We have two small terriers who ride around in the vet truck all day on calls. Anyone who runs errand with their dog will know that a number of places hand out biscuits to dogs in cars. The bank teller gives them biscuits. The lady at the pharmacy drive through gives them biscuits. Occassionally at a fast food window a stray French fry will come their way. The result is that any time we pull up to any drive-thru before we have even rolled down the truck window, they are both up and alert, wagging tails vigorously, waiting for the biscuit. What does this have to do with horses you ask? Well, it is in excellent example of an idea called “reinforcement history”. Previous experience has led my dogs to believe good things will happen when we pull up to a window in the car. The result of this experience is that they respond positively to every window we stop at. It now no longer matters if they do or do not get a biscuit. The history means they are excited and happy about the trip to the drive up window, even before the biscuit ever shows up. The very experience of approaching the drive up window is now a happy one, all by itself. We will see how our hero, the Brony, relied on reinforcement history to get his human through a difficult spot.
Reinforcement history is a key part of why clicker training works as well as it does, and its an idea Shawna has returned to repeatedly as we have attempted to build Brennir’s confidence. This time, though, we would need reinforcement history to help us with the one thing I really never thought we’d need help with. Brennir has been loading onto trailers since he was a yearling, usually with little to no difficulty. All I have to do is walk him up to the trailer , toss the rope at the manger and wait 20 seconds while he climbs on. However, I have always continued to click and treat him for loading, every time he does it. Although I would not have applied that specific term to it, what I was looking to do was to create that reinforcement history. I wanted Brennir walking up to the trailer like the dogs at the drive up window, eager for a good thing to happen. Just in case something ever, ever went wrong.
Last week we decided to take Brennir and my partner’s horse Hekili to a local rescue I volunteer for . The rescue has lots of land and trails, as well as a lake with a beach that is perfect for swimming horses. I have always wanted a horse who would swim, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to do a little riding and introduce Brennir to the water. And it was! With patience and the clicker, I had him in the water just to where his hooves came off the bottom. That scared him and he did not want to go deeper, but that was ok. He seemed to be having a great time. We went for a short ride, and I rode him out a short ways into the water under saddle. Coming from where we had, all this seemed like nothing less than a small miracle, and I was elated as we went to load the horses to go home. For the most part I do not think anything that happened next was anyone’s fault or due to any sort of error, with the exception of the fact that we had become so used to them loading flawlessly that I used all but one of my treats up playing in the lake. One treat, surely , was enough . He would walk right on without the treat. The treat was just to keep him thinking positive thoughts about the trailer.
I walked him up to the ramp, just like always. His front feet went up onto the ramp, and his head shot up. His eyes were terrified. He backed up rapidly and stood shaking a little. Perturbed, I led him back to the ramp and tried to coax him back up into the trailer. This time he reared up, pulling back wildly. When I ran backwards with him, he turned into old, wild Brennir. Spinning his shoulder into me, he tried to knock me down, then pulled back, snapping out to the end of the rope and then calming when we were 30 or so feet from the trailer. I led him back to the trailer. He put his feet on the ramp, and then, ignoring every effort of mine to calm him, shot backwards at warp speed. Once out in the open field he slammed me with his head, bruising my shoulder, then calmed some distance from the trailer. Over the next two hours, we would repeat this dance uncounted times. My nose and legs and arms would be bruised, my right foot bleeding from a well placed stomp, my muscles yanked to utter soreness. As anyone who has been in a similar situation will know, my partner and I snapped at each other. We tried his target, then his ball he plays fetch with, but he would not even look at them. We tried a trail of fresh corn greens. We tried tying him up and letting him cool off for 15 minute spans. It did not matter what we did. He was utterly terrified of the trailer, for reasons I could not figure out, and he could not explain to me. Katie tried wrapping the rope around the trailer divider so he could not back up, but a determined horse will get free and when he did, he was out of his mind, rearing and striking at me, pummeling me with his head. Finally, exhausted and overcome by his anger at me, I just fell to my knees, sobbing so hard I’d later realize I’d pulled all the muscles in my stomach. This , apparently , was finally something that scared him more than whatever he thought was in the trailer. My partner picked up the rope, and he walked on.
