The other night when I got off my horse, I felt a spark of joy alight in my heart. It was like the first taste of love when you believe anything is possible, and that everything happens for a reason. Since having to say goodbye to my dear old horse, Sporticus, I have felt like I would never have the depth of connection and understanding that came from spending 31 years together.
I had lost other loves, horses and humans alike. But my relationship with Sporticus had shaped my entire life. He was my best friend that I grew up with, argued with, moved to college, travelled across the country together, cried upon over boyfriends and family, and slept within a few feet of each other for decades. He is a part of who I am, and for that I am immensely blessed.
Sporticus was not loyal like a dog. He had his own opinions on what was fun and it often included destruction. If the tack room was ever left open he would wander in and throw grooming kits out the door and look for any hidden treats and poop on the floor. That was his ultimate idea of fun as he reached his twilight years. He was the Walter Matthau character of Grumpy Old Men. Always looking for ways to get even with me for the things I did to him as a youth.
Sporticus taught me what was possible with horses. When I was 14 years old, I was determined that Sport and I should be able to go for rides without any bridle or saddle or tack of any kind. So I spent time with him in a small enclosed area trying out different movements to see if we could figure out how to understand each other. We had many ups and downs, but when things were good, they were amazing.
I spent my life trying to figure out how to share the joy of partnership that I had stumbled across with Sport, with other people and horses. It seemed clear to me that everyone needs a friend that if you treat them well, you can always rely on to be there for you. Despite decades of study, practice, reading and listening to as many teachers of horsemanship as I could, I kept hitting walls of frustration as my horses told me that “All was not well with these ways of training, no matter how many people said otherwise.”
My many horses and I suffered through countless injuries as I kept trying to push past problems as other horsemen espoused. During a period of my own constant day to day physical pain, I began concentrating on how to heal traumas, both physical and emotional. I studied and took as many classes as possible on various types of rehabilitation. And in my weakened state, I began working with horses in a way that required less movement and more subtlety. My work with wild horses became more about friendship and trust and less about dominance and “respect”.
Perhaps when we have endured much pain, perhaps we are then able to reach a point where we are willing to open ourselves up to change. We reach a point where we can say, “I am willing to do anything to make this better”. I believe I reached that point this year when I signed up for a clicker training for horses class. I had read studies that showed horses learned faster using positive reinforcement and retain what they learn for longer periods of time. But I had no concept of why the clicker is used for a bridge signal for training. I had tried for years to use positive reinforcement in my horse training practices, although I had never met anyone using clicker training for anything more than tricks (which I often found annoying).
While perusing a friend’s Facebook feed, I saw an old post about a horse trainer who specializes in clicker training horses that was going to be visiting my friend a couple hours away. I decided to sign up for the clicker training workshop to absorb as much information as possible. There was a 2 week online course that was required to finish before attending the in person workshop, so I tried to open my mind to possibilities.
I thought I was simply going to find out why people were doing these things so I could add it to my understanding of training as a whole, I certainly didn’t expect to be able to use it in day to day life.
And truthfully, I absolutely HATED the first 2 weeks of class. I hated clickers, I hated holding targets, I hated buying horse treats, I hated feeling stupid and slow. And then, as my stubbornness would not let me quit before I had figured out how to accomplish the homework for the class, my horse Aliya said, “Hey, this isn’t awful!” And then after a week, she said it was kind of a fun, like a game. She started working a little more enthusiastically, and by the time we did the weekend workshop, Aliya was hooked. She didn’t want to quit our sessions, she wanted to do more, she was engaged in every task and offering up more each time. It was like having a teenager who usually answered everything with “Whatever.” Suddenly answering, “Yes, that sounds great! What else can we do after that?”
So I went home from the weekend clicker training workshop and started practicing with other horses. The horses that were usually not very interested in working, started wanting to do things. It seems having no wrong answers actually can get individuals excited about trying new things.
And now, after a few months of following through on the meticulous procedures and process of clicker training horses, I can share the possibilities with others. I actually had an evening with Aliya that made me feel for a moment, the absolute joy I had as a youth when Sporticus would let me ride him bridless through the neighborhood or when he would graze beside me in an open field as I napped nearby.
The big thing about clicker training is the animals get to choose what they want to do, no force nor annoyance is to be given if they choose not to do what you want. So the most difficult piece is giving up the human ego that says, “you must do things my way or else”. I had had some tough moments retraining my brain and my reactions, but I was finally reaching a peaceful coexistence with my horse Aliya. She has a hip injury that hurts her and sometimes she doesn’t really feel like having anyone on her back. For the past few months, I haven’t done much more than sit on her for a few minutes at a time just to show her that she can trust me to listen to her. To get to that point required practicing just having her follow me to the mounting block and giving her treats for standing in mounting position. To let go of my human ego that says must “ride horse now”, and just be cool with low stress chillin’ together by the big wooden steps. Well, it was a big accomplishment on my part!
Aliya started willingly helping me with some beginner kids lessons, which included letting the kids ride her around the yard. She had a choice at any time to be done with us, but she chose to stay. And a few weeks after that I began showing her a way for her to understand which way I wanted her to turn, without using the same cues that she had previously associated with being harangued into submission. Signals that have previous negative connotations are known as poison cues.
It happened that the last couple of weeks I had been quite sick and had only been able to spend a few minutes here and there with Aliya. After finally feeling somewhat alive again, I asked Aliya to take me for a ride. I did review our turn signals from the ground first, and made sure I had enough treats that I could pay her well for the jaunt around the yard. Then I went to the mounting block and asked her to come pick me up. She did, and as we maneuvered around trees and obstacles and I tried to change my reflexes to fit our new paradigm of positive reinforcement only, I felt that spark of joy that I hadn’t felt since my early days with Sporticus. My horse wanted to be with me! I was not a dictator, I had a partner. And if luck will have it, I might have decades to delve into this world of mutual understanding and cooperation.