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.
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.
Hi everyone! Shawna is really busy getting ready for clinics, so I’ll be doing some guest blog posts. My name is Denise Bickel, and for the last six months Shawna has been helping me with my 5 yr old mustang gelding Brennir ( also known as the Brony), who was an orphan foal and has had a lot of behavior issues. I’ll be sharing his story in parts to show both how the insight Shawna brought to our troubles helped change things, and how we used positive reinforcement methods to help build Brennir’s confidence in himself and me. I hope you‘ll follow us on our journey! As I say when I we start our sessions, “It’s Brony Time!”
There are horses, and then there are horses. Every horse person knows what I mean. That one horse that looks in your eyes and sees straight into your heart, that you love like crazy, your heart horse. Except what happens when you find that horse, the horse of your dreams, and they turn troubled and angry and sometimes dangerous? It wasn’t the path I was looking for. It wasn’t even the horse I was looking for. Once I looked in his eyes for the first time though, I felt like I had already known him for a thousand lifetimes. He had my heart, from the very beginning.
I found my heart horse in a scraggly little mustang foal whose mother didn’t want him. He was about 40 lbs. at birth and looked like a bald, starving goat. His mother had been rounded up by the BLM not a few months prior. She had gone crazy, attacking another mare’s foal and killing it, and no one was sure how to handle her or what to do with the foal. That first day I saw him while attempting to give him a new foal exam, I offered to buy him, but the owners were convinced they would love and keep him forever.
Everyone knows orphan horses can have issues, and Brennir certainly did. In the intervening year between when I met this baby and he became mine, he had some experiences I wish I could erase. He was isolated from other horses. They chased him with the 4-wheeler as a “game” almost every day. I am sure now that he was lost in the world. When they decided to get rid of him, I only found out about it because I was there looking at another horse. I offered to take him that day. I borrowed a trailer, and he got in without any hesitation, never looking back once. Even then I loved him with my whole heart, and I promised him and myself I would do whatever he needed to help him overcome his rough start in life, and be the horse I knew he could be, the horse my heart saw.
As promises of that sort often do, my promise soon proved harder to keep than I had anticipated. Brennir had a lot of behavior issues, some of them dangerous. When I first got him, he would aggressively charge anything that threatened him: humans with lunge whips, humans with ropes, dogs, chickens, anything. He would knock you down at an all-out gallop in the field, bite, kick, rear and stomp if he was afraid. He was alternately aggressive with other horses or completely detached from them. I was already familiar with clicker training at that time, and since any type of pressure provoked an aggressive response from Brennir, I gravitated toward that for safety reasons. While it definitely worked better than anything else had, we struggled.
Four years together passed.. He learned to lead, to move his body, to tolerate scary objects, stand for grooming and hoof trimming, load on the trailer, all the things a horse needs to know. He could be difficult though. I could not lunge him because he would charge me. He could be fine under saddle and then suddenly explode. I was told he was spoiled, disrespectful, dominant, that I needed to put him in his place. However, when I tried to assert dominance his behavior just deteriorated. Eventually, he became a riding horse, although not without his issues. I loved him, and he was a good horse, but I felt like we lacked the connection I really wanted, and I never felt like I could completely trust him. Most painfully, I never quite felt that I had fulfilled my promise to him. Then, something happened that changed everything.
I was in a bad riding accident. The details are unimportant except to say it was NOT Brennir’s fault. We were attacked by a large crane who was guarding a nest and I doubt the most seasoned horse would have kept it together. I ended up with a dislocated collar bone that was broken into several pieces, 6 broken ribs, and a punctured lung. I spent a week in the hospital, had surgery and it was over a month before I could do anything with my horse at all.
