Choices and Changed Horses

Today marks the end of my first full week of using only positive reinforcement training on my two mares and all I can say is what the heck happened to my horses?

A couple of weeks ago Mother Nature hit us with some majorly uncalled for minus 30 degree weather and more snow in a few days than had fallen all winter… so I decided to battle my cabin fever by trying to absorb as much as I could from the Complete Training Foundation Course I had enrolled in. For more information about the group of amazing trainers at Connection Training, click here. By the time the cold snap ended my head was swimming with an incredible amount of new and intriguing science-based information. I loaded up my treat bag, grabbed my target and stepped out to start my girls and I on our new journey. I was ready. Let’s DO this!

One of the concepts that hit home for me the most was the one about giving your horse ~ a sentient, thinking being ~ a choice. When I first started watching Shawna, Hanna & Rachel’s training videos I noticed that a lot of them were executed with the horses at liberty, which my initial reaction to was “Ya right, nice for them but I’ll be using a halter…” but as I started to understand that so much of this training is based on giving the horse a voice in your partnership, I decided to try giving my girls the freedom to work at liberty, even though doing so went against every traditional training method I had ever been taught. In case you weren’t already aware my rising three year old mare, Willow, is one who most people would label quirky (and yes, sometimes that could be considered an understatement) and my other mare, Phoenix, is often perceived as a very compliant couch potato. She will be nine years old this May. I can tell you that working these two polar opposite personalities at liberty using positive reinforcement has been a total eye opener!

Willow our “watch-horse”. She doesn’t miss much!

Let’s start with our resident “troubled teen”. Little Willow has always maintained a healthy skepticism of people, we suspect since her halter breaking as a weanling went awry. After a year and half of working with her using “natural” horsemanship pressure/release methods I was becoming completely discouraged ~ while she had improved slightly in some areas, she was still very tense and some of her worst behaviours still lingered. What I understand now is that when Willow’s anxiety gets too high, she feels she need to leave – what I didn’t understand before was because I ALWAYS worked her on a rope halter and lead, whenever I increased my pressure in an attempt to “teach” her something she felt had nowhere to go. So when she started to feel anxious her only choice was to either endure it or explode. No wonder she felt trapped and was always tight & tense! This was a HUGE lightbulb moment for us.

Working Willow at liberty meant that initially she left me quite often – something I was honestly saddened by because it made it very clear that after all my time handling her “traditionally” I still lacked a true connection with her. In my heart of hearts I suspected this was the case but was never brave enough to turn her loose so she could downright confirm it. As our CT sessions built over this past week, one of the biggest changes with Willow was that she seemed to understand and appreciate that she could leave if she needed to and, more importantly, that it was okay to do so. Her leaving started feeling less like a failure to me and more like simply another opportunity to get her attention back and ask her to rejoin me. And do you know what ultimately started happening? She. Started. Staying. She will move forward, turn, stop, explore new behaviours and target like a pro all while staying with me. The bold and curious filly I observe her being out in the pasture is now the same horse present in our sessions. She is far more relaxed and no longer snorts at me when I walk up to her like she’s never seen me before in her life. I hate to sound like a sap, but this filly and I have been through our fair share of trying times and this new connection does bring me tears some days ~ gets me right in the feels as the younger generation puts it. It is what I have been longing for since we brought her home almost two years ago. And it all boiled down to something as simple as acknowledging her emotional state and giving her a choice.

My quiet mare has been another experience altogether. While I do feel she and I have shared a strong bond from the day we met, I also feel that she keeps most of her emotions bottled up and her “try” is quite shut down. We have
gone from this conversation during our first sessions:
Me: (presents target) “Phoenix can you touch?”
Phoenix: (looks at target, then looks at me) “Are you serious?”
Me: (removes target, then re-presents it) “Phoenix, touch?”
Phoenix: heavy sigh… (insert eye roll)
… to finally yesterday she made a definite change, there was a sparkle in her eye and she exhibited a genuine enthusiasm about her target! It took her a little longer, but I am excited that she is now willing to even walk forward to touch her target, something I think is huge for a mare whose favourite thing in the world is to stand still as much as possible (and eat).

Phoenix comforting me at the end of a very emotional day

So what the heck happened to my horses? Where are the horses who exited stage right when they saw me walking to the gate unless it was dinner time? They trot right up, vying over who gets to go first. Where is the tense filly who barely tolerated me? She is standing calmly right beside me. Where is the horse who was less than enthusiastic about learning? She is quite happily stepping up to touch her target.

I realize that this is just the beginning, that I haven’t incorporated anything that requires a ton of thought or effort on anyone’s part yet… but if the difference can be so substantial after only one week, how amazing does this have the potential to become?

Cheers and Happy Horsing!

Lisa xo

Have you experienced similar experiences with your own horses? I’d love to know!

Wondering what led me on my path to positive reinforcement training? Check out this post 😉

About Lisa Carmela

A life-long lover of horses, Lisa is on a mission develop a deeper, more meaningful connection with her equine partners. Join her on her journey, exploring how horses past and present have helped her overcome her inner critic and discover true joy in life...

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