Canner’s Story by Mackenzie Cole
CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTIONS
Once Canner was out at Dunrovin, I began reworking a story project I had started in my Storytelling class at the University of Montana. It got longer and more detailed in the process, and I began to see how his story was also a story about learning from trauma, about how we treat animals as objects—to our mutual detriment, and, in trying to rehabilitate this frightened creature, I found some small redemption for myself and my own past.
The following is that story. I’ve revised it and added the perspective of years of accidental horse guardianship. I spent much of my time at Dunrovin training Canner on camera, and I’ve gone through some of those videos and included them below when I found them illustrative. The first of those videos is this quick introduction that we made to bring people up to speed about my work with him.
I also want to say that I owe a debt to many people to be able to tell this story, including Debra, Zoey, and Stephanie (who edited many of these posts for me and whose blog you can read here), and SuzAnne, as well as all the members of the Days at Dunrovin community who have encouraged me, all the people who have visited or even kicked me some cash to help with his board and training. You know who you are. We have saved this horse together, and I’m sure if he knew how many people were rooting for him, he would say something very powerful in thanks. Maybe he has.
Canner ran tight circles in a small, square corral. The open red wound on his chest stood out against his black Arabian frame and the sky’s harsh blue. He was thick with muscles and adrenaline.
I watched him gallop in constant laps. His mouth foaming, head cocked over the fence, hooves hacking into the packed dirt like axe strokes. As far as Stan and I could figure, he must have kept up that constant running since he was dropped off the day before in order to dig the nearly foot-deep trench along the length and width of the corral.
Every time I think of that day, two things echo in my memory: his eyes, so stricken and frightened he couldn’t blink, and that gash across his chest, a red tear in his flesh. For some reason, I also think of the flares of clear cuts that frame the valleys around Frenchtown. And then, always, of my own scars.
Echo upon echo. I think that some part of me knew then how tightly our lives would intertwine.
I called him Canner the second day I knew him. I named him for where he wouldn’t go, not if we could help it. He must have had some good fortune, coming across the people he has—hopefully enough to balance out all the harm from people who were too short with him, who taught him to be terrified of zippers, to tremble at the sight of a rope.
Canner’s story isn’t just the story of the horse. For me, he carries in him a story of Montana: of grass where eddies of wind stir against the stumps of trees; a story of the open mines and the brazen clear cuts; a story of over-harvested timber; of beaten children. It’s also my story.
It is the story of standing up to cruelty. And fighting back. And fighting to heal.
Sprouting pinecones, picking up glass along the riverbanks, speaking out against abuse and working to learn from trauma, that’s also Montana. And, sometimes, the percolating joy that makes you want to buck when the sun strikes you. The joy of a creature who will not be cowed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What I’ve heard: he was born outside Clinton, MT, at a place known for their Arabians. Before the economic crisis of 2008, members of his family sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The ranch had a barn roof collapse from a heavy snow that killed several horses. On the heels of that came the drop in horse-collecting by hobbyists who were seeing their accounts dry up in the housing crisis. This killed the market and made it hard to feed and care for the herd. In addition to this, the owners of the ranch were aging out of the business with no clear successor.
According to other horse people who knew the ranch, the horses would be turned out to pasture and not worked much or at all as the ranch labored to stay afloat. Then, when one sold, they’d cowboy it into a halter and trailer. This was the situation for a lot of horse breeders and ranches after the economy went downhill. Horses are often in a position to suffer during economic booms and busts, as they are still used as status symbols for people who fall into money. Lots of people buy horses when times are good, without any plan for what they will do if they run low on money. Breeders come out of the woodwork when the economy is good to take advantage of the often exorbitant prices that purebred horses can garner, but with no fallback position for when the market turns, as it always does. The result is a regular boom of overbreeding, and then abandoned horses when things go bust. In this game of horse trading, the animals often end up neglected or even shipped to Canada for slaughter as irresponsible horse breeders try to claw back some small piece of what they had previously been making. I’m not too sure of the specifics of Canner’s situation beyond what other people told me about the ranch he came from, much of which was gossip. All I know for sure is what I have from his papers and can understand from his behavior.
