That’s a question I’ve been asking myself more and more this year. Magnum taught me to ask this in the early days of our clicker training journey. When he was so scared, I would say to myself – If I was Magnum, what would be okay? I learnt that some things just weren’t okay – and everything else had to be broken down into the tiniest pieces.
And this year I have found myself really thinking about what it would be like. So as Heather the Horse, I’m going to pretend I’m Saadi – my Percheron who suffers with itch. I first thought about the physical differences. I would be seeing things in a different way, I’m also bigger, my steps are bigger. How do I judge distance compared to Human Heather?
As Horse Heather, I like my routine. I know when my human is mixing feed – and where I need to be to receive it. I know when it will be my turn to spend time with my human. When I first come out of my pen, my human gets me to stand still in the light while she brushes and scratches me. I love this. I’m always itchy. In summer she takes me to stand on the cement and she hoses me. It always worries me if the water will be cold. She puts the hose on slowly so I can get used to it – and then I quite like it. I don’t need to run away. She puts soap on me and I feel good after.
Other times she takes me to the arena. At first I was worried about what I have to do. My friends are further away. But then I was surprised that she took me to the arena gate and brought me back to my stable. Phew! We did this each day. I don’t know why I was worried. It was easy! Then one day I stood on a mat in there. It was just like my mat near my friends. But it was a different shape. I couldn’t really see it clearly at first but my human helped me and I got my treats.
I don’t really know why she is doing that, but I don’t worry if we go that way now. She is always really nice to me, so I don’t know why I worry. I’m always happy to go back in my pen. I like to lick the salt. But then after a while I want to have another go!
…….so that’s my impression of Saadi!
Now – as Horse Heather – I will be Danny!
I like to get out of my pen and stand on my mat. I’m away from the other horses – they sometimes pick on me. The first human I had used to hit me. They put me in a box and took me places and I was so confused. My feet and back hurt. Then I came here and my new human didn’t do that. I learnt when I stand on a mat I get treats. I’m happy to stand there.
One day my human put boots on my front feet. It felt good. I didn’t have to worry about the ground I walked on. Then she started spending more time with me. I could understand what she was asking me because she only did a tiny bit first – and my feet didn’t hurt so I could think better. I learnt that she wanted me to stand with all my legs square. Now it’s easy!
Then she took me into the arena. There are mats there so it was also easy. She also took me around orange cones. I learnt she wanted me to stay on the outside of the cones. I didn’t mind it because I got treats. I don’t know why she wanted me to do that. Then she did some other different things. I liked when she had a rope on me. I didn’t have to think so hard. I knew she would guide me. She had taught me about the lead rope before. We go slowly so I don’t get confused. And my feet don’t hurt.
I look forward to it now and hate having to wait my turn. My body doesn’t hurt now. She gives me a medicine with my feed. I like it when I get the puzzle right. It’s fun – and she gets excited!
Okay, so I’ve probably put the human spin on the horses… but you get the idea!
So – why has the ‘let’s pretend I’m a horse’ game helped me? I’ve found using my imagination like that has helped get me inside their heads!
First – it got me to think about pain. And let’s include skin conditions in that. In my opinion, pain in our horses is underestimated. For a start – teeth. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be asked to train or carry a human if you have a toothache – or if your gums are ulcerated from teeth that haven’t been filed. Then there is arthritis, muscle strains, sore backs, legs …. and hoof troubles. To top it off, imagine the misery of a skin condition. You’re being asked to do something – and all you can focus on is the itch – or the pain of sores. You just want your human to help with that, rather than run you around in a circle.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time on tending to Magnum’s legs. He has pastern dermatitis. I regularly clip the hair, and treat the sores. I give his legs a good scratch and he loves it – especially when he cannot reach the itchy bits. I feel him sigh and drop his head as I tend to them. And I think about all the things that our horses would like us to do that go unnoticed.
So onto training time……. I always aim to be clear – but am I? I have plenty of video footage I can watch so I can take note of timing, cues, clean loops and thin slicing. I think to myself “Imagine if I had to follow someone around – would I know what they wanted?” Even if the session is full of treats – is it stressful? Does it feel like I would have to keep up – or does it feel like a relaxing puzzle?
Then I imagine if I was doing this puzzle with a human who, for instance, was very quick – or had a loud voice – or whose movements seemed agitated. They were feeding me treats but I was so distracted by the human that I couldn’t absorb the lesson. How would it impact on me?
Maybe I think too much – but in the quiet here, undisturbed – there’s time for thinking! I’m aiming to be on an equal footing with the horses, rather than being their boss. I’m responsible for their welfare – and they are my friends. I want to treat them how I treat my human friends. I want to listen to them, help them gain confidence, and offer them training that’s enjoyable for them. Each day I feel like I delve deeper into the horse/human relationship.
And I always think of what Karen Pryor said as she signed a book for me at the Clicker Expo – “Thanks for training horses with positive reinforcement. They need all the help they can get. They are the most misunderstood creatures with too much expectation on them.”
Yes, indeed they are….
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