Clicker Training Horses

When fear enters the picture

Some of you know that I taught summer camps for kids and horses. I did this with a kind and compassionate horsewoman and I look back at those years and feel good about what we offered. 
While I haven't run the kids camps in several years, I had something happen today which brought back many memories. I invited the neighbor's grandsons to have a ride on my mare, Nikki. She's a big horse and certainly the world looks quite different from her back. 
Anyway, after some time spent brushing and getting to know her, we got her tacked up. I start beginners with a bareback pad that has rough out leather and a handle and I find it is more effective for first time riders than a saddle. With these young lads I had a lead on Nikki, and they didn't even touch the reins. 

So the first youngster, around 10 years old, was quite confident and I even let Nikki trot 3 or 4 steps at a time. A few turns around the arena and then it was time for his younger brother, maybe 7 years old. His grandma helped him up and once he was in place I studied his face carefully. I knew that look, I'd seen it many times. This young boy was afraid, and despite trying to look brave, he had all the signs of someone who thought he'd made a big mistake. 
So the first thing I said was "OK....I'm not going to let this horse move, she's going to just stand here while I practice feeding her. You get yourself comfortable and we'll just stay here. I promise I won't move her; she's just going to stand." I could see his lower lip retract a bit and his eyes got a little clearer. 

We chatted about the horse, he petted her neck, he felt how soft her hair was. Then I asked him, "Are you getting bored?" He nodded yes. "How would you like it if I let her move just ONE step, and YOU can tell me when to go?" It took him about fifteen seconds to decide. He finally nodded yes. 
This is where I just love my mare. I asked her to move ONE front foot; that was it. The lad almost looked disappointed, which is always what I hope for. We stopped, I treated Nikki for doing such a nice job of only moving a foot, and we waited. Before long the youngster was bored again and I asked if he wanted to move two steps. He liked that idea and told me we could move. 

We proceeded that way until we were walking up and down the arena, and he was even able to take his hand out of the handle and wave to his grandma. 
The thing that struck me today was just how similar it is with our horses. If we just WAIT, there is a natural desire to move forward and meet the challenges life has to offer. I've seen it so many times. Stay out of the way and watch people and horses raise their OWN criteria. Create a supportive environment free of PRESSURE and watch them face, with bravery, their fears. 
OK, I do appreciate that the issues don't always get solved in a single day. Sometimes the child needs to just SIT on the horse and not move at all. I am totally OK with that. In my world, the worst thing I can do is to put pressure on the child to achieve more or "get over it." In fact, in our camps, on more than one occasion I encountered children who had "lots of lessons and even jumped" but what I saw was a child who had learned to check out and survive; nobody was home, they just rode it out, terrified. 
So I've learned to take the same approach with horses. Let them set the pace; trust the process. With a horse I set it up so that he is working towards something he wants (reinforcement) and feels empowered to get it (offering behavior that gets clicked/reinforced). With children I set it up so they have CHOICE as to WHEN the criteria is raised and HOW they want the process to proceed. Either way, I am a there to facilitate, not dictate.



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