Here, I will say to all you clicker trainers, who I know sometimes feel alone, that your riding buddies don’t necessarily have to be clicker trainers, but they do need to be people willing to respect your choices and your journey with your horse. Distraught, I called my best friend and riding buddy, who came over. After two hours of listening to me cry, and say my horse hated me, and I should give him to someone else who could help him, when I was finally a little calmer, my dear friend, who is NOT a clicker trainer said “ well, try loading him at home. Do your clicker thing. When he gets on the trailer give him his cookies and clicks and love. “ She was right , of course. I had to do something, since as raw as my heart was my head knew the Brony would be with me forever, and if I didn’t help him, no one would. Besides, although circumstances didn’t allow me to discuss this particular event with Shawna, I knew that the principle we always worked with was ‘ go back to what he does well”. And the Brony always loaded well at home.
A few days later, when I was less raw emotionally, I took him over to the trailer with lots of high value treats in hand. His first attempt looked very much like our failure a few days before. At the second attempt though, a softening moved through him. I believe this was the cumulative effect of ALL the clicks and cookies and love he has ever gotten for loading up. His reinforcement history, returned like a friendly ghost to help us. Here, I really saw the effect Shawna had spoken of , the effect of changing an horse’s perception of an event through repeated reinforcement.
He was soon halfway on the trailer, eyeing the manger with a nervous look. I wondered again what happened, although likely I will never know. With every click and treat , though, I saw the long history of positive experiences with the trailer pushing out that one memorable but horrid experience. After ten minutes of work, hewalked up and put his head in the manger. Click, lot of treats, lots of praise. I backed him off and brought him on again. And again. Each time he got a click and huge jackpot of treats. Soon, I saw the old relaxation come over him, his usual attitude toward loading “ This ain’t nothing. I’ve got this , mom!”
The next day we had planned to ride with my best friend and her husband at the rescue, back before the loading horror happened. I was hesitant, but I also knew that staying home forever was not going to help anything. Brennir walked up on the trailer as happy as could be, anxious for his click and his big treat jackpot. Before we left, my friend said “ it will be fine. Katie and I will be here. Just do what you always do with him. Just do your clicker thing”. Again, I cannot say enough how important it is to have riding partners who respect your journey. I knew I had the space to do whatever I needed to with Brennir, and that there would only be support, not criticism. I also knew we had returned to what he could do well, and rebuilt his confidence. We had the tools and support to succeed.
Arriving at the venue Brennir was anxious to unload and see my friend’s husband’s mare, whom he has a crush on. However, we had work to do first. After backing him off , I asked him to load back on. He did, and again got a click, a ton of treats, and praise. My friends were happy to wait and let him practice.
Despite an unexpected party at the lake, with quads, people and a blasting radio, he did great. We rode around on the trails for about an hour together, then untacked and took the horses swimming in the lake. For the first time I got to enjoy the experience of swimming in water over my head, while my pony strode out beside me. He got lots of treats for that too, the ones that did not float away. Picking the correct treats, I have since learned, is essential for swimming practice.
When it was time to leave, I was nervous, and everyone gave a little space for me to try putting Brennir on first. He walked right on with no urging, making a bee line for the manger as if asking “What is on today’s menu?”. Click, lots of treats, lots of praise, because I want to continue to build his reinforcement history.
I am not sure what the moral of this story is. I don’t know what made him so frightened of the trailer that day. I may never know. I DO know that what he did that day did not predict what he would continue to do. Part of the reason for that was the strong reinforcement history he had for trailer loading. That history had changed his very perception of the trailer, and that one bad experience just COULD NOT dilute the years of happy trailer loading experiences, with clicks and treats, we had behind us, enough to make a difference. I also know that we could not have succeeded without friends who believed in our journey, even if it is different from their own. Lastly, I know that every horse owner has that moment, when they think its time to give up. So maybe the moral of this story is “Don’t”. Just do your clicker thing.
After all the ground work and individual steps, in February it was finally time to think about riding the Brony again. The safest place I could think of to do that was my friend’s dressage arena. Should I come off, the sand would be more forgiving than the frozen ground outside. Plus, an indoor arena has fewer distractions, and he should be less likely to be spooked or overwhelmed there. In theory, at least.
