Since I was a little girl I wanted to be with horses. I spent my entire childhood around them. My parents could not be convinced to buy a horse so I rode the horses of the riding schools and later horses of people who did not have enough time for them. During that time I was exposed to the conventional style of riding. I did not think about training horses, more about learning how to ride myself. I then went to university and after that started working and I continued riding whenever I had the opportunity but was not actively involved in any horse training nor did I read or discuss with others about it.
A couple of years ago I changed job and home and decided that I can now make my childhood wish come true and went to buy my first own horse. I knew how to handle horses but I had not owned one before so I needed to learn that. During the first year my horse and I got to know each other and I started reading about horse training to update my knowledge. My initial goal was to go out hacking in the beautiful environment that I now lived in but I always enjoyed doing dressage. So I started searching for a dressage instructor. I found a classical dressage instructor who came to our barn occasionally and I started taking lessons with her.
At the same time I read many books on horse training and I heard about clicker training but initially it did not catch my attention. But there was one article in a horse magazine that did. The author described the scientific basis of clicker training and how Karen Pryor used Clicker training with dolphins. Now that caught my attention as this explanation was different from the other stuff that I read about, it made complete sense to me. I am a scientist and I was immediately attracted by this logic. Other training approaches always refer to long experience of a particular trainer but it is hardly ever substantiated by evidence. So I went to investigate further and found Alexandra Kurland’s work and got her books.
Then came the day that changed everything. I had a dressage lesson with my instructor. It was a very cold evening. My horse was on the nervous side, chilly temperature, snow falling off the roof. You get the picture. My instructor told me to send my horse forward, thinking that this will keep him busy and prevent spooking. So I did and I asked him to trot around the tiny arena far too fast. He couldn’t cope and bucked. At the third one, I fell on his neck, held on to it but at some point I had to let go. I landed on the frozen ground and broke my scapula.
So I was unable to ride for a month but my horse needed something to do. That was the ideal opportunity to start clicker training. I started charging the clicker, quickly continued to targeting and the foundation lessons. I did all foundation exercises in his stall which was big enough to allow that. And it was so much fun. My horse started thinking and became creative and started playing with stuff. Even my barn manager noticed the difference. So we decided that we like clicker training.
I got Alexandra’s DVDs and worked through the material systematically. I assumed that my horse doesn’t know anything and retrained him using the marker signal and positive reinforcement.
The changes he made were astounding. He changed both physically and emotionally. When I got him he had practically no muscles, two deep holes at the base of his neck and behind the withers. Over time with Alex’s exercises he build up muscles. Emotionally he changed from being a reactive horse to a very sweet and sincere partner. When I got him, he would often try to bite whenever I was too close around his head and neck. When grooming him, I always needed to check where his head was.
So I taught him to lower his head during grooming. With the head down he could not bite. That worked wonders and the biting stopped. But at the same time I also reinforced stroking his neck. I would very frequently briefly stroke his neck, click and treat. Later, I asked him to target his neck to the brush, click and treat. Over time he got loads of reinforcement when I was around his head and neck and now he is the softest horse enjoying a cuddle and kisses on his nose. It takes time! But his emotions changed. It was not simply about training an incompatible behaviour to stop the biting. We built trust! He learnt that I am not doing anything harmful when I am around him, actually, good things happen. I did not actively suppress biting but his emotions changed. He no longer needs this behaviour, he no longer needs to defend himself. He is safe!
Since I was so intrigued by clicker training I wanted to learn more. I went to workshops and seminars and read books from other trainers and members of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Expo Faculty: Susan Friedman, Kay Laurence, Theresa McKeon, Ken Ramirez, Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, Kathy Sdao, and Laura Monaco Torelli. And all what I learnt from them fitted perfectly with what I learnt from Alexandra.
Being a scientist, I value the confirmation from other respected trainers and scientists. The work of all of them is peer-reviewed. It is also dynamic and improves over time. Just as good science does.
But none of these other trainers primarily works with horses. So I continued my research within the horse world. I read tons of books about horse training, dressage,
biomechanics and so on. I particularly liked Anja Beran’s work and luckily her stable is pretty close to my parent’s home town. So I went to see her. And what a delight! Her riding and that of her students is just wonderful. She can heal horses with her riding. I learnt a lot from just watching her and her students.
Then suddenly all these bits and pieces that I learnt during the last couple of years fell in place and it made complete sense to me. Alexandra’s work prepared me for understanding what Anja does. Alex’s work taught me about balance in small steps, you hardly realise how much you are learning until you suddenly get it. Working through the foundation lessons, then WWYLM, 3Flip3 and Hip-Shoulder-Shoulder gave me the basics to understand why and how Anja uses lateral work to put horses in balance. Not only did I understand it. I was able to teach it to my horse.
My horse was ridden Western before I got him. He had not learnt to use his back and never chewed on the bit (hence the big holes in front and behind his shoulders). With Alex’s exercises he started using his back and how to find his balance. Then I took him to Anja Beran for one month. We took lessons and Anja taught me which exercises he needs (and that I am able to ride). Since then he improved immensely. Now when I sit on him and pick up the reins he starts chewing and is very soft. We still have along way to go and he still gets stiff when I ask for more difficult things but I can always get him to relax again by going back to walk and lateral work.
I am now training the exercises that were “prescribed” by Anja and I am able to do that on my own thanks to what Alexandra taught me. I have learnt to be a good horse trainer although I am not the best rider. But I now know how to teach my horse and I know what to teach. I am still open to learning from others but I take an informed decision on what I accept or reject.
But the most important thing for me is that my horse and I enjoy the time we have together. I feel responsible for his wellbeing both mentally and physically. That is why I need to know what is good for him. And more importantly, I need to listen to him if he also thinks it is good for him. Alexandra has taught me to listen to him, and I believe, he thinks it is good!
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