July 16, 2013

Dealing with change

Struggling a bit today. Going to have to figure out a way to make some changes easier for two of my horses.

I'm having to separate my herd onto two different parcels for a few months and that will put them into different configurations than what they're used to.

I have two horses who are buddies, that were kept in separate paddocks but next to each other. Now, this one buddy team will be able to see each other, about 70 yards away, but not be side by side like they were. 

At first, I just separated them, and they seemed to be dealing with the change. However, today I let them spend a portion of the day near each other and the mare had a more difficult time when they were separated to go back to their night-time paddocks.

Once again, they cannot be in the same paddock because the gelding has just too many stallion like behaviors and is too rough with the little mare, still she is quite attached to him.

Really, it was easier for her to just spend the day completely separate from him. 

I've really exhausted all possibilities and combinations, so it's a matter of helping them adjust to the change. This is the part of horse care that stresses me, I can help them adjust, but they're still having to adjust.

July 15, 2013

One of the most obvious statements I could make about a move is that things change. Things look different, stuff gets put in different places; doors, gates, the color of the stall walls and even plants/shrubs are different.

What is also obvious, but maybe more significant, is how the changes in our environment make us adjust our routines.  I watch myself doing things out of habit, in fact sometimes it's downright amusing. For example, part of the fencing was taken down on the back side of the barn and subsequently was only partially connected to a fence line. The other portion led right into the pasture. So on and off for that day I reached to unlock the gate to go through it, before finally adjusting to go the extra 6 steps right into the open pasture. I find that a bit amusing, but then I think of how the change affects the horses and their habits.

For example, Buckwheat has had a feeding ritual where, once he sees me, he backs away from his gate, makes a 180 turn, then walks over to his platform to politely stand and wait. I've even posted a short video showing this nice behavior chain.

Now his temporary paddock is in a different location. It is at a 90 degree angle to its former orientation, facing north instead of west, about 75 yards from its former spot. How did this affect him? As I walked to his paddock, he didn't even think about backing up for his dinner. His pen was different. The context of his behavior was obviously very hooked into the surrounding visual cues; my presence was only part of what triggered the behavior.  So this behavior was learned and practiced in a specific location, and it had not been generalized beyond that location. 

This change in Buckwheat really serves as a great reminder. If we can count on things remaining the same, for a simple behavior like a dinner ritual, we might not need to go to the effort to generalize it to different places, but if we have important riding or safety behaviors, this generalization process is critical. We can't assume the horses understand a behavior without testing it by moving to a variety of new places or locations in which we ask for the behavior. If we DO try to ask for untested cues, it sure isn't fair to the horse to be upset with him if he doesn't get it.

So I have re-started the process of shaping the dinner dance. It's interesting to see how Buckwheat is responding. At first, he began to paw as I approached his gate. The change of his pen placement obviously was different enough for him that he was more anxious about getting his dinner. I ignored the pawing the first time until I got to the gate, then actually cued him to back (before, this was all a part of the chain and did not need to be cued).

The next meal I stopped short of the gate, then paused. He offered a step back, to which I responded by stepping forward. He stopped, so did I, he backed again, so I continued forward. I should mention that we've trained "Buckwheat can make Peggy's feet move" in the past; it is not a new way of training with him.

The process of rebuilding his meal time stationing behavior will progress quickly, I'm confident in that. It is one of the good things about training with positive reinforcement; the behaviors are built on repetition can be re-built.

July 11, 2013

The move

I thought I'd do a bit of blogging on an event that's unfolding in the my life and the lives of my horses. I have had my 2 big horses and 5 minis in a 3 acre area for the last 8 years. They each have access to some open grazing/turn out, as well as a more secure night-time paddock for the minis. 2 weeks ago I was told I needed to move, part of the lot had been sold. I do have a place to which we'll move in the next few months, but in the meantime, I'm needing to downsize their areas as well as move paddocks to different portions of this lot. 

I'm sharing this because it means a lot of adjusting for the horses as well as myself. It means watching them check out new territory, learn new fencing, cope with changes in their herd dynamics. It's the stuff that horses and horse owners go through, but with the help of the clicker, some management tools and careful observation I'm hoping it will go smoothly.

I'm also hoping that by sharing this journey, some of you may gain from the experience. ~~Peggy

May 13, 2013

Superstitious behaviors

Animals and humans alike naturally want to regulate and keep the good things happening and the bad things at bay. When good things happen to us, we tend to want to control how and why those good things happen, especially if we're not sure why they happened in the first place. We see an event as lucky and want more of where that came from.

Sometimes we think that something in our environment or the surrounding circumstances was a contributing factor when we successfully got what we wanted.

For example I recently heard of a major league baseball team who started to grow a garden of hot peppers in the bullpen. They did this because they had recently been enjoying a winning streak and had associated part of the luck of this winning streak to eating hot peppers. One player had even taken the pepper eating ritual to the point of being physically ill. No matter, the team was bound up in this association between the peppers eating and winning.

I know some of you who don't follow baseball will laugh at this story, but it is quite common. Animals can also add little bits of behavior not really related to our overall training goal. In training literature
, this is called a superstitious behavior.

The reason these extra behaviors develop is the same. Horses want control over the good things that happened to them. They tend to repeat little gestures that are associated with the overall behavior they're learning.

So the next time you see your horse with his ears back or shaking his head or doing something you're not certain how it happened, you might
 take a look at your overall training program and see if somehow this behavior is being reinforced accidentally. It may be a little gesture the horse made while he was learning and then he decided he needed to repeat that in order to get you to click. It was his "good luck charm" behavior.

This takes more overall observational skills because you need to not only watch the efforts your horse makes towards what you're training, but you need to watch for any little behavior that begins to repeat that is NOT a part of your overall goal.

April 19, 2013

positive reinforcement


Defined simply, when you ADD a positive reinforcer to a training situation, you look to see if the behavior INCREASES, at which point you can say the thing you added was reinforcing.

However, don't be fooled. You are training your horse all the time, even if you don't think you are. Many things can be reinforcing behavior in your horse's life, so we need to look at many levels when analyzing behavior.

