Words Matter

I’m a writer. I believe that the words that I choose to use – and not use – matter. As someone who has had her manuscripts marked up with red ink by editors, I know that the words that I have in my head, when put down on paper, aren’t always as clear as I intended. Words convey emotions as well as facts. I once tussled with a copy editor who wanted to make my recipes sound more authoritative with words like must and have to. I was able to keep my friendlier tone. I’ve also had an editor immensely improve my writing by changing one word in an opening sentence. I respect the craft of writing and work hard at it.

Now that I’m writing about animals, training and relationships, the meanings of words are even more fraught by interpretation because of the intense emotional connection that we have to our animals. All of us who ride horses want to believe that we’re doing right by them. But built into working with these large and potentially dangerous creatures is the potential for abuse. We use bits and saddles, ropes and halters.

western bit

Horses are kept in stables, taken places away from their herd, and asked (hopefully asked and not coerced) to do things that they wouldn’t normally do as a grazing animal of the plains. We can form a bond, communicate clearly, and train so that the activities we do are mutually rewarding. Or we can punish and force our way to our goals.

Traditional training has been all about dominance. Whips and spurs.


Restraint and fear. It’s still going on. There are thousands of YouTube videos (and clinicians who have wide audiences and pack arenas) who use these techniques. Turn off the volume and you see horses been chased into submission. Turn on the sound and you hear words making excuses for the training. Words like leadership, respect, talking like a horse and hooking up. At the end of these videos you see pliant horses doing amazing things – jumping through rings of fire without a bridle! Trotting with a head in a perfect arc with the rider seemingly doing nothing! Watch the training, not the end results, and see if you can write the script in a positive way. I can’t.

Words are used to make harsh techniques palatable. If I asked any of the people that I know “Would you beat your horse to make it do what you want?” the answer would be a resounding no. What about, “Would you reinforce your aids to have the horse do what you ask?” the answer would be yes.

The word reinforce sounds so positive. A bridge is reinforced to make it stronger. Troops are sent in to reinforce an army’s position. When a rider tries to get her horse to move forward with the squeeze of her legs, and nothing happens, the instructor says “reinforce that with the whip.”

In a recent issue of the United States Dressage Federation’s magazine, an article about using the leg states, “If the horse is not responsive to the leg aids, you can use the whip and the spur to reinforce the leg. These artificial aids must be used correctly and conscientiously so as to encourage the horse forward rather than punishing him for being unresponsive.” (Oct. 2015, page 31)

There are many positive words in this advice. Correct. Conscientious. Encourage. It explicitly states that you’re not punishing.

But what is the author really telling you to do? Look at it from a behavioral science point of view. You are cueing the horse to go forward with a squeeze of your calves. If the horse doesn’t respond to that cue, you put the sharp tip of your spurs against his sides and tap with the whip. If he still doesn’t move forward, you press and hit harder. Behavioral science tells us that actions can do one of two things: stop a behavior or make it more likely to occur again. A behavior is stopped using punishment. Spurs and whips are not rewarding anything, rather they punish the laggard movement. Let’s say that you hit the horse because she didn’t move forward from your leg pressure. The whip made her unenergetic stride stop – but that doesn’t mean that you taught the horse to move with energy. Sometimes whipped horses stand still, or buck, or rear. If the horse does move forward, then the spurring and hitting ceases. This relief from the rider’s actions is rewarding, but it’s essential to recognize that to reward in this way, one had to initially apply an aversive. By saying that a whip encourages the horse ignores that fundamental first step of punishment.

Scientists try to eliminate the many interpretations of words by codifying terminology with clear definitions. Unfortunately, for trainers who want to use science to underpin what we do, the words behavioral scientists use carry far too much emotional content. For example, there is “positive punishment” and “negative punishment.” In these two terms, positive and negative are simply words from math – you add something (positive) or you take it away (negative.) However, even if you know you’re not supposed to think that positive punishment is a warm and fuzzy way to punish your animal, you can’t help but see the word “positive” as something good.

Riding is not black and white. Good or bad. I liken it to ballroom dancing. When I dance, my partner has his hand at the small of my back. A slight firmer touch directs where I go, even such nuances as angle and lift can be cued by a minute change in the position of that hand. Dancing with a compatible partner is magical. Dancing with someone who shoves me around and isn’t in tune to my body language is a miserable experience. When I ride my horse, my position, my weight, how and where I press with my legs, and how I hold the reins, all can communicate as subtly as a dance partner’s hand. In riding, like dancing, body language can quickly change to pressure that the horse wants to avoid, and to outright punishment if it hurts. Add whips and spurs, draw reins and harsh bits, and the potential for serious abuse is compounded. Most riding disciplines are based on the premise that you use some sort of pressure to get the horse to do what you want, and that you reward that behavior by alleviating the pressure. I want to understand what I’m doing as honestly as possible. Words can hinder and excuse what is actually happening, but they can also clarify. Is a moment of riding pressure and release, pressure and relief, pressure and rewardpunishment and reward, or as a behaviorist might say, positive punishment or negative reinforcement?

