning to the barn especially late one night.  I turned on the aisle lights and saw a line of fledglings running the length of the barn.  I received some resentful chirps.  “Turn off the lights.  We’re trying to sleep!”

A more typical location for a nest.
Fledglings roosting at night in the barn aisle. In early August there were birds perching the length of the aisle and more were in the stalls.

I thought the July nests would be the last.  They have been in previous years, but this year I kept spotting another and then another mother bird starting a new clutch of eggs. Just when I thought the last of the clutches had fledged, I spotted two more nests with mother birds sitting on freshly laid eggs. I did a quick calculation.   I had watched the duster nest so closely.  I knew how long these eggs would need to hatch and then for the nestlings to fledge.  They wouldn’t be ready to leave the nest before the end of August. The other swallows were already beginning to leave.  The dawn chorus wasn’t as loud.  The sky wasn’t filled with the swoop and call of several hundred swallows.  

By mid-August the nestlings were beginning to peek over the edge of the nest.  A couple of days later five not so tiny nestlings were jostling for room in their very tiny nest.  Every day I thought this would be their last day in the nest.  And it was for one of the nests.  I saw the first flight of one of the little ones.  It flapped it’s way down the barn aisle and landed on one of the horses, right behind his ears.  He didn’t seem to take any notice.  The bird remained there for about twenty minutes before making it’s second attempt at flight.  It landed on the ground in the indoor.  Should I interfere?  I didn’t want one of the horses to step on it.  

A very tolerant Fengur provides a resting place after the first flight from the nest.

I went in to check on it. It flew up onto the rail of the arena and then off across the pasture.  I worried that I had startled it, and the parent wouldn’t be able to find it.  It’s always so hard to know when to interfere.  To my great relief it was back that evening roosting with it’s nest mates up in the rafters.

The last nest was easily a week behind this one.  Every morning I looked up to see if the nestlings were still there.  I was watching the dawn chorus shrink day by day.  These nestlings were going to have a hard start.  There wasn’t going to be time for them to grow strong and learn their flying skills before they would need to migrate.
One morning the nest looked empty.  They were on their way!  But no.  There was still one bird left in the nest. It bobbed it’s head up just enough to be seen.  For two days it remained in the nest.  Finally the parent bird gave it a nudge.  The little one had ventured out on the metal conduit for the lights.  The parent bird landed beside it, then sidled closer, pushing the little one along the rail.  When it was wedged against the rafter and could go no further, the parent bird pecked at it.  It was as if the parent bird was saying: “we can’t wait any longer!  You have to leave.” The little one flew from the rail.  First flight had been achieved.  

That was a couple of days ago.  This family group is still here.  They come back at night to roost in the barn.  The evening Hurricane Ida brought a long night of heavy rain to this area, they were sleeping safely perched up on the metal conduit.  

All five fledglings were safely nestled in the barn the night Hurricane Ida drowned us in more rain.

This morning, the day after Ida flooded New York City and left upstate New York drenched in rain, the barn yard was quiet. There were no fledglings on the composter. There were no swallows swooping through the air. The sky was a beautiful blue as it often is after hurricane weather, but there were no birds in the air. I wish this swallow family a safe journey, and I hope they will return next year.

I worry for these fledglings.  They have left it late to begin their journey south.  And I worry for all the swallows, and all the birds heading off in this changing world.  Rachel Carson warned of a silent spring.  I do not want to think about a summer without swallows.

In September of 2019 I began the Horses for Future podcast. It isn’t about horse training – that’s for Equiosity. In the Horses for Future podcast I explore what horse people can do to help with the climate change crisis. This summer the news has been filled with so much sadness, so many terrible events.  There was the horrific flooding in Germany, the earthquake in Haiti, the fires on the west coast, the trauma that our departure from Afghanistan, the ever-present corona virus.  And here I am writing about what horse people can do to help in the climate change crisis.  It can seem so trivial – and so privileged – talking about horses and their care.  

Individually what any of us do isn’t even a drop in the bucket, but add up each tiny contribution and we can make a difference.  Each drop of rain that fell overnight was just that – a drop of rain – but collectively all that water flooded New York City.

This summer I had my own small climate change crisis.  Long story short I had to have some repairs done on my house.  It involved bulldozers which changed the flow of water around the house.  In July when the skies opened up with monsoon rains, the result for me was a flooded basement.  I’ve had a wet basement before, but never one where things were literally floating.  I now have three sump pumps in the basement and that seems to be working to stay ahead of the monsoon floods.  I spent a good many days carrying the contents of the basement up the stairs and out into the garage for storage.  

Something had to give and that something was the Horses for Future podcast.  I haven’t published an episode since spring. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to get it done and deal with the house.  I’ve thought about just letting the podcast slip away.  There are so many podcasts out there. And there are so many people who know much more about the issues surrounding climate change than I do. But that’s actually the point. I’ve learned so much by doing the podcast which means I assume others listening to the podcast are, as well.  

I learned about mycorrhizal fungi and how important they are for soil health and the role they play in sequestering carbon.  I’ve learned a lot more about biodiversity because of the work of Dr Doug Tallamy.  Thanks to my journey round the world visiting other horse owners who are also thinking about climate change and better ways to manage their land, I’ve been testing different ways of managing my own pastures. I’m making changes for the good of my local environment. If we all do the same, it will add up.

So I’m going to continue with the podcast. I’ll be visiting with friends from around the world. Together we will make a positive difference for the planet.

When I wear my training hat, I talk about constructional training.  We look at what we want our horses TO DO and we train those behaviors.  The alternative is to focus on the problem and to try to stop what we don’t like.  I prefer to focus on the desired outcome and to build clean, new behavior.  

So I’m not going to think about the disaster that is climate change.  Instead I am going to focus on the behavior that will create the outcomes that I hope we all desire – a spring that brings the swallows back to our barns and a summer that is anything but quiet. 

You can listen to the Horses for Future podcasts at