Today’s Peregrine Story: #14 Peregrine Today

Peregrine and Robin asleep in arenaIt is 5 am.  I have just begun my day by switching on the computer.  Peregrine and Robin are asleep in the indoor arena.  That’s where they hang out at night.  I peeked in a few minutes ago.  They are both still lying down so I tiptoed past the arena door.

Some mornings I like to go in and sit with them, but today it is too cold.  Two days ago we had snow!  It didn’t stick, but even so!  This winter just does not want to let go.  I’m looking forward to the warm spring weather when I can take my computer out and sit with the horses while I work.

Peregrine Robin in aislePeregrine and Robin have free range of the barn.  They can wander in from the barnyard, through their open stalls into the barn aisle and the arena beyond.  My current task is getting them adjusted to spring grass so they can also go back out onto the fields to graze.  To that end tomorrow’s birthday cake will be “iced” with fresh picked grass.

I’ve just heard them come in from the arena.  Peregrine has gone down to the wash stall, probably to get a drink, and Robin has gone into the end stall and is eating hay from the hay bag that hangs in there.  He’ll come get me soon to tell me that he wants fresh hay – none of this already picked over stuff!

Sharing their "ice cream cone" of a hay bag.

Sharing their “ice cream cone” of a hay bag.

When I fill the hay bag, Peregrine and Robin stand on either side of the stall wall and share the hay that pokes out the top like a giant scoop of ice cream on a cone.  It is good to see that Robin can share his hay so peacefully.  That wasn’t how their relationship began.  Robin was a fierce companion who shared his hay and his person with no one!

One of the main reasons I brought Robin into the family was to be a companion for Peregrine.  When you board, you have no control over what happens to the other horses that live there.  If your horse’s best friend belongs to someone else, and they decide to leave, your horse is out of luck.  He’s just lost friend, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  I didn’t want that to happen to Peregrine, so I got him Robin.

There’s no guarantee that two horses are going to like one another – or even tolerate one another.  As a young horse, Robin was both very independent and very fierce.  What Robin wanted, Robin took.  The other horses all gave him a wide berth.  They knew better than to mess with him.  So that was Peregrine’s main turnout companion.

If I hadn’t formed the third partner in the relationship, I’m not sure they would ever have become friends, but through training I could mediate the relationship.  Robin learned that he got reinforced when he let Peregrine into his space.  If he backed up and made room for Peregrine at the gate, he got reinforced.  If he maintained his place and let Peregrine get his own treat, he got a treat as well.  But if he snapped at Peregrine, if he tried to drive him away, all the focus and attention went to Peregrine.  Peregrine learned that I would protect him.  I would always keep him safe from fierce Robin.

Peregrine touching cone robin looks on

While Robin looks on, Peregrine correctly identifies the green cone.

One of my favorite videos from the on-line course shows me working on color discrimination with Peregrine and Robin.  I start out with two cones hidden behind my back.  I ask one of them to target the blue cone or the green cone, or it might be the one that is bigger, or smaller.  When people watch the video, they tend to focus on this task.  What I see is how well the two horses are taking turns.

When we moved to the new barn, Peregrine had a hard time adjusting.  He’s never been a good traveler, and this marked a huge change for him.  He’d lived at the boarding barn since 1993.  While the construction on the new barn went on around them, the horses lived in the indoor arena.  Peregrine latched onto Robin.  Wherever Robin went, there was Peregrine.  I’m not sure Robin really wanted a shadow, but Peregrine didn’t give him much choice.

Sharing an afternoon nap.

Sharing an afternoon nap.

Gradually Robin became accustomed to having Peregrine share in everything he did.  Afternoon naps were taken together on the big pile of shavings I had put down for that purpose.  I often joined them, sitting beside Robin while Peregrine stood over both of us.

When we moved into the new barn, I left their stall doors open and let them wander about as they pleased.  I often found both horses sharing one stall.  When I wanted to work with Robin in the arena, Peregrine always accompanied us, tagging along beside us and getting reinforced together with Robin.

I'm ground driving Robin with invisible drive lines while Peregrine accompanies us.

I’m ground driving Robin with invisible drive lines. I’m asking Robin to back, and Peregrine is backing with us.

–   I have to interrupt myself here.  Robin is trying to tell me that it is time for breakfast!  –

The morning chores are done.  I’m back at the computer.  Peregrine and Robin are out in the barnyard having sun bathes.  It’s cold.  According to the thermometer it’s just above freezing, but the sun feels warm on their backs.  They’ll doze out there most of the morning while I get work done in the tack room.

I was away this past week teaching at the home farm of Cavalia.  When I got back to the barn on Thursday, Peregrine had decided that Spanish walk was the  “flavor of the month”.  He followed me up and down the barn aisle, lifting his front legs up in the exaggerated extension that is Spanish walk.  This morning has been no exception.  As he “helped” me with the morning chores, he marched around the wheel barrow in his thirty year old’s version of Spanish walk.

I like seeing that he has the balance and the strength to make this the behavior he offers.  I use these offered behaviors as a barometer to gauge how well he is doing.  It’s not a great Spanish walk, but the fact that he wants to offer it at all pleases me.