Positive reinforcers vary, depending on the species. 
Dogs love food
Dogs love play (usually)

Horses love food
Horses love food
Horses love scratching (sometimes)
Horses love food

Food is often used because it's quick, easily delivered, and considered a Primary reinforcer.

You can "condition" a reinforcer. Scratching can be made into a stronger reinforcer by pairing it with food. ANYTHING can be made stronger by pairing it with food. Even applause. This trick is knowing how to condition it.

Since reinforcement is in the eye of the recipient, you can train with anything the horse wants, but I caution you to see if the behavior is strengthened or is repeating with your reinforcer. If not, you might need to re-considered what you're using as reinforcement. You might want to re-read that sentence, it's important.

Here's another way to look at it. If an animal does something in an effort to get what he wants, and is successful, then chances are he'll have learned from his experience and try it again. That is an inherent learning process built into all species.

Sounds self-evident, but some people try to start training with a food they haven't tested to see if it is something the horse likes. In contrast, some people actually place many different types of food reinforcers in front of a horse to see what the horse chooses first! 



Behavior is strengthened by variable reinforcement ONCE it is learned. 

In order to maintain a behavior, a primary reinforcer is required at least once in awhile. It depends on the horse and what behavior you're maintaining. If you're maintaining the behavior of being groomed, you may not need to reinforce much. If it's a medical procedure, you might need a really high rate of reinforcement.

There is a complete and thorough way to vary your reinforcers if you want to take the time to learn the process. If you are at all new to the process, if you want to train a horse with a positive reinforcement, many advocate continuing with the food reinforcers. 



Forgive me, but I use this analogy. People kill people with guns, it's not the guns who fire themselves.

Food reinforcers are effective. People are using them in a huge variety of circumstances including zoos, marine mammal shows and advanced dog training. Using food for training a horse is a newer technique and I will forever be grateful to the pioneers of this technique. However, people need to learn how to use this tool just like they need to learn ANY tool.

Food is a resource a horse will fight to control. One doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to see this; just look at a herd in the paddock and watch. If you add food as a training tool you need to learn how to use it EFFECTIVELY.

The good news is horses can learn safe and easy behaviors to work around food. It DOES take some knowledge to make that happen. If you are new to the process, LEARN from other people and research how to achieve a good working relationship with your horse around food. 


Training is a process. Learn how to shape a behavior. Learn how to reward the slightest effort of a behavior the horse CAN give you. Learn how to take that effort and stretch it like taffy, pulled into the behavior you WANT it to become.

Learn how to watch what the horse gives you and see if the behavior you want is REPEATING. If it is repeating, THEN you can know you are training. That last  sentence is also worth reading again.

December 16, 2011

What makes a horse willing?


This sequence of photos was taken today at a school function. McKee is an amazing little horse and he is clicker trained. For those of you who know me, clicker training horses is what I do and promote.

One of the reasons is because of what you see in this photo here. McKee was at a totally new place, lots of noise and distractions and I was STILL able to SHAPE him into backing into this little small space in front of the play house.

One of the reasons this excites me so is that the behavior was shaped. So what does that mean? Basically, McKee was told, with each click, that what I wanted was for him to back up. You can see the spacial restrictions. You can see this would be difficult for a horse. BUT I didn't coerce, stress, put pressure on or force him to do this. I just let him know with the click that I wanted him to back up. Simple, elegant, rewarding and very cool.
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December 12, 2011

Clicker Training video


For the last fifteen or so years the word respect has been over-used in the context of animal training. I keep trying to find ways to examine the assumptions about the word respect.

Now let's look at the word respect. From a human standpoint we like to think of respect as an attitude or frame of mind, but this is where we get into trouble, even with humans. For humans respect is individualized with many differing rules. Finding out each person's idea of respect is almost like learning from one of those buried hot wire fences for dogs. you never know when you're gonna cross the line and get zapped, and it takes a lot of trial and error to find out where the boundaries are!

I'd like to promote a change in how we think of respect. We could just as easily say respect is a series of behaviors defined by the person who wants respect. So for me, respect might mean showing up on time at an appointment. To someone else it might mean saying "Please" and "Thank you." By actually defining and verbalizing each person's expectations of respect, we make it clearer for those around us and we can avoid the unpleasant "shock" of crossing those invisible respect barriers.

So back to our horses. If respect is this complicated for people, how are the horses going to understand the concept? Let's bail on the word respect; face it, horses are not advanced enough to understand the psychological, sociological and philosophically advanced concept of respect. What we need for our horses is definable behaviors, something they CAN DO. For example, "Stay two feet away from me and then I will walk towards you to make contact," or "Back up when I come into through the gate to feed you dinner."

These are things that can be trained and they're easy for the horse to understand. Train these behaviors specifically and let go of all the baggage that comes to mind when we think of the word respect. By letting go we won't get frustrated or angry because the horse is not "respecting us" or following some concept he doesn't understand anyway.

Get real, define the behaviors and train your horse. You'll both be happier.

July 30, 2011

The best "whisper" is a "click"

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Exploring new ideas

This is a post from a recent FB discussion. Worth posting here.

It seems the forum has led us to the place where we want to talk about things that are unseen, things that are hard to describe, things that might not be tangible, things that go outside the bounds of normal horse training conversation. While my focus is clicker training, I love exploring the different modalities. Actually one of my favorite books is "Kinship with all life" and that has enough "woo-woo" to make lots of people scratch their heads LOL.

And as long as we're sharing personal revelations maybe I can share more too. It's funny how the pendulum swings in a person's life. I have two main schools of psychological influence that act like the Yin/Yang in my psyche and daily thinking process. On the one hand I am influenced by my degree in Depth Psychology. Basically Depth Psychology studies matters of the unconscious, think Jung and Freud. For example I'm always looking at what is being said "behind" what is being said.

In regards to the intuitive and depth side, I rarely talk about it on the forum. One of the reasons I don't discuss the intuitive side very much is that we don't have consistent measurable ways to test our ideas. And let me make this clear, I am NOT talking about anyone on this forum. So for example there are those who think that horses can be trained with thought alone. To me this is a form of magical thinking. What I mean by magical thinking is, we want to just "think" something and assume the animals around us will understand. A shadow side of magical thinkers can be a low priority placed on follow-up communication or observation to assure that we're understood. I'm not talking about good, clear visualization or imagery. I'm talking about those who assume their thoughts are the main ingredient to good communication in training.

