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.