Since I began working with my 3 amazing Chincoteague Ponies there has been one common question that I seem to get all of the time. How did you teach your horse to do that?
In order to answer this its necessary to start from the very beginning. So this is how it all happened….
It all started in 2003 when I was given Chincoteague Minnow as a free lease to be used as my new mounted games pony (as I had just retired my 20 something Arab/Welsh cross). I would later be given ownership of Minnow on October 4, 2008 as a very generous wedding present. I soon learned that Minnow had quite a special story. Not only was he born wild on Assateague Island in 1993 but he had a long journey before he ended up with me.
In 1993 Minnow was auctioned off at the Fireman’s Carnival to an unknown family. He was dubbed Chincoteague Minnow because of his tiny size. Years later the Chincoteague Pony Centre got a call from a Mennonite family in Lancaster PA saying that they had Chincoteague Pony that was unrideable and who refused to leave the barn. When Kendy Allen (of the Chincoteague Pony Centre) showed up and had her daughter, Katye, immediately hop on the back of this untrained pony and begin riding him around the field where he lived with hundreds of sheep and goats, it was evident he had potential. Minnow went to live at the Pony Centre on Chincoteague Island where he was further broke to ride. He participated in their shows and parades where he quickly became a favorite at the Pony Centre.
The Nelson Family of Eastern Pa had been frequent visitors to the Chincoteague Pony Centre for many years. Their children would participate in Pony Centre events and soon became fond of Minnow as they would ride him in the evening shows. They were considering purchasing him for their children when a woman came along who “must have Minnow”. Kendy Allen had wanted the Nelsons to have Minnow, but after not hearing from them in quite some time, she reluctantly agreed to sell Minnow. Minnow was taken home to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with his new family. A few months later the Pony Centre received a phone call from Minnow’s new family stating they had changed their minds and they no longer wanted to keep him. They requested that Minnow be sent back to the Pony Centre. Already overflowing with their own herd to care for, Kendy Allen contacted the Nelson Family to see if they were still interested in Minnow. Being in close proximity to Minnow’s residence, the Nelsons decided to go take a look at him.
The Nelsons learned that when Minnow was purchased the first ride did not go so well, apparently he had stepped on a bees nest and when the swarm began to sting him he naturally began to buck and carry on. Upon seeing Minnow it was evident that his plump figure (which I am all too familiar with today) was not there and his conditioning had begun to fade. He was living in a dirt paddock with some cows and his feet were in need of some trimming. Being the horse lovers that they are, the Nelsons could not leave Minnow unhappy, so they loaded him up in their trailer and took him home in March of 2002. After several months of love and care with the Nelsons Minnow began to act again like the pony they had first fell in love with at the Pony Centre.
Luckily Minnow was rescued, unlike so many horses in our country, and for several years he spent a lovely life on the Nelson family farm learning that there are people in the world that are kind. But one thing was missing in Minnow’s life – a job – and the Nelsons thought that I might be the person to give him one.
In 2003, as I began working with Minnow it quickly became evident that he still had deeply routed trust issues. He didn’t trust me to keep him safe which translated into uncontrollable rides around the arena where all I could do to keep from falling off was to hold on for dear life. I also soon discovered that he had issues with sound, and anything that made a noise close to his body sent him into a panic. 2 years passed and we were still having the same problems. I began to wonder if I could ever fix Minnow and teach him to trust again. On the verge of giving up on him, I began working with a local trainer and started using the Parelli Method. As I loosely followed the parelli levels I began to see small improvements in him, but it wasn’t enough. That year I decided to take Minnow to college with me so we could have more daily training together. In the meantime I had been perusing the internet in search of alternative training methods when I came across a book called Trickonometry by Carole Fletcher.
It was unknown to me then, but this simple book would soon change the relationship between Minnow and I completely. While home on winter break with Minnow I started working on the first trick in the book, Kiss Me. As I began teaching Minnow with this reward-based method I slowly began to see a change in him. All of a sudden I was the source of something good (food) and I was more interesting to him. As we left for college again that winter I spent time working with him on new tricks from the book. With each new trick Minnow began to learn faster and faster. After mastering several tricks such as kiss me, shake hands, say no, play fetch I began thinking that there had to be more to this than simply “pet tricks”.
I spent more time researching reward-based methods and came across a clicker trainer in my local area. I set up a demonstration with Katie Bartlett for my local pony club that Spring. For two hours I absorbed everything she had to say. I watched as she had her horses perform fun tricks such as playing basketball and I watched as she had her dressage horse collected at liberty and even complete a series of riding patterns all with the use of a clicker. All of a sudden it clicked for me! I could use my trick training with Minnow to teach him to be more controlled under saddle and perhaps get him over his issue of noises so that we could be an accomplished mounted games team. After the demonstration I purchased my first clicker and set out to start over again with Minnow.
