four panel comic introducing positive horsemanship

An open letter to Clicker kids and their parents,

An open letter to Clicker kids and their parents,
You are the change you wish to see in the world. You are in a small, special group of individuals who have made the decision to do what is   right, not just what is easy. Following the path that all the other kids your age are taking is easy, it’s fun, it’s well-established, but you have chosen to take a look from a new angle. You asked “what’s in it for the horse?” You are at the cutting edge of change in the horse world, you are the generation that will change the way humans look at and treat horses.
Being among the small few who change the world is a massive task that’s not for everyone, it’s a lonely road to take sometimes and sometimes it means rethinking things we thought we knew. I’m sorry you are carrying this burden. I wish I could hug you all and encourage you that this will be worth it! You need to be strong, independent, and passionate about the horse as a being, not a piece of sport’s equipment. This may not be easy, but when you’re an adult looking at the horse world in a new light, you’ll be so proud to have been among the first to stand up for the horse.
Every volunteer at my barn learns about clicker training, whether they’ve worked with horses traditionally or are just meeting horses for the first time. I get many questions I’m not sure how to answer, I struggle between wanting to be honest, but not wanting to hurt someone who is doing only what they were taught. Most kids who are new to horses never look back from clicker training, the idea of kicking, hitting, using bits or whips, just is something they never think about as an option. If someone were to encourage them to use these tools or handle the horses harshly, they already know this isn’t necessary, they already know they can have fun without force. But many of the kids who have worked with horses traditionally begin to see the flaws in their previous understandings.
These kids have been taught that kicking, hitting, or using bits or whips, doesn’t cause the horse pain, it just “communicates” with the horse. The kids are never taught how or why the tools work, or the signs to see pain or fear in the face of a horse. They learn that when a horse expresses their pain or fear, they are being “fresh” or “naughty” and to punish those displays. The kids struggle to understand why would an adult teach them to hurt an animal they both love? The adult LOVES their horse, they aren’t intentionally teaching violence to children, they are only doing what they were taught. They think this is the only way, because it’s all they’ve ever seen and they’re resistant to change because as hard as this is for you to handle change, they have many more years of justifying those techniques and tools. We have learned that it’s not the only way to work with horses. Who will be brave enough to make the change? To take the new information as something to be excited about, not afraid of, this is a new approach to horses that allows us to work with horses in a way that is wonderful for us both! But it does mean accepting the things we’ve done in the past and standing up against what is “normal”.
This is especially hard because not only are the teachers telling the kids all of the justifications we know too well, but so are their friends. Their friends are taking the same path as they are, the common, normal path, they’re being taught the same things. So then our kids who want to change the world may need to stand alone. Parents can be a big help here, helping support your kids for these decisions is HUGE, realize how hard this is for them and be proud of their choice. Their choice isn’t easy, but they are doing what they believe is right.
For parents and kids who are wondering, why is the traditional stuff “so bad”, well no it’s not evil! It’s just very outdated and stuck in the dark ages of tradition. This happens because people who want to succeed in the sport of horse riding need to look and act the same as those above them in the sport, change wouldn’t be welcome. Tools like bits, spurs, whips, and techniques like pulling, kicking, hitting, no matter how gently your child might be using these tools, these are training techniques based in fear and force. The horses are “broken”, quite literally they are taught that even though they are bigger and stronger, humans still have the tools and ability to inflict great pain, and the only escape is compliance. Complete compliance. To the point that we can cue very lightly, just a little squeeze, and they know “I better get moving or this is going to be bad!” This is a very rudimentary overview, but from a psychology perspective what they are using is classic, Negative Reinforcement (apply pressure until you get what you want, then relieve the pressure to reinforce the behavior) and Punishment (add something the learner dislikes to reduce a behavior). Many of the kids are taught these tools and techniques don’t hurt, but if they didn’t hurt (or have a history of hurting in the past) they wouldn’t work.
This is the norm in the horse world because we broke horses for labor, war, and then sport, for thousands of years and techniques have changed very little. Because when you need 600 horses broke and ready for the battlefield, you aren’t going to take the horse’s feelings into consideration. Then sports were made to replicate these processes of breaking horses, riding in various extreme situations one might see on the battlefield. So very little changed, we moved the nose ring into the mouth and made more extreme leverage devices for control. No one is intentionally being unkind, but change is hard, when there are decades of tradition to overcome.
If your kids has decided that this is the path they want to take, they’re doing so for the horse, because with positive reinforcement we learn to use our brain to communicate, not our brute force. We learn about behavioral science, psychology, neurology (of emotions), we learn the importance of nutrition, exercise, and a healthy, species appropriate lifestyle. This means making sure horses have plenty of time outside, living like a horse with their friends. They get an appropriate diet with plenty of forage all day, clean and safe homes to come in when they’re done playing. They learn to use positive training to achieve all the same goals they’re used to and more with horses, and they learn how fun that can be for the horses too! They have made a hard choice because they want to learn and do what’s best for the horse, even if it’s hard in their social settings. So the best we can do is support them, especially at times of conflict, when they’re struggling with whether this is right for them or not. How are kids meant to make decisions when their respected adults give them conflicting messages? They can learn both sides and decide for themselves, but these decisions aren’t always easy.

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