One more day to go before my new book, “Modern Horse Training, A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”, becomes available to order.
Yesterday I shared with you a little behind the scenes information about how books are printed in the modern world. Modern printing for “Modern Horse Training”!
Sharing Clicker Training
You are reading this post because you are a follower of my work. You’ve been reading my blog. I suspect you also listen to my Equiosity podcast, so you know that I love horses. That’s something we very much have in common. When I started to explore clicker training, it was something I wanted to share. I’m not alone in that. Clicker training has spread around the planet because lots of people have been talking about it. We’ve been sharing our clicker success stories and other horse people have been paying attention. They’ve gotten curious enough to take a look. That’s a good thing for the horses they love.
This year marks an important anniversary for me. It was thirty years ago in September of 1993 that I first went out to the barn with a clicker in my hand and treats in my pocket.
Peregrine was eight years old. He was living at the home of one my long-time clients where he was turned out twenty-four/seven with her two horses. It was a heavenly set up for him except for one thing. The property was next to a wet lands, and he got Potomac Horse fever. He was one of the first horses in my area to contract the disease. Thankfully he was vaccinated, and also thankfully my vet recognized what it was. Peregrine got the treatment he needed, but not in time to completely avoid all of the long-term side effects. He developed laminitis which led to hoof abscesses in both of his front feet. Instead of being able to go out with his friends he was laid up in the barn. He was in so much pain for the first few days he was unable to walk even a step or two.
It looked as though he might be laid up for a while. I wanted to keep him entertained during his layup, so I decided this was the perfect time to experiment with clicker training, to see what it was about.
In her book, “Lads Before the Wind” Karen Pryor described the process of charging the clicker. She would blow a whistle, throw a fish in the water, blow a whistle, throw a fish in the water until, when she blew a whistle, she saw the dolphins interrupt what they were doing to look for the fish. At that point she knew they were making a connection between the whistle and the fish. So then she could choose the moment she blew the whistle to begin shaping the behavior she wanted to teach.
I went out to the barn to charge my clicker. I clicked and handed Peregrine a treat. He took the treat from me. Hand feeding was nothing new. I clicked and handed him another treat. He took the treat but showed no sign that we was noticing the click. I repeated this several more times.
People think I am patient. They are wrong.
Peregrine wasn’t responding to the click. I thought if this is going to take a long time, I’m not interested. So I looked around the barn for something to use as a target. There was an old dressage whip propped up in a corner gathering dust. I used that. I held it out towards Peregrine. He was curious. He sniffed it. I clicked and handed him a treat.
I held the target up again. He sniffed it again. Click and treat.
He was clearly interested. There was such a different look in his eyes than there had been when I was just handing him treats. He was getting it! Orient to the dressage whip, and you can get your person to reach into her pocket and give you a treat. What a fun discovery!
Over the next few days I expanded the game. I had Peregrine track the target left and right, up and down. As the abscesses healed, he could walk forward a step or two to follow it. Our clicker training sessions became the highlight of his day.
Peregrine was on stall rest for seven weeks. He was a young, fit thoroughbred who was used to a lot of turnout and exercise. I had dealt with other thoroughbreds who were coming off of lay-ups. The challenge was always to keep them from bouncing around and setting back their recovery. Peregrine stayed settled throughout his lay up. Returning to routine work was a non-event. When I started hand walking him, I included a review of basic ground work, only this time I was explaining what I wanted via a click and a treat . When I started riding him again after seven weeks of lay up, he was further along in his training than he had been when he was laid up. That’s not how things normally work!
So I was really curious. I started sharing clicker training with my clients, and the rest, as they say, is history. “Modern Horse Training” is a product of all of that sharing.
I’ll share one more Peregrine story. I’ve written about his stifles. Peregrine grew up in a body that didn’t work. His stifles would lock to the point where he could not bend his hind legs. They created all kinds of training issues. He was an incredibly sweet horse who became a nightmare to handle. My vet told me that horses often outgrew locking stifles, but if not, there was a surgical option. He could cut one of the tendons that ran over Peregrine’s patella. It was effective, but there was an increased risk that Peregrine might fracture his patella.
When Peregrine was at his worst, when he was blasting out of my hand to unlock his stifles, I was sorely tempted by the surgery. But then I would figure out another piece of the training puzzle, and Peregrine would become a little easier to handle. I would put the surgical option on the back burner for a little longer. It was a risk I just wasn’t ready to take.
I was slowly learning how to manage Peregrine’s stifles – at least when I was working with him. When he was on his own, his stifles would lock up on him again. It was a problem that just wouldn’t go away.
After I started exploring clicker training, I reviewed everything I had ever taught him. The list was a long one. When I had first taught Peregrine to lunge, his stifles would lock up, and he would explode forward to release them. I would be left holding the lunge line, but there would be no horse at the other end. The force with which he blasted forward was enough to shear the metal snap of the lunge line.
I had heard John Lyons say that the strongest lead rope is the one in the horse’s mind. I needed that lead rope so I taught Peregrine to work at liberty. He was a superb liberty horse.
I was also learning classical dressage from Bettina Drummond, Nuno Olivier’s principle student. In addition to riding, I was learning classical work in-hand. That extended beyond the basics of lateral work to piaffe. Before I started him under saddle, I taught Peregrine to piaffe. Mobilizing his hind end helped to keep his stifles from locking, at least when he was working.
I had begun teaching Peregrine Spanish walk shortly before he got sick. I continued to work on that along with everything else. That’s when I started to notice a difference. Peregrine’s stifles weren’t locking up anymore. They had been locking up for eight years, and now they just weren’t.
Karen Pryor called one of her books “Reaching the Animal Mind”. What a perfect title!
That’s what I was doing. Peregrine wasn’t simply doing what he was told. He was internalizing what I was teaching him in a way that he had not done before. He changed how he was using his body. I talk a lot about the Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement training for people and the profound effects that it can have. I saw something similar happening with Peregrine. The clarity of the marker signal was doing what eight years of training had not. Peregrine stopped locking in his stifles.
This is why I am so passionate about this work. Yes, it is wonderful that we have a kinder way to teach horses to load onto trailers or to stand well for a farrier. But clicker training goes deeper than that. If clicker training were simply about adding some new teaching strategies to our training choices, I suspect I would have long ago moved on to other things. I certainly would not have spent the thousands of hours away from my horses that it has taken to write the books, create the DVDs, produce the podcast, travel to clinics, and respond to all the queries I get about clicker training.
There is much more to this work. I know many of you reading this know what I mean. You have experienced something similar in your own horses. You have seen your relationship deepen in a way that goes beyond words. You have found yourself solving training puzzles, laughing during training sessions, loving your horses.
I have chosen to publish my new book, “Modern Horse Training” on April 26, the anniversary of Peregrine’s birthday, to honor the part he played in introducing me to clicker training. I lost him in September of 2015. He was thirty years old. He is deeply loved and in my heart always.
If he hadn’t been such a master teacher, I might have dabbled in clicker training and then moved on. That’s what others did with it. But he pushed me to see what it was really about. So I have a favor to ask of all of you reading this. For the horses in your life, please send a thank you to Peregrine by buying the new book. It will be hugely appreciated.
Each copy sold makes it easier for the next person to find clicker training. Help me turn the book into a best seller. Together we can make a difference and change the way horses are trained.
The book will be available to order tomorrow, April 26. You can order it from my web site, or through Amazon and other booksellers.