I don’t think that, when on the back of a horse, one can (or should) eliminate all potentially aversive actions, but the vast majority of the time, I want it to be positive for both of us – in the lay person’s understanding of those words. Positive: optimism, agreement, affirmation, confidence. Reinforce: strengthen, support. Reward: fair return, recognition, gift, appreciation.

I’m firmly behind what behavioral scientists have brought to the understanding of animal behavior and I am committed to using this science as an underpinning for how I work with my animals (and in fact, relate to the world.) However, I want to use words that are clearer and more effective in communicating the message than what these scientists are restricted to because of the protocols of their field. So, as I continue to discuss these topics, understand that I am not using the terms as defined by scientists, but that I am using principles that they’ve worked so hard to discover.

This all brings us to the question: When you want the horse to go forward, how do you do that without using that whip (or a kick and spurs)? I’ve been working on this in my lessons with Kim Litwinczak. She’s a Grand Prix dressage rider, steeped in traditional methods – and very successful. (This week Kim is showing at the USDF Finals in Kentucky.) I’m so fortunate that she’s willing to try out my ideas. We’re using a clicker and food rewards to teach Tonka to do dressage. I’m still using traditional aids – done right they convey information between both parties in a way that is immediate, subtle, and complex. Kim not only helps me learn how to execute those aids, but on the ground she’s able to watch for the perfect stride and is marking that with the clicker at the exact moment that it happens. This knowledge and precision is essential when doing dressage. Tonka appreciates the immediate feedback and clarity – and the cookies that he gets for those marked behaviors. We started by training a square halt and we are now clicking for an energetic working trot. Both Tonka and Kim are engaged and happy with this method. It’s very exciting, and I’ll be sharing what we’re doing in future posts.

working trot sept2015


But for now, here is a video of how we taught Tonka to do a square halt. What I love about this is that once he understands what the behavior that I’m asking for is, he takes ownership of it, and I no longer have to micromanage where he puts his feet. (Please note that for this video I didn’t have a treat bag and the cookies were stuck in the small pocket of my breeches. I’ve since purchased a pouch that doesn’t bang when I trot and treat delivery is much quicker!) Do notice the relaxed attitude and the seemingly conflict-free training.

Hearing Loss

All of us face challenges in our lives. Those of you who have followed this blog for years know that my ring of fire to go through was hearing loss that eventually resulted in deafness. Starting in my twenties, I wore hearing aids, but as my hearing declined, that technology no longer filled in the gaps and I could barely function in the hearing world. Even dinner table conversation with my son became impossible. In December of 2010 I had a cochlear implant installed in my left ear. The following year I had one implanted in the right. I had hoped that these devices would enable me to hear conversation, and they have, but they’ve given me back so much more than that. I’m still deaf, but with these cochlear implants turned on, I’m fully back into the world of sound. I’ve written about that here.


I wear my hair short. My CIs are visible. No one notices or cares – certainly not the ones that matter to me.

This transformation in my life could be called a miracle. Put me into a soundproof booth, and my hearing tests at 98%! But, it’s not a miracle, it’s the result of decades of hard work by scientists, and the years of training that surgeons go through, and the on-going education of audiologists. Hearing loss isn’t a disability that is visible, and it’s not one that young researchers think about delving into, nor that foundations throw a lot of money at. One of the few organizations that helps to fund the science that gives hope to people with hearing loss is the Hearing Health Foundation. When they asked me to write something for their website, I said yes. Here is what I wrote.

Inevitable Molt

Misty, the Andalusian hen, has finally succumbed to the inevitable yearly molt.



She looks like she’s in a Halloween costume. Perhaps a tattered witch? She’s not exactly happy about celebrating this season!

misty closeup


Twiggy has yet to admit that she must take a break. She did stop laying for a week, but started up again today.



She doesn’t want to talk about it, but she is molting. Those are new feathers unfurling on her neck.

Twiggy neck


She’s as worn-out looking as Misty. Twiggy could join Misty trick-or-treating as a moth-eaten ghost.


Are your hens getting into the spirit of the season? Do any costumes come to mind?

From a Horse’s Perspective

I keep Tonka at a boarding barn that has both an indoor and outdoor ring. Some people never get off of the property with their horses, but I do. It’s good both physically and mentally for the horse to get out and see new things and to move over varied terrain. It’s also fun. At least, it’s fun when your horse is careful where he puts his feet, is willing to leave his stablemates behind, and doesn’t buck, bolt or rear when frightened.

