An equine clicker trainer Debra Olson-Daniels asked me what changes I have seen in myself and the horses since I transitioned from natural horsemanship to clicker training. I had certainly thought and talked about it before, and at times quite adamantly, too. But when I thought about Debra’s question this time, I was surprised and delighted to see that what came up most prominently was different from what stood out in my past iterations of the topic. So what I would like to share is not a sum total of my experience of the changes that were brought about by the shift in training paradigm, but rather a current layer of my experience and integration of it.  I am grateful to Debra for the way she worded her question, because when I let it in, it met with the soft glow of the treasures I had been enjoying for a while now, but had not, until now, paid them conscious thought.

When I thought about the changes I have seen in the horses, I felt the warmth and the particular vibrancy of a relationship I have with the horses I currently work with. I had started working with them at one point or another in the continuum of my transition between the training paradigms. I had not tried to boss them or please them, I only have been doing my best to be clear, consistent and compassionate on an ongoing basis. I have also made many mistakes and did my best to take responsibility and to make up for them. These are client’s horses, so I did not intend to have anything but a professional relationship with them.  But what I started seeing after many months of our slow and humble work was not something I planned or hoped for. Genuine liking. Genuine acceptance. Genuine trust. It is something you see in the eyes of another being, something that you feel in their breath and heartbeat, a sort of a trusting opening, an exposure of tender and vulnerable beauty. It is much softer than the exuberant nickers I am greeted with when I show up at the barn. It is so below the surface that I have been taking it in and giving it back for quite a while before my mind woke up to it. It is the way the horse smiles at you, not with her mouth or her posture, but softly glowing through her eyes and her whole body. It is a way of saying: “I trust you to SEE me. I trust you enough to show you the beauty of my body and my spirit”. These are not epic moments. They are the ordinary “now” moments of everyday training and interaction. It is the real horses and the real me who are there to witness and be in those moments, with all things good and bad in us, inextricably intertwined, and that is the beauty of it too.

I remember some particularly challenging days when I was full of resentment and self-pity over the fact that these horses, unlike my horses, don’t seem to care about me at all, they just want me to come and entertain them, give them mental stimulation and make them feel good about themselves. I was going through a rough patch in my life, and having my horses’ quiet but unwavering support was at times a lifesaver. And with these horses, I did not have this kind of relationship. I acknowledged my feelings and I called myself back to the real horses, the real moments, the work at hand. I forgot my resentment as I went deeper into the aspect of the spirit of clicker training that is about compassionate service. Each of these horses is a being of authentic and unique beauty, and I was in a position to assist them in bringing it out. Seeing it this way made me aware that their very faults and quirks are their unique assets, if only I work with them, not against them. There was nothing to correct in the way they expressed themselves, there was only creating the space: physical, through the exercises we did, mental, through the rate and timing of my clicks, emotional, through staying in my own authentic emotional space while being grounded. There was creating the space in which they could themselves find a better balance: physical, emotional, and mental. The balance they were finding was theirs to keep and own. What I started seeing was that I could not know or predict what their balance would be. I could not give them their discoveries. And what they came up with on their own, in the space that I helped to hold, invariably defied my expectations or imaginations about what it could, should, or might be. I started receiving small gifts of breathtaking beauty, connection, and ingenuity from the horses I shared this work with, and each of these gifts, however small, was a miracle enough to brighten my day and be deeply grateful for being in my place, playing my part.

This merges right into the next part of Debra’s question: what changes have I seen in myself. I have seen the relaxation of my trainer ego, and what a relief it has been to be releasing this imposing burden.  A day when I noticed the change stands out in my memory. I ran out of goodies while working in the arena with a spotted filly, Walela. I let her loose and went to the barn to refill. We had been working on something that required a lot of mental concentration on her part, and I felt that she would benefit from some good veg-out time. When I came back, she was wandering around the arena, exploring, and nibbling on meager grass here and there. She paid no attention to me. I sat on the mounting block and let myself get immersed in sweet stillness, warm sunlight, and the peaceful presence of the horse. I thought to myself: “If she doesn’t come over in the next ten minutes or so, we will just call it a day. She has done a lot of work already”. I felt warm appreciation for all the hard thinking that she so valiantly did and was proud of her success as if she was my own sister. And then I became aware of the peace that was outside and inside of me. Everything inside me was free. That’s when I noticed the conspicuous absence of something that used to be right there, in my solar plexus, every time I felt the horse was not paying proper attention to me - when he should! Right now, I did not feel a tight twist in my belly, and it was its absence that made me aware of the “tight” and the “twist” aspects of it. I had learned to not be aware of it. That used to be the twist of determination to get to work and reassert my authority. A horse ignoring me was a trigger. I would spend tons of energy doing a join-up, putting horse to work, or, later, when I was in one of the stages of transitioning from natural horsemanship to clicker training, all or some of that in combination with clicking and treating. Now I was watching Walela ignoring me, and everything was clear and flowing through me, as sweet and placid as can be. All there was, a mare and a woman sharing the lingering moments of a sunny afternoon, each aware of the other, each in her own space.

