My secret weapon

Lots of rain and mud means I’ve only managed to say hello to my girls at feeding time. On nicer days I’ll visit, groom and massage. Actual riding is a distant memory. Ha! So posts have been thin at best as I await the inspiration of spring and more riding exploits! Something interesting did come up recently in conversation, though, that I thought I would share.

The topic was what I call my “secret weapon”. Do you want to know the secret to getting along with pretty much every horse? It isn’t a very secret secret since it is available to anyone for the asking. But, still, few horsefolk seem to know about it.

Now, while I did come upon this secret weapon by way of clicker training it isn’t about ‘clicker training’ per se. There are non-clicker trainers out there who apparently know the secret. People like Harry Whitney and Mark Rashid come to mind. But these are, it would appear, rare souls who somehow just get it. The rest of us, mortal folk, need more help. Enter clicker training to open the door to the secret weapon.

It sounds a little ‘new agey’ to say it. But, it is true that you get more of what you focus on. So, here’s Part A of the secret: Always, always, always reward the behavior you want. Part B is to reward the teeniest, tiniest particle of that behavior the instant it occurs and then nurture it from there. Part C is, while all that is going on you Ignore what you don’t want.

Perhaps you are thinking, what? Should I just let the horse walk over me? If that is what you were thinking, that’s not what ignoring means. And therein lies the trouble with understanding this secret weapon! I will try to explain.

It isn’t about letting bad things happen. Ignoring means not allowing a behavior to get reinforced. It is about staying focused on what you want, even as you deal with the other stuff. And, sometimes you are going to have to deal with unwanted stuff. It is about not getting drawn into the drama of the negative. So, yes, you will position yourself to redirect those things that are unwanted, but, always toward the very clear picture in your mind of what you do want.

This is the reason why having that clear picture and focus are so important. When you are focused on what you want to happen, you will see those things starting to happen and your timing of reinforcements will be optimal. If you are busy with the drama you miss opportunities. You’re late! A good horseman is never late because he sees the thing that happens before the thing that happens happens!

Training is a bit like weaving a tapestry and at any moment you need to be able to see (in your mind’s eye) where any given thread (good or bad) is leading. One always must start with that clear picture or else the result will just be a mess. I am talking about horses here–although it would be true of tapestries as well!

To be most successful with this principle you need to recognize when what you want is starting to happen (possibly at a cellular or energy level) so that you can help it flourish with guidance and support. Read that (guidance and support) as some kind of reinforcement which doesn’t have to be food. Sometimes the most powerful reinforcer for a horse is you to go with him.

Important note: If you go with undesired behavior you reinforce it. And this is the main reason why undesired behavior continues. It is being rewarded!

In order to take advantage of a certain shift of weight or a glance that might lead somewhere positive one must be watching for said shifts or glances. This takes “eye training.” Most of us start out not realizing how small a tiny thing actually counts. Quite frequently the problem with our horse training is that we miss the first signs. If we miss the first signs then the horse is left certain that this human isn’t listening and either acts out or shuts down. Which one do you have?

Once you start to observe and correlate tiny changes to bigger changes down the road you can select out certain ones and shape them up into the longer term behavior that you want.

It wasn’t until I started clicker training that I began to see how this might apply to everything I do with horses. Before clicker training I could only be in awe of someone like Harry who’s ability seemed mysterious and unknowable. Now, I can now see that he always sets the horse up for success, always stays focused on what he wants and ensures that only the things he wants get reinforced. All the stuff that clicker training taught me.

4 Comments

  1. Super post Sharon. I don’t know how many times I’ve told people to not get caught up in my TB’s drama. Some of the phrases I find myself repeating are as follows: “If you let the horse determine the energy level of the interaction, you get nowhere in a hurry.” “High energy retaliation to threats of aggression will only worsen matters.” “The party with the biggest brain is responsible for setting the tone! Don’t get suckered into a fight you can’t win!”

  2. “When you are focused on what you want to happen, you will see those things starting to happen and your timing of reinforcements will be optimal.”

    Great post Sharon!

    Clicker training is good for horses. However, it’s really good for people! Having to mark what we want is a great way to improve timing and observational skills–both of which improve our ability to communication with our horses.

    One thing I love about clicker training is it really helps improve timing and helps me look for those little tries.

    Mary

  3. To My Niece Sharon…I remember when we were children and how focused you were even at age 6 and 7 on horses…you Had Horses in your blood , you have found a wonderful way to share that Passion with others…I am very Proud and Happy for you..
    With Love
    Auntie Linda

    • Thank you, Auntie, for the kind words!

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