Left Photo: ‘Zero Intent’ posture for staying parked: energy drained from my body, hands lying on my bellybutton, hips relaxed, one knee cocked, shoulders down, looking nowhere.
Right Photo: ‘Intent’: I’ve lifted my torso, breathed in and am activating my fingers into our signal for Boots to move her shoulder over.
A key way to make it easier for our horse to understand what we would like him to do