“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?”