At the time Tempo was born, I considered myself a decent “horse trainer”. I had studied Parelli Natural Horsemanship for almost a decade (I was an early adopter here in the U.S.) and had completed Level III with Shoki. I had also spent a year studying clicker training (positive reinforcement training) learning the basics of both Alexandra Kurland’s method (for horses) and Karen Pryor’s method (for dogs). My ex-husband was also a very accomplished dog trainer (specializing in clicker training). I had worked with a wide variety of horses over the years and I took pride in the fact that I had never met a horse I wasn’t able to make significant progress with.
But, I had never raised a foal from birth. So, prior to Tempo’s arrival I reviewed all of Parelli’s videos on working with young horses. I also gathered feedback from a number of clicker trainers, but because clicker training for horses was just beginning to catch on at that time, I didn’t know of any who had trained a horse from birth using clicker training. For that reason, I decided I would start training Tempo using some of the proven early training exercises recommended by natural horsemanship trainers.
One of these lessons (done only after lots of trust-building to be sure the foal feels safe with you and is comfortable being touched all over, etc.) is to teach the youngster to move off of pressure. Typically the first step is to teach the foal to move forward with light pressure from behind (using a rope around the horse’s haunch).
The first time I tried this exercise with Tempo, she initially leaned back against the light pressure, which was expected (this is instinctual behavior) and is also what I had seen many other foals do on training videos. In this situation, natural horsemanship training says, “Don’t relieve the pressure until the foal takes a step forward… then reward”. So, I held firm, “like a post”, as I had been taught to do.
Within just a few seconds something completely unexpected happened. Baby Tempo collapsed to the ground and started panting. She did not struggle, or put up a fight before she collapsed. She had not made any obvious attempt to “solve” the puzzle I had presented her with. Rather, the situation triggered a severe panic attack. Her legs had gone limp and she was lying on the ground in a heap but her neck was rigid, her nostrils were flared and her eyes were wide. She was in obvious emotional distress. I quickly removed the rope, tossed it as far away from her as I could and tried to lift her back onto her feet. But Tempo couldn’t stand up; her legs just crumbled under her again. I was flabbergasted… and heartbroken to see my filly in such distress.
For at least 10 minutes I sat there with her, feeling horrible. I apologized and stroked her neck and tried to help her feel safe again. Eventually, her heart rate and breathing returned to normal and she was able to stand up again. In that moment I promised her I would never do that to her again.
And that’s how/why I made the decision to train Tempo (aka Little Miss Sensitive!) using exclusively positive reinforcement training. I must admit, however, that there was one other time I fell back on trying to use pressure to get Baby Tempo to do something. It was after I had already halter trained her and she was leading well using positive reinforcement training. But, on this particular morning I was in a hurry and needed to get her moved to another pasture before I went to work. On our way, something worried her and she stopped. Out of impatience, I applied light pressure to the halter and she resisted, starting to tense up. Instead of heeding her warning, I added a bit more pressure thinking, “Surely she can handle this now that she understands leading”. Again, Tempo panicked. I could see what was happening and I released the lead rope, but it was too late. She reared up and violently threw herself over backwards.
Horses can get severely injured doing this so I was mortified and terrified. I felt horrible. Thankfully, she got up and appeared to be fine. I apologized to her again and, from then on I always took my time getting her where she needed to be on terms she could handle.
I had never worked with a horse (or even known of one) that had this sort of extreme panic response to pressure. At the time I was just thankful that we knew an alternate method of training so that I didn’t have to try to teach her to “submit” to pressure. Instead I could teach her to cooperate positively using verbal or touch cues and rewards. Unfortunately, having this alternative method made it easy for me to NOT deal directly with Tempo’s extreme fear of pressure (which I later grew to understand was actually a fear of losing control). Instead, I simply avoided the situation.
It was easy – and FUN – to “avoid the situation” because Tempo LOVED clicker training. In fact, she became a Youtube sensation (and had quite a loyal following) when we started posting videos of our progress to show that it’s possible to use clicker training exclusively to raise a foal. For the first year of Tempo’s life, we all had a blast and everyone was convinced that she would grow up to be “the most amazing horse!”
You can see one of our clicker training videos of Tempo here:
In hindsight however, I wish I knew then what I know now: that it’s possible to help a horse overcome even very extreme fears and to replace those fears with confidence using a method called Constructive Approach Training. I wish I had known this because when Tempo was almost one year of age she was stricken with a debilitating (and inoperable) coffin bone cyst in her right hind foot. This life-threatening bone condition forever changed the course of our life together and completely destroyed the positive foundation we had created with Tempo using clicker training. The experience sent us all swirling in a downward spiral of emotional chaos and frustration that lasted for years. I will share some of what I learned from that dark chapter of our lives in my next blog post.
“There is no such thing as darkness; only a failure to see.” – Malcolm Muggeridge