Thank YOU!

I’m taking a brief detour from the Goat Diaries.  2018 is the 20th Anniversary of the publication of my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  To celebrate every month this year I will be writing an article about one of the many people who have helped me bring positive reinforcement training into the horse world.

Last month I told you about Bob Viviano and Crackers.  Bob was there literally at the beginning of my exploration of clicker training.  Ann Edie joined us a short time later when she started taking lessons from me at the barn where I boarded my horses.  This month I want to turn the spotlight in her direction to thank her for the enormous contribution she has made to the development of clicker training and for 25 years of friendship.

Most of you know Ann through her guide horse, Panda.  Ann has big horses as well.  We seem to share our equine family – at least that’s how it feels.  Ann’s first horse, Magnat, is our one in ten thousand horse.  That’s how I think of him.  He was originally my school horse, but he was such a great match for Ann, in 1996 I gave him to her.  In 1999 he was joined by our two Icelandics, Sindri and Fengur.  Panda joined the “herd” in 2001.

I’ve written so much about Panda, I’m going to shine the spotlight instead on Magnat.  He played such an important role in the early development of clicker training it is right that he should get the attention as I celebrate twenty years of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.   There is so much I could write.  I’ll just share a couple of favorite Magnat stories.

Remembering Magnat

Magnat is an Arabian.  He came to me through clients of mine who wanted a weekend trail horse for their guests.  Several months and several disastrous rides after they got him, they discovered that he had a severe heart murmur.  My clients were in a dilemma.  They didn’t want to keep him as a pasture ornament, but they couldn’t ethically sell a horse with such a severe heart condition.  Who would want such a horse?  The answer was I would.

So Magnat became mine.  One of my favorite training mantras is:

The walk is the mother of all gaits.

I didn’t need to ride fast to enjoy a horse.  Magnat and I were a perfect fit.  I would love to have reserved him just for myself, but he was such a great school horse.  I began to use him to give lessons at the barn where I boarded.  I could not have asked for a better co-teacher.  This was in 1994.  I had just begun the year before to explore clicker training with Peregrine.  I was having such good success with it, I had started to share it with all my clients.

Pretty soon the only horse who wasn’t clicker trained was my own school horse.  I was reluctant to introduce it to him.  I had all the questions that everybody else has when you first start introducing food into your training.  What if he got mouthy?  He was so polite now.  I didn’t want to risk messing up my one and only school horse by teaching him clicker training!

When someone is hesitant to give clicker training a try, I get it.  I had the same questions and concerns that most people have when they first encounter this work.  But I really couldn’t go on encouraging all my clients to give it a try and not follow my own advice with Magnat.

I needn’t have worried.  For Magnat it barely caused a blip on the landscape.  He was polite before I introduced food, and he remained so even when my pockets were bulging with treats.  He was never muggy.

There are lots of horses who go through a very rocky transition stage.  The food does get them excited.  They frustrate easily and often older behaviors that have been suppressed through punishment resurface to create problems.  Magnat showed none of this.  That isn’t to say there weren’t changes.  My solid, reliable lesson horse truly began to shine.  If he had been good before, now he was outstanding.

Throughout that first winter he helped me teach people the basics of single-rein riding.  There’s a great expression:

The longer you stay with an exercise, the more good things you’ll see that it gives you.

One of the good things the basics of single-rein riding produced for Magnat was collection.  The beginnings of two favorite behaviors popped out: piaffe and canter in-hand.  This later is a gorgeous behavior to have in repertoire.  Magnat became so balanced and collected, he could canter while I walked beside him.

It was around this time that Ann came to the barn wanting to take lessons.  Ann was not a beginner.  She had ridden as a teenager, but then like so many others she gave up riding when she went off to college and never got back to it once she started raising a family.  The challenge for me was Ann is blind.  I had never worked with a blind rider before.  This was a new frontier for me.  But I assumed my job was teaching her to ride.  Ann would take care of the rest.  If I taught her the way I taught everyone else, we’d come out okay.  It turned out I was right.

I started Ann the way I start all riders who come to me.   It doesn’t matter how many years you have ridden or how experienced a trainer you are, if you are going to ride one of my horses, you start with a pony ride.  I guide the horse from the ground.  All you have to do is sit and enjoy.

