Giving The Ball A Push

2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  I am celebrating by writing thank yous each month to people who helped bring clicker training into the horse world.

Are you trying to guess who it’s going to be this month?  Anyone who has followed my work knows the stories.  You’ve met the horses through my books and DVDs. Who will I single out this time?

I could turn it into a guessing game.  This person has appeared in the game show: “What’s my line?”.  Does that help?  Maybe not.  But if I tell you that the panelists correctly guessed that she was a dolphin trainer, now some of you will know who I’m talking about.  July’s tribute belongs to Karen Pryor.

So many of us were first introduced to clicker training through Karen’s book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.  I discovered her book through a friend who bred and trained Irish wolf hounds.  We were having lunch together (with one of her wolf hounds literally looking over my shoulder).  Needless to say, we were talking about training.  I’ve forgotten the exact subject, but I do remember my friend saying, “But of course, you’ve read “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.

Don't Shoot the Dog

She said it in a tone that implied that of course I had.  How could I not?  But in 1993 I had never even heard of “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.  Perhaps if Karen’s publishers had called it “Don’t Shoot the Horse”, the horse world would have been exploring clicker training ahead of the dog world.  We’ll never know.  But in any event, I tracked down a copy of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and read it with great interest.

Those of you are familiar with Karen’s book know that it is not a training book per se.  Karen was writing about learning theory, a subject which can sound very dry and off-putting.  “Don’t Shoot the Dog” is anything but.  You read it, nodding your head in agreement.  “That’s why that horse, that dog, that person responded in that way.  It all makes so much sense!  How could they do anything else.”

When I read the chapter on punishment, I remember thinking, “The horse world needs to know about this.”  The horse world needs to understand that when you use punishment, there is ALWAYS fallout.  You always get other unintended, unwanted consequences.  Punishment doesn’t work with laser-fine precision.  You may shut down the behavior you’re after, but the effect spreads out and creates negative consequences and a general dampening down of behavior.

Use it often, and you will get what in the horse world is often called a “well behaved” horse, meaning a shut down horse.  Punishment stops behavior.  That’s the definition of punishment (versus reinforcement).  When you use reinforcement (plus or minus), the behavior you’re focusing on increases.

When you use punishment, the behavior decreases.  So you may punish biting.  Strike hard enough, fast enough, the biting may indeed stop – for the moment.  But punishment isn’t a teaching tool.  It doesn’t tell the horse what TO DO to avoid the unwanted consequence.  However, it is reinforcing for the punisher.  That’s what makes it such a slippery slope.  It may not get the results that you’re after, but in the moment, oh it can feel so good.

When skilled positive reinforcement trainers talk about the four quadrants meaning positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment, they don’t take the use of punishment completely off the table.  They recognize that under the right conditions punishment – applied well – may be a necessary and correct choice.

In many of her presentations Dr. Susan Friedman talks about the hierarchy of behavior-change procedures.

 

Susan Friedman's hierarchy

You begin with the least intrusive interventions.  You begin by exploring medical reasons for the behavior, then you move to changing the environment, and positive reinforcement procedures.  Only after many steps and pausing always to consider if there might be other alternatives, would you consider the more intrusive methods and sitting last as a possibility would be punishment.  And before people puff themselves up and say – I would never use punishment, remember Dr Friedman spent much of her career working with children with major behavioral problems that included self-injurious behavior.  So what would you do with a child who is trying to gouge her eyes out?  Is punishment of that behavior always off the table?

Punishment is certainly not where you begin, but there may be extreme situations where it is where you end up.  If a fire were fast approaching, and you needed to load a reluctant horse on a trailer NOW or leave him behind, would you resort to punishment?  Until you’re faced with that situation, it’s an open question.

Ken Ramirez, another trainer I greatly admire, doesn’t take punishment off the table either.  However, when he was overseeing the training program at the Shedd Aquarium, the novice trainers were only allowed to use positive reinforcement.  They could reinforce behaviors that they liked, but they had to be non-reactive to behaviors they didn’t like.  Only when they were more skilled could they begin to use more advanced techniques.  In his talks on this subject Ken explains why he puts these limits on his young trainers.  At some point early in their career they will come to him, asking for permission to move up the hierarchy.

“Ken,” they will say, “I could so easily solve this problem we’re having with this animal if only you would let me use this procedure that I’ve read about.”  Ken won’t let them.  He wants them to become very experienced with the basics.  If you let them begin to add in other techniques too soon, they really never learn how to be skilled and creative with the basic tools.  They jump the queue too fast and head for more intrusive techniques.

As they become more skilled, he lets them expand into the rest of the hierarchy.  His senior trainers can use any technique, including punishment, that they deem to be appropriate.  But he knows that these trainers have the experience and the skill to apply punishment well, meaning with good timing and at the right intensity to create the desired effect and minimize the fallout.  He also knows that they are so skilled and experienced that they don’t need to use punishment.  They will find other alternatives.

The odd thing in the horse world is we flip things upside down.  We reach first for punishment.  The horse bites – we strike.  It’s the horse’s fault.  And if he bites again, we’ll hit him harder.  We don’t look first for medical conditions.  Maybe that horse is full of ulcers.  Treat the ulcers and his reason for biting will go away.  We don’t rearrange the environment.  Use protective contact – put a barrier between you and the horse so he can’t bite you, and then use positive reinforcement to teach him alternatives to biting.

Instead we give six year old children riding crops (often pink riding crops with pretty sparkles), and we tell her to hit her pony harder.  We give punishment to the least experienced, most novice riders.  That’s completely upside down.  No wonder what we get back are so many sad stories, so many bad endings for both people and horses.

When I said the horse world needs to understand what Karen was saying about punishment in “Don’t Shoot The Dog”, I’ve always though some genie of the universe heard that.  “Got one! She’ll do.”  I was sent the clicker training bug.  More than that, that genie sat on my shoulder and kept urging me to write about what I was experiencing with my horses.  Lots of people, including Karen Pryor, had used clicker training with their horses before I ever went out to the barn with clicker in hand.  I was by no means the first person who ever used it with a horse.  But they didn’t disappear into their computers to write about it.  That good genie on my shoulder made sure that I did.

