Friday, July 30, 2010


“Are you gonna let me talk?”

During sixteen years of marriage this question has been posed by my husband more then once. In temperament he may be more of a talker, but this hasn’t stopped me from interrupting him, taking over the conversation, or assuming what his thoughts/opinions are from time to time. This is usually where he simply decides to stop talking. And calmly poses the above question.

In the last weeks of clicker training Eli I cannot say he is becoming a genius or more finished in his under saddle work. He can target on things and is responding to spoken words, but I can’t point to anything super concrete, training-wise, that positive reinforcement has done for him. What I do know is that this introverted stallion has become much more verbal. It is delightful to watch.

I wanted Eli for his eyes. Period. Romantic and ridiculous as it may sound, I have never seen such a beautiful spirit reflected in the eyes of a horse. That said, Eli firmly resisted a relationship with me in the beginning. He didn’t want to be touched, he had nothing to say, he refused even to take food from my hand or tolerate me standing beside him while he ate. When I got discouraged with his indifference I would look in those eyes and think, “That is who he is. I simply need to be patient and he will come out one day.”

It took about three months before Eli nickered at feeding times. The noises he made were really not discernible at all but more a fluttering of the nostrils. Outside of screaming if a new horse came on the property (I call it the Elephant Bellow) he was completely silent. I have heard that stallions bond strongly on one person and after several months of handling and riding I began to feel Eli finally giving me his trust and affection. Mostly. He is supremely sensitive to intent and is well aware when manipulated or set up. He tolerates domination with amazing dignity and grace. But I wanted him to blossom and communicate. I wanted to be his friend, not assault him with a one-sided conversation all the time. Hence a strange little device and pocketful of treats. The experiment was on.

I put Eli in his stall the first time I worked with him and the clicker. This was a mistake. He spent most of the time with ears pinned and a worried look in his eyes, seemingly suspicious and slightly resentful at being trapped in his place of sanctuary where “training” would commence. Eli is often waiting for the other (horse) shoe to drop: “What are you really after?”

After that I simply locked Eli’s pasture buddy in the stall and let him decide to play with me and the silly clicker. Or not. He learned to target and to notice the word “touch” as well as “come” when I waved my hand. This he did without losing a shred of his dignity and autonomy. He didn’t want me to touch him at first and made a point to walk away, over and over, before approaching again on his terms and working for the treat. It was clear he wanted to make the choice and was testing whether I would truly allow him to do so. I made sure to be cautious, partly because of his gender, and carefully take note of attitude. I didn’t want to have to discipline him. This whole exercise was about choice, relationship, and willingness. No coercion allowed. This he tested once by coming to me on cue and suddenly turning and galloping back to hide behind the barn. When I didn’t come and get him, he poked his head around the side and trotted over without further issue.

After maybe four fairly pleasant clicker sessions Eli “spoke” to me for the first time when I entered the pasture. It wasn’t just a nicker but a horsey sort of sentence, complete with differing tone and inflection. He seemed happy to see me. For the first time I felt him truly engage in two-way communication rather then simply respond to pressure and release, knowing he has no other option. These little sentences have become the norm and it seems they are directly related to the clicker work.

Those who have horses hold certain equine experiences in a special place that is revisited privately and remains a source of joy and, often, intense emotion. These are experiences where you have shared something amazing with an incredible animal and know in your heart that it is real even while acknowledging others might think it silly or wild anthropomorphizing. One of those experiences came not long ago and I have tucked it away in that special place. I stood on my front steps, contemplating outdoor chores and tasks as I looked into the back pasture. Eli came around the corner of the barn and saw me. It was not even close to feeding time. This did not stop him from beginning the most amazing communication with me to date. He began to string together whinnies and nickers, and strange little noises that sounded altogether like another language. It was more then a sentence, it was a paragraph of words. The introvert has found his voice and I am delighted.

