When we got up early on Saturday morning, the sky was blue and it was already warm. There was a stiff breeze, but not a cloud in sight and it looked like we had another beautiful day ahead of us. At the Centre we were greeted by our horses who were eagerly awaiting their breakfast. Minnie seemed more settled now and some of her restless energy had quieted down a bit, so I was able to groom her at liberty. She stayed with me and showed no sign of wanting to wander off and I was able to find my way back into that very easy and intuitive connection I have always had with Minnie. I was so impressed with how she had adjusted. I took her away from home without any preparation, put her in a strange place where she had to cope being surrounded by other horses, being moved from place to place during the course of the day and lots of people coming and going. On top of that, Minnie had been out of work for a very long time indeed and she had no experience of clicker training other than some basic targeting and watching Cassie. I was asking a lot of her, but she rose to the challenge magnificently. She handled what would be a very stressful situation for her extremely well, and I felt really happy that she was there with me for the clinic.
We started off the day with more discussions. One of the advanced participants told us how she came to clicker training. Initially she was not interested. She had an extensive background in traditional horse training, had worked with horses for years and she felt that she was an experienced and competent horse woman, who didn’t need any of that nonsense. Then one day she was out riding with a friend whose horse, a Thoroughbred, suddenly lost the plot as highly strung horses sometimes do. As she was thinking about what she should do to help her friend, her friend lifted a rein and the horse plunged its’ head down and calmed itself. Impressed, she turned to her friend and said: “Wow, you have to teach me how to do that!” Later during the same ride, her friend’s horse spotted a terrifying, horse-eating object and had a big spook. She told us that she expected a big scene, but to her astonishment her friend said “Touch!”, the horse went forward and touched the object with its’ nose and they calmly rode on. That is how she came to clicker training. Initially she only wanted to learn those two things, to teach her horse to calm itself and to get it past a spooky object and she was still resistant to clicker training as a method. She said that it took her a while to realise that those two things were practical applications of two of the foundations lessons, head lowering and targeting, and that there was much more to that clicker training than she had thought.
There is a lot of resistance to clicker training. It is viewed as cheating, bribing the horse with food, only good for teaching tricks, or – think about this one – ok for dogs but not for horses. Why? Alex explained that it is because society on the whole is punitive and clicker training, with its use of positive reinforcement, is outside the cultural norm. It is easier for us to criticise than to compliment.
We discussed component parts. In order to solve a puzzle successfully, you need to have all the necessary skills to work out the answer. Eg. to teach a horse to stand on a mat, he needs to understand and be able to follow light cues for forward and backward, otherwise you can’t set the horse up for success. For a first session to be successful the horse doesn’t need to actually step on the mat. Clicker training and the foundation lessons encourage dexterity of thinking; it makes you a better trainer, because you have to find the component parts of any behaviour you want to teach, and realise that components are always made up of their own component parts. Both horses and humans learn better in tiny increments.
When I worked with Minnie that afternoon, we continued with head lowering and worked on my skill of backing her in a square. Head lowering is not a forward motion, so anytime Minnie tried to rebalance herself by taking a step forward, or started to paw, I had to ask her to step back, using a rope handling technique Alex calls the T’ai Chi Wall. For the T’ai Chi Wall, you have one hand on the clip of the lead rope, one hand on the horse’s shoulder with tension on a short rope between. This acts like a trampoline, it bounces the energy back, without adding fuel to the fire. This is incredibly powerful, but it feels safe to the horse, because you use bone rotations, not muscle. It is important to empty all the tension out of your shoulders before you start.
Under Alex’ guidance, I began to understand how backing in a square with the T’ai Chi Wall helps a horse to understand the cue for head lowering from a single rein. With a lifting feel on the clip, the T’ai Chi Wall brings the head to the outside and that swings the hind quarters towards you. It also causes the head to drop down a fraction when it moves away to the off side. As soon as that happens you click and reinforce Then ask again. The horse will go down with the head to the off side. They will try to rebalance by taking a step forward or moving their head up. You move the horse back and ask for head down again. The horse will work out how to balance and bring the head to the near side without coming up – this gives maximum stretch to the spine. I had watched Minnie do this with Alex the day before, but now I could feel all the tiny shifts of balance myself, and I also felt how my own balance affected her. This is why the food delivery is so important; if you’re off-balance when you present the food, you unbalance your horse. If I kept my shoulders and hips aligned and presented the food in balance, Minnie’s position was balanced as well.
Minnie and I had a good session. She stayed connected to me throughout in spite of lots of distractions on the beach and being sand-blasted by a very stiff breeze. I was very proud of her. My beautiful mare.