Animals are learning constantly. The dinosaurs were learning and adapting their behaviour as a result of consequence and association long before humans came along to peer at lab rats in boxes and write papers about operant and classical conditioning and argue endlessly online about quadrants.
For this reason, I define “training” as simply “learning that happens in the direct presence of a human”. Broad? Yes, intentionally so. Any time we are interacting with our horses, we are potentially training them. If a human allows a horse to learn that shoving or biting or pinning ears is an effective way of getting what they want, then it is not deliberate training on the part of the human but it is training nonetheless. As the incomparable Dr Susan Friedman says, "Reinforcement is a natural process like gravity - it's in effect whether or not you notice it and make good use of it".
Most of you reading this have handled and/or ridden horses for years, or decades, and thus have spent an equal amount of time TRAINING those same horses. That training is not always deliberate, or conscious. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, we may well be getting good results, and yet often we still don’t truly know WHY it is working (or not working, as the case may be). I say “we” because this was me, from when I got my first pony as a child and on right through the next 10 years or so, despite plenty of coaching and relative success in both dressage and show jumping. I was working on gut feel and instinct, combined with some basic “recipes” given to me by instructors.
It doesn't matter at all that I didn't know the proper terms for what it was I was doing, what matters is that it worked. However, I lacked clarity about why it worked and how I might apply the same principles to different scenarios or different horses or different training problems. Looking back, it feels like I was operating in a bit of a fog, riding and training quite effectively, but without a conscious understanding of how I was doing it. After teaching many hundreds of humans to train their horses and dogs, I believe this is the way many (or perhaps most) people are, to some extent.
The thing is, if we don’t have the ability to observe and analyse behaviour, and a clear understanding of how to gain the animal's cooperation to influence that behaviour, then we’re missing out on the real magic. There’s plenty of instructors that can teach you HOW to achieve a certain outcome, just as I can buy a recipe book and bake quite a good cake by following the instructions exactly. But I don't understand the science behind baking. I can't invent a recipe, or substitute important ingredients. I don't know why one recipe calls for 1 tsp bicarb soda and another one calls for 2 tsp of baking powder, and if my scones end up hard as a rock I don't always know what to do differently next time to fix it.
We can learn specific techniques to fairly reliably get our horse to back up, or go in a “frame” before a dressage test or get him over a jump etc, but it is understanding the WHY of learning that enables our efforts to be more efficient, repeatable, and transferable to other horses and other behaviours. And importantly, this is also what enables us to train ethically and consistently, with clear communication in both directions, and ultimately giving our horse the best chance of succeeding each step of the way. And that right there is the foundation of true partnership and trust.
I want to pass on some tips at this point, in case you feel like you're experiencing a bit of fog yourself, or if you have students or friends who could do with some blue skies and clarity.
Get your hands on as many different animals as you can! The video above is of an impromptu training session with a friend's new kitten. The photos below are from the multi-species clinic I ran last year at Bullswool Farm Park. Training other species is an opportunity to improve technique, cement concepts and underlying training principles, and makes us more creative and flexible as trainers.
What experiences have you had that have caused those "pennies to drop from the heavens"? Have you got any tips to share on how to help lift the fog and start having more clarity and consciousness around the training that is happening every time we interact with our horses? Leave a comment below!
'til next time,
I don't know about you, but I've constantly got ideas for new things I want to train churning around in my head. I'll discover a training gap which is causing me problems, or identify a new ridden goal, or see a friend doing something cool with their dog and think "I bet I could train a horse to do that". But once you've thought up the latest, greatest thing you want your horse to be able to do, are you clear on next steps to turn it into reality? Or does it all feel a little murky? Do you find yourself thinking "where do I even start?!"
The great Bob Bailey knows a thing or two about good training, and his famous mantra is "Think! Plan! Do!". For most people the "Think" part (what I've described above) is the easy part. It's the fun daydream of "how great would it be if my horse did X". However, it's all the bits that come next, to turn the vision into reality, that a lot of people get stuck on.
This is actually one of my favourite parts. The creative process combined with the logical problem solving. The science, and the art. Turning fanciful ideas into plans for action. That’s what I’m hoping to shed some light on with this blog.
"Two minutes of training with a solid plan is equivalent to at least twenty minutes without"
We must remember, that as the trainer we are standing in front of the metaphorical mountain, looking up at our goal. It's a bright sunny day, and we can see the various roads winding their way up. It is clear to us where we're headed, and we're anticipating our arrival. The horse, on the other hand, is standing at the bottom in the dark, with a spotlight shining only a metre or so in front of his hooves. He can only see far enough to take one step at a time, and has no idea what the end goal is. It's crucial that we retain our empathy for just how difficult the learner's job actually is, and if we ever find ourselves beginning to think "oh come on! Why don't you just do it! It's obvious what I want you to do!", we should go away and smack our heads against the wall, then come back, apologise to our horse, and train better.
(If you haven't played the Training Game before, you must try it! It's great fun and it gives you a real insight into what it actually feels like to be an animal being trained).
