Do It Differently

It was bound to happen.  At the start of this year I said every month this year I was going to use this blog to write a thank you to some of the many people who helped bring clicker training into the horse community.  This is my way of marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for Your Horse”.  Sometimes it was just by a whisker, but I managed to get this done every month – except August.  I will blame the extreme heat that slowed me down to a snail’s pace.

I can’t blame my travel schedule because I travel every month.  August was no exception.  I was out in Washington State at Ken Ramirez’s Ranch for his “Animal Training for Professionals” course.  For twenty years he taught this as a semester long course at the University of Illinois.  He also taught a concentrated week-long version of the course at the Shedd Aquarium.  Most of the time is spent in the classroom but twice a day students get to have some animal time.  For the week-long course at the Shedd attendees got to watch the trainers working with animals.  At the Ranch attendees get hands-on experience working with goats, miniature donkeys and alpacas.

IMG_5425 Ken Ramirez with alpacas

Ken Ramirez with his alpacas

For this course I got to be Ken’s assistant which was a great fun, especially since most of the training sessions involved his herd of dairy goats.  I enjoyed very much seeing what Ken was teaching his herd of clicker-trained goats – what was a match up with what I was teaching my goats and what were some good ideas to take back to them?  It was also very interesting to see how Ken structured the course.  What did he put in his foundation?  What stair steps did he use to take people into the more advanced aspects of training?

Ken Ramirez teaching husbandry behaviorsOn the third day Ken focused on husbandry, especially as it relates to medical care.  He is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject.  Both at the Shedd and through his consulting work, he has overseen the teaching of cooperative husbandry procedures not just to more animals than most of us will ever handle in a lifetime, but to more species as well.

Ken’s basic strategy can be summed up in a very simple phrase: do it differently.  Every day in your training you should be practicing some form of husbandry skills, but the key to success is don’t try to mimic a procedure someone else is going to be doing.  Your touch is going to be different, so even if you try to make everything the same as the real thing – you won’t succeed.  And besides, you don’t know what you are preparing your animal for.  Is it to stand quietly while you doctor a wire cut on your horse’s leg, or to put eye drops into an infected eye?  We don’t have crystal balls that can tell us what medical procedures our horses will need to tolerate.  X-rays might be standard, and certainly shots, but beyond that what are you preparing your animal for?

So Ken says do it differently.  Get your animal accustomed not just to being touched all over his body, but to being touched in different ways.

Do it differently also applies to getting an animal comfortable with changes in the environment.  Every day introduce some change, something different.  You aren’t trying to scare your horse.  You just want him to get used to the idea that change happens and it’s nothing to worry about.

Do it differently is a great life metaphor.  Sometimes we need to follow the rules, to do things the way “they have always been done” because the way they have always been done works.  The motto here would be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But even if it “ain’t broke”, can it be better?  Are we stuck in a rut just mindlessly copying what has been done before?  Horses have been trained for thousands of years.  On the surface the training that I learned from experienced horse trainers didn’t appear to be broken.  They could get on and ride their horses.  They could make them jump and cross scary streams.  They could make them go where they wanted.

“Make” was the operant word.  The end result could be very appealing, but if you scratched too far below the surface, you discovered a very broken system.  It was littered with discarded horses and far too many frightened would-be riders.  Something needed to change.

I was very lucky to be learning about horse training at a time when two very important change makers were shaking up the horse world.  One was Sally Swift who brought the Alexander technique into the horse world and changed the way riding was taught in the United States. Sally came regularly into my area so I was very fortunate to have been able to attend many of her workshops.

The other change maker was Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of T.E.A.M. training (Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Method).  Through Linda the horse world was introduced to the Feldenkrais work.  Early on I encountered T.E.A.M. training through a magazine article.  In it Linda described the body work she had developed, including the T.E.A.M. circles.

Peregrine’s mother was a wobbler.  She had a spinal cord injury that impaired her balance and made her very body defensive.  When she was a yearling, if I tried to touch her anywhere, I was met with gnashing teeth and pinned ears.  Her whole body couldn’t hurt, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong because she wouldn’t let me in to ask questions.

I was reading everything and anything related to horses, and I was eager to learn.  These funny T.E.A.M. circles Linda was describing sounded intriguing.  I tried them on my mare and her world changed.  In minutes her eyes had grown soft.  Her head was drooping.  She was letting me in all over her body – except in one area around her right shoulder.  That was where the pain was.  For the first time she could relax enough to let me know what was wrong.

Within a few weeks I was on an airplane headed to the mid-west to attend a workshop Linda was giving.  I had to learn more!

That was the first of my many travels for horses.  At first I was traveling to learn, and then I was traveling to teach (which really means to learn even more!)

