Much of my appreciation for classical dressage training comes from my lessons with Karl Mikolka. One of the (many) things I remember him saying (probably while my horse was having a fit) was, “the horse is allowed to say NO!” I’m not saying that fits are desirable! Of course, what we’d prefer is a resounding YES. But if you want to be more than ‘just’ a rider you need to be willing to listen to the horse and if he says No then you need to accept responsibility for that feedback. Then you need to ask yourself, What’s it gonna take to get a Yes?

What got me thinking about this topic today was reading Mary Hunter’s blog post about her encounter with Steve Martin (the bird trainer!) at the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. I love hearing about how people are successfully using positive reinforcement with all manner of species. Especially species that can just fly away so you’d better be right on the money with your training philosophy. It is a real inspiration to learn that good training practices are Universal.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise (more of a validation) to read that Steve had made the very same point as Karl did:

“A good trainer is able to give the animal power over their environment. This builds confidence and trust. We can do this by taking responsibility for what the animal does and giving the animal the right to say no. When things go wrong, it can be really, really easy to blame it on the animal. The animal is being stubborn, hard-headed, a jerk, pushing your buttons, messing with your mind, trying to annoy you, the list of labels goes on and on.”

It is up to US to take ownership of the situation, to make the right things easy and obvious and convince the horse that he can say — even better wants to say — Yes.

Why do No’s happen? Even if we’re trying hard not to, we’ll sometimes frustrate or block the horse in some way to cause the horse to put up that red flag. But, as Steve points out these little failings don’t need to be a deal breaker if you have built up sufficient reinforcement history. He calls it the Trust Account. Each time the horse needs to say No you are withdrawing from that Trust Account. Hopefully, your training strategy is based on keeping a very large cushion of trust so that those occasions don’t break the bank, as it were.

Check out Mary’s blog where she also has several write-ups from her experiences at both the 2009 and 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conferences. All worthwhile reading.

Then ask yourself, what is my horse saying about your training relationship?