We had a fantastic clinic in Pijnacker on Saturday, with wonderful horses and humans. I hope that Els or Danielle will write something too, to give you a second impression from another point of view, but for now I will write about what I saw during the clinic.
We started with a theory lesson in the morning where I was talking about some basic things concerning methods and goals. I tried to explain that if you use pressure or positive reinforcement as a main motivator, this has nothing to do with being good or bad, but that you simply have to know what attitude you want to develop in your horse, and with that it becomes clear what method fits for you. I sketched our way of interacting with horses and discussed some arguments that usually come up when people are discussing if pressure and dominance are necessary or not, showed some pictures and videos and then we went out to train with the participantsÂ´ horses for the first time. After that we had lunch, then another theory lesson and then we trained with the horses for the second time. I will try write about each horse separately. I will not use names of people or horses because of privacy reasons, except for Els and Danielle who organized the clinic, so itÂ´s clear that they participated anyway.Icelandic 1
The first Icelandic horse was a gelding who had been â€œstubborn and uncooperativeâ€, as the owner calls it, when she first got him. Her handling of him was not unfriendly but quite firm with clear expectations and immediate consequences if those expectations were not met. For those two, our first goal was to make sure that the horse realized that now he was calling the shots and, more importantly, to help the owner see all those nice and rewardable things her horse was doing. Like you can often observe it when a horse has been trained in a pressure-release way and then the pressure is taken off, his cooperation went to a level of about zero, so this was a tough job for the owner, who seemed to be used to thinking in terms of proper exercises and increasing their difficulty not only after the horse had been rewarded for the easier version, but at the first sign of the horse managing to do it, so that it was rather difficult for him to be successful. But the owner did a wonderful job and I really admire her for opening up to something that is so contradictory to what she had done before. At the end of the first session the horse had realized that humans can communicate and that even if there was no pressure, it might be a good idea to do things with them. A nice little success for those two.
And then there was the second session in the afternoon. They entered the arena and started interacting, and I was totally blown away. What I had the privilege to witness there was a transformation from a human just giving cues and a horse reacting with more or less enthusiasm, to a human actually seeing his horse, building up a real two-way communication. I hardly dared to interfere and kept my comments to a minimum. This was because I really felt that the process those two were going through was something that required them to be open for each other instead of trying hard to improve a specific thing. They were at a point where I think it was much better to remain silent in order not to disturb the communication that was building up, and I kept my talking to some positive reinforcement, telling them how great they were doing, and some minor comments about the timing in their communication now and then. The effect of the ownerÂ´s new behavior was reflected in the horseÂ´s actions at once. He started to focus and really listen to her, trying to find out what it is she was saying instead of just waiting until a reaction was necessary to avoid pressure.
When they were finished, Danielle asked me to tell people some general things about bodylanguage. This was funny, because for me telling them something general about bodylanguage is just as hard as telling someone how the German language works in general. But I said that if I could say something general at all, then it was to watch your hips. And as this nice little Icelandic was standing next to me, I asked him if he wanted to walk with me and show them what I meant. And he did! We went forwards, then showed some bending on the circle and even a shoulder-in â€“ all by turning the hips. Oh, and we also learned backing up while I was standing behind him by using bodylanguage and he reacted to that so nicely. I was so happy about the little man!