The reality was rather different. Now, faithful readers will remember from the first post that our accident involved a sand hill crane that flew at us, screaming. The incident had left Brennir with a fear of all birds. A group of Canada geese flying overhead would send him spooking and snorting. If a sparrow came too close, he would turn and run. So, riding inside, where no birds should be, was a great idea. In theory. In reality, a family of pigeons had taken refuge from the cold in the arena rafters. I had no sooner led him quietly into the arena than a pigeon flew overhead with their distinctive, drumming sound. Brennir startled, going up on his hind legs and running out as far as the lead would let him. “Brennir! Calm down!” I reeled him in, but I could see he was still terrified. He yanked me toward the other end of the arena. I yanked him back. Stamping his foot, Brennir dropped his head and spun toward the other end of the arena so hard I almost lost my footing and fell. Our much prepared for, clicker-centered return to riding was off to an awesome start.
I got him calmed down and took him over to the mounting block, where we practiced standing quietly for a few minutes. I got on and off him repeatedly, rewarding him for his good behavior. Then, I mounted up. I was unprepared for what happened next.
Before the accident, I had always been a fearless rider. Now, though, as we moved off from the mounting block, my body felt awkward and stiff, my thighs too tight on his flanks, my hips locked up. I could not find his rhythm even at an easy walk. Fear, for me, has always been an emotion I considered unacceptable, a weakness I despised in myself. Disturbed by the crawling apprehension in my body, I tried to tell myself I was not afraid, that nothing had changed. My horse, however, knew differently. His head started to come up high, his nostrils flaring. He jigged under me, and when a pigeon fluttered overhead, he bolted suddenly sideways and though I stayed with him without a problem, I had what I can only describe as a flash back. Over and over in my head I heard the sound my body had made when it hit the ground, like firewood being split, the sound of my bones breaking. All my muscles clamped down on him and his reaction was to get more upset, lunging sideways again. I spun him around, hard, digging a heel into his flank. Suddenly I was angry, at my horse, but even more at myself, for being afraid. I halted us along the wall, breathing unevenly, trying to will the fear from both of us, but I couldn’t. A sense of failure overwhelmed me. I didn’t know what to do, and the self-hatred surging in me was doing neither of us any good. I choked back a few sobs, grateful for the empty arena.
There is a central idea in clicker training “Reward what you want.”. It sounds simple, and it is. Except that we as humans tend to be really, really focused on getting rid of the things we DON’T want. At least, I often am. We often hear from our horse friends “My horse won’t load”. “My horse won’t take the correct lead” “My horse won’t stand well for the farrier”. We as horse people tend to spend a lot of time focusing on what our horses can’t, won’t, or don’t do. I realized, as I sat there, rubbing Brennir’s neck and trying to calm him, that all I was seeing was what we were doing wrong. He wasn’t staying calm, I wasn’t staying calm, and nothing was going right. I was unhappy with my fear, with his fear, with my memory of getting hurt. There had to be one thing, one positive thing, we could focus on, and build on. Surely, I thought, we were doing at least ONE thing right.
As I thought that, Brennir turned around, biting the toe of my boot and tugging gently on my leg with his eyes soft and wide. This is my pony asking “are you mad at me? Because I tried. I really did.” I wiped away my tears. Of course I wasn’t mad at him. I loved him more than anything, and what I could not do for myself, I could do for him. “I know, pony boy. I tried too. Let’s do this, together’
Just as it can on the ground, every behavior in the saddle can be broken down into tiny, achievable steps, and that was what we needed now. We both needed to be reminded of what we could do, of what a great team we were together. Breathing deep, I relaxed my body, and then asked him to take one step forward at a walk. For one step, he could stay calm, and so could I. Click, treat. Then two steps. Then three. I kept clicking and treating, and he started to become less afraid, and more engaged. So did I. By the time we had made a slow circuit of the arena this way, I was relaxed, moving easily with Brennir’s stride. A pigeon flew over again, and he jumped.
