So many equestriennes are struggling these days with what they feel and how they want to be with their horses and what they feel conventional and traditional ways of keeping, riding and training horses expects them to be. They find it hard to listen more to their heart and do what they really want to do. They fear criticism from other horse people, the barn owner, the trainer, their riding instructor or anyone else with more experience. I would love to encourage all of you to use more Heart Centered Horse Training. In this blog I offer 4 tips to help you feel confident in using clicker training.
What is Heart Centered Horse Training?
Heart centered training is the choices you’d make if you’d listen to your heart instead of your head.
Place your hand on your hart and ask yourself: “Does my horse like it when I use the whip? Even if I ‘just tap’ him with it?” Wait for the answer…. What does your heart tells you?
Head centered is that you listen to the voice in your head, that is often repeating what others have told you:
- You have to be a leader
- Don’t let him get away with that
- He will walk all over you if you give him a choice
- You’ll spoil him with your treats
- A horse needs a firm leader
Place your hand on your heart and ask yourself: “What kind of relationship do I want with my horse?” If you cherish a friendship with your horse, ask yourself questions like “Would a friend allow you to have a choice?” or “Would a friend tell you what to do, all the time?”
How would you feel, if you had a friend that never allowed you a choice, decides literally everything you do (how long you exercise, where you exercise, what exercises you d, with whom, what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, if you can be with your own species, how long, how much space etc.). In R+ training you allow your horse a voice in the matter and offer choices. I think that is a very powerful way to start a friendship. Every good relationship starts with giving.
Children are especially good at heart centered approaches, if you give them space to be who they are. They can ask very direct questions. My son -when he was 4- asked me why other riders carried a whip and what it was for. It was heartbreaking to explain it was used to ‘make the horse listen to the rider’. He simply asked: ‘But that hurt, doesn’t it?’. Yes, it does…
It was very hard to explain that these riders also loved their horses, just like I loved Kyra. I could see that this was a difficult concept to wrap his head around since he grew up seeing me use positive reinforcement to train and ride horses.
If you find it hard to ask your heart, place one or two hands on your heart and think about how much you love your horse…. Then aks yourself that what you’re doing feels right to you. You don’t need to know what to change, that will come. For now you only need to know if you feel good, doing what you’re doing.
Do you feel Guilty?
Do you feel guilt if you think back to all the times you used a whip on your horse, pulled the reins or kicked his flanks hard?
How about you tell yourself that you forgive yourself, so you can move on. You can decide you’ve learned from the experience. You can decide now you know better, you will do better. Give yourself compassion.
Ask yourself what you can do differently next time your horse doesn’t listen. How can you react heart centered instead of head centered.
Why is it hard to change?
I found that many equestriennes are torn apart between what they want in their heart (how they really want to treat their horse) and what the environment (culture, horse world, barn friends) will say…
Going against the grain
They fear going against the grain, especially when they have a bit less years under their belt as equestrienne. The amount of years ‘being in horses’ still is an important measurement for expertise. It’s used by many horse people. “I’ve been training horses all my life”, they say. But that doesn’t say anything about how good they are, or what kind of relationships they develop with horses.
Don’t get intimidated by amount of years or how many horses people trained, ridden or ‘broke’ (that’s the worst: if they break the horse, don’t you think?). Instead be critical!
If this “always have been done this way” does it really means that’s the best way? Or does it mean that it was the best option given the circumstances in that time?
Use critical thinking to overcome insecurity
I like the example I heard someone use about the strict rules in horse riding about: leading from the left, mounting on the left and stabling horses in stands. Those traditions stem from the army and if you have to train 100 non-horse people to ride and use a weapon in a certain amount of time you drill them. You don’t have time to explain the Why and What. In the army you drill.
Is what you’re doing (still) relevant?
Today, we keep horses for fun and want to develop a relationship, is it still relevant for us to only lead and mount from the left and keep them stabled? No, we now know it’s way better to mount from a mounting block and alternate left side and right side mounting. If you ever need to lead two horses, it’s very convenient if one or both horses are used to being led from the right.
We have to opportunity and the knowledge to keep horses in ways to ensure their welfare and that their natural needs are met. So that means: now we know better, we can do better. I hope you want to the best you can! I’m here to support you in that journey!
Improve your confidence as clicker trainer
When I was transitioning as a trainer and rider from R- and P+ to more R+ based training, I discovered that I would easily fall back on old habits. Especially in frustrated situations when if I didn’t have an alternative for when the horse wouldn’t listen (read: obey me).
It was only when I figured out some strategies that I could use instead of whipping, yanking the lead rope or reins or kicking the horse in his ribs.
Here are some strategies that helped me become a better horse trainer/horse person:
- If things don’t go as planned, take a break. Start breathing, stop asking your horse things
- Remember that the horse has a good reason (for him!) to disobey you: you’re not clear, he’s fearful, tired, over threshold or some other reason. Try to figure out what his reason could be. Focus on your horse, not on what you want.
- How can you ask what ever you’re asking in a R+ (positive reinforcement) way? How can you change the environment/your set up to let the horse offer the behaviour, so you can reinforce with an appetitive? Which means he has to do the behaviour first, in order for you to reinforce it afterwards (with a click & treat).Use a Shaping plan so you have a ready made R+ strategy to fall back on
- Prevent using R- and P by changing your training tools and get rid on the ones that are designed to use in R-/P training
Tip #1 Change your Training Tools
- Replace a rope halter for a soft nylon or leather halter with a broad nose band and ear piece
- Get rid of your whip or training/carrot stick. You can’t hit your horse with it, if you don’t have it in your hands. The moment you feel the urge and you’re ‘missing’ your tool, it will be a great reminder that from now on you’re a different horse person.
- Replace a training stick with a pool noodle to remind yourself that you want to create a “moving towards”-energy in your horse (R+/wanting to earn an appetitive) instead of using the “moving away”-energy (flight mode, avoidance of aversive)
- Use an around-the-round pen set up instead of a traditional round pen
Tip #2 Change your Training Set Up
- Work at liberty to see how much you rely on training tools and how much behaviour is really trained
- Work with protective contact and see if your horse wants to engage if it’s clear he can walk away and you can’t follow
Tip #3 Change your Mindset
- Ask your horse what he wants by offering more choices. Reinforce (R+) his choices, so you’ll built trust
- Write a Shaping Plan (one of the 6 HippoLogic Key Lessons for Trainers, your Keys to Success in R+ training)
- Start focussing on finding your tribe! Once you believe that they are out there and you only have to find them, it’s easy.
Last, but not least: Change your environment
- Surround your self with like-minded people! Join my Facebook group or my membership: HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy. Find a group of people who think alike. I’ve found many R+ oriented equestrians at events or in R+ clinics. Make sure to keep in touch. It’s awesome to ask them how they handle a vet or farrier that is too rough or doesn’t believe in R+. How they handle situations when your R- brain kicks in, and what they do about it.
- Read this blog: Finding Fellow Clicker Trainers
Happy Horse training!