I wrote this article in 1998. It appeared that year in the New England Dressage Association’s annual “Salute” publication. It is interesting to read it back 11 years later. Although I’ve grown a lot in those years the core message remains true. I would only make one change. Looking back on 16 years with Tulsa, I realize that it is she who is the teacher and I the humble student.
How many times have we heard that there is so much to learn about dressage it would take a life time (or several!) to learn it all? Lots and it’s true! There is so much to learn that it is almost overwhelming at times. We keep going-or I do anyway!-because it is such a rush to finally “get” some small piece of the puzzle.
It is tempting to think that since there is so much to learn that going “outside the box” of traditional dressage training is a waste of precious time. However, in my personal experience the opposite has been true. Some of my most valued “ah-ha!” moments came as the result of connections I made from non-dressage experiences.
A Frustrating Start
When I got my mare, Tulsa who is now nine, as a four year old I thought I could ride. Well, I could ride, but count on a youngster to show you just how much you don’t know about training! I knew I would need help in bringing her along, and I was getting help, but a year or so into it I hit a wall and had a “major meltdown.” What ever happened to riding being fun?
Things just weren’t going well and I didn’t understand why. I was frustrated and so was Tulsa-who made her feelings known with a lot of resistance maneuvers including refusing to go to the right, head tossing, stiffness, rearing, spinning, and so on. Yikes! I nearly quit, but I couldn’t because I adored Tulsa’s (normally!!) sweet nature and, besides, I refused to quit a loser.
Around that time a good friend of mine and I decided to teach our horses the Spanish Walk. Yes, I know a lot of people might object to this exercise. However, for me, it was a very enlightening experience. I learned, for example, just how long it took Tulsa to process and learn one new thing and it made me a little more sympathetic to the learning process. I mention this now because it will become relevant a little later.
Dogs, dolphins and horses?
About the same time my friend and I discovered clicker training-a training approach that is taking the dog world by storm. As soon as I heard about it, I recognized that this was Something Really Important. We both had dogs we were training, we didn’t hesitate to jump in and neither of us has looked back since.
So what does dog training have to do with horse training, especially dressage, you ask? More than you might think. Bear with me on this! First, let me tell you a little bit about clicker training.
The first piece I read on clicker training was a short booklet written by Karen Pryor called “A Dog and a Dolphin.” That name hints at the fact that clicker training has its origins in dolphin training. Ever wonder how they get dolphins to do what they do? It is especially fascinating when you consider they can’t touch them or correct them. They do it using the same principles as clicker training: only they use a whistle and a fish-okay lots of fish!
Here is how it works. Lets say you want the dolphin to jump through a hoop. You start with the hoop in the water. The dolphin has no idea what you want but happens to swim by the hoop. You reward the dolphin with fish for swimming near the hoop which encourages the dolphin-he being no fool-to swim near the hoop a lot! During one of those passes the dolphin happens to swim through the hoop. This is rewarded with extra fish.
Now if you have been paying attention you might be wondering how it is the dolphin knows what he did to get the fish. This is where the whistle comes in. The dolphin trainer first conditioned the dolphin to connect the sound of the whistle with the appearance of the fish. The dolphin hears the whistle and knows that a fish is coming. Establishing “Whistle Equals Fish” is step one.
The next step is to teach the dolphin The Training Game. This is where the dolphin learns that he can make the trainer give him fish by doing things. Whenever the dolphin hears the whistle he takes note of what he was doing when he heard it. He soon discovers (and it really only takes minutes) that he can repeat whatever he was doing when he heard the whistle to get more fish.
So, in the hoop example, when the dolphin swam through the hoop the trainer whistled “marking” the behavior of going through the hoop as one that will earn fish. Since that behavior is the one rewarded the dolphin concentrates on going through the hoop. Little by little the hoop is raised out of the water until the dolphin is jumping through it many feet in the air. This is called shaping behavior.
Training dogs is basically the same only we use a clicker to mark behavior instead of a whistle (though any easily recognizable signal will do) and liver treats or a ball instead of fish. Using this approach my friend and I taught our dogs all kinds of things in a way that made learning fun for both human and dog.
To fully understand clicker training I had to delve pretty deep into the science and laws of reinforcement, behavior modification and learning. What might appear hokey and strange upon first examination becomes clear once you understand the principles being worked. I also discovered the successful clicker trainer has excellent timing (to click at just the right moment), is sensitive to how the animal is responding and has an eye for catching the behavior for which she is looking even if it is in a very rudimentary form. The clicker trainers creed is “Reward the Behavior You Want.”