An example of magical thinking was demonstrated to me recently by a horse owner who needed to ship several baby horses. She had failed to prepare them, nor had they been weaned. She very confidently told me she sprayed some stuff in their mouths, and told them in her mind to go into the trailer. She said everything worked out just fine. But in my mind I thought of un-weaned babies, frantic mothers, future problem trailer loaders, and all around bad training.

I know this lady had good intentions. She took an idea and implemented it, but didn't follow through to see the consequences of her idea. I've also seen other examples of the fallout of her approach. My thought on this is if we take the mystical side of ourselves and don't balance it with the practical applications that are also available to us, the results can be devastating to our animals.

This brings me back to the pendulum. I've been trained in depth psychology, I love the mystical, and now I'm totally focused on behaviorism. So the behaviorist side of myself says please, please, please, become masters of observation. Study your horse's body language as carefully as your horse has leaned to study yours; this will help make communication work. Watch for patterns of repeating behavior. Become so skilled at reading subtle learning nuances that your horse thinks you are magic at reading HIS mind. Instead of making your horse do something and then clicking him for it, try to see what your horse can offer you and click him for THAT. Fully explore shaping; you may find just as much magic there.

I hope I didn't offend anyone. The posts are wonderful and there is such genuine seeking and sharing going on here. I just want to encourage people to learn to observe behavior, analyze behavior, find ways to help your horse develop his mind.

December 20, 2008

Training without pressure?

I just wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the fun I’ve been having clicker training the horses. Lately I’ve been working with a 5 month old miniature buckskin filly named Moonshadow. To say she’s a joy is an understatement. What a privilege it is to train a young, relatively untainted mind while starting her immediately with positive reinforcement.
The most recent event has been a validation of an experiment I started a few years ago. I challenged my knowledge of CT tools by teaching several horses all of the basic yielding and husbandry behaviors using shaping, capturing and some targeting. While doing this I “shelved” the pressure/release/click techniques.
An example of the behaviors I trained to date were yielding the hind end, crossing the fore, backing, side pass, loading in the trailer, picking up the feet for the farrier and learning to lead. Once I trained a behavior, I went back and added familiar looking cues so that someone who used pressure/release would be able to communicate with these horses. I also added many verbal cues. To say the least it challenged my own paradigms for training, but the results have been so profound.
I followed this same path with the unweaned filly, Moonshadow. My goal was to teach her to have her feet trimmed, but she didn’t have any operant behaviors in place. I saw that she and her mom would mutually groom, and since she was unweaned and a bit skittish I decided scratching was a good inroad to build a bond between us. The next thing I did was give her a good scratch at the withers for keeping perpendicular to my body with her head facing forward ; I did this for about 2 weeks.
Then I added a food reinforcer while teaching her to target. With food as the primary reinforcer we began to work on several other behaviors; I wanted to have them in place before I asked her to lift her feet. She was an eager student. We added a bit of mat training, I also shaped her to put her head in her little halter and during this time she learned to offer an “auto-back” when I approached the gate.
We then began to shape lifting the foot. For me, having a nice mat to work on made it easy to drop a treat and it avoided having the horse ingest sand. When she stood near me, I would drop the treat between her legs and then click when she began to lift her left fore in order to back. From there I shaped the behavior of just lifting the foot. She was very quick with this. Then I went back to add duration to the foot lifting behavior. She was so willing to accept this process and once again, if I goofed by raising the criteria too quickly she was always able to walk away (I did all of this at liberty.) Obviously the process reminded me to keep my rate of reinforcement high! Once she lifted her foot I added my cue of touching her on her front canon bone near the knee.
All the while I continued the other behaviors and worked on generalization. This kept things interesting and kept me from getting too focused on the single task of training her to lift her foot. She also became very proud of the fact that she could make me click by backing away from me at meal times as well as the when I approached the gate.
This whole process of working with another weanling has been so reinforcing to me as a trainer. I love the way I feel when I’m focusing on the positive. And in a lot of ways that statement in itself is a huge statement. Focusing on the positive can really become a way of relating to all living creatures. Not in a Pollyanna sort of way, but in a healthy acknowledgment of someone else’s effort. So I’ll keep updating her progress. Thanks for reading.

November 19, 2008

Trail Blazer Festival

Thought I'd post a few photos from the Trail Blazer Festival held here in Santa Barbara on Nov. 14-16. It was a fantastic experience filled with great memories and lots of teaching as well as learning.

March 26, 2007

Keep it positive

I’m going to indulge myself and “think out loud” about some interesting observations and experiences in my horse training lately.

This little spate of introspection was brought about when I had to introduce my mare to a new small arena that was surrounded with hot wire. I led her out to this new place and was a bit surprised that she showed some fear and resistance. She has had experience with hot wire, and was definitely letting me know she was afraid and unsure of the “opening” I had asked her to walk through.

I have an extensive background in Natural horsemanship and it was an easy thing to just lift the line and slightly suggest with the tail of the lead that I needed her to walk forward. She did so, but was a little “impulsive” in her movement. So I asked her to come back out of the opening, and repeated the process until she was able to walk through at a comfortable level. The whole thing took about 4 minutes and looked quite mild by NH standards.

Just to make it interesting I asked her to do it again at liberty and “helped” her make the right choice by pointing at the opening and tapping my leg to add impulsion.

So what’s the big deal? Well, at that point I walked back to the barn and got my clicker and her favorite treats and went to revisit the situation. I opened the gate as asked her to walk back through at liberty. Only this time I didn’t use ANY pressure to let her know what I wanted. I let HER decide when she was comfortable and clicked when she stepped forward.

I have to admit I was surprised, because she was so willing when I had her online. BUT when I gave her the CHOICE, she clearly showed me what she preferred.

And so that’s where we worked. Yes, it took longer than 4 minutes, but at the end of our session she was even MORE confident and saw me as an even better source of comfort and safety. I didn’t need any pressure at all and she had made the choice out of trust and positive feedback.