“Don’t Shoot the Dog” sparked my interest.  I wanted to know more about clicker training.  I read “Lads Before The Wind”,  Karen’s chronicle of the founding of Sea Life Park and the development of the first dolphin shows.  She shared with us the many training puzzles that had to be solved in order to figure out how to train dolphins.  Old-style circus training wasn’t the answer.  She turned to science and the work that was coming out of B.F. Skinner’s lab.

“Lads Before The Wind” took me a step closer.  I wanted to know more about training with a marker signal.

My friend brought me a copy of a magazine article she thought I’d find interesting.  I have no idea what the article was about.  I’m not even sure that I read it, but down in the left hand corner, in very small print, was a tiny ad for two of Karen Pryor’s early VHS videos.  I sent away for both.

The first one was recorded at a seminar that Karen gave with Gary Wilkes to a group of dog trainers.  Gary was the canine trainer who approached Karen with the question: “Do you think clicker training would work with dogs?”

In a conversation I had years ago with Karen, she said she had always had dogs, but they weren’t really trained, not like she had trained the dolphins.  They were just around.  But when Gary wondered if clicker training would work with them, Karen thought, of course!  Why not!  So she and Gary teamed up to give a series of seminars to dog trainers, and we all know what grew out of that for the dog world.

The clip from that seminar that intrigued me and sent me out to the barn to try clicker training my horse showed Gary training a twelve week old mastiff puppy to sit and then to lie down – all without touching the puppy.  These days that’s become so the norm, it wouldn’t get a second look, but in 1993 the dog training I had seen involved leash pops and pushing on the puppy to make it sit.  I was intrigued by the ease with which Gary got this puppy to lie down and stay down.

I was even more intrigued by a clip that was on the second video.  It featured Gary Priest, the Director of Training at the San Diego Zoo.  Gary talking about an African bull elephant named Chico.  Chico had tried to attack his keepers on several occasions so the decision had been made that no one could go into his enclosure with him.  So for ten years Chico had gone without foot care.  At that time the farrier literally got underneath the elephant to trim the front feet.  Gary showed a video of a farrier standing under the elephants belly to trim a foot.  “One wrong move from the elephant,” Gary says in the background – point taken.

So they had to come up with a different approach for Chico.  Gary decided to try clicker training.  They built several small openings in the gate to Chico’s enclosure.  Then they used targeting to bring him up to the enclosure gate.  It took many months, but they finally taught him to put his foot through the opening and to rest it on a metal stirrup bar for cleaning.

The video showed the keepers using targeting to guide Chico to turn around so his hindquarters were to the gate.  Then following a smaller target, Chico lifted his hind foot through the opening for his first trim in ten years.

Gary says in the voice over:  “I can’t impress upon you enough how aggressive this elephant was, but he’s standing here quietly all for the social attention and the bucket of food treats.”

I know how all too many horses even today get handled when they refuse to pick up their feet.  With some trainers, sadly, out come the lip chains, the hobbles, and three men and a boy to hold the horse down, all to force compliance.  We in the horse world do indeed have a lot to learn.

Those two videos gave me what I needed to get started.  I’ve told this part of the story many times.  My thoroughbred, Peregrine, was laid up with hoof abscesses in both front feet.  I wanted to keep him mentally engaged during what was likely to be a long recovery.  What a perfect time to give clicker training a try.  I went out to the barn with treats and a clicker.

In “Lads Before the Wind” Karen had talked about charging the clicker.  With the dolphins you blew a whistle then tossed a fish, blew a whistle then tossed a fish – until you saw the dolphins begin to look for the fish when they heard the whistle.   Now you could begin to make the blowing of the whistle contingent on a specific behavior.  For example, now the dolphin has to swim in the direction of a hoop suspended in the water.  Swim towards the hoop, and wonders of wonders, you can make the humans blow the whistle and throw you a fish.  That’s a powerful discovery.  Suddenly the animal feels in control.

I tried charging the clicker.  I clicked and treated, clicked and treated.  Peregrine showed no signs that he was connecting the click to the treat.  I remember thinking: “If this is going to take a long time, I’m not interested.”

I decided to try targeting.  There was an old dressage whip propped against the corner of the barn.  That would do.  I held it out. Peregrine sniffed it.  Click, treat.  I held it out again, same thing.  The ball was rolling.

I couldn’t do much more than ask him to target.  His feet hurt too much to take more than a step or two, but as he began to recover, I could ask for more.  I started to reshape all the things I had taught him over the years, everything from basic husbandry skills to the classical work in-hand I was learning.  When I started riding him seven weeks later, he was further along in his training than he had been before he was laid up.

Hmm.  Long lay-ups aren’t supposed to work that way, especially not with a thoroughbred.  Normally, as they recover, you go through a rough patch where they’re feeling very cooped up and your job is to convince them to walk not rear during hand walking.  With Peregrine there was no rough patch.  And he was understanding what I was asking of him so much better that he did before the lay-up.

The good genie that sat on my shoulder had picked well.  It was no accident that clicker training gained such a strong toe hold with me.  I’ve known so many people who gave clicker training a try, loved their horse’s response to the initial targeting, and then got stuck.  What do you do with it?  For them ground work meant lunging – and often lunging badly.  Ugh.  We just want to ride!

I wanted to ride as well, but I also loved ground work.  I had raised all my horses, so ground work to me meant so much more than lunging.   It meant teaching a young horse all the skills it would need to get along with people.  It meant learning how to stand quietly for haltering, grooming, foot care, medical procedures, saddling, etc..  It meant learning to lead and from that core foundation, learning about balance through the classical work in-hand and all the performance doors that opened up.  It meant expanding their world by introducing distractions and new environments.   The list went on and on.  And finally it meant connecting the ground work into riding.  Riding truly is just ground work where you get to sit down.

So as Peregrine began to recover from his abscesses, I had a lot to play with.  My training was already structured around systematic small steps.  It was easy to add in the click and a treat.  At first, you could say that all I was doing was just sugar coating same-old same old.  I would ask in the way I knew and then click and treat correct responses.  But even just that first step into clicker training was producing great results.  And when I explored targeting and free shaping – WOW! – was that ever fun!

I was liking this clicker training!  So I began to share it with my clients.  Together we figured out how to apply it to horses.  So fast forward three years to July of 1996.  I had written a series of articles that I wanted to put up on the internet.  I had built a web site, but I wasn’t sure if I could use the term clicker training.  Gary Wilkes had trademarked “Click and Treat” and the llama trainer, Jim Logan, had trademarked “Click and Reward”.  It was frustrating.  If people kept trademarking all these phrases, pretty soon there would be no way to refer to the training.

So I emailed Karen.  I introduced myself and sent her the articles I wanted to publish on my web site.  I needed to know if she had trademarked clicker training.  Could I use the term in my articles?

Twenty-four hours later I received an email back from Karen.  She had read my articles.  Would I like to write a book about clicker training horses for her publishing company?

You know the answer.  Karen gave the “ball” a huge push down the hill.  So thank you Karen.  Thank you for that initial support.  For me personally it was a great pleasure working with you on the editing of that book.  And over the past twenty years I have treasured our continued friendship.

At one of the early Clicker Expos when you were introducing the faculty, when you got to me, you began by talking about conventional horse training.  You described it as what it is – organized horse abuse.  Wow.  To be brave enough, bold enough to say it out loud.  It was shocking to hear, but so true.  You understood the horse world.  You knew about the wide-spread use of punishment.  You knew the importance of bringing positive reinforcement into this community.

You couldn’t be everywhere, doing everything yourself, but when you asked if I wanted to write a book, you gave the clicker training ball a huge push.  Twenty years later, the book we created together is still helping horse people to find alternatives.  And the horse world is changing!

Thank you Karen.

Remembering

Each month this year I’ve been writing a post in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse”.  These posts are thank yous to all the many people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  In January I began with a tribute to Bob Viviano and his horse Crackers.  February belonged to Ann Edie and Panda.  Last month I turned the spotlight on all the clinic organizers.  To represent them all I singled out Kate Graham and her horse Lucky.

This month is different.  April can belong to no one else but my beloved Peregrine.  April 26, 1985 was his birthday.  For thirty years I celebrated that event with him.  Now I remember the day without him.  Today I am getting ready to fly out to California to teach a clinic.  Peregrine put me on the path to all these great adventures.  I learned about clicker training for him, through him.  When I went out to the barn all those many years ago with treats in my pocket and a clicker in my hand, I had no idea of the journey he was sending me on.

When I lost Peregrine’s mother, I promised her I would write her a love story.  I didn’t know at the time what form that would take, just that I would do it.  My book, “Clicker Training For Your Horse”, was that love story.  It was written for her and for Peregrine.  Clicker training was not a story to keep to myself.  I have been sharing it with all of you because of them.

When Peregrine turned thirty, I wrote a series of posts in celebration.  They are a tribute to him and a history of equine clicker training.  You can read them beginning with https://theclickercenterblog.com/2015/04/13/todays-peregrine-story-early-lessons/ 

For most of his life Peregrine lived at boarding barns.  It was only in his final years that I was able to move him to a home of his own.  The barn is still so full of his memories.  We moved July 4th 2011.  It was truly Independence Day for all our horses.

Peregrine shaped how the barn is used.  He taught me to open all the doors.  Throughout his life he was always opening doors.  The most important one was the door to clicker training.

He is greatly loved, and he will always be greatly missed.

Peregrine Foal and in winter

Peregrine April 26, 1985 the day he was born, and Peregrine when he was 29

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

JOY FULL Horses: Epilogue: To Love A Horse

To Love A Horse
This is the final installment of the JOY Full Horses posts.  I know we are in the midst of the Holiday season, and it is hard to find time to read things on the computer, but I hope you will find time to read this final post.

It contains a request on behalf of Panda, Ann Edie’s guide horse.  This past May Panda became very ill.  Her health issues have been on-going and the vet bills have mounted up.  The details are in the post.  If you would like to send a thank you for the JOY FULL Horses posts, you can do so by contributing to Panda’s fund.  The money raised will go towards paying her vet bills.  To contribute go to:

https://www.youcaring.com/annedieandherguidehorsepanda-718398

If you go to Panda’s youcaring.com page, you can also read a letter from Ann describing the work Panda does for her and the relationship they have.

And now for this final chapter of the JOYFULL Horses posts:

I have thought about this final chapter so many times, but I have never yet put the words down on the page.  Now that I have come to the end of these JOY FULL Horses posts it is time to say this.  On September 10, 2015, as he was coming up the hill into the barn, Peregrine had a heart attack and died .  My very good friend, Bob Viviano, found him when he checked on the horses mid-day.

I was out of the country.  I had left the day before.  Where I was staying during the first part of my trip didn’t have an internet connection so it was two days before I could be reached.   By then it was too late to get home to see him buried.  All I could do was continue on.

They put him next to Magnat, our senior horse.  I planted 500 daffodils for him, and in the spring, while I was publishing the first section of this book, I watched them bloom into new life.

Much of my life is very public. My horses have been my teachers so it is often their stores I share.  When I write about clicker training, I am writing about them, but this time I chose not to share.  I wanted private time to remember Peregrine.  When you have had the privilege of loving someone for thirty years, they are your heart.

When I lost Peregrine’s mother I promised her I would write her a love story.  That love story was clicker training.  She began it.  Peregrine continued it. All that I have written, all that I have shared through all these years has been my love story to them.  Clicker training means many things to many people, but that is what it means to me.  Woven into every lesson are gifts of love from my horses.

Remember that as you are using it.  For those of you who have taken my work and given it your own twist, your own names, by all means build on this work, but treat it well.  What you are building on came from them, it came from a very great love.

I began writing JOY FULL Horses when Robin was in hospital, recovering from colic surgery.  I finished it during Sindri’s long illness.  I wrote about that when I began sharing these JOY FULL Horses posts back in January.  It was a book my horses gave to me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it.  And then I lost Peregrine, and I knew.  This is his gift. That’s why it was important to share his book with all of you through these bog posts.  With each post I have been remembering him, honoring him.  He was the first of our clicker trained horses.  For thirty years he was my teacher.  I have been pleased to share his lessons by giving you these JOY FULL Horses posts.

It is a gift, but as I said at the start of this post, I do now have something to ask of you.  This has been another very hard year.  In May Panda, Ann Edie’s guide horse, became ill.  She had an intestinal blockage.  Without the surgery she received, she would have died.  Her recovery has been a long, hard one.  She was in hospital for three weeks following her surgery, and then at the end of June she developed pneumonia and had to be readmitted to the hospital.  She was on IV antibiotics for a week before she was finally well enough to go home.  She remained on antibiotics through the rest of the summer.

In September she developed severe diarrhea and had to be hospitalized again.  She spent another six weeks in hospital.  She is home now and doing okay.  She’s well enough to go for walks around the neighborhood with Ann, but she can’t yet resume her full role as her guide horse.

I’m sure you can imagine how fast the vet bills have added up.  The vets have generously given Ann a service animal discount, but even so Panda’s bills have risen towards a staggering $30,000.  The amount is unthinkable, but even more unthinkable would have been giving up and losing Panda.  To help out I have just started a youcaring.com fund raising campaign.  If you would like to send a thank you for the JOY FULL Horses posts, you can do so by contributing to Panda’s fund.  The money raised will go towards paying her vet bills.  Please share this through your social network so we can help Panda and Ann.

The fund can be viewed at:

https://www.youcaring.com/annedieandherguidehorsepanda-718398

Peregrine and I thank you for your help.

Happy Holidays

Alexandra Kurland

JOY FULL Horses: Doorways

I Can’t Do What You Want
“I can’t do what you want.”  What I wanted was for the horse’s owner to show some enthusiasm, some appreciation for her horse’s good effort.  He was giving her very solid work.  She asked for a lateral flexion. He presented himself in good balance.  Click and treat.  She handed him a single slice of carrot.  He barely bothered putting it in his mouth.  She asked again.  He responded.  Click.  “I gave at the office.”  That was his level of interest in the exercise.  He was shutting down.  Why?

Remember you always want to tell a story that works in your horse’s best interest.  Was there something physically amiss?  This was a three year old.  Were his teeth bothering him?  He was certainly of an age where this could be the case.  He was a big horse.  Was he going through a growth spurt that made the work difficult?  Did he simply not like carrots?

I filled my pockets with the same treats he had been getting from his owner, and took a turn with him.  I asked for a lateral flexion.  It wasn’t great.  To me he felt a bit like a car with four flat tires, but it was well within the range of the work I’d just been watching.  Workmanlike but not brilliant.  I clicked.  I gave him a couple of carrot coins – and I made a fuss.  I scritched his neck.  I told him he was clever.

I asked again.  He gave me an okay response.  Click – carrot coins and more fussing.  He ate the carrots and went straight back to work.

His “tires” were beginning to inflate.  He took his treats with enthusiasm.  He interacted with me.  The work became more fun for both of us.

“I can’t do what you do,” his owner told me.  “I can’t be happy.”

Our horses bring us to our truth.  He needed her to do more than give him carrots.  The treats in your pocket are not a substitute for love and appreciation.  They are an expression of that love.  In my book “The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker” I wrote:

“Before I ride, I fill my pockets with appreciation.  That’s what the treats I feed my horse represent.  Each time I click, I’m providing my horse with information: “That step you just took was a good one” or “I liked the extra lift I just felt in your back.”

Appreciation is information, and it turns into love.  With the clicker I’m not just telling my horse he did something that will get reinforced, I’m also thanking him for a job well done.”

I would add – I am telling him I love him.

Finding Joy
Every time I fill my pockets I am filling them with appreciation.  At times I may be on a fast rate of reinforcement.  It may be click – treat – repeat with no time for extra scritching, but my focus tells my horse that he is doing great.  And when we take a break, I tell him he is “so smart!”  I tell him he is wonderful.  I turn every session into a time of play.  That’s when I do my best training.

Sometimes I am tired, or just distracted by “Life”.  I forget to play.  I give a horse a work session.  It is competent, fair, even productive, but it is not creative.  And it’s not really even any fun.  It is what I do “at the office.”  That’s not the training I want to share.  I want people to see the joy of clicker training.  Play gets us there.  It is a doorway.  You step through it into love.

Play is important for so many reasons.

We learned from Stuart Brown that it is a dress rehearsal for life skills.

We learned from Jaak Panksepp that it is one of the seven core emotional systems.  We need it for good brain development.

But this last reason, play is a doorway that can open up our hearts is the what our horses teach us.

For all these reasons we need to play.  We need to be PLAY FULL.

I am writing this sitting in the stairwell of my barn.  It’s early morning,  June, 2014.  From my perch on the middle landing, I can watch Peregrine and Robin dozing in the barn aisle.  They have just come in from grass and are taking a nap side by side.  I can also look out over the arena.  The long side is open so I can look out over the trees and listen to the early morning bird song.  I would like to say it is otherwise very quiet but in the distance I can hear a tractor.  One of the local farmers is cutting hay.

It’s going to be a warm day, but sitting here in the shade of the arena, I get a soft cross breeze.  I have a cup of tea, my horses are nearby.  It is a perfect place to write.

Peregrine and Robin have helped me face many of my own truths.  They have shown me that what I want by myself is not as important as what the three of us can want together.  I want to ride.  I love to ride.  But riding has never been about me.  It has to be about us, what we can do together.  They are herd animals.  They love doing things together.  They love to play.  That’s one of the great truths of horses.

Peregrine is teaching me a new truth.  He is 29 with some health issues.  He has a heart murmur and other metabolic issues.  I don’t ride him anymore.  When I wrote about the similarity between extinction and grief, I know what those emotions feel like.  There is a grieving process when you can no longer ride the horse who has been your teacher and partner for almost three decades.

This is a quiet time for us.  The barn is organized around Peregrine’s needs.  He wants Robin for company. He gets Robin.  He needs to be able to move around the barn.  He has the freedom to do so.  The doors are left open so he can choose where he is the most comfortable.  He can hang out in the barn aisle or take long naps in the arena.  He can sun bathe in the barnyard or wander out for grass.  It is all available to him.  He wants to play clicker games.  I play with him.

