Saturday, September 26, 2009

A friend to remember

He came into my life when I most needed a horse’s presence. I had recently moved to a foreign country and I missed the familiarity of horses, the stability they gave me. Horses are that way, they follow me everywhere and no matter where I go, where I live, they are the one thing I know, the one thing that doesn’t change.

He was young and untainted, an innocent soul. He was owned by a lady who needed help riding her two horses and gladly I took on the young gelding which she felt was a bit difficult. She had raised him herself, had owned his mother who had died a few years back and this horse was special to her because she had helped it come into the world.

And what a horse he was! He was jet black and although his conformation was not exactly that of a perfect dressage horse, there was something about him that melted your heart. Perhaps it was the size of his own heart, and the manner in which he took humans in, as if they were his long lost friends.

It was obvious from the very beginning that he had body issues, a crooked way of traveling, tension in his back. The owner had been riding him in drawreins to “get his head down”, but I could tell that anything past training level frame made him uncomfortable. So, I started to work him slowly, staying within his comfort zone - he was only four, after all.

We had a good eight months together, learning how to behave on trails, how to balance on circles and do relaxed canter departs. He was an exceptionally friendly horse, a big Labrador Retriever who wanted his head held and his face stroked every day. His eyes were beyond kind; they were trusting and innocent like the eyes of a baby horse.

The owner was a dressage judge and a serious competitor of the sport and wanted the horse to become, if not a great dressage horse, at least a decent example of the sport. She hesitated to compete with him herself, as he was young and sometimes spirited, and she had unspoken fear issues. So the gelding and I did two shows together, mainly to get out there and try to find pleasure in it. He did well, in my opinion, but not well enough for the owner. We wanted different things: I wanted a relaxed horse, she wanted a horse with impulsion and collection.

Later, we parted our ways, but remained acquaintances. I rode other horses in the barn and kept an eye out for the gelding, my friend. It didn’t take long for his life to change for the worse. First it was the draw reins, later the double bridle that controlled his daily life. It was for the best, said the owner, he needs to move up a level in the dressage world and with this crookedness in his body, there was no other way.

His neck started to take on a distorted shape, concaved on one side, bulging on the other he looked like a two separate horse halves put together. His back started acting up and he was rein lame on the longe. The owner declared that more riding was the medicine, the horse was just stiff and needed to work out of it. She kept going.

Months passed and turned into years. The gelding no longer came to the door when you walked by, but stood with his head in the corner with a sad, glazed over look in his eyes as if tormented by a permanent headache. The owner took lessons and then some more, but things were not progressing. She tried riding with spurs, then two whips, then both. Finally, the gelding was sent away to a hot shot trainer. Just for a few days, to help his body get more flexible, to get him motivated, said the owner. But even she admitted that the horse she sent away came back another animal altogether. Angry now, he tried to bite her. His kind spirit had been broken for once and for all.

But it didn’t stop there. He had a little rest, the vet came out and the reason for his body problems was identified. His back was sore, he had problems with his front legs. No worries, there was special shoeing available and some rehabilitation for the back. In two months he was back in business, first going out on trails with the double bridle “to guide his head into the right position” and later in the arena performing dressage moves that looked painfully forced.

Finally, it all came to an end. The owner had to admit that things were no longer looking up, but rather down. She took the gelding to the vet clinic where they told her that he had developed scoliosis in his neck. He could still be ridden, but no longer dressage and definitely no collection; for the first time in years, the gelding would be allowed to control the position of his head himself.

Shocked by the news and her bad luck, the owner took a few weeks to reflect on the facts. I was both happy and worried. Happy because I knew it was finally over for the gelding, he would no longer be forced into frames he could not manage, but worried because he had just lost his value as a horse. What would happen to him? I left for summer vacation with a heavy heart.

When I returned his box was empty. I thought about his options and feared the worst, but then heard he had been sent away, to be retired in a pasture with some ponies and other retired horses. The gelding, now eight years old, would live the rest of his life in this herd, never to be ridden again. Discarded like a broken toy, he was at a horse junk yard, forgotten and released from his duties to the humankind.

A few weeks later there was a new horse in the gelding’s box. The owner stood around, proud of her new purchase, exited of the prospects that lay ahead. Not a word was said in the memory of the gelding that was sent away, there was no room to reminiscence on bygones. All the owner could talk about was the bright future of this new gelding, which had arrived just in time to be abused and adored, simultaneously. Because, truth told, the owner loved her horses like they were her children, her pride and joy. She came to the barn every day, religiously, working her horses the way she had been taught to do, the way it had always been done. And she was respected for her commitment, the sacrifices she made for her horses were admirable, both personally and financially.

Vet bills, countless hours of lunge work, ground work, trail rides that extended for miles, herbal medications, chiropractor appointments, different bits to get the right feel, custom made saddles not to mention all the dressage lessons. All the owner had wanted was what she thought was best for her four legged friend; she had done everything in her power to give him that. And in the end, isn’t that what we all want to do – provide our horses with what we think is best for them?


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Power of Positive Feedback

When I was in college studying sport science, I majored in coaching. I had a knack for teaching and passed my teaching demonstrations with flying colors. The main criticism I received concerning my teaching had to do with the amount and quality of feedback I gave my students: there was too much of it and it was too positive. My teachers explained that if I told my students too many times how great they were doing, I would “wear out” the nice words and they would lose their effectiveness.

I didn’t argue their point then, they were my teachers after all, but secretly I never agreed with their theory. In my eyes, teachers and coaches can never support and encourage their students too much. Through positive feedback I have seen insecure girls grow into self-confident world class athletes; I have seen sullen and shy teenagers turn into captains of their sport team; I have seen adults and children alike learn skills they always thought were out of their reach. When it comes to positive feedback - it works.

Recently I started working with Prince, the fearful little pony, by using “clicker training”. Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. In other words, this teaching method uses solely positive reinforcement.

Before I started my work with Prince, I was relatively familiar with the concept of clicker training, but had never truly used it myself. It has been more than an eye-opening experience to work with him in this way. As Prince has such deep rooted fear over many aspects of his everyday life, the clicker has helped him understand what it is that humans really want.

Using clicker training, Prince has learned how to pick up his front feet without fear, to touch scary objects (target training) and now he is also learning how to stand at the wash rack and, eventually with time, how to get washed.

For example, to teach Prince the wash rack behavior, I utilize a small rubber mat which I place on the ground. Prince has learned that when his two front feet stand on the mat, he gets a click and a treat. This is an easy task for him to perform, if the mat is for instance on the floor next to his box, but when I take it to the wash rack – it’s a different story. It may take him 5 minutes to creep up to the mat, and some days he doesn’t want to do it at all – and that’s ok.

The beauty in clicker training is the fact that you reward desired behavior, but if something goes wrong, nothing happens i.e. there is no punishment. The constant positive feedback and absence of punishment encourages trying and trying encourages learning. And not only is Prince learning, he is choosing to learn, choosing to participate (or not). Having a choice means you have control of the outcome, having control means less fear and more self-confidence.

Clicker training can change lives; it certainly has reinforced my own trust and faith in positive feedback. As teachers, riders, animal handlers, parents, friends - AS HUMANS - we need to be more positive in our daily interactions with animals, with each other and with ourselves. Give credit where credit is due, be it to your horse, your friend, your child or yourself. Good job, well done – we all want to hear those words, so – let’s hear them!

~ K