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Training to Preserve Individuality

October 8, 2010
Training to Preserve Individuality

The Visten Chronicles

By Suzanne De Laurentis and Allen Pogue, Imagine A Horse

We are blessed to live in the new age of horsemanship where humane and effective methods are available for horse lovers everywhere either through dedicated self-study or personal exposure to enlightened trainers. Humans benefit greatly from this knowledge but even more, the horses.

Animal behaviorists are even making available studies and methods for identifying, and training animals with learning deficits and disabilities. There has not been a lot of published information regarding about horses with learning disabilities and we have worked with only a few of them. It is certainly an area of interest to watch as it grows.

Visten is a horse with slightly different perspective on learning. What becomes of other horses like him? Where do they fit in most standard programs? I often think of the words of one of my favorite Jimmy Buffet songs when I think of Visten…”The answers are the easy part, the questions raise the doubt”! Visten is like a gifted child whose brilliance doesn’t shine through in a normal classroom.

There are lots of colts Visten’s age (coming 3) that are already in the show ring, or on the trails or in a jumping or perhaps reining career. It is quite possible that many horses with learning ability variations are included in the very large number of rescue horses in our country. Rescuing is popular, very popular but it is our belief at Imagine A Horse that if more attention were paid to the aptitude indicators of equine individuals that most rescue horses wouldn’t need to be rescued. Not all horse trainers (or commercial training programs) are capable of working with or even have the desire to work with learning deficit horses. In addition, not much latitude is given in most disciplines to allow for horses who are mentally or emotionally outside of the normal range.

One of the things that I love about Trick Horse Training is that we can allow for many variances in the learning capacity of horses. Horses can be evaluated individually and there is not a set time pattern that a trick horse must conform to. Better yet, variations in behavior and preferences of the horse can often be shaped into novel moves and tricks. This is the reason that many of our horses have signature tricks that only they perform! A signature trick is usually a version of a trick or move that the horse thought of on his own.

Another great aspect of Trick Horse Training is that we use lots of props, like pedestals. Horses can easily understand the association between obstacles and actions and so can people, which helps to clarify the steps involved in the requests. An exercise such as yielding the hindquarters didn’t really make sense to Visten but when his front feet were anchored on a pedestal he was able to understand it. Horses are masters at compensating for humans and will usually do what we ask even if they don’t understand the exercise! They are “good little soldiers”. But true brilliance in performance comes when a horse understands the request from his point of view, and when he loves his work. If brilliance of performance is what you desire, seek out the individuality of the horse!

Visten emphatically shows us what he CAN do which is often drastically different from what we ASK him to do. It is important to understand and balance his abilities with motivation that he responds to. This requires that we know him individually and intimately and not follow rote exercises in training him. It is horses such as Visten that help us become better teachers, not the perfect student horses!
We’ve been teaching Visten to walk up onto a two tiered pedestal. This was a monumental task for him as his balance and coordination are still developing. It seemed at first that it may be more than he was capable of when we had the idea to put the Frisbee (with a pick up tab sewn on it) on the top tier of the pedestal. He loves to retrieve the Frisbee! When we did this, he eagerly walked right up the lower tier with all four feet and (to our surprise) continued on up to place his front feet on the second tier and picked up the Frisbee as he climbed up. His focus was on the Frisbee and not on how tall the second tier of the pedestal was! By changing our strategy to fit Visten’s style we were able to channel his ability.
Boullet, our two year old Missouri Fox Trotting horse doesn’t like laps in the round liberty pen at any speed. We could easily insist that he do laps as requested but allowing him some freedom of expression resulted in some brilliant work on his part. He demonstrated that he would rather climb the two tier pedestal, spin on the revolving one and rear to yet another one than do meaningless (in his opinion) repetitions. We happily accepted, and helped him to shape his offerings!
Does following a horse’s lead mean that we don’t expect obedience? No, obedience is not optional. But we DO want student horses to know that their ideas are of value. The exchange of ideas, mutual respect and discipline will result in a willingly obedient equine partner.

Lady “C” (TWH) is yet a completely different personality than either Visten or Boullet. She is exhuberent and expressive in everything that she does. Ask for a little and she will always give you a lot! She is an over achiever and she is very quick about it. Explain a task to her in a way that she can understand and it is forever etched in her mind. Visten and Boullet are both highly motivated by food treats and Lady is not. She performs for the sheer enjoyment of playing with us. To her, performing IS her reward.

Trick Horse Training is not for everyone or for every horse. However for many horses it can be a highly motivational and a building block in the foundation of the Ultimate Companion Horse!

In all three horses, Visten, Boullet and Lady “C” the thread of commonality is what made us fall in love with the gaited breeds, personality, versatility, combined with a generous and willing nature.