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The focus of my journey is now on trying to help reach the tipping point in positive, scientific based horse training. To bring science into the work, and training out of the dark ages. Having seen the joy that positive reinforcement training brings to both partners in the horse - human relationship over the past 17 or so years, there is no going back...

 

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Clicker Training and Perfectionism

September 10, 2016

This blog is written again by Carolina who is living and learning for a while with The Pony Fairy, Monty Gwynne. And in the photos, she’s almost starting to smile!

 

Living in Fairyland oddly keeps reminding me of the old fairy tales. You remember how pretty much every fairy tale ended, “and they lived happily ever after”? Well, it seems to me in our world “ever after” is a rather short while. We all have a backpack with old feelings, habits or pattern which we take everywhere – even into Fairyland. I think, especially when we are trying to live our dreams or feeling really good, our subconscious mind thinks “Hmm, maybe it is time to have a look in that backpack and find out what needs some of this positive energy which is around.” And all the sudden something shows up. To me it was my inner perfectionist once again that was pulled out of this backpack.

 

This perfectionist really does not like me doing things wrong, making errors or learning slowly. And it can make a big struggle, especially out of fun things.

 

Whenever I need to learn brainy things, I am pretty quick. But my body is a rather slow learner. Communication with horses is mostly body language. Horses are just the best readers of body language there are. And really fine-tuned clicker horses are even better at reading it. They assume every movement is just a cue what to do in order to earn the next reinforcement. So they mirror you perfectly or just get puzzled and try something out of their repertoire. They are especially keen on watching my shoulders and hips to copy, which would lead to the nicest lateral flexions thinkable when I get it right. Unfortunately, my ribs do not bend well (apart from other struggles) so often the horses are a bit puzzled. Lateral flexion means bend your ribs. There are no coordinated, nice movements of hips and shoulders without bending your ribs. Yes, it is not just our horses who need lateral flexions it is us too!

 

So, I am mumbling severely when trying to talk body language. Depending on the character of horse I work with, they either try to be really nice. They say “Hmm, this setup usually means I am supposed to do Hip-Shoulder-Shoulder, so let’s try with this.” Or they just say “What do you mean? Sorry I do not understand. No, you do not need to talk louder, just more clearly. Do not yell at me.”

 

So I kept trying to bend my ribs (which I had already been working on at home in my Feldenkrais classes, but did not know how crucial a limitation it is in talking body language). I played with “human horses,” mostly The Pony Fairy, practiced rib bends when sweeping the barn, when going from A to B and even on my days off when walking along the roads or up and down the mountains. I guess some people passing by really wondered what I am doing there… During the nights I listened to more Feldenkrais classes. And I kept asking the horses if I got any better. Well for four weeks they said “Not too much!” So, I picked those ponies who said, “But I will play with you anyways if you also do something I like.”

 

At one point I got quite frustrated. Should I just give up? Who had this idea to try play with horses like this? (Well, I did!). Am I just not talented for this? Do I, as I did with gymnastics or ballroom dancing many years ago when feeling untalented and awkward and give up? I do not miss gymnastics at all, but sometimes I wished I could do a little ballroom dancing. I already learned via Feldenkrais classes, that body awareness and flexibility is something we all can learn at any age.
But am I wasting my wonderful time at The Pony Fairy’s with something I should have fixed before, learning how to bend my ribs? My inner perfectionist had a great time giving me hard times: You really should be able to learn this. You know where to put which foot when, why not just do it?!

 

A friend of mine told me one night, it is like learning to play a musical instrument. You sure know theoretically where your fingers should be, but playing a piece and having your fingers where they are supposed to be in the right instant, needs practice and time. Practice and time. Ok, I went on.

 

The scientific background and aim of clicker training is to have a happy horse which feels free to offer new behaviours, tries out and is happy about a reinforcer, for horses often a ‘cookie’. Whereas science shows animals trained with negative reinforcement often do not try anything new as they are afraid of being corrected or punished. So they avoid situations. So when quarreling with my inner perfectionist I argued why not try to clicker train myself? See the small steps, and reward and reinforce me for them? See, even Barbara Sher, a US book author (Wishcraft, It is only too late if you don‘t start now) and life coach, has the mantra “praise makes you brave” and I remembered how wonderful it felt in Barbara Sher’s classes when she asked people tell each other just something they honestly liked in the person next to them – and in everybody there is something you can find you like. But it is just so rare we look at what we like or what we learned so far. Mostly we are taught to look at what needs improvement. Being a trained Barbara-Sher-Coach I am by now pretty good in finding what I like in others and see the small steps towards their goal which they achieved. One of Barbara’s tools is the so called backwards flowchart. A flowchart towards your goal, asking for all the steps that need to come before you can go for your goal until you find the one you can do tomorrow. Never forget to reward yourself for every step done. Does this remind you of thin slicing and reinforcers in clicker training? Well it is pretty much the same concept, but applying it to myself??!?

 

One day I felt so grumpy I wrote a couple pages just pitying myself, grumping and howling until I finally needed to laugh about myself. Some people will say, good thing there are situations you laugh in, as I am looking so serious whenever I concentrate on doing something. And trying to speak body language more clearly, really needed concentration throughout the last weeks.

 

Well, one day when asking the ponies again, they said: “You are getting better; you still have a severe accent in your body language. But we start to understand you better. “Thank you, ponies!” And we started enjoying our time more, adding some more play, chasing the ball, touching the stand-up tiger. Thank you Monty and ponies for not giving up on me. Whenever my horse at home will not understand me, I will send The Pony Fairy a video for coaching. This is another mantra of Barbara Sher: “Isolation is a dream killer,” so with a little help of my friends, I can go on with my dreams.

 

Another day when watching The Pony Fairy playing her ponies – and she speaks body language really well, no mumbling there – it appeared to me, she is still refining things, getting them even lighter, more elevated, nicer. However far you get, you will always find a next step to go. So dear perfectionist, there is no goal to reach, because there will be always a new idea, a new possibility a new behavior reachable that was not before. So, perfectionist, you can go on vacation and let me enjoy the process, all my life is a process, one step after the other.

 

The good thing about being a slow learner is, I need to do each step very consciously. So I can remember it and also be empathic with everybody else who is on his or her way learning. Even our horses, who struggle with their lateral flexions one day more and one day less until their bodies are able to do it easily.

So clicker training does not only help to improve our relationship to our horse, but also to ourselves, which is the longest lasting relationship we have in our lives and effects all the others there are.

 

Now, no matter if this blog is any good or perfect, I will go out, have fun with the ponies and perhaps even quit concentrating and start smiling.

 

Carolin has improved a lot over the last few weeks and the ponies have been telling her that she is. I hope you find reading her story to be helpful. All of us struggle at times and it is important to realize it is the happiness in the journey that is important.

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