I’ve been told and have read that successful positive reinforcement training (or attraction-based work or clicker training) is both an art and a science. It certainly helps to observe, as an artist with a trained eye would, the subtle nuances of your horse’s behavior. And the knowledge of science can shed light on the ins-and-outs of operant conditioning. I’d like to add a third category that compliments both the art and the science: appreciation.
Merriam Webster defines appreciation as an expression of admiration, approval or gratitude.
It seems like my training completely transformed when I began to practice appreciation with my horses, especially DaVinci.
DaVinci, my gelding recovering from Post Traumatic Stress, is one of those horses that can easily bring out the worst in people. He used to make everyday horse handling a major event. He couldn’t be touched, or haltered or led. Once he could be haltered, I couldn’t groom him. He was convinced grooming tools were of the devil and I was Satan’s servant.
It wasn’t like he was a wild mustang experiencing touch for the first time. He had plenty of touch, obviously the wrong kind, and had concluded that a world full of humans was a world full of pain.
One moment I could feel such extreme anger at his un-manageability and then seconds later I’d be filled with compassion because God only knows what happened to him to cause such a violent reaction. I was angry he was so difficult, yet understanding of the reasons why he acted as he did. Then, adding insult to injury, his nervous behavior caused me to feel seriously incompetent. Even though I was the source of all good things and had great timing with my click-treat and I understood operant conditioning, I still was a human. In his mind that was a very bad thing.
In retrospect, when I’d work with him I’d carry vivid thoughts and feelings about him. I could be angry, confused or heartbroken and pleading. I’m ashamed to admit that my main thought was, “You are broken, and I will fix you.” I was so certain of my abilities, prior to him. After all, I had the technology, the practice and the understanding.
Three enlightening years later, I think I’ve found the missing link. I viewed DaVinci as an object, a project, a way to measure the success of my positive reinforcement training methods. I sit here typing in tears realizing how, despite my best intentions, I totally missed the mark.
I never authentically viewed him as a sentient being capable of feeling emotion, forming thoughts, having opinions or needing validation. Slowly, patiently he led me down this path showing me where he likes to be scratched, how he likes me to simply sit with him and what treats he likes the best.
Our relationship started to resemble more human-to-human than human-to-horse. I began to admire his courage in the face of fly spray. I would sit in awe of his finely crafted head, his beautiful markings, his energetic nicker when he’d see me. The Herculean turning point occurred when I could express my approval of him.
Before this point, I always viewed him as flawed, imperfect, lacking. If this were a human, how would that person feel if they knew this was how I viewed them, especially if I was claiming to be a friend? How could I have any kind of friendship based on equality if I viewed myself as superior and him as inferior.
I certainly would not want to be my friend, let alone have any kind of conversation with me. No doubt that conversation would have an agenda and my view would be incredibly biased. I had created a world for DaVinci orbiting around an axis of judgment. Clearly not a solid foundation for expression or growth or just plain old fun.
My pasture became a very different place when I began to communicate thoughts of approval. I actively set about to appreciate him for who and where he was right now without thinking about what I wanted him to become. Suddenly I felt liberated. I could stand next to DaVinci without the need to get somewhere, or accomplish something. I could just be. I could relax. And presto chango, he began to relax.
Maybe because I wasn’t judging him, I didn’t feel like he was judging me.
To say this is easy, I can’t. It’s not. I’m undoing a lifetime of thought patterns that have not served me or the sentient beings in my path. To let go of my inclination to brand or judge something as imperfect has been a foreign sensation. At first I felt empty without my platform to judge, but the instant I began flowing thoughts of appreciation towards DaVinci, I was able to be completely present with him and myself.
It’s said that perfect love casts out fear. I finally understand what that means. My judgmental thoughts were based in fear. Fear that I made a mistake in acquiring DaVinci. Fear that I wasn’t skilled enough. Fear that positive reinforcement training wouldn’t be powerful enough. Fear that DaVinci was damaged beyond repair. I was less fearful when I could judge or make an assessment.
When I began to appreciate (love) DaVinci for who he was, not for what I wanted him to be, the judgment vanished. It was like fear couldn’t exist in a place of where loving thoughts flowed.
It’s as if these powerful thoughts of appreciation become visual pictures that appear in my brain. I’m getting the feeling that my animals have a sophisticated way to read my thoughts and are really enjoying the new pictures of them that I’m creating.
When I imagine these beautiful portraits of my animals in my mind, I love the way they look at me. Who knows, maybe they’re creating beautiful portraits of me in their head too.
Clearly, something wonderful is afoot. Adding this extra category of appreciation on to the art and science of positive reinforcement training is having a very powerful yet effortless effect of my relationship with my herd and pack.
Alas, I must go. I’m being called to a “mutual appreciation meeting” in my backyard. So far our group has 16 hooves, 16 paws, and my 2 feet. Light hors d’oeuvres will be artistically served, accompanied by a click.