June 2017: Canner’s Story – Chapter Three: Gifts


Canner’s Story by Mackenzie Cole


Stan took the rest of the horses into the backcountry that fall and I started to take more and more responsibility for Canner. The winter went by fast for me as I worked on my thesis for grad school and visited Canner between the long process of breaking up with my partner of ten years.

Stan and one of his favorite horses.

One of the great things about clicker training is that it works on all animals. Even though I didn’t have much experience with horses, my experiences training chickens, dogs, and even humans informed my work immensely. Of course, the learning curve of working with a new species remained.

The study of the innate behaviors and anatomy of an animal belongs to the field of ethology, while the study of learning and how it occurs covers several fields, one of which is behavioral psychology. Of course, you have to know a lot about both fields to train a species you are not familiar with. For example, if you try to reinforce a horse with hot dogs, you aren’t going to get far.

My study of horse ethology is lacking; however, you can garner a certain amount of information through simple observation. Is the animal a predator or prey animal? What does it eat, how does it feed its young, etc.?

Another essential behavior to consider when training an animal is to know how it presents different common behaviors, such as excitement, play, and fear. Understanding play is huge in the later levels of clicker training. In our training, my inability to assess what might be play behavior with a horse has probably set us back a ways.

All this preamble is simply to explain one of the many reasons that working with Canner has been challenging for me. As we progressed from his initial terror into comfort, I naturally tried to come up with fun things to do. One of these was “playing” by “running away” from scary things. We’d explore a trailer or new object and then, when he’d been especially brave, I’d reward that bravery with the behavior I knew he most wanted to do–run away.

There’s a principle in behavioral psychology, called Premack’s Principle, that describes exactly why this sort of play makes it more likely that Canner would be braver in the future. This is also called grandma’s rule and it’s summed like so: if a desired behavior follows an undesired behavior, the desired behavior becomes more likely. Although this principle usually makes zero sense to trainers who haven’t made a study of psychology, they still use it all the time without knowing it. But I’ve seen the powerful ways in which it can work.

Here’s Monty Roberts doing it by rewarding a horse that doesn’t want to go into a trailer with movement away from the trailer. Eventually, the behavior of going towards the trailer becomes more likely than moving away from the trailer:

Mr. Roberts would never describe what he’s doing this way, but you can see how – by reinforcing the less likely behavior (forward movement) with the more likely behavior (backward movement) –  the drive to go forward quickly becomes even stronger than the drive to go back.

Without understanding the principle, many trainers miss out on other opportunities to use it. For example, they may just use it for something like loading, when it would be equally beneficial for haltering or even for dealing with bucking or flight behaviors. Many times I’ve heard traditional trainers endorse a strategy that worked because of Premack’s principle, then decry another one that would work for the same reason. Because they haven’t taken the time to study behavioral psychology and they don’t see the underlying behavioral principles at play in what’s working for them, they often fabricate a reason for why it works. They will quickly turn to personified statements about the mental state of the horse: it’s stubborn, so by backing it up, I become the leader, it’s disrespecting you, so by backing it up I teach it to respect me, it’s being hostile or rude or insubordinate, it becomes more curious because I don’t want it to go in. To me, a lot of this is magical thinking, using language like leadership, dominance, and spiritual connections to explain things you see work, but don’t really know why they work, then falling back on blaming the animal when in a new context things don’t go your way.

And when it comes down to it, most of the time that’s fine. You don’t need to know how an engine functions to drive a car. The problem comes up when you purport to know how the engine works, though you’ve never studied it, and insist that everyone else ascribe to your theories on the necessity of leadership and dominance over your car in order to drive it.

Of course, animals aren’t cars, and it’s easy to get into muddy water with this metaphor. Organisms are immensely more complex than machines. And when it comes to Premack’s Principle, you want to quickly move toward rewarding behaviors with other behaviors that you want to see.

That’s why play behaviors are so helpful. If you can reinforce a dog with tug-of-war rather than something like running away, you try to reinforce with tug-of-war. But you can also do really interesting things, like put “running away” under stimulus control (i.e. making it a behavior that is performed on cue and therefore not necessarily occurring because the animal is actually afraid), and then it just becomes a more controlled behavior that the animal performs by thinking rather than reacting.