Canner’s papers call him Moon River Destiny. He was born in 2002. In 2010, the ranch that bred him sold him to a young, single mother named Lindsey who was living in a refurbished bus. They said if she didn’t take him, he’d be shipped to slaughter. She paid around $600, and from what both she and my friend Stan said, at that point he had never been haltered.
Lindsey was looking for horses to take with her into the backcountry. Her dresses were patched with buckskin or leather, her clothes a mix of scraps and darning that declared she belonged to the mix of disenfranchised hippy-punk traveling kids you might find thumbing a ride at an on-ramp or huddled together on top of a coal car. She wore a worn leather Australian-style cowboy hat and usually had her two-year-old strapped to her back. She dreamed of a community on horseback, living together off the land. She had some money from student loans, and she was going to use it to gather up a herd and break free of Western society.
Moon River Destiny’s ranch was the first she visited. They told her then that they were about to ship several horses up to the canner in Canada for slaughter. She went out to walk in the pasture, and he snuck up behind her and put his nose to her wrist and breathed out. There’s something in horse breath. Anyone who has stood beside one of their nostrils and taken in that hot air, inexplicably sweet with the smell of wet grass, knows this. She decided to save him.
In the months that followed, mutual friends got Lindsey in touch with Stan, a horseman with five decades of experience under him, including long rides through the backcountry from Canada to Mexico along the Rockies. He’d wintered horses in the backcountry east of Glacier, had broken and trained too many horses to count, and lived most of his life with a horse under or near him. It took some convincing, but Stan decided to start helping Lindsey pick out her horses once he realized how inexperienced she was and knowing what could happen. Part of what convinced him to help was meeting Canner, and his growing concern that Lindsey would keep gathering green or traumatized horses, which would create a bad situation for everyone. On account of the bust in the horse market, and with Stan’s help, they found them sturdy, trained to ride, and for practically nothing.
But Moon River Destiny was a different thing. They visited him at the Arabian ranch where the ranch hands attempted to get him into a trailer. He had already broken someone’s arm and banged up one trailer. At this point, Stan thought Lindsey should get her money back. In his opinion, they had ruined the horse already.
Two months later, the ranchers managed to get him in the trailer and delivered him to a pasture Lindsey had rented in Frenchtown. He came with that big gash on his chest, fear pulsing on his breath, the ranchers yelling at him to pay attention, while Stan, Lindsey, and a friend of mine watched, repulsed.
The night after Moon River Destiny arrived in Frenchtown, Stan and I stayed up late discussing what had happened with the horse and what we might do for him. Tea steeped on the stove at a low boil.
Stan sat in my kitchen hunched over from the weight of the day. He leaned like there was still a frightened animal stirring in his chest. I’ve known Stan for a decade and took for granted his usually quiet demeanor, but tonight there was a narrowness to his eyes: an anger.
“It was horrible, awful,” he said. “They were harassing him and he was so scared. One of ’em had a broken arm from when they loaded him.”
I could feel his pain from across the table.
“They had something to prove to Lindsey. And she just watched as the lady delivering him kept trying to show her ‘training,’ terrorizing him by waving around a rope and yelling ‘pay attention!’”
Finally, Stan couldn’t take it anymore. He’d walked over, told them to leave. They put Moon River in that small corral and left. The horse paced compulsively, frothing at the mouth. Now it was up to Stan to get him out of the corral and begin the long process of undoing what had been done over the last few months.
He had to move Moon River from the corral and into a larger pasture where we hoped he’d settle.
The corral only had one gate leading into open range, even though it butted up against a wider pasture. We could knock down the rails, but Stan thought the horse might hurt himself or someone else if we went in there and started pounding around with a hammer. But there was no way to catch him. Anytime a person would approach, he’d move to the far corner, and if they came too close, he’d seem in danger of breaking through the fence.
Stan hoped that I could help.
Let me be clear: Stan is a horse trainer. He has over fifty years of experience. Most of my work has been training dogs with behavioral problems. This work led me to study behavior modification, which is the most effective method out there for dealing with abused and traumatized animals, as well as most other animals. At that point, I’d helped frightened pit bulls stop trying to kill every dog they’d see and chihuahuas from having panic attacks when their owners left the house for a few hours. I’d even taught a few chickens how to run figure eights and peck different colors on cue. Here’s a video:
But I hadn’t been interested in working with horses, not since my childhood colt died when I was a boy. He’d spooked from some fireworks and tried to run through a fence, badly mangling two of his legs. My parents had to have him put down and I took off my cowboy boots for good.