This could so easily be a sad time, or a time to set aside my old friend in favor of younger, stronger, rideable horses.  Instead we share the joy and comfort this great truth brings us.  We have learned to Play, and it has opened many doors.

Coming Next: Epilogue: To Love A Horse

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

 

Stepping Stones

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 10 of 12

More To Learn
In the previous section I described the profound difference TTEAM training made for Peregrine’s mother.  Peregrine, on the other hand, didn’t like TTEAM body work.  I remember feeling so frustrated with him.  Here he was with his own private body worker, and he wasn’t interested.  There were so many horses who loved and benefited from the sessions I gave them.  Peregrine fussed and refused to participate.

So I put my antennae up and went looking for solutions that he liked better.  I didn’t reject TTEAM work.  I didn’t say it was wrong or it didn’t work.  It had given me far too much to ever turn my back on it. Peregrine was simply telling me there was more I needed to learn.

I think of all the elements that have gone into my horse education as stepping stones.  I’m never regretful of any of my stepping stones.  There may be things I don’t use any more, techniques I disagree with now that I have more experience, but each of those stepping stones gave me something of value.  When you are finding your way over uncertain ground, you don’t always find the clear path right away.  Learning where you don’t want to step – and why – helps guide you to the secure footing of a path that’s worth following.  TTEAM was definitely a path worth following.  Because I stepped on that stone, I found all the others that set me in the direction of clicker training.

Remembering Play

poco-in-hug

Poco

Today if you watched me working with horses you wouldn’t see very much that would jump out at you as TTEAM work. But every now and then I’ll have a horse who brings out my TTEAM background.  Poco was one of those horses.

 

poco-ear-shy

Poco showing us his concern over having his ears touched.

I introduced you to Poco earlier.  He’s the ear shy buckskin who I had been watching over a period of several months progress from being a completely don’t-touch-me horse to one who could tolerate being bridled and handled around his head.  But tolerate was the key word.  He was by no means comfortable, especially with people he didn’t know.

I was itching to play with him.  I’d watched his handler give him some great work sessions, but that’s not what he needed.  He didn’t need to work.  He needed to play.  Or more to the point, he needed US to play.

When you play, you become creative.  You take elements from different parts of your life, and you combine them in new ways to come up with solutions you haven’t tried before.  Your stepping stones become important.

Getting “Yes” Answers
During one of his work sessions, Poco’s handler was called away to check on something in the barn.

“Would you mind holding him for me?” she asked.

Big mistake.

You never want to hand me a horse – not if you want to get him back any time soon.

I began in a round about way with Poco.  I knew I wanted him to target his ear to my hand, but I also knew I couldn’t begin there.

Never start with your goal.

That’s one of the rules of good training.

I couldn’t go directly to his ears, but I could teach him the overall concept of body part targeting.  There wasn’t much I could get a consistent “yes” answer to, so I began by simply grabbing his nose firmly between my hands and squeezing tight for the briefest of brief seconds.  Click and treat.

Now that last sentence doesn’t sound very clicker compatible.  Grabbing his nose between my hands sounds rather rude and abrupt, but I’ve found that this is often an effective way to begin.  I am in effect saying to the horse:  “This is what I want to do.  This is what it will feel like.  There’s nothing else that I’m going to do, just this.”

Training Choices
I could have gone through a shaping process to teach Poco to bring his nose to my hands.  That’s another, very valid approach.  With Poco I went the more direct route.  Sometimes it is important to show the horse that what he’s worried about really isn’t all that bad.

If I shaped him to bring his nose towards me, I might have been bringing all his worry and concern right along with the rest.  “Yes, I’ll bring my nose closer to you because I want the treat, but I really am still afraid.”

Sometimes what the horse discovers through the shaping process is he really doesn’t have anything to worry about and his fear melts away.  But sometimes the worry stays locked in.  It twists its way around each reinforcer just as surely as a vine twists around the tree that supports it.

With Poco I also knew I didn’t have much time with him. I needed to explain to him fast what I was going to be asking him to do.  So I reached up and held his nose firmly between my hands.  I gave him a solid squeeze.  I clicked as I released the pressure.

I thought of Temple Grandin and her description of the comfort she felt from being squeezed tight in an enclosed space.

Who knows how horses experience this, but I have found that a firm squeeze around the nose helps to settle many anxious horses.

This quickly evolved into my asking Poco to target his nose to my hand.  The first couple of times it was more a matter of my bringing my hand to his nose than the other way around.

poco-touch-nose

It was touch his nose fast – click treat. Note he is wearing a bridle because his handler had been working on bridling when she was called away.

It was touch his nose, click fast before he could pull away.  Treat. Touch his nose again.

I used a verbal cue.  “Nose”  It began as a signal of my intent.  It meant: I am going to reach out and touch your nose.

Telling him in advance what I was going to do gave him time to prepare.  I wasn’t sneaking up on him so it actually helped him to accept the contact more calmly. He knew exactly what I was going to do, and he also knew it wasn’t going to last long and the contact would be followed by a treat.

Very quickly I could hold my hand ever so slightly away from his nostril and wait for him to come that last little bit to me.  Click and treat.

Building Clean Loops
I progressed towards this in tight clean loops.

We did a cycle of squeezing his nose – click treat, repeat.  Then I’d walk off causally with Poco following behind me on a loose lead.  That gave him a break and set us up for a change in the next cycle.

So now it might be place my hand over his nostril – click treat.  Again, repeat this several times and then walk off casually.

The next cycle was bring your nose to my hand – click treat.

Then it was target my cupped hand to your chin – click treat.

The treat was so much more than just the piece of carrot I was offering him.  The treat included lots of verbal praise –  “Aren’t you great!  You’re so smart”  – together with lots of scritching.

Scritching
Scritching is my word.  It isn’t petting or stroking.  It’s a get-your-fingernails-dirty, deep kneading of a horse’s neck and back.  Think about how horses socially groom one another.  That’s what you are imitating so get in there and get your fingers dirty!  There’s nothing soft or diffident about it.  If your hands are clean after one of these sessions, either you are a superb groomer, or you aren’t doing it right.

