Djinn: week three


Day 16-22

This week I didn’t get as much done as I hoped between the searing heat outside and injuring my foot. My Friesian cross gelding, Dragon, “spooked in place” and just onto my foot while leading him from his pasture to the barn in the dark. In sandals. I know it is a cardinal rule to always wear boots around horses. I got lazy:  it was late at night and the toe protectors on my sandals lulled me into a false sense of security. Lesson learned.

Djinn and I had some wonderful training sessions and then a few harder ones. Towards the beginning of the week I had a man come out to pull some sand out of our arena so the footing would be a bit firmer. Djinn worked on targeting while he drove the equipment and she had beautiful concentration  and great duration. I was amazed at how easily she focused and how well she handled the noise which has upset her in her past. Her emotional control was seeming of a different order and I felt sure we had moved into new territory. A new place where I could ask more of her and she could handle more environmental stress without it affecting her response.

Then, on Saturday when we trained it was starting to get dark and people’s voices were carrying through the fields as well as some unfamiliar barking dogs. Someone was shooting a loud gun in the distance and overall the farm felt rather unsafe. Normally it’s perfectly quiet here.

I worked with Djinn anyway despite the stressful environment because I thought her behaviors would hold up and I had committed to working with her daily. I thought working on her target behavior would give her something to focus on and settle her down. While she was able to touch her target, she was stressed and ended up biting the target a lot. I lowered my criteria to just nose touches and ended on a good note.

When I went out to train her on Monday, I got this:

You can see in the video how Djinn is a bit frantic about getting to her target and opens her mouth wide to bite it as her first behavior. Yikes! This is not the emotional state I am looking to get out of this behavior. Instead of settling in and focusing on touching her target, she gets more and more frustrated, biting and finally cantering off . It’s up to me as the trainer to help Djinn calm down. I decided to go back to the first thing I taught her, head down, and reinforce her heavily for maintaining the position. There’s not a lot of research behind it, but theoretically, since horses have their head on the ground when grazing and grazing is relaxing, putting their head down helps them access a more relaxed, calm emotional state. Here’s Djinn doing her head down:

This video starts when we’ve been doing head down already for about a minute. It’s boring, so I edited that part out. (If you really want to see it, I have the footage in my computer.) The reason I included this clip is at about  :17 seconds you see Djinn raise her head to look off to her right. She is concerned, but lowers her head uncued and then and :23 gives a blow through her nose which indicates relaxation. From there I take here through walking forward and back so she can practice moving in a controlled way. She blows again at :31 and is more relaxed from then on. This is a good thing! I want a horse who understands how to self-calm when nervous. Lowering your head is much better than rushing off or biting.

In traditional horse training, we seek to make the horse obey regardless of internal states. In progressive horse training, we use internal states as a guide in our training. I don’t want my horses to suppress their fear because what is suppressed tends to reappear at the most inopportune times. I want my horses to express their emotions so I can teach them a million roads out of their fear and frustration. Roads we can walk together.

You can see when we go back to targeting she is less frantic and more focused. Still not as good as the days before, but much improved. For my part, I lowered the target so that she can keep her head lower when touching the ball. It will keep her back from inverting and tensing up. I also kept the target closer to her so she wouldn’t feel any frustration about the target “getting away” which could also lead to the biting behavior. With these two changes, plus the break for head lowering Djinn does much better!

I love that this whole sequence is on video. So many trainers just show finished behaviors and it can feel so frustrating when your horse isn’t “textbook”. Here you can see that Djinn is having an emotional day and I am getting all sorts of behavior I don’t think is useful for a relaxed horse/human relationship. We just go back to basics, make her job easier, and find a way to allow her to be right. As my mentor Alexandra Kurland says,” You don’t know what the horse has learned, we only know what we’ve presented.” I think I did a good job taking Djinn back to basics. She’ll tell me this week through her behavior. Stay tuned!




Stay with an exercise long enough and wonderful things will pop out.

When I first started Alexandra Kurland’s training program with my horse, Dragon, he was an emotional, physically imbalanced gelding. I knew I wanted a better way to teach him. He had stopped responding to the bit at all and was just frustrated and running through my cues. He was so large and his movement was so extravagant that it was close to impossible to help him rebalance, he was too emotional to receive information once he was going faster than a walk. Here’s a short video of how he generally moved at trot :

He did a lot of head shaking, which is often imbalance, and sometimes emotional arousal. He was very heavy on his forehand and his legs were strung out behind him. I don’t think I saw a lot of the imbalance, I just knew he seemed very heavy and that movement was often hard for him. He seemed frustrated and angry a lot.

As we worked our way through the foundation lessons, and then into the “Why Would You Leave Me Game?”, Dragon started to become increasingly centered, attentive and balanced. We did the majority of our work in the walk. The premise of WWYLM is simple – it starts out  just like loose lead walking for dogs. You have your horse in the bridle, on the circle. When they move their nose off the circle and begin to wander off, you slide your hand down the rein and bring their nose back to same point on the circle. It teaches them to use your body as a target the same way they should use your seatbones as a target in the saddle. It teaches them that when you ask them for a certain carriage, they should maintain it on their own until you ask for something else – this is the ever elusive self-carriage. It teaches them to enjoy bending and staying on a circle, voluntarily. And best off all, it gives you the underpinnings for lateral work, the foundation of soundness and dressage. Now, I didn’t know all of this then. I just knew I was supposed to pick an imaginary box, bring my horses nose into that box via the rein and click him when he left it there on his own. Easy enough.

One of Alexandra’s sayings is: Stay with an exercise long enough and wonderful things will pop out. Here’s a video of Dragon’s trot work today, improved completely through ground work during WWYLM.

It’s easy to see he has an even, steady cadence to his trot, elevation of the wither (shifting weight onto his hind end) and is relaxed and quiet emotionally. If you compare his length from head to tail in both videos, you will see his outline is shorter in the second video. This means he has achieved some degree of vertical flexion – a more advanced balance. All of this was available in the trot once he had done enough work in the walk. The old masters used to say, ” The walk is the mother of all gaits,” and this is what they meant!

Loose horse!

This morning I woke up and looked out my bedroom window, like I do every morning, to find part of Tarot’s fence down. He had managed to take down part of the bottom line completely and to push the second line out of place. I scanned quickly for him but I knew he was gone. The fresh spring grass is just starting to come up and last year he moved a round pen about 4 feet just with the continuous pressure of his neck as he reached for one blade of grass and then another. Kind of like the heaviest grazing muzzle on earth.

Through the window I couldn’t see him anywhere on the property. He’s an easy horse to see , being white, against a currently brown and green-ish landscape. My heart was pounding as I pictured him galloping over roads in our town and large men trying to capture him with ropes, then shouting at me, “Is that your horse, girl? You better catch him!”  It sounds dramatic, but I know how wild humans act around loose animals. Like all the world has lost it’s order.

I pulled on my boots, my treat pouch and walked outside as fast as I could without running. All three of our other horses were looking off  with raised heads into a farmer’s field behind our barn, so I knew if Tarot wasn’t still there, he had gone that way. I grabbed a halter and lead  and headed out. Our property is lined with tall pine trees that obscure most of the view of neighboring land and break the wind in winter, so I didn’t know what I would find. When I came through the trees, Tarot was about 400 feet away, presumably munching on dead wheat.  I walked toward him in a roundabout way and halfway to him he decided to close the distance for me. He started walking toward me, so I turned and started heading back toward the barn too. I’ll admit, I was nervous if I tried to “catch” him,  he would think better of it and take off. I have worked a lot on haltering, but not loose in endless farmland. We walked back through the treeline to our farm. I clicked him and he stopped for his treat, calmly, just like we were training in his paddock. I asked him to target and he targeted, but too gently, which usually means his environment is overfacing him a bit. He stayed for his treat, then walked about 15 feet away to nicker to our mares who were at the fence.

I thought about going to get a feed tub of oats or strategy, but I decided to use our skills. I walked over to him and presented his halter. He put his nose in immediately and calmly and kept his head low even while I buckled the crown. For some people, haltering a horse who you have actively taught to self-halter would mean nothing more than the animal doing what it’s learned. Good training is one way to describe what happened. But good training gives way to deeper meaning. It’s the  reason I pursue any training, of any species. For me, Tarot putting his nose in his halter, is the glimmering edge of salvation.  [Salvation(n) : the act of saving or protecting from harm, risk, loss, destruction.]  My soul is protected from harm, risk, loss and destruction when a wild horse chooses his halter, his tether to to me, over open fields and two flirting mares. When he can say:  I trust you, I choose you , then I am saved. From what? From ignorance. From entitlement. From failure to imagine his reality. From the loneliness of being isolated in my own species.

My horse put his nose in a halter, loose, on the edge of open fields. He was born wild. There is no money I could make today that could rival, from him, his yes.

The dream of a common language

Today our new barefoot trimmer, I’ll call him Bob, came to trim hooves and meet our horses for the first time. It’s always nerve- wracking for me, mainly because there is no common language with which to discuss horse behavior and training. It is a delicate dance to meet someone for the first time, respect their learning and experience while also setting out boundaries for how you want your own animals to be treated.

I was particularly worried about this in the case of Tarot, who is untrusting of anyone new. I had already planned to have him sedated for his first few farrier appointments so that he can enjoy the anti-anxiety properties of the sedatives, and not become even less trusting of people than he already is. He does let me near his body, and allows me to handle his legs, but it’s a skill he will need to learn to transfer to someone new. It takes time, whatever time he decides, not the minutes or hours that humans tend to offer. Last night at dinner, I was dreaming about a trimmer who I could call up and say, “I have a mustang who I’m still working on body handling with. We work at liberty so I know he is truly relaxed and choosing to be a part of this handling. I can work around his entire left side and handle down to his fetlocks, but I’m still working on handling past his withers on his right side. Since he is still not completely ready for handling by me, I’m choosing sedation initially to reduce anxiety and avoid losing ground on the training we’ve already accomplished.”  Simple, right?

It would be simple if the real issue in the horse world was only that we use different jargon to explain the same techniques. But the real issue is that misconceptions about horse behavior abound and the science of learning is not common knowledge. I am a bridge-builder and a peacemaker by nature but I am also unalterably firm about protecting my animals from un-needed stress or bad handling. So how to navigate the line between making people feel comfortable and valued while advocating for my horse who does not deserve one more confusing or fear-inducing interaction with any human?

I made a deal with myself: I would let the trimmer go in the pasture and meet Tarot with Tarot loose. If he could get Tarot to stand quietly and accept his being near, I would halter him. Now, I didn’t expect Tarot to stand there at all, but I thought it would at least give Bob a chance to meet him and make a judgement call on his own.

I should mention Bob ended up doing a great job with our other horses. He was relaxed, easy-going and comfortable with all of them. He did a lovely job trimming their feet, no one was stressed and I was really happy with the entire process. He is a patient man, comfortable in his skin with clean clear energy. I was not worried about letting him meet Tarot.

I offered Bob a few treats to take in to Tarot, but  he only wanted to use his body and space, ” just like another horse would.” I pointed out that it was likely Tarot didn’t think he was a horse, especially with the walking on two legs. He laughed but I couldn’t convince him to use the food. Tarot did reach his nose out to sniff his hand, I gesture I promptly clicked and treated, but nothing beyond that cursory investigation. Tarot was careful to stay frontal to Bob and to put his body behind mine when possible. No surprise. Bob then asked if I would halter him up so he could move him around a little and see what he could do.  I explained to Bob that I had just re-trained the halter behavior and it would be a betrayal for me to take this behavior I had built, then use it to hand Tarot over into a situation where he felt unsafe and fearful. He looked honestly surprised but then quickly recovered and said, “Ok, that sounds reasonable, we’ll just find a time where we can get the vet out and use the sedative then.”  Lots of points in my book!