Now Stan hoped some of the training methods I’d used with the other horses could help with this one.
We stayed up a few hours, sipping tea, and made a plan. We got up at sunrise and headed out for Frenchtown.
On the drive out to Frenchtown the next day in a beat-up little Honda Lindsey had loaned Stan, we talked about training and about the horse. We decided Moon River Destiny was an unlucky name. He needed a new one for his new life.
We’ve argued about it since, but I’m steadfast that I came up with the name Canner. It made sense. A good name fits you like a worn-in hat; once it’s there, you can’t imagine who you were without it. Canner is one of those names. Everyone who gets to know him comments on how well it fits.
He was headed to “the canner,” like many other horses. The name is no longer about where he’s going, it’s about where he might have ended up. A reminder.
When we got to Frenchtown, we tried to figure out what Canner wanted.
Clicker training relies on a few basic principles of behavioral science:
- A rewarded (or reinforced) behavior is more likely to be repeated.
- You can create secondary, tertiary, and even more reinforcers by pairing them with primary reinforcers and building long chains to reinforcement. In fact, studies suggest that deeper reinforcers can become more reinforcing than primary reinforcers.
That means that if you ring a bell, as Pavlov did, before you feed your dog, after about a dozen times the sound of the bell will be more rewarding than the food. The important thing here is that the bell always precedes the food.
I approached Canner with carrots, but every time I walked at him or near him, or even slowly backed up to him, he paused only long enough to direct himself to the farthest corner away from me. There he stood, crouching and shaking, ready to sprint away if I moved at all toward him.
Most people who study behavior agree that only primary reinforcers (food, sex, water, and maybe play) create chains of predictable behavior in this way. That’s why trainers don’t rely on things like petting, praise, or other potential reinforcers. For a clicker or any other secondary reinforcer to work, a primary reinforcer should always show up for the animal somewhere down the chain of behaviors after the secondary reinforcer has occurred. Working with extreme cases of reactivity, I’ve had to experiment with pairing the clicker with other, less well-studied reinforcers: play, access to social interaction, and access to other resources like space. I believe this can work because of Premack’s principle, which I won’t bore you with here other than to include the link if you’re interested.
Still, in a case like Canner’s, with an animal too terrified to eat, much less let you come near, I didn’t see the harm in marking and reinforcing with an environmental reward (like social interaction with other horses) rather than a primary reinforcer (food). For all others, I just give both the food and environmental rewards as available. With Canner, since he wouldn’t eat when Stan and I were present, I decided to try interaction with a mare. I knew he really buddied up with some mares at the Arabian ranch where he was from. I thought he might appreciate interacting with one of Stan’s mares, a paint who was the oldest and gentlest of the horses he’d gathered.
We worked out a system: I would selectively click for those moments when Canner ‘stilled’ (stopped pacing about, stood still, or paced less frantically), and when I clicked, Stan walked the mare a few steps closer. The mare’s approach was contingent on Canner’s self-calming. We didn’t just walk the mare up and hope she would help him calm down; that might just encourage him to keep pacing anxiously. We selected for the slightly calmer moments in his behavior and reinforced them with something we hoped he wanted.
We started with me about 30 feet from Canner and Stan approaching with the mare on a halter from an adjoining pasture about 200 feet away. I had to raise an arm when I marked so that Stan knew I had clicked, because Stan was a bit deaf. Remember that Canner had been constantly pacing this whole time, for well over 24 hours straight. I watched him for about an hour to get a sense of what those moments in which he “stilled” looked like. The calmest he got was a slight pause that happened before he would turn to walk the other way.
That’s all I needed.