One more thing I’ll just put upfront right now: there are no fixed formulas. Many people seem to want a recipe - simply complete step 1, then step 2, and you will have x result. But it doesn’t really work like that. Sorry. Behaviour and training is a study of one (Dr Susan Friedman said that!). Each animal has different skill sets, talents and temperament, as do us trainers, and all these factors (and more) influence the outcome of each session. Bottom line is, there's many roads up the mountain. Treat your barn/arena/paddock as your laboratory - get out there and experiment. But! Do your horse and yourself a favour, and do some thinking and some PLANNING first, before unleashing your fanciful ideas and hopes and wishes upon your unsuspecting equine.
So, having just said above that a "step 1, step 2" approach is not appropriate, I am now going to set out some numbered steps for you to follow. Ha!
So you have an idea of something you want to train. That being the case, here's some questions and prompts you can now ask yourself, so that you are clear and confident on how to get to your end goal. If you're not clear on how to get there, then how is your poor horse ever going to be successful? Don't leave him floundering in the dark while you wander around aimlessly.
1. What’s the end goal? Be specific!
You’re not married to every detail, things may change as you go but you should be clear on how you want the behaviour to look when you’re finished. This clarity is what enables you to make decisions as the shaping session progresses, rewarding one attempt but not another, gently steering the horse in the right direction as you build the picture you want to see.
Specifics are important! So don't just say "teach him to bow". Instead say "bow with left cannon-bone resting on the ground, head lowered, with nose at knee level". It's a really good idea to google images or video so you can see the different variations and visualise your end result. To some extent your horse will decide how he wants to do it, and you can be guided by him, but it's best to start out with an idea at least.
By way of example, below I have put a collection of bow photos (I googled 'horse trick "take a bow"'). This is just a few of the possible variations. I have sorted them according to my personal preferences. Look at the top row versus the bottom row - does one look more elegant and the other more effortful or extreme? It does to me. This is not a criticism of the trainers in question but simply a matter of style. In many cases the photographs are a "moment in time" and the horse has probably moved through a variety of different angles and positions on its way into and out of the bow. I have to admit though, some of these look downright dangerous to me (e.g. the ones where the front plane of the head is lying flat along the ground). Regardless, you can see how this exercise helps you to build a picture of where you want to end up (and therefore, how you will get there).
2. Where is your horse at right now?
We shape any new behaviour by breaking it down into small pieces and building slowly toward our goal. Visualise those small pieces as steps on a staircase. The smaller the steps, the easier and faster the staircase is to climb. Since your end goal is at the top of the shaping staircase, we need to figure out where on the staircase your horse is today. Always ask the horse this question, as he may surprise you! I have often gone out with a plan to train steps A, B, and C, and in the first two minutes my horse tells me he is actually already at step J or K and would you please keep up mum!!
3. Sketch out all the steps in between.
What’s the basic strategy here? Can we train different pieces of the behaviour and then put them together? What order should we do that? Will we back chain? What alternative ways can we think of to reach the same goal?
Let's say you want to teach your horse to fetch (aka retrieve). Fetch is a behaviour chain - in order to fetch, the horse must sight the object as it's thrown, walk away from the trainer to the object, pick up the object, turn around and return to the trainer (without dropping the object), and place it in the trainer's hand. That's a whole bunch of little behaviours strung together. If we don't reinforce the right part of this chain, we will never have a retrieving horse.
4. How can we ensure a high likelihood of success for each little step?
Other than breaking the behaviour down into tiny pieces (if you're new to this, break it down even more. Just don't get stuck; once the horse is giving you clean repetitions, move up to the next step). Reduce distance and duration and build those up slowly too.
Teach one criteria at a time. If training spanish walk, don't click for leg height and forward movement and hindquarter engagement and headset all at the same time, the poor horse will have no idea what you're on about. It's like a jigsaw puzzle - do all the edge pieces, then the windmill, then the flowers, then the sky. If you just pick up random puzzle pieces and try to fit them into other random pieces, you'll be there a long time.
Session 1 of teaching Minstrel to find a toy under a cone (this will eventually become a scent-work exercise).
4a. What are his existing skill sets that can contribute?
Depending on the behaviour you're training, useful existing skill sets may include targeting, mats, liberty leading, picking up/holding objects, following a feel on a rope or mirroring your body movements etc. How can we use these to our advantage, to make it easier for our horse to be successful (and therefore make our training more efficient)?
For example, if I want my horse to retrieve a letter from a letterbox, and he already knows how to pick up and hold an object, we are halfway there before we've even started. If I want to hold a target near my horses hip and have him perform "carrot stretches" by keeping his nose on the target, I need to find a way to explain that he should keep his feet still and bend his neck around rather than disengage the hindquarters to follow the target as he naturally would want to do. So I put a mat down and have him stand on that, before presenting the target where I want his nose to be for the stretch.
