Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Yesterday when I arrived at the barn, Manta and her owner had already left for a trail ride. So, when I took Little Love out of the paddock, both Kira and Metku became worried and called out to her several times while I was grooming. I didn't have a lot of time, but decided to go for a walk anyways. Little Love left the yard enthusiastically, but as soon as she heard Metku's frantic cries, she became nervous, too. I powered on, walking down the hill and stopping to graze for a moment. The wind was picking up and I could feel rain drops on my face. We started walking further down the road, but soon heard the neighs of the two horses who had been left behind at the barn. Little Love spun around, screaming her answer. She tossed her head and jigged beside me; wanting to turn back. I could feel my pulse get quicker. Should I go home or should I bite the bulled and keep going? Having been in the situation so many times with Little Love, I knew this could go either way.

I decided to walk further. Little Love followed, but every so often would trot a few steps and then plow to the side of the road to grab a bite to eat. This is really uncharacteristic of her; usually she doesn't try to eat grass unless we have agreed upon this. I pulled her face away from the grass, slightly agitated. What was going on? Little Love responded by lifting her head as high as she could and screaming to the horses back at the barn. We were so far away that I thought we wouldn't be able to hear them anymore, but we could. Little Love called again, loudly. She was getting more and more nervous. I was starting to think about turning home.

When Little Love yanked at the rope again to grab leaves from a tree, as if her life depended on it. I felt around my pockets for a treat, but instead found my clicker. I hadn't remembered shoving it into the left pocket, but there is was. I pulled a carrot piece out of my other pocket. Little Love was neighing again, her head turned to look back at the barn on the other side of the field. I walked on, holding the clicker, waiting for the right moment, hoping I was not too late, that there would be a moment of calmness long enough to click. A few seconds later it came; Lilo turned her head towards the road, her ears forward. It was just a second, but that was all I needed. Click. Immediately Little Love's facial expression changed from tense to curious. She knew what the click meant. I gave her a carrot. She ate the carrot, but then neighed again, trying to spin around me. I kept walking and for a moment Little Love looked down the road, striding forward. Click. Her expression softened. She got a carrot. Walking confidently forward, she turned to look down the road again. Now she was expecting the click. We walked further, and I clicked and treated a few times. Little Love never called back to the barn again. In fact, I think she sort of forgot about that. Five minutes later we ran into Manta and her owner, and continued our walk together.

Afterwards I thought about what had happened and how powerful the clicker had been in that situation. It had literally turned Little Love's anxiousness to a calm and composed focus. I remembered how in Switzerland she had been scared in the in door arena in the winter when the wind slammed into the metal structure with such force that is sounded like the roof would blow off any minute. All the horses had been nervous, some (like Lilo) even bolting from one end to the other, hauling their helpless riders across the arena. On winter days like that I would enter the arena with Lilo in hand, holding a target training object (I had a long stick with a sponge taped to the end), a clicker and a bag of carrot pieces. When the wind was howling in the corners and other horses were bucking and rearing around us, Little Love would be standing stock still, touching the target with her nose. She was visibly comforted by this exercise, calming down as soon as she saw the target training stick. It was as if she knew it would keep her mind off everything else, providing her with an out from a scary situation; a situation in which she had been punished before.

It is amazing how the mind works, how it tries to find ways to cope. I realize now that perhaps Little Love was trying to do just that when she plowed into the grass, frantically taking bites as her herd mates were screaming in the background. Maybe she knew that if she focused on eating the grass, she would be able to calm down and collect herself. It is equally amazing to realize how much more powerful the positive can be compared to the negative. It has the potential to be like a reset button that allows you to start from scratch. At least in Little Love's case I feel that I am learning ways to stop the old fear-based patterns from repeating themselves. I also feel she, too, has understood the importance of this and is working towards gaining more control over her own emotions.


  1. Your thoughts about the clicker providing a way for Lilo to focus are very interesting. My retired eventer would get very nervous when asked to perform (although oddly, he liked to show off). Sometimes all it took was walking into an arena to make him tense and start to jig. How much of this was feeding off the rider's nerves and how much of it was his own nerves I don't know, but we learned to work through it by keeping focus on each other. The more complicated the dressage movements I asked for before going into the arena, the more he would relax. However, letting him walk on a loose rein in warmup was the surest way to make him nervous. It was almost as if, given a moment where he didn't have to concentrate, he would look around and go "Eeek! An arena! Panic!" and things would go downhill from there.

    I do wonder if some sensitive horses "think" more than others - or if they all do, but the more "relaxed" ones have just learned to tune it all out and not care? Horses are such interesting creatures...

  2. That's funny - I totally just discovered my clicker yesterday after wondering for a while if I still even owned one. You inspire me to try it out.

  3. I think the clicker in these cases provides a gentle way for the horses to create new neuro pathways in their brains. Interesting how Little Love was trying to eat grass ( however frantically!) to bring herself some calmness. It also allows the horse to think their way through a situation instead of reacting to all the other negatives, including a rider who might punish it for behaving "badly". I can just picture Lilo in the indoor arena, complete chaos around her and she standing there doing "clicker" and remaining calm! Wow.

  4. I've found this many times myself. When I frist started with it, asking my mare to touch a target for a click and treat was the only thing that brought her attention back to me and calmed her down. It's more powerful than most people give it credit for.