When I built the barn, I said I wasn’t sure how we would use it.  I would let it evolve, and evolve it has.  The barn has very much become Peregrine’s retirement home.  The footing in the arena is the same deep shavings that we use to bed the stalls.  The arena has become one giant stall in which Peregrine and Robin can take naps.  Many old horses have trouble getting up, especially in the cramped quarters of a stall.  Peregrine has plenty of room to roll, to take naps, to stand with his friend and doze.  They can move from one area of the barn into another.  In another couple of days, the fields will be dry enough, and they’ll be able to go out and graze.

Peregrine is checking to make sure I am in my "stall".

Peregrine is checking to make sure I am in my “stall”.

The barn has become a shared space for all of us.  I can work in the tack room and watch the horses through the big window that looks out into the barn aisle and the barnyard beyond.  Whenever I go out into the aisle, Peregrine and Robin come to see me.  They are always eager for a visit and a game.

They have just come in from outside.  Robin led the way into the arena.  If I go out now, I’ll find them in the near corner catching the last bit of early morning sun.  It’s a good life for them.  Later today I’ll trim their feet.  They are a bit overdue because of all my traveling.  And then they’ll get a good grooming.  They have to look presentable for tomorrow’s birthday party.

And speaking of that – remember you are all invited.  There is still room in my virtual tack room for a few more guests.

The times are 1 pm, 5 pm and 9 pm (eastern standard time).  I’ll be hosting an on-line party at those times.  If you send me an email with the time you can join us, I’ll send you the log in information for the gathering.

I look forward to welcoming you to my barn and sharing Peregrine’s 30th Birthday celebration with you.

Peregrine Robin lying down hug cropped

A favorite shared moment with Peregrine and Robin.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  Thirty years tomorrow!

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercenterblog.com
theclickercentercourse.com

Today’s Peregrine Story: #13 Birthday Preparations

Thirty years ago today I was doing what everybody who has a mare that’s close to foaling does, I was guessing.  Will it be today?  Has she bagged up?  Is she waxing?  Will it be a colt or a filly?  It’s an exciting time full of anticipation and expectation.

Peregrine foal sleeping standingAnd now thirty years on I have something else to look forward to. I am preparing for a party, and you are all invited!  This coming Sunday, April 26, is Peregrine’s 30th birthday.  Normally I don’t pay much attention to birthday’s and other holiday celebrations, but this is a milestone that I didn’t want to let just slip by.  For the past two weeks I’ve been sharing stories about Peregrine.  This coming Sunday I want to celebrate his birthday by hearing YOUR stories.  I want to celebrate ALL the horses in our lives.  So I hope you’ll join me for this very special event.

I know it’s hard with time zones to pick a time that let’s everybody attend at once.  So here’s how I’m going to handle this.  Peregrine gets fed four mashes every day which means he’s going to get not one, but four birthday cakes on Sunday.  So it seems appropriate that he should also have four birthday celebrations.

So here are the times for each of the Celebrations.  These are all eastern standard time.  You can find time zone converters on line if you aren’t sure what time this makes it for you.  If you would like to attend, please send me an email indicating which party you will be joining, and I’ll send you a link to the Celebration.

Email me at: kurlanda@crisny.org to get your party invitation.

My virtual “tack room” is small, so it will be very much on a first come first served basis.  If you aren’t able to attend, I hope you’ll share your horse’s story in the comments section of this blog.

Party Times (Eastern Standard Time)3 layer square cake

9 am

1 pm

5 pm

9 pm

Peregrine’s Birthday Party is being hosted by GoToMeeting.com.  Please plan on using a headset for best audio quality.  The best meetings are those where we can see each other, so the preferred platform is a computer with a web cam.

During the party I’ll be sharing more stories about Peregrine and the horses who have played an important role in the development of clicker training.  But mostly I want to hear about YOUR horses.

I look forward to welcoming you to my barn this coming Sunday.

Let me know which party you will be attending by emailing me at: kurlanda@crisny.org

And if you are coming in late to this conversation, you can read the series of “Today’s Peregrine Story” in my blog: theclickercenterblog.com  The first one was posted on April 12, 2015.

Alexandra Kurland
theclickercenter.com
theclickercentercourse.com

Today’s Peregrine Story: #12 Unexpected Changes

When I started Peregrine under saddle, my trainer said to me that he didn’t have the back strength to perform all the movements of upper level dressage, but he could still carry himself in the equilibrium of a high school horse.  She didn’t mean in a few years.  She meant now, as a young horse, we could expect him to lift up and carry himself in an engaged equilibrium.

Oliver contrast side by side

This obviously isn’t Peregrine, but these two photos show clearly what is meant when I say he learned to lift and carry his own balance. The photo on the left shows Oliver, a percheron/quarter horse cross, as an almost two year old on day one of his first clinic with me. The photo on the right is also of Oliver. Look at how much more up and lifted he is throughout his body. He looks much older, but this picture was taken just twenty-four hours later. This beautiful balance comes from the lessons Peregrine has been teaching me.

That became the training criterion.  When Peregrine was engaged, his stifles didn’t lock.  I was learning to manage him so our rides no longer felt quite so on a knife’s edge of control.   When I first started riding him, his stifles would lock up without warning.  He would release them by catapulting me forward in a hard, rolling buck.  As long as he was engaged, I could keep him from locking up, and he was a lot of fun to ride.  But as soon as I got off and left him to manage his own balance, his stifles would be locking again.