As the rider becomes familiar with the horse’s communication system, and understands how to cue the horse, I gradually turn over more and more of the control.  So at first I have the reins, and I’m working the horse in-hand with a rider up.  Then I hand the reins over to the rider, but I stay close so my body language continues to support the rider’s cues.  Then I gradually fade out and the rider takes over completely from me.

This worked perfectly for Ann.  Having Magnat as my co-teacher made all the difference, especially since he could canter in-hand.  For teaching that made him worth his weight in gold.  I wish I had learned how to ride on a horse like Magnat.  Ann has such a relaxed canter seat because she learned the rhythm of the canter from him.  Starting out she never rode a bad canter.  All she had to do was relax and enjoy.  There was no struggle trying to get him into the canter, no trotting faster, faster, faster like a plane taking off.  There was no leaning sideways through unbalanced turns.

Magnat canter

Instead there was just the relaxed rhythm of a collected, glorious canter.  And then there was the piaffe and the passage.  It was Ann who was riding the first time Magnat succeeded in mobilizing into piaffe.  I was working him from the ground while she helped manage his weight shifts.

We were figuring out how to teach riding with the clicker.  I gave Ann the lesson, and she taught Magnat.  They were such a good match, I decided after their first winter together to give him to her.  It gave me so much more pleasure watching them develop as a team than I ever would have had riding him for myself.  And I had Peregrine.  He and Magnat became riding partners.  For the next sixteen years while we kept the horses at the boarding barn, Ann and I shared our evening rides together.

They were an unlikely pair, my thoroughbred, her Arab.  But it turned out that each horse gave their best to the other.  Magnat gave Peregrine the confidence to move forward again after a long, hard recovery from the aftershocks of Potomac horse fever.  And Peregrine taught Magnat about collection.

Magnat lived in a small paddock with two other horses.  I’m sure you can picture what he looked like during mud season.  Every night Ann would spend an hour or so grooming him and by the time he was ready to go into the arena, he was snowy white.  I don’t know how she did it!  When I brush my horses, the dirt moves from one spot to another.  When Ann grooms, the dirt leaves!  And a horse isn’t clean until her fingers tell her he’s clean.

Early on we taught Magnat to retrieve.  There’s a picture of him with a wooden dumbbell in his mouth on the cover of the first edition of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  When Ann brought him into the arena, he would ask to be turned loose.  She’d let go of his reins, and he’d go out in the arena and bring back to her all the things the previous riders had dropped.

We boarded in a barn where there was a very active after school lesson program so there were always dropped riding crops, gloves, hats, kleenex.  Ann never knew what she was going to be handed.  Magnat was very diligent in making sure that he had found anything and everything that might get in their way.  In so many ways he was Ann’s first guide horse.

When the arena was clean, he would walk with her to the mounting block and line himself up.  Now the real glory of Magnat shone through.

Ann understood that clicker training means so much more than just using a marker signal and treats.  Clicker training for us is synonymous with good balance.  It was a joy to explore with her what that meant for our horses.

When Ann first started riding Magnat, she couldn’t manage his trot at all.  He bounced her out of the saddle.  It was the most jarring, bone rattling, uncomfortable trot imaginable.  That was because for her Magnat wasn’t yet balanced.  She didn’t yet understand how to use lateral flexions.  When she asked for the trot, she got the hollow-back, high-headed, stiff-legged trot that is all too often associated with Arabs.

As she learned how to use lateral flexions, Magnat relaxed and lifted himself up into a magic carpet ride.  The transformation was so black and white.  Ride him without asking for the lift that comes through the lateral work, and he would jar you right out of the saddle.  Ask for collection, and you were in heaven.

I taught Magnat lateral flexions before I began to explore clicker training.  He understood what I wanted and was a willing student.  Often people seek out clicker training because they are struggling with a horse.  That wasn’t the case with Magnat.  He could have gone through his whole life without ever needing to be clicker trained.

Before clicker training he was a good, solid-citizen riding horse, but that’s all he was.  Without clicker training he would have remained a nice, but ordinary horse.  With clicker training he shone.  I used to say he was a one in a million horse, but as the years went by and he just became more and more wonderful, not just to ride but to be around, I changed this to a one in ten million horse.

But I really shouldn’t be the one to describe what it was like to ride Magnat.  He was Ann’s horse.  Here is how Ann described him in a piece she wrote for my riding book:

“It’s always a dilemma to describe the experience of riding a truly extraordinary horse who has had the benefit of several years of clicker training.  Although many technical components go into the production of a really memorable ride, the irrepressible smile, the feeling of wonder, and expression of “WOW!!” that arises so regularly these days when I ride Magnat simply cannot be described in anything but poetic terms.

