To most people, the thought of change is terrifying, especially when it comes to the life of horses. It takes a lot of courage to step out of the box and dive into something new, whether that involves training techniques, equine nutrition, or just overall horse care. Believe me, I know how difficult it can be to step out of your comfort zone when you *think* you are doing the right thing; when you have been doing things a certain way for years so why change if it “seems” to be working. But the thing is, the world is evolving and growing everyday, so we have to learn and grow with it. We have to accept reality and move along with the universe by being open minded to outside knowledge.
Making “the switch” is never easy...
I found positive reinforcement and clicker training in late fall of 2018 after my horse, Ryan, and I went through months of total chaos and emotional challenges due to very intense injuries. When I found R+ my whole world was flipped upside down. I immediately started questioning everything I thought I had known about horses prior to the discovery. My mind was being blown up by the education that was being poured into my brain and I didn’t know what to think or do at the time because I was so lost; I was being torn between paths.
Prior to this, I was one of those girls that thrived off of riding and showing in the world of eventing. It was literally my life and it was all I did; everything revolved around riding and getting better and better. Showing was my world! The atmosphere filled me with indescribable joy and energy that could not be found anywhere else. *I* loved it and never wanted to stop.
But when I found R+, my heart was torn. Have I really been causing my horse all of this emotional damage? Do they really think this way and handle situations in such a manner? As I thought about it, it all started coming together. Truth be told, it felt like someone had pushed a reset button on me because as I thought about it more and more, that’s how I used to view horses; having emotion and feelings. But as I started entering the traditional horsemanship world, those thoughts were being transformed into new beliefs. I was no longer thinking about what the horse felt, but instead what *I* felt and desired. Instead of thinking that a horse performed an unwanted behavior because he was in pain, I thought that the horse “acted up” because he was being disrespectful.
See the difference? See how my natural thoughts actually made sense and my trained thoughts were inaccurate. This is so because humans have completely tweaked the reputation of a horse. Horses are now known as “dangerous” and “naughty” animals because we have made them to be “known” as that. We have ingrained fake and untruthful thoughts into the human brain, causing us to think horses don’t have feelings and emotions. For some reason we treat them like a whole other species. They are still an animal! You wouldn’t beat and control a dog to death if they didn’t sit when you asked, would you? So why would you punish the tar out of a horse just because it didn’t jump?!
An animal is an animal; they all have feelings, emotions, a brain, and a heart. They don’t know what “respect” means; they don’t try to “overrule” you because they want to “be the boss” of you; they don’t know what those terms mean. They are wild animals that have been domesticated by the human world and we have completely turned their emotions upside down; WE have caused all of the undesired behaviors and events because we have pursued using these big animals for our entertainment, WE have chose to ignore their feelings and control them like a robot. But what would happen if we took their well-being into consideration for once? What would happen if we allowed them to say no? How do we change these thoughts?
One of the biggest challenges I experienced when finding/switching to R+ was the emotional roller coaster I was suddenly put on. What are others going to think of me putting my horse’s feelings into consideration? How am I ever going to do anything with my horses if I can barely get them them to do what I want when using force? Will they ever say yes? What happens when I accidentally revert back to force and punishment? Or will I ever be able to ride, let alone show, again?
I was completely lost, but I knew I had to change because riding and training with R- just wasn’t going to work anymore, neither for me or Ryan. But, I still wanted to be involved with horses. After doing tons of reading, watching videos, contacting professionals, etc... I decided to throw in the towel and start completely over. Everything I thought I knew was forgotten and in December, I started Ryan completely over from the ground.
As I started training, those questions began to unfold and hit me all at once. I was suddenly overwhelmed with judgement from the people around me; they all thought it was “just a game” and I wasn’t “doing” anything with Ryan. To them, he was on “easy street” and was being spoiled. It truly broke my heart, but I had to get through it because all that mattered to me now was that I was changing my horse’s life; the amount of joy that came when giving Ryan a choice brought me to tears and allowed me to get in my own world. I didn’t care what anybody thought of me or how “crazy” I looked because I was actually giving Ryan his life; I gave him his voice back and that can’t be taken away by anyone’s judgment.
One of the great things that this switch has done to improve my well-being through my daily life is that it has taught me self acceptance, it gave me confidence and allowed me to shut out other opinions. I learned how to rely on my opinions and research whether others were against me; to accept myself not matter what everyone else thought. It has given me confidence to stay true to who I am because the only thing that matters is why I am doing it — for Him and Ryan. Now, no matter what or who you believe in, you will always be doing it for you and your horse. Nothing else matters as long as you and your partner are happy.
As I started training with Ryan, I suddenly realized I didn’t need to apply force to get the behaviors I wanted. I was shocked at how fast he was learning, but also very shocked at the amount of trauma this horse was unpacking. He suddenly realized that I wasn’t going to *make* him doing anything anymore; he was allowed to say no. Now trust me, in the beginning when he was unpacking all of the stress, anxiety, trauma, sense of feeling shut down, etc... there were a lot of times when he would say no because he had the freedom; I was no longer *making* him do things, but instead I was *asking*.
He wasn’t going to put up with me asking him to do things he didn’t want or feel comfortable with, so he wasn’t scared to say no because he knew I wasn’t going to punish him. Now let me just say that even though he was saying no, the feeling I got when I knew Ryan had a say in his life; when I knew he was starting to trust me... that’s what overpowered everything else. That brought me so much joy and comfort in itself that I didn’t even care if he said no. The part that made this even better was when he started saying yes, and it started becoming more and more consistent. I would get less and less occasions when Ryan would say no because he started trusting and becoming willing. His stress and anxieties were no longer as high because he wasn’t being controlled; he could finally breath! Once I gave Ryan his voice back, I got WAY more than I ever imagined in return. He started *offering* behaviors! I had no reason to use force because he was becoming a willing partner and actually enjoying his life all because I made a “simple” change.