It is the trainer's responsibility to alter the environment, the props, the surroundings, the training space to ensure success for the horse. Think creatively and constantly about this.
5. What objects or props do we need? How shall we set them up?
In this context I am talking about objects we might be using as part of the behaviour. So the letterbox or basketball hoop or pedestal etc. Before you start training, and throughout the training process, examine how you can set these up to best help the horse. For example, when I first taught Hokey to fetch a bottle from the chilly bin, I propped the lid up with a towel so he could more easily nudge it open. I then quickly discovered I needed a way to hold the bottle upright inside the chilly bin, because he can only pick it up from the neck when it's sitting vertically and he often knocked it with his nose before getting a hold on it. So I sat it in a small bucket wedged between two bricks. Once we had the set-up working well, the training progress accelerated markedly.
"Execute! Time is your most precious resource - don't waste it!"
Depending on what sort of person you are, you might like to write this stuff down, do a mind-map, brainstorm it out on a whiteboard, throw ideas around with a trainer friend, or go out there and physically rehearse it without your horse. Do whatever works for you, I just want to encourage you not to inflict the messy experimental bits on your horse more than necessary. If you can predict that your horse will probably knock the basketball hoop over, then you can save him from the experience of frustration and failure by rectifying the issue before it happens or at least before it happens too often.
My hope is that these questions help you to progress past the "wouldn't it be cool if..." stage, and into the "omg look what my horse can do!" stage. Think things through, make a plan, and then go out there and DO IT! Don't labour every point - we don't want "paralysis by analysis", and I know ALL about the strategy of "planning as a form of procrastination", so catch yourself if you find you're doing either of those. To quote Bob Bailey yet again, "Thinking about good training, believing in good training, planning to do good training, is NOT the same as DOING good training!".
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback and questions.
Now that we're home and settled, here's some final thoughts on the whole experience. This is the final instalment in this series.
The seminar on Friday, and the demos/clinics on all three days had much larger audiences than I'd expected. The seminar room was almost full and I had full grandstands for the most part (I was pleasantly surprised considering my clinic times clashed with a number of very popular international clinicians in natural horsemanship, dressage etc). In terms of the Sunday night Top Talent performance, we won the Fan Favourite competition, and came 3rd overall in the Open division. So all in all, a very successful event!
And that's all you need to know really!
....however, if you're interested in a bit of a blow-by-blow account of Equidays Top Talent, with some "behind the scenes" insight, read on.
Thank goodness I'd had the foresight to get some help for the weekend! Asking for help is not my strong point but Equidays gave me extra passes for 'grooms' so I took advantage. I had Tash Pearce to help me with Hokey, making sure he was spotlessly clean and fed and walked out and all that stuff, Becca O'Byrne who helped with horses and was #1 organiser for the Top Talent props/performance as well as general dogsbody (horsebody?), and in the end I also had my dear friend Jane Lenaghan who drove up to support me over the weekend and though she couldn't stay for the performance she helped keep me sane and (mostly) on the rails during the lead up to Sunday night's show. Thank you so much all of you xxx.
We were some of the first to arrive on site on Thursday, while event setup was still underway. We found our spot in the far corner where we'd be camped with all the other Top Talent competitors and the Wilson sisters' eleven horses. Vicki Wilson (despite her arm being in a sling after shoulder surgery) helped me to re-arrange the barriers to make Hokey's yard bigger which meant he had the best one of the lot.
With spectacularly bad timing, I had caught a cold off my pre-schooler (aka the sweet little germ factory) the week of Equidays, and by the time I arrived I was feeling relatively ok but coughing a lot. At one point during Friday's seminar I had to let the audience silently read the slide while I desperately drank water and sprayed numbing spray down my throat until the coughing passed. All fairly mortifying but everyone was super kind about it. One lady came up and pressed Strepsils upon me at the end. All that aside, the audience seemed to enjoy the subject matter ("How animals learn and how best to motivate them") and were engaged, asking lots of good questions.
Saturday afternoon, after a massive audience showed up for my "De-spook your horse using clicker training" clinic, I was looking forward to the night show and the opportunity to just sit and watch rather than have to do anything myself. My 15 minute Top Talent rehearsal (the first and at that stage possibly the only time we would be allowed to take our horses into the indoor arena before the performance on Sunday night) was scheduled for 9.45pm, directly after the night show. I didn't find watching the night show as relaxing as I'd thought I would, knowing that it would be me and Hokey in that enormous spotlighted arena tomorrow.