He was eight years old.  Clearly he was not going to outgrow this condition.  And then he got Potomac horse fever.  And then he was laid up for seven weeks with foot abscesses.  And then we started exploring clicker training.

There had certainly been lots of people before me who used clicker training with their horses.  So why did it stick with me?  Why was I the one who buried herself in a computer for two years writing that first book on clicker training horses?  And why have I continued to be so fascinated by it?  The answer lies with Peregrine.

He was an interesting mix.  He was a well trained horse, but he was also a horse with a lot of issues – all stemming from his locking stifles.  I also had a huge repertoire to work with, both on the ground and under saddle.

Peregrine 1993 Spanish walk

1993 Peregrine in-hand – working on the lift needed for Spanish walk.

Ground work for me meant a lot more than lunging.  It also meant classical work in-hand and a huge liberty repertoire.  As Peregrine recovered from his hoof abscesses, I began to add the clicker into all of this other work.  Before his lay up we’d been working on Spanish walk.  I reshaped the leg lifts using the clicker.  He was so elegant, and he clearly enjoyed the new way this lesson was being taught.

Spanish walk required a huge shift in his balance.  In order to lift up into the front leg extensions, he had to engage his hind end to free up his shoulders.  This was taught in conjunction with all of his other in-hand work.  It was not presented as a separate “trick” behavior.  I was asking Peregrine to carry himself forward in engagement – something the guidance of the marker signal helped him to figure out.

I was a month or two into this work when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Peregrine lock in his stifles in quite a while.  I started paying more attention.  I was right.  His stifles weren’t locking – not under saddle and, even more telling, not on the ground, either.

For eight years we had been battling his stifles.  After just a few months of clicker training, they had stopped locking.  That’s when I knew that clicker training wasn’t simply another way to teach behavior.  Yes, it’s great that we have a kinder way to teach horses to pick up their feet for cleaning, or to load into a trailer.  That’s important, but clicker training goes deeper than that.  It awakens our horses’ intelligence.  I say it in this way because so much of training teaches horses only to follow, not to take any initiative.  Clicker training lets them to be full partners in the learning process.  They truly own what we are teaching them.  The lessons aren’t simply things you do when someone directs you.  Peregrine was learning how to manage his own body to keep himself more comfortable – all of the time – not just when I was around.

If clicker training had simply been another way to teach standard behavior, it would have been an interesting stepping stone, but it would not have held my attention in the way that it has for over twenty years.  Peregrine showed me that it is so much more.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  What a wise horse you are.  Thank you for being my teacher.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #11 What Good Trainers Have in Common

I have watched and learned good things from force-based trainers. How am I defining force-based training? This is training that is backed up with a do it or else threat of escalating pressure. The trainer applies light pressure. If the horse complies, the pressure is released and all is well. If the horse fails to respond, the pressure increases until the horse gives a correct response. The more the horse resists, the greater the pressure becomes.

A skilled trainer using these methods can look unbelievably light. Raise an eyebrow and the horse backs up twenty feet. The final result is very impressive and compelling. How magical. Of course we want that. But it is like a magician’s illusion, all built out of slight of hand. We need to remember that the reason the horse backs up for that raised eyebrow is because he knows that if he doesn’t, the subtle directive will turn into the sharp crack of a whip. The threat is always there even if the audience fails to see it.

I make this sound unbelievably harsh, but good force-based trainers can create good results and end up with eager, happy horses. Good trainers no matter what methods they use share many of the same characteristics.

Good trainers are splitters. They break their lessons down into many small steps. If you are a force-based trainer and you are heading straight for the towering brick wall, you will end up in a fight. But if you tear that wall down and build it up brick by brick, layer by layer – in other words if you are a good teacher – then the amount of do-it-or-else pressure you will be adding at any one step will be small. You will be building confidence in your learner that he can succeed. He can figure out what you want, and he can do it.

If your small steps are accompanied by good timing, your requests will be clear and fair. You will truly be working for the good of the horse. Safety will be built into your training, and you will be a trainer I can watch and learn from.

It is important to make these distinctions and not put all the eggs into the same basket. It’s only the rotten eggs that need to be left out.

When we see training that violates safety, we need to speak out. It can be hard. Punishers are good at punishing. And they will all tell you it is for the good of the horse.

But good trainers know there is always another way to train everything. If I am working with someone who isn’t comfortable with one of the choices I’ve made for their horse, I’ll change the lesson plan. There is ALWAYS another way to teach what we are after.

If you are working with a trainer who tells you that lassoing the horse’s hind leg to get it over it’s fear of shots is the way to go, it’s okay for you to say you aren’t comfortable with that method – it isn’t safe for your horse and to please find a different way. A good trainer won’t belittle you or make you feel bad. A good trainer will listen to your concerns for your horse’s welfare. A good trainer will respect you more for standing up for your horse. And a good trainer will find another way. There is ALWAYS another way.

