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What to Leave Behind, What to Take Forward: Part 4

The second key revolves around Ken Ramirez’s definition of an advanced training technique. An advanced training technique is anything that requires experience to use well and which two or more trainers cannot agree on. I have always loved that definition. In the horse world we really need to pay attention to what Ken is saying. When someone is greener than green, what are they told? They need to get tougher with their horse. In other words, they need to get better at using punishers and space enforcers. But those are the tools that require the most skill and the most understanding to use well.

At the Shedd Aquarium, novice trainers are not paired up with animals that require advanced training skills. When Ken gets to this point in his presentation, someone always raises their hand and asks: “But Ken, what if you have a Rottweiler hanging off your leg?”

Ken’s response is: “That animal requires someone with advanced handling skills. A novice handler shouldn’t be working with it.”

That’s when I always want to sputter, “But Ken, you’ve just described three quarters of the horse world. Look at all the horses that are a mismatch with their owners. People are forever getting horses that demand more advanced handling skills than they currently have.” That’s why there are so many sad stories of broken bones and broken trust. It’s why so many people end up selling their horses or turning them over to trainers.

Setting Up For Success

There are alternatives to handing your horse over to someone else. While you are building your handling skills, instead of getting tougher, you can manage your training environment. Someone might say that setting up the environment for success is also an advanced skill. Certainly as you practice this approach, you discover increasingly elegant and subtle ways in which to use the environment to your advantage. But setting up the environment begins with a commitment to the principles of good training. By good training I am not limiting myself just to clicker training.

Here are just a few elements good trainers have in common:

* Good trainers are splitters. They look for small steps where they can get consistent “yes answer” responses from their horse.

* If things fall apart, they backtrack through their training to a step where they can get a good response.

* And if one approach is not working, instead of “shouting louder”, they look for an alternative solution.

What this boils down to is find an environment in which you and your horse are comfortable. And then choose a beginning step in which your horse can easily give you a “yes” answer.

Applied to clicker training, it also means that you stay committed to the core structure of the work. You are looking at what you want your horse TO DO, not the unwanted behavior. You are structuring your training around saying “yes” to behaviors you want, not “no” to behaviors that frighten or annoy you.

Expanding Protective Contact

Time for a story. One of the Click That Teaches coaches, Marla Foreman, has been working with a group of horses, many stallions included, that had become very difficult for the barn staff to handle. These horses had all been handled by professionals who were not in the least bit hesitant to use force to control them. That had worked when they were in full work, but now their retirement “job” was going out every day to grass. With too much energy and too little enrichment in the form of training time, they had become increasingly dangerous for the barn staff to handle. Their owner wanted to solve the problem with clicker training. She didn’t want to look out her office window every morning to see horses being jerked around and threatened in order to control them.

Now Marla is a skilled handler. She is a clicker trainer with an extensive horse training background. She grew up on a ranch, and she has spent her adult life learning from a wide variety of skilled horsemen. She doesn’t refrain from using punishers because she doesn’t know how, but because she chooses not to. She can handle a tough horse. In fact she enjoys the project of taking on a problem horse and turning it around with skilled handling. But initially it wasn’t safe even for her to lead some of these stallions out. One of the most difficult was a massive draft stallion who had the odious habit of swinging his head in to bite at his handlers and then bolting away dragging the lead out of their hands. When a horse weights 1800 pounds and wants to leave, that’s exactly what happens. He wasn’t leaving just to get to his grass that much faster. He left because he was angry.

He had already learned the rudiments of clicker training. He could touch a target for a click and a treat, but he wasn’t impressed. He was just as likely to bite at your arm as take the treat.

So protective contact was very much the first order of the day. Now I know this is where a lot of people get tripped up. They see the video clips showing that first targeting lesson in a stall. They get that part. They rig up something that passes for a stall guard or they work over a paddock fence, but then they say – I have to take the horse out to turnout, or I have to groom him, or I have to ride him. And all the while they are saying this, they are dodging the horse’s teeth.

Parting Company with “Have To” Training

This is where I part company with them. Many of the “have to” things can be postponed until later. You really don’t “have to” ride. You may want to ride, but there are so many other things that need your time and attention first. Once those are taken care of, the riding will be a joy. Your horse will be inviting you onto his back.

Turn out is definitely important, but you don’t “have to” lead a horse to get him there. There are creative alternatives. With this stallion the alternative was to use temporary fencing to create a runway from his stall, through the barn aisle and on out to his field. The barriers guided him along the path he was to take just as surely as the barriers set up in the airports told me which passageway to take.

Marla used simple targeting the first couple of times to show him the way out, and after that he found his own way. There was always a hay pile topped with carrots and apples waiting for him so every day he put on a wonderful show, galloping both in and out to turnout. Whenever I visited, I always made a point of pausing in what I was doing so I could watch him gallop, mane flying out on either side of his massive neck. It was quite a sight, especially since it was his choice, and he was running with such obvious joy. He’d slow himself down at the barn door and then walk through the aisle back to his stall and the waiting pile of treats.

Once he’d come in from turnout and had his dinner, Marla would take him out into the arena and work on clicker foundation skills. We wanted to find a way past his anger so we turned going to mats into a game for him. Marla explained the tai chi wall in minute detail. She showed him first that she wasn’t a threat, and then that she was actually entertaining.

To help teach him to step laterally out of the path of a handler, in one session we did together I held a food bucket under his nose while Marla walked beside him. We marched around our circle of cones (actually it was a square but that detail doesn’t matter) with him eating the entire time. Whenever the bucket was empty, Marla would toss in more treats. I couldn’t manage the treat toss. It was all I could do to hold the bucket up under his nose. The full weight of his massive head was pushing down into the bucket.

We only did that once but afterwards Marla reported that he was much easier to displace laterally. Something shifted for him emotionally. When she slid down the lead to ask him to step over, instead of threatening to bite, he moved out of her space. If he did swing his head towards her, it felt more like the hiss of a kitten than the roar of a lion. Leading him with a bucket of treats under his nose may not have been a “horse training” solution, but it certainly helped us peel another layer.

Marla began with protective contact. She expanded the use of protective contact to help her with everyday management. She chose times of the day to work when he could be the most cooperative. She chose carefully where she worked. She used mats and other props to help explain what was wanted. She stayed true to the core principles of clicker training. She also learned a lot about being patient, persistent – and creative! She now has a stallion that can be handled safely, not just by her, but by other members of the barn staff.

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