Toby is the reason I’ve learnt a lot of things about horse training. I got him as a Christmas present when I was 10 years old, which was a dream come true after spending every spare minute at the local riding school and begging for my own pony for years. However, it wasn’t quite the easy ride I anticipated as Toby sussed out us novice horse owners and started behaving very differently to the nice pony we’d bought. Soon he would bolt, buck, refuse to jump, wouldn’t pick his feet up, kick when tacked up, we had to dismantle his bridle and cover the bit in jam and sugar to get it on, he wouldn’t load, he wouldn’t go in his stable, he started getting separation anxiety, I was thrown out of a show ring because of his ‘stallion-like’ behaviour… you name it, Toby did it!
The conventional instructors we knew were a bit stumped as Toby continued with his ways, and it was after taking 3 hours (and 6 burly men!) to load him after a pleasure ride that my mum and I trooped off to see a Monty Roberts demo, back in 1999. That was the door into Natural Horsemanship ways, and I followed Monty Roberts, then Parelli (gaining my level 2 at just 13 years old!), then Australian Natural Horsemanship and other equine trainers such as Marte Kiley-Worthington and Lucy Rees. At the start, Toby had a lot to say about pressure and I remember being about 12 and playing the Parelli circling game with Toby rearing at me as I tried to make him go around me! It slowly started to change him, though, and soon I could do competitions and pleasure rides with Toby as well as him being easy around the yard.
However, although he was compliant, I wouldn’t say he was ever enthusiastic about the vast majority of stuff I did with him. In 2004, my mum came off Toby and broke her back (although he was a confirmed bucker and had thrown both us and some very good instructors off, this time it wasn’t his fault – he just spooked in the arena). During her 6 months on the sofa, she was reading any horsey book she could get her hands on, one of which was Alex Kurland’s book on clicker training. She passed the idea onto me and I started to play with it with Toby.
I started to notice that the behaviours I’d taught him using clicker training were a lot stronger than the ones I’d taught him using just pressure/release and he was really keen to work if it was a clicker session we were doing. The more I did, the better it got and I started to look into it more closely. In 2006, I started going to Alex Kurland’s courses and the arrival in our yard of 2 rescued horses meant that I got heavily into clicker and positive reinforcement.
After a while, I realised that to get the best from Toby I would have to retrain pretty much everything using these techniques. His main issues were total lack of motivation in the arena and ears back and swishy tail at most things which involved tack, arenas, circles and movement! I spent a memorable winter retraining forwards, waiting for what seemed like forever for Toby to even think about moving and clicking that. I spent ages walking him on the lunge and clicking any time he flicked an ear forward from their usual flat-back position. I worked on the ground retraining voice and rein cues, then slowly introduced it back into riding. I also taught him loads of tricks and fun stuff, too, to keep him interested and happy.
Gradually he started to change, and I am so glad I did it. For the first time in nearly 15 years of owning Toby, I feel that he thinks I’m worthy to train and ride him (the Toby seal of approval is very hard-won!). He’s super-keen to work now, is forward going but focussed in the arena and is doing great at all his self-carriage and movement work which keeps him supple and fit (he’s rising 22). Not to mention how fab he is at all the tricks, demos and shows we do, too. I think he’s an amazing pony, so intelligent and aware, and I can see that he’s taught me so much about myself and my horse training. I imagine he’s still got lots to teach me, though, over the years to come, but we’re certainly in a better place than ever and truly feel like we’re working together and having fun!
Watch my little Ode-to-Toby video to see how truly fantastic he is now! 🙂