Planting the Seed
We've all been there - you walk into the barn to a group of your barn friends engaged in conversation, and the moment you get within earshot, the conversations stops abruptly or the subject changes. Or maybe, you're out training your horse and you hear the hushed whispers and glances from a group of people watching over by the fence. The reality is, there will be railbirds in every discipline. And not every situation where is seems like people are judging you is such - sometimes it is simply curiosity.
But how can we go about handling these situations without feeling like we are pushing our training ideas onto others? What do we do when their glances turn to questions about the way we train? How do we "plant the R+ seed" in their minds, and how can we help make a difference for them and their horses?
Lead by Example
Perhaps one of my favourite ways to “plant the seed” is to lead by example, simply by quietly going about my business and training while others are around. At one point, I avoided going to the barn during busy hours, so that no one would be there to see me train. And while there was nothing wrong with this – it prevented me from feeling anxious which then would have likely impacted my horse’s behaviour and the quality of my training session – I actually ended up having to face more questions because no one ever saw me do anything with my horse! It certainly took time, but getting to the point where I felt comfortable and confident training around others gave me the opportunity to “show” rather than “tell” what exactly I was doing with my horses.
Maybe your horse refuses to be caught in the field, or is afraid of fly spray, or doesn’t stand to be tied. Many of us turn to R+ because traditional methods just don’t sit right with us, and for our horse’s health, safety, and well-being, something needs to change. Speaking from personal experience, even something as small as your horse coming to meet you at the gate, or willingly putting their nose into the halter can help show others the power of positive reinforcement and spark questions in their mind. Maybe they have struggled with similar issues with their horse, and seeing you solve these problems with your own horse using R+ is a great way to lead by example. Answering the Questions
Perhaps you’ve heard one of these before:
“What exactly do you do with your horse?”
“I heard this clicking sound while you were working with your horse, what is that all about?”
“Why are you giving your horse food?”
When the questions come up – and they inevitably will, it helps to be prepared with an answer. Here are some answers fellow TWE Academy members give when asked these same questions:
“Each situation is special to its own and will be different in a lot of ways but it's always good to have the foundation conversation in the back of our brains so we can pick from it and adjust according to the current conversation and situation. From my experiences, some people will be interested in learning more and ask a bunch of questions (usually I find them to be the non-horsey people) while others need a more defined and short answer. For me, my basic response is something like this: I base my training around positive reinforcement and work with food rewards as the motivator for behavior, rather than pressure and release. I focus on and study equine behavior with the emphasis on rehabilitation, both mentally and physically within the horse. Instead of immediately focusing on riding, the horses and I lay a solid foundation with the use of groundwork and focus on the emotional and physical state of the horse to lead to greater success in our journey together; I strive to be proactive instead of reactive in the process. Growing a trusting relationship through the value of giving the horse a choice in the training, I help the horse work through trauma, pain, fear, and create a way for the horse to thrive in everything it does.... etc. Depending on how interested they are the details change and differ accordingly.” -Tessa G.
“Personally, I always say clicker training to non-horse and non-R+ people, and force-free training to psych-savvy people. Clicker training is just easier for people who aren't familiar with this community to understand as they typically know what it is pertaining to dogs, and while force-free doesn't completely describe what we do, I feel that very little traditional training is actually force-free so the category fits. If I wanted to describe it in its entirety, I would call it force-free, holistic positive reinforcement based training with an emphasis on species-appropriate equine management. -Natalie H.
I normally say I focus on groundwork and not using punishment. Or I just say force-free clicker training - I know there's so much more to what we do but I find that's the simplest way, and if they are interested I'll go more into it! -Olivia D.
"I’m doing positive reinforcement training, which includes clicker training. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it. It’s getting more popular in the dog training world, but still very new in the horse world. It’s focused on learning theory and classical and operant conditioning. In short, positive reinforcement means adding something pleasurable (for horses it’s usually food) to increase the likelihood of a behavior to occur. Negative reinforcement is removing something aversive to increase the likelihood of a behavior to occur. You also have positive and negative punishment. Most horse riding and training is focused in negative reinforcement. I’m just changing my approach with how I train different behaviors with my horse. Eventually, I will train the behaviors needed to be able to ride him again, but I’m not in any rush. I’m enjoying the relationship and the connection I’m forming with Ren (my horse)! And clicker training is just a form of positive reinforcement, where the sound of the clicker is an indicator of the correct behavior and that the reward (food) is coming." -Jen K.
When I first started clicker training and positive reinforcement, answering questions like these was difficult and intimidating. I was still navigating the waters of learning theory and species-appropriate care, and was still trying to learn and answer these questions in my own mind. Answering with eloquent words and scientific explanations seemed desperately out of reach. Until I felt confident in my own knowledge and ability to answer the tough questions, I would refer them to The Willing Equine’s social media and website, where they could find the answers to their questions themselves. Referring them to an R+ professional helps take some of the pressure off of you – and if they’re truly interested, they have a resource to look into on their own time. The inability to answer their questions in full doesn’t make you any less of a trainer or a horseperson – learning is a journey, and information and confidence are acquired over time and experience. All that being said, you don't owe anyone an explanation for why you do what you do. Your journey with your horse is your own, and while it seems impossible to believe at times, other people's judgment, questioning, and criticism is not a reflection on your ability as a trainer or your value as a person. This podcast is another great related resource: The Willing Equine Podcast: Episode 34 // Conversations with Family, Friends, and Professionals
Pick your battles Maybe one of your friends is tacking up their horse and while they're doing up the girth the horse goes to bite at them. You know your friend well enough to ask, "Is everything ok with your horse? Does he normally bite at you while you're doing up the girth?" Perhaps this leads to a healthy discussion on saddle fit and ulcers, and you can make a difference in the life of that horse without necessarily pressuring your friend into feeling like they have to switch their training methods.
Here's the key though - knowing who you're talking to. The unfortunate reality is, you will cross paths with people who, no matter how much you lead by example and show them the power of positive reinforcement, aren't going to change their beliefs and practices. Your well thought out response on facebook may be lost on someone who just isn't ready to hear it at that point. Knowing when to make the strides to plant that seed and when to let it go will save you energy - energy that you can in turn pour into your horse or someone who is truly interested in learning more about R+. Training using R+ with our horses is not common practice - yet. But with time, by normalizing this way of training, and by planting the seed in the minds of others, I hope that one day, it may become the norm.