To me this was a dynamic illustration between positive and negative reinforcement. Even if my pressure was soft and subtle, it’s still pressure. So THIS is the philosophical place in which I find myself. I don’t want to use pressure. I’m committed to continue to seek new refined techniques as a clicker trainer using positive reinforcement to train horses.

Thanks for letting me share….

November 26, 2006

What makes my horse happy?

I wonder why I try so hard to find out what makes my horses happy. I know I’m not unique because most of my horse owner friends go out of their way to find their horses favorite itch spot, the best curry comb and their favorite treat. For some this search extends to finding the best fitting saddle, most comfortable bit or even best chiropractor or massage therapist.

The quest can be simple or complex, but for me on this day, I enjoyed giving a simple but pleasurable few moments to Buck; I let him roll in the mud.

It rained all day and I usually leave the horses in their separate pens when it’s rainy. This allows them the opportunity to choose shelter which they don’t have when they’re together in the pasture.

I went early for the evening feeding, thinking I could do some quick mucking while they were eating. I got the first two pens done quickly and headed for Buck. He was neatly tucked away in his shelter and couldn’t see me enter the pen. Since he was eating dinner it wasn’t hard to understand his willingness to ignore me completely even when he DID catch sight of me.

After mucking a few minutes I decided to see if Buck could be pried from his food to make the ultimate choice: eat or roll in the mud. As I said earlier, Buck really, really enjoys rolling in the mud, in fact I would go so far as to say that he might even rival a pig when it comes to the passion of mud wallowing.

Knowing this, and despite the obvious work it makes for me in the aftermath, I went over, opened the gate and guided him away from his food so he could SEE the open gate. From there the choice was his.

I had to laugh. When he saw the open gate I swear he grinned. He headed out at a canter, which he quickly revised when his feet encountered slippery mud. Although he looked like a kid in tennis shoes on ice, that didn’t deter him from his goal: finding the nicest, muddiest rolling spot.

He did it right too, first coating one side, then getting up and laying down again to coat the other side, then rolling from side to side, then getting back up to start the ritual again. He turned his buckskin coat to a nice dark bay and then trotted back, tail high, right into his pen to finish dinner. And I couldn’t have been more pleased, filled with a real warm joy at having been able to guess a way to make my horse happy.

September 11, 2006

Buckwheat has taught me many things, but probably the most profound lesson is the necessity of “waiting” for him to make the right choice. Though this is a corner stone lesson in the Clicker Training world, it hasn’t always been an easy one for me; I have a tendency to want to be “helpful.” Sometimes that means taking a more direct approach and giving him a known physical cue as a backup to the verbal cue. Other times when I know that HE knows the answer but isn't interested in the task, I want to add a little more “pressure” as I learned in the Natural Horsemanship days.

Since Buckwheat is a kind of "I'll get to it in a minute horse" he continues to make me face this issue head on, to “wait” or NOT to “wait.” The most interesting part of this question shows itself when I watch Buckwheat with the other horses. There is no doubt in my mind that he does NOT care one “whit” about saving his hide. He can go day after day acquiring new “dings” from Buck's teeth by refusing to move when Buck pins his ears. Once again, Buckwheat's M.O. is to say “in a minute,” and even another horse applying enough pressure to remove some hide is not enough motivation for him to move.

So by watching Buckwheat interact with other horses I'm seeing the "fly in the ointment" with the "keep adding pressure" types of training modes. I'm also seeing that with Buckwheat in particular, POSITIVE reinforcement is a far more powerful tool than negative.

So where does that leave me as a trainer? It’s a constant reminder to wait…and wait….and wait….and…..It leaves me with the knowledge that if I DO wait, he’ll take a big sigh and do the task I’m asking; he’ll make the choice to join me. And the good thing is the next time he offers it more quickly. Our goal becomes mutual and it finishes with giving him what he wants. Yes, giving him what he wants; dignity, respect, food and the time for him to decide to make a change. And it's working better every day. Phew!

November 13, 2005


A big horse in a little package.

If you happen to be lucky, you might stumble into the good fortune of owning a miniature horse. I got mine quite by accident, given to me in the most gracious and generous manner by a friend named Susan Hopmans. She has a wonderful miniature ranch filled with world class minis.

"La Vista Mittey McKee" was born in April of 2004 and he entered my life in August of 2005. He may be small in stature, but he is anything BUT small in heart, desire and good 'ole smarts.

The thing that amazes me most about this little horse is his BIG horse attitude. In his mind he is a full sized horse, no question, and along with this mind-set comes the full gamut of full sized horse attitudes and behaviors. For instance, if I use my body in a rude manner to move him out of my space, he'll react as strongly as a big horse.

As I've entered the realm of the little horse, I've begun to see that many miniature owners don't think twice about basically "man-handling" these little horses. For example, if they want a horse to load into a trailer, they just "shove" him in. Period. I don't mean the horses are being hurt, they're just not being allowed to learn how to load into a trailer with dignity and respect. After all, why take the time to "teach" a horse when you can just make him do it.

One thing for certain, with little Mittey McKee, I'm going to commit to teaching him using Clicker Training and Peggy Cummings "Connected Riding/Groundwork" techniques. I've already gotten some profound results (you can see some of our efforts in the pictures below). He has been an amazing addition to my horse herd, and for those of you who have made a commitment to studying, learning, and understanding the psyche of the horse, I invite you to get to know a miniature horse. Just be prepared for a "BIG" horse adventure.

Ooh...that water is cold!

A true "mini" van

McKee is learning about steps

November 01, 2005

Listening with your heart

The Nicker

I, for one, have been absolutely blown away by the number of different ways a horse can communicate with a nicker. I've also discovered there's a wealth of communication that's available if you listen with your heart as well as your ears. This is an index of the nickers I've catalogued up to now:

The basic nicker also known as “the greeting Nicker”
This nicker reminds me of the gang in the T.V. series “Cheers.” When someone of the inner circle walked into the bar, everyone joined their voices together to call out the new arrival's name; it showed how fully connected they were in their small community. This is how I see the “the greeting nicker.” It tells all the other horses that one of their herd just arrived.