We nipped out of the night show before the finale in order to get Hokey plus props up to the arena and be ready to go in when we were called. It took ages until they let us in but when we finally got in there, the audience was still filing out, there was aerial silks and cables hanging down from the ceiling with workmen dismantling things, and the whole place smelled strongly of gunpowder from the last act. Hokey was beside himself, at one point rearing up (basically unheard of) and totally unable to even walk straight let alone think straight. I was so tense that I was not able to help him at all, so Jane took him for a few minutes to give me a chance to take a breath. He improved somewhat with time, but was not able to come back down to earth sufficiently to even consider doing any tricks. By the time I got to bed it was close to midnight, and we were told to be back at the arena at 5am for another session (the arena was busy all day with clinics and competitions, hence the crazy timing for getting in there). I coughed my way through the few hours until my alarm went off, hardly sleeping at all. Despite that, the early morning familiarisation session was much improved on the night before. He was still very tense but we were getting there. By the time we took him in again in the afternoon for a brief walk around while the show-jumps were being built, he was fetching the ball for me, and he opened the chilly bin to bring me the bottle of wine. I had my horse back. Kelly Wilson also gave me a lengthy pep talk, along with some much-needed perspective.
My clinic (Tricks & Liberty) at 9.15 on Sunday morning went REALLY well, Hokey was on form and did everything I asked of him. I had a good size crowd despite being the first slot in an out-of-the-way arena. So that boosted my confidence somewhat.
I had a phone chat with the wonderful Jane Pike of Confident Rider before the Top Talent performance. She gave me some absolute gems of advice but amongst it all these are the bits that really stuck out for me, in that moment:
The indoor arena at Equidays is huge (40x75) and lined with grandstands. We stepped through the door and the curtains closed behind us as the music started. The whole place was positively humming with energy - even I could feel the crowd's presence - and for a horse who is so sensitive to energy it must have been incredibly intense. I didn't take the halter and rope off when I had intended to, choosing in the moment to keep him attached, and towards the end I just removed the rope (despite my friend Ellie Harrison having helpfully relayed to me a Russell Higgins quote that "doing liberty with a halter on is like making love with your socks on").
We didn't get to show off everything we'd intended, but he did the tricks he needed to do, including fetching the wine bottle from the chilly bin. He was very tense in that arena, and I was incredibly proud of the way he held it together and stayed reasonably connected with me. Warwick Schiller commented on the complexity of the chilly bin trick, and Dan Steers and Vicki Wilson both commented on the fact that he stayed connected despite his nerves. Dan Steers said "he was clearly nervous in here, but he was comfortable with you".
We won $500 and a lovely wide sash for coming third, and another sash for winning overall Fan Favourite.
I really enjoyed being a clinician, teaching comes easy to me and it was amazing to be able to share the positive reinforcement philosophy and techniques with a mainstream audience. I'm not sure I would say I "enjoyed" performing in Top Talent, but we survived it and even got a pretty good result in the end. It certainly put me well and truly outside of my comfort zone and it's massively satisfying to have faced my fears and overcome them.
So here's some lessons learned from the whole thing, in no particular order:
I truly felt SO supported throughout this process. All of you who were at Equidays and watched my clinics, asked intelligent questions, came and said hi when you saw me, wished me luck for Top Talent, gave me hugs and generally surrounded me with love and positive vibes. And everyone who couldn’t be there in person but followed the journey online and sent me your thoughts and good luck messages through private messages and FB comments etc.
Thank you all from the bottom of my heart xxx
This is part 3 of the "Equidays prep" series. If you are joining in late and would like to catch up, here's part 1.
So how's my plan progressing? Well, I've walked Hokey down the road to a friend's arena and taken him to the RDA indoor again by himself, and each time he's been calm and connected (more or less). He's getting the hang of all this and I think being off grass and on supplements is helping too.
I've got costume and props sorted for the night show - can't show you what it is but I think it's pretty cute. Also have the routine pretty much decided. He has really been struggling with his 'park' while in the new environments though, so I guess we'll have to see how that goes during rehearsal. I might have to minimise that particular part and let him stay close to me.
We've got our rehearsal times - we only get one 15 minute slot the night before the show to familiarise the horses with the big indoor arena. Not as much time as I'd hoped for, but it is what it is.
Since I don't have any relevant photos for this blog, here's some cute ones from the Multi-Species training clinic a couple of weeks ago. So much fun! These gorgeous faces belong to animals from Bullswool Farm Park.
Another interesting tangent (my favourite sort): I talked in the first of this blog series about training my nervous butterflies to fly in formation. I thought it was worth pointing out that while this has in fact been done in real life, with real butterflies!
Using careful shaping and positive reinforcement, Ken Ramirez trained 10,000 butterflies to fly in formation between two points. Here's the description of this amazing feat and how it was trained, it is well worth a read. So there's my reality check. Training like THAT is happening in the world right now. Incredible, and humbling.
Next week I'm teaching the RDA holiday program as usual (Mon-Wed), and then heading straight to Equidays. Not sure if I'll get a chance to do another blog from the event, but you never know.
I will leave you with this rather entertaining video in which Dan & Dan demonstrate exactly how one should handle the situation when carefully laid plans go awry - with humour and calm confidence. May I channel that attitude in the days to come!
So there you have it. Once this is over it'll be back to normal programming. I've got a ton of topics to write blogs about but don't hesitate to suggest a topic or ask a question and I'll add it to the list!