I’ve had people tell me I need to come up with a name for the training I do.  Here’s a suggestion: The Dirty Fingernails Club!  Somehow, it’s never caught on.

Sequence Matters
In clicker training we’re used to hearing that timing matters.  The sequence in which you do things matters, as well.

Poco’s handler had done a lot of rubbing on his neck, but she had put it BEFORE the click.  I was putting it AFTER.

Before the click, there was always the question: what more are you going to do?  There was always a bit of guardedness in Poco’s emotional response.

After the click, it was all celebration.  You’re so good!  I wasn’t trying to see how much closer to his ears I could get.  I was simply rubbing and scritching him and telling him he was wonderful.  There was no agenda other than to celebrate the previous clickable moment.  Poco let his guard down.  He melted.  Panksepp could tell us about the dopamine that was being released in his brain.  What I could observe was a softening around the eyes, a dramatic change in muscle tone, an increase in responsiveness towards me.

I wish I had filmed that first session to share with you the change in Poco.  I was opening a dialog.  Because I was in a play state he could stay to listen and begin to let me in past his guard.

You Never Know What You’ve Taught.  You Only Know What You’ve Presented
The next day I did a follow up session with Poco.  I was still a long way from being able to handle his ears so I wanted to continue the conversation I had started.

In this next session Poco was much more accepting of my hands around his muzzle.  I built a small chain.

“Nose”  The cue initially simply told him what I was about to do.  I was going to cup my hand over his nostril.  It grew into Poco actively seeking out my hand.

As soon as my left hand was cupped over his nostril, I said “Chin”.

Poco responded by dropping his head so his chin rested in the cup of my right hand.

Click and treat.

Using Your Head
I wanted to get to his ears, but I had run out of hands, so I used my head – literally.

Nose.” He brought his head into position to meet my hand.

Chin.” He gave at the poll so his chin dropped into the cup of my hand.

As I supported his muzzle between my hands, I leaned in closer to him until I could rest my forehead between his eyes.  Click and treat!

poco-nose-chin-head

“I almost got a kiss!” I told him as I rubbed his neck and exclaimed to him that “He was so good!”

Breath
Building duration was next.  As I cupped my hands around his muzzle, I waited.  I was feeling for the exhale of his breath.

poco-click-on-exhale

I am waiting for Poco to exhale.

If you want to keep your rates of reinforcement high, this is a great behavior to go after.  We want our horses to relax so we like to click behaviors we read as signs that they are “happy” and “at ease”.  So we like to click for things like ears forward, but if the horse is concentrating or listening to activity behind him, you can wait a long time for his ears to move.  And if you withhold the click too long, your horse may begin to feel frustrated.  You’ve suddenly put him into an extinction process that you hadn’t intended.

If a horse has been earning clicks pretty consistently and now suddenly he isn’t, he’s going to become frustrated.  That’s a predictable outcome of extinction.  The more frustrated a horse becomes, the less likely he is to put his ears forward.  So now you’re stuck.

What do you do?  If you wait it out, you could be unraveling all those good dopamine-propelled feelings of relaxation.  You could end up with a frustrated, angry horse who is convinced that he doesn’t want anyone touching him anywhere.

Or maybe in desperation you click him for something, anything to get yourself out of this muddle.  I’m going to come back in a later section to desperation clicks and their fallout.

For now I’ll offer a different approach.  Instead of focusing on his ears – go for his breath.  Unless you are working with a sperm whale, you know he’s going to be exhaling on a regular, easily clickable basis.  So click as he exhales, and you’ll very quickly feel your horse melt even further into your hands.

Now wait for the deep exhale that truly signals a letting go of tension.  He is well on his way to letting his guard down and inviting you in.

Celebration!
Poco would now cradle his nose in my hands.  I could lean into his space, something that would have worried him previously.  And because I could lean in, I could steal a kiss.

Laugh.

Press my forehead against his.  Click. Treat. Celebrate!

poco-hug-1st-day

Press my forehead against his. Click. Treat. Celebrate!

 

Coming Next: Moving On

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

The Teachers We Get Are The Teachers We Need

JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 9 of 12

Stories
“She’s just being lazy.”  That was what I was told when I first asked about the way Peregrine’s mother dragged her hind toes.  She was not even a year old, and she had been mine for just a few short weeks.

The vet hadn’t said anything during the prepurchase exam about the way she used her hind end, but then he hadn’t really looked.  This was the first prepurchase exam I had ever seen so I didn’t know what to expect.  I’ve watched many more since, and I can say that this was the sloppiest and most superficial.

She was a weanling.  What could be wrong?  Thank goodness he was so casual with the exam!  If he had looked more closely, he might have noticed the way she was moving behind.  I’m not sure what I would have chosen to do.  I didn’t want a “problem” horse.  I wanted a horse I could ride; a horse who could teach me about great horsemanship.  The Universe was clearly listening because that’s what I got.

While my friends were taking their adult horses off to shows, I was raising my dream horse.  Only there was something wrong.  Dragging her hind feet was the first sign.

“She’s just being lazy.  You need to get after her more and make her move.”

That didn’t seem right.  There was something else going on.  A month or so after I started questioning her movement, I saw her fall for the first time.  I’m glad I didn’t listen to all those well-meaning horse people who had been telling me to get after her.  I had known she wasn’t being lazy.  I knew there had to be a different answer.  I just didn’t know yet what it was.

One of the best definitions of a teacher that I have ever heard is this: a teacher is someone who started before you.  Nowadays, as a teacher, I say to people we need to tell stories about our horses that work in their best interest.  The owner of the barn told the “lazy” story about my filly.  That story leads to the “get after her” answer.

I told a different story.  I didn’t know what was going on, but I was sure there was something wrong.  I had a new vet in the practice come out and give her a more thorough exam.  This one included neurological tests – all of which she failed.

We need to tell stories that help us find good training solutions.  If I say that there is something wrong, I’ll become a good detective.  I’ll take care of my horse’s physical needs.  I’ll make sure my horse’s feet are well balanced, that his tack fits comfortably, that his nutritional needs are met.

