My Horse Is So Smart!!!

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The cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse” – published 20 years ago this year.

This post is another in the series I have been writing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  Each month I have been giving special recognition to individuals who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.

Today clicker training is firmly rooted in the horse world.  There are people all around the planet who know two things about it: 1.) clicker training is fun and 2.) it’s good for horses.

But twenty years ago any time I mentioned clicker training very few people knew what I was talking about.  I always had to add a lengthy description of what it was, followed by detailed instructions for how to introduce it to your horse.  When I sent these posts out to the very limited number of horse groups that existed twenty years ago, here’s the response I would get back:

My Horse is so SMART!!!!!

That’s how the replies would begin.  They always made me smile.  Someone else was discovering clicker training.  More than that, that individual was seeing her horse in a completely new light.

The 1990s don’t seem that long ago to me, but they were truly pioneer days on the internet.  The entire community of clicker trainers was so small there was only one list – the Click-L list.  That’s where everyone posted.   And I mean everyone – dog trainers, parrot specialists, horse owners, exotic animal trainers, we were all on the same list.  I loved that.  You didn’t have to monitor dozens of separate forums to know what was going on. Everyone was in the same forum talking to one another.  You could read a post from Karen Pryor followed by one from Bob Bailey.  You could read about different species, dogs, parrots, and yes, even horses.

Any time I sent a post to the Click-L list I was reaching the entire clicker training community.  But I wanted to reach out into the broader horse community as well, so I also posted on one of the early horsemanship lists.  I was always careful how I used that list.  I didn’t want to intrude where I wasn’t wanted.  The list was a general one, but even so, clicker training didn’t always fit in to the discussions.

I chose carefully both which posts I responded to and what I said.  I knew if I came in like a steam roller telling people that my way was the best and everything they were doing was wrong, I’d get nothing but resentment and push back – and rightfully so.  If you push against what somebody else is doing, of course they are going to push back even harder against you.  That wasn’t the way to get people to try clicker training.

Instead I would wait until someone asked a question in a way that indicated that they might be open to the use of treats.

I’d respond with a lengthy description of clicker training and a detailed lesson plan that would help them with their specific training issue.  I don’t think I ever failed to get back an enthusiastic response.  It was always filled with caps and exclamation marks.  And it almost always began with:

“My Horse Is So SMART!!!”

Why was this such a surprise?  Traditional command-based training is built on a belief that horses are stupid animals.  This is not subtly implied.  It is stated as fact.  The corollary of this is: because horses are stupid animals, we need to use force to train them. But don’t worry dear, (and it was always said in this patronizing tone), they don’t feel pain the way we do.

Clicker training puts the lie to that core belief.  We can see how smart our horses are. When you remove the threat of punishment and instead train with positive reinforcement, horse or human, you see a blossoming of personality and enthusiasm.  It isn’t just our horses who suddenly seem so much smarter.  It is every individual who is training in this way.

Not everyone responded with such enthusiasm to those early posts.  Clicker training was both wonderfully well received and strongly pushed against.

There was one individual in particular, an Australian, who felt it was his moral duty to stamp out clicker training before it could spread.   He wrote angry posts declaring how wrong all this hand feeding was!!  His posts were also filled with caps and exclamation marks.  The difference was there was no joy in his posts.  There was no laughter – just angry sputtering.

I never responded to his posts – at least not directly.  Clicker training was truly the new kid on the block.  I knew if I pushed against what others were doing, they would push back even harder against me.  That’s only human nature.  There was a lot of horrible training going on at that time, but I was careful not to say anything negative.  I wrote about what I was doing and why.  I worked hard to avoid saying why I thought some other method was wrong.

I also knew that if someone posted something I didn’t like on the internet the best way to guarantee that that post would stay alive and gain traction was to comment on it.  As fast as things move on the internet, if you don’t respond to something, it disappears in an instant to be replaced by the next puff of an idea.  But as soon as you respond to a post, you give it legs.  You can think you’re helping out by offering a rebuttal to someone’s huffing and puffing, but all that does is guarantee that their comments will gain more traction.

I am always mindful of the oft repeated line in Lewis Carol’s “The Hunting of the Snark”: “What I tell you three times is true.”

We’ve seen the power of that in American politics, but I don’t want to disappear down that rabbit hole!  Instead I’ll just say I want to be careful how I post so that I don’t give added life to ideas that need to go away.

So I would never respond to this man’s nasty remarks.  It must have frustrated him no end that I never took the bait.  You could see the extinction burst he was in as he tried harder and harder to draw me into his rants.  Instead I would make note of his comments, and in my next long post I would address each of his concerns, but never directly.  If he stated that hand feeding treats would teach horses to bite, I would give detailed instructions for the teaching polite manners around food.  If he said clicker trained horses would become pushy and always be demanding treats, I would describe in detail the teaching of the foundation lessons and show how they create horses that move readily out of your space.

Whatever arguments he had, I countered them with detailed descriptions of the training – never pushing against him, never even mentioning him.  I just addressed point by point each blustering statement by providing people with good instruction for introducing their horses to the clicker.  The contrast in tone was startling.  I’m sure many of the people who were brave enough and curious enough to go out to the barn to it a try were in part attracted to clicker training because of the contrast in tone.