OK so as I said in part one of this series, a key part of my nerves about all this is the fact that I don't feel I have had the time to get him out and about to the extent that I would have liked, in preparation for Equidays. That said, any person's definition of the appropriate degree of preparedness for any situation is going to be different from the next person, and I do tend to be a worrier / over-preparer. So to me, we are feeling very under-prepared.
However, I have had this horse his whole life, and taken him to numerous ribbon days and in-hand shows as a youngster. When I broke my arm I sent him away to be started under saddle by Ben Longwell so he spent a few months in a busy working "ranch" type environment. And during that time, Ben actually took him to Equidays 2015 to be the green horse in his "First 50 rides" demo series. So actually Hokey might argue that it's ME that hasn't been out and about enough - he has spent more time in the demo pens than I have.
All that aside, he has never been the "easiest" of horses in new environments (or even his home environment, half the time!). So I need to do what I can in the time I have to help us be successful.
Here's the plan:
And here's the results so far. I took him to the indoor arena on the weekend for some familiarisation. Basically, it looked like this. Hmmmm yeah not ideal.
To be fair, this happened mostly because I brought Cadence along and she was outside neighing to him. In hindsight, I should have kept his leadrope on and kept the rate of reinforcement super high. I probably should have brought her inside too, for a while at least. I thought maybe it might help him to have a run and let some of the adrenaline jiggles out, but it was clearly the wrong decision. He did come back to me numerous times, and gave me some focused work, but he was far more over threshold than I expected and the whole experience didn't exactly inspire me with confidence. However, there's nowhere from there but up I guess!
I've taken him out twice this week and he's been MUCH better. I am a little more optimistic now than I was after Sunday's episode. The second time I took him to the RDA arena (Wednesday) he was focused and connected with me almost the entire time, and when he did run back to the gate he turned and came back to me almost immediately.
This is us having a liberty play in the arena after my lesson with Cadence on Tuesday. He's never been to this arena before. He struggled a little with his park, but was totally connected and responsive the whole time. I'm keeping my rate of reinforcement a lot higher than usual of course, and not asking for anything hugely difficult.
More about him next time.
There's this amazing TED talk by Kelly McGonigal, called "How to make stress your friend". She basically talks about how our perceptions of stress are far more influential than we realise and that by viewing stress responses as a positive and helpful thing we may actually change the physiological and mental impact of that stress. Basically, when our hearts are pounding and we break out in a sweat, we often see these things as a sign that we're not coping well with the situation. Kelly argues that we should change our view, to see these as signs that, for example, our body is preparing us for the situation and making sure there's plenty of oxygen getting to our brains: "This is my body, helping me rise to this challenge".
Coincidentally, a friend sent me this talk by Mel Robbins today, the central message being that the state within our bodies of fear vs excitement is exactly the same. We just need to tell our brains we're excited rather than scared.
So when I head on into that Equidays arena, I'm going to try to remember that I'm excited (not scared). My heart is pounding in order to give me strength and energy. I will also focus as much as possible on being calm and connected in the moment with my little dude and supporting him through this. After all, this is my silly little game and he didn't ask to be part of it.
"Chasing meaning is better for you than trying to avoid disappointment. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life, and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows."
If you haven't heard, I've been invited to be a clinician at Equidays, New Zealand's biggest equestrian festival. This is pretty huge for me, and I'm super pumped to bring positive reinforcement training to Equidays in a really practical and accessible way. My goal is to show the audience that this is something they can (and should!) all implement to some degree into their training programmes, no matter their chosen discipline or level of experience.
But wait! There's more. On the last night of Equidays there is a new night show, called Equidays Top Talent. So the OTHER thing that's happened, is that Hokey Pokey and I have been selected as one of the finalists to perform on the night. This involves a performance in the indoor arena, in front of grandstands full of people, complete with lights and music. ("Woooah nelly!" thinks me, while lying awake at 3am. This is waaay outside my comfort zone!) I am by nature a teacher, not a performer. However, I have discovered that I harbour a deeply stubborn streak that makes an appearance when I'm scared of something, insists that I won't give in and makes me dig my heels in and do it anyway. Who knew. But yeah, suffice to say this is not a small thing for me. So as there's little to be gained by putting on a show of confident nonchalance, I will be blogging about the process between now and then. That will hopefully help me to work through my feelings and also might provide some interesting reading or learning for you guys.
As I break through my comfort zones ("stretching" is for sissies! (just kidding)) I am, according to the wonderful Jane Pike from Confident Rider, "a Neural Highway Ninja". Who am I to disagree with that?! She says, "Basically, all those neural networks in your body are connecting up new pathways, joining the dots together and building both your mental and physical muscles in ways that will allow you to get out there and repeat the same task much more ease-fully in the future. You getting out there and actually doing it- not thinking about it, talking about it, or drinking coffee about it- is the only way that you are going to make this happen. The only way." (Yes ma'am).
