Alexandra teaches clicker training geared to any horse need or sport-including developing a gentle and companionable riding horse, halter training foals, training advanced performance horses, and reforming difficult and unmanageable horses.
I’m beginning this post on October 27. Who knows when I will actually get it done and published, but the beginning date is important. All year I have been writing thank yous to the many people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse community.
Obviously I can’t thank each and every person. There are too many of you, and I would be bound to forget someone. I would hate to create a long list and then hurt someone’s feelings through an omission of error. So I will send out a general, and most heartfelt thank you to everyone who has given clicker training a try, found it to your liking, and made it part of your life.
I have chosen October 27 to begin this post because it marks two special events. On October 27, 1968 I became a horse owner for the very first time. Since that day I have never been without a horse in my life. And on October 27, 1998 I received a package in the mail. It was an advance copy of my book, “Clicker Training for your Horse”, sent to me by my publisher, Sunshine Books, Karen Pryor’s company.
So I’m going to say thank you to my first horse because in so many ways he transformed me from a rider into a trainer. I didn’t know at the time all the good things he would be bringing me. When we first started out together, it was anything but good. He was a totally unsuitable horse for a child, but I never said anything to my parents. I was afraid if they knew how dangerous he was, they might send him back to his previous owner, and that would be the end of having my own horse.
I met his previous owner only once, on the day I tried the horse he was selling. He was a large, overweight man. He probably weighed over two hundred pounds. He rode in a western bit with a long shank so when he pulled back he could exert a tremendous amount of force. He liked to go trail riding – at speed. He was one of those riders who got on and took off at a gallop and didn’t stop until he was back home.
So it was no wonder that the first time I rode my new horse out of a ring he took off at a gallop. I’d only had him two days. I had been riding in a small ring just outside the barn. For some reason that made sense to her, the owner of the boarding barn told me to take him out of the ring. Since he was there for a week’s trial, maybe she thought I should be doing more with him.
“You need to ride him out in the field” she declared. I listened. I took him out into a hay field that had an oval track cut into the grass. At the far end of the track he took off at a gallop.
I was no match for him. There was no way I could pull back with the force of his previous owner. I tried to stop him but my feeble attempts made no dent in his determination to get back to the barn. I’d been told when you want to stop a horse you pull back. That’s what I was doing, but it had no effect. As we galloped across the hay field, I remember shouting at him – “You’re supposed to have stopped by now!” I really did! It made no difference.
He didn’t stop until he was back inside the barn standing in his stall – which thankfully was on a straight line in from the barn door. It was feeding time, so of course he wanted to get back, and I couldn’t stop him.
I lost track of the number of times he bolted with me after that. His favorite and most terrifying “trick” was to run straight at a tree and only at the last second to duck to the side. Sometimes I managed to stay on. Often I fell off, but I always got back on and kept trying to stop him. We eventually worked out a truce, and we were able to ride together at a pace that was more to my liking. He was wonderfully sure footed so trail riding was fun. He was one of those horses that you pointed in the general direction of where you wanted to go and then let him find the best way. He was fearless riding out. I don’t remember him ever spooking at anything. It was just the bolting for home that was unnerving.
I can’t tell you how many times I got so frustrated with him that I almost gave up. Almost, but never totally. I don’t really know what finally made the difference. I think it was simply that we gradually built a relationship. He never showed much affection, and he was a hard horse to love. I don’t think he expected people to be kind so he kept his true self very much hidden. Now that I have seen how expressive horses can be, the contrast seems all the greater.
In the spring of my last year of high school he became lame. It was one of those subtle, on-again-off-again lamenesses. The vet diagnosed him with navicular disease. Today we would say he had heel pain, and we would change the way he was trimmed. But at that time changes in the navicular bone meant a diagnosis of permanent lameness. I was delighted. It meant that I wouldn’t have to sell my horse when I went away to school. You couldn’t ethically sell a lame horse, so all through my years at Cornell I supported my horse.
I couldn’t take him to school with me, nor could he stay at the boarding barn without anyone to look after him, so he went to live with a family who had room for another horse. I was lucky to find him such a good home. He lived in retirement with them for seventeen years. He finally passed away at the grand old age of 33.