The food nicker
Anyone who spends time feeding horses gets acquainted with the food nicker. This nicker has many variations, some are listed below.

“Hi, you’re finally here, come feed me” nicker/whinny.
This nicker usually has some urgency to it. It is often combined with "the greeting Nicker" and has a nice welcoming sound.

The “Oh, good, I did it right” squeal/nicker.
Buck started this when he really began to understand “clicker training.” I knew we’d opened a new door of communication and understanding for him when he started to nicker after he got tapped. (You’ll remember that he’s deaf and I tap him 3 times quickly when he’s done something right.”

Not only does Buck nicker, he adds a whinny to it, I mean he is excited about the reward! He lets loose with a sound that goes up the scale almost an octave and back down again; he sort of sounds like a mare. He does this squeal/nicker when he has tried REALLY hard during a training session.

The silent nicker
This is the most effective of all nickers. It’s accompanied by a slight quivering of the nostrils, very soft; you could easily miss this. There is NO noise, just TOTAL anticipation. It comes from the horse’s heart; I see it as the silent reflection of the horse’s inner feelings, and this one melts me more than any other kind of nicker.

The stare/silent nicker combo:
When the stare is combined with “the silent nicker” it is devastatingly effective. For example, when at the ranch, my husband Dan likes to stretch out on the gentle grass covered slope for a well-deserved short-but-sweet Saturday afternoon nap. This slope is also near Buck’s corral. I’ve seen that horse start in with the stare/silent nicker treatment and watched in total wonder as he managed to force Danny to give up his nap to take him out for “the salad bar ride.”
Danny swears he can feel Buck “boring a hole right through him.” Danny pretends he’s asleep, all the while peeking out under his hat to see if Buck will give up, but Dan KNOWS he’s a goner; Buck wins out every time.

The contagious nicker
This is the one that a horse uses when another horse nearby is nickering. It sort of says, “Hey pal, I don’t know why we’re nickering, but if you’re excited something good should be happening soon.”

August 02, 2005

Communication, Clicker Training and UPOs

Clicker Training has profoundly helped my ability to communicate with the horses and is really working miracles with the old "Buckman." To explain these changes I need to discuss a couple of basic training modes. A standard horse riding technique is to a horse to move away from pressure. For example, if I ask a horse to move sideways from pressure applied by my leg, the best way I can let the horse know he’s on the right track is to release the pressure quickly. So the horse thinks, “Mmm, this is a little uncomfortable, I’ll move over.” Once I feel the horse cooperate I take off the pressure and that signal becomes my way of saying to the horse “Gee, thanks for cooperating, I’ll let you have your comfort back.”

With Clicker Training, the moment the horse cooperates I add a sound (a clicking noise) and follow it up with a treat. It seems simple, but the changes are profound. It’s as if the horse thinks “Hey, you mean I get something I like for doing this?” “Maybe I’ll try harder next time.” I like to think this gives a chance for the horse to work for his own paycheck, and since I really don’t like working for free myself, the whole idea makes sense.

Once my horses understood the possibilities of earning a reward for their behavior, our connection, and their interest soared. The result is that I have horses that try to “communicate” their interests to me. They’re “eager” for training sessions and they try very hard to “get the right answers.” When I watch them I get this image of Hermoine Granger from the Harry Potter series. She is the young girl who raises her hand with intense enthusiasm because she knows the answer and wants to be called upon.

Horses will even go through a phase where they offer to do behaviors you didn't asked for. They quickly become “empowered” and realize their behavior will get the human to “pay up.” At this point they also realize the human is paying attention and suddenly training looks like a two-way street.

When I added Clicker Training, my horse’s efforts to communicate extended far beyond training sessions, so much so that I started experiencing what I playfully call UPO’s or Unidentified Psychic Occurrences. The following journal entry’s show the progression of some of these UPOs. When reading this, keep in mind, Buck is a deaf horse and his "clicker" is 3 taps on the shoulder.

After introducing Buck to the idea of positive reinforcement, he has started to try to communicate with us. A good example is how he acts when he’s being taken to the arena. He has started to make it VERY clear that he’s not interested in hauling the beginning riders around. Basically he stops at the crest of the hill leading down to the arena and plants his feet. Now Buck is trained enough in the old school of horsemanship, that he knows he has to move on, but I swear he stands there long enough to make the statement “Hey, this wasn’t what I had in mind for my day.”

I have to laugh at the old fart, and I love the fact that he’s letting me know how he feels. I’ll try to come up with a way to make the arena a better place to be.


I think I’m seeing a real pattern with our lesson horses. We get the kids on the horses and start them at a nice slow pace. We walk right along side working as quickly as possible to get the kids to loosen up and quit squeezing their legs for balance. It’s a real hoot, but I'm seeing that Buck can only tolerate about 3 laps around the arena before he walks straight over to me as if to say “Hey, make this kid lighten up with the reins,” or “Do something about his balance.” If I can get a kid more relaxed and less heavy handed then Buck will stay on the arena fence the whole session. I’m so convinced he’s trying his best to communicate.

This isn’t just happening with Buck. The other horses are beginning to act this way as well. I really think they have expanded their awareness of how to get what they want, and they don’t want to be pinched and yanked around. For us as teachers it presents the challenge of quickly getting the kids to a level of proficiency. The wonder of it is that once we relieve then tension, the horses are willing to go back to work, so I don’t see this as negative behavior on the horse’s part. We’ll see!

I’ve added a new dimension for the students riding Buck in this camp. They all wear the treat bag and when Buck cooperates or “listens to them” they tap him 3 times on the shoulder and give him a treat. I’m convinced we’re on our way to making him happier in his job.

Danny has really opened up the lines of communication with Buck. Now when they go riding he watches Buck carefully. When they pass a juicy looking clump of grass Buck sort of gestures with his head and Danny makes a mental note of the location. Then, when Buck is moving with cooperation and ease, Danny taps him 3 times and takes him back to the clump of grass. Buck seems to be grasping this concept totally and Danny is getting some wonderful responses.

