Friday, March 2, 2012


Riding Kayak has brought me a number of important lessons about being a novice working with a species I am not intimately familiar with.  I am not saying that I am not familiar with horses; I am!  I am just not as familiar with horses as I am with dogs.  Lately I have been thinking about my role as trainer, and my horse’s role as learner, combined with our joint role of being partner’s to one another. 

Some of the time, when I ride it is all about Kayak.  It is all about what she needs and when she needs it, and the skills I am trying to develop in her.  It is about meeting strange things successfully and facing fears and overcoming them.  Our most recent challenge has been puddles.  As far as Kayak is concerned, putting a hoof in a puddle is really, really dangerous and she might be sucked deep into a vortex from which horses never return.  When we walk up to standing water, she snorts and huffs and puffs and if I am too insistent, she may side step and crow hop.  As someone with a strong back ground in behaviour, I know how to get through this using classical conditioning, and approach and retreat and clicking for moves towards that puddle.  It took me about ten minutes yesterday to convince Kayak to put both of her front feet in a puddle, which is a big step towards success and the culmination of several lessons of approaching, clicking and retreating.  So there she is, both front feet in the puddle.  This challenge has been all about Kayak and her needs. 

Sometimes, it is all about me.  I am competent rider, but not a confident rider.  This means that some of the time, I need to work on MY skills and confidence.  I am an intermediate level rider, and progressing well along the journey towards solid horsemanship, but I am not yet there.  This is a journey of a lifetime, and I will never stop learning about riding.  I work on things like posture and position, of clear communication, of good position through both upwards and downwards transitions (going from the walk to the trot and back again for instance).  I work on staying calm in the saddle in the face of things that might be difficult for my horse.  On those rides, it is all about me.

I see this split between the trainer and the learner with my students all the time.  Some of the time, the learner is the dog and some of the time the learner is the person.  Sometimes the dog needs to have their learning needs met, right now, without regard for what the human learner needs.  When the information is not clear to the dog, he cannot be successful, and the more I train, the more convinced I am that repeated success if the single most important part of the training process.  If the dog isn’t clear about the work he is doing, he is not going to be successful and he is not going to be able to make this work.  The more often that your dog is successful, the faster and more effectively he will learn, and some of the time, it is all about what the dog needs when training.

Periodically though, coaching my students to meet the needs of their dogs doesn’t meet the needs of the student.  This happens when the student isn’t clear and cannot convey clear information to the dog.  When this happens, I need to address the needs of the student, and that may mean in the moment, not addressing the needs of the dog at all.  In order to make things clear to the human end of the partnership, I may choose to have them work with their dog on an already trained behaviour, or I may choose to have them work with a different dog who knows more, or I may do a walk through where the human and I take the roles of the trainer and the dog and switch around until the human understands what they need to know about the exercise.

It is important to note though that the goal is not developing the dog or developing the trainer.  It is about developing the team to work as one.  When I ride Kayak, I am strongly reminded of something one of my early mentors said about dogs; “If we had to get up on their backs and depend on their soundness and understanding of the work, we would breed and train differently”.  I wish I could remember the name of this man who seemed to be at every dog show I went to (he was on  crutches all one year, but that is probably too little information!), because he is absolutely right.  If I set things up the wrong way with Kayak, she could kill me.  If I asked her for instance to canter down the hill on my farm towards our farm pond, I don’t doubt I could get her to do it, but it would not be safe.  She would be frightened and I would be frightened and most likely something would go badly wrong, especially at this icy time of year.  At best, I would fall off and she would stand there looking down at me, asking me what sort of a fool I was to ask her to do that sort of a stunt.  At worst, she would break a leg and roll on me and hurt me so badly I could die.  So even on the days when I am working more on me than on her, there is an imperative that I only ask her to do things we are both ready to do.  If I ask her for things we have not prepared for, I could die.

In dog training the imperative is still there, but the consequences aren’t.  Rarely would a dog cause you serious harm in your day to day training.  Yes, there are dogs who would bite me and who might cause me great harm, but for the most part, that won’t happen.  The worst case scenario if the trainer asks the dog for things the dog is not prepared for, is that the dog fails.  The problem here is that the dog’s failure is not something that deeply impacts the trainer in the moment.  Yes, the trainer may be frustrated, but that is nowhere near as important to the trainer as being rolled on by their horse.  The dog’s failure just doesn’t impact the trainer nearly as much as it might impact the dog.  This means that as an instructor, and as a trainer, there is a higher level of responsibility to set training sessions up so that the learner is successful.  The consequences are not there, so awareness must be greater. 

When the trainer sets things up so that the learner is successful, then something incredible happens.  When Kayak and I are on the same page, and I have set up the training session so that she can be successful more often than not, I don’t have to ask her to do things-I think them and we do them together.  It is a special kind of teamwork that just happens.  It isn’t that I don’t move my leg or use my hands on her reins, I do, but those movements are whispers not screams.  When I work with Eco and D’fer, my adult dogs, this happens in every training session because we have a deep and well developed connection; I think it and it happens, smoothly and gently.  I ask quietly with my voice and the way my body moves, and they respond.  They move in specific ways and I respond to their motions.  It is a dance of the animal giving me feedback and me responding and returning and changing as the dance continues.  When that connection develops, we are tied together in a special way, and that special goal is what I would like my students to experience.

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