I will never forget the horror of the moment, of seeing my horse crumpled, motionless. Her neck bent sideways beneath her body, the crunch it had made when she hit the ground. My beautiful, beloved horse had tried to jump the roundpen fence, but instead of clearing it, had spun over it, landing in a heap on her chest.
The worst of it was that I had put her there. I had chased her around the pen, asked her to turn across. There was horror and panic and tidal waves of regret. Had I killed my horse? My hands were shaking, my vision blurred. I don’t remember crossing the roundpen, but I must have. As I got to her, my mare’s body fell to the side and she got up quickly, trotting away. I started to breathe again.
Later, in the kitchen, I found myself designing the most impenetrable roundpen, one which no horse would think to try and jump out of. One in which they would be safe. Hang on. I suddenly realised what I was doing. I was designing an impenetrable barrier so my horse could not escape my training - because my horse had just demonstrated she was desperate to escape my training. Shit. This was not the trainer I wanted to be and not the relationship I wanted with my horse. The realisation was a pivotal moment in my horse training journey.
I wanted my horse to love me, to love training with me and to want to be with me. Watching my mare throw herself out of the rounden did not feel like love, for me or the training.
So I put down my plans for the new roundpen and I put down my flags and my whips. I scoured the internet and read book after book, trialling different methods, but nothing felt right. Finally, I read a textbook which covered learning theory. It was another AHA moment. Suddenly I understood how all of the other ‘methods’ worked and I realised that the one thing I hadn’t tried was positive reinforcement, or clicker training. So I read a few more books, got myself a clicker and got started on my positive reinforcement journey.
It. Felt. Like. Magic. The fairytale dream of being able to communicate with my horse and for her to choose to train with me, to choose to be with me. Honestly, there is nothing better. When a horse cooperates with you of their own free will, that has to be the holy grail of horsemanship. Finally, I found it, the method that produces both results and the cooperative relationship I had been searching for.
I have spent the intervening years learning as much as I can about training horses with positive reinforcement. It is a vast subject and there is much to learn. Different mares grace my paddocks these days and I am a different trainer. Whilst I think back with remorse to the horror of the moment that started me on this journey, I am also grateful for the lesson my beautiful horse taught me that day.