Buck instigated another UPO today. His ability to communicate astounds me every time. Today's incident happened during the morning feeding session. The horses and I have an established ritual. First I feed BW and Nikki and then carry a flake of hay to a spot near Nikki’s pen where Buck can eat but see the other horses.

Today, after dropping off Buck’s hay I went to his corral to let him out. Normally he’s eager to go, giving me just enough time to get his fly mask on and the gate opened before he starts to show a bit of impatience. As it happened today he wouldn't come out of his pen and in fact, once I had gotten done stroking his forehead “hello,” he turned and walked away from me and headed over to his water tub.

I could have just turned around and walked back towards the barn figuring he’d come out and get breakfast when he was ready, but his actions were so different from normal I had to go see what he was up to; he just kept standing there like he wanted me to see something. So I went over and looked into the water tub thinking he might need more fresh water, but instead, in the water was a drowned rat....
It was like Buck was saying "Hey, you, something’s wrong, you need to get this thing out of here!"

By now I should expect this kind of thing from the B-Man, but it still fills me with wonder, feelings of amazement, and that rush of conviction that if we just allow it to happen, we can have extraordinary connections with our horses.


Danny had a UPO today. He went to do the evening feed (this ritual is also well established). I put out the horses evening hay and grain during the late afternoon which makes it much easier to feed when it's dark. When Danny arrives, he walks Buck up to his pen and lets him in. By then Nikki is standing by Buck’s pen waiting to escort Danny down to the gate of her pen. Of course that leaves Buckwheat, who, by then, is practically like a dog that takes his leash to his master. Danny doesn’t even use a halter; he just takes Buckwheat by the chin and leads him out through the pasture gate to his pen on the other side of the barn. It’s all very civilized.

Danny said he had all horses put away when he heard Buck calling out again and again with a “frantic whinny.” It was already dark, but Danny figured something was up and went to investigate. He walked into Buck’s pen and at first glance everything seemed to be OK, but as he shined the flashlight into Buck's feed bin he noticed that the grain was missing. Of course Danny went back and brought him some more grain. Danny and I were very impressed that Buck had made such an effort to communicate his problem.

As an interesting footnote to this story, I was very puzzled as to why Buck’s grain was missing until the next day when I went into his pen late in the day. I saw a least a half of dozen crows searching through Buck's dinner. Buck's grain had obviously been discovered by these clever birds.

Now I know lots of horse owners can relate these kinds of stories, but I still find them wonderful. I think it’s such a gift when a human and an animal can create a way to communicate. I think it’s such a gift when a horse with a background like Buck’s, makes the connection that HERE are some human’s who WANT to understand him.

June 06, 2005

How “Ruuuuuude”


I had a good laugh today. I’m sorry to say it was at Nikki’s expense, but since she wasn’t hurt I didn’t go through the ritual “guilt” I feel when something strange happens to one of the horses….well, OK, I felt a little bit guilty, but nothing that the silliness of the moment didn’t cure.

Every two or three mornings when I’m going through the feeding/mucking schedule I have to fill the water troughs. When I have to fill Nikki’s water it means stretching a hose about 25 yards through BW’s pen, over the pipe corral, and through her pen to the water bucket. I fill her trough while I muck BW’s pen, and by the time I’m done mucking both pens I can turn the water off.

Anyway today I had the hose all stretched out and then turned on the water. Nikki was in total bliss eating her breakfast, totally unconcerned about the hose. Unfortunately, the hose had a kink in it and the water pressure began to build. I started to walk towards her pen to make sure things were OK and got there just in time to see the hose “take flight.” You know how hoses sometimes turn into living, wildly moving rodeo snakes? Well this hose launched itself right under Nikki’s tail; I mean this horse got one COLD and RUDE hind-end hosing, sort of a horsie “bidet” if you will.

It was funny to watch how both of Nikki’s ends had a different way to respond to this assault. Her front end wanted to run, but the paddock wall stopped that choice so her front end had to sort of run “in place”. Her hind end wanted to tuck and keep that cold water off those delicate horse regions, so the hind end went down and under. It made an interesting picture to see so much energy being spent going NOwhere.

Now the hose unkinked itself during it’s flight so the assault lasted only 3 or 4 seconds, but Nikki was VERY insulted by the situation. Once she realized she was OK she just stood there kicking out with her hind legs, first the right, then the left, as if to say “Hey, Heeeey, HEY!!, Hey….how RUUUUUUUUDE!!” She must have kicked each leg 5 or 6 times; I mean she was INSULTED, no question about it.

I wonder if she could hear the laughter in my voice as I called out to reassure her……..I sure tried to let her know it was a momentary crisis that had passed, but the whole situation had been such a fluke and so comical that I couldn’t stop laughing. I hope she understands.

June 05, 2005

Kitty Girl Finds a home

Peggy, Kitty Girl and the horses Posted by Hello

Kitty Girl's Story

Being a Backyard Horse Owner brings enjoyment on many different levels. For me there is a very tangible satisfaction just dealing with the logistics of cleaning, building and moving hay; in other words the daily facets of taking care of the horses.

There is also the intangible side filled with the wonders of life, relationship, and our connection to all living things. Of the many gifts of horse owning, developing relationships with a variety of animals has been one of the most profound. The story about Kitty Girl is an example of one of those gifts.


Kitty Girl came into our lives not long after Buck and I found our first “backyard” home. We hadn’t been there long before I noticed her outside the fence in the adjacent flower field. She was a small-bodied cute little tabby cat with a notch in her ear from some previous mishap.

Kitty Girl took a VERY long time before she’d stay within the half acre where Buck lived. I actually think she accepted Buck long before she accepted me, because many times I would arrive at the pasture in time to see her make a hasty retreat from what looked like a place where she’d been napping. Our chance meetings continued for at least 2 months, but I was always polite and called to her when I saw her.

