This post will include some assumptions on my part. There are, of course, as many different theories on training horses as there are horsepeople. The popularity of Natural Horsemanship has opened up many new ways of looking at things but the varied opinions among those specialties is wide as well. Clicker Training differs from most, if not all, Natural Horsemanship approaches although some individuals combine the two. The critical component to Clicker Training is the use of Positive Reinforcement...misunderstood by many. While pressure and release of pressure is a reward system, it is Negative Reinforcement, not Positive Reinforcement. Pressure and release is the traditional way of training horses- use of leg pressure for going forward or sideways, rein or rope pressure to ask for turns or stops, as well as seat pressure. Natural Horsemanship has helped some people refine that technique- improving one's feel and response. But the "make it happen" for many is still in there...the pressure remains or is increased until the horse responds. Then and only then is the pressure removed.
Escalating pressure is one of the things that drives people to turn to Positive Reinforcement. Some horses (dogs, etc) do not respond to levels of pressure that their handlers are comfortable using. And when we feel ourselves increasing that pressure or being coached to increase that pressure in order to get our desired result, we can't bring ourselves to continue. Unfortunately there are many "tools" which allow us to deceive ourselves about the level of pressure we are using. Bigger bits and spurs, tighter nosebands as well as devices which trap a horse in a certain position (side reins, martingales, bitting rigs) all allow us to use the same amount of muscle, but these devices transfer that pressure into much more serious levels of discomfort for the horse.
This is not to say that Clicker Trainers never use pressure and release techniques. But the more one practices, the more ways one finds to teach things without it. The harder thing for me has been to change my internal approach. Over and over I have found that the techniques are very different depending on your mental approach. You hear people speak of "asking" a horse to do something. But it's sometimes difficult to see the difference between asking and telling. Is there a threat behind that ask? What happens if the horse says "no"? If the horse knows that saying no will result in punishment or escalating pressure, then we really aren't asking. However, if the horse knows that nothing will happen if he says no, but good things will happen if he says yes, that gives him more of a choice in the matter. That is the core of the switch from a horse who is truly working with you, looking for things to do that will please you, as opposed to a horse who has shut down and will do nothing unless told to...because he fears the consequences.
So what happened at the clinic with Alexandra Kurland to make me review this whole topic yet again? We were practicing her rope handling techniques. She has a great exercise which demonstrates how much more sensitive we (and horses) are when we are relaxed. Tightness and tension block our ability to feel. She also has her Tai Chi wall technique which turns a simple cotton lead into a solid wall to prevent a pushy horse from going over top of you...maintaining a quiet and calm presence without having to get "big" or "loud". While doing this Tai Chi wall exercise with some of the participants who had not done it before, I was having them pretend they were differing temperaments so I could put different amounts of intent into my response. While explaining this to Alex, I said I still felt like "muscle" was my focus. I found myself preparing for the Tai Chi wall by planting my feet and tightening up my arms in preparation for a pushy horse. She worked with me for a while and simply said "take the make-it-happen out of your request". And then she had me go back to the previous way I had been doing it. One of the other participants (Caroline, the wonderful organizer of the clinic) said she could see my body language change as I went from one approach to the other. I could tell I had to intentionally shake off the tension in my body to remove the "make it happen". Alex had Caroline and I work with each other for a while (amazing what you can learn and practice about working with horses without even have a horse present). Caroline could easily feel when the "make it happen" was present or not present in my request. The more I did it, the more I realized there was, as I called it, an "invitation" within my movement. It just seemed like I could slide down the rope and not hesitate at all and blow right through the invitation spot to go directly to back up. Or, I could slide down the rope, and during the moment of contact, hesitate for a nanosecond to say "are you there?". That nanosecond made the difference. It felt to me like I was inviting the horse (or the person playing horse) to work with me, rather than telling.
So, where do we draw the line between this and just letting a horse walk all over us? What if the horse says no to the request or doesn't even listen to the request? I'm not sure I can put that into words. There is still intent in the request. One of the reasons it's hard to put in words is because the words have been used before and with different meanings. I want to say I am still the "leader" in the relationship, but that has all kinds of connotations from various professionals. There is definitely a feeling of confidence involved, but not one that is derived from having successfully "won battles" in the past. Rather it's a feeling of confidence that comes from having a tool box full of techniques (as opposed to a tack box full of weapons) that I can use to develop a relationship with a horse that involves the horse looking to me for good times. It's the difference between being invited to do something by someone you like and enjoy spending time with versus being invited by someone who has been unkind or rude or demanding of you in the past.
I most look forward to using this new feeling with Percy. I know all the horses deserve it but Percy has his mother's sensitivity and is so light already...but that sensitivity can also lead to him being overboard if I'm not careful. I think it will be very important to make sure he is with me at a deep level before I start asking him to do more and more.