“Validate Me!”

Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the blubbering little hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. I was in a pet shop the other day and a very young, lone Quaker parrot was screeching his little lungs out. His cage was not far off the ground, so I knelt down and had a little chat with him in my best parrot voice.

This consisted of chirping noises, a few clicks, whistles and of course a “pretty bird” or two. In less than a second, the little screecher was cocking its head and watching me intently. It began to show me how it could pick up pieces of peanut hulls and began to climb and twirl around its cage making certain I was watching.

It was then I was filled with the spirit of the crying hobbits and I felt my eyes well up with tears. This happens to me when I feel as though I’ve made contact with another life form that’s not human.

I got the feeling that all this little guy needed was a little validation. In those few minutes where he had my full attention, I felt like he came to life and was trying to communicate with me, too.

My validation came in the form of watching and responding in a manner that the bird obviously recognized and may have been important to him. Here he was in a cage, all alone, probably begging for a visit. His screeching may have been a cry for help. Doesn’t anyone know I exist? Please, talk to me! Screech!

I was the only one in the store that seemed to notice the bird. For those few minutes the store was completely quiet. In the space of that quiet, the little lonely bird lit up in an awesome display of dancing and twirling.

I had to put my sunglasses on in the store to hide my eyes as I casually slid out the door to release the full impact of my realization in a full fledged sob, completely overwhelmed by the beauty I just experienced.

I believe for any creature, validation ranks right up there in importance with food and water. When I purposely take the time to make eye contact or offer a validating gesture to any sentient being, be it a dog on a leash walking by or a toddler in shopping cart, something sparks.

I think deep down everyone wants to feel like they matter, like their existence is important. Why, for example, is the cosmetic industry so successful? It holds the promise of helping us get noticed. Why do men love fancy sports cars? They get noticed.

This is why I train my horses the way I do. I think they spring to life when I validate them with something meaningful to them. With the parrot, it was important to him to be able to hear another bird (me trying to sound like a bird) and it meant something to him. My humble attempts at parrot speech seemed to matter to him and he responded with quiet attention and a lovely display of avian athletics.

I can’t help but consider the possibility that literally a new world is born when we make meaningful contact with another being. For most horses, too often that contact is not meaningful to the horse. How can pressure or force encourage communication?

I think horses are the poor poster children for being one of the most invalidated creatures on the planet. For some reason folks have been taught that You gotta be the boss, or they’ll take advantage of you. This type of reasoning I believe has kept the true nature and abilities of the horse hidden for too long.

The horse equivalent of the screeching bird might be behaviors like bucking, barging, biting, rearing, weaving, or anything that we find annoying. I believe these horses are trying to say, Notice me and validate me, because something doesn’t feel right.

All I did to silence the screeching parrot was simply kneel down and say Hi. I’m finding too, it’s no different with my horses. Every day I try to find ways to speak to them in a way that matters to them. I don’t think yanking, shanking, pushing, pulling, jabbing or grabbing is very validating. Not once have I seen them come back for a second helping of whacking.

I do see them, however, practically turn themselves inside out in a good way when I reward for the slightest try on their part. The reward I give is much more than a release. The reward is click and a few alfalfa pellets, or a Good job and scritchy scratch in their favorite place.

Bottom line is that I try to reach them using their currency, not mine. If I want to enter into their world, I need to speak all facets of their language and know what matters to them. I want more than what works to get the behavior. I want what makes them want to enter into my world.

To steal a line (sort of) from Cheap Trick, I want my horses to want me. When I validate them using their currency, I think it causes them to really want me, and want to be with me, and communicate with me, and do what I ask, and be a willing partner. Even if I am blubbering like a hobbit.


3 thoughts on ““Validate Me!”

    • Hi Barbara,
      Thank you so much for your ground breaking work and for your visit. It’s such an honor. I’ve added a link to your website. Your articles and insight are so very valuable in every aspect of positive reinforcement training. I believe the same principles and positive methods apply whether we’re training a parrot, a horse, a dog, killer whale or even a human!

  1. beautifully said cheryl. that feeling that you get when you make the deeper connection to a living sentient being is in a humble way, both a blessing and a gift. keep blubbering!

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