I’m getting to horses–really!
An interesting thing happens in this form of training which is encouraged-as opposed to discouraged in other forms-and that is the dog learns to try different behaviors to see which one you want. Over time this subsides as various behaviors come under strong stimulus control, i.e. they are on cue and never offered without being asked. However, in the beginning you want the dog to offer behavior because if you can get the behavior you can reinforce it and if you can reinforce it you can get it again. And so it goes.
Okay, now we get back to horses.
One day about a year into the clicker training with the dogs, I was riding Tulsa and “out of the blue” she offered the Spanish Walk I had taught her months before. It really wasn’t right out of the blue because I’d been asking her to do something similar to the preparation to Spanish Walk. But, right at that moment it all hit me. The reason that Tulsa offered the Spanish Walk was because she was guessing. In other words, she had no idea what I wanted and offered her best guess-from things that had been rewarded before.
Suddenly all the clicker training I’d done with the dogs made me understand why I was having so much trouble with Tulsa. When I trained the dogs I was clear, precise and consistent. Tulsa deserved the same but I realized that day she wasn’t getting it. I felt really bad!! But, once I accepted that fact a couple things happened. One is a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t need to be tense and frustrated, I just needed to go step by step, be clear and reward the behavior I wanted. DUH. Just like I did with the dogs. The second thing that happened was, voila and duh again, Tulsa immediately started getting better.
When I changed my attitude from seeing my horse as “evading” or “resisting” or “being stubborn” or “difficult” to seeing her as “struggling with a concept” I couldn’t be mad or even frustrated. It would be like being angry with a child because learning fractions is difficult. They make mistakes, they try the wrong thing, they get upset because they are confused and frustrated. I finally saw Tulsa for what she was, my student. As a teacher, there is no place for lack of emotional control!
Ah, but there is more!
Right about the same time as this I stumbled upon the work of such extraordinary horsemen as Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Harry Whitney and others. Nope, these are not dressage folk. However, most of what I now know about horsemanship, feel, timing, balance and how to train a horse came from these guys. Plus, everything I had learned in clicker training was coming true again: break the problem down into small steps and reward the behavior you want. For some reason, these fundamental skills were skipped over in the strictly dressage training that I’d experienced.
A lot of dressage people look down on these “western guys” with the assumption that they couldn’t possibly understand our dressage requirements and therefore there is no value in studying what they have to say. This is, in my very humble opinion, an extremely narrow minded viewpoint. I’ve observed many dressage riders who are flailing and frustrated because they clearly don’t know what these cowboys know: how to make it clear to the horse what the heck you want!
The reaction to clicker training is usually the same, i.e. clicker training has nothing to do with classical dressage. My response is anything that helps someone understand the value of timing, clarity, consistency and reinforcement has everything to do with classical dressage principles. The principles of training are the principles of training and you can learn them from many sources. In fact, learning them outside the context of dressage is actually beneficial because you can focus on them without being distracted by what you think you are “supposed” to be accomplishing.
Once I understood basic training principles I was able to look at the classical methods with a fresh eye and really understand why certain things continue to be passed on and work so well. They work because they follow the laws of behavior and learning. Although we have only come to really understand those laws over the last 50 years or so, they have been in effect forever. Who knows this guy?
“This rule can be stated in few words, but is applies to the whole art of horsemanship. He will receive the bit, for example, more willingly if something good happens to him as soon as he takes it. He will also leap over and jump out of anything, and perform all his actions duly if he can expect a rest as soon as he has done what is required of him.” –Xenophon.
See, it all comes around to the same thing!!
In my experience, in order to be able to make the right changes in a horse I needed to understand how to elicit any change. Clicker training taught me about how to influence behavior and the principles of learning that apply to all animals including horses. It taught me about the critical importance of clarity and consistency, also about setting realistic expectations. The horsemanship studies taught me about pressure and release, position, timing, and feel as they relate specifically to horses. Through these pursuits I feel I’ve gained a much clearer understanding of classical training principles.
Dressage is still way hard! Developing the feel for throughness and straightness is a lifetime endeavor. But, now I feel like I have a handle of some of the pieces that make it possible for me to progress further. Tulsa kind of made it necessary for me to explore these side roads. Now that I have, I can only say, take the scenic route! It definitely makes the trip interesting, more enjoyable, and ultimately may turn out to be the shorter route.