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!

Today’s Peregrine Story: #4 Determination

Peregrine taught me about determination. I was told that most horses outgrow locking stifles.  I just needed to wait.  Peregrine’s stifles got worse, not better. By the time he was two, they had infected our entire training relationship.  Everything was difficult.  Everything was dangerous.  I never knew when his stifles would lock up, and he would explode forward in an effort to release them.

I was told by my trainer that horses with bad stifles do one of two things to relieve the pressure on their joints.  They rear up, or they bolt forward through the hand.  Thankfully Peregrine never chose rearing, but blasting forward was definitely something we experienced often.

I taught him to lunge to try to strengthen his hind end.  Keeping to a circle was a nightmare for him.  His stifles would lock up, and he would explode forward to release them.  I didn’t let go of the lunge line. I didn’t need to.  Peregrine’s leap forward sheared the top off the metal snap of the lunge line.  I was left with a line in my hand, but no horse at the other end.

Talk about a horse being instantly reinforced.  And how do you stop that!

I was incredibly frustrated. Peregrine as a two year old was a tough horse to love.  His stifles always meant he got the “last word in.”  I’d ask him to back up out of my space.  He’d comply, but when he stopped, his stifles would lock up, sending his weight forward again into my space.  The result: he was always pushing into me.  That’s not a good thing for a young horse.  You don’t want them thinking they can push you around.  He began to feel threatening.  His stifles were most definitely creating an attitude I didn’t like.

I was told there was a surgical option.  They could cut the medial ligament that held the patella in place, but the surgery might increase the risk later of a fractured patella.  I teetered on the brink of choosing surgery many times, but always I held back.  I was determined to find a training solution.  And I was determined to get things right with Peregrine.  As much as he frustrated me, frightened me, angered me, he was “my kid”, and I would stick by him.

Slowly we worked things out.  I heard John Lyons say that the strongest lead rope is the one in a horse’s mind.  I needed that lead rope, so I taught Peregrine to be a super liberty horse.  This was long before I ever heard about clicker training.  By the time I went out to the barn that first time with a clicker and treats, we had become friends.  He was a good working partner both on the ground and under saddle.  I didn’t need clicker training to help me fall in love with my horse.  I had already done that.  What clicker training gave us was a true conversation.  The more I have put our old ways of working behind us, the richer and more interesting that conversation has become.

Clicker training has given Peregrine a voice that can be heard loud and clear.  He has a voice that I listen to.  And I have a way of talking to him that he can truly understand.  When I fill my pockets with treats, I am filling them with so much more.  I am filling them with information, with appreciation, with love.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine!

Today’s Peregrine Story: A Study of One

Peregrine 3 shots edit no caption

My how they grow! Peregrine at 1 hour, 1 month and 4 months.

When Peregrine was about four months old and beginning to fill out, he started fussing when I groomed him around his belly and hind legs.  This was a decided change in his behavior, and I was worried.

I called my vet out again.  When he got to the barn, Peregrine popped his head over the stall door to say hello.  The vet turned his back on him and walked away.  The other horses were due for worming.  This was still in the dark ages when tube worming was the routine way to control parasites.  I had a lot of questions to ask, so we left Peregrine and his mother to the end.  Big mistake.  The horse in the stall next to theirs was a big, broad chested thoroughbred.  He hated being wormed, and he fought hard against the vet.  I waited with Peregrine in the adjacent stall.  We listened with growing concern as the horse spun around the stall, crashing into the walls until the vet finally succeeded in trapping him in a corner long enough to get a twitch on him.  Worming was a necessary evil, so in those days you used whatever methods you had to to get the job done.

He was the last horse to be done before Peregrine, but now Peregrine was afraid.  Instead of going up to the front of the stall to greet the vet, he hid behind his mother.  The vet made no effort to greet Peregrine or to help him feel more at ease.  He went into the stall and walked straight up to his hind end.  He put his hand directly onto Peregrine’s stifle.  Startled, Peregrine cow kicked his hind leg up against his belly.

