You Can’t Catch Me!

I have to share a story of a double success for someone I work with….

I do some consulting at an equine rescue centre.  When the yard manager first asked me to visit and advise we had a long discussion and it was clear she believed in, and understood, the process.  She just didn’t know how to implement it at the sanctuary.  In that first visit the staff joined the training, but you could tell it was because they had to, not because they wanted to.  Thankfully the horses all showed them how this would work and that the results could be very quick if the handler got the dots lined up.  We definitely got the buy in of a few of the staff and they were keen to carry on.  But some couldn’t see how they could fit it in with day to day chores.

The next time I visited one member of staff who had wanted to carry on the training was almost pacing the yard waiting for me to arrive.  He so badly wanted to be first on the list to get my help.  On my first visit this member of staff was painfully shy, wanted to blend in to the background, could not make eye contact with me and so on.  He has dyslexia, dyspraxia and he’s on the autistic scale and had been bullied throughout his life.   He lacked confidence terribly and it was really hard for me to judge just how much he had taken in as he struggled to find the confidence to chat to me.

After that first visit he chose the horse he wanted to start training.  Out of 100+ horses he had chosen one of the biggest challenges as his first clicker training project….a mule who could not be caught and when he felt threatened was prepared to defend himself.

I got to the yard and started to chat with Malcolm.  When I say chat, it was a very one sided conversation with me trying to work out what was on his mind.  I deduced that progress was being made, but he was perhaps not recognising what he had manage to achieve.  Malcolm decided we should go to the field so that he could show me what had been happening.  As we wandered to the field I chatted to him about various concepts in the training to try and gauge what he had really understood from the first session he had taken part in.  He was still struggling to chat with me due to his shyness, but I was getting hints that he ‘got it’.

We got to the field and I asked, “which one is it we are going to work with?”.  He pointed to the one who was at the very far end of a 10 acre field.  Great…the horse that can’t be caught was miles away and might prefer it to stay that way!  Malcolm didn’t start to walk, instead he called out, “BLUE” (the mule’s name)….this wee head (with massive ears) shot up from the grass and this wee mule got straight in to a canter to come to the paddock area he had been working in.  He screeched, and I mean screeched!, in to the paddock, span around and latched on to Malcolm ready to work !  I was speechless.  All I could mutter was, “what do you need me for ?!”.  Just weeks before that visit, this mule would stay as far away from people as he could, now he was cantering to greet Malcolm!  At this stage he could not be caught yet, but what a turnaround.

3 months on and Blue was coming in to a stable a few times a week (something else that scared him terribly and he needed a training plan for) and is learning lifeskills for the farrier.  The farrier scares him as well.  Add to the list of ‘scaries’ for Blue; the dentist, vet etc.

At my last visit Blue was learning about touch the goblins.  It took just a few clicks for him to understand the game and instead of Malcolm asking him to touch various things Blue took Malcolm on an adventure showing him all the things that he thought were interesting.  What a turnaround!

Malcolm has taken this on wholeheartedly and owns the process.  I just give him pointers, talked about concepts, made suggestions and each time I saw him he blew me away with what he did with that information.  AND, as more staff saw the progress he was making more and more of them were taking on training projects.

Long story short, after about 4 sessions Malcolm had become the ‘go to person’ for all the other staff members when they hit speed bumps in the training.  He flourished and his confidence went through the roof, so much so that he has taken on more responsibility at the sanctuary.  Outwardly he appears disorganised in his movements, would forget a lot of the handling tips for feeding, when to get the food etc.  But the horses (and Blue) love him, they seem to see something consistent in what he does, how he asks questions of them and so on.  A few sessions in and Malcolm was learning, not just to see the detail in the horses (which he did naturally), he was learning the detail in himself and it was powerful stuff to watch.

On one occasion I was chatting to another member of staff who wanted some tips on the next steps for his horse putting his nose in the halter.  I talked him through the key steps and said that Malcolm had done that with Blue (and a few other horses) and to spend some time with them and ask questions.  His response had me falling about laughing….”We do ask Malcolm, but he replies….you’ll need to ask Blue, he’s the one with all the answers!”.  Very sweet…his confidence has blossomed so much that he is able to joke with the other staff.

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