My ponies were my best friends as a child, they protected me, took me on adventures, stood solemnly whilst I cried, and cheered me up when I was down. But I knew nothing other than the traditional methods; the bits, metal shoes, whips, pony-club kicks, and “showing the pony who is boss”. Looking back I wish I had known another way. And then I found Mr. Roberts, the amazing “Horse Whisperer”.
I was mesmerized by the work of Monty Roberts and his wild mustangs. I’d always wanted to have a special ability to connect with horses and to me, this man had it all. The idea that you could take a wild rogue, and turn it into a pliable friend without using any violence was music to my ears.
I grew up an avid follower of his work, devouring every book I could find, seeing him on tour, and even attending some of his courses in the UK under Kelly Marks’ tuition. To me, this was the best way to be around horses. Riding lessons became awkward; I felt I was bullying these poor school horses who worked tirelessly carrying ignorant and rough riders. I wished for quiet. I wanted my horse to feel my intent without the movement of a rein or a kick in the side. I spent time working on my position before admitting defeat with the riding school and giving up riding altogether. The traditional methods still play such a huge part in modern riding, and I no longer wanted to be a part of it.
For years, I worked my rescue ponies in round pens, using dually halters, and following the intelligent horsemanship methods as best I could. I wholeheartedly believed it was THE ONLY WAY to be with horses.
Then suddenly, a shift occurred. I began to look at other great equine teachers; Klaus Hempfling, Nevzorov, Ruella Yates, All working at liberty with their horses, with rarely a headcollar or longline in sight. I remember thinking, “How do they do it?”. It opened my eyes to other possibilities, to a different ‘way’ of being with horses.
Learning new methods is very similar to learning a new language. You really have to be fluent at it to do any real good. Knowing only a handful of key phrases can often be akin to sending an untrained plumber to fix a broken tap; he has all the right tools, but no idea how to use them. The problem will often get bigger, until he either learns how to use his tools effectively, or gets an expert in to help.
Somewhere along the line of working with one of my rescue horses, I came across “Clicker Training”. Something I have always brushed off in the past, assuming it was whimsical nonsense with no place in the equine world. I mean, after all, I knew the ‘best way’ to work with horses, and it certainly didn’t involve treats.
But this time, I paid attention. I don’t remember why, but I took real note. A local demonstration was coming up and I wanted to attend with some background knowledge of the techniques and science behind it. I did what most people would do at first; I looked it up on YouTube. What I found was astonishing. Thousands of videos showing good and bad examples of how clicker training can get results with equines. I was intrigued. I spent time reading about the basics and how to start, and spent hours pouring over videos. Then I bought a clicker!
I ordered a book about the science behind this new method, to educate myself fully on how to use this new “tool”.
Foolishly, I taught one of my horses her first trick. To “look away”. When I pointed my finger, she moved her head and neck away, I clicked, and rewarded. This was my first mistake! As I learned later on, the first things you teach with a clicker are often the strongest, and so now I have a horse with a seemingly crooked neck. She likes to “look away” pretty much constantly.
Thankfully, clicker training still encompasses horse behavior and learning, and therefore I haven’t had to dismiss everything I have spent years learning and practicing in other methods. But I really am enjoying working with my horses at liberty and watching them thrive and learn. So far, I haven’t created a gang of biting horses either – another common misconception.
So, clicker training, what’s the big deal? I shall let you know!
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