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.