I suddenly became so in-tune with my emotions when I found R+. It made me notice the little things in life are the biggest accomplishments. It caused me to realize that every little thing I did mattered and made an impact. One of the biggest things I didn’t expect when switching to R+ was the hardest struggle of letting go of old habits; to stop using punishment, force, and control. Even though I didn’t *want* to use it anymore, it still overpowered me at times and drug me back into my old self. But when that did happen, it put me in an emotional breakdown. The simplest thing like pulling on the lead rope or reverting to little punishment at times caused me SO much stress and anxiety. I was an emotional wreck, but I had to hide it because no one around me understood my feelings. No one knew the war that was going on inside of me — the war from trying to escape my “old self” to enter my “new self”.
It was the hardest thing to handle because it set back Ryan’s trust he had towards me. I didn’t know what to do when I did revert back; I bawled and bawled about my one second reaction that had caused so much damage. But as we continued to train, those moments started meaning less; they started to have small meaning to Ryan because our relationship and trust was so strong that the frequent good moments overpowered the occasionally bad ones. Although, I still sometimes struggle with this today, it happens less and less every time. I can’t remember the last time I went back to my old self and used physical punishment. The time between events when I use punishment or force spread out more and more each time and instead of happening every couple weeks, they happen every few months. There is hope and you will let go of those old habits; believe in yourself and never give up!
This brings me to the most important topic and probably the hardest for most people: giving up riding and the competition world for R+. When I knew I had to restart Ryan over from the ground to be able to get back on him where he would be in a state of peace, it was a huge struggle to wrap my brain around. “I’m not going to be able to ride my horse for months.” It broke my heart at first, BUT... as we started training and I saw how happy he was, riding and competition started to fade out of my thoughts. The feeling of having a spirited and willing horse overpowered all of my own desires. But, there were/still are times when I struggle with the fact that I can’t show anytime soon. The fact that I can’t go into that atmosphere and experience the thrill running through the field at a full gallop still breaks my heart. But what breaks my heart even more was the way I was doing it. Yes, I loved it, but did Ryan? Was Ryan calm and content at shows and performing with choice or was he anxious and overwhelmed while being forced into performance? The knowledge that I have gained about horse behavior and learning theory cannot be forgotten or “avoided” at times. I can’t go back into thinking that a swishing tail or a speedy horse means their “excited” or a run out at a fence means they got “lazy”. I CAN’T undo what I have learned. I CAN’T unsee certain things because of the knowledge I have recently accumulated on this sport and horses.
So yes, I loved showing, but look where I am now... I have a true loving and trusting relationship with my horses; the bonds are unbreakable and that matters way more to me than going to a show. The rush I used to get when going to a show is now triggered by the little or big things we accomplish in training. R+ has made me realize that riding isn’t everything; I have learned that it’s not what made me happy because as I look back in what I thought was happiness during schooling, I was sad. I was sad I was treating my horse in such a harsh and controlling way. But I didn’t know any different so I thought it was the only way and therefore made me “happy.”
As I look on life now, this is what I consider true happiness; this is what I call thriving in something that I love. I have a honest and open two way communication system with my horses and that means the world to me; that overpowers anything else. In times of self doubt and struggles where I feel like I don’t make any progress in training, I just remember the journey; what can I take from this to improve my skills for the future? That’s what matters most.
Positive reinforcement has taught me an abundance amount of patience. I had to have patience with Ryan and myself; I had to wait for the day that Ryan said yes on his own. It was a bumpy ride to get there, but the destination came sooner than it felt. It was the beginning of a wonderful journey and if you can get through the first couple months of being patient and content while waiting for great things, then your improving patience skills will carry out into your training from there. You will have a lot more recognition for time and will be thankful for the hard and long journeys as well as the easy and short ones.
Although I am still not able to ride, I honestly don’t care. One day we will get there no matter how long it takes. What matters to me is that Ryan is properly physically and mentally prepared under saddle work. A lot of physical and behavioral/mental damage was done to him during his 20 years of traditional training and riding, so I am being patient with myself and him so that he can one day be ridden without force. As long as I have patience, everything is possible.
To wrap all of this up, I guess I want to say that positive reinforcement and clicker training has changed my life. Change can be a scary and horrible experience or it can be an encouraging and strength building opportunity, but it is up to you to decide how you want to live the change. You can either sink into depression and anxiety or you can take the challenges and turn them into a learning experience, allowing them to open a way to grow and evolve to become a better person, a better trainer, and a better horse owner. It is always hard to choose the second option because it is difficult to make light of a dark situation, but it is possible to pull yourself out and turn it around into a tunnel full of light. I was in a dark tunnel for months drowning in my own depression and anxiety from Ryan’s injuries and not being able to ride or do anything with my horse. But, I later found a way to make light of the situation and pull my myself up with the strength of faith, I found R+.
In the tunnel full of darkness, I was able to bring light into the atmosphere with the help of hope, joy, and peace pushing me through to a new chapter in my life. Once I took hold of the situation, I could fully embrace the change that was occurring, I was able to find the true meaning and reason behind my struggles. I encourage you to always take hold of the situation and fully take in your surroundings, find a way to change that will allow you to become a better person that will help change the world.