What people wrote back were posts filled with excitement.  The delight in their horses was crystal clear.  You could see it in every exclamation mark and underlined phrase.  We weren’t using emojis back then, but they found other ways to express their excitement.

Their enthusiastic posts encouraged others to give it a try and the snowball effect began. The angry, blustering posts sent by this one detractor had the opposite effect from the one he intended.  If he meant to stamp out clicker training before it could spread like wild fire from horse barn to horse barn, he was too late.  Clicker training spread even faster than a wild fire.  It’s an infectious idea.  It brings with it great joy and that’s certainly something we all want to share.

In 1998 when I published my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, I gave the “snowball” a big push.  I was quickly joined by many other people who got the ball rolling ever faster into the horse community.

Each month I’ve been writing thank you posts to the many people who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  I’ve been singling out individuals to thank by highlighting their training.  This month is different.  I want to thank all those early adapters and their exclamation marks.  Your horses are indeed smart!!

I want to thank all those brave people who were curious enough to take treats and a clicker out to their barns and to ask their horses: “What do you think?”.  Your exclamations of delight helped spread clicker training around the planet!

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Celebrate!

Years ago at a clinic I gave in Florida one of the attendees brought a horse she had only recently bought.  She was a novice, first-time owner.  She had done many things right.  She bought a horse she had been riding at a local lesson barn.  She was still boarding the horse with her instructor, but this was about to change.  She was going to be taking her mare home and caring for her herself.  That’s where the worry began.  Her mare was one of those horses who makes really ugly faces whenever anyone approaches her in a stall.  Her new owner was afraid to go into a stall with her.  That had been okay as long as she was boarding her and there were people around to help her, but once she took her home, she would be on her own.

So that weekend we focused on “happy faces”.  That’s all we worked on with her mare. Whenever anyone went past her stall, if even one ear perked forward, click, she would get a treat.  It was very opportunistic training.

We covered a lot of training topics that weekend – as we always do, but for that horse the focus remained squarely on “happy faces”.

The following year I gave another clinic in that area, and this team were back.  This time they were the clicker superstars.  She was our demo horse for exploring lateral work and introducing people to single-rein riding.  That was a huge jump from our first clinic together.

At the end of the three days we did a wrap up.  Each person talked about a highlight of the weekend.  When it was her turn, she started out by saying that at the end of the previous clinic she had been so mad at me because all I had let her do was reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward.  But when she took her horse home she began to understand why I had made that the central focus.  She continued to reinforce her mare for putting her ears forward.  It wasn’t all she worked on, but it continued to be an important element in every training session.  We could all see the results.

There’s a lovely training principle – The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things that you see that it gives you.  When you focus in on what can seem like a very small and seemingly insignificant detail, it begins to collect other good things around it.

So this was her comment after this second clinic.  She said: she had always known her horse was beautiful, but now everyone could see it.

As more and more people are clicker training their horses, that statement takes on even more meaning.   We always knew our horses are beautiful.  Now we also know they are very smart, and because of clicker training more and more people can see it.

Thank you to all my exclamation mark posters!  Twenty years on you are still bringing good things into the horse world.

Keep it positive!!!!

Share the JOY!!!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year Everyone!  I know you’re expecting the next installment of the Goat Diaries.  I’ll get back to those in my next post, but first I am going to do something a little different.

2018 is the 20th anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for Your Horse.”  Before 1998 clicker training was not part of the general horse world.  I’ve always said that first book was like my space beacon: “I’m here!  Is anyone else out there?”  The answer is yes.  Here you are, reading this post.  We are people who love the animals in our care and who want the training methods we use to support the relationship we want.

I’m one of those people who ignores most anniversaries, but twenty years is something to pay attention to.  It represents a huge commitment of time, energy, and love for our horses.  I’m not talking just about my contribution.  I’m thinking about all the many thousands of people who have helped pioneer clicker training and whose efforts have helped to spread it around the planet.

I would love to thank each and every one of you by name – but I don’t know all of you personally.  Even if I did, I would be bound to leave someone out.  I don’t want anyone to feel like the fairy in the children’s stories who wasn’t invited to the party, so instead I’m going to single out just a few people.  Every month this year I’ll be publishing an article commemorating the contribution of one of the many people who helped me bring clicker training into the horse world.

The first article features my long time client and friend, Bob Viviano.  For many years we boarded our horses in the same barn.  Bob’s appaloosa, Crackers, lived in the stall opposite Peregrine.  Soon after I moved Peregrine to the barn, Bob asked me to help him with a jumping problem he was having.  That was in 1993. Little did he know what he was getting himself in for!

When I watched Crackers go under saddle, it was clear the jumping problem was balance related.  That meant peeling back some layers and introducing them both to lateral work.  One of Bob’s hobbies was country line dancing.  Line dancing used a lot of the steps we were teaching Crackers.  Why not teach him an actual dance?  Forward – back – side – side: Bob taught Crackers the Electric Slide.