He could not walk past the pigeon without startling, but we were not focusing on what he couldn’t do anymore. What could he do? Stand quietly under the pigeons in the rafters while they cooed and flapped their wings? Yes. That he could do. Click, treat. Accentuate the positive. After a few minutes of practicing standing quietly he felt more confident. We began to slowly follow the pigeons as they flew around above us. Every time he stepped calmly, I would click and treat. Soon, I was enjoying the transformation of my horse so much that I forgot my own fear. His confidence returning brought me such joy, and he knew it. His old pony self started to show through.
As our ride drew to a close, I asked him to trot a few feet several times, clicking and treating for his calm controlled movement, trying to forgive myself for the rush of adrenaline I felt when he sped up. Just as I was about to halt him for the day, a pigeon fluttered down onto the sand in the middle of the arena, strutting and pecking. Without thinking I immediately clicked for Brennir, who was quietly standing and watching. He took his treat, and when I asked him to walk toward the pigeon he did. Click, treat. Then, the pigeon took a few steps. Brennir sped up to follow it, and soon my bird phobic horse was stalking the pigeon all around the arena, until it had had enough and flew back up into the rafters. I got off, and he stepped up behind me, locking his head over my shoulder in a Brony hug.
I had seen what he had done right, and he loved me for it. In finding mercy for his fear, I started to find mercy for my own. We’d both been hurt, and now, together, we were healing.
Over the past few weeks I have gotten wonderful feedback from people who were very moved by The Brony’s story. However, I have also gotten a number of messages from people with difficult horses who are struggling. Since I really, truly believe that positive reinforcement training with the clicker is the absolute best way to train, I thought we would use today’s blog as a flash-forward to the present, rather than a flash-back. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in only six months, and I would like today’s post to serve as encouragement to those who are struggling. The basic clicker principles: small steps reward what you want not what you don’t, find the tiny tries the horse gives you, along with patience and love, can solve any problem.
This morning was a bright July day, a bit hot, but with a gentle breeze and a blue sky, and I headed out to the barn to spend my morning time with The Brony. When I started working with Shawna, I realized having a troubled horse was a big commitment, and if I was going to keep him, I had to give him my all. After making the decision I was going to work with him every single day no matter what, I was surprised how easy it became to find the training time I didn’t think I had. Now it is just our routine. I get up extra early and schedule my appointments to carve out an hour or so each morning. He can see me as I let the dogs out, and feed the ducks, and he calls for me joyfully. My once fearful horse can’t wait to work.
When I get there he is waiting, standing at the gate. I hold out his halter and he drops his head and slips into it for me, then lifts his head up so I can fasten it. He follows me at liberty to the post where I usually tie him for grooming and tacking. We are going to ride, so I tack him up. I throw the reins over his head and go to stand at the mounting block for him to come to me. However, we went for a long ride the day before, and the bugs were bad. He ignores me, cropping grass near the mounting block. “Brennir, step up!” I tell him, but he doesn’t. I could grab the reins and lead him over, but we have been in a process of using less and less pressure, with better and better results, so instead I take him, fully tacked , and turn him out in the pasture with his morning hay and his brother. At one time I would have thought this the absolute wrong thing to do, rewarding the horse for being disobedient by setting him free. Now, though, the Brony and I have a completely different relationship, one based on mutual respect and enjoyment of the learning process and being together. He stands at the gate, perturbed. He does not want hay or to go and graze with his brother. He wants to play the clicker game. After a moment I let him out and walk back to the mounting block. He follows, lining his body up so I can mount.
I want to go for a ride in the woods today, but a short one. The deer flies are bad, and he worked hard the day before. In order to preserve some challenge, I decide to ride a small loop I do not usually ride, with several steep downhills. He happily moves out, heading down the first slope without a hitch even though a large branch has fallen in the path at the bottom of the hill, sticking up like a scary monster. He is alert as we pass through an area of trail thickly walled with tall brambles. He snorts a little, lifting his head up, but I feel no fear as his muscles start to tighten under me. I have abandoned all use of force with him as I’ve moved forward with the clicker, even little kicks and squeezes, and his response has been to relax utterly and give me more confident, forward enthusiasm than ever. Although once a frightening bucker and bolter under saddle, he has now learned that we speak the same language. All of those behaviors came from a horse who’s every reaction to the world was based on an overwhelming fear he did not know how to communicate. He doesn’t need to scream with his body by bucking, bolting and rearing now. He knows I hear him, so he can speak with a softer voice.
