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Training Thoughts

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February 8, 2004



I have been thinking a lot about my horsemanship and how I train my horses this week. A lot of this thought has been triggered by some casual

 remarks by some friends.


A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend of mine that Nancy and I are starting to teach a couple of our horses using clicker training. She replied, "Oh, I thought you did that Parelli thing." This comment kind of caught me by surprise. Yes, we did study in Parelli's program several years ago, but we have also been studying and riding with other instructors. We have learned that no one program or philosophy fits all of our horsemanship needs. We have taken good things from all programs, and discarded what doesn't work for us. For example, from Dave Seay we learned that horses push each other and don't pull on each other, so it's more natural to push a horse than trying to pull him. However, Dave's main focus on training a horse is disengaging the hindquarters. While that is valuable, it's not the only way to start a horse.


Clicker training has become a tool in our toolboxes. Ever since we have started in our horsemanship journey, we have been told, "It's the release that teaches." We apply some sort of pressure, whether it's swinging a rope, or a small leg aid, and we stop the stimulus when the horse does what we want. The horse learns how to get us to stop applying pressure. This is called negative reinforcement. On the other hand, clicker training is positive reinforcement. We ask the horse to perform a task, and he gets a reward (usually a treat) when he accomplishes the task. This is a whole different mind set in how to teach a horse. I am having a lot of fun teaching Hoss to do things like pick up a milk jug and hand it to me. The most important thing, though, is that Hoss now sees me as a lot more fun than I used to be. This doesn't mean I have abandoned "It's the release that teaches." I just have a new way to communicate with and teach my horses.


Then, last week, one my readers asked me, "Are you a trainer?" Again, I was surprised by the question. I think that anyone who deals with horses is a trainer. From the moment you step into the barn, stall, paddock, or pasture you are training your horse. When you put his halter on, you are teaching your horse what is a proper way to behave. If you allow him to toss his head around while you put the halter on, and never try to change the behavior, you're teaching him it's OK to toss his head. If he stands still while you groom him, and your brushing feels good, you are teaching him that standing still is a good thing. If your horse walks off as you are mounting him, you are teaching him it's OK to run away with you. Every moment is an opportunity to teach or train. So, while I don't train other people's horses for money, I am a trainer. And, if you have a horse, you're a trainer, too. It's just a matter of how aware you are of it.


The third comment that caught me up short was "What are you doing to train Hoss?" My short and glib answer is, "Whatever works." When I started with PNH, I thought I had to play the "Seven Games" every time I was with my horses. It was a set of procedures that I used to train my horse. However, what was really going on was that I was getting trained. I was developing a set of techniques and skills that I could use when I started to begin to get ready to prepare myself to understand horses. When I started looking at the horse and asking him what he needs to know to accomplish a task, my real education began.


Note that I don't claim to understand horses. While I have learned a lot over the last few years, I am still just beginning to learn.


A few years ago, Nancy and I attended Mark Rashid's Horse Gathering in Estes Park. After one session, Mark and another clinician, Harry Whitney, were sitting on their horses in the arena answering questions from the audience. One after another, audience members approached the mic and said, "How do get my horse to...", or "What do I do when my horse...", or some other variation of asking how to fix a specific problem. Almost every time, Mark or Harry would start their response with, "Well, it depends..." They would pick a likely scenario and explain that, but they never gave a straight answer to the questioner. No one got a definite answer. I could feel that some people were getting frustrated with not receiving and concrete answers, but a light bulb went on in my head. The real answer is to any horse question is "It depends..." There is no one technique that always works. Each horse is different and is in a different place each different time you are dealing with him. It was at that moment that I think I really understood the need to listen to my horse, and change what I do to fit the situation. So, when someone asks how I am training Hoss, all I can say is that I use every tool I know at the time I think it's appropriate. Did you think you would get a straight answer out of me? Well, it depends...


Since I have been thinking about these issues recently, I have really been aware about what I do and how I behave around my horses. My lesson for this afternoon made me realize how much I draw from all of my instructors when I am with my horses.


I was not riding or "training" this afternoon. I was just puttering around with some outdoor tasks. When I stepped out into the pasture, I saw one of the Canadian-cross PMU mares being pushed around by the permanent residents, specifically, Antonio, Hoss, and Cody. This mare is one of the five PMU mares who are still here on our property waiting to go to their new homes. She has been "voted off the island" by the other visiting mares. They push her around so much that we took her out of their paddock and just put her in with the "general population," i.e. our permanent residents, out in the pasture. Antonio, Hoss, and Cody were not being mean to her, but they were definitely pushing her, even if it was just at a walk.  I thought I would give the mare a break, and I stepped in between her and the three amigos, and told them to stop chasing her. Because I have the respect of even these top three guys in the herd, it didn't take much. Just a look that meant business, and a step or two toward them was all that was needed. Thanks, Pat Parelli, for teaching me about herd dynamics. Thanks, Dave Seay, for showing me the importance of pushing in horse language.


The cool thing is that the mare started following me. I was carrying some boards and other debris out of the pasture and putting it away behind a fence where the horses couldn't step on it and get hurt. It took me several trips back and forth, and the mare was right with me. I had to shoo the three amigos away a couple of times, but they eventually lost interest and went away. I started on a project in one of the stalls, and she followed me right in there and stayed pretty close, even though I was hammering and drilling and making other noises. I think she thought she had found a leader that she could trust, and wasn't going to push her around too much.


Then, I made a mistake. It was time to feed, and I needed to take the mare to the pen we feed her in. I grabbed the first halter I saw, which was a nylon web halter. I just walked up to the mare and started to put it on her. I had forgotten that she really hasn't been handled much, and the clinking of the metal parts of the halter startled her. After that, she didn't want to be caught. Because I did not pay attention and pushed her too hard, she lost some trust in me.


I exchanged the web halter for a rope halter. Again, I went too fast, and I startled her, and she started moving away from me. I used Parelli's "catch me" game to get her to face up by applying pressure when she went away and taking it off when she faced me. Thanks, Mark Rashid, for showing me how to really look at a horse and trying to figure out what she needs. When I finally could approach her, she would not let me put the halter on, although dropping the lead rope around her neck was not problem. At this point, I changed strategies, and just used the halter as a loop to put the tail of the rope through. As a result, I had a rope around her neck, and I was able to lead her to her pen. I changed the way I used the tool to fit the situation. Once in her pen, I slowly put the halter on, then took it off again and walked away. Next time won't be so hard.


On a normal afternoon, I wouldn't have given much thought my interactions with these horses, but since I had been thinking about what I have learned from which teachers and the nature of training, each of these little incidents with this mare seemed to have more importance today.









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