It didn’t matter what you called it – dressage or line dancing – the changes of bend and the weight shifts forward and back were exactly what Crackers needed.  Once Crackers had the dance figured out, Bob got others to join in.  The kids from the local 4-H group formed a line dance with Crackers in the middle.  That was just the beginning.  Eventually Bob and Crackers joined a group that was trying out for a Guinness Record of most people ever to perform in a line dance.  They got close with over a thousand people.  They certainly should have gotten the record for most people plus one horse!

In those early pioneer days we had no idea what you could do with clicker training.  We were just having fun.  We started out teaching our horses to touch targets.  That was step one in introducing a horse to clicker training.  Our horses all caught on fast to the targeting, and then we were confronted with the question everyone faces: now what?  What do you do with targeting?

Well, one answer is you teach your horse to retrieve.  My young horse, Robin was our first retriever.  Once he showed the way, the rest followed.  We very quickly had a barn full of eager retrievers.  And then what?  If a horse can retrieve, could he open a mail box?  Bob built Crackers his own mailbox so we could find out.  The answer, of course, was yes.  And not only can he open the mail box, he can also reach in, get the mail and hand it out to you.

He can also retrieve a basketball and dunk it through a hoop, kick a football, swing a hula hoop over his head, answer the telephone, play a piano and paint you a picture, to name just a few of the many tricks Bob taught Crackers.

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Lots of people teach their horses tricks.  What set Bob apart was the way in which he shared them.  He started taking Crackers to outdoor fairs and festivals.  Bob loved seeing people’s faces light up as they watched Crackers perform.  “He’s so smart!” they’d exclaim as Crackers opened his mailbox and handed people the presents Bob had stashed inside.

I visited them at one festival where Crackers’ pen was right beside an area where people were flying enormous kites.  It didn’t matter that brightly colored dragons were swooping over his head, Crackers went right on performing for the people who had come to see him.

At Christmas Bob would take Crackers to local shopping malls to raise money for the Salvation Army.  I remember watching them outside a busy supermarket one snowy December evening.  People gave so generously because it was Crackers ringing the bell.  Bob took him to nursing homes and to the Hole in the Wall camp for children with cancer.  One of the many stories Bob shared was of a little girl who decorated her hospital room with pictures of Crackers.

It was always Bob and Crackers.  They were a team.  If you knew Bob, you knew Crackers.  And Crackers was always up for anything.  From tricks to line dancing, he would perform for hours.  As long as there were people who wanted to see him, Crackers was always willing.  At the barn whenever someone came to visit, they were always treated to a show.  Crackers loved it.  Bring out his mailbox, and he was always eager to perform.  Bob not only made Crackers’ life better through clicker training, together they enriched the lives of the thousands of people they met.

Bob and Crackers helped us discover what you could do with clicker training.  It wasn’t just that Crackers could open a mail box or ring a bell.  It was that he could perform wherever Bob took him whether it was at a crowded festival or in a snowy parking lot.  Clicker training had given Crackers a confidence Bob could rely on.

Bob played another very important role in the development of clicker training, one that not as many people know about.  He was my horse sitter.  There aren’t many people I would entrust my horses to.  I always knew I could rely on Bob.

In those early days, there were just occasional trips away.  Most of my teaching was done locally, but word of mouth was beginning to bring requests for clinics.  The people who signed up for my clinics didn’t yet know I was experimenting with clicker training.  They were coming because they had heard I was good at solving training problems.  During our time together, I would introduce them to clicker training, but it wasn’t yet the primary focus of the clinics.

In 1996 I launched my web site: theclickercenter.com.  That was also the year Karen Pryor asked me to write a book for her new company, Sunshine Books.  At clinics I still kept clicker training “under my hat”.  I waited until my book was published in 1998 to announce that I was giving clinics that were specifically about clicker training.  That’s when my travel schedule exploded.  For many years after that I was away teaching almost more than I was home.

Whenever I was out of town, it was Bob who came every day to look after my horses.  Without him I would never have been able to give those clinics.  And without the clinics I would never have been able to connect to all the other clicker pioneers who helped me spread clicker training around the planet.  So I owe Bob and Crackers a huge debt of thanks for joining me in this amazing adventure we call clicker training.

Crackers sadly is no longer with us.  He died in 2012 at the grand age of 30.  He is buried, as he should be, at the Clicker Center Barn where he will always be remembered with much love.  At 80 Bob is still going strong.  He may not have Crackers at his side, but he’s still sharing clicker training.  He continues to pass on Crackers’ legacy by volunteering at a local horse rescue.  So the ripples we started over twenty years ago are still going out into the horse world.  Thank you, Bob and Crackers!  It has been a great pleasure and honor to share clicker training with you.

Crackers and Bob are featured in all three of my books: “Clicker Training for your Horse”, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker”.  They also appears in The Click That Teaches DVD Lesson series.

Visit theclickercenter.com to learn more. (Crackers is the first horse featured on the page celebrating some of our clicker-trained horses. https://www.theclickercenter.com/clicker-horses-1)

Next month I’ll be celebrating this 20th Anniversary year with another story featuring one of our clicker-training pioneers.

Happy 2018 Everyone!

Coming next: The Goat Diaries returns.