I was explaining to a new acquaintance of mine a little bit about my training methods. As I spoke, her eyebrows furrowed and she became very quiet. I wasn’t sure if she was interested, confused or ready to debate me. After I finished my passionate diatribe, she began to tell me of her work with autistic children in the school system.
It turns out that the work I do with horses is very similar to the methods she uses with her children who have not developed language skills. One is a child-led, play-and-communication method called Floortime Therapy. The other is the classic Applied Behavioral Analysis, which is all positive reinforcement and immediately reinforces the correct behavior without use of punishment or negative reinforcement.
I hung on her every word. I specifically noted the lack of force. Fascinating that therapists would get fired if they smacked a kid to make it move over if the child didn’t understand words.
She was very curious to see what I would notice, or how I would interact with the children as I too work with beings that do not possess language skills. The work I’m doing with predominately positive reinforcement is turning out to create a common ground for both my horses and me to communicate. It is wordless, but the meanings are clear. So far, both the horses and I have found a language we can both speak.
I didn’t realize the power of this language until a few days ago when I received a visit from an amazing family who bought my horse trailer two years ago. On their first visit, the oldest boy, about 11 years old at the time, was very interested to hear about my painting horses and how I taught them to paint. Also, DaVinci had only been with us a few months, and was still in his basket case stage.
I gave a quick demonstration of my training methods, specifically with maneuvering on the tires and fetching. Within a few minutes the boy asked if he could try. I gave him a handful of treats and he walked over to DaVinci. He and DaVinci made an immediate connection and DaVinci responded by staying with him, climbing on the tire and, most importantly, not freaking out.
Two years later, I got a phone call from his mom explaining they were passing through the area and her son was begging her to stop by. He had grown about a foot and was more like a young man. I introduced them to Raleigh, the Clydesdale they had not met. I showed them Raleigh’s love of fetching and laying down on cue.
I could tell the young man was itching to try working with the herd, so I handed him a fanny pack full of alfalfa pellets. While his mom and I were talking, I glanced over to see that he gave Raleigh the cue to lie down, and plop, Raleigh laid down. The next time I glanced over, he was on Romeo’s back, on the pedestal, bareback and bridle-less.
The next time I looked over he was working with Raleigh and Romeo at the same time. They were happily trotting along with him, targeting his outstretched arms. Being the sentimental fool I am, I felt my eyes start to well up, but I suppressed my tears of happiness. I didn’t want my company to think I was a nut job. Before my eyes, I got to see a dream come true. This young man who had watched me, maybe a total of fifteen minutes between his first visit and now, was getting my horses to respond to him just like they do with me.
He didn’t have to attend a clinic, or read a book. He simply watched me ask/click/reinforce. It didn’t matter who was doing the asking. It was as the method of communication that mattered.
I watched my horses eagerly respond to the young man’s requests. Not once did he have to establish his dominance over the horses. Not once did the horses have to ask who was in charge. Why? I think it’s because they were speaking the same language.
What I saw is that he language has two factors. First, the horse has the understanding of ask/click/reinforce with something that feels good. Second, the intent behind this language is to make the horse feel good, rather than put the horse on the defensive.
I’ve always had the belief that animals use more advanced communication than humans. The attributes we call paranormal, such as clairvoyance, or telepathy, I believe the animals innately possess, and more.
I have a feeling that people with autism in our society also possess skills and abilities that we don’t fully understand right now. Just because a being does not possess language does not mean they can’t read intent, or read minds, or read energy.
I think this is an exciting time for all of us. I have a sneaking feeling, again, that horses have a very specific purpose, perhaps to lead us into a new era of communication. Just as their backs carried us into the industrial revolution, I can’t wait to see where their minds will carry us.