My favorite Bible stories involve the authentic conversations God had with his friends. I love Jonah’s complaining and David’s passion; love Abrahams bargaining, Jobs pressing questions—“why?” and Jacob refusing to let go of God until he received a blessing. I even love the ones that went astray—Balaam, for instance, who enjoyed real communion with the Almighty but wouldn’t listen until God spoke through a donkey. God values relationship, not coercion. He wishes us to come out into the open, blossom into the person He can see clearly inside. And sometimes I think He tires of the one-way conversations, the stale religious laundry lists of “I want/bless this/fix that.”

“Are you gonna let me talk?”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


In the movie Fifty First Dates Drew Barrymore plays a charming sort of airhead with memory issues. Every day is a brand new day as Barrymore wakes up and can remember nothing from the day before. The movie is funny and quite touching. Especially at the end when her boyfriend turned husband, Adam Sandler, makes a video of her life to that point and has it ready in the DVD player each morning so she can watch it and remember who she is and what she's done.

Reminds me of a certain horse…minus the DVD player and compassionate, understanding partner. I did find it funny, in a completely exasperating way, that my post last week used trailer loading as the example of negative reinforcement. I finished that post and walked outside to load horses for a ride with my daughter and discovered life wanted to imitate art. Again. 40 minutes after working Chance into a sweat using (highly) negative reinforcement to get him to load into my new aluminum trailer, I called it quits. Forget it. Forget these annoying beasts who call me to rise to a new level of patience and skill. I loaded up (my new favorite) Cowboy and drove off in a cloud of dust. While Eli would load easily, he’s been testing me recently and I knew I had no patience left to deal with that in the right manner. Instead, I watched my daughter ride and contemplated getting a motorcycle.

Okay, not really. But I did have time to think about the scenario with Chance and how to approach it when I had gathered together any remaining shreds of patience. Good opportunity to try out the clicker and see if positive reinforcement could help him remember he did know how to load and had, in fact, been loaded multiple times in more then one trailer. Did I mention I’ve already spent hours on trailer loading this horse? Yes, nearly all of his experience includes trailers with ramps, but that’s no excuse. We had ended the last attempt to load with one foot in—for approximately two seconds—and Chance hanging his head inside the trailer in total defeat, his eyes broadcasting the fact that he had completely checked out and would be (re)learning nothing else that day. At least that way.

Its important to know that this horse is highly reactive. No cougar would have a chance to eat this Chance in the wild. Trust me. He continually scans his environment for details—no matter how small—that have changed in his tiny comfort circle. Grass growing, for instance. We call him our guard horse. Though he knows his leads, is very light in the face, bends and counter bends, sidepasses, backs, stops on a dime, etc. etc. this is all useless when he gets anxious and something triggers his flight response. Cue Fifty First Dates. This horse is a perfect example of why emotional stability is so important in ones mount. You can get away with a lot of things on a horse with low flight drive or one that is dull/lazy. A reactive horse, on the other hand, broadcasts all the weaknesses in ones horsemanship in blinking neon letters. I’ve decided I will never knowingly purchase a reactive horse. That said, I foolishly enjoy a challenge and like to experiment. Seems I have a horse that provides endless opportunity for both.

I approached the trailer, clicker and treats in pocket, with Chance later that same day. His panic about the new trailer seems to be the fact that it is a step up and the floor moves more then the old one when loading and unloading—environment change alert. At that point Chance had had maybe five sessions with the clicker. He was interesting to work with for two reasons: he took longer then the other horses to connect the sound with the treat and he never went through the pushy stage to get at the treats. Because he disengages easily, he frequently lost focus during the sessions, staring off into space and entering that place in his mind that remains locked. The “key” I’ve used in training is negative reinforcement to get him to accept new things. While this has worked to teach cues and maneuvers, I cannot say it has helped at all in rewiring the crazy emotional circuits.

Once Chance discovered the correlation between the click and a reward he seemed very pleased with himself. We worked on target training and the head down cue. My goal is to get him to lower his head on cue and keep it there for extended periods of time. This lowers adrenalin and seems a multi-useful cue. Alexandra Kurland makes an insightful statement in her book: You are never training only one thing. Just as one behavior problem is multiplied in other areas of the horse’s life, good training in one area multiplies into other, seemingly unrelated, areas.