At one of the T.E.A.M. workshops Linda was letting us experience for ourselves the T.E.A.M. body work.  She let me feel one version of the T.E.A.M. circles, and then she did it another way.  She had her hand on my back so I couldn’t see what she was doing, but, oh my goodness!  It felt so very different!

I turned to face her.  “What did you do!?”

Her answer meant nothing to me.  “I breathed up through my feet.”

Now I’ve been trained in the biological sciences.  I’ve studied anatomy and physiology.  I’ve done dissections.  I know we breathe through our lungs, not our feet.  And beside, I had hay fever when I was little.  I was constantly congested.  Even breathing through my lungs felt like a foreign notion.  My breath got clogged somewhere at the top of my chest.

But I knew that breathing up from her feet meant something to Linda, so I went in search of the translation to that phrase.  One of the teachers I found lived in my area. She had a horse with a hard-to-diagnose lameness.  She contacted me to see if I could help her with him.  It turns out that the lateral work I was learning helped enormously.  When he carried himself in good balance, there was no sign of the lameness.

His owner, Marge Cartwright, was an Alexander practitioner, and she had also studied the Feldenkrais work.  So we ended up doing trades.  I worked with her horse to help him to be sounder, and she worked with me. Overtime I learned not only what it means to breath up through my feet, but to breathe up from the ground.  Learning that changed how horses relate to me.  It isn’t magic.  It isn’t some mystical gift of a horse whisperer.  It is simply the systematic unblocking of tension.  One metaphor that I love is the shining of a light on the dark places.  These are the places where movement become stuck, and we hide from ourselves the reasons for the stiffness.  This image comes via Anita Schnee, a Feldenkrais practitioner and regular attendee at the clinics I give at Cindy Martin’s farm near Fayetteville Arkansas.

The work Marge shared with me stands as one of the central pillars of what I teach today.  It is woven into every lesson both the ones that I give directly to horses and the lessons that I teach to their handlers.  Unless you live in my area and had the good fortune to learn from Marge, you won’t know her name.  But I owe her a huge thank you for enriching my life beyond measure.  Her work is woven into what I mean by equine clicker training.  If you have participated in a body awareness lesson at one of my clinics, you have been the direct beneficiary of her work. If you have thought about your own balance as you feed your horse a treat, that’s Marge’s influence again.  If you are learning about school figures – circles, lateral work, diagonals, etc. – by walking them without your horse, Marge has a hand in that, as well.

An awareness of balance, no much more than that – an appreciation for balance, an understanding that balance and soundness go hand-in-hand is something that I explored with Marge.

Clicker training for horses might have been little more than the teaching of tricks if it weren’t for this fascination and appreciation for balance.  Instead clicker training is a complex, wonderfully rich and diverse training system that can meet all needs. It includes the fun of tricks, but it doesn’t stop there.  The central core, the pillar that supports everything else is balance.

So thank you Marge for sharing your work so generously.  When you suggested we trade services, I’m sure you had no idea the ripple you were about to set into motion.  You helped make clicker training so much more than simply the pairing of a marker signal with treats.  What we teach and how we teach have become woven together to create a magnificent whole new way of doing things.  We dared to to it differently and look what grew out of it!

Thank you!

What Has Knitting Got To Do With Training?


I like to knit. I’m not a good knitter. I don’t know how to do any fancy patterns. What I knit are blankets, warm, soft blankets. You may be wondering what this has to do with training. Well, for starters I knit these blankets while I am editing video. All the videos I have produced for the DVDs and my on-line course have required hundreds of hours of editing time. I can only sit for so long before I need something to do with my hands. That something is knitting.

I also knit because I can’t resist beautiful, hand spun yarn. I visit the local farmer’s markets not so much for the fresh produce, but to see what yarn the spinners have brought.  As I make my selection, I feel like a cat luxuriously kneading the wonderfully soft yarn.  The spinners have yarn made from alpaca wool, and my favorite, sheep’s wool blended with mohair. How can anyone resist?

I don’t necessarily need to do anything with the wool I buy.  It’s beautiful just to look at, but I have mice in the house so a while ago all the yarn had to be put away in rodent proof containers.  Sad.  There’s no point in having beautiful yarn if you don’t put it to use, so last fall I made myself a promise. I would not buy any more yarn until I had used up everything that I had. So over the winter I went on a knitting spree. I knit a beautiful grey and white blanket that is made from alpaca roving a friend gave me years ago.  And I knit a second blanket that is made from a blend of Lancashire sheep wool and mohair.

Mohair comes from goats, and goats can be fun to train. And there you have the next connection to training. While I was knitting and editing video, I was thinking that it might be fun to get a pair of goats. But I wouldn’t want just any goats.  I’d want angoras. What fun to have goats that could produce the fiber I was so very much enjoying. So I got on the internet and began reading about Angora goats.

