When I first saw Aesop last year, I was looking for a kind, relaxed horse who might make a good teacher for people wanting to learn how to work with horses and the clicker. I already had Dragon, my huge athletic Friesian cross and Tarot, my gorgeous but fearful mustang stallion. Both are incredible horses, but not suitable for beginners. I chose Aesop based on his soft almond eye, relaxed mouth, and lack of muscular tension in all his photos. (I “won” him in an internet auction and would have loved him regardless of his suitability for newbies.) He came to our farm last summer and is one of the kindest, easiest horses I have ever had the pleasure of teaching and working with. His foundation training was finished this spring so this fall he started to work with his first two students.
Because he was wild not that long ago, I still go through a protocol to introduce Aesop to brand new people before they handle him. It’s likely he doesn’t really need the whole protocol anymore, but it’s a good introduction for new horse handlers and it helps them build their awareness of their horse’s comfort level. Here’s a short video of the “getting to know you” protocol:
Basically it begins with three nose targets and then moves on to placing your hand on his neck and waiting for him to arch his neck or do a small jaw give to the side you are working on. When he is able to offer one of those operant behaviors you can slide your hand to the next body part (side of poll, neck, shoulder blade, shoulder muscle, wither, etc) until you at his hind fetlock. It is easy to see that Aesop is relaxed and happy to offer his arched neck to show he is complicit in the game. It is fun for the handler and gets them used to checking in on the horse’s body language so they can remember to do it once they are busier doing two tasks like currying or hard brushing.
Once Aesop was all groomed up it was time for some basic leading lessons. Since all of the clicker ground-work carries over into ridden work, good mechanics are important from the very beginning. These are the basics that will lead to good single rein riding later. Brand new students work a loop of two behaviors: 1) A casual walk-off (click point being the horse walking with you bent slightly on the circle) 2) The grown-ups are talking (click point being still feet and slight bend in on circle if offered). This loop allows students to get comfortable moving next to the horse and gives them a way to ask questions or process information without ignoring/frustrating the horse through “grown-ups”. Here’s Aesop in his leading lesson with his new friend and student, Carly:
The loop allows Aesop to relax and offer familiar behaviors that he already knows. The loop allows Carly to always have something to focus on and click for while learning about this large new species. As she masters this loop and they become more comfortable together we will add more behaviors to the loop and they will begin to move more fluidly between different behaviors as needed. For now, though, they both look calm, happy and relaxed. I am so proud of my new “school horse” Aesop!
Great job. I love how relaxed both Aesop and the student look in all of the videos. How cool for students to have their first encounters with horses be with positive training.
Thanks, Mary! It is frustrating to me that most people first learn about horses in a punishment based paradigm. A lot of them quit when it feels wrong and others accept that it is “the way things are done” and are unable to see beyond it. It literally brings tears to my eyes to see Aesop working with these brand new horse people and both of them happy, relaxed and collaborating together. It changes the shape of the known world.
We have a gal now who just started volunteering at the horse rescue. She has done positive dog training for years and has been riding for a few years. She had someone local who she was riding / taking lessons with, but got fed up and saddened, because the horses just didn’t want to be with people and didn’t like their jobs. 😦
So, she’s hanging out with us now. 🙂
I totally agree with you, we need more opportunities for people to start learning about horses from a positive training perspective. I think one big challenge is that the horse community has separated riding from training. I’ve met quite a few people who loved riding, but who had no interest in learning about training. Maybe, though, if people met happy horses, they would be more interested in learning about training.
I loved your blog and as soon as I can find the follow button on my phone I am going to click it 🙂 pun intended. I started my riding career very young, probably too young and I am one of the “that’s just the way it is done” people you are talking about above. I wish I had known more about positive training before I was injured, mainly because I probably would never have been injured and because I wouldn’t have kept flitting in and out of the horse world because I felt that there was something not quite right with what was going on. I actually was sorta clicker training my horse Jules minus a clicker before I was injured and had a lot of success, although I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I thought I was applying dog tricks to my horse to get him to pick up his feet to get his feet trimmed. If ever I find my way back into the horse world I would love to start right this time. In the meantime I am really enjoying seeing what people are doing with clicker training horses. I hope more people catch on!