Part 4: Foundation Lessons
Part 5: Teaching Strategies
Part 9: Clicker SuperStars
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I began this course with this picture of my senior horse Peregrine. He's the horse who started all of this. So I'll begin this look ahead with a look back. I started clicker training in 1993. Peregrine was laid up with hoof abscesses in both front feet. I'd read Karen Pryor's books, "Don't Shoot the Dog" and "Lads Before the Wind". I was curious about clicker training. This seemed like as good a time as any to try it. I wanted something that would keep Peregrine's mind engaged while he was laid up. He could barely walk, but he could touch his nose to a target. That's how we began.
I thought at first targeting was just a cute trick, nothing very important, but it kept us both entertained. I've since learned better. As Peregrine recovered and was able to do more, I continued to explore what could be taught with the clicker. We were forced by the abscesses to go slowly. I retraced all his basic training using the clicker. When he returned to work seven weeks later, he was significantly further along in his training than when he was laid up. I was intrigued.
I remember so clearly getting on and clicking him for the first time. He wasn't fit so I was asking for easy, routine things, just simple turns. I clicked, he stopped to get his treat, and then immediately he picked up again right where we had left off. I could almost feel him saying: "Oh that's what you wanted! Why didn't you say so before?"
As he became more fit, I continued on through the catalog of learned behaviors. This included the beginnings of piaffe and Spanish walk. Peregrine doesn't have a strong back. He was injured during his foaling which resulted in his stifles locking up on him. The stifle is the equivalent of our knee. There are three ligaments that run over the patella, the knee cap. In some horses the middle ligament gets hung up so it doesn't release which means in horses the whole leg can't bend. This is what happened to Peregrine. He'd be standing quietly being groomed. I'd ask him to take a step forward, and his stifles would lock up on him making it impossible to bend his legs. Backing would usually unstick him, or sometimes a violent jump forward was what was needed. Needless to say, the stifles complicated his training.
For eight years I'd been struggling with his stifles and the many behavioral complications they created. Under saddle, if I kept him well balanced and collected, his stifles wouldn't lock, but when I released the reins to let him stretch out, I'd feel them catching. At the canter, if they hung up, they'd throw him into a hard, rolling buck which was extremely dangerous to ride. I was learning to manage all of this, but it was so frustrating. We'd make a bit of progress, and then he'd have a bad stifle day, and it would feel as though we were nowhere. So when Peregrine felt as though he was saying: "Oh that's what you wanted", it felt huge.
Over that first winter clicker training, I tackled the Spanish walk. He began to give me amazing height in his leg lifts, much more that I had ever had before. Click and treat! He was so eager to show me what he was learning. We were both having such fun! And that's when I realized - he wasn't locking in his stifles anymore. Somehow, something in the Spanish walk had clued him into a different way of using his body. It wasn't something I was micromanaging and doing to him. It was something he owned and was doing for himself.
Peregrine was eight years old at that time. He had been locking in his stifles since he was a very young foal. Somehow, through clicker training, he had taken ownership of his own balance. He wasn't relying on me anymore to keep his stifles from locking. He could do it on his own. That's when I knew that clicker training wasn't just about teaching the next new skill. It went beyond that. Peregrine wasn't simply following a set of instructions. He was puzzle solving right along with me.
Through almost twenty years of clicker training he's been my puzzle-solving companion. As I write this he is twenty-eight. He's been my guinea pig through many layers of clicker training from the beginning stages where we were so thrilled when our horses touched a target to our current, much more detailed understanding of just how powerful and extensive this training is.
Today he is very much a retired senior citizen, but in his prime he took me further in my riding than I would ever have dreamed we could go together. So when I think about clicker training, I think about possibilities. That's what it has taught me to believe in. I've run into so many stumbling blocks, so many frustrations with my horses, but when I return to basic principles, when I sort through the puzzles with my clicker skills, I always find a way through.
Great performance, feels-like-heaven gaits, these are just some of the bonuses of clicker training, but what it has really given me is a beyond-all-words connection to my horses. I very much wish the same for you.
End of Pt 14: A Look Ahead