With Canner, a horse so traumatized that he didn’t play, I had to fall back on the later strategy a lot. But I kept searching for things to make into play behaviors in the meantime. What this meant, though, for all the people watching me work without taking the time to talk to me, is that it looked like I was simply encouraging this horse to do “bad” things. So I caught some flack from some of the self purported horse trainers where Canner was boarded in Frenchtown. What I didn’t realize until much later when one of them contacted me on Facebook, is that between my times out visiting the horse, they were attempting to do some training of their own. This led to huge setbacks that I couldn’t explain and didn’t full understand when they were occurring. He would grow to love his halter and then one day be frightened of it again. I found out later that these people had routinely tried and failed to halter him, and I imagine that his mistrust of the halter worsened because of the of the inconsistency.

At this time, working with Canner was a moment of calm in a whirlwind of my own emotions and the expectations of graduate school. By the winter of 2012, I was closing in on finishing my master’s degree from the creative writing program at the University of Montana, with an emphasis in poetry. I also wound up owning Canner when Lindsey decided that his pasture was too much of an expense, one that she could no longer bear and was, therefore, going to put him down. As graduation came and went, I was doing everything I could to try to find Canner a new home, with little success. Despite my growing love for the horse, I was a reluctant guardian at best, and I knew that my poet’s life was never going to support the expenses and energy needed for a horse, much less one who was as terrified of the world as this handsome Arabian was.

I had taken him on with the goal of finding him a new home. I turned that into a writing project for a class called Storytelling that was taught by Debra Magpie Earling, the author of Perma Red. This led to my friend Zoey and me, along with Cody Knapp, making the following personal ad and video which we sent out anywhere we could to try to spread the word on finding him a new home:

You know the type. Tall, dark, and handsome; strong muscles.

A sensitive side too.

Quiet talker. He isn’t quick to warm up, his life has made him a bit guarded, but there’s a playful side underneath waiting for the right person to stir. He needs someone who can help him or be ok with the horse he is.

Canner is looking for a new home and a little help to get there. Please spread the word!

You can also see the video from this time, “Canner” from Cody Knapp on Vimeo.

At the time, I thought finding Canner a new home where he could be left to relax in a pasture with a pal, a so-called pasture pet, would just be a matter of proper canvassing and time. We just needed to get the word out, I told Zoey. Little did I know, re-homing Canner would turn into my primary focus for the next year. Most of the people who contacted me quickly lost interest when they learned he was too spooky to ride and would likely remain that way. Despite all the horses I saw hanging out in pastures across the state never getting ridden, it turned out that everyone who wanted a horse at least wanted to pretend they rode them.

After months of talking to everyone I knew, posting to forums online and otherwise trying to get the word out, I slowly realized that I might be the keeper of this horse much longer than I anticipated.

But Canner was also settling back down again. He befriended two mares who were being pastured with him and our counter-conditioning work was starting to pay off. He no longer offered an extreme flight response to surprising stimuli, though he would be quite the bully with the other horses whenever I came out to work.

My friend Debby Florence came out during this time and videoed some of my work with Canner (see below). Here’s a video she made of me doing some work to change up Canner’s guarding behavior in response to the other horses when I came around. It also has a great Claymation video of Canner by her son.




Thanks to my friend Debby, a journalist for The Missoulian named Betsy heard about what I was up to and came to do an interview. The Missoulian article ended up putting me in contact with SuzAnne Miller, who owns Dunrovin. She read about my work with Canner, and after several months of working together, offered to let me bring him to Dunrovin in the early winter of 2012. You can read the December 2012 Canner follow up Article and the original August 2012 Canner Article by clicking on these links.


The day we brought Canner out to Dunrovin, SuzAnne wanted to ask me a bit about his history. Cody, who had already done the video trying to help Canner find a home, came along to record.




Once we got Canner to Dunrovin, we introduced him to the other horses in the biggest pasture possible after he went through a quarantine process. Here’s a short video from that day.




You can tell I was maybe a bit too excited. Jamie, the ranch manager, didn’t seem fazed the whole time, but there were a few moments when I was sure Canner was going to spook. Instead, he surprised me and calmed himself.




Canner and I were both really fortunate to find Dunrovin and receive such great help from everyone there. Thanks to Jamie for helping us out that day, and to everyone else for the support, and SuzAnne for putting Canner up.

Here’s a video of some of training following the move:



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