Bob IS unusual in how relaxed and easy he is with horses, but he is not unusual in the belief system he has about training. The common wisdom of Pat Parelli which seems to have saturated the entire horse world, that the only way to communicate with horses is through taking up their space and rewarding them through rest, “just like another horse” has become a near religion. Of course it’s good training to use modes of communication that are ethologically appropriate for the species you are teaching, but it’s not the same as them actually believing you are of a different species. That takes it too far.  Tarot, who grew up wild, has no illusions about any human being a horse, no matter how savvy.  These systems people use are made up negative reinforcement,  positive punishment, and poisoned cues. But none of the horse whisperers are teaching the science, they’re only selling the magic. It’s a disservice and a cause for much misunderstanding. Learning can feel like magic – but if you are going to wield a spell you better understand it’s scope AND it’s limitation.

As for Tarot, he’ll be re-introduced to hoof care with the benefit of some sedation. Of course we are constantly working toward him accepting handling and new things, but I promised him I would honor his body language and his emotions, and through that, his soul. It’s the only road to trust.

Alexandra Kurland

Last month Alexandra Kurland came to our barn and gave a three day “advanced clicker clinic” for us and our horses. The wealth of knowledge she presented and her humbleness despite being brilliant at taking apart (splitting) traditional horse training and re-packaging it in new, clicker centered exercises made it easily the best clinic I have ever attended. It is an unusual skill to be able to look at something ancient with new eyes, while still respecting the inherently valuable pieces.  I am thinking of how old the art of horsemanship is, so old that they way horses are used and trained can feel fixed and immutable. To be able to look at that with new eyes, to split it apart into it’s component pieces using new technology and a modern respect for horses as sentient beings, is nothing short of genius. And a life’s work. I am grateful to have the chance to learn from such a talented trainer. To schedule a clinic with her or buy her books and videos, go to:


The long story…

My life with horses started before I was in the double digits, which is not unusual as horsegirls go. I collected model horses, subscribed to riding magazines and attended two weeks of “horse camp” every summer , the first of which I never removed my jeans and boots, even refusing to swim, so no one would mistake me for a “normal” camper. I know this describes thousands of little girls, past and present, who are enamoured with horses. By highschool I took riding lessons every weekend, and by the time I was 18 I was running the barn at the same summer camp I had attended, caring for 15 horses and giving 6 hours of riding lessons daily. Yet I never had heard “training” mentioned in any serious way, and I didn’t give much thought to how the horses we rode had learned what was expected of them. I was innocent.

I am an INFP by the Meyers-Briggs temperament test, which for me translates into : I am process over goal, incredibly sensitive to nuances in emotion and energy and aligned with a personal, internal set of morals. When I was younger this often meant I felt very alien in the world, but as I aged, it has transformed into a beautiful skill set when working with people and animals.(Ok, human and non-human animals;)  I am an animal trainer by profession, but it is also what I do for fun and most people would call it obsession. I am never tired of it.

I train all the animals I work with using a device called a “clicker”. It’s just a little plastic box with a metal lever  inside that makes a clicking noise when pressed. Simple. Deceptive. It doesn’t look like much at all, a child’s toy, really, but there is no better way to communicate with an animal. The click is a reward marker, it is always followed by a small edible reward.  In dog training, the clicker has become close to a standard tool. But in horse training it is still on the fringe at best and generally misunderstood. There’s a fair amount of mythology in horse training about the danger of using food in training and how out of control horses can become when fed by hand. The truth of the matter is ALL animals become somewhat unruly when fed indiscriminately, but when food is paired with a clicker, so that the click PREDICTS the food, animals very quickly understand the rules.

This blog is the chronicle of  my clicker training journey with my horse, Dragon, my partner’s horse, Fig and any other horses or people who may join us along the way. A map of a new frontier.