That wasn’t what I expected to write when I began writing Peregrine’s birthday stories, but these are important lessons he has taught me.  So let me share a fun clicker story.
Peregrine’s early experiences left him with a deep distrust of all things veterinary, but during his long recovery from the after effects of Potomac horse fever, he had many lameness exams.  I had by then settled on a very good vet who I have used for the past twenty years.  One morning he arrived at the barn to do nerve blocks to evaluate Peregrine’s recovery.

I brought Peregrine out into the barn aisle.  My vet prepped Peregrine’s ankle and then popped the first needle in.  Peregrine stood perfectly.  He never picked up a foot, but he did quiver his skin so the needle popped out before the anesthetic could be given.

My vet took a deep breath and tried again.  He was trying to be patient but he was exhausted.  He had been up all night with emergencies, and he was heading next to a large thoroughbred breeding farm to vaccinate yearlings.  He did not need to start his day out fighting with Peregrine.

He had met Peregrine first many years before when Peregrine was three.  He was an associate in the vet practice I used at that time.  Another vet had just joined the practice, and they were traveling together that day.  Peregrine was colicing.  We needed to get a tube down him to give him fluids, but even sedated and twitched he was fighting hard.  Both stifles were locked tight which made things even worse.  He kept plunging forward trying to release his joints, and no matter what they did, they couldn’t get him to swallow the tube.  The more they tried, the harder he fought.

Finally the new associate suggested that they get the smaller pony tube from the truck.  He had found that sometimes the smaller diameter made a difference.  Sure enough, the smaller tube went down without a fight.  Peregrine simply couldn’t swallow the larger tube.  That’s why he had been fighting so hard against them.  Once again, I learned he was always right.

On the next visit my vet told me that as they were driving away the new associate said he couldn’t believe “that horse” wasn’t in a hole in the ground.  With stifles that locked so badly he couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother with such a horse.

My vet moved out of the area, and I changed barns several times as well, but when he came back into the area, I switched to his practice, and he has been Peregrine’s main vet ever since.  He knew Peregrine when he was a young challenging horse with severely locking stifles, and he has seen the transformation that clicker training helped create.

So on this morning he knew that twitching Peregrine was only going to lead to a fight.  With his history, twitches didn’t subdue Peregrine.  They frightened him and made him fight harder because way back when he was learning about vets, he couldn’t swallow a full sized nasal tube.

Besides, how was a twitch going to help?  Peregrine was standing perfectly still.  He hadn’t moved a foot.  He was simply twitching his skin so the needles fell out.

I could tell my vet was becoming increasingly frustrated so I intervened.

“Look,” I said.  “Peregrine has a tool in him that we’re not using.  He’s clicker trained.”  I explained briefly what this meant, and then I gave him some simple instructions.  I had him stroke down Peregrine’s leg.  I clicked, but I had my vet hand Peregrine his treat.  After the second click, I could see Peregrine visibly relax.  This vet was speaking his language.

My vet wanted to jump directly to popping the needle in, but I had him stroke down Peregrine’s leg a little further.  Click, he handed him another treat.  Now he was stroking down around his ankle.  Click.  He handed him a treat, then he stroked down the leg and popped the needle in.  This time it stayed in.  Peregrine was relaxed.  There was no more quivering it out.

The whole process, including the explanation, had taken less than five minutes.  We got the job done without a fight.  Everyone won.  I got the information I needed from the nerve blocks.  Peregrine had a good experience with the vet.  And my tired vet didn’t add to his fatigue by starting his day with a fight.  It was a great lesson for all of us.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  What great gifts you have been sharing with us.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #10 Standing Up For Our Horses

I was at a horse expo watching a trainer crack a bull whip over a horse’s head. She first warned the audience to cover their ears because the crack was going to be loud. The horse couldn’t cover his ears, and he couldn’t get away. Over and over again she cracked the whip around his body. Each time you could see his belly tighten. You know the expression tied up in knots. That’s how this horse was clearly feeling.

This isn’t training. This is learned helplessness.

We know about learned helplessness from some terrible laboratory experiments that were done with dogs. The dogs were restrained in harnesses and given electric shocks through electrodes attached to their foot pads. For the experiment two dogs were yoked together. The first dog could stop the shocks by pressing a lever which also stopped the shocks the second dog was receiving. The second dog could not stop the shocks through it’s own actions.

In the second half of the experiment the dogs were placed in a room with a barrier down the center. The floor they were on had electric wires running through it. Again the dogs were shocked. The dogs that had learned that they could control the shocks jumped over the divider and escaped. The dogs that had not been able to control the shocks made no attempt to jump out.

Nothing was restraining them. They could have jumped across the partition to the safety of the other side, but instead they just curled up in a ball and took the shocks. Learned helplessness. They didn’t believe any more that they could escape.

Is this what we want for our horses? The trainer with the bull whip had a benign intent. This horse was pushy and tended to spook. The trainer wanted to be sure the horse was safe for the owner to be around.

Safety does always come first – but that has to mean for BOTH the horse and the handler. The trainer continued to crack the bull whip around this horse. I don’t know how long it continued. I left to find the show management to get it stopped and to issue a complaint.