As trustworthy and sane as Tonka is, he does get scared. All horses do. They’re primed to look for danger in the distance. They notice out of the ordinary movements. A fluttering ribbon on a tree first registers in a horse’s brain as a mountain lion. A horse has a keen sense of hearing, so that pinecone that a squirrel drops could be a grenade. Underestimated by us humans is how much a horse relies on his sense of smell. New research suggests that their noses are as astute as those of dogs. The rider who gets annoyed at her horse for tensing up when “there’s nothing there” is wrong. There’s always something there, we humans are simply too dull to notice it. The more experience a horse has with new objects, smells and sounds, the calmer he becomes. The goal is not to have a shut-down automaton, but a horse that can assess a situation and move safely through it.

How a rider reacts to that first exposure to something that frightens the horse sets the stage for everything that follows. I have a perfect example from a situation that Tonka and I worked through this week. The stable borders a stone yard, which we are allowed to walk around (good hills for conditioning and a pretty pond.) On Sunday, Maggie and her owner, Michele, joined Tonka and I for a short walk there. A new pit had been excavated. Both horses looked, but walked right on by. On Tuesday, I took Tonka out alone. We’d already ridden for a half-hour in the ring, so he wasn’t fresh. We passed by the dumpster on the way to the yard. Some horses spook at this, but Tonka has seen it before. There were a few new things in it, so I gave him a reassuring squeeze with my calves and we continued on.



We walked past the pond. Birds flew in and out of the hedge. His ears perked, but we both remained relaxed.



We walked past the excavator. This used to scare Tonka, but it no longer bothers him.



Then his head raised, his nostrils flared, his ears pointed and his body tensed. Tonka stopped. I squeezed. He didn’t budge. I said let’s go and he backed up. When I first got Tonka, this is what he did when scared – backed up. He backed into trees, he backed into stone walls. If I kicked to make him go forward, he’d just back up faster. He would have backed off of a cliff if it had been there. On this day, I looked around and didn’t see anything that could have been causing such a strong reaction.



But, I’m a human, not a horse. It was like looking at that puzzle in Highlights Magazine. What’s different?

This time, we were coming at the new pit from a different direction. I believe that horses see things in pictures. This picture was not the same as the picture he had of the pit from the opposite side. He was not with his friend, Maggie. Horses feel secure in groups, and nervous alone. I breathed calmly. I asked him to move forward. I allowed with the reins. He backed up. I stopped asking him to move. I let him look. He relaxed a smidgeon. I asked him to move forward. He backed up.



I looked at this situation from his perspective. I like to think that I’m his friend, and that he should take reassurance from my verbal encouragement and from my body language. As much as Tonka knew that it was me on his back, a horse is wired to move in concert with other members of the herd. He knew I was up there, but that’s different than being able to get visual cues from a member of the herd. I got off, gave him a pat, and we easily walked past the pit. I got back on, using a rock right next to the hole. He stood calmly and we went on our way.

I found this fascinating! All he needed for reassurance was to have me by his side. From a human perspective, I was there, obviously, on his back, talking and using my body aids. But for the horse, in this scary situation, he needed to see his person. That’s all it took. Ten seconds to walk side-by-side.



You’ll hear people say, Your horse has to respect you more than what they’re afraid of. Respect? What they’re really saying is that you should kick and whip your horse to get it to go – to do whatever it takes so that your horse is more afraid of you than whatever is making him balk. A fearful horse is one that wants to escape. That’s not the relationship that I want.

The next day, Tonka and I returned to the stone yard. He slowed briefly at the hole. I squeezed his sides with my legs to reassure him to go forward.* Tonka did and he walked confidently right past. This confirms to me that getting off didn’t make me lose face, and didn’t cause a lack of respect. Rather, it added yet another block to our foundation of trust.



*This is not “pressure and release” in the sense that he’s not moving away from my legs because the feeling is aversive – rather, this leg squeeze is a cue to move forward. Yes, legs can be used as pressure that the horse wants to avoid, but that’s not always the case. I liken it to doing ballroom dancing with a partner’s palm flat on my back – a little pressure tells me which way to turn. I move not from fear, but from the communication conveyed through touch. Of course, if you’ve ever danced with someone you’re not in sync with, that hand can be punishment! It’s the same with riding, and I’m always questioning whether we’re dancing or not.

Cleanup Crew

We’ve had two hard frosts. A hard frost is one that comes at night and covers the lawn with a shimmer of sparkling white. It lasts until after the sun rises into mid-morning. Your cold-sensitive plants wilt. A day later, they turn brown. When the weather report warns of a frost, conscientious gardeners get out and harvest the last of the annuals and save every tomato still left on the vine.

I didn’t.



I filled tubs with the rotting vegetation and dumped it into the compost bins in the chicken runs.

muck tubs


The hens are gleeful that I am such a lackadaisical gardener.

eating tomatoes

I appreciate that they quickly destroy evidence of indolence.