I’ve never followed norms. It’s the norm in the horse world to discard horses that are too lame or too old to ride. This has always bothered me. We have a responsibility to see to our horses’ lifelong care. I feel as though I have earned the right to stand on the soap box that says people need to take care of their older horses. As a student at Cornell, my budget was already tight. Stretching it to cover my horse’s expenses made it tighter still. I’m sure there would have been many people who would have sent him off to an auction and been done with him, but every month I wrote out a check to cover his expenses. And every time I was home, I went up to visit him.
He was becoming so much more affectionate. It was as though I had been a bridge between his old life and this new one. We had struggled together. When he bolted off with me, the adults at the boarding barn told me I needed to get after him, to punish him.
He had scared me. When he came to a stop after one of his flat-out gallops, hitting him with the ends of my western reins was easy. It changed nothing. He kept bolting, but in the moment it did feel good. Oh that slippery slope called punishment – it can be so reinforcing to the punisher. Somehow I recognized that and managed to stop. Punishing him wasn’t the answer. Persistence was. And now that he was in a quiet place being cared for by kind people, he was becoming trusting enough to show affection.
But I thought I was done with horses. I know – that’s a surprise considering how completely they have been in my life. He had not been an easy or fun horse to own. I was heading off in a different direction, one that didn’t include horses. But shortly after graduation, I got a call from the person who was caring for him. He was showing signs of heaves, and she wanted to let me know. I’d heard of heaves. I knew vaguely what that meant, but I needed to know more. So I got a book from the library on horses. I read the short section that described heaves and then kept on reading. That was my undoing.
When I started reading the chapter on raising foals, I thought I could do that. By the time I had turned the final page I had switched from I could do that to I want to do that. The overwhelming addiction to horses was reawakened. I could think of nothing else. But I didn’t jump in right away. I read everything I could get my hands on about horses, and I began taking lessons – English lessons from a very skilled horseman. And I began to search for my foal. I was going to have a horse I raised myself. Only I wasn’t going to use all those harsh techniques that surrounded me in the horse world.
I was taking lessons at a hunter/jumper barn. The instructor bought cheap thoroughbreds off the track and put them into his lesson string. He was one of those riders who could get on an agitated horse and in minutes have it settled. He couldn’t teach what he he did, but it was impressive to watch. He had no physical fear on a horse, and he didn’t understand that anyone else might. He thought that he needed to get people jumping as quickly as possible or they would get bored and go away. Mostly that meant people got injured and went away.
I wasn’t yet balance obsessed, but I knew enough to know that I wasn’t ready to jump. I took charge of my lessons. I insisted on working primarily on the flat. I thought it was more important to learn how to get to a jump in good balance than it was to go over it. I jumped in the weekly group lessons, but in the private lessons I added in I took charge of what we worked on. It helped that I had ridden before and had my own horse. I asked endless questions. He wasn’t used to this kind of riding student, but it meant I was learning what I needed. I had to be ready for the foal I was going to raise. Of course, he tried to talk me out of starting with a baby. I heard all about green on green, but I was determined. The hunt was on!
I was still supporting my first horse. Adding a second horse was going to stretch my budget even tighter. When I found her, my beautiful thoroughbred yearling, I wasn’t sure if I could really afford her. I kept going over the numbers. If I gave up this, if I cut back on that, could I stretch things enough to get her? No matter how many times I tried to balance my budget, the numbers kept coming up short. But I had to get her. When I finally said yes, it was a real leap of faith that things would work out. And somehow they did.
I get often get emails from people saying they are on a tight budget. I totally understand. I remember when videos first came out being really excited. Here was a way to expand my knowledge even more. The very first video I ever bought cost $89. That was a huge stretch of the budget for me. The video was a disappointment. It was a simplistic overview that had no depth to it. It was something you watched once and never needed to see again. What a waste of precious dollars.
That’s why I have always been determined to pack as much as I can into all the books and videos I have produced. They contain layer upon layer of information. You can return to them many times and always find new things in them. I want to give good value for money. If you are on a tight budget, I still want you to be able to access good information. And I want you to have an alternative to the force-based training that is so prevalent in the horse world.
In those early days the books I was reading didn’t help me to know how to train. If anything, they taught me more about what NOT to do. They were filled with advice on how to be a better punisher. That wasn’t what I was looking for.
