Introducing Philippa and OzziePosted in: Clicker Training
Ozzie is my first horse and came to me 9 months ago. A very exciting moment! He’s 5 (I think) and I am 35. Possibly a bit late to be dipping my toe into horse ownership for the first time!
He’s a fantastically sensitive boy, quick to learn and keen to do so. He was backed in Ireland a couple of weeks before he came to England and seemed to take all the dramatic changes in his life in his stride. I now know that he internalises, and that the signs of worry were there, but it isn’t his way to be dramatic. That said, there was one thing he showed open resistance to…
At bridling time, he would hold his head up high, reverse down the barn doing mini rears, and all the other usual avoidance techniques. And, suddenly, when faced for the first time with a horse who was my responsibility, I just couldn’t do it to him!
I asked the dentist to describe Oz’s mouth to me, and he told me that his bars were bony, narrow and upwards pointing. NO bit, it seemed, was going to be comfortable. The dentist suggested a Myler, wrapped in bit tape…. but I didn’t feel I wanted to go down that route. I didn’t think it would, in reality, be so much comfier; plus, if the complex action of the Myler was to be muddied by bit tape, what was the point of it in the first place?
Meanwhile, I knew that in order to ride Ozzie in a way that would be beneficial to his physique, I would need to gradually help him to learn the correct balance. But how? I was told time and time again that this wasn’t possible without the bit.
To ride or not to ride?
And so I started to contemplate never riding him again. If there wasn’t a way to do it bitless, then I wasn’t going to do it at all. The whole thing was making me feel strange and sad. At the age of 35 (and having had loads of knee surgery), I wasn’t aiming to be out competing. I had a horse as a friend and I just wasn’t going to compromise him, either riding with or without the bit!
Then I had the luck to be taken to a NH clinic by a very kind friend, and Ozzie and I had our first bitless ride. This was step 1, and I was terrified! But I will always remember that feeling of looking down at him and seeing his mouth still and calm. I was so excited. This seemed to be IT!
But what about balance?
But then, before long, I came back to my initial concerns. I STILL couldn’t achieve the correct balance bitless. I couldn’t show him how to use his body, and I knew from many years of learning how to handle an injury, that this is something that we all need to learn. It doesn’t come as instinctively as it might… particularly for those who are suddenly carrying fully grown humans on top! I am a novice horse owner and it was a given that I needed someone to help me learn what I had to teach him; but even if I found that information, how could I communicate it?
After a horribly lonely time feeling around in the dark, and making up endless excuses as to why I wasn’t riding, I came across clicker training.
Then came a short time of great excitement, followed, I suppose inevitably, by big periods of doubt. I posed myself with every question I could muster; was I creating a mouthy, rude, dangerous horse that would need clicking just to breathe? The majority of people at my yard thought I was mad (and still do) and it’s kind of hard having the courage of one’s convictions, particularly when one’s convictions aren’t that solid! But I persisted, since there was simply no other way that felt open to me.
And then, like slipping into a hot bath, things started to fall into place. After much reading and thinking, not only could I now see that it was theoretically possible for a horse to be taught to hold themselves in the correct balance without the bit, but that the process itself had untold beneficial effects on horse and handler. I felt my brain expanding in a way it hasn’t for years, and for the first time EVER, I tasted the conviction that it was only my imagination that could place limits on us.
Round about Christmas time, and just as I was coming to these realisations, Ozzie began to lose weight and exhibit other signs of ill health, such as stumbling, increased sensitivity, and temperament changes. He was diagnosed with hepatitis. It has been such a worrying experience, but I am delighted to report that, at the time of writing, he has received something close to an all clear from the vet.
Throughout his illness, of course, any ideas I had about riding were totally shelved. But in a funny kind of way, and if I had to look for a silver lining, the fact that I was no longer under pressure to ride, enabled us to work on so many things I’d wanted to, but not had the confidence to do so. I found clicker training to be absolutely invaluable in helping to keep him occupied, relieve stress, and allow our relationship to grow.
Now he is just about ready for me to start imagining myself on board once again, though since that time I have learnt to not care what others think! He is weak, and we will do things at our own pace. However, I know that I will not be riding until he is in balance, and that clicker training can in theory allow us to achieve this. In addition, using positive reinforcement in our day to day lives has already allowed trust between us to flourish in a way I never thought possible. Just yesterday ozzie gave me my first ‘groom’. It was lovely! And so totally different from anything I have experienced before.
And so, very slowly, with one or two interruptions, Ozzie and I have begun our journey towards learning about balance without the use of the bit. We aren’t in rush – in fact we have a lifetime! And not only that, but now that I know it is possible, I would seek to do this with any other horse I have the pleasure of knowing. After all – if you know the sky is there, why would you carry on just looking at the ground?
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