Author and horse lover Jessie Haas applies lessons she’s learned as a writer guided by an editor, to training sessions with her Morgan mare.
I’ve been clicker-training horses for years. I understand the science. But revising a novel under the guidance of my editor Rebecca Davis, I understood for the first time how it feels to be trained using positive reinforcement.
Here’s what it’s like to be edited by Rebecca. You open the manuscript. You gasp. There are sooo many notes. Cautiously, you start reading through them, and you start smiling. A huge percentage of the comments are “I love this.” “This made me (smile, laugh, tear up).” “I love this character.” You get very excited, and you feel smart. “Yes, I can make this change. And that one too. Anything else you want me to do? Hold up the hoop, and I’ll jump right through.”
I recognized the feeling. When my Morgan mare Robin has accomplished something hard, she nickers. She knows she’s wonderful, and she’s going to get a treat. She also nickers when asked to do a favorite trick, like stepping on a grain bag or picking up something I’ve dropped.
I kept Rebecca in mind this summer while training Robin to be a packhorse. The introduction to a Western saddle was accompanied by plenty of treats and enthusiasm. Same with putting weird things on her back. Jackets. Hay nets. A string of plastic milk jugs. My goal was to have her feel, “Oh, weird stuff. My favorite!”
It seemed to be working, except for Robin’s usual objection to being girthed up. That’s been going on for years and I chose to ignore it. The saddle panniers, a set of canvas bags that slot over the saddle horn and cantle, rapidly passed the nicker test. We walked around with them on, empty, for a couple of days. Then I added two empty five gallon buckets, and after a few days of getting her used to the new strange shape of the panniers, I began adding wood chips to the buckets. Within a couple of weeks of short sessions, I introduced this lowly work as a new game.
At the same time, Robin’s objections to being saddled and bridled were becoming more annoying. I had to ask myself — could I be Rebecca for that activity too? Instead of shooting for tolerance, for the absence of unwanted behaviors like nipping and threatening to kick, what if I aimed for joy, for a nicker?
First I asked her to touch a target, a lead rope, while I saddled. It’s an activity incompatible with biting, and it worked, but it worked better when the rope fell on the ground and she got to pick it up. I picked it up and dropped it again, adding our cue, “Oops.” A nicker burst forth. Robin picked the rope up. Click, treat, blush. What a grim, overly-focused, grumpy editor/trainer I had been. I never even tried to make saddling fun.
Now I ask her to touch a target while I saddle her, or have her stand on a grain bag, or drop something for her to pick up. I click her for the trick, and work girthing and bridling into the routine. The approach makes Robin happy. Me, too. It makes me love and appreciate my fun, smart little horse.
And boy, does it make me appreciate Rebecca. She’s taught me more about training than any horseman I’ve ever worked with.