You know when you meet someone and you immediately just want to spend more time with them, soaking in everything they have to say and everything you can learn from them and be their best friend forever and ever? That’s how I felt meeting nad working with Shawna Karrasch this weekend.
I’ve known about Shawna for a long time, but for some reason never bothered to delve too deeply into the prolific content she has created around R+ training in horses. What a fool past Nicole was. There is so, so, so much that Murray would have benefitted from in Shawna’s work (and other R+ trainers who have a systematic method) and I was too busy being a ding dong thinking I could solve it all with our *~!magical relationship!~*
On Friday, Speedy and I loaded up for a 5-ish hour haul just north of Seattle to the beautiful Polestar Farm for the clinic. I got a late start, but it took me about as long to load and organize the trailer as I thought it would, so I’m glad I’m accurate on that front at least. Speedy loaded compliantly like he always does, and then immediately couldn’t take any treats or eat any hay in the trailer like he always does. Minus a bit of crummy traffic just north of Seattle it was smooth sailing and an easy haul that I expect I will do again.
I’ve been thinking about and prepping for this clinic for weeks. There is so much I want to work on and improve with Speedy, but there’s truly only so much you can do in a weekend. I was also completely torn between my innate desperation to be a “good student” and be a good demo horse for the clinic and “do well”, and to actually accept my horse where he was and work with and learn from that.
Luckily for me, Speedy’s clicker-learning was progressing in leaps and bounds in the week-ish before the clinic, and I felt very prepared going in. I knew that Speedy was well conditioned to the bridge (I cluck instead of clicking, but have subsequently trained him on the clicker also), he was started on liberty leading, and was getting there on target training. So as long as Speedy didn’t show up and forget all of his bridge conditioning, I knew we’d be able to make good headway.
I also knew that even if Speedy did show up super shy and without any bridge conditioning, we’d be able to make headway with that too. A big piece of what I need to work on with Speedy is how he disengages, becomes aloof, and retreats inside himself when he is anxious. On the ground, this seems to mostly manifest as desperately finding the nearest patch of grass or hay to nosh away madly. But under saddle it means I lose all rideability, and I’m not sure how I’m going to show this horse without rideability.
The clinic format involved a lecture on Saturday morning, a first session with the horses on Saturday afternoon, then two horse sessions on Sunday. Speedy came out ready to learn on Saturday. Shawna had asked what I wanted to work on with him, and I said he would likely come into the arena approaching threshold and redirecting his attention away from me, so I wanted to focus on bringing his attention back to me and keeping him engaged with me in a relaxed and positive way. Speedy was a little wide-eyed when we first walked into the arena, but I think the presence of the crowd actually really comforted him. Speedy LOVES people, probably second only to grass. I clicked and treated him for standing by me and practicing our default behavior (look away) while we waited for Shawna to finish up with the horse before us.
As we talked about the behaviors I wanted to shape in Speedy, Shawna commented that he really didn’t look like he was at or over threshold, and I agreed. The crowd, the clicker games, and the inviting arena meant Speedy was really not that worried about what was going on. (This delighted me because it meant my plan was working – more on that later.) Since I wanted to click for relaxed engagement but not encourage Speedy to start crawling into my pocket, Shawna suggested we work on another activity so I could capture the elements of engagement with me that I wanted.
So we started working on liberty leading and having Speedy stick with me, not wander off to do his own thing, and stay on my right hand side. Shawna directed me to click for tiny elements of engagement — a flick of the ear toward me, or when Speedy directed an eye toward me but didn’t turn his head. That little piece was key. I wanted him directing his attention toward me without swinging his head or body parts into me. Horses don’t need to curl around you to pay attention to you. And now that I think more about it, I actually want Speedy looking around and taking in his environment so he can process everything around him, but I also want him paying attention to me.
Shortly after taking his halter off, Speedy wandered away from me to stare out over the arena wall at the turnouts. I stopped and watched him, and Shawna told me to keep walking and click for him following me. She didn’t want me to get drawn into his distraction, but keep on having a good time doing whatever I was doing and reward Speedy for making the choice to be with me. This first trot back toward me ended up with Speedy greeting some of the auditors. Excellently, when I continued on to keep “having fun” somewhere else, Speedy chose to join me there also. Shawna reminded me not to click as soon as he started walking, but click once he got into position by my side. I didn’t want to reward him for just moving, once again I wanted to reward him for moving with me.
After greeting the auditors, Speedy had a big standing shake and it was like he shook off all his worries and exuberantly ran up to me for his next click. There was a little play rear and some other cavorting, and he disappeared again to have a little canter around me in a 20m circle. I haven’t taught him to free lunge, so it was very funny to me that his play took that form. After a few circles he came right back to me, and we recommenced the liberty leading.
Shortly, Speedy realized that I wasn’t going to be playing his games and if he wanted treats he needed to be along side me playing my games. Turning right was easy, because it involved me stepping into his space and getting closer to him. Turning left was a bit sillier, since Speedy would shake his head and trot up to me once he realised I’d stepped away. Since his energy was up, Shawna told me to then wait for him to relax and check in with me before clicking and treating.
The session probably lasted about 20 minutes, which is longer than I would usually do for a focused session trying to shape a specific behavior, but is pretty on par for the fun/play sessions Speedy and I do. Speedy definitely brought his focus more toward me as we continued, though certainly part of that was due to becoming more comfortable in the environment. One super neat part of this was that I tried a new behavior in the liberty leading — slowing down — and Speedy was right there with me walking slowly and keeping an eye on me.
I got some great clicks from Shawna myself, as she told me “good girl!” for my timing several times. “Good girl” or “clever girl” are hugely rewarding for me, I love it when people I respect say that. Yes, I am a bitch, through and through.
The lesson itself was also very validating for me. I knew I wanted to get Speedy more engaged and active with me but also relaxed, but I hadn’t quite figured out how I wanted to do that. So to have Shawna agree that I wanted to aim for this (and give me a plan of how to do it) was super. Having Shawna agree with my assessment that Speedy wasn’t really at threshold confirmed my own read of my horse, which was another good thing to hear.
I also loved that I showed up to this lesson really well-prepared. It felt so good that the goals I set for Speedy were things that were achievable, useful, and productive in the time we had. It was also fantastic for Speedy to have such a fun and positive experience in a new place! Sometimes I worry that hauling him out for lessons, which are inevitably rather tough because he’s distracted and being asked to do things that aren’t his strengths, is not a very rewarding experience for him. But clicker games away from home proved to be very rewarding for both of us!