One morning I happened to be mucking the pasture when I saw her; she was on the south side by the fence while Buck was up in his pen eating breakfast. I stopped mucking, got down on my haunches and said aloud “Hey, it’s time we formalize this, come over and let’s meet each other.” She very calmly walked over and allowed me to pet her after a short sniff to see if I was OK. At this point, I realized with horror that she was too skinny. Up until then I had assumed she was a local pet. I stroked her for a couple of minutes and once again spoke to her saying “STAY HERE; I’m going to go get food for you. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

So I drove to the nearest market, a 7-11 about 3 miles away, and got some dry food. Not a cat’s favorite, but this kitty would appreciate anything to fill her belly. When I got back she was where I had left her, so as I went through the gate at the upper end of the pasture I started calling to her. I was a little surprised that she didn’t understand “here Kitty-kitty” which to me was a universally guaranteed “kitty-call.”

Now here is where it gets kind of spooky. Buck was in a three-sided shelter with no visual contact with Kitty-girl and since he's deaf he wouldn’t have heard us either. As I stood there calling, Buck started to back out of his shelter and move away from his food (as most of you know, horses don’t usually leave their food without a very good reason). I watched as he walked the length of the pasture in a direct line for KITTY GIRL. I actually began to get worried for her, and as I stood there, my old Buckman walked straight up to this cat and nudged her with his nose. She jumped, and the next thing I knew she came trotting all the way up to where I stood at the shed. As soon as he had "sent her to me," he turned around and went back into his shelter to finish breakfast. I don’t KNOW why he went to her….it’s still a wondrous mystery.

Kitty Girl settled in slowly after that. She grew to enjoy being held for longer and longer periods and I know she appreciated being fed regularly. When I began to have problems with ants, I decided to tackle the problem of moving her food into the shed. Kitty Girl was really quite uncomfortable in the shed. I think being in close quarters triggered a real “flight-response;” she was always aware that she was “hunted” as well as a “huntress.” Knowing all of this I got a real surprise one morning when I opened the door to the shed and she ran out. I couldn’t figure out how she’d gotten in there, and I couldn’t imagine that I’d accidentally locked her in there the night before. This happened about 2 more times until I finally got wise and saw that she was “letting herself in” through a small window. It was always left open and there was a ladder leaning on the outside of the shed that allowed her to climb up and in through the window. After this discovery I put a fairly good sized tack box on a shelf near the window, spread a Navajo blanket on it along with a bowl of food and deemed it “Kitty Girl’s space.”

Kitty Girl proved she was worth her weight in gold. The barn mouse population diminished to nothing and she did a great job with the gophers. Having lived on her own for so long she was a very skilled hunter and she didn’t waste her catches like many house cats do. I did have to have a frank discussion with her when she brought a young cotton tailed rabbit in the shed. I told her that if she was going to be a “big game hunter” she’d have to leave her trophies outside.

She was also very good around the horses; they seemed to have a mutual respect. I think Kitty Girl and Buck had the closest bond; maybe it was established that first few months when Buck was there alone. More than once I saw her rubbing back and forth on Buck’s legs while he stood very still.

Buckwheat and Kitty Girl had a different kind of relationship. B.W. has that playful side of him and I know he’s a bit of a tease. I watched him very carefully put his nose on Kitty Girl’s back right near her tail, and sort of wiggle it back and forth like a whisk broom the way horses do. She seemed to think it was OK for awhile, but then she gave him “the look” and the way he pulled back quickly, I knew he’d been on the receiving end of those sharp little kitty claws. Maybe 2 or 3 times I saw B.W. with little telltale scratch marks on his nose that proved he had pushed Kitty Girl a bit too far.

Kitty Girl was a part of our lives for 5 years. After I moved the horses to a ranch, I continued to feed Kitty Girl on a daily basis. She stayed in her little shelter for months until one day I went and there was no sign of her. I called all of the shelters and asked around, but never saw her again. Kitty Girl was a wonderful part of our Backyard life, and her personality and spirit truly enriched my life.

June 04, 2005

I've always loved horses. Posted by Hello

I've wanted a horse since I was three.

I really don't know why, but the love of all things horse-related horses was obviously in my heart and soul. Like most of the stories you read about horse crazy girls, a Tea towel tucked in my pants became my tail as I cantered around the neighborhood with my other "horse" girlfriends. My day dreams were always horse related. Along with pretending to be a horse, I collected plastic Breyer's horses, and I even had a rocking horse with moving legs.

My night dreams were also filled with horses. I had a powerful recurring dream that a horse would come down from the hills behind our house. With complete confidence and freedom I would ride him in total unity, without a need for saddle or bridle. We would escape off and away down the street towards some new adventure.

My mom and sister contributed to my addiction. At a very early age, my sister would take me to the park and put me on a very realistic playground horse. She would sit behind me on this horse, bounce me around and make all of the appropriate canter sounds, and while whispering in my ear, she filled my imagination with all of the scenes we were riding through. This was magic at it’s best.

Even though we couldn't afford a horse, my mom went out of her way to provide the chance for me to ride. She took me to Griffith park where there was (and still is I think) a pony ride. There were three different tracks, one each for walk, trot and canter. I was hoisted up, strapped on and sent around a "lap." It was glorious. Even writing about it now creates a certain feeling of nostalgic longing to see this place that fed my earliest horse cravings.

Once I learned how to hang on, my mom took us to ride at a local stable. I remember she rented a nice big horse, put me on a pony and kept the pony on line while we went on the trail. This little pony would trot while my mom’s horse would canter. You can imagine these rides were always tough on my backside.

When I got older my sister took me to a place called Pickwick Stables where we rented a horses by the hour. I would show up on Saturdays and beg to do the grooming and tacking myself; the whole time I pretended that the horse was my very own. My love for horses was so great that I saw these stable horses as the most beautiful creatures imaginable. Knowing today what I do about the condition of most stables horses, I obviously had on rose-colored glasses.

During those years I got good enough that I rode with just the little bareback pad I had purchased. So intense was my desire to own a horse I even started making bridles and halters. My heart, spirit and mind were captured and for those few hours I was in heaven.

After college I was able to find people who wanted to have their horses exercised, so I continued getting my horse “fix.” When these horse situations weren’t available I always found a stable where I could ride.

