Once upon a time, not so long, long ago, in a land of sweeping hills and secret valleys, there lived a silver-haired lady and a herd of horses, often tame and sometimes wild.
One special horse was the color of milk caramel, and glimmering flecks appeared on his coat when the sun shone upon him, as if he had been sprinkled with gold dust. His muzzle was as soft as the softest velvet. When he stood alert, listening to the sounds only he could hear, he was as still as a statue. When he ran, it was as if the air itself ran with him.
The golden horse was strong and brave, a willing partner to the silver-haired lady. But though he trusted her more than anyone else in the world, she was unable to ease his fear or tame his spirit when he caught sight of a syringe.
Twice a year, the horse required a syringe of medicine to keep him healthy. He tried so hard to flee when he caught sight of it, that the lady feared danger would come to both of them. It pained her to see her brave horse so fearful, and she vowed to help the golden horse be as brave with a syringe as he was with the woods.
The silver-haired lady was as small as the horse was tall and she had known many horses in her lifetime. She had won many horses’ hearts for she possessed great patience and was willing to sacrifice her pride to knowledge. She also knew a secret — that with all frightened creatures, one must have confidence but also tenderness.
She vowed to help her golden horse make a friend of his foe. She stroked the fine, glimmering hair on her horse’s neck, softened her eye, and reminded herself to remain calm, even if the sun should rise and fall before she had completed her task. Each time she approached his mouth with the syringe, the tall horse made himself taller. Each time, there was fear and a fight. After many days, she was able to get the syringe in her horse’s mouth in a quarter hour. Others had struggled for an hour. Or given up entirely.
Clearly, something needs to be done, thought the silver-haired lady. Something to enable not only she, but any handler, to put a syringe in the horse’s mouth without misery or a fight. What if the horse some day required a medicine that could save his life?
The silver-haired lady remembered meeting a magician years ago. This magician claimed to be able to train animals without correcting their mistakes. She rewarded everything an animal did that was good and ignored every mistake or misstep. The reward was a special sound followed by a special treat. She called the sound a click and called what she did “clicker training.”
Maybe this clicker training could work, thought the silver haired lady, as she tied the springs of her apron around her waist, and filled the pockets with cubes of grain. She went to her golden horse, carrying an orange plastic cone. Being irrepressibly curious as well as exceptionally tall, the horse immediately touched the cone with his nose. Click! came the sound from the silver-haired lady’s mouth. She reached into the pocket of her apron and gave her horse a treat.
Her horse was very happy. They played the cone game together, the lady smiling and the horse seeming to smile as well. When the silver-haired lady was ready to leave, she bent down to place the cone out of the way and her golden horse made his long neck even longer, then touched the cone with his nose. Click-and-treat!
The next day, instead of the orange cone, the silver-haired lady brought a syringe to the golden horse. Her goal was to be able to touch his neck with the syringe and reward him for his tolerance. But the golden horse proved a gifted pupil, and he reached out to touch the syringe with his mouth! Click-and-treat! And repeat…and repeat.
It was hard for the silver-haired lady to resist continuing the lesson, and to leave after just one baby step of progress. But she knew from a sorcerer known as the Yankee-Irish horsewhispering boyfriend that the fast way is the slow way and the slow way is the fast way.
The next day, the silver-haired lady returned with the syringe and an apronful of treats. The golden horse again touched the syringe with his nose. Click and treat! And repeat…and repeat.
The day after that, the silver-haired lady returned again with the syringe and an apronful of treats. The golden horse touched the syringe with his nose. Click and treat! And repeat…and repeat. And then the golden horse rubbed his muzzle on the syringe for just a second or two. Click-and-treat!
A few days later, when the golden horse touched the syringe, the silver-haired lady reached toward her horse’s mouth with her fingers. The golden horse became frightened and the silver-haired lady knew she had wanted too much too soon. So she held the syringe where the golden horse could see it and waited for the horse to do what he was ready to do. He reached out again and touched the syringe with his mouth. Click-and-treat!
Seven days passed until the golden horse grabbed the syringe between his teeth. Click-and-treat!
The following day, the silver-haired lady filled the syringe with applesauce, and when the golden horse bit the syringe, she squirted the sweet sauce into her horse’s mouth. He was surprised and happy. Click-and-treat!
Soon it came time to give the horse medicine that he needed. It was medicine that the golden horse had received before and against which he had fought. It was known as Equimax. The golden horse smelled the familiar medicinal apple scent. He wanted nothing to do with the syringe or the game he had been playing with the silver-haired lady. She drew the syringe toward her horse’s mouth and he turned away. She knew then that she had made a mistake, forcing instead of allowing.