The main reason I'm nervous is that this is all rather last minute and I have not had the chance to prepare Hokey by getting him out and about much. He has hardly been in an indoor arena before, let alone a huge enclosed arena at night with packed grandstands, lighting and sound systems! So I am not really abiding by the clicker trainers mantra of "set them up for success", by any stretch.
As positive reinforcement trainers we often hold ourselves to extremely high standards, I think. We're on this journey due to a desire to do the right thing by our animals ethically-speaking (and we all know that path has virtually no end, there's always *something* we could be doing better). We often spend time pondering our personal training philosophies, ideals and ethical standpoints, and all of this can sometimes lead to a bit of mental self-flagellation.
Idealism can be a beautiful thing but pragmatism doesn't have to be sacrificed on the altar of noble principles. Sometimes life happens, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and a bit of self-love and forgiveness go a long way.
So if you didn't quite manage that training situation the way you'd have liked, if you accidentally forgot to check your emotional baggage at the paddock gate, if you got impatient or lost your temper, then so be it.
Apologise. Make it right. Learn something. Let it go.
People often chat to me about how frequently they second-guess themselves and their training choices. Sometimes they have a strong background in traditional or natural horsemanship but it feels like something is missing in their relationship with their horses. Maybe they find themselves flitting from one 'method' or trainer to the next, unable to commit to any one thing for long enough to see real results (or a lack of) before moving onto something else. Maybe they have followed a particular 'guru' or style of training but something has happened that they're uncomfortable with, to make them question their loyalty to that person or method. Often they are absolutely convinced of the benefits of positive reinforcement for horses, but peer pressure from friends, coaches or social media and the desire to conform is overwhelming and causes them to continually doubt themselves. And often they really want to train under a positive reinforcement paradigm, but old habits keep getting in the way.
Regardless, my heart truly goes out to those people. To you, if you're one of them. I've been there. What it means is that you are a seeker of truth, you're trying to better yourself for the sake of your horse, you're thinking critically and striving for improvement. That's a beautiful thing.
And I get it - there's so much information available out there, online and in person, and it seems that each trainer you listen to, or article you read, is recommending different methods/techniques (and sometimes dishing out judgement or subtle derision of alternative ways of doing things). It can be difficult to sort through it all and feel confident and consistent in which parts you should take home and actually implement with your horse. This is only made worse when the path you're walking is a lonely one, and outside of the accepted mainstream, such as it is for positive reinforcement or clicker trainers.
I have personally sat in the audience at clinics of very well-known and respected international horsemen and listened to them mock and denigrate positive reinforcement training, while clearly having little to no idea of how it works (let alone having given it a proper try themselves). I have left those clinics rather irritated at the ego on display, but still with a degree of respect for the horsemanship they practice and with a few ideas to take home with me.
"Knowledge makes people humble. Arrogance makes people ignorant."
Sometimes people comment how lucky I am to have "found my path" and have so much clarity and confidence in how I want to train (and how I don't). Yes I do feel pretty secure in my training choices, at a basic level, but it's still an ongoing journey and I still question myself constantly and doubt myself regularly.
After all, this is an ongoing and lifelong process. I'm constantly playing 'devils advocate' with myself, watching other trainers (of all species) and questioning the way I do things or whether I could improve what I'm doing. I think that's important to do, but it often actually causes me to feel less sure of myself! Such is life. I've learned to be ok with this sort of discomfort, it comes with stretching outside of comfort zones and it's a temporary feeling. As I work through the new ideas in my mind, or with my horses, or in conversation with peers and mentors, I consolidate and integrate and then continue on. I'm sure this is a process most people are familiar with to some extent.
Also, these things take time - for over 15 years I have been working through questions like
"What feels right to me?"
"How can I balance what is best for the animal with what is practical and efficient?"
"Where do I sit ethically on that spectrum?"
"How can I combine the useful parts of both 'common practice' and 'best practice' without compromising my integrity?"
Crucially, I've had some really challenging life experiences that helped cement my own ethical code when it comes to horses, and form the basis of my unrelenting dedication to empathetic and ethical training. During these times I doubted my own decisions and skills, felt lost, beat myself up, flailed around a bit then (eventually) found solid earth again and emerged stronger and more confident and with the benefit of hindsight. As usual, it's the difficult times in life that provide the biggest insights and catapult us on our way to clarity.
Bear with me here, and I'll give you an example. When I think back 12 years or so to when I was a Customs drug dog handler, I vividly recall my frustration and ethical quandary over the way I was made to 'teach' my dog Oscar 'obedience'. (Clue: with a choke chain). "Get more muscle into it. Correct him harder. HARDER." was the constant refrain, until I snuck away one lunch break with a clicker and some biscuits, hid behind a warehouse out the back of the airport and taught him what he needed to know, MY way. A few months later down in Trentham I had to bite my tongue and hide my tears of empathy when the police dog trainer in charge of our graduation course took Oscar's lead from me and jerked the chain so hard he yelped and was thrown off his feet (he was a very large black Labrador, so there was some force behind that 'correction'). *
There were a few reasons I left that job but that was definitely part of it. To this day I question whether I could have been a better advocate for my dog, but the reality is I was young and relatively inexperienced, and working without proper support or mentorship in a military-style hierarchy. Regardless, I left the dog section even more convinced that I needed to follow my gut and stick with reward-based training, much more aware of the gaps in my own knowledge and capabilities, and absolutely adamant that I would never again put myself in the situation of being powerless and forced to follow someone else's orders on how to train my animals. To this day, if I am taking my horse to a clinic or lesson with someone I haven't trained with before, I remind myself of my role as her advocate and rehearse how I am going to remove her immediately if the need arises. I'm not a fan of conflict so the idea of doing this doesn't sit comfortably but I am ready to do it anyway.