I started by teaching Minnow to target an object with the aid of a clicker. The clicker became the sound that let Minnow know that he had done exactly what I wanted and he was soon about to receive a treat reward. We went back and relearned all of the tricks I had already taught him with the clicker so that there was no confusion. I then set out under saddle with him. My first goal was to get a western stop on him. My uncontrollable pony needed some breaks. Having no professional western training I didn’t really know how to get the amazing western stop I had always seen. So I began teaching it my way. I took Minnow into a field and I slowly walked him straight towards a fence. When I got close to the fence, using no rein pressure, I shifted my pelvis and threw my legs forward. When I got no response from Minnow I waited, he inevitably came to the fence and stopped on his own, I clicked him, and gave him a reward. For 3 weeks I did this everyday with Minnow (only at the walk) until he began to react to the movement in my seat instead of the fence. Next I progressed to the trot and performed the same steps for several more weeks. Soon we advanced to the canter and then even the gallop. I was completely amazed! I had (and still have to this day) a horse that I can ride unbridled at a full gallop and bring to a abrupt stop with a slight shift of my seat. From that day forward Minnow and I had a new language. With the use of positive reinforcement I was able to teach Minnow something that he could understand and thoroughly enjoyed. We were well on our way to having a trusting relationship where we actually communicated.
As the months passed Minnow and I worked on mounted games races at the walk. When Minnow completed them without panic he was rewarded. As he progressed we eventually added speed. After a year had passed I was looking at a totally different horse. In 2006 Minnow placed among the top 6 in the Nation at the USPC National mounted games competition. I couldn’t have been more proud of him. He was quickly becoming the favorite everywhere we went, as others began to recognize the “pony that played fetch” among other things. While riding in a demonstration a member from the audience yelled out that she wanted to know the name of the little bay and white pinto because he was the only pony out there that she could tell had a special bond with his rider.
As Minnow and I began to learn and grow together I began drawing inspiration from not only clicker training but other sources as well. I researched trick trainers and adapted their methods to fit Minnow’s needs. Minnow was now a fully trained mounted games pony that I could do anything on, he had even overcome his fear of noises. And as I had nearly taught Minnow every trick in our first book I found myself trying to think of new things to teach him. Being in art school I not only had a love for animals, but also a love of the arts. I soon developed a plan to teach Minnow to paint.
One cold day on January 5, 2007 I lugged out an old easel and some paints to the barn. I dipped some paint on the end of a brush and led Minnow to the easel. He had already been taught to hold things in his mouth so naturally when I handed him the brush he put it in his mouth. I began pointing to the easel and with one hard push Minnow touched the brush to the paper and sent the easel flying. And that was the beginning! Minnow has since created hundreds of paintings and he never grows tired of making new ones. I soon created a website for Minnow and began selling his art, simply because I had no more room to store them. I thought that others should enjoy the artwork of this very special pony.
For a year Minnow and I painted together and still competed in our favorite sport, mounted games. We had become an unstoppable pair that could accomplish anything. Then tragedy struck in March of 2008. After dealing with a lameness issue that seemed to be undiagnosable in Minnow I finally loaded him up and took him to the New Bolton Large Animal Hospital. After a day of tests and shots Minnow was diagnosed with ringbone, a form of equine arthritis. I was devastated. With little hope that Minnow would be rideable again I was encouraged by vets to have his ankle injected in the hopes that it might eliminate his pain. Looking back I wish I hadn’t done it, but Minnow was a trooper as be spent a month on stall rest with little to no improvement. I did keep him active with painting and tricks, but I think it saddened his spirit a little.
I eventually decided that Minnow had bigger and better things to do, and even though his mounted games career had come to an end at the young age of 15 I knew he had much more to accomplish. Minnow went into retirement (something his is still enjoying today) but he continued to learn new tricks and paint. In 2008 Minnow was invited to attend the 2008 Pony Penning tradition by performing at his once home, the Chincoteague Pony Centre. This was to be Minnow’s first real “performance” and after the first show it was evident that he had a new calling. Minnow’s quirky personality won over the crowds as he became a favorite once again at the Pony Centre.
As this was my first trip to Chincoteague, let alone Pony Penning, I soon began to realize that Minnow was not only a very special pony, but he was also part of a very special breed. So when it came time to search for a new mounted games pony, I naturally only wanted a Chincoteague Pony. I purchased two Chincoteagues that summer, Chesapeake Lightning (who I dubbed Blitz) and Chesapeake Boomerang (Boomer). And with Minnow as their teacher, the boys began the cycle all over again with their trick training.
So perhaps this doesn’t exactly answer the question “How did you teach your horse that?” but it provides insight into how I was introduced to the wonderful methods of reward-based training. And I hope that it shows that anything is possible when it comes to teaching a horse to learn. I am by no means an expert on horse training, but I do know what works for me and my horses. I have found that anything is possible as long as you are able to build a connection between you and your animal. And a more simply put answer to “How did you teach your horse that?” – He taught me.