Connecting through positive reinforcement.

To sum it all up:

” Bring something genuinely good to the table and offer them a reason to want your company, companionship, engagement and leadership. ”

I arrived back from the states last week and have spent the last few days just hanging out and reconnecting with the boys. I anticipated my first day back after weeks away might be difficult for me and it was, especially with Madiba. Over the months since Madiba first came to us, we have reached similar training milestones with him as with Toka and Kaewa: from first touch, to haltering, to leading, to float loading and so on, but we have found it more difficult to forge a strong connection and relationship with him. When he first arrived, he was very curious and quick to take food from us, but was very wary about any direct contact for a long time. It became necessary for us to move the horses out of the borrowed yard/paddock arrangement, and thus we had to accelerate Madiba’s halter and lead training in order to safely relocate him down the road. We had to push past his walls, and we are still paying for it a bit. At this point though, we have all of them at our place, and can now purely focus on developing our relationship with him, on his terms and timeline as much as ours. 

I decided to take a few steps back with Madiba, and returned to just spending time with him without any expectations. For a few days, I simply wandered around the pasture with him and Toka (as they are always together), and refrained from making direct contact or asking for any engagement whatsoever. I just wanted him to relax and accept my presence around him. During that time, I observed their friendship; They move together, eat together, sleep together, play together, and push one another around. Their relationship is relaxed, safe and full of fun. I began to ponder how I could become a comfortable place for him, just as Toka is, to help me gain his trust and respect. I needed to become a companion as much as a leader if I wanted him to not only accept my presence, but to seek it out. I decided to try the one thing I’ve found that Madiba really does enjoy: Massages. And I mean, full body, five star “professional grade” massages. I began by approaching him, massaging him in his favorite places, and then simply leaving again. Rinse and repeat. I maintained my “no expectations, no engagement” stance. I expected nothing in return. All I wanted was to give him something to appreciate me for.

I did just this for a few days, and very slowly he began to casually gravitate towards me in the paddock. At one point, he left Toka and came over to where I was sitting and placed his muzzle on my neck, just for a moment, and then proceeded to take a nap standing just above me. They are small gestures, but ones that show both an interest and a comfort, and those are things I am very happy with. 

Today I took a similar approach while haltering and leading, always keeping my actions 100% postive and found he was significantly happier being with me than he has been in the past. Take a step, have a rub, take 3 steps have a rub, and so on until with were leading consistently in a way that I felt we both enjoyed the experience. For him, just releasing pressure is not a positive reward, but it is a positive mark of the desired behaviour. Thus, a release in pressure followed by a reward (in Madiba’s case- a good old massage) had instantly better results. He was even running along behind me by the end of the session! We still have a long way to go, but it is certainly a good start.

The take-home lesson I’ve learned from this is: Bring something genuinely good to the table and offer them a reason to want your company, companionship, engagement and leadership. 

I have started clicker training with Toka and I will begin using it with Madiba as well. I have used clicker training with dogs, but this will be my first time using it with horses. I love the theory behind it and find it’s a great positive way to train. Any suggestions about using clickers with equines is appreciated and welcome!


Madiba the kaimanawa horse


Madiba (Dibs) is the little joker of the group. This little horse has been one of our most challenging so far but loves cuddles.

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