I began marking these brief pauses with a click. Canner paused, I clicked, raised my arm, and Stan walked forward a few steps. The first three were quick, maybe a half-second-long pause. But by the fourth I could tell Canner was already catching on, because instead of walking the whole rectangular corral, he started to turn back and forth at the end closest to Stan and the mare, which made for more pauses. So, I upped my criteria (the behavior I was looking for from Canner in order to click and bring the mare closer) and began looking for longer pauses to reinforce. I counted to one each time he paused. If he didn’t move, I clicked. Four more reinforcements and I was counting to five. I clicked for a few shorter ones to make it easy, but then Stan was at the fence and Canner and his mare were nose to nose.
We did this several more times by walking the mare away and back selectively. If Canner started to pace while she was there, as he did, she went away. Pretty soon he mostly stood still, waiting for her to return. At this point we began to mark for calmly following the mare around the pen. This is an instinctual behavior for most horses to follow each other, but it wasn’t easy for Canner at first. The first time Stan walked along the fence, Canner regressed back to pacing. Stan simply led the mare away and we selectively reinforced again to get him calm, then for following for a step, then a few steps, and pretty soon he walked behind the mare, led by Stan, all the way back and forth along the fence.
We ended there for the day, leaving the mare in the pasture on the other side of the fence from Canner. Tomorrow we’d have a go at having him follow her out into the larger pasture.
The next day, we got the mare haltered and brought her to the only gate that led off Canner’s stall and into the open range. He looked noticeably calmer pacing the fence line, but slower and stopping to take breaks. When we approached his gate, he backed into the corner.
Canner came out in a rush when we kicked open the gate and started walking the mare away. His nostrils flared large, like red lenses. He closed up on the paint horse. We headed through the 40 feet of open range for the other open gate into the pasture.
But there was a line of railroad ties marking the road into the pasture, and we had to cross them near the gate. The paint horse slipped, caught a foot, and balked when she walked over them. Canner froze, his eyes slipping back into wide panic, and then, with a buck, he turned 180 degrees and ran full bore toward the open range, kicking big clumps of grass into the air.
I thought we’d been fools for leading this wild Arabian out of his stall.
But he returned to the gate of the pen that had held him for the last two days. Ultimately, he was more afraid of the world and afraid to venture into it on his own. We brought the mare back to him, gave the railroad ties a wide girth, and walked him right into the open pasture like nothing had happened.
Canner slowly settled in over the next several months. I spent some time conditioning the clicker by marking from far away when he grazed. We tried him with the rest of Stan’s horses, but he kept beating them up too bad, and they couldn’t be left alone. It wasn’t aggression, but fear of movement behind him that made him rough with the other horses. Other horses moving behind him triggered his flight response, and he’d kick and run, leaving them with big bruises.
For well over a month, the only rewards we could give him were access to new pasture and interaction with the mare he’d followed to safety. Even with my work pairing the clicker with grazing, he wasn’t comfortable enough with either Stan or me to take food from us. So, to make sure he didn’t injure the other horses in his fits of panic, we separated him from the herd when we couldn’t monitor them.
And we didn’t push it.
One day I stood in Canner’s pasture, watching the other horses while Stan worked. A warm breeze caught the hairs on the top of my head. I didn’t turn or even think anything of it until I got a slight bump from a big felt-soft nose. For some reason, the horse who had sprinted away from us whenever we got within 20 feet of him decided to come investigate me.
I turned around slowly. Canner stood beside me with his whole body contorted in a strange mixture of curiosity and fear that I’ve seen so many times since. His nose pointed at me, but everything else strained ready to turn and bolt away, as if he might break in two at any moment. His head stayed to sniff while the rest of him ached to turn to run as far away as possible.
I kept my body relaxed, leaning against the fence, my eyes gentle. I took the clicker out of my pocket and decided to try feeding him some grass. I leaned down slowly, picked a clump of grass, making no sudden movements, then clicked and put it up to his mouth. Canner gently took the grass, then turned and bolted, his tail up and his head canted to the side, the clump of grass sticking cock-eyed from his mouth as he ran.
From then on, he took more and more grass by hand. We were able to condition him. Stan took him on for that summer, working with him between getting the rest of his horses ready to go into the backcountry. I came out to help and to teach Stan more about clicker training while he taught me about horse tack and ethology. We problem-solved together with Canner, and pretty soon Stan had him taking the halter. Eventually, he led him by a rope.
But then I got home from graduate school one day to find Stan in my kitchen.
“I made a mistake,” he said.