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