Up ahead the trail goes down a steep but short incline into a narrow wash-out and then back up again, and he navigates this without difficulty. We ride a ways along the hill top, thick brambles on either side again. Then we come to the second downhill. It’s a steep slope, descending from the sunny hill top to the shadowy woods in a straight line, brambles rising to above horse height on either side of the trail. Here, he balks, snorting as he looks down the hill, which has overgrown a bit since we were last here. Once upon a time, a situation like this would have been scary for me. Asked to do anything that frightened him, Brennir was apt to meltdown and try to bolt. Now he can tell me of his fear more softly, because I am listening. He knows I will not force him to give me anything he is not ready and able to give me. Neither one of us needs to be afraid. We are a team, supporting each other. He turns his head away from the hill, and drops it low in a head down stance. Much work with the clicker and patience on both our parts has taught him that his is an ok way to say “I’m scared to do this. I need a little time” I sit quietly for a minute, asking nothing of him, just letting him feel me with him. He takes a breath and relaxes.
We have eliminated all pressure cues for forward movement, as it has become clear over the past month that Brennir finds them aversive. Instead, I use the verbal cue we conditioned while shaping the forward behaviors. “You can do it!” He turns his head to face downhill again. He is not convinced he can do it, though. I can see the fear in his eyes. Just like when the four wheeler would run him down as a colt, here was something scary he must escape from, as fast as possible. Once, at this point, he would have bucked me off and ran. Instead, he takes a few slow steps backwards, another movement we have established to mean ‘I’m scared’. I stop the verbal urging and wait again. Finally he takes a step forward. He gets a click and a lot of treats. He has made as excellent choice, the choice to calmly move forward. He takes another step. Click, treat. Then he sighs, and his whole posture changes, his ears perking forward. I can feel his hind end engage under me. It is Brennir saying “I CAN do it”. He sets off down the slope with no more hesitation and no drama. Without my ever having applied the slightest pressure, he has, of his own accord, faced the thing that scared him, and moved past it. At the bottom of the hill, in the shadows of the trees, I click and give him treat after treat, scratching his neck and telling him what a brave pony he is. This is one of my greatest joys in life now, when he has given me his very best, and i know he has done it with a whole and willing heart.
For Brennir and me, I have learned that the most important thing the clicker does is give us a mutually understood language. He never bucked or bolted because he was a bad horse, or a mean horse, or even a horse who lacked that elusive “try” people speak of. He did it because he was afraid, and I had given him no other way to tell me that. Now every ride is a conversation and the more we talk, the closer we move to the place I want to be, where the many barriers between our separate species fall away, and we are just two friends who need each other, on a journey together.
Brennir and I had a new start, thanks to Shawna’s help, but as we started to move forward I had to let go of a whole lot of ideas that were more deeply rooted inside me than I had ever realized. Although if you had asked me, I would have said I understood what Shawna meant when she said Brennir was afraid of everything, the understanding would take a little while to move from my brain to my heart. Though I knew he wasn’t trying to be bad or to put me in danger, it would take time to replace my frustration and anxiety with love, and patience
Whoever said “the longest journey begins with a single step” must have been a clicker trainer. That idea, that everything we intend to do with a horse can be broken down into the smallest, achievable increments, is a key concept in positive reinforcement training. The idea is that by breaking behaviors down into small steps, we can communicate very clearly what we want, and build a positive foundation for the behavior without ever overwhelming the horse, or making them feel frightened or anxious. I knew I had to start breaking the behaviors I wanted down into very small steps, but I did not yet understand how small, or how this effort would change me as much as it changed my horse.
We had been working for about a week on just leading calmly and rewarding Brennir profusely for returning to the paddock calmly. He was more settled. We began taking forays in hand down the drive toward the trails into the woods, and for a while, everything seemed to go quite well.