I had already had my first great teacher – my first horse. I began by learning from him what I didn’t want. In the years to come I was going to have many more lessons in patience and persistence. I moved from knowing what I didn’t want to breaking lessons down into very small steps. I learned about consistency and focus. I learned to choose kindness over force. My horses prepared me well so that when I finally stumbled across clicker training, it made perfect sense to me. It was a good fit. I was ready for Peregrine to teach me about this new way of training.
In this year of celebration I have thanked many people, but on this day I am thanking my horses. It truly is my horses, my teachers. I am so very grateful to them. They have carried me across many stepping stones to what I have today – a deep and loving connection with my horses. And I am delighted to be able to share what they have been teaching me with all of you. We don’t have to listen to the people who are telling us to get tougher. Our horses are showing us a different way, a way they understand and want us to know about.
It was bound to happen. At the start of this year I said every month this year I was going to use this blog to write a thank you to some of the many people who helped bring clicker training into the horse community. This is my way of marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for Your Horse”. Sometimes it was just by a whisker, but I managed to get this done every month – except August. I will blame the extreme heat that slowed me down to a snail’s pace.
I can’t blame my travel schedule because I travel every month. August was no exception. I was out in Washington State at Ken Ramirez’s Ranch for his “Animal Training for Professionals” course. For twenty years he taught this as a semester long course at the University of Illinois. He also taught a concentrated week-long version of the course at the Shedd Aquarium. Most of the time is spent in the classroom but twice a day students get to have some animal time. For the week-long course at the Shedd attendees got to watch the trainers working with animals. At the Ranch attendees get hands-on experience working with goats, miniature donkeys and alpacas.
Ken Ramirez with his alpacas
For this course I got to be Ken’s assistant which was a great fun, especially since most of the training sessions involved his herd of dairy goats. I enjoyed very much seeing what Ken was teaching his herd of clicker-trained goats – what was a match up with what I was teaching my goats and what were some good ideas to take back to them? It was also very interesting to see how Ken structured the course. What did he put in his foundation? What stair steps did he use to take people into the more advanced aspects of training?
On the third day Ken focused on husbandry, especially as it relates to medical care. He is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject. Both at the Shedd and through his consulting work, he has overseen the teaching of cooperative husbandry procedures not just to more animals than most of us will ever handle in a lifetime, but to more species as well.
Ken’s basic strategy can be summed up in a very simple phrase: do it differently. Every day in your training you should be practicing some form of husbandry skills, but the key to success is don’t try to mimic a procedure someone else is going to be doing. Your touch is going to be different, so even if you try to make everything the same as the real thing – you won’t succeed. And besides, you don’t know what you are preparing your animal for. Is it to stand quietly while you doctor a wire cut on your horse’s leg, or to put eye drops into an infected eye? We don’t have crystal balls that can tell us what medical procedures our horses will need to tolerate. X-rays might be standard, and certainly shots, but beyond that what are you preparing your animal for?
So Ken says do it differently. Get your animal accustomed not just to being touched all over his body, but to being touched in different ways.
Do it differently also applies to getting an animal comfortable with changes in the environment. Every day introduce some change, something different. You aren’t trying to scare your horse. You just want him to get used to the idea that change happens and it’s nothing to worry about.
Do it differently is a great life metaphor. Sometimes we need to follow the rules, to do things the way “they have always been done” because the way they have always been done works. The motto here would be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But even if it “ain’t broke”, can it be better? Are we stuck in a rut just mindlessly copying what has been done before? Horses have been trained for thousands of years. On the surface the training that I learned from experienced horse trainers didn’t appear to be broken. They could get on and ride their horses. They could make them jump and cross scary streams. They could make them go where they wanted.
“Make” was the operant word. The end result could be very appealing, but if you scratched too far below the surface, you discovered a very broken system. It was littered with discarded horses and far too many frightened would-be riders. Something needed to change.
I was very lucky to be learning about horse training at a time when two very important change makers were shaking up the horse world. One was Sally Swift who brought the Alexander technique into the horse world and changed the way riding was taught in the United States. Sally came regularly into my area so I was very fortunate to have been able to attend many of her workshops.