The vet pulled his hand away and announced that there was nothing wrong with this horse.  He was just bad mannered.  He was a spoiled, backyard foal.  I needed to stop coddling him and make him behave.

The words stung.   What a horrible, horrible thing to say.  If he had waited, if he had asked, he would have seen Peregrine coming up to me and letting me put his halter on without fuss.  He would have seen a foal who stood well for handling, who willingly and easily picked up all four feet, but who was now showing concern about being handled in one particular area.

A week after this incident I saw Peregrine’s stifles lock for the first time.  He tried to take a step and his leg wouldn’t bend.  There had been a reason for his behavior.  It had nothing to do with his manners, and everything to do with physical discomfort.  Because this vet was convinced that I was spoiling this foal by handling him, he couldn’t see past his own biases to the physical issue that was brewing.  That was the first of the many thousands of times I would see Peregrine’s stifles lock.  For the next eight years his stifles haunted our training, turning even the simplest of tasks into a struggle.

I said in my previous post that I learned many important lessons from that vet.  Actually, I should say I learned them from Peregrine.  I learned that Peregrine was always right.  Whenever he protested and resisted against a training request, I always discovered that there was an underlying physical cause.  It might not be obvious at first, but when I stopped trying to make him do something and instead listened to him, I would find that he had been right.  He really couldn’t do what I was asking.

That lesson has carried over to other horses.  In my teaching I’ve found that whenever someone has been struggling for a long time with a persistent behavior problem, once we scratch below the surface and do some detective work, almost without exception we find there is an underlying physical cause.

Peregrine and that vet taught me that every horse is a study of one.  We need to treat them as the individuals that they are instead of lumping them all into one category.  That vet saw horses as livestock.  He handled Peregrine in a way that was consistent with his world view.  Peregrine showed me the value of treating each horse as an individual.  And clicker training gave me a way to free up his voice so I could really hear what he needed to say.

Happy Thirtieth Birthday Peregrine.  Sometimes the gifts you have given me have been hard ones, but always they have been worth opening.

Today’s Peregrine Story: Then and Now

Peregrine in snow head shotPeregrine will be 30 in two weeks.  You can see his age in his face.  Just like an elderly person, his flesh has melted away from his bones.  But there’s something else I see his face.  I see the foal who greeted me thirty years ago.

I was there at his birth which was a very good thing or he might not have survived his first day.  His mother had neurological damage to her spine resulting in limited proprioception in her hind end.  She panicked during the foaling.  As Peregrine began to emerge, she fell down against the stall wall and couldn’t get up.  He was trapped in the corner of the stall with not enough Peregrine halter close editroom to get free of her pelvis.  If I had not been camped out just outside her stall and heard the first sounds of her struggle, I might have lost them both.

I was able to pull Peregrine out and then summon the help I needed to move her away from the wall.  While his mother rested, he struggled to his feet.

I’ve watched people trying to catch new born foals.  They have to corner them, trap them, grab them up in their arms and hold them tight.  Peregrine was never like that.  I’d been talking to him for months before his birth.  He was born knowing my voice, knowing me.   He was every bit as at ease with me as he was his own mother.  This foal picture was taken just eight hours after he was born.  The halter was a non-event.  I slipped it on, and he wore it as though it was the most natural thing in the world for a horse to do.  He fell asleep that first morning with his head in my lap, something he still does, thirty years later.

When I look at this picture, I see my beautiful Peregrine.   He’s curious, open, eager for the life that is ahead of him.  When I look at Peregrine now, I see the same horse.  He’s still beautiful and still eager for what the day will bring.  I wish we could say the same for all old horses.

Happy Birthday Peregrine.  Thank you for the gift of 30 years.

Help me celebrate his 30th birthday on April 26, 2015.  Details to be announced.

Peregrine just a few hours old.

Peregrine just a few hours old.

Peregrine enjoying an afternoon nap in the arena.

Peregrine enjoying an afternoon nap in the arena.