Newton, MA—Fed up with smelly socks on the couch, unwashed dishes in the sink, and trash that didn’t take itself out, Newton mom Abby Preacher was considering giving her husband Greg and their teen boys, Brendan and Jacob, an ultimatum.
Then, suddenly, she thought about her 14-year-old Connemara pony, Landon.
“Two months ago, it was either me or the laundry pile that was going to give, honestly—I was that fed up. But when I remembered all the success I’ve had with Landon, everything changed,” Preacher says.
A former children’s lesson pony, Landon arrived at Preacher’s barn with a giant forelock and a pony-tude to match.
“He would bite and kick in his stall, rip the crossties out when I tried to clip him, and spin me off for no apparent reason at all,” she says. “I was about to sell him, and then my trainer encouraged me to give clicker training a try.”
After attending a couple of clinics and reading a few books and online tutorials, Preacher says, she introduced the concept to Landon. Almost instantly, the pony became a “new man” when there was a clicker in her hand and a bag of mints in her pocket.
“He just became so pleasant, so motivated, and so willing to work with me,” she says. “I couldn’t help but think that the same concept could work for the other grumpy boys in my life.”
First on the agenda: finding what “treats” would motivate her “herd at home.” For husband Greg, it was uninterrupted minutes on his iPhone to play Fantasy Football.
“He’d shovel the walkway, and I’d get my clicker out, and voila! A couple of clicks for time spent and Greg earns a full 10 minutes to have his nose in his phone without me using the words ‘did you hear me?’ or ‘are you being present right now?’”
For her two teen boys, Preacher discovered the magic reward for Brendan was $5 bills toward a winter ski pass; for Jacob, it was as simple as tossing him a fun-sized Snickers bar. (“I just call Jacob my easy child!” she chuckles).
These days, in fact, Preacher rarely goes anywhere in the house without a clicker in one pocket and a couple of loose bills and candy bars in the other. The mindset change has virtually revolutionized her life.
“Positive reinforcement through clicker training just works so well in riding, because many horses and ponies, like Landon, don’t respond well to head-to-head interactions or shows of force. By being consistent in your method—“lower your head,” click, treat; “clear the table,” click, treat; “write that thank you note,” click, treat—you can really change a horse and human’s motivation level for the better.
“I used to tell my sons, ‘Clean this up—you weren’t raised to act like you live in a barn!’” Preacher says. “Now I know just how wrong I really was.”