Dragon: Dragon is a 16.1, 2003 Friesian/Standardbred cross gelding, who I first saw for sale online. I was looking for a “dressage horse”; I wanted a big uphill horse with extravagant gaits. I didn’t even consider that I was a five foot one inch woman who had never started a horse before, much less an impulsive, big moving, emotional horse. I couldn’t afford even a green broke dressage horse so I set out to train my own.
I went to visit Dragon on the Amish farm where he was born and bred in the height of winter. I road-tripped to Pennsylvania for the weekend with my then partner and the snowy mountain roads were slippery and hard to navigate. I was relieved to make it to our hotel alive. I had strict instructions from my best horse friend to visit “the prospect” at least three times during the weekend and NOT to offer his full asking price no matter how I felt about him. Saturday morning I walked out into the frozen pasture with his breeder, Elam, and I felt a jolt of electricity run through my body as a huge, magnetic yearling trotted past me . I offered Elam a check for the full asking price five minutes later. I didn’t even try to bargain. I was the owner of a dressage horse!
Like many that have come before me and many to come after, I was in over my head. I was already an accomplished dog trainer with my own business but I still had so much to learn about young horses, emotional control, physical balance and how to use positive reinforcement correctly with horses. I started him under saddle at least three separate times using positive reinforcement and then throwing it out and using just negative reinforcement, but after a few weeks to a few months the holes in our training would start showing up and I would go back to the drawing board. Holes like rearing perfectly and instantaneously out of a trot. Head-shaking anger. Powerful unrequested upward changes of gait to express arousal. Something wasn’t computing for Dragon and riding him left me feeling emotionally drained and afraid. I let a few friends ride him and both of them said the same thing, “Don’t get back on him. I’ve never felt a horse so angry. Send him to a trainer!”. Multiple times I considered sending him out to a trainer but I always backed out at the last minute. I couldn’t bear to send him away. This was my quest and my horse and my journey. But I still needed a teacher.
I used clickers in all of my dog classes and used positive reinforcement to help even profoundly aggressive dogs (think 29 stitches in someone’s face) to develop new coping skills and become safe and able to stay in their homes. But with my horse, I couldn’t get the results I wanted. So I decided to go find Alexandra Kurland. I saw she would be at a conference called: The Art and Science of Animal Training put on by ORCA (Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals) at the University of North Texas. I booked my ticket and I planned to ask her my question. What should I do? Her answer deflated me completely. She looked me in the eye and said,” You must start over.” It was not the answer I was looking for but I took it to heart. I would start again. I went home with her entire dvd collection and new inspiration from Bob Bailey, Ken Ramirez, Kay Laurence and Jesus-Rosales Ruiz.
I got back off my horse for the fourth time to re-start him and systematically worked my way through all of Alexandra’s foundation groundwork. All the while in the back of my head I was nervously waiting for the day I would get back on. Would it work? I had failed every other time. How many do-overs did I have with this horse?
To my relief and delight, Dragon was completely transformed by this work. I still remember the first time I put my foot back in the stirrup and swung my leg over. He remained calm and relaxed and walked off quietly when asked. I clicked, treated, and waited for him to become over-aroused about the food or frustrated at my next request. He remained calm, forward and connected to me. Everything I taught on the ground transferred to ridden work. For the first time Dragon knew what was expected of him and was eager to offer it. For the first time I had small measurable behaviors to ask for and use as barometers of where we were both emotionally and within the larger work. For the first time I had a horse who was relaxed, bright-eyed and fully engaged in the process of riding. No punishment, gadgets or dominance needed. It WAS possible to make a safe and happy horse using positive reinforcement. If it could be done with Dragon, it could be done with any horse.
Now, he lines himself up to the mounting block for me to get on and waits patiently. If he feels I am too far away he will turn himself around and come back to line up again on his own judgement, delivering the saddle to my hand and it always makes me chuckle. I often get on 3 or 4 times in one ride since my treat pouch only holds so much food. Once I run out I hop off, we go fill up and he takes himself back to the block for another round. I think how many people dread lining up with the mounting block and would shudder at three or four mount-ups per ride. There are plenty of horses who wouldn’t allow it. Dragon would play it as a game if I lined up multiple mounting blocks in the arena.
At this point Dragon and I are working on advanced ridden work and learning how to adapt classical dressage into this new clicker paradigm. The old way of teaching horses through negative reinforcement molds them into shape through rein contact and rider’s other aids. The horse is largely passive and avoiding pressure. Many of them are heavy in the hand and behind the leg offering just enough effort to avoid discomfort. With the clicker, we assume the horse to be a thinking partner capable of offering brilliant balance from systematically teaching him how to mobilize his body and how to understand light pressure as a tactile cue but never a threat. It might sound like semantics but it’s not. The difference between traditionally schooled horses and clicker horses reminds me of The Chronicles of Narnia where there are two kinds of animals: regular animals and talking animals. The talking animals are larger, more beautiful and fully conscious; no one would ever dream of hunting or eating them. In our world, the only difference between the animals is the ones that appear regular have had their soul shut down by coercive training and the others have been offered choices and rewards throughout their learning process. Clicker training makes horses larger and more beautiful and reveals their sentience. It grows their soul. If I sent you off to ride even a fairly well-schooled dressage horse and then brought you here to sit on Dragon you would be shocked at the difference. Maybe even alarmed. Dragon is so light there is no weight in the rein. Not because he is behind the vertical or absent but because he holds his own balance completely, correctly softened at the poll. He is responsible for himself and in true self-carriage. Dragon is so sensitive to the seat and weight that just a small thigh rotation or weight shift will change his trajectory. He is a partner in every sense of the word and if he is able to do a requested movement, he will. He wants to get the right answer both to earn his reward and because he feels magnificent in his own body. He’s changed from a fire-breathing Dragon to an educated Dragon.