The point of relaying all of this, is that if you're second-guessing yourself, or feeling like you don't know who to listen to or how to proceed, or that things just aren't working for you, please understand that it's totally NORMAL. We all feel like that at different stages and many of us throughout our lives!
Some of my "tribe"
So in practical terms, what can you do if you're feeling that way?
So there's some slightly rambling thoughts about my own journey (so far) which hopefully helps to make you feel less alone, and also some tips on how to manage the nagging self-doubt or second-guessing that so many of us subject ourselves to. I hope it's helpful.
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
* (To be clear, the operational detection work was all trained positively, using play rewards and no corrections. It was the other early-stage obedience stuff that I am describing above. Also, things have improved a lot in NZ drug and explosives detector dog training since then, largely thanks to some inspiring and dedicated trainers who have introduced and implemented marker training into the detector dog community here in NZ. Unfortunately, any improvements were too late for me and Oscar).
"Oh, I'm not interested in tricks. I have far too many other (more important) things to be doing..."
Hey that's cool. I'm totally fine with that, to each their own. I too have little time and lots of important things to be training (and *cough*toomanyhorses*cough*). I do make time to train some tricks though, and here's why.
All that said, I admit I find this whole thing a little tricky (haha), after all I don't want to perpetuate that myth that clicker training is "just for tricks". I personally clicker train my young warmblood during every schooling session, to mark the moments she softens and engages, gives me some lateral movement, or a soft balanced transition. With clients I am most often supporting them to resolve problem behaviours or bad habits, as well as working toward ridden and groundwork goals.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on all of this - if you don't train tricks, why not? If you do train tricks, what's your favourite thing you've ever taught your horse to do?
We can and should teach our horses how to behave around food, in the same way we teach them how to behave around children, or how to accept a saddle, or to have their feet picked up. If our young horse refused to have his feet trimmed we wouldn’t just give up and let his hooves grow unimpeded for the rest of his life, we would resolve the issue (hopefully with patience and compassion). So rather than just never feeding treats because we don’t like who our horse becomes, we simply have to teach him how to access the food by behaving in a way that is acceptable to us. After all, why would we want to forego the use of something that is clearly so incredibly motivating for our horse?!
(If you've introduced your horses to clicker training and they are keen to offer behaviour in return for treats AND they are calm and find it easy to be still in both head and feet, then stop reading. Go outside and train something.)
As with all training, we start by thinking about our ultimate goal. What do you want your horse to do?
(If you said “I want my horse to stop mugging me”, then rewind and try again. What do you want your horse TO DO?)
If you said “I want my horse to look away when I have treats” (a common answer), then that’s a good start, but I’d say you’re not quite there yet. If we are talking about the end result, the ultimate goal, do you really want your horse to constantly angle his head away from you? Or do you just want him to keep his nose off your body, for example?
Either way, we’re still not getting to the guts of the issue yet, and the only way to get there is to acknowledge the underlying emotion that drives the behaviour we're seeing.
I’ll tell you what I want: I want a calm horse that behaves much the same way whether I have food on my person or not. I want him to be eager to play and interact, but also to understand how the game works. That means he is confident in the knowledge that I will let him know when it’s time to play the "training game", and until then he can rest and just be. I want him to have a really solid foundation of suitable behaviour that he can offer me if he wants to earn a reward. More tangibly, I want to be able to ask him to keep his feet still while I work around him, or walk away from him.
That is my end goal. And of course as with any behaviour, I can't train all of that in one go. I must first slice it up into a multitude of tiny pieces and start at the beginning, moving up as the horse shows me he is ready. So, next comes my plan to put structure to those steps.
Step one of every training plan is not a task, but a question: what's our baseline? In other words, what is the horse able to do right now? Don't judge, just observe and acknowledge. We are going to place our horse’s baseline, his current reality, at the bottom of a staircase and our ultimate goal at the top. Then we simply fill in the gaps with as many little steps as we can (simple, right?). As Bob Bailey famously says, "training is simple, but it's seldom easy".
This "manners" behaviour is a very simple exercise for the horse in terms of what's physically involved (basically, just stand there and chill), however, as Alexandra Kurland says, "look to people for opinions, look to the horse for answers". And many horses will tell us that this exercise is NOT in fact straightforward at all. At least, not when their human is standing right next to them with pockets full of treats and a prefrontal cortex overflowing with bubbling expectations and infectious energy and churning thoughts and plans for the next thing on the list and the next.
