A guest blog by Tessa (15), from Texas USA, after the Positively Together clinic on March 7-8, 2020, hosted in Austin by The Willing Equine.
During the Positively Together Clinic with Bex Tasker in Texas during March, I took away some very deep and interesting points that have really been settling well with me and that I have already seen beautifully improving me and my horse’s flow of training.
First of all, I just want to say what an incredible trainer and person Bex is. She truly has an amazing gift of being able to teach others with such a profound mindset that is expressed through her deep passion in helping people and their horses create a connection in their training. I am so grateful that I was able to spend several days learning from her and having fun; it truly was very eye opening seeing what an incredible community she is building.
One of the main focuses throughout the clinic was the concept of “breathing and being.” Breathing to create a connection and calmness that leads to being present in the mind; being in the moment of the training and focusing on that connection between the human and horse.
“Breathe and be.” As I continued to think about it throughout the entire clinic, it continued to resonate more and more within me; as I put it to use during my training sessions with Arrow in the clinic, my eyes were opened.
It has helped both of us so much in the fact that it has reminded me to be in the moment during the training session which has allowed us to train more efficiently and improves my ability to asses the situation with a clearer mind. It reminds me to relax my body and focus on the present moment and what I’m positively looking for instead of focusing on what could go wrong or what I “should” be doing instead (more on the whole “should concept" later in this post).
Therefore with all of that being said about how it has been improving my mental state, it has helped Arrow so much because I am clearer in my communication in the training, I am relaxed and focused, which therefore helps Arrow because he can clearly feel safe in the training because he is perceiving clear communication from me. Our training is even more fluent and connected. Whenever one of us feels a little worried or unsure, we can always return to the “breathe and be” behavior and get re-grounded. I can also always keep the “breathe and be” thought process in my head as a reminder to stay calm and joyful in the entire training process.
Thank you so much Bex for sharing such an amazing concept with me to improve our training and connection that is built between myself and my horses. Whenever I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed in the presence of training, all I have to do to remind myself to put these words to use is to simply stop, place my hand on my belly and breathe as I reinforce Arrow for being in his “default” or “breathe and be” position. It has already been helping us immensely and I just have to remind myself to breathe and realize that everything is going to be ok even if something little unexpected happens — I have to challenge myself to stay relaxed and present.
Whenever one of us feels a little worried or unsure, we can always return to the “breathe and be” behavior and get re-grounded. I can also always keep the “breathe and be” thought process in my head as a reminder to stay calm and joyful in the entire training process.
Another very profound topic that was discussed is the meaning behind the word should. “I should have done this in that training session” or “I should be doing this instead of this.” — the list goes on and on and on… But Bex brought to my attention that “should" is a word that really puts a hole in our chest because it seriously causes us to question ourselves and regret the decisions we make and have made. When I think back on things, this word was the cause of so much self-doubt, frustration, sadness, and regret for me when I was switching over to R+. It has really caused some setbacks in me and my horse’s training in the past because I allowed it to get the better of me.
Over many discussions during the clinic days I opened my eyes in realizing that the word should is simply misused and overlooked in most cases. Who cares about what happened in the past because we can’t change that. I can’t go back in time and change something in the session that I just had with one of my horses. But what I can do instead is realize what went wrong, realize why it happened, notice that everything is going to be ok, my horse will forgive me, and then move on and start fresh with a new perspective and try again. Nobody is perfect and all we can do is try our best, we all make mistakes because it’s just part of the learning process. But Bex reminded me and refreshed my brain again to not let my words take over my mind; this is something that I have really been working on lately and Bex really helped me further my skill to improve it… the word “should” can’t overtake my thoughts because I will redirect my thoughts onto new priorities.
Instead of using the word should, I am looking and redirecting the circumstances as learning curves, reflections, and priorities. I have chosen to take that moment as a learning experience, reflect back on it to see what I can do different next time, and then create and choose new priorities that will alter depending on the horse so that I can avoid thinking of the past and future, and instead will help me create goals and accurate training plans for in the moment.
This thinking process has been helping me for several months now, but Bex helped me determine the word that was causing the triggering thoughts. Instead of dwelling in the past, I have been able to continue my steady mindset and thinking and have been able to continue and improve. This concept from Bex has deepened and, in a way, finalized my ability to get past certain events and continue to confidently move forward. Now of course I have moments when I do feel frustrated or sad from certain situations because that’s life, but for the majority of things, I try to continue to have this mindset and portray these positive thoughts.
I could write for hours about how much Bex has taught me these past several days, but these two things are what currently really stood out for me. I am so incredibly thankful for Bex and her teaching skills — her clinic was laid out beautifully and she has an incredible way of teaching people. She has created, grown, and is sharing such an amazing community with her wonderful business of Positively Together. I am so thankful for this wonderful trip and I hope to learn from her again during many experiences together in the future. Thank you for everything Bex.
by Tessa (15), Texas USA.
It was such a pleasure getting to know Tessa during the clinic and over the following week. She is bright, articulate, passionate, and an extremely talented horsewoman. It is youth like this that make me feel inspired and hopeful for the future of positive reinforcement training in the equestrian world. Thank YOU Tessa xx
Also another big shout out to Adele of The Willing Equine for making this clinic happen, and hosting it at her beautiful barn. Make sure you check out her website and follow her on social media if you don't already. I hope we can do it again soon!
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.