Mint: A Horse with Heart

October 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Mint's Diary, On Target Training

It has been just over a year since Mint came back into my life. This got me to thinking about Mint’s life and the journey that we have taken together. Let’s start at the beginning…

Back in 1994 I went to John and Beezie Madden’s farm in upstate New York to begin training horses utilizing positive reinforcement training. I had learned these techniques during the 10 years I had spent training marine mammals at Sea World. This had not been done with horses and especially at the professional level. It was an exciting time for us. I worked with a number of horses, most of them were competing as high level show jumpers. There were two young horses that didn’t go to shows and ended up getting the most consistent training. These two were essentially my experimentals subjects. They were clean slates who had everything to learn. Mint was one of these horses. To date he holds the title as “The Worst Horse I Ever Worked”. He was such a quitter. He would quit during the target training process. For those of you who don’t know about target training, it is easy and they all love to do it. But not Mint. He seemed to have decided that this was too much effort. The horse in the paddock next to him, who was not part of our training program, would try to reach over the fence to touch the target that Mint wouldn’t touch right in front of his nose. All these years later and I have not met another horse who quits during target training!

Mint had no desire to try or please. He had no heart. When I first started working with horses I would hear how the best horses had “heart”. It was consistently thought of as something that a horse either had or didn’t have and not really something that you could change. I wasn’t familiar with the term “heart” and learned that this referred to a horses desire to please his rider/trainer. It boiled down to his attitude. This, to me, is the MOST important thing in the training process. If a horse learns something but he learns it with a bad attitude, well, it is just not going to end up being the best situation for either me or my horse. He may do what I want but if he has a sour attitude about the behavior then he will probably end up looking for ways to avoid doing it. This usually means bucking, spooking, bolting, rearing, balking, bulging, you get the picture. If Mint was going to be a part of the program, I needed to get him to put forth some effort. I would, and still do, reinforce him when he tries. When I see that things are getting difficult for him I reinforce him quite a bit for even the slightest effort.

Mint came along nicely and soon got up to speed. It still took a while for his personality to fully come out. He was always good but not very demonstrative. It made me happy when he moved past just doing the things I asked of him and began to actually enjoy the things I asked him to do. His “heart” was growing. We went on to a rigorous schedule, touring and doing clinics and expos all over the country. He shipped 60,000 miles in two years. Then in 2002 I went through some very difficult times. The challenges were of a personal nature and the horses were sent to Minnesota to be turned out while I tried to get my life sorted out. Thankfully, I have finaly arrived in a great place, but it took a while. Seven years later Mint was shipped back to California. I was so excited to see him but the behaviorist in me was curious about how much he would recall. Would he remember me? Would he remember his training? Would he be happy to be back? I had seen him one time in all those years. It was amazing to see him when that day finally got here. He seemed to feel the same. When the trailer pulled up he was unloaded into a corral. I gave him a couple minutes to get some water or urinate and then took him to the arena and took off his halter. He stayed right with me and did everything that I asked. He didn’t just do the behaviors, he did them with enthusiasm and zeal. He did them with heart!

People tell me often that Mint is an “exceptional horse”, suggesting that he was “born” with heart. It makes me smile to think back to that young horse who was beyond indifferent, to this horse who has developed heart through the use of positive reinforcement. We have now moved barns a couple times and have finally settled into a new barn where we can continue on our journey together.

The video of Mint’s arrival is available. If you want to see the day he arrived it is on my blog and it is titled “Clicker Trained Horse Remembers”.

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On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

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