Will O’ Wisp

Will O’ Wisp is my rock, my heart, my soul and everything else in between. She came to us about 2 years ago from another rescue. She was an adult, lightly trained Clydesdale/Shire. When I met her I saw a softness to her I’d seen so rarely. She was quiet and closed up, stuck inside herself - and I could relate. I had worked on training her all the behaviors - she was the first horse I really felt like I knew what I was doing as we progressed through her training. We literally went through her training by the book, step by step. But it never felt right. I approached our training so mechanically - I think I was emotionally quite distant as well at this time. She approached our training with a mild attitude, she was definitely participating just for the food reward. While I knew our relationship would bloom it felt empty for a long while.

About a year into our relationship we’d successfully accomplished everything. We’d overcome fear problems, fear of the woods and objects like tarps. She’d learned every behavior in the book and more. We could do every obstacle in the ring with me beside her or on her back. But she still had an empty expression, she didn’t make grooming faces when I itched her, she didn’t avoid things I asked her to do that she obviously didn’t like (like getting a bath) and she didn’t seem to actually want to play with me, despite her complete obedience. But that’s just what it felt like, blind, uncaring, obedience. This definitely wasn’t the relationship I had aspired to grow with her. Then we took a long break from each other, we had new rescues in the farm with pressing needs and more students than ever.

We had a visitor wondering about positive training so I opted to show them with Wisp all of the behaviors she knew. For the first time ever she trotted out into her field behind me, ready and eager to participate - this felt good! As we went through her behaviors she remembered each one perfectly, she moved her shoulders away from my pointed finger and toward the target, she backed up, put her head down, spun in a circle, moved her hips toward a target... but when I asked her to move her hips away with my tactile cue, touching her hip gently with my hand, she popped her foot up to her belly, like she was going to kick. I hopped back and a moment later tried again, this time she kicked out, not hitting me, but informing me she was not happy. After a thorough look over and check with her chiropractor, there was nothing wrong. But each time I asked for hip away she would threaten to kick. I could ask for hip towards on both sides with no problem - so it wasn’t the movement that was hard for her... Then I realized that’s the only behavior I have a tactile cue on, where I touch her to cue. She has known tactile cues from her R- life before me, but all our training had been R+ since then. Apparently she was offended by my use of a tactile cue! We reshaped the behavior with a target and put it on a new cue, pointing and verbal. She has been happy to offer the correct response without kick threats ever sense.

While many people might find this sort of behavior inappropriate, unwelcome, or even bad for a horse to do - I was thrilled that she began to express herself. I appreciated that she started with a threat, rather than just kicking me. I was so happy that she had begun to have an opinion, she’d begun to be honest, she’d begun to be herself! I can work through any problems, but I needed to know how she was feeling, any expression so I could meet her needs. Since this, we’ve reshaped a few behaviors she’s more quietly informed me were poisoned cues.

Our relationship has blossomed, her confidence in herself, in me has grown so huge! She races me to the agility ring, like an excited child as soon as we turn towards it. She follows me everywhere and eagerly waits for cues while we’re working. Her face is alert and confident, as she sorts out which behavior to offer with which cue. Her favorite behavior is smiling, she offers this to any visitor who walks by her stall in hopes they may have something good for her. Whenever she’s confused or not sure what to do while training she offers me her big squishy smile. She smiled so much learning to sort out her riding cues - she does much better with visual cues than verbal cues. I love telling people how when I started her undersaddle she smiled the whole time! It’s our little secret that it means she’s confused - haha!

My love for her knows no bounds. <3