The other change maker was Linda Tellington-Jones, the founder of T.E.A.M. training (Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Method). Through Linda the horse world was introduced to the Feldenkrais work. Early on I encountered T.E.A.M. training through a magazine article. In it Linda described the body work she had developed, including the T.E.A.M. circles.
Peregrine’s mother was a wobbler. She had a spinal cord injury that impaired her balance and made her very body defensive. When she was a yearling, if I tried to touch her anywhere, I was met with gnashing teeth and pinned ears. Her whole body couldn’t hurt, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong because she wouldn’t let me in to ask questions.
I was reading everything and anything related to horses, and I was eager to learn. These funny T.E.A.M. circles Linda was describing sounded intriguing. I tried them on my mare and her world changed. In minutes her eyes had grown soft. Her head was drooping. She was letting me in all over her body – except in one area around her right shoulder. That was where the pain was. For the first time she could relax enough to let me know what was wrong.
Within a few weeks I was on an airplane headed to the mid-west to attend a workshop Linda was giving. I had to learn more!
That was the first of my many travels for horses. At first I was traveling to learn, and then I was traveling to teach (which really means to learn even more!)
At one of the T.E.A.M. workshops Linda was letting us experience for ourselves the T.E.A.M. body work. She let me feel one version of the T.E.A.M. circles, and then she did it another way. She had her hand on my back so I couldn’t see what she was doing, but, oh my goodness! It felt so very different!
I turned to face her. “What did you do!?”
Her answer meant nothing to me. “I breathed up through my feet.”
Now I’ve been trained in the biological sciences. I’ve studied anatomy and physiology. I’ve done dissections. I know we breathe through our lungs, not our feet. And beside, I had hay fever when I was little. I was constantly congested. Even breathing through my lungs felt like a foreign notion. My breath got clogged somewhere at the top of my chest.
But I knew that breathing up from her feet meant something to Linda, so I went in search of the translation to that phrase. One of the teachers I found lived in my area. She had a horse with a hard-to-diagnose lameness. She contacted me to see if I could help her with him. It turns out that the lateral work I was learning helped enormously. When he carried himself in good balance, there was no sign of the lameness.
His owner, Marge Cartwright, was an Alexander practitioner, and she had also studied the Feldenkrais work. So we ended up doing trades. I worked with her horse to help him to be sounder, and she worked with me. Overtime I learned not only what it means to breath up through my feet, but to breathe up from the ground. Learning that changed how horses relate to me. It isn’t magic. It isn’t some mystical gift of a horse whisperer. It is simply the systematic unblocking of tension. One metaphor that I love is the shining of a light on the dark places. These are the places where movement become stuck, and we hide from ourselves the reasons for the stiffness. This image comes via Anita Schnee, a Feldenkrais practitioner and regular attendee at the clinics I give at Cindy Martin’s farm near Fayetteville Arkansas.
The work Marge shared with me stands as one of the central pillars of what I teach today. It is woven into every lesson both the ones that I give directly to horses and the lessons that I teach to their handlers. Unless you live in my area and had the good fortune to learn from Marge, you won’t know her name. But I owe her a huge thank you for enriching my life beyond measure. Her work is woven into what I mean by equine clicker training. If you have participated in a body awareness lesson at one of my clinics, you have been the direct beneficiary of her work. If you have thought about your own balance as you feed your horse a treat, that’s Marge’s influence again. If you are learning about school figures – circles, lateral work, diagonals, etc. – by walking them without your horse, Marge has a hand in that, as well.
An awareness of balance, no much more than that – an appreciation for balance, an understanding that balance and soundness go hand-in-hand is something that I explored with Marge.
Clicker training for horses might have been little more than the teaching of tricks if it weren’t for this fascination and appreciation for balance. Instead clicker training is a complex, wonderfully rich and diverse training system that can meet all needs. It includes the fun of tricks, but it doesn’t stop there. The central core, the pillar that supports everything else is balance.
So thank you Marge for sharing your work so generously. When you suggested we trade services, I’m sure you had no idea the ripple you were about to set into motion. You helped make clicker training so much more than simply the pairing of a marker signal with treats. What we teach and how we teach have become woven together to create a magnificent whole new way of doing things. We dared to to it differently and look what grew out of it!