I have a new book coming out on April 26, 2023: “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”
I am no good at writing quick elevator pitches to let you know what the book is about. Instead while we are waiting for the publication date, I have been sharing a series of short posts that describe the overall development of my training.
I ended yesterday’s post by asking what were some of the component skills that helped me transform clicker training from an interesting concept into a workable training program for horses?
For starters my horses had helped me to formulate some guiding principles. These pre-dated my exploration of clicker training. I learned these principles directly from my horses. I also saw trainers I admired using them. So these principles are not specific to clicker training. I would say they are part of good training in general. These concepts take you to horse-friendly, learner-centric training choices regardless of the actual procedures used.
So what are they?
They begin with:
Safety always comes first – for both you and your horse.
That sounds as though it should be a given, but it’s not. I’ve watched far too many horse people ignore this basic principle. Trailer loading is a prime example. Look at all the fights you see around trailers. A given trainer may have gotten away with forcing frightened horses onto trailers. But load enough horses, and you’ll will meet that one individual who fights back with more power, more speed, more fear than you can handle. Someone will get hurt and those are odds I’m just not willing to take on.
Here’s a way safety always comes first plays out for me. Peregrine’s mother taught me the value of ground work. Her neurological condition gave me this one simple rule. I never asked her for something under saddle which she had not shown me she could do on her own. If she couldn’t walk beside me around my work space without spooking at the goblins, she wasn’t ready to be ridden. If she couldn’t trot in balance without a rider, I wasn’t going to get on and expect her to know how to trot.
This rule kept us safe. It’s a good rule that I have extended to all the horses I work with. It means that ground work is an essential part of good riding. That’s also not a given. In 1993 when I first started exploring clicker training, ground work for most people meant lunging. That was pretty much it. You lunged your horse before you rode him to “get the bucks out”. Often that meant sending an unbalanced horse at speed around you on a circle. It wasn’t much fun for either the horse or the handler.
For me ground work meant so much more than this. I got Peregrine’s mother as a yearling and later I bred her to get Peregrine. Because I raised both my horses, ground work meant all the handling of young horses – teaching them to accept grooming, haltering, basic leading, foot care, blanketing, basic medical care, etc. When you have only been around older riding horses, it’s easy to take these universals for granted. You forget that horses have to learn how to accept all these different intrusions into their personal space. When an older horse is hard to groom or doesn’t stand well for the farrier, he’s labelled as a “problem horse”. Clicker training helps us to reframe how we see these horses.
Ground work also meant teaching my horses the basic skills that let me go for walks with them. It meant the T.E.A.M. ground work skills that began to move me away from the conventional handling that I saw around me in the local riding stables. It also meant the classical work in-hand that I was learning from Bettina Drummond, Nuno Oliviero’s principle student. And it meant round pen training that I first figured out based on a magazine article and later expanded upon after watching John Lyons. So I brought to clicker training an extensive and varied repertoire of ground work.
I also understood the connection between ground work and riding. The first time I watched John Lyons at one of his symposiums, he said “I solve ground problems on the ground and riding problems under saddle.” I could see that wasn’t what he was doing, but he really believed what he was saying. Yes, he was using his version of round pen training to prepare a young horse for riding. That connection was there. But after that in his mind there was a separation.
A couple of years later he stopped making that distinction. His stallion Zip had shown him how connected ground work and riding really were. I never heard him talk about this directly, but you could see the difference. The first time I saw Zip, I loved his topline. He was round, he was soft, he was well balanced – all things I enjoyed looking at. But Zip had short, little pony gaits.
Lyons had not yet resolved this major training puzzle: horses will naturally change leg speed before they soften at the poll. In the new book I describe in detail what this means so I won’t go into it here. When you don’t solve this puzzle, the gaits are effected. Horses no longer have the big, beautiful, clean gaits that you would have seen in them as youngsters. Their gaits become compromised. It is so normal, we often don’t even see anymore how unbalanced and lame horses are becoming because of the way in which they are being ridden.
In his symposiums Lyons would use Zip to demonstrate a ground exercise Lyons referred to as the east, west, north, south lesson. It is a form of hazing. The horse wants to dodge to the left to escape from you, you drive him to the right. He ducks out to the right, you drive him back to the left. He tries to back up, you send him forward. He barges over the top of you, you drive him straight back. No matter which way the horse tries to duck out the escape route is blocked. After a while, the horse stands still in front of you. And when you tell him to move to the left or right, forward or back, he does.
This can be a brutal lesson if you take the brick-wall approach to it. (See https://theclickercenterblog.com/2023/04/13/) It can be an elegant lesson if you break it down into small steps and teach it with positive reinforcement.
I watched Lyons over a number of years, and I saw a lot of changes both in his horses and in the way he talked about his training. With Zip he demonstrated another core training principle: the longer you stay with an exercise the more good things you see that it gives you.
Every week Lyons would use Zip to demo the east, west, north, south lesson and every week Zip would get better at it. Lyons kept seeing more of what staying with a lesson gives you. In Zip’s case it resolved the leg speed puzzle. Zip gave at the poll before he changed leg speed. Solving the puzzle transformed his gaits. He became a beautiful mover. His gaits matched the promise of his topline. When he was in his twenties and completely blind, he moved better than he had in his early teens.
My horses had also shown me the clear connection between ground work and riding. So one of my favorite expressions is:
Ground work is just riding where you get to stand up and riding is ground work where you get to sit down.
Everything is connected to everything else.
This connection between lessons and especially between ground work and riding is key to the approach I have taken in “Modern Horse Training: A Constructional Guide to Becoming Your Horse’s Best Friend”. The fun of this way of structuring your training is it is very sneaky. You are never working on just one thing. Every lesson truly is connected to all other lessons. And because I am breaking complex lessons down into small components and I am using positive reinforcement procedures, safety always does come first – and fun is the result.
The new book, “Modern Horse Training” will be published April 26, 2023. It will be available as a hardcover, a paperback, and as an ebook. You’ll be able to order it through my web site, theclickercenter.com and also through Amazon and other booksellers.
Coming next- What is Constructional Training?