Of course we all think we are open minded, right? At least I love to think that I am open to new approaches and ideas. But when it comes to horse training I noticed that it can be a real challenge to keep the mind open. One of the challenges I took on a few years ago was to make reward-based training my only training method.
Turning a “whoa-horse” into a “go-horse”
When I started Kyra on long reins and under saddle I noticed that she was more of a “whoa-horse” than a “go horse”. The only time when she was very forward was when she was in ‘flight mode’. Not really a preferable state of mind to work with.
It was really difficult for me to find ways to activate a slow, calm horse with rewards only. The challenge was to let her decide to ‘go’ voluntarily. That is after all the whole idea behind clicker training.
Before Kyra I worked with some Lusitano horses and they had way more “go” than “whoa”. Something I could easily handle. I had no experience with clicker training horses that where not motivated to go by themselves.
I noticed that my default reaction was to apply pressure if I ran out of ideas to entice a horse to go forward. “Use your whip, the horse has to listen,” said one voice in my head. The voice of my heart said: “She is doing all this voluntarily now and that is really precious to me, but I do want to trot some day…”. What to do?
I decided to stick to positive reinforcement only. I had to become very creative. No one else I knew could help me tackle this problem. I am glad there is internet now and a lot of very experienced positive reinforcement horse trainers want to share their valuable knowledge. Combining the gleaned knowledge from internet and some of my own ingenuity I made a plan. The required time-frame was still a mystery however.
When I started Kyra under saddle I hadn’t realized that I had ‘cantering multiple tracks around the arena’ as a goal. It seemed so obvious that she would be doing that within two or three months after starting, right. That was a ‘norm’ I grew up with.
I was lucky to have some knowledgeable horse people around who assured me that she would offer ‘canter’ to me the day she was ready. That was a hard thought to digest, she cantered at liberty, why not under saddle? Other horses that got started could do it in 4 – 6 weeks. Did I really had to wait until she offered it, so I could click and reward it? When would that be?
It was difficult to trust the theory of this science based training because I felt there were no guarantees for me to get results. I had to open my mind and start trying things I had never done before. I didn’t have any experience yet with activating a slow horse with rewards. The fact that a few other clicker trainers on the internet got wonderful results with this kept me going and the theory behind the science gave me a little confidence too.
A long road
I must say it was a really long process to teach Kyra to trot even for a few minutes, but we accomplished it. She also now wants to canter multiple circles in one go in the arena under saddle, which I am really enjoying.
I think the road I took was way longer than the road of negative reinforcement would have been, where the results can be instant. But in my heart I am convinced that this longer road has been much more comfortable to travel for Kyra. After all it is not about the goal, it’s about the road to the goal that is much more important. I also know that the experience I have now will be very helpful in the future.
So many temptations
I was tempted many times to go back to my default behaviours (pressure and release and sometimes even -just out of frustration- to use a whip or a similar device to make Kyra go). A lot of times this tendency came up more than once in a session and it was hard to resist, because I knew I could ‘teach’ her to go with pressure. Instant results are always tempting.
At the same time I was very scared that it would compromise our good relationship and the trust bond we built over the years. So every time I ‘hit the wall’ and became frustrated because I had the feeling I lacked training tools, I just stopped training.
I would go home and search the net for new ideas and I would read my training journals which encouraged me to stay on the chosen road. I have stopped a lot of training sessions over the years to prevent my frustration from taking over. Kyra ‘has won’ so many times. Just kidding, I don’t believe that nonsense. We are on the same team, so we win together or lose together. I prefer to win together.
Letting go of the desire of instant results
It was hard to open my mind and try a completely different approach like using a target or teaching Kyra to stand on a mat and then let her go from mat to mat in order to get her moving. The hardest part was to let go of the immediate results (“whip and go”) and focus on the tiny steps, the building blocks, that would lead to the end behaviour. To trust that the positive reinforcement training method would reach the same result.
It was difficult to keep the faith that once Kyra could walk slowly from mat to mat, she would want to canter from mat to mat. I didn’t have any experience with these training tools in this situation to rely on. I could see the theory that a behavior consists out of little building blocks and that you can train them one block at a time to get to the end result. I had experienced this in a lot of other behaviours I taught Kyra over the years. That knowledge kept me keep going and gave me the patience needed to accomplish trotting for a minute or cantering a circle in the future. And I did!
My biggest challenge
Giving Kyra the stamina to trot and canter under saddle is one of my biggest challenges. I think because training stamina under saddle is an ongoing challenge and the behaviour is never ‘done’. When I could canter three strides, I wanted to ride a whole circle and then two. Now I am training the canter for minutes instead of seconds or strides, like I did in the beginning.
I hope I can inspire the passionate horse lovers to stay on the road of clicker training and to enjoy the ride. Even in rough times. Maybe it takes longer but the view is much, much better!
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