I know if I push against you, you will push back against me. And I know that we will not all make the same training choices. There are many in the clicker training community who want to avoid the use of leads and any use of pressure. But pressure and release of pressure is our riding language so I’ve made it part of clicker training. I want the horses to learn how to use the information that pressure provides in a constructive way. I want it to mean not do it or else, but follow the hints the pressure is offering and you’ll get to your reinforcer faster. How we teach changes how it is perceived.

We all make different choices. We all draw our lines at different points. People who are exploring coercive, force-based training methods want good things for their horses. They see that the end results can look very light. They see that horses can be responsive. They are afraid of the dangerous behaviors they are dealing with, and they are looking for solutions that work.
I don’t want to push against these good intentions, or the exploration that each of us goes through as we sort out how we want to train. But at some point we all need to remember that it is more than okay, it is our responsibility to stand up for our horses. We are their voice. When we see methods that cross the lines of safe training, we need to be able to move past the words the trainers are using to describe what they are doing and see what is really going on.

Peregrine is a crossover horse.  That means he didn’t start out with clicker training.  We began with the training methods that were being taught within the general horse community.  I learned how to say “now here this! This is what you are to do.”  And he learned to say “No, I can’t!  I won’t”  Instead of getting tougher, I learned to be smarter.  Together we found a way to say “Let’s do this together.”

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  Thank you for the gift of true partnership you have given me.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #9 My Soap Box

I wrote yesterday about Peregrine’s mother.  Some wonderful things have grown out of that terrible training accident, but I am never very far removed from the consequences. It reached past her life and changed Peregrine’s. I’ve also written about his foaling, how she got down against a stall wall and couldn’t get up. He was boxed in by the corner of the stall, trapped in her pelvis. If I had not been camped out beside her stall, ready to help, I would have lost them both. Peregrine’s spine was damaged by the foaling. That in turn led to his locking stifles which led to a challenging first few years of training which led through a series of twists and turns to clicker training. So again good things came out of a hard beginning.

It has also given me the right to stand on the soap box that actively promotes positive training methods.  When I first started introducing clicker training to the horse world, I was very careful what I said about other training methods. Clicker training was the new kid on the block. If I came in like gang busters denouncing what everyone else was doing and saying “my way is the best”, I’d have been pounced on and crushed – and rightly so. If you push against someone, of course, they are going to push back.

So I chose not to comment on what was occurring in the rest of the equine training community. At times this was incredibly difficult. There have been so many emerging trends over the last thirty years. Many, very horse-friendly advances have been made. Acupuncture, chiropractic work, physical therapies of many varieties are now common. But why do we need so many interventions? In many cases it is because we also have so many “methods” that are so very hard on horses. Strip away the rhetoric, and you will see revealed some horrific things being done in the name of training.

The words often sound great. Everyone talks about partnership, harmony, etc.. But when you turn the sound down on the videos and watch what is actually being done to horses, it is at times nothing more than abuse.

I remember watching one video where the trainer’s solution to a needle shy horse was to run him to exhaustion in a round pen. The horse was wearing a rope halter to which was attached a long lead. He was trapped between the lead controlling his head and a rope lassoed around his hind leg. A strong twenty-something handler had a hold of the lead. The trainer was riding a stocky quarter horse, controlling from the saddle the rope around the horse’s hind leg.

Every few minutes the trainer would tighten the rope, and the horse would go bucking and pitching around the pen. Then they would back off and give the horse a short break. The horse’s sides were heaving from fear and exertion.  The trainer, meanwhile, was telling stories about how much he was helping this horse to get along with people. He was like a skilled magician distracting an audience away from the things he didn’t want them to see.

After about forty minutes of this, his assistant did indeed manage to wrestle this horse into a head lock and give him a pretend shot. As his owner walked him out of the round pen, the trainer told her the horse might be a bit stiff for a few days, and he’d need some ointment for the rope burns on his hock.

I was horrified. Whatever happened to safety always comes first!? Whatever happened to common sense and humane handling!?

The trainer never asked for a physical history on this horse. Did he have any hock or hind end issues that might be made worse by this kind of handling? Suspending a horse as they did between the two ropes could easily have resulted in an injury to his pelvis, his spine, his hind legs. He could have ended up with the same kind of neurological damage that had so crippled Peregrine’s mother. Was it worth it? All this just to give a shot! When you see the videos from the zoos and aquariums showing wild animals – whales, dolphins, cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos, baboons etc. – voluntarily presenting themselves for shots and blood draws, you have to question these methods.

This is a soap box I have earned the right to stand on because for over thirty years I have lived with the consequences of this sort of “get it done at any cost” training approach. We do get to stand up for our horses and say find a different way, find a better way. Find a humane way.

And always, always – safety does come first.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  We have learned some hard lessons together, but we have come safely through to this.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #8 They Don’t Feel Pain The Way We Do

Shortly before she became mine, Peregrine’s mother was injured in a handling incident. One of the teenagers at the barn had been given the assignment of pulling her mane. In case you aren’t familiar with this technique, it is literally what the name implies. The mane is shortened and tidied up by pulling out the longer strands.

The horses I grew up with never had their manes pulled. The first time I watched this being done it was to a young racehorse, a two year old who was literally climbing the walls trying to get away. The trainer stood outside the stall door watching as a young handler struggled to get the job done.

