My focus when I train has always been on the emotional wellbeing of the horse. I call it Horse Sense because to me that’s what it is… Sense as in sensible, but also to sense as in to feel. I’m all about building good relationships between horses and their people. When I work with baby horses or abused horses, I always say that my first job is to help them fall in love with me, my second job is to show them that they can fall in love with the human race. Jarlath in the photo is a good case in point (Thank you Joanne Gray for the beautiful pictures and film you took that day). When I met him he was depressed, withdrawn, disinterested, unaffectionate. With just a minimal amount of training, he became engaged with the world once more, not just with me, but with anyone who cared to spend time with him.

I’ve been training horses with the clicker for 17 years now, and teaching clients how to use it for 13 years. It’s not the only tool I use, but it is a significant part of my work. I’d say the question I’ve been asked most often in that time is “Is this love? Is it not just all about the food?”.

Firstly, I don’t always use food, so sometimes it’s scratches rather than food. Scratches seem to be easier for people to get their heads around. Mutual grooming is an important part of the bonding process between horses, so it makes sense that if we spend time scratching and grooming our horses they will change how they feel about us. If we utilise those same scratches as part of a training process, then surely we are also working on building relationship and trust as well as teaching skills?

Why should food be any different? In my experience, particularly when working with abused or young, naive horses, food is a valuable ‘way in’ to starting off that bonding process. I would certainly say that over reliance on food can lead to it being “all about the food” at the expense of the bond, but used with sensitivity and care, food can be an invaluable training tool and a vital part of relationship building.

When we use scratches and food, we increase parasympathetic tone, reducing sympathetic arousal (the fight or flight response), reducing adrenaline and cortisol levels and increasing oxytocin levels. By fostering ‘feel good’ emotions, we change how our horse feels when they spend time with us. And after all, that’s what a relationship is all about.

Thank you to Sarah Larter for sharing the following article which was the inspiration for this post :-).