She drew back the syringe and made a promise to herself that she would never again put her desires above her patience and her devotion to the golden horse. She would try again and see if the horse would again trust her. She held the syringe and waited for the horse. He would not touch it. She asked him for something else — a step backward — so she could reward him for something. Click-and-treat! Tomorrow is another day…
But tomorrow never comes fast enough, and the silver-haired lady found herself worrying about what would go wrong…how long it would take to make up for her mistake…would it ever work with the medicine whose smell reminded the horse of conflict and unhappiness. She went to sleep with a heavy heart, burdened by the mistake she had made and the worries that nested in her brain.
The next day, when the sun arose, there were new possibilities, as there always are when a new day dawns. The silver-haired lady needed faith as much as the golden horse did. She made herself believe.
Later that day, as the sun was setting, she again held the syringe with the medicinal apple scent in front of her golden horse. He opened his mouth and bit down on the syringe. The silver-haired lady was so surprised that she nearly forgot to squirt the contents into her horse’s mouth. When she withdrew it, she saw that there was some remaining in the syringe, but that one bite was all the horse had for her that day.
The next day, she tried to give him the rest. He wanted none of it. But the silver-haired lady, like her golden horse, had learned something. A little more patience. A little more trust. And so she rewarded him for what he was able to give her.
The next day she presented him with the syringe as she had before. He took it in his mouth and she gave him the remainder. Click-and-treat!
The very next day, another miracle happened. It was a strange miracle, but a miracle nonetheless. Somehow, the golden horse escaped from the sand paddock, a place from which no horse had ever before escaped. The silver-haired lady found him eating grass underneath an apple tree. She had left him eating hay in his paddock two hours earlier.
She caught her golden horse and returned him to the safety of his stall, but she feared for his well-being, as too much grass, too soon, could cause a stomachache or even worse, melt the very hooves on which he stood. Although he might have filled his belly with grass for only two hours, there was no way of knowing how sick he might become.
She called the wise man who lived high atop a hill nearby and who took care of any malady that might befall the horse, to see what should be done. The wise man told her to administer a potion known as banamine, a vile-tasting paste that came in a white syringe. The silver-haired lady brought a syringe of this paste to her golden horse. She did not put a halter on his head. She did not touch his face or his neck. She stood holding the syringe with the tip facing up and her fingers on the plunger.
The golden horse bit down on the syringe and she plunged the medicine into his mouth. Click-and-treat. Peace took the place of war and the struggle over the syringe was no more. All was happy once again in the land of sweeping hills and hidden valleys, where a silver-haired lady lived with her herd of horses, and one very special horse who was very tall and now also very tame. And who was also fine the very next day.
What a fun written entry. You have turned giving dewormer into a fairy tale. I really enjoyed it. As for the clicker training, I understand the conditioning and reward bit, but don’t know why the click is there.
But anyways, thank you for the fairy tale. Hope all is well with the magical horse.
The click “freezes” the moment in time for your horse. It pinpoints for him the exact motion he made that created the reward. Think of it as a mind photo. It’s a powerful noise; you can stop a runaway clicker trained horse with that click.
Hi Monique — I’m so glad you enjoyed it. All is indeed well with the golden horse, and most of yesterday was spent reinforcing the railing of the sand paddock. It’s always something, isn’t it?
Elaine’s explanation is a good one. I think of the clicker as a “marker.” Because it takes some time for delivery of the treat, it allows the trainer to clearly mark the behavior that is being rewarded.
The best teachers often make the best students. I can see that my work here is done.
PS- I really like how you wrote this post, it was exactly like reading a fairytale. I can’t wait to meet your magical boy next week!
Thank you, Shannon, for your guidance and advice — and for helping this fairy tale come true.
I’ve heard people who have achieved amazing things with clicker training, but I’ve never tried it myself. Love the way you told this!
Thanks Jenn! If you do end up trying it, I highly recommend Alexandra Kurland’s method.
Allison Byars said:
I loved this story! I have started clicker training with my horse and she has taken to it very well!
Hi Allison — Thanks for visiting and for sharing. That’s great news about your clicker training work with your horse!
I started training Cole Train for the clicker as soon as he learned that treats taste great. It has been nearly 2 years, and I have had wonderful success. I think we can train a horse to do anything with a clicker–as long as we take the time to do it–and yes, it usually takes less time than any other way.
Author of “Trail Training for the Horse and Rider” and “Trail Horse Adventures and Advice”
Hi Judy – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. It’s interesting how people who do it love doing it, and people who don’t think there’s something wrong with it but haven’t tried it. I think correct training of any kind takes time, but when there’s a history, it often works to try something completely different.
Abby Kogler said:
Wonderful post Katie. Well done, as always.
Thanks Abby! I know I’m going to get to read about your own CT adventures on your blog!