Altogether I think both of them did an amazing job, the horse because he decided to be cooperative and interested in his human, even though their interaction before had had a totally different basis, and the human for being so open and willing to try hard for her horse, even though this was hard for her as a person and as an experienced horse-handler. Even if I did not teach them a lot (I hardly said anything in the second session anymore), I think that during that one day they really learned something new, from each other and about each other.Icelandic 2
Icelandic horse 2 was a cute little mare who was totally sweet and calm, but not exactly the one to show much spontaneous activity. Her favourite thing to do was eating the plants next to the arena. If I would work with my own horses or had as much time as I wanted, I would let the horse do that as long as he wants to, but when you have 2x half an hour per horse and a lot of spectators who want to learn something from the horse, then it would be a pity to spend that time with doing nothing but watching him eat. So we had to set up a rule that the horse was allowed to do whatever he wants but not eat. But how to do that when you want to give a clinic about interacting with horses in a non-pressure way? In the theory lessons I did tell the participants that there were situations when I used pressure, but still putting pressure on the horse as my first action with a new horse did not seem to be the best idea. We decided to block the horse away from the food instead, by placing ourselves between the horse and the food so that she canÂ´t eat, and rewarding her for each time she lifted her head. Soon the little mare realized that eating was not an option, but still she was pretty much uninterested and before we could even think of doing something with her, we had to make sure to keep her with us, so that she gets the chance to realize that interacting with humans will be rewarding from now on. This does require a lot of timing, which those two did not yet have in the beginning. The horse wandered away from the woman and she only started reacting when she had already lost the horseÂ´s attention entirely. We tried to work on that a bit and reward every initiative of the horse when she was with us. She became a bit more interested and this was a nice little success, but just like with the other Icelandic, at the end of the first training session I was not that happy with the results.
But then there was the second session. Right from the beginning the little mare was more motivated, but then she fell back to eating and the owner had a hard time stopping that, so I took over and tried to use precisely timed little hip movements to stop the eating. This means that I was standing next to the horse, rewarding her for attending to me. At the moment when I saw her attention wandering towards the grass, I looked at her in a more alert way and as soon as she started moving to the grass, I quickly moved my hip like I was blocking her. Just a few centimeters, so it was no real physical blocking, but when the timing was precise, this resulted in the mare hesitating for a moment, which I could then use to praise and reward her lavishly. After watching us the owner said that now she saw what I was doing, so she tried it too and it worked at once. But this was not too surprising, because even though she had a few things to learn about communicating with her horse, she was a very sensitive person who really had a good feeling for those things and, once she knew what to do and what to look for, she could do that in no time. Our main training goal was to precisely time her steps and movements, and in turn this made the little mare interested in her owner. She realized that actually that human can communicate! And then the circle started: the mare payed attention to her owner and the owner became happy about this, so that the mare was even more motivated to cooperate, which made the owner even happier and the mare still much more motivated. In the end of the second part we (the other participants and me) could see a human totally delighted about her little horsey, smiling and shining and acting like she wanted to hug her mare to pieces. I really had to hold back my tears and still, two days later, whenever I think of this picture of her bending down to her horse with her face touching the horseÂ´s muzzle and the joy in her face being so obvious, totally forgetting that there are other people around, my eyes become all watery.The warmblood mare
Els worked with a warmblood mare from the stable where we did the clinic. She did not know that horse before and only trained with her in the first session, because in the afternoon the owner was riding her. Maybe Els wants to write something about her, but I will leave it out for now, because Els has never played with this horse before, so there is no prehistory, no change in their communication and probably no chance that this horse will be worked with in that way again. Nothing happened that was totally different from what was happening in the first sessions with the other horses. It was a nice mare, but I think writing about the other horses will be more interesting â€“ or at least for me the training with them was more interesting.
But of course Els was an angel just like we know her, ever so nice and soft with the horses and very attentive to them. Such an inspiration to watch her, especially for uncareful and bold Romys. The little stallion
We got a little Hackney stallion from the stable where the clinic was taking place. A friend of Danielle worked with him. She did a great job right from the beginning. Her problem was only that she had this girlfriend syndrome, waiting for her horse to please, please give her some attention, instead of just going away and doing something for herself when the horse decided not to attend to her. But she managed to stop that very soon and then she could even motivate the little stallion to trot and canter with her. She experimented with her bodylanguage a lot and was quite good at that, finding out which components annoyed the little one and in which way to change that so that she could make herself understandable.