I’ll check for lameness issues, for ulcers, and for other health issues that might interfere with my horse’s willingness to work with me.  I’ll break my training down into small, manageable steps.  If my horse doesn’t want to go forward, I’ll explain what I want more clearly.  I’ll find lots of different ways to say “go forward” until they all begin to make sense.

Suppose after all this due diligence, I discover that actually, yes, the reason my horse didn’t want to go forward was he’s lazy.  In that case what is the worst that can happen? He’ll be healthier because I reexamined his overall management.  He’ll be better trained because I explained what I wanted.  And in all likelihood, he’ll be eager to work with me, and I won’t be thinking he’s lazy.  I’ll just be appreciating his level-headedness.

But suppose I bought into that original story – “He’s just being lazy. You should get after him.”  What’s the worst that can happen?

In my filly’s case I would have destroyed all the good will I had built up in our relationship.  She wasn’t dragging her toes because she was lazy.  She was dragging them because she couldn’t feel where they were.  The neurological damage meant she couldn’t feel her hind feet as they landed.

The news was devastating.  But even more was the prognosis.  At that time the vets had nothing to offer.  They told me she would in all likelihood continue to deteriorate until she was no longer able to stand up.  She would become a danger both to herself and to anyone who was near her.  I would never be able to ride her.  The best thing I could do would be to put her down.

I couldn’t do it.

I felt trapped.  I wanted a riding horse, not a pasture ornament.  I couldn’t afford a second horse.  But I couldn’t put her down just because she couldn’t do for me what I wanted.  Her life had value to her.  When she got to the point where she couldn’t stand up and life was hard for her, then I would face the decision to put her down.  That was the future we were looking at.  In the meantime I had to deal with the problems each day presented.

One Day At A Time
While my friends were learning how to jump, I was teaching my filly how to walk – literally.  When most of us talk about teaching our horse to walk we simply mean when we are asking them to walk with a certain energy level and overall balance.  We don’t mean how to put one foot in front of the other without falling.

When you are caught in a situation like this, you try many different things.  It is truly everything and the kitchen sink.  At the universities scientists run controlled studies so they can say this technique works, and this other is just an old wife’s tale.  I wasn’t interested in controlled studies.  I tried lots of different things.  Her condition began to stabilize.  She wasn’t getting worse.  The neurological deficit was still there.  It would always be there, but she was learning how to compensate for the lack of proprioception.

Her balance was better, but not her mood.  She was a terrible grump.  She didn’t want to be groomed.  If you walked past her shoulder, you would get pinned ears and her head snaking out at you to warn you off.  I always had to be careful when others walked past her to make sure she didn’t bite at them.  The barn owner had no use for her.  He made his money by taking clients to horse shows and giving them lessons.  From his point of view she was useless, and on top of that she was bad tempered.

I didn’t see her this way.  She was my beautiful, best beloved.  Together we were figuring out how to manage her condition.  But the grumpiness was a concern.  She clearly hurt somewhere, but she couldn’t tell me where.  As soon as I approached her, she was warning me off.

TTEAM
In one of the many horse magazines I was reading at that time, I came across an article about Linda Tellington-Jones’ TTEAM training.  The article described in detail the TEAM body work.

I was up for trying anything.  That evening at the barn I experimented with the TTEAM circles. You were to cup your hand lightly on the horse.  Then you imagined a clock face.  Beginning at 6 o’clock, you moved your finger tips once around the clock back to 6 and a little beyond, pressing softly into the horse’s coat.  You were to make one circle, and then move on to a different spot, letting your fingers guide you.

I tried it.  My filly melted.  Her head dropped.  Her eyes got soft.  She let me in.

Her whole body didn’t hurt.  Finally, she could show me where the problem was.  I could do TTEAM circles everywhere but one spot on her shoulder.  That was off limits.

Now I could help her.

I didn’t have a lot of money.  Taking on a horse was stretching my budget to it’s limits, but I knew I had to learn more about TTEAM.  I knew I needed to study with Linda directly.

So I did some research, booked a spot on a clinic she was teaching out in the mid-west and got on an airplane.  That was the first of many long journeys my horses have sent me on.

Innovations Come From the Outside In
Whether you are talking about the sciences, sports, economics: whatever the field of study is, new innovations evolve by bringing in ideas from the outside.  We don’t evolve from the inside expanding out.  We evolve by bringing in fresh ideas and combining them with what we already know.  That’s how we come up with completely novel combinations.

That’s what Sally Swift did through her Centered Riding.  She introduced the horse world to the Alexander technique and transformed how riding is taught.

Linda Tellington-Jones did something comparable for how horses are handled.  She combined Moshe Feldenkrais’ work with her knowledge of horse training to produce something brand new and revolutionary – TTEAM.

Linda describes how she stumbled across Feldenkrais.  She and her husband, Wentworth Tellington, had been running a school for instructors in California.  They had 65 horses, plus staff and students, and all the responsibility and work that goes along with the running of a successful program.  Linda burned out.  She divorced her husband, sold off all the horses and went traveling.

As she described it, she put her antennae up and followed them wherever they took her.  I love that image, and I have used it myself many times.  I follow my antennae, and they have taken me on many wonderful adventures.

Following Antennae
Following my antennae took me to TTEAM.  I became a TTEAM Practitioner and in the mid-1980s I began teaching.  That hadn’t been my intent when I headed off on this journey, but people were seeing what I was doing with Peregrine’s mother, and they were curious.  How could she be doing so much more than their own horses when she was so very handicapped?

Because I was willing to travel, I had access to people they didn’t.  I was bringing in new ideas from the outside.  I was still greener than green in so many ways.  Some of my clients could most definitely ride circles around me in terms of their skills on horseback, but I had access to resources they didn’t.  And I was beginning to understand balance in a way that could help every horse I encountered.

The Joy of Discovery
There is a lot to be said for riding lots of horses.  That’s the typical horse background of most professionals.  They’ve grown up on the backs of horses, riding everything and anything that came their way.