At the age of 40 I went with my friend Thalia on a trail ride at Mammoth Mountain. I remember on the ride that I declared it was TIME; I had waited long enough to own my OWN horse. I came back home, talked to my husband’s daughter and we both went out to buy a horse together. As a side thought, I sure recommend that if you really want a horse but don’t have a professional barn where you are going to start out with support, find a knowledgeable friend or previous horse owner and share the experience. Debbie and I had a grand time getting things set up and in working order and I’m very grateful to her for joining in this early stage.

The horse we purchased together was named “Dan” and he was proving to be a challenge. He had been an arena horse and we were trying to convert him to trails, which was a difficult thing for this horse. We decided to help Dan by taking him out with another more experienced horse that a neighbor was willing to let us use. That’s how I met Buck.

June 03, 2005

More about Buck

Buckman Posted by Hello

As I said before, during the time we spent getting to know the horse “Dan” I also began to become very attached to Buck. He was a complex horse, but I found him easy to love. He had a really tough life with his present owner, but in his eyes I saw an animal willing to forgive the human despite all of his troubles.

As luck would have it, one day I went to ride Buck and he was gone! I called the owner who said he’d taken him to Colorado to his brother’s ranch. I was devastated! In fact, I hadn’t realized just how much I loved Buck until he was gone.

I begged the owner to let me buy him, and fortunately, he agreed. The next problem was getting him home. I found out that the owner’s dad was going to Colorado in the fall for a hunting trip. We arranged to have him brought back then.

When Buck came home he was a total mess. There were open sores the size of limes on each side of his withers, he had several puncture wounds under his front legs, and he was easily 200 pounds under weight. He had half of his tail hair cut off, and I understood that this old man had a habit of tying horse’s tails together. There we tie down scars on his nose, and his tongue had been damaged from a bit.

Upon delivery of Buck all this sorry excuse of human had to say was “You know, I wanted this horse.” Guessing that his son bypassed his dad’s wishes and sold him to me, I knew it was a tough situation, but this was news to me and I had already paid for Buck. Looking back I honestly think this old man figured that if he trashed Buck I wouldn’t want him. I knew the horse history of the old man, so for certain I wasn’t backing down, and I wasn’t about to let Buck finish his life that way.

I took me about 4 months to rehab the Buckman. I didn’t ride him at all; I just tried to help him heal. I spent long hours doctoring his wounds and letting him graze on the grass in his new place. He got groomed more in those 4 months than I think he’d been groomed in his whole life.

Given his background it doesn’t surprise me that Buck is wary of the human. What does surprise me is his willingness to trust a human at all. Forgiveness is one of the amazing aspects of a horse, and this horse in particular, and it continues to draw me into his world.

May 12, 2005

Meet Buck

Buck gets a trim Posted by Hello

BUCK As of May 2005 Buck is 26 or 27 years old. That’s about as close as I can get to his age, since he was “15 or 16 years old” according to the guy I bought him from in 1994. In horsey years he’s a grandpa to say the least, and probably the one phrase that describes him best is he’s “a stubborn old fart.” (I say that lovingly though, because he also has the most forgiving heart of any animal I’ve met, and considering his past, it amazes me that he’s at all willing to have anything to do with humans.)

Probably the most noticeable trait Buck shows is his need to reinforce his status as the herd boss; that’s something he’s looking to do EVERY day. Usually he does this in a very cunning and “energy saving” way. For example, he doesn’t waste time chasing the other horses around; it’s too easy for them to foil his plan by separating so he has to choose a single horse to dominate rather than push his whole herd around at once. But don’t worry, Buckman gets his say. I’ve seen this old man lure one of the other two horses into a false sense of ease by letting them share his food or space. He might even let the unsuspecting “sucker” into a small corner, part of his corral, or next to a tree. And then, of course, when they least expect it he turns into a raving “Mr. Hyde/Hulk/Jason” all rolled into one horse. I mean the energy that comes off of Buck when he’s in this mode is so intense I can feel it halfway across the pasture. I actually can feel his physical presence as he does a power thrust of energy. On the receiving end of this I’ve watched Nikki almost scale a chain link fence to get out of Buck’s range. The target horse almost always has a bite mark to show for Buck’s efforts. But this physical “trophy” is hardly Buck’s triumph; it is the total domination and respect that is his true “trophy.”

However, Buck doesn’t always use physical force to get his point across. In fact one of the silliest horse interactions I think I’ve ever seen happened between Buck and BW, and I know Buck left this scenario feeling so proud of himself. It was a sunny day and I had left all 3 horses in the arena to have some fun. It was full of various obstacles like caveletti, jumps, poles, and road cones to name a few. In one particular area there were a couple of barrels and some poles that, next to the fence, had formed a very small space the size of one horse. Of course BW, being the little inquisitive boy that he is, managed to find a way to get between all of this stuff and the fence; he had no room to turn around and was blocked on three sides. Enter the “BUCK-INATOR.”

Normally I’d begin to wander closer to make sure BW wasn’t turned into lunch meat, but on this day Buck didn’t seem to be interested in expending any energy. So instead, he just walked up to BW’s hind end and ever so gently, with his mouth, picked up BW’s tail. I saw Buck maneuver BW’s tail right into the bars (that section of the mouth that doesn’t have teeth.) And there they stood. Then Buck decided to have a little fun and started pulling on BW’s tail, just kind of back and forth. I kept imagining Buck saying; “I’ve got you now you little turkey.” “Why don’t you try backing a couple of steps, uh-oh, I think I’ve changed my mind, now you get to take a step sideways.” “WHAT??!!??” “You don’t mean little ‘ol nice me is hurtin’ your tail do ya?” “I’d never do anything like that!!” Buck carried on leading BW forwards, back, sideways, forwards, back, and sideways for at least 10 minutes. And the funny thing is he had the goofiest look on his face. He had more twinkle in his eye and satisfaction on his face than I think I’ve ever seen from him.

In the meantime we were up on the slope laughing until ours eyes were watering. Poor little Bun Boy was trying like crazy to do the right dance steps until Buck got bored and let him out, which of course happened a few minutes later. Buck dropped BW’s tail and BW slowly backed out of his jail and tiptoed out of there. So there you have a bit of an idea of how Buck thinks. Don’t judge him by this story alone though, because his depth and softness is on an even par with his dominant nature.