March is slipping away fast and I have not yet written this month’s celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”. It’s been a jammed packed month. The Clicker Expo and the Art and Science of Animal Training conferences were back to back this year. Both conferences become endurance tests because I can’t resist the late night conversations with the other faculty members. We typically don’t stop until one or two in the morning, and then only because we know we have presentations to give the next day.
For most of the month I had the added endurance test of night checks on the goats while I waited for Trixie and Thanzi to give birth.
Prepping for the conferences would have been enough to fill this month, but I also added the launching of the new Equiosity podcast with Dominique Day.
Episode 3 just went live yesterday. The conferences are done, the goats are all doing great, so finally I can write my thank you to the people who helped open the doors to these great adventures.
It’s always a challenge to pick one person out of the many hundreds who have played principle roles in bringing clicker training so actively into the horse community. This is the last day in March. Spring is coming which means the clinic season is about start up again. So it seemed like a good choice to celebrate the clinics and the many organizers and attendees. I couldn’t possibly list all the names. I’d be bound to leave someone out, so instead I am going to thank just one person, Kate Graham who, along with Lin Sweeney, for years hosted the Groton New York clinics.
I’m choosing Kate for two reasons. One, the Groton clinics were one of my first clicker training clinics, and the first that turned into a recurring event. Two or three times a year we would gather in Lin’s living room for the start of a great weekend. Many people who became very instrumental in helping to expand clicker training were regulars at these clinics.
My main memory of the first Groton clinic was not of horses but of snow. Saturday night we went out to dinner as a group. We drove through near white out conditions to get to the restaurant. In spite of the cold weather that weekend people were hooked. We’d just scratched the surface of what is possible. None of the horses in that first clinic had any clicker training experience so most of the training involved basic targeting. But even so people were excited by the changes they were seeing in their horses.
I will always be grateful to Kate and Lin for saying – “Let’s do this again!” If I had spent all my travel time just giving start-up clinics, I would never have been able to take clicker training past the basics of simple targeting. My own horses would have known the joys of beautiful balance and all the other great gifts that clicker training brings us, but I wouldn’t have been able to share it with others through the clinics. Instead clinic by clinic we moved the work forward.
We had a core group of regular attendees which meant I got to see horses advance through the stair steps of the training. Katie Bartlett was among this group. I got to see her senior horse, Willy, turn into a clicker super star, and then I watched her young Dutch warmblood, Rosie, develop from gawky youngster into a beautiful riding horse.
One of Lin Sweeney’s horses, a standardbred named Button, became a school horse for clinic attendees. Button became a super teacher for anyone who wanted to learn about lateral flexions. And then there was Lucky, Kate’s horse.
Lucky is the second reason for saying thank you to Kate. Watching the two of them together always made me smile. Lucky was a Connemara cross (or so Kate was told.) He started with that all too usual story. The first time Kate rode him after she bought him, Lucky spun and bolted as she was getting on him. Kate fell off and broke her ankle.
To get him to the point where he could be ridden safely Kate looked at John Lyons’ work. She found one of his instructors living within driving distance in Canada. She helped her enormously. When I first met Lucky, Kate could ride him, but he was incredibly wiggly. Straight lines were not in his riding vocabulary.
I knew about that stage from my own exploration of single-rein riding. Teaching a horse to be soft is done through lots of bending into lateral flexions. Your horse now feels wonderfully light. He is safe to ride. You don’t have to worry about the spooking or the bolting off. Those terrors are now a thing of the past, but your rides seem to be mostly about going in small circles. Lyons knew how to sort out all this bending for his own horses, but he was just beginning to figure out how to teach it to others. So Lucky was stuck in the stage where going in circles and wiggly lines was the norm.
I had also studied Lyons work and was familiar with the single-rein riding, so I understood what Kate was working on with Lucky. Peregrine had taught me how to insert clicker training into the process which dramatically changed the conversation.
With Lucky we began on the ground, first with the basics of targeting and the other foundation lessons. In 1998 I was focused on three foundation lessons, targeting, backing and head lowering. It was through the clinic process that I expanded the list to six. The other three behaviors had always been something I taught, but I hadn’t yet understood how universally important they were.
What did the clinics add to the list? Standing on a mat, “happy faces”, and the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt. Grown-ups gives us a base position, a calm settled launching point to balance out all the more active behaviors we ask for. It simply means that your horse is standing beside you in his own space with his head oriented evenly between his shoulders so he’s looking straight ahead. He’s not doing all the “I don’t want my horse to . . . ” behaviors, such as mugging your pockets or crowding into your space. Grown-ups begins the process of focusing on what you want your horse TO DO, instead of the unwanted behavior. So it is as much for the handler as it is for the horse.
I gave it that long, somewhat cumbersome name because I wanted to make it clear to people who were peeking in at clicker training that we may be using food, but we are not permissive trainers. Our horses have good manners.
Getting a horse to stand still beside you can be a challenging behavior to teach well. It’s easy for force-based trainers. You simply say to your horse – move and I’ll hurt you. Say it with conviction, back it up with action, and your horse will stand still until you tell him to move.
In clicker training we are taking away the threat of enforcement. Instead we reinforce behaving. Horses get reinforced for offering behavior. Standing still is very much a behavior. Getting to a point where your horse will stand still long enough for the grown-ups to truly have a conversation takes time to build. You have to convince your horse that all those other charming behaviors that you’ve been teaching him – lifting his feet, walking off into lateral work, picking up your grooming brushes, backing up, rushing off to find a mat, etc. none of these things are what you want right now. Standing quietly beside you is what will get you to click and hand him a treat.
So grown-ups lets you discover how to build duration. It introduces cues and stimulus control. It shows you how to balance one behavior with another, and how to expand a simple stand-beside-me behavior in many different directions – from neutral balance into the pilates pose, and from simple duration into solid ground tying. Through the process it also shows you how the behaviors you are teaching become transformed into conditioned reinforcers which can then be used to help support other newer behaviors.
The clinic horses were helping me to see connections. I was discovering things about these foundation behaviors that working with my own horses had not yet revealed. They were showing me details that are now embedded into the core teaching. They helped make clicker training better, more universally applicable, and so much more fun!
Lucky loved clicker training. And even more he loved Kate. Watching the two of them together was always a highlight of the Groton clinics. It wasn’t just that Lucky was beautiful – which he was. With each clinic he became more and more suspended, and more and more stunning to watch. He was a head turner for sure. But what made Lucky stand out was his sense of humor. He and Kate laughed their way through every training session. They never worked on anything I shared with them. For them it was always play.
That’s the joy they shared and that I have been lucky enough to share with others. Thank you Kate! And thank you to all the other clinic organizers. You played an important role in planting the seed of clicker training. Look how it is growing now!
This is one of my favorite photos. Lucky is cantering beside Kate. I love the canter in hand. Kate is walking. She’s not running to try to keep up with a cantering horse. Instead Lucky is staying beautifully connected to her so she can walk beside him with her hand on his neck. Talk about an addicting sensation! You can feel all the power of your horse, and all the control. It is magnificence itself, an experience like no other, especially when you know that your horse is offering you this connection, not because he has to but because he joyously seeks it out.
Every time I look at this picture I smile. It represents so many of the good things clicker training can give us: laughter, fun, a great connection with our horses, an opportunity to explore – and succeed in training advanced performance skills, beautiful balance, and most important of all – a happy horse.
Thank you Kate and Lucky, and thank you to all the other clinic organizers. Your desire to bring clicker training solidly into your own area has helped to build a world-wide clicker training community.