Then, one very cold Michigan morning in January, I was leading him down the drive and he balked, less than 25 feet from his own pasture gate. “Come on, Brennir!” He was ignoring the target I used for leading, so I gave a little tug on the lead rope attached to his halter. That one little tug unglued him, and he spun, tearing the rope from me and running back to the barn door, shaking. For a moment, I was SO angry at him. We had been walking down this hill for the past week, had walked down it hundreds of times in the four years I had owned him. Why couldn’t he just do this? Why couldn’t he just lead like every other horse in the world? I marched up toward the barn prepared to get him and drag him back down the hill. Then I saw him, maybe REALLY saw him for the first time, and my heart just broke, with pain for him, and shame for my own human arrogance.
His head was tucked toward the corner of his stall, his body shivering. He looked up when I came closer, drew back from me for a moment, and then, when I made no move to grab him, leaned his head against my chest, shutting out the world. It was so cold; the tears were almost freezing on my eyelashes, a great cloud of white breath pluming as I tried to synchronize my breathing with his. What had I been thinking? I tried to imagine what it would be like, to be a 3 or 4 month old baby, with no one to protect him, being chased by a quad with the engine gunning, with no idea why or if he would live through the next moments. I suddenly realized, with my heart, that it didn’t matter that my human mind knew there was nothing here that could hurt him. What HE knew was that scary, deadly things can happen any day, any time, when he least expected it. He, I realized, with a great turning of my heart inside me, had a RIGHT to be terrified. It was my job to teach him that the world was safe. On that day, he started making me both a better trainer, and a better person, a person slower to judge and quicker to help.
After comforting him for a few minutes, I picked up the lead again and started to bring him outside. While still in the barn, though, I remembered more of the guidelines Shawna had left us with. “Keep inside his comfort zone’. “Make him feel successful so he is encouraged instead of discouraged”. “Click and treat him a LOT’. These were all positive ideas, completely at odds with pushing my horse through something that terrified him. There was another shift inside of me, more of my frustration at his behavior replaced with a kind of graceful love for this beautiful, intelligent, but wounded friend of mine.
‘One step, buddy. How about that?” We took one step. Click and treat. His ears perked forward. He had been prepared for a challenge, but not for this. We took two more steps. Click and treat. Then three. We continued that way to the top of the drive, but there he balked, afraid. “It’s ok, pony boy. Just do what you can” He hesitated so I turned us around, walked a few feet back toward the barn, and then pointed us toward he drive again. “One step, okay?” He nickered softly and took a step. Click and treat. Another step, click and treat. Once he realized I was not going to push him into anything scary his whole posture changed. He rounded his neck and flicked his ears forward, his eagerness showing. It was a completely different horse than I had had ten minutes earlier.
Soon we had clicked our way part way down the drive, but he balked again at a concrete pad visible through the light snow. My neighbor had planned to keep pigs there and a big metal automatic watered sprouted from the center. He had seen it a hundred times, but for some reason today Brennir was terrified of it. He balked. I thought he had shown enough courage for the day, so after asking for one more step and giving him a click, a treat, and a lot of praise, I turned him around to go back to the field.
Suddenly, he pulled on the rope, and I got scared, thinking he was going to bolt. He didn’t tear it from my grasp though, just spun us around where we stood. I looked around trying to figure out what was the matter, but then I saw his forward-tipped ears and the look of intense determination in his eyes. With no urging from me, he leaned into the halter, climbing over some dead weeds to the concrete pad, stepping up onto it, and touching the waterer with his nose. If horses could smile he would have. ‘Look what I did, mom! Look how brave I am!” he was so pleased with himself, so proud, and so was I. I gave him a click, followed by a ton of praise and treats. His lips quivered, which they do when he is happy, and he bobbed his head up and down and nickered in a self-satisfied way. When I turned back toward the paddock he followed me with no urging, having done what he intended to do.
When I had put him back in the field and given him more treats and love, I sat down and cried again, but this time it was from utter joy. Brennir had given me his heart and all the try he had, and though compared to the things other horses do it was tiny, for us, it was as special as winning the Kentucky Derby. We’d taken the first steps on a long journey together.