I couldn’t help asking what they were doing. It looked to me like some horrific form of torture. The trainer dismissed my concerns. “They don’t feel pain the way we do,” he said. In his view, the mare was climbing the walls not because of pain, but because she was being disobedient. That’s a great example of the stories we tell ourselves – and come to believe – to make things okay.

Peregrine’s mother wasn’t in a stall the first time someone tried to pull her mane. Shortly before she officially became my horse, it was decided she should have her mane tidied up. For her introduction to this procedure she was tied tight to a post supporting a four foot high fence. To get away from the pain she presumably didn’t feel, she jumped the fence. You could say it showed how athletic she was that she was able to jump the fence with her head snubbed up tight to the post. Really, it just says how desperately she needed to get away.

I only learned about it because I saw scrapes on her legs and asked about them. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the full scope of the injuries she sustained. Her spine was damaged in what was a very avoidable accident. My beautiful, athletic, perfect horse became a wobbler. That is exactly what the name suggests. She sustained neurological damage as a result of that incident. She couldn’t tell where her hind legs were so she wobbled about trying to stay on her feet.

I learned over time just how profoundly compromised she was. Eventually it became hard for her even to walk without falling. All the dreams I had had for her as a riding horse were set aside as I tried to help her learn the most basic of motor skills. It was my early training experiences with her that taught me about small steps, and about finding ways around the many “brick walls” that were thrown up in her path. Long before I ever heard about clickers and positive reinforcement, she taught me how to break things down into the smallest of small steps. The power of those lessons formed the core of what clicker training means to me.

She taught me to believe in the power of change. You cannot NOT change. How’s that for a sentence! But it’s true. We are constantly changing. The question is: are you changing towards something or are you simply always reverting back to familiar patterns?

If you don’t believe that change is possible, you will always be reverting back to the same reality that you currently find yourself mired down in. I didn’t know what change, if any, was possible for her. The vets at the time painted a very bleak future for us. I just knew that I had to deal with the challenges each day presented.

Stepping over the sill of her stall door was hard for her. But it was something she needed to be able to do, so we worked on stepping over ground poles. Those were terrifying for her, so I put a rope on the ground instead. Even that was too hard, so I drew a line in the dirt. That she could manage so that’s where we began.

She was showing me that no matter how small a step may seem, there is always, ALWAYS a smaller step you can find.

That is truly at the heart of all good training. It is certainly at the heart of how I think about clicker training.

Eventually she was able to walk over those ground poles, and the sill of her stall was no longer a problem. She could even manage a small cross rail. We didn’t know what was possible. We just kept working on the little things that challenged her. Eventually the little things grew into wonderful things. She became my riding partner and introduced me to the world of classical dressage.

She is why at the core of everything I teach there is balance. For me balance is everything. It gave her life. When some people talk about dressage, they see competition rings and rosettes. I see balance. That’s what dressage means to me. The end result may indeed take you to the show ring, but first it takes you to a feel that is heaven itself. Balance is everything. It is life-giving, life sustaining. It is beauty, grace, power. It is love.

Peregrine continues to teach me those lessons his mother began.
Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine

Today’s Peregrine Story: #7 Pulling Down The Brick Walls

Imagine you are riding your horse towards an enormous brick wall. There will be a few horses who are athletic enough and riders who are skilled enough to go directly over the wall. If they’re successful, that will tempt them to take the next horse straight over, and the next. And it will also tempt them to make the wall ever higher. Eventually they will either make the wall so high no horse can jump it, or they will try and force a horse over the wall who truly can’t make it. Either way, eventually they will crash.

If you lower that fence, more horses and more riders will be able to jump it successfully, but there will still be some who can’t. They either lack the physical ability, the skills or the confidence to jump it.

Lower it a bit more and some who couldn’t jump it before will now be successful. Turn it into a cross rail and more will manage it, but you will still have some individuals who can’t manage even a small jump. You may have to turn it into a ground pole, or draw a line in the dirt – or you may need to find a way to go around the jump altogether rather than over it.
When I’m confronted by a “brick wall” of a behavioral problem, I prefer either to find a way around it, or to dismantle it so I only have to ask my horse to go over a few small bricks. If you pull enough layers off the brick wall, you will eventually get to the point where every horse and every handler can be successful.

Peregrine’s mother taught me this. She was bred to be a racehorse. The trainer who had her kept a small string of racehorses and broodmares in addition to his jumpers.  If I hadn’t stepped into her life, she would have ended up at the track – at least that was the goal. Given the injuries she sustained in the name of training, she never would have made it that far.
Racehorses take baths, so as a weanling it was expected that she would take baths. The assignment of teaching her about hoses was turned over to a teenager who took her straight out and tried to give her a bath. The result was predictable. She reared up and struck out at his head.

He never managed to give her a bath, but he did make everyone believe she was a “witch”, a nasty horse you didn’t want to get close to. Interesting how it is the horse who takes the blame for our bad training.

He also created in her a lasting fear of hoses. When I started working with her a few months later, I could not take her directly down the barn aisle and out into the arena because it meant walking over the hose that was used to fill water buckets. When I wanted to go into the arena, I had to take her out through the back which meant climbing over the shavings pile so we could get in by the back gate.