Yes, athletic talent and neuromuscular conditioning are part of what makes the ride so special; and yes, many hours of repetition over many months have gone into it; and yes, there is extraordinary lightness and balance.  But this is still far from the sum total of the experience.

Musicians have described a great melody as “ a journey which has many familiar passages, and which also contains some wonderful surprises which cause you to look at the world in a completely fresh way and gives new meaning to life.”  This is the best description I can find of what it is like to ride Magnat.

Magnat comes out into the arena every night feeling relaxed and eager to work.  He knows he will be appreciated and reinforced for his performance.  He knows that he is a respected dance partner and member of the team, not a mere subject of training.  This awareness and active participation on the part of the horse is one of the benefits bestowed by clicker training.

Our rides begin with warm-up exercises.  In the course of executing figures or doing simple softening and balancing work, I will pick up on the reins and suddenly feel the most indescribable lightness!!!

We may be in a super-buoyant, floating trot, a deliberate, balanced, ballet-like piaffe, or a heavenly rocking-horse canter.  Whatever it is, it will feel as though I am floating on a magic carpet.  He is so responsive in these moments.  It’s as if there are clear filaments of two-way communication from my finger tips to each of Magnat’s feet.  The slightest breath of a touch on one of those lines will be answered by an immediate floating response.

The musicians described music as a journey which “contains some wonderful surprises.”  That’s how I feel about riding Magnat.  Each ride contains surprises and special pleasures we have not experienced before.  It is like coming around a bend in the road and seeing a spectacular sunset, or a grove of awe-inspiring redwood trees, or the grandeur of an ancient castle, or the peace and cool of a Buddhist temple.  It truly takes the breath away!  It creates the deepest joy and aliveness in my heart!

These moments have totally changed the way I think about riding.  I feel such awe for Magnat and for what we create together.  In this moment I know, without the slightest doubt, exactly what I ride for – it is just this amazing feeling of total balance, effortlessness, lightness, and energy.  Magnat seems to feel the same excitement and joy, for he literally beams with pride, and recently he has begun uttering deep chortles in his throat at these moments.

I let the magic moment go on for as long as I dare, wanting it to continue forever, but knowing I must capture it with a click, before it disappears like a soap bubble or a delicious dream.

The click creates a pause in the music.  Magnat comes to a halt; I throw my arms around his neck in a huge hug, shower him with lavish praise, and empty my pockets of the most desirable treats!

The “WOW” feeling is definitely addictive.  The glow of the experience lingers and stays with me long after the ride.  Our whole horse-human relationship is one of appreciation, respect, and awe.

This is, for me, the great gift of clicker training.  When taken to the high-performance level, it creates transcendent moments of great joy”

Ann Edie – written in 2005 for “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker

Ann’s words express so perfectly why we have both worked to bring clicker training into the horse world.  If clicker training had just been about teaching tricks, and finding kinder way to get horses onto trailers or to stand for grooming, I would have moved on years ago.  Instead clicker training takes us on a journey to Joy.  It connects us deeply to our horses.

This is what Ann and I wanted to share when we wrote about our horses.  It is what I am celebrating in this twentieth year of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  It is what we hope others will find as they explore clicker training: the great love and wisdom of horses.

Sadly we lost Magnat in 2011 not long after we moved to our new barn.  He had reached the grand age of 33, but it wasn’t enough.  We were both hoping he would be one of those Arabs who live to be forty.  Sadly he had cancer, and we had to say good-bye.

Ann has shared so generously her horses.  Magnat and the Icelandics have served as my school horses.  I’ve written about them, and they have appeared in the books and DVDs.  Sindri, our Icelandic stallion, was my riding horses.  Thank you Ann for that great pleasure and honor.

And then of course there is Panda, Ann’s guide horse.  Ann is a very private person, but she has shared Panda literally with the world.  We’ve had journalists from as far away as Japan and Australia come and do stories on her.  Ann has always been a good sport, and so has Panda!

What many people don’t know is Ann is one of the partners in The Clicker Center Barn. Without her help, the barn would never have been built.  Thank you Ann for this.  And thank you also for teaching me how to play scrabble and for occasionally letting me win.

Alex Panda scrabble 0038

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.

page2getstarted1crackers.jpg

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.