Growing up we always had dogs and cats, which I loved, but top of my Christmas list every year I would put a pony, followed by more sensible requests. It wasn’t until I was 14 and we moved to a more rural location that I was able to have horse riding lessons. I got the first few as my birthday present and then I paid for them using my paper round money. From then on horses were firmly cemented into my life.
After university I managed to share some people’s horses which was great but I still longed for my very own steed.
Then a very good friend of mine posted something on social media about a clicker training clinic with horses. That started me thinking. At this point we had a dog and we had been using clicker training with him and now I was suddenly thinking why don’t we train horses that way too? When I mentioned it to people I shared horses with they didn’t like the idea as they thought it would make their horses nippy. But I was convinced it should work with horses. Why wouldn’t it, it was based on sound science. I should mention I’m an ex-research scientist so science based techniques really appeal to me.
Roll on a year or so and sadly the amazing horse I was sharing got sick and passed away. His owner had been a fabulous person to share with. She had trusted me with her beloved friend and given me the confidence that I had the skills to be a horse owner. So age 30, here I was, off to buy my first horse, Cosmo.
I was convinced I wanted to clicker train Cosmo so I watched training videos and off we went trying to clicker train him. It will be like training our dog, my husband and I thought, same principles, no problem. We looked for local trainers but there were none so we used online resources. Well I think we probably made every one of the classic mistakes when starting out on our own trying to clicker train horses. We knew the results we were getting weren’t right. Our horse was showing what we now recognise as significant amounts of conflict as we were still mixing in some traditional riding. He was coming out of a shut down state and being grumpy and I wanted help but couldn’t find the right help. Then we were lucky enough to meet Max at a positive reinforcement clinic… Phew!
So some things that we learnt very quickly: It is really important to know your species, yes, positive reinforcement training works for every animal but knowing your species is important for the correct application. I was deliberately calling it clicker training up until now, because in all of our dog training experience that is what we called it. We had been taught a specific application of learning theory but not all of the underlying principles. I now have a good understanding of learning theory and that is important in order to correctly apply it and we don’t even use a clicker anymore so calling what we do clicker training would be wholly inaccurate.
So with Max we reset our cob Cosmo and started our training from scratch.
So where are we now? Cosmo is doing fantastically. We are training him slowly to be ridden bitless. He has a lot of issues trusting strangers so that is also something we are working on on an ongoing basis.
We also added to our herd the gorgeous Red pony, a mini Shetland. He is a rescue pony that also has issues trusting people. When he arrived with us it was difficult to pick up his feet as he would rear to escape and he couldn’t have a rug put on (which he needs due to sweet itch). Now he has his feet trimmed at liberty and he often offers his feet to new people coming to visit and putting his sweet itch rug on isn’t as big of a problem (to begin with he would have scarpered at the sight of a hankey flapping in the breeze, so a full rug is a pretty big deal for him).
So the reasons I am an avid horse charmer are:
1.) The training is based on sound scientific evidence and it works.
2.) I want to help others start off their training with the right support and not make as many mistakes as we did.(Mistakes are inevitable in training; Mistakes are a fantastic way to learn but it is great to have someone coaching you who can help you spot those errors early on and put you back on track, just as we had the help and support of Max).
3.) Absolutely everyone that is involved in horse charming, taking lessons or coaching is fantastically supportive and is exactly the kind of person I want to work with and learn from.
4.) Everyone deserves the chance to build positive relationships with their horses, and to become a source of security. This can be a bit frightening when it involves Cosmo galloping out of the darkness away from monsters to come and stand next to Mum for protection though, lol!