I’m sure the trainer would have had a different solution. He would have “made” her comply. There would have been a fight, and in the end she would have walked over the hose. She would still have been afraid of it, but she would have learned that she had no choice.
I was a very green handler. I knew I didn’t have the skills to get into this kind of a fight, so I used a different approach. I have always said I did some of my best training when I knew the very least. All I had was patience and persistence, and I put those to good use.

Every night I would take her out of her stall and tie her to the aisle rail so I could groom her. Tying was something she had already learned how to do so it was safe to use. I began about twenty feet away from the hose. When we were done, I would turn her away from the hose and walk the long way around into the arena. Each night I tied her a little closer to the hose, but always we turned and walked away from it. I never confronted her with it.

We finally got to the point where she could be tied right beside the hose, and she would stand quietly throughout her grooming session without seeming to worry about it. One night instead of turning away, I asked her to follow me over it. She did so without hesitation. And after that, she always followed me wherever I asked her to go.

I didn’t try to plow over the brick wall. I found a way to dismantle it brick by brick until she was ready to cross over it.

She discovered she could walk over hoses without fear. More than that, she now understood that she could trust me to take care of her.

I wasn’t expecting this larger result. I simply wanted to find a non-confrontational way to help her understand that hoses were harmless. In the process I showed her how I could be trusted to behave. I could be counted on to be consistent and to be on her side. I wasn’t going to be petting her one moment and beating her the next.

One of the many things that you learn from horse training is the longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you’ll find that it gives you. Focus on some little achievable piece of the training, something you and your horse can accomplish together, and all kinds of other good and often unexpected results will emerge out of it.

This small step over a garden hose was one of the many steps that led me to clicker training.  When we clicker train we dismantle the brick walls, and we find ways for all of our horses to succeed.  This is one of the many gifts Peregrine and his mother gave me.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  You helped teach me the gift of small steps.  That was a great gift indeed.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #6 Ground Work Redefined

Peregrine in hand cropped

1993: Peregrine setting up for haunches-in.

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  In 1993 when I went out to the barn with my pockets full of treats, I had no idea the journey that first step was going to take me on.  I wasn’t thinking about writing books, making videos, traveling to clinics and conferences, sharing clicker training on the internet with people from around the planet.  I just wanted a way to keep Peregrine entertained while he was laid up with foot abscesses.

As he began to recover, I used the clicker to reshape some of the many things I had taught him over the years.  Clicker training had landed in a good place.  I had a lot in my tool box to play with.  In 1993 if you said ground work to most people, that meant one and only one thing – lunging.  It’s no wonder when I started to write about using clicker training to improve ground work so many people ran in the opposite direction.  It wasn’t just the treats that they didn’t like, it was lunging.  Rarely did you see it done well, with a real understanding of a horse’s balance.  It was used to “get the bucks out”.  In my area the norm for lunging was horses racing around, out of balance, being jerked on, often in side reins.  It was at best mindless.  At it’s worse, it was a physically exhausting battle between horse and handler, repeated daily before the rider dared to get on.

I was learning something very different.  For starters I had raised both Peregrine and his mother.  Ground work for me meant so much more than lunging.  It meant all the early handling and socialization.  It meant teaching horses to pick up their feet for cleaning, to stand well for grooming and saddling and all the other basic handling you take for granted when you’ve only had older horses.  It meant going for walks together to learn about the world.  Peregrine’s mother had spinal cord damage – the result of a handling accident that occurred shortly before she became mine.  So for her ground work meant even more.  It meant literally reteaching her how to walk without falling.

Early on in my horse training experience I was able to spend time with some very skilled horsemen. They didn’t mess around with the kind of small steps I teach today through clicker training. They went straight to the big stuff. Most of the time they were successful because they had the skills to get into a fight with a horse and win. But occasionally things would turn into a train wreck.

I remember one such occasion where a trainer was trying to “sort out” a mustang. This was a powerfully built draft type horse. He’d already come to grief with several other trainers, and now this man was trying out his skills. The mustang came within a hair’s breath of kicking his head in.

I was watching this as a very young and very inexperienced horse owner. My takeaway message was I didn’t want to get into a fight with a horse. Apart from the fact that it was just too dangerous, even then I knew it didn’t create the kind of relationship that I wanted.
I also knew that I didn’t have the skills or the strength to guarantee that I would win. If you can’t guarantee a victory in the big battle – don’t start it in the first place.

I concentrated instead on the little victories. I was boarding at the time in a hunter jumper barn. I saw horses who had never been jumped before being sent over enormous fences. Most of the time they were athletic enough to make it over, but sometimes they would simply crash through the fence or refuse to jump altogether. The horses that stopped or tried to run out past the jump were all treated in the same way. They were punished. They learned fast that no matter how scared they were about jumping, the only safe route for them was straight over the fence.

I was finding a different way.  My own, beloved horse – Peregrine’s mother – had neurological damage. Never mind jumping.  Stepping over the raised sill of her stall was a daily challenge. She couldn’t go over a ground pole without panicking, but she could step over a line drawn in the dirt.  So that’s where we began.  Stepping over that line was a first step on a journey that has carried me many places.

