I think this issue was really highlighted when at the most recent clinic with Philippe Karl, during a break, Tycoon turned around to touch me on the foot a few times, and PK said, ‘I think he is waiting for something!’ I knew that if I was to protest and explain that he never gets treated from the saddle I would look either a liar or a meanie. And it wasn’t the time to explain that I think the reason he does this is similar to why he touches me gently on the arm when we are working on the ground; which as far as I can ascertain is a kind of ‘checking-in’ behaviour. He tends to do it when he is worried about something and wants me to notice (and let him know that I have noticed) and he also does it when he wants his chin scratched, and sometimes he just does it to say ‘Hi’. This alone has warranted the thousands of hours and pounds that I have spent on this horse trying to work out some of the issues he has, as it always (sometimes unhelpfully) melts my heart. But I know he is not doing it to ask for a carrot.
As with pretty much everything that has made me really consider what I do with horses, Tycoon has been the catalyst. My other two horses are pretty straightforward. O.k. I mean, Garbanzo is crossed with a giraffe, and Des seems to lurch through life from one mishap to the other, but essentially they are pretty easy. Des can be mentally tight and a bit obstreperous, and Garbanzo has some strong ideas about things on occasion, but they typically feel fine about life and people, and being asked to do stupid human things, and they mostly come out of the field the same each day (sometimes Des has a bandage on). Had I decided to use a food based reward system with either of these two, they would probably have got along well enough with it, and who knows, maybe I might have got really handy with it and be writing an entirely different blog post.
However, Tycoon does not really feel o.k. about life. As Kathleen Lindley Beckham pointed out to me in an email recently, I have learned to accommodate Tycoon and it is only on this basis that we can work together. She is right. Something has happened to Tycoon somewhere along the line which has at least contributed to some physical issues (he has a couple of major scars, joint issues and immune and digestive problems) and taught him some fairly unhelpful lessons about life. The major one of those being the tactic to, ‘If in doubt RUN – and worry about who /what is attached to you afterwards’. How we overcame this is a book in its own right, but I did go through a stage of trying to use food to help him out.
Now, I KNOW there are a million very experienced clicker trainers out there who will say I did everything wrong in terms of using food. I used it to reward him for dealing with situations he found difficult. I used it as a ‘thank you’. And ultimately I was using it as a way of apologising to him for what I wanted him to do. And it kind of worked. Tycoon LOVES food, so it was quite an incentive for him, and did clearly mark when he was doing something ‘right’. However, what Tycoon hates (even more than he loves food) is getting stuff wrong . And this approach meant that the whole time he wasn't receiving a food reward he was essentially wrong. It kind of made him more ‘obedient’, but it also kept him a little mentally tight. He was always waiting for the marking of what he had done correctly with a treat. The rest of the time he was (hypothetically and actually) holding his breath until he got it ‘right’ again. And the use of food (in the way that I was using it) didn't really get to the heart of why Tycoon felt scared about things. His panic and run drive was so strong that no amount of carrots were going to change that for him. I was still just chipping away at the surface.
For a while I was signed up to Marijke De Jong’s on-line straightness training course . At this time she was using food rewards as part of her training, and it did ‘seem’ to my uneducated eyes that sometimes the horses were more concerned about when they were going to get a treat than being involved in what they were doing. A while later, when when I went to one of her clinics (and what a fine horsewoman she is) she explained that she had stopped using treats as she felt it detracted from the horse’s absorption in the learning process. So, maybe I wasn’t that far off the mark.
When food is used badly it creates muggy, pushy, distracted horses. I know this doesn’t need to be the case and that says more about how the person has used food than the use of food treats. However, what I also saw when I used it (and I did at least know enough not to create mugging or pushing in my horses) was that it kind of inhibited the horse’s ability to just ‘mellow’ and be completely present in the work. It unhelpfully punctuated what we were doing together, sometimes wrecking the horse’s balance (what’s the point in preparing for a balanced halt and then damaging it by leaning forward to give your horse a treat and throwing him forwards again?), but most often it just added a mental distraction which neither of us needed.
What I could have done was spent a long time learning how to use clicker training and food based rewards to a high standard, as I know many fine people have done. However, and this is where this is totally personal, it just doesn’t appeal to me. Selfish maybe, but you have to be honest about who you are. I knew I didn’t have the level of interest in that approach to do it really well, and doing it half cocked seems to cause SO many issues in horses that I just admitted that it wasn’t for me.
There are things which I do in life for which I need no additional reward – I don’t need to be reinforced with something external to walk on the beach, or read a book, or listen to music. I also don’t need it to ride my horse. For me, the reward is very much in the feeling that exists between my horses and I. I love it. In fact, I am addicted to it. I began to try to find ways which might mean my horses could enjoy the sensation of working with me, which didn’t rely on ‘treats’. Could I find ways to show them that spending time with me, and working with me, was a nice enough thing in itself? Arrogant perhaps, but part of this crazy addiction. And for Tycoon, that is worth any amount of food treats. When I can find ways which come from the inside of me, to help him feel O.K from the inside out, then he doesn’t need a reward (or a compensation...?) in the form of food. It has been in changing me, and the way that I present things to him, which has helped him to stay with me in times of strife.
What I think it boils down to is that basically, I am a hopeless romantic, with an insatiable desire to get to the heart of this ridiculous thing called horsemanship. Some people do that fabulously through a food based reward system. But for me, the bit of me that wants cannon balls and unicorns, scimitars and scarves (I think most of you get the reference by now), well I can’t help but want to find a way into the soul of the horse using whatever I can muster that comes from the very best of me. I might be on the wrong path, and look back in years to come and wish I had taken a different route, but for now, I am going to keep on asking my horses to give me some grace while I try to work things out from this perspective.
N.B Now before you feel too sorry for my horses, they do get delicious haylage, a better balanced diet than most humans, plenty of carrots, and a lot of time bombing around with each other in the field. And mostly they are pretty happy about life these days, even Tycoon.
N.b. 2. I am at liberty to change my mind about any of this at any time.