I don’t remember how that particular episode resolved. Did Walela keep to herself and I eventually turned her out? Did she come to me after her break and was interested in doing more work? I cannot remember, because I was perfectly fine with it either way. I trusted her to be the competent one to decide.

Below: Walela working
Walela working

What a relief it was to know I was no longer at the mercy of my authoritarian insecurity! That I no longer had to take it personally when a horse did not care for my company. That I really and truly did not have the need to make the horse do it my way.

I am not saying at all that my ego died. I really don’t believe that a person’s goal is to banish the ego. I think that an ego is a necessary container and guardian of the deeper and more tender aspects of ourselves that serves as an interface between the “I” and the “other”. As long as we live in this world of duality (and we do until we die), we really need an ego.

What I experienced was a gradual falling away of my horse trainer ego. It had become too restrictive, too rigid, and too self-serving to accommodate the expansion of my being that clicker training had brought into my world. What I saw replacing it was a clicker trainer ego. I feel that it is a functional, progressive, and permeable vessel for the totality of me when I am working with horses. It is also expansive enough to accommodate the parts of my being that have nothing to do with horses. I am also aware of certain arrogance, righteousness, defensiveness, and other shadow qualities that sneak in from other parts of my self. They are not part of clicker trainer ego, but they can connect to it if I continue allowing that. Seeing that is part of my personal work that is relevant to clicker training inasmuch as everything is connected.

It is easy to imagine the changes in yourself and lull yourself back to complacency. I know from experience. A good buddy of mine, client’s horse Drake, gave me some “clicks” that are close to my heart and that encourage me to feel that indeed, some changes had been happening.


Drake witnessed my transition from natural horsemanship up until now in its entirety. As a natural horsemanship trainer, I had worked on starting him and continued working with him as I was finding a constantly shifting balance between the two training paradigms. He experienced a lot of hybrid training. Overall, he was excited about the introduction of clicking, but he was often ambivalent, resistant, and resentful when I imposed what I now recognize as too much physical or mental pressure on him. There was a long hiatus in our work, as I shifted my focus to other horses, per owner’s request. We have resumed working together recently. Right away, I saw that we came together on a different ground. That bit of under-the-surface tension that I had often felt between us in the past, was not there at all. I know that Drake was not different, but he sure seemed different: I saw the softness, light-heartedness, and a certain endearing naiveté that I had not seen in him before. And so much more enthusiasm! I really get to see the aspect of him that is basically a “good guy” who likes to be happy and at peace, so unlike some of the high-strung, exacting horses that I get to work with. And I am so grateful for it and more than willing to accommodate it. The very qualities that used to frustrate me to no end are seen in an altogether different light. Back when I was a NH trainer, I knew about Drake that he could be stubborn, strong-willed, and resistant. I still remember the frigid winter day when I spent nearly two hours riding him in a pattern trying to improve his response to the rein, and still each turn was like trying to drive a tank with a steering wheel stuck in a forward position. asking Drake to back with too much pressureEven when I introduced the clicker (and thought that I had completely changed the way I trained), we still had moments when he absolutely refused to do what I was trying to make him do. The photo on the left shows a moment of such struggle in 2007, when Drake's response to excessive pressure was a refusal to move. When I looked back at that recently, I realized that I love and admire him for the exact things that I had perceived as faults. For having such a strong sense of self, for being able to protect his mental peace, for knowing what is good for him, and for not allowing anyone, me including, to impose on him. What a horse! I also used to think that he was, well, not very bright. Now I see that if I care to break the tasks down into even smaller, more understandable pieces, he is very fast to catch on and genuinely delights in the high rate of his success. He so “gets” it that he nickers at his clicks! He is a horse who needs to be right, and he sulks if he cannot be right most of the time. I remember that it used to annoy me, and I judged him for not having enough try. Now I love the fact that he delights in being successful and I want to set it up for him that his self-confidence is reinforced by a strong history of a high success rate. I really like it when he is full of himself, and I would like for him to be even more full with all the power, kindness and generosity that he carries within.

Drake is concentrating hard as he picks himself up and flexes at the poll in response to the lifting of the reins, May 2011

What Drake is “clicking” me for is my emerging ability to take the feedback from the horses, however upsetting it might be if it happens to reveal an aspect of myself that I would rather not know about, to take it in without losing my grounding in compassion for the self and the horse, and to let it guide me towards a positive change. What I am seeing in the horses is a mirror of what I am starting to see in myself: we drop our defenses, and what is being revealed is worth all the hard, hard work, all the mistakes, all the regrets, all the shame, all the struggle with self, all of the authentic learning that went into it.   

May 2011



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