Patience and passion pay off in clicker training for noble steeds
Ursula Euler of Lake Oswego was one of those little girls who fell in love with horses at first sight. She has never lost that love, and she says she never will lose it.
That becomes apparent when her horse, Fanny, takes a sweeping bow after Euler makes a few clicks on her clicker.
"I hope to be doing this when I'm 80 years old," Euler said.
Clicker training has helped Euler reach a whole new level of horse appreciation, and all of her efforts pay off with "oohs" and "aahs" from her fellow horse lovers when the talented Fanny does her horse tricks. Yet this polished performance took a lot of work, and it is quite rare for anyone to be as devoted to training horses as Euler.
"Clicker training is slow moving," Euler said. "It requires structure, patience and knowing horse behavior. A beginner shouldn't try it. Clicker trainers are ordinary people doing extraordinary things."
Euler is even a pioneer in this endeavor, because "clicker training is in its infancy," she said.
Euler is extremely trim and fit, and she does not look very formidable standing next to a huge, muscular animal. Her chances of making the great steed do her bidding do not look good.
Yet, for Euler, a horse show is only a click away.
"My biggest successes have been teaching them tricks, like bows," Euler said. "I did it with clicks and I've done it all so slowly, but the bits and pieces have come together. Relaxing is the first thing you do. Further down the road there are more clicks and treats. It's incremental. With clicker training there is no fear, no force, no roping and no people pulling on ropes.
"I only weigh 110 pounds. What would I do with a 1,100-pound animal?"
A resident of Mountain Park in Lake Oswego, Euler keeps her four horses on five acres of land in Olympia, Wash., and she commutes there every weekend. Two of the horses are taking well-deserved retirements, and one horse is just getting started on clicker training, so it is Fanny who is the finished product of all of Euler's love and work.
"It's a life commitment," she said. "It's a lifestyle."
Her lifestyle started when she was just a child growing up on the outskirts of Munich in Germany. Her desire for horse-riding lessons was fulfilled in the time-honored way - by annoying her parents.
"I pestered them until they drove me to riding lessons," Euler said. "Later I wanted them to buy me a horse and put it in our garage. That seemed very reasonable to me, since we didn't have a car."
For young Euler, it was horses, horses everywhere.
"On the Bavarian countryside, you would see cows and horses all of the time," she said. "You get a feeling of freedom sitting on a horse and the wind blowing through your hair. There is something natural about it. You get addicted, if you will."
Euler did not just ride horses, she studied them, and she learned a lot.
"I find animal behavior so interesting," she said. "There are no words, but there is body language. You can tell what a horse is feeling by looking at its ears. There are many different flicks. When a horse's ears are held back, they're attentive and thinking."
It was after emigrating to the United States that Euler found out about clicker training, and it instantly intrigued her.
"There had been training of chickens with clickers," she said. "Seals had been taught how to retrieve mines through clicker training, and it had been transferred to cats. But, with horses, it wasn't used so much."
Fortunately, Euler found out about Alexandra Kurland, who was giving clinics on clicker training for horses nationwide, and she turned out to be an extremely avid student.
"Clicker training is completely voluntary," Euler said. "Animals only get positive re-enforcement, with food or something else that's positive. It's very little, like a chocolate chip. It is really the click that works. You can teach a horse anything with clicker training - dressage, jumping, tricks or working.
"Even if it is only an approximation, you reward them. It's a small step toward what you want them to do."
When Fanny puts on a show for Euler's friends, they laugh and clap when she takes a bow, so she does it again and again.
"That tickles me pink," Euler said. Fanny also can pick up gloves, "so I don't have to dismount."
Euler has been the finance director for the city of Lake Oswego for the past two years, so horses are a great relief from all the number crunching, and her weekends are blissful.
"Horses are my hobby and passion," Euler said. "They are something totally different from the numbers and computers I work with all week.
"When my horses see me coming, they know it's going to be play time and they start whinnying from far away. I take it as a big compliment."