As for the trailer, it took two days to get Chance standing inside with all four feet. He isn’t completely comfortable yet, but he hasn’t shut down (and neither have I, for that matter). I feel encouraged. My hypothesis (fingers crossed) is that positive reinforcement will be a stronger motivator for this particular horse. The click and new language between us appears to help him stay in the thinking side of his brain rather then the reactionary one.

If this doesn’t work I’m outfitting a DVD player in his stall…

PS. The above picture is of Cowboy (this weeks favorite horse) frisking an empty bag of grain. I haven’t introduced him to clicker training—if it ain’t broke don’t fix it—but I’m sure he’d be an enthusiastic student. This horse would sell his soul (and yours) for food of any kind. Donuts, sandwiches, Cheezits, salt and vinegar chips…Cowboy enjoys buffet style dining.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Though more complex in thought and emotion, human beings share a surprising number of traits with horses and other mammals. We may not have head to toe body hair (with the exception of that guy at the pool…eeewww, tramatized forever) but we are highly motivated by some of the same things: comfort, security, and social and basic needs such as food/water/shelter. Behavior is shaped by the drive to acquire those things and can become incredibly ingrained in the individual.

There are three ways behavior is shaped in human beings and horses: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment. Positive reinforcment in relation to this blog would go something like this: Post in a timely manner and Bill Gates will call and offer to share his fortune. Negative reinforcement: Write a posting OR be forced to keep track of all the friends who have won a chicken, or pirate booty on Facebook games. Punishment: If you don’t post now—and send it to ten friends for luck—a large meteor will fall on the house (thereby destroying the computer and access to Facebook…certain descent into social obscurity).

Though not writing much the last month ( I’ve become one heck of a painter and floor sander, however), I have been reading. One of the books I bought is about clicker training horses and the concepts of positive/negative reinforcement and punishment as training tools. Written by Alexander Kurland, it is fascinating.

I discovered clicker training a few years ago when a friend from Wyoming visited and taught me the basics with my gelding, Tango. Clicker training is exclusively positive reinforcement and uses a marker sound—the click of a small device—followed by food reward to create and shape behavior. It has been used extensively to train dogs, dolphins, and even zoo animals like bull elephants. I used it previously to get Tango to accept deworming and, just for fun, to retrieve. It seemed a useful method for tricks and such but, frankly, I didn’t see much practical application beyond that.

For training horses, negative reinforcement is a very effective method to shape behavior and is probably used most by good horsemen and women. The horse gets to choose its behavior though, admittedly, it is often the “lesser of two evils” if the animal could express itself that way. For instance: “Load into the trailer and stand or move your feet A LOT outside.” The horse would rather avoid both of those scenarios if it had its way.

Punishment, as Kurland points out, is addictive behavior on the part of the motivator, often escalates, and gets inconsistent results at best. It is definitely used to train horses but in my experience rarely successful and, if it is, the positive results are short lived and actually invite worse behavior. I use punishment sparingly and almost exclusively to deal with overt aggressiveness such as biting and striking.

I’m not sure why I have regarded positive reinforcement (using a treat, specifically) as an inferior training method. That darn horse should just do what I want, when I want it, right? A long trail ride and collected work in the arena surely beats lounging in the shade with a flake of hay.

I picked up Kurland’s book because I enjoy experimenting and have been looking for ways to draw Eli out of his shell and invite expression. Though he tests me sometimes with naughtiness, he is overwhelmingly willing to please and has a good work ethic once I get him on task. But I get the feeling that there is just more available in my relationship with him. I don’t know why. Because positive reinforcement is exclusively about the individuals free choice and desire, I decided to try it with him and see what happens. Tune into the next posting and I’ll share the interesting initial results of clicker training sessions with both Eli and Chance. That is, of course, unless Bill Gates calls. In that case I may be gone (to the Bahamas) for another month.

PS. Clicker training horses has enjoyed renewed interest and respect because of the experience of Karen Murdock and her Thoroughbred horse, Lukas. Check out this link.
PPS. The above photo is of 3 yo Tucker, the stud colt I started over the months of May/June. He's gone home now but since he inspired a prior posting I thought he deserved an appearance. Is he a cutie patootie or what? Love that little guy...