When I was finally able to start working with him again, I found everything we had worked so hard to achieve was gone. He had reverted back to his earliest behavior issues, acting flighty and frightened, aggressive and difficult to control. Instead of a skinny yearling though, I now had a 900 lb. animal with the strength, will and agility of an adult, charging, striking, rearing and biting at me. Riding was out of the question. I was now struggling with fear issues I’d never had before my accident, and he was completely unpredictable. Soon, I could not even lead him safely. He would behave until it was time to return to his paddock, but then he would have a tantrum, rearing and striking. He would knock me down and break away from me, for reasons I didn’t understand. Every day I would find myself in tears. I tried nose chains, the round pen, various exercises trainers I knew suggested, and his behavior just got worse, and his heart more distant. Finally, on a very cold day right before Christmas, as I was trying to put him back in the field, he knocked me down and tore away, running so far and fast he went across the very busy road we live on. By some miracle he was unhurt, but I no longer knew what to do. Defeated, I sat down in the snow and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. I felt I had failed him completely. I knew if I sold him or gave him away he’d end up dead, but I didn’t know how to help him, and we were both miserable.
I knew I needed someone to help me, but every trainer I knew locally used some kind of pressure training, whether it was natural horsemanship of various flavors, or a more traditional approach. We had already tried so much of that with abysmal results. I knew I had to approach him with positive reinforcement but I was so defeated and confused, I no longer trusted myself or my horse. A desperate internet search on equine clicker training led me to Shawna. I saw she was a professional clicker trainer. However she was in California and we were in Michigan. Never mind, I was willing to try anything at all. I emailed her asking if there was any way she would do an internet consult. To my surprise, she said yes.
We set up a time to talk on the phone, and that conversation would change my relationship with my horse forever. I had already sent her information on his history and the problems we were having so she had had time to become familiar with his issues. We made some small talk, I made some comment about his bad behavior, and she replied “well, you have to understand. He’s afraid of everything”. For a moment it felt like my whole world was turning around those words. This horse, MY horse, who charged anything that looked at him cross eyed, who would rear up and strike at you like a wild stallion, was afraid? I had thought he was aggressive, dominant, willful…but not afraid, not that.
I paused, giving her a chance to expand on this. She explained that orphan horses have no solid foundation from which to navigate the world. They have no herd, no sense of security. For whatever reason, genetics, personality or some effect of his early experiences he expressed his fear as aggression, but he was afraid. “ And then you disappeared, and he didn’t know why. His herd, his one secure thing, disappeared. He’s terrified. You go to put him in the paddock, and he doesn’t know if you are ever coming back. Of course he doesn’t want to go”. My heart broke for my poor, lonesome horse, as every problem we had ever had suddenly made perfect sense. I was crying, but trying not to let it show. I am a veterinarian. I know lots of trainers. I had talked to so many people, read so many books and internet articles, tried so many approaches. Yet no one had ever seen into my horse’s heart before. Shawna did, and in those four words “ He’s afraid of everything” I found the key to opening up Brennir’s heart to me. Somehow, without even meeting him, she knew more about him than I did.
We made a plan for working with him. I would click and treat calm leading behavior within his comfort zone. I’d reward him lavishly for the return to the paddock in order to make the separation less painful. It was not so different from what we had done before, except that, because I understood now that he was afraid, when he started to lash out I was patient and reassuring, using the target to draw him back into his comfort zone, trying to calm his fear. In two days, he was leading like a docile puppy, returning to the paddock without any resistance. On the third day after my conversation with Shawna, when I was finally starting to be convinced the improvement wasn’t just a fluke, I stood in the pasture while snow came down and put my forehead on his. I scratched his neck, remembering how much I loved him, remembering that I was still keeping my promise. He nuzzled me, and I told him“It’ll be okay, pony boy. I understand now. I’ve got us some help. You don’t need to be scared anymore’. He sighed, leaning into me. The connection I felt at that moment was indescribable; his posture so soft, his heart turned toward me in a way it had never been before. He knew I heard him, finally knew how much I loved him, thanks to those words, that insight no one else had had. “He’s afraid of everything”. There was a lot more work to come, but we had the new beginning we needed.