By Lauren R. Giannini
Every equestrian has a tale of who and what influenced their horsemanship, but Shawna Karrasch offers a most unusual set of credentials: for 10 years she worked with orcas, dolphins and other sea mammals, training and performing with them for the public at Sea World in San Diego, California. Her experiences led to the development of her business, On Target Training, and resulted in an entirely new direction for Shawna’s mission in life.
“On Target Training is not just clicker training – it is about positive reinforcement, good rewards all the time, to help horses to love jumping, to overcome their fears, to be bolder, to be braver,” Shawna said. “Through positive reinforcement, we can help horses to learn to enjoy themselves. We get a better performance and a more balanced animal. My motivation is the opportunity to help horses and horse folks to have better lives and better relationships with each other.”
It isn’t that big of a leap from training killer whales to training horses. In fact, the idea of applying positive reinforcement techniques to equines resulted when Shawna watched her first ever show jumping grand prix in Del Mar in 1992. “By then, I was a senior trainer at Sea World and the next step was for me to go into management and that meant less animal interactions and more paperwork,” she said. “I wasn’t itching to leave. I was just aware of the transition. When I got involved with horses, I was hooked.”
The defining moment happened two years after Del Mar: Shawna took her first riding lesson at Rancho Santa Fe where she met show jumper Vinton Karrasch. They got together and brainstormed what would become On Target Training, which Shawna has continued to build and grow since their partnership and marriage ended.
“Vinton is a good guy. We were so excited about working together, but we didn’t consider that this sort of behavioral modification works on people too. I learned that I didn’t know how to deal with grown-up problems, relating to marriage and business,” Shawna admitted. “I just ran away – that was about 10 years ago, I had to pull out all my stuff and take a good hard look at myself. I had to resolve some old issues. I learned to be kinder to myself and that helped me to face big and little things with a better perspective. It helped me to be honest with myself. I found my spiritual balance and my path. It changed my outlook on everything and it made me a better animal trainer. I’m virtually in the best place I’ve ever been in my life.”
Horses will do that to you. Helping good horsemen to be better trainers can be affirming and empowering for all concerned, including the equines. In terms of Shawna and On Target, two well-known professionals really made a difference: John and Beezie Madden, who took the ride on Judgement after Michael Matz ended his long relationship with Mary Alice Malone’s stallion. In spite of winning the 1999 American Gold Cup with Michael, Judgement started running out at the water jumps, which didn’t bode well for a jumper. The duo finished 18th in the 2000 Olympics, and soon after the Sydney Games, Michael retired from show jumping and recommended that Judgement go to the Maddens.
“I lived with John and Beezie for a year and taught them how to use positive reinforcement on every horse that came through their place – sport horses from Argentina, from Europe, horses belonging to their clients,” recalled Shawna. “I taught them while they worked with all their other horses. Judgement arrived after I moved home.”
It took the better part of a year, but by using positive reinforcement and On Target Training, Beezie and John got Judgement over his issue about water jumps. “John is like a sponge and Beezie is amazing. By the time the stallion arrived, the Maddens had really gotten the vital steps and the timing between the cue (asking for the behavior) and the yes signal (the click),” Shawna said.
The Maddens entered Judgement in a big jumper derby that fall, which served as a major test of the training. Before Beezie rode through the timers, she guided Judgement past the water: when she clicked, Judgement nickered. “The Maddens were thrilled and Judgement placed fourth in that big class,” recalled Shawna.
Judgement continued to compete and win internationally, earning more than $1,500,000 in prize money. He retired in 2009 and as a sire has helped to raise the bar of American breeding standards.
Please note: Beezie’s round with Judgement took place before the rule that prohibited the use of clickers during competition. However, people have utilized verbal cues, such as clearing their throats, in place of the clicker. This work-around is not exactly kosher, but it is for the greatest good of the horse and helps to reward him when he does the right thing. This is at the heart of On Target.
“I’m the behaviorist – not a training rider – I work with the international riders,” Shawna said. “I brought along a green Thoroughbred – I’m comfortable on a horse, and I love to jump, 3’ to 3’3”, but I’m happier as the ground person working with the horse’s behavior.”
The science of On Target Training has its roots in Shawna’s experiences at Sea World. “It was applied learning theory – we were tested on college text books which we studied,” Shawna recalled. “Dr. Sue McDonald from New Bolton Center told me I should have a PhD because of my knowledge level. I’ve done this work for 30 years now. It’s about practical applications of science and art because you have to have both to be an effective trainer. My ongoing goal is educating people. I want to reach out to people, to show them that there is a better and more positive way to teach their horses not to spook at everyday or unusual objects, that people don’t need whips and chain shanks to load a horse into a trailer.”
Shawna recently spent seven weeks in the UK, which has long been a mecca for natural training methods. “On Target continues to grow and I continue to learn – it’s much more advanced now and I have no idea where it’s going,” she said. “At some point in time, positive reinforcement will be accepted everywhere by horse trainers. It is science and the horses are learning. The higher mid-level trainers are coming as students and bringing their students with them. The education is so strong that it speaks for itself.”
Shawna tries not to call her method clicker training, which evolved from working with dogs. She points out that the marine world uses whistles and verbal cues. In the horse world, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. “People experience success with positive reinforcement and the results can be pretty dramatic, but the basics can only take most people so far,” said Shawna. As On Target gets bigger, she finds that she is fixing more problems, which result from training that fails to fix the initial issues.
“The goal is calm, relaxed, happy – the horses, but also the people – they need to get enough training to be able to handle situations as they come up,” Shawna said. “We all need to stand together and share ideas so that we continue to grow and move into the future. I alone can’t deal with every horse in every situation, but I can help people to learn and use the art of this science to train horses. People want a set of rules – I give guidelines. First of all, when it comes to positive reinforcement, you really have to know horses.”
For more information on Shawna, visit www.on-target-training.com. To experience Shawna performing On Target Training, watch the YouTube video of Shawna and a horse she hasn’t seen in seven years. There is no doubt that the horse remembers his training. On YouTube you can type in “Clicker Trained Horse Remembers After 7 Years” or view the video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOgtI23xqXE. The video will also be posted on the Sidelines website.