I was having a very different and very unique experience.  While others were off riding at shows, I was piecing together yet another tiny layer of the balance puzzle.   What fascinated me was process.  My clients understood that I didn’t have set answers for them.  What I was sharing was a love of exploration.  I wasn’t giving them recipes: this and only this is the way you train.  I was sharing with them the joy of discovering yet another layer in the training puzzle.

People would contact me because they were struggling with some handling issue.  Usually within a session or two we would be well on the way to solving their original problem, but now they were hooked on learning more.  The adventure of discovery was what I was sharing.  Very quickly they didn’t need me any more for the original problem.  That was well behind us, but they wanted to keep going, to join me on the journey that eventually led to clicker training and all that it represents.

Ready To Teach
Many of my clients became long-term friends.  As their skills expanded, they also became interested in teaching, but often they weren’t sure if they were really qualified to help others.  When someone voices concerns about being ready to teach, I always refer back to my own early experiences.  We are all experts in our own experience.  That is the one thing we can safely say.  I may not be an expert in jumping or team penning, but I am an expert in my own life experience.  That is something I know well and can share.

A teacher is someone who started before you.

I have always loved that definition.  I don’t know where I first heard it or who gets the credit for it.  Whoever it was said a very wise thing.

You don’t have to wait until you are The Expert in your field to have something useful to contribute.  You can teach and share out of your own experience.  As long as people understand that you are teaching process, an on-going, never-ending exploration, you are fine.  You aren’t teaching something that is set in stone and where you have all THE answers.  You are teaching a process of exploration.  You are inviting others to join you on the journey.

Change Makers
These days if you watch me train, most of the time you won’t see anything that jumps out at you that says: she must know TTEAM.

TTEAM was a stepping stone, and a very important one at that.  Linda followed her antennae to Moshe Feldenkrais.  He told her to keep exploring and to create.  She became a Feldenkrais practitioner, but instead of using the work just on people, Linda carried it back to what she knew – horses.  Out of that combination she developed something new.

I remember helping Linda at a clinic she was giving for a university audience in Madison Wisconsin.  It was a large group that included many vets and vet students.  One of the horses she worked that day was a big, raw-boned chestnut thoroughbred named Perfect.

Linda began by exploring his body using what she called tiger touches.  Tiger touches are not meant to be therapeutic.  They are used to collect data.  Instead of the soft circles that I had first tried, in the tiger touches you curve your fingers more like the claws of a cat – hence the name – and you go deep into the muscles.  You begin the exploration up at the horse’s poll and then work your way down his spine, shoulders and hindquarters.

At every point that Linda tested, Perfect reacted.  When she got to his back, he all but dropped to his knees, he was in so much pain.

I listened to a gasp go up in the audience.  Linda was helping people see what had been in front of them all this time.

What they had been taught had kept them from seeing how much pain horses could be in.  We had all been told horses are stupid animals.  Over and over again we heard this.  That was the underlying belief system that dominated horse training.  “Horses are stupid animals and because they are stupid, you have to use force to train them.”  But then this was added: “Don’t worry, they don’t feel pain the way we do.”

A month or so after I watched Linda working with Perfect, I was reading an article in one of the major horse magazines.  It was written by a vet.  In the article he stated that horses do not experience back pain.

That was 1984.  We have truly come a long way, and Linda, I believe, was a major catalyst for that change.

In 1984 we didn’t pay attention to saddle fit.  You found a saddle that fit YOU, and then you used it on every horse that you rode.   I remember being taught to put saddles up on top of the horse’s withers.  When the saddle slid back on our high withered thoroughbreds, we put breast collars on to hold them in place.

It was Tony Gonzales, a farrier from Hawaii, who started to look at saddle placement.  He had people watch how their horses moved when the saddles were placed up on the withers.  Then he slid the saddles back behind the “locking in” point of the shoulder and had them watch again.  The change was often dramatic.  Now that the saddle was no longer pinching their shoulders, the horses could move.

Tony pointed out how uneven our horses often are.  I remember being at a clinic of his that Sally Swift was also attending.  Tony lifted Sally up so she could see down the spine of a tall thoroughbred.  He pointed out how uneven this horse’s shoulders were.

This is general knowledge today, but it took a farrier from Hawaii bringing in fresh information to help us see what had always been right in front of us.

Change Our Beliefs, Change the World
When Peregrine’s mother was first diagnosed, there weren’t any chiropractors, or body workers around to help.  They didn’t exist for horses.  If they don’t experience pain, why would you need a body worker?

But now there are physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, energy workers.  They are there in large part because Linda did tiger touches on a chestnut thoroughbred named Perfect. Together they helped people see what had always been there – horses do experience pain.  It is just as real to them as it is to us.  They are just better at hiding it.

Detective Work
I have always said I was so lucky in my horses, first with the neurological issues, and then later with Peregrine and his stifles.  That may not sound lucky, but at least I knew what I was dealing with.  There was no hiding these issues.  I’ve dealt with so many horses who are puzzles.  You know something isn’t right, but the horse masks the symptoms.  It’s tempting to dismiss the reluctant attitude and reach instead for “just make him do it” solutions.

Again, we need to remember that horses are prey animals that rely on the safety of the herd for protection.  Any animal that looks lame or infirm will attract the notice of predators.  To stay safe horses have to hide their pain.  That doesn’t mean they don’t feel the sharp twinge every time they take a step.  I’ve had lots of injuries that I kept to myself.

If you don’t see the injury, you don’t need to know about it.  That’s how horses operate.  If they look vulnerable, they could be driven out of the herd.  Alone and infirm, they will certainly attract the attention of any predators that are around.

We need to remember this when we go looking for the root cause of our horse’s reluctant attitude.  The big things horses will show.  It’s hard to disguise an abscess or a torn tendon.  But other things they will be reluctant to let you see.

“He’s not right” will be a nagging feeling.  Vets, trainers, other horse people will tell you nothing is wrong, but you’ll still have that gut feeling.  Listen to it.  Be a good detective and tell a story that works in the best interest of your horse.

Coming Next: Stepping Stones
I promised you I would be returning to the ear-shy horse, and now finally in this next post, that’s what I’ll be doing.

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com