In the end of the second session we were lucky to have a horse who was getting excited about the food and started coming into my personal space quite a lot, so we got the chance to learn how a human could deal with the excitement resulting from foodrewards. He was not the type of horse who carefully pushes you a bit or just becomes a bit impolite â€“ he was a horse who would really become dangerous. He literally ran into me, pushed me as hard as he could and tried to get that food, no matter how. He even bit me and I was quite happy about that â€“ you can tell people a lot about not punishing the horse, but when they can see it in practice, I think this can be much more useful. First I tried to get him out of my space somehow by calmly moving my arms around me and turning or pushing his head away from me. No fast movements, no raised energy, just calm and constant protection of my body by making it impossible for him to touch me â€“ and rewards for backing up or standing still of course. After he had learned this, which only took him about five minutes by the way, we also learned that he could wait for his foodrewards with some sort of patience instead of trying to get them out of my hand as quick as possible. He was great at this too. Such a nice little horse and I am sure that if someone would interact with him more often, he would become a fantastic playmate. He is just so energetic and smart!Moon
Another story that almost makes me cry every time I think of it (haha, who needs romantic movies when he can watch humans learning to communicate with their horses?)â€¦
Danielle is one of the organizers of the clinic, so we were staying at her place the night before. In the evening she told me that her mare Moon was not very interested in her and often did not come when she wanted to take her out, or even went away and did not let Danielle catch her. When she wanted to get her to the arena where we had the clinic, she sent someone to get me so that I could watch. So I went to the yard and what I saw was a woman having a horse on a rope, but that rope being the only connection between them. There was no communication going on, Danielle did not even look at her horse, although in human-human interaction she is such a friendly and open person. Moon reacted accordingly and also did not attend to Danielle at all, which is quite logical, because when there are no signals coming from your human, why should you react to him? The good thing was that Moon has not made bad experiences with Danielle, so she was not afraid to do the wrong thing and was not nervous about humans at all â€“ she had only learned that they did not matter. So the main task was to look at her horse and imagine she was walking next to a human, where you also donÂ´t just ignore him and only look at him when you want something but have an actual conversation going on, even when you are not talking all the time. During the first training session it was already getting better when Danielle started attending to Moon, but it felt like they were bored with each other and did not know what to do. I asked her to only do what is fun and, more importantly, to show it to Moon when something is fun and she has done something well.
In the afternoon, when Danielle had gone away to get Moon for the second session, she stayed away long and Els asked me if I could maybe go and look for her, because maybe she was in trouble and needed help. So I went out of the arena and to the street, and what I saw really took my breath away: Two friends walking along the street and chatting, calm but very interested in each other. A constant conversation. The whole training was like that. They did not do fancy exercises or spectacular moves, but were looking at each other all the time. When MoonÂ´s attention was slipping away and moving to the grass, one look from Danielle was enough and she was back immediately.
In the evening, when Danielle walked over the yard to get something and passed the pasture, Moon left the herd, walked to the gate and stood there, nickering and looking after Danielle. She waited at the gate most of the time while we were having dinner and whenever Danielle passed, she nickered. The horse who had not wanted to go away from the other horses and who had sometimes even not let her owner catch her until one day before did not want to leave the gate anymore and did not stop calling her for the whole evening. The last thing I saw out of the car window when we left was Moon and Danielle (who had finally let her out of the pasture), playfully trotting away from the herd.
Overall it was such a fantastic day. Some of the changes in the horses were amazing and I think that all of them did a great job teaching their humans. The participants and spectators were wonderful, so interested and positive, and I was especially happy to finally meet Inge, ElsÂ´ lovely mother. I have heard a lot about her before and she is just utterly nice. She would be such a great horse person if they had a horse. But what was the nicest thing for me were not only the single participants, but the energy coming from all of them together. ItÂ´s just so much easier to be happy about what your horse is offering when the others are shining and smiling too. Oh, I am so happy we did this clinic after all.