That was in late March. In early April I was listening to a program on the radio about upcoming art and entertainment events in the area.  The featured event was a fiber tour. Farmers in a neighboring county who raise sheep and other animals for their fiber had banded together to promote their farms. One of the representatives was a Sister from Saint Mary’s Convent who raises cashmere goats. Cashmere! I hadn’t even considered that most luxurious of fibers. I was on the internet immediately. What did cashmere goats look like?

I was in town the weekend of the fiber tour so off I went. I took a friend with me, and we drove around Washington County looking at sheep, goats, and even rabbits. The first stop was a farm that raised Angora goats. The farm was built on the side of a steep hill. The goats were at the bottom of the hill, at a distance, protected by their guard dog. We could sort of see them from the top of the hill, but that was as close as the farmer wanted us to go.

The next farm had Icelandic sheep. That was fun for me since I have Icelandic horses. Next we saw angora rabbits. They were more like tribbles than rabbits. Somewhere under all that fur we were assured there was indeed a rabbit.

We visited a factory that spun specialty yarns from the wool these growers provided.  I yielded to temptation. I had indeed used up my supply of yarn, and here was the perfect excuse to begin again.

The last stop of the day was to Saint Mary’s Convent, home of the cashmere goats.

Now at the outset I should say that one of the reasons I love horses is for their physical beauty.  “There is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.”  This may be an over-used cliche, but it is very true. Horses are aesthetically pleasing. So one of my many hesitations over adding goats to our little clicker family is – how should I put this politely – many goats really aren’t very pretty. The goats I’m used to seeing have been bred for their milk and their (sad to say) meat. Pretty was not an important criterion. So imagine my delight when the first cashmere goat I met was a stunner. I won’t try to describe her. Instead here is her picture.

cashmere doe at fiber festival

Regal would be a good word for her.  What a classic goat face she had, and that wonderful long silver coat. Never mind angoras. Cashmeres were the goats for me!

I spent a delightful hour watching goats and talking to the Sister who managed them. In addition to breeding them for their fiber, she also ran a 4-H program. Her young goats were leased out to children in that program. They were all there that day, proudly showing off this year’s kids. They sat on benches outside the barn, cradling the goats in their arms. One thing was for sure, these were goats who were going to grow up being used to handling!

I left enchanted, but still very much on the fence about adding goats. It would mean new fencing. It would mean taking time away from Robin. But it would also mean I would have animals who would make great teachers for people coming to the barn. I straddled the metaphorical fence all the way home.

The following day I sent the Sister an email introducing myself. It was a step. I wasn’t yet committing myself to getting goats, but I was pushing the door open a bit.

The Sister responded. She was very excited about the clicker training. Her neighbor next farm over was an agility trainer. They’d been over to watch her dogs. She was intrigued. Could clicker training really be used with her goats? Would I be interested in doing a program in the summer for her 4-H group?

Well, that was a way to take one more exploratory step. I could get to know her goats a little bit better, so I said yes.

More emails passed between us. Sister Mary Elizabeth asked if I would be interested in having a couple of the goats for a week or so before the 4-H program.

My first reaction was to say no. I didn’t have fencing for goats. I wasn’t ready for them. But then I remembered my deer fencing. We have one open stall in the barn. At the moment we use it as a grooming stall for our Icelandic, Fengur.   He sheds literally bucket loads of hair practically year round. If Ann grooms him in the stall, it’s much easier to keep his hair from flying around everywhere. But it was summer. He was taking a brief hiatus from shedding. We could use the stall for the goats and line the outside run with the deer fencing. That ought to keep them contained.

So it was decided. Right after I got back from my trip to England at the end of June my adventure in goat training would begin.

Coming in October: The Goat Diaries

Impatient to read the Goat Diaries?  Great!  You can have a sneak preview of my adventures in goat training at the Training Thoughtfully Conference in Milwaukee WI Oct. 20-22, 2017.  I’ll be sharing a brand new program: “Lessons From A Goat” which will draw on the Goat Diaries posts.  I’ll begin posting the Goat Diaries after the conference.

Registration for the conference will remain open until Oct. 15 so there’s still time to reserve your spot.

This conference is the creation of Kay Laurence.  Those of you who follow my work know that Kay is a trainer whose work I greatly admire.  Any chance I get to collaborate with her, I jump at.  I know good things for the horses will always come from the time I spend with her.  You can learn more about the program at:

P.P.S.: My original plan was to begin posting the Goat Diaries in August or September, but they have taken considerably more time to prepare than I had anticipated.  Now that my fall travel schedule has kicked into high gear, I find that it is better to wait until after the Training Thoughtfully conference to begin posting this new series.  Anticipation is part of the fun!  (I will share this statistic – my venture into goat training has produced over 80 new videos so I have lots to share and lots to say about how goats can help us to be better horse trainers.