Working with horses, as with many other endeavors, it's not unusual to hear the term "tools in your toolbox" to refer to the different methods, exercises, and approaches we can use. We are encouraged to build up our collection of tools so that we have a good selection of possibilities to use in the myriad of situations that come up. While cleaning stalls this morning (always my thinking time), I discovered I think I really have four different tool boxes. I just added the fourth and that is how my train of thought developed.
Frequently, I think my tools are organized more like my husband's shop- scattered everywhere; some are in piles together, not necessarily for any particular reason other than they were used together last; some are strewn along the bench; others are in buckets or hanging from wire baskets. Now while he may be able to go in there and find just the right wrench when he needs it, I can't. I hope I am more successful at finding my own mental horse training tools but it helps to organize them.
I began assembling my first mental horse toolbox as a child. I learned how to groom, tack up, start, stop, steer, etc with the help of my parents, brothers and sisters. I learned about equine behavior from them and also went to camps and picked up some tricks from others- but mostly I learned from just being around horses and ponies. It's easier to catch a pony with a carrot. Sometimes it's best to hide the halter- it's always best to look casual. Two Shetland ponies can "take out" a child of 8 who has cornered them in a shed to flyspray them (that was a big lesson). No pony is truly bombproof- a pony with a log tied to a harness can gallop through the woods quite rapidly before finally detaching the log on passing trees. And of course, when a pony stops quickly, the rider doesn't necessarily do the same. I competed in small horse shows (not at all successfully) and decided it was not for me. Competitive 50 mile trail rides were more fun and I learned about conditioning- more tools.
Growing up in a family of riders, I didn't really have a formal lesson until I was in high school and this is when my second toolbox was started. Rather than just riding by the seat of my pants, I learned there were exercises that could be done to achieve certain outcomes and oh my, the bits and martingales and other pieces of tack that were available. I acquired my first thoroughbred and found that not many of the tools that worked on my Heinz 57 pony gelding also worked on an off-the-track TB mare. I graduated from high school and local instructors. I discovered eventing and was given a wonderful old campaigner to do it with. I loved it and went on to college as well as clinics, working student positions, and jobs with professionals. I read magazine articles and books on the art of dressage (pretty dry). I read about jumping, conditioning, competing and horse management. I learned from barn owners, friends, farriers and vets. Both toolboxes were expanding- the theory was no more important than the daily interactions.
I think my third toolbox was opened when we acquired our daughter's first pony. As grateful as I was to all the ponies and horses of my own, there was a shift in my heart watching a procession of ponies take care of our daughter. I watched as that first saintly pony tensed every muscle in her body when a cascade of snow came off the barn roof behind her (and almost on top of her); but she did not step forward onto the diminutive 3 year old child standing in front of her. I could observe more objectively the way that these ponies offered lessons that she was ready to learn- she had her share of falls, disappointments and close calls. But the gratitude of a mother's heart when they kept bringing her home safely shifted my thinking in irreversible ways. I owed these creatures something. Not just a roof over their heads and food in their tummies, but the respect that they knew more and felt more than I ever gave them credit for.
So the container was open and ready for Clicker Training when it appeared. This gave the horses an opportunity to show me what they could learn. I did not have to force things on them. They truly wanted to work with me. Now it took about ten years and it's still evolving because I had to learn how to balance what was in my previous toolboxes with this new Clicker Training toolbox. It required that I throw away some of my previous tools. That was very hard to do considering how much I had invested in them. The old tools worked: they were easy to find, a familiar fit and they were, quite frankly, easier to use, but I came to realize that didn't mean they were the best tools to use. But Clicker Training offered me the opportunity to combine two things- science and art. It is squarely founded on the principles of behavioral science- research based facts. But is also requires the art of reading horses, respecting them and being gracious enough to consider their feelings.
And feelings are the critical component in my fourth tool- which is really more of a specialized tool than a box per se. It's like a fancy gadget you get at the hardware store that comes with it's own specially fitting case. And it isn't a tool for everyday use although you can use pieces of it on a daily basis. It's called Constructional Approach Technique...although the name as well as the technique is still very much in flux. It's not a tool that every person needs since it is used for horses who are extremely fearful or aggressive. I don't have one of these horses and so I've never really been able to use this tool, but I "bought it" this fall after reading about it for the past six months or so. Like most tools, just reading the directions is important and helpful, but it isn't until you actually use the tool that you really see its benefits. So for now, I'm just keeping it on the shelf and using all my other tools. But if at some point, my regular tools aren't working, I may reach for this new gadget and give it a try.
And here- a blast from my past: