Outside of training horses I work as a Behavior Analyst. Simply put, I work with children and adults, and the individuals who care for them, to design and supervise implementation of interventions to improve behaviors. After an appointment this morning, I realized, I am spending my life pioneering exceptional methods for improving the lives of horses and individuals with disabilities. After a quick summary of my appointment, you’ll see where I’m going with this.
The individual I met with today is a young adult female, old enough that she has graduated high school and is now attending a day program for adults with disabilities. She does not have the skills to communicate vocally. She does have a speech generating device, it is through an IPad, but she does not display the skills to independently utilize it in its entirety. In her program, the daily routine includes group work followed by individual work, with an emphasis on teaching these individuals simple job skills. I have been working with this individual for about four months. I typically see her every other week. During today’s visit, while working on one of her individual jobs, she used her IPad to say, “listen to music.” This was the first time I have seen her independently use her IPad to make a request. I honored that request, put her job aside, set a timer for 3 minutes, and let her listen to music. When the timer went off, I told her it was time to turn music off and time to do her job. Again, she said, “listen to music.” I replied, “I hear you. I hear you want music. First do work, then listen to music.” And presented her with her job materials. She completed her job, I set the timer for 3 minutes, and she listened to music. And so the sequence continued for 3 additional times until she was finished with her current job. I noted that each additional time, with the anticipation of music after her job, she got quicker with her job. As my appointment was ending I approached the program staff and relayed what had occurred during my visit. I then asked, “Does she use her device to make requests like that with you all?” One of the staff immediately spoke up, “I don’t let her.” She must have seen the horror on my face because she felt the need to explain. She explained that she holds her IPad and only gives it to her at certain times of the day. Another staff member stated, “She wouldn’t get any of her jobs done otherwise.” The first staff member to speak explained that during morning group, if she is using the device and tries to manipulate it out of what they are working on, she “blocks” her from doing it. In my mind, my jaw dropped and these thoughts ran through my head, “She has no way to communicate with anyone! To keep her 1 method of communication from her, only providing it when it is opportune for you is like ripping someone’s vocal chords out and trying to give them back when you want them to speak! To block her from accessing things she wants to say is like slamming your hand over someone’s mouth as they open it to speak!” However, on the outside, I did my best to keep my composure as I tried to advocate for this individual’s right to speak and the importance in allowing her to speak. As I left, all I could do was pray that my message got through.
On my drive home I realized, what I was doing there is the same thing I feel I am always doing with the horses I work with. Whether my own horses, or someone else’s horses, I feel like I am justifying the importance in providing what the horse needs, rather than what we want the horse to be doing.
Example 1: Bringing Lakota to her first horse show and having to explain why we are not riding in the show but instead working on groundwork to get her relaxed in the show environment so that she can be successful in future shows. Then having to politely decline when someone else offers to have their daughter ride her in the show for me.
Example 2: Bringing Broker to a cattle working “lesson” and opting to work on the basics, rocking back on his hocks and turning, rather than forcing him into a herd of cattle. Then deciding to invest in a mechanical flag of my own, so that I can work him on the flag and train him so that it is his decision to follow that cow rather than mine, before attending another cattle “lesson.”
Example 3: Going back to the basics to work through groundwork in order to discover a horses’s “worry” and address that “worry” before doing any ridden work. Doing this will solve problems with ridden work rather than covering them up, and this is done with any horse that comes to Forever T Ranch despite how many rides or how seasoned the owner claims the horse to be.
In those three examples, I have found that what I am doing with horses seems to be quite contrary to popular belief. The same is often the case when I am working with individuals with disabilities. However, in both cases, (I hope that it has been made obvious) although contrary to popular belief, it is what the individual/horse needs.
I am a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), who has taken my knowledge in Applied Behavior Analysis, and the methodology of expert horse trainers, to create an Equine training program that is anything but average. Working with my own horses has led me to discover my passion for not just training horses, but practicing quality horsemanship. For the best interest of the horses, I hope to spread this interest in quality horsemanship.