It occurred to me that clicker training horses requires you to be both learner and teacher simultaneously – you’re always learning how to be better balanced, co-ordinated, use new technques and so on, while at the same time teaching your horse new behaviours.
To be a great horse trainer requires self awareness, honesty and perception. You must hold together the dreams of where you’d like to be (this gives you your goals and aspirations), the knowledge of where you’ve come from (this is your reward! know what you’ve already achieved and be proud of it) while at the same time being present to where you are NOW.
Part of being able to enjoy being in the present with your horse, is to learn to enjoy learning. Clicker training is perfect for this because it enables us to train ourselves, as well as our horses, in a way which is fun, motivating and rewarding. Everything you do which gives you an opportunity to teach yourself will help your horse training, as it puts you into the position of being both learner and teacher. Pay attention to your strong points, your weaknesses and, most importantly, how it feels to be the learner when you are the teacher. This will give you insight and empathy into the emotions your horse displays in training sessions.
Here are some examples of my own recent learnings of new behaviours and what they’ve taught me about myself as a horse trainer:
1. Learning to Charleston
I’ve done a lot of dance over the years. It’s something I’m very comfortable with and I love learning it. Last week, I went to my first ever Charleston class. We did 2 types of Charleston, one version from the 1930’s which was similar in style to the lindyhop I’ve done before, and one version from the 1920’s, which was a completely new and difficult way of moving for me.
Now, I was in a class, so I was being shown the steps, but that was as far as the input went, so it was up to me to create my own learning experience. Particularly in the 1920’s Charleston, I struggled to pick up the steps. This could easily have led to frustration and embarrasment. However, I allowed myself to go back to an easier version if I was struggling too much and, partly because of my previous dance experience, I was simply happy to be there, trying to get pick it up.
How does this relate to horse training?
I certainly made progress in the class, but my steps certainly aren’t perfect either. This doesn’t bother me, I had a great experience and it was filled with positive emotions! This is exactly the kind of training session I love having with my horses. It relies on me being the kind of teacher who allows the horse to go back to an easier behaviour if they’re struggling too much and doesn’t expect perfection straight away – reward the tries much and often and enjoy the process!
2. Learning the Cello
My musical boyfriend bought himself a cello just before Christmas, so I asked him to show me how to play something. I played around a little on the cello on my own first, just trying to be able to bow each string individually etc, before asking him to show me how to play what he’d just been playing. It was the beginning of a Bach piece, fairly simple to start with.
The difficulty about a cello is that it doesn’t have frets (like a guitar), so you have to place your fingers in the right place so the notes are correct by ear . This was tough at first and I needed a lot of input from my boyfriend to say when I was in the right place.
The first 2 bars I learned were fairly simple, but the second two required a finger change, which I just couldn’t get! I kept forgetting to put my third finger down and I started to get very frustrated! I was aware that my feelings around learning the cello were very different to learning dance – I wanted to be perfect NOW, I felt like a failure if I wasn’t, I got frustrated easily and there was a bit of embarrassment in there, too. (Who’s felt like that in horse training? )
Phew! So, instead of letting that build, or giving up, I got my clicker head on (‘TAG teaching’ for humans). I picked ONE thing (and one thing only!) to pay attention to – this was getting my third finger on the string at the right time. Everything else went by the wayside, it didn’t matter if it sounded bad or I bowed wrongly or whatever, the key to achiveing this step was my finger. As soon as I made this change I started to enjoy it again. It became manageable, achievable and I felt GOOD because I was achieving things!
How does this relate to horse training?
This emphasized the golden rule of BREAKING BEHAVIOURS DOWN. A common fault is to ask for too much at once, which leads to a loss of clarity, the horse becomes unable to succeed and starts to show frustrated or stressy behaviours and often leaves the game. Having experienced that on the cello through my own bad teaching before I rectified it, it’s a lesson that will stick with me!
(As an aside, you can also go too slow… it can be just as frustrating to be asking for tiny steps when the horse understands the whole behaviour. As ever, in horse training, it’s all about the balance!)
3. Learning to Jump on my Snowboard
The wonderful snowfall we had meant only one thing last weekend – get the snowboards out (yes, I was supposed to be doing my tax return but nevermind!). My boyfriend and I are both fairly competent boarders so simply going down the hill lost interest quickly. So, we built a jump.
Now, I don’t have a good history with snowboarding jumps… my boyfriend is both fearless and competent and therefore very good. Last year, we went on holiday with 3 guys. Although I was one of the better ones on the piste, they all had snowboard and skateboard park experience and wanted to play in the snowparks. Although I should have been able to do it because of my skill level, my fear got
in the way completely and I fell onto icy piste in front of everyone watching again and again and again… As you might expect this didn’t help! I ended up feeling more scared, very embarrassed and highly demoralised.
Learning to jump in my own field in a secluded part of the Yorkshire Dales felt like a good idea. However, I was still so nervous that I fell on the approach to the jump every time. RIGHT, time for some clicker techniques.
Rule 1 with fear (whether it’s you or the horse): don’t overface the learner. I started off almost next to the jump and went sideways across the hill very slowly.
Rule 2 with fear: build it slowly. Only once this was getting boring did I start higher up – only 1 metre mind! I started to go more downhill which meant faster, too.
Rule 3 with fear: don’t make it continually harder. I rewarded myself now and again with going back a stage and feeling highly competent at that level. This is so important in horse training, too!
I set myself a target of 20 jumps and to see how far I got in that time. I was very pleased with my progress! I made much more and faster progress going slowly than I did trying to get the whole behaviour at once. Another valuable lesson in patience there. That reminds me of one of my own quotes – “go slower to get there faster!”
I’m sure everyone has experiences they can relate to their horse training, whether it’s learning to drive (sooo many things to pick up at once!), or maybe a New Year’s resolution has prompted you to start something new… I’m really fascinated by it all, so please do share your experiences below!