So we hopefully have a clear view of our staircase, with our current baseline at the bottom and our goal at the top. We are going to start by explaining clearly to the horse that keeping her feet still and her nosey nose away from our bodies is the right answer. In a nutshell that's what we call "manners". That’s the obvious bit, and we can generally train the beginnings of that in a few minutes. The problems I so frequently see come about because the trainer gets that far and then stops. They don't finish the job, and in order to finish we must look at the animal holistically, and acknowledge the emotions not just the physical behaviour. So yes we start out by reinforcing the nose being away from our body space, but we very quickly progress to incorporating calmness, balance, a soft eye and happy ears.
If so, I find it helps to visualise an energy bubble around the horse. When we step outside the bubble their energy drops. What is interesting is that if you pay attention you'll probably notice that your own energy drops when you step out of their bubble too. It is very common for the horse's tense or nervous energy to "infect" us and we end up feeling a bit rushed and flustered. Thus begins a vicious spiral into mutual frustration. (I see this pattern occur all the time in horses that are trained with traditional or natural horsemanship, without any food in sight. So this is not caused by the food per se, but rather by any exciting or scary situation. The scale of the horse's reaction is influenced by their temperament and training history. In any case, clicker training will help to teach the horse emotional self control, and that is a very valuable life skill with far-reaching benefits).
To help a horse like this we are going to find the edges of her bubble and work around the threshold, slowly shrinking it down. You can start by click and treating your horse from outside her bubble, usually a few metres away. By doing this you're setting her up for success. She can't "fail", because you're too far away for her to mug you and she's guaranteed to relax as a result. You're not only reinforcing moments of relaxation but you're also demonstrating that having distance between you is ok - she can stay put and she can trust you to deliver the food to her. She'll learn quickly.
But guess what? If the horse is struggling with calmness, it's very likely there's another factor at play.
Spoiler alert: it's you.
Before you do anything more, stop. Step well away from the horse and take a moment. Breathe down into your belly, slowly. Quiet your mind. Soften. Feel the ground, deep beneath your boots. Breathe out your to-do lists and time-frames and let them drift away in the breeze. Your horse lives in the moment - go and join her there. Return to her with calm energy and zero expectations and let's try that again.
TRUST & CONFIDENCE
Whatever a horse's unwanted behaviour might look like (sniffing, nudging, licking, biting etc), the issue generally boils down to anxiety around how to get the food - where will it come from, when will it come, how do I get access to it. So as you go along you are going to show the horse that he can trust you not to be stingy or unpredictable with food. Through consistent and thoughtful food delivery you will prove to him again and again that he doesn’t need to panic about where the food is coming from or whether it's going to be snatched away. You will reward only desired behaviour. And you will take responsibility for yourself and won't exacerbate his anxiety by adding your own frustrations and expectations to the mix.
(Guys, this means not taking it all so personally! Stop thinking "he's being disrespectful", "he knows better". Don't shove or poke or push him away. If you're feeling annoyed, he's feeling worse. We humans are the ones that landed on the moon - take a short break and apply your considerable brain to the problem. YOU figure out how to help him be successful and calm, and then go back and do better.
Hint: the answer is almost always 'click more often, for the right things').
From here we quickly move on to something specific like targeting. These sorts of behaviours solidify understanding of the "clicker game", and get the horse seeking the click by offering behaviour. If we train nothing but manners for too long then the horse doesn't get the chance to learn to experiment and feel safe volunteering behaviour, which is an important lesson for them and one of the biggest benefits of clicker training.
We revisit manners again and again in between presenting the target, and we begin to morph it into "park", aka "ground tying" (in which he stands still while you walk away or move around him). We do this by continuing to reward for the calm stillness but also begin to change our body position, move our feet and add some distance between us and the horse. In other words, we're now adding in another criteria, of "keep your feet still". Teaching the horse a mat target (place his front feet on a mat and stay there) is a closely related exercise which is incredibly valuable for cementing this concept.
We also begin to generalise the behaviour by changing location. We can reinforce park while we're grooming, while we open a gate, when we're putting rugs on and standing at the mounting block. (Just remember: we are climbing the staircase step by step. Don't expect your horse to grow wings and fly directly to the 5th storey).
Alexandra Kurland calls this whole concept "The Grownups are Talking, Please Don't Interrupt", which I think portrays beautifully the intent behind it. Whatever you want to call it, this behaviour of calm, relaxed standing still is our horse's neutral. His default. It is the baseline we will return to over and over again, both as a valuable behaviour in its own right and as a contrast when we are teaching other behaviours and adding new cues (more on this in a future blog). It also feeds directly into relaxation and balance while moving in-hand and under saddle.
Just don't forget that YOU are half of this equation, and make sure you regularly turn a critical gaze inward to assess how you may be impacting upon your horse.