By Stephanie Doorack
Jessica Billham of Wright City, Mo., is a senior in the equestrian studies program at William Woods University. Over the last year, she has worked extensively with a university owned horse, “Max,” brought to the university because he had become too unruly to ride.
Billham had her work cut out for her. With the help and guidance of Dr. Linda McClaren, associate professor of equestrian science at WWU, they worked together in the Mentor/Mentee program to design a training program for Max.
Max came to the university in a sad condition after falling into the hands of a trainer whose training system didn’t agree with Max’s personality. Max had resorted to refusing to enter a show arena and developing a rearing habit to try to communicate his frustration.
Traditional horse training methods rely on negative reinforcement, taking away something unwanted when the horse does the desired thing. However, this program was not working for Max, so McClaren and Billham decided to try clicker training with him.
Originally designed for marine mammals in water parks, clicker training conditions the horse to associate the sound of a click with something positive, such as food or affection. Once Max understood the positive association between the click and his behavior, Billham spent months repeating this drill, hoping Max would learn to want to please his handler again.
With McClaren’s assistance, Billham started by spending time with Max on the ground and in the round pen. This allowed the two to develop a bond that Max wouldn’t associate with his bad memories of previous riders.
“As the school year progressed, Max continued to improve by showing us correct behaviors more often and the undesirable behaviors less frequently,” said McClaren.
To assess their progress, Billham exhibited a brief jumping demonstration at the WWU Jumping Derby in October. In March, she entered him in the WWU Winter Fun Show, where the pair won a championship in the Adult Amateur hunter division.
To truly determine the advancement Billham had made with Max, she entered in an out of town competition. In April, Billham and Max traveled to St. Louis to compete in a Lake St. Louis “AA” show. Billham prepared Max by showing him the arena he would be jumping in. Hoping he wouldn’t revert to rearing and refusing to enter the arena, Billham remained calm for Max.
McClaren commented, “The first day of the show, Max exceeded everyone’s expectations by happily walking into the ring and performing flawlessly three times in a row. In fact, the pair even won a class!”
Based on Max’s excellent performance, it was decided to show him the following day also. The next day, the pair had to compete in a new arena. Everyone wondered whether Max would be able to handle the change without reverting to his old behavior. Max stole the show. He was calm and relaxed, thanks to Billham’s quiet support and encouragement.
It was a very successful show. The pair won a class and earned ribbons in all the others. But more importantly, Max had learned to be happy. He was at a show, calmly entering the arena, jumping beautifully and he was excited.
Max has a new chance at life now, thanks to Billham’s dedication and McClaren’s helpful advice. The Mentor/ Mentee program greatly benefited not only the two individuals involved, but also one lucky horse named Max.
“Thanks to Jessie’s endless patience and hard work, this old horse has been given a second chance as a useful teaching horse at WWU,” says McClaren. “Jessie and Max have proven that old horses can learn new tricks!”