It has brought me here to this morning where I am thinking back over the thirty years I have had with the foal that she gave me.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine. You are much beloved.

Today’s Peregrine Story: #5 Intelligence

Peregrine lying in stall with Ak croppedIf you’ve read my first book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, you might have noticed that there are very few pictures of Peregrine in it.  That’s because throughout the period that I was working on it, Peregrine was on stall rest.  I was writing a book that he had helped in large part to create, but on the eve of having it published it was not at all clear that he would ever be sound again.

The culprit was Potomac horse fever.  It had left him with damage to his feet.  It was a frustrating situation to be in.  Peregrine’s big, gorgeous trot had dwindled down to a shuffle.  I would say to my vets, he’s lame, but they couldn’t see it.  That was just how the horses that they saw horses moved.  He wasn’t asymmetrically lame.  What was wrong?

What was wrong was this wasn’t the way MY horse moved.  Finally one of the young associates in the practice decided that maybe there was something wrong – with Peregrine’s hocks.  Sigh.  I knew where the problem was, in his front feet.  I could feel it.

Just to humor me the vet did nerve blocks on Peregrine’s front feet.  His comment as I trotted Peregrine out for him: “I’ve never seen a horse get so sound so fast in his hocks from a nerve block to his front feet.”

For the few minutes that his feet were numbed and he felt no pain, we could all see the beautiful big trot that was Peregrine’s.  And then the pain returned and with it the shuffling reluctance to move.

We tried various strategies.  He’d be okay for a little bit and then lame again.  Finally his feet deteriorated to the point where we were forced to do hoof wall resections on all four feet.  Peregrine was put on total stall rest.  The only time he was allowed out of his stall was to walk the few steps down the barn aisle to the wash stall where everyday I had to treat and rewrap his feet.  This went on for nine months.  By the end I never again wanted to see another roll of duct tape!

Now I am sure there will be people reading this who will be horrified.  Nine months of stall rest!  Just remember this was over twenty years ago.  We might well have better options today that wouldn’t involve confining a horse to a stall, but all I can say is it worked.  The new hoof that grew in over those nine months grew in healthy.  In December we were ready to let him have some limited exercise.  That’s when I got the call from a producer from the BBC.  They were doing a series on animal intelligence.  Could they come film my horses?

You don’t say no to the BBC.  Of course they could come, but I wasn’t sure what I could show them.  The day they arrived was Peregrine’s fourth day off stall rest. So far we had walked around the arena for about ten minutes each day.

The first horse I brought out for them was our senior horse, Magnat.  He was always our consistent superstar.  You could rely on Magnat to show off, and he didn’t disappoint us.  He and his owner, Ann Edie, were just learning piaffe.  We filmed a short lesson, and then it was Peregrine’s turn.

He came into the arena eager to work.  For nine months there had been no clicker training, and suddenly, today everything was allowed.  He was tireless.  We worked mostly at liberty.  Peregrine could have quit at any time.  Instead he kept offering and offering.

It was a wonderful experience.  This was the first time that I had shared clicker training with reporters, and this producer set a high standard for everyone else who was to follow.  He was a superb interviewer.  He knew how to ask good questions which made it fun to share the horses with him.

We’d film a bit and then pause to discuss what I would be showing them  next.  There were six of us in a tight cluster discussing the details of the filming: the producer, his assistant, the camera man, the sound man with his enormous boom, myself and Peregrine.  He joined in every conversation, looking over our shoulders, clearly interested in everything that was being said.

He must have been listening because he pulled out all the stops, showing off his canter in hand and for the first time ever producing piaffe at liberty.  I had no idea this was in him.  We had only worked piaffe in hand or under saddle. This was very much the early days of clicker training.  Peregrine had picked the perfect time to show me what was possible.

The video the producer shot that morning was so good he ended up creating a twenty minute segment just on Peregrine. Unfortunately, as he was preparing the final edit, he learned that he had to cut down on the overall length of the series.  The easiest way to make the time was to cut out the section on clicker training, so Peregrine never did have his moment to shine on BBC television.  That’s all right.  He shone for me that day.  Somewhere buried in my stacks of old VHS tapes I have a copy of the original program before the producer had to cut out Peregrine’s section.  I’m biased, of course, but he should have left it in!

In the horse world one of the deep seated beliefs is that horses are stupid animals. That’s why we need to use force to train them.  “It’s all they can understand.”  But of course, there’s the corollary belief that horses don’t feel pain the way we do, so its okay.

When I first started sharing clicker training on the internet, people would post about their first clicker experience.  These were the early adopters.  They had no idea what they were stepping into.  Their posts always made me laugh.  “My horse is so SMART!!!” they would exclaim.  Their surprise and their delight was so evident in their words.  Their enthusiasm attracted others and encouraged them to give this strange new way of interacting with horses a try.  They quickly joined the chorus of: “My horse is so SMART!!!”

Clicker training helps us to see what I have always known.  Only its not just our horses that are so smart.  It’s all animals.  It was very appropriate that our first interview should be one for a program devoted to Animal Intelligence.

Happy 30th Birthday, Peregrine  When I first went out to the barn with clicker in hand, I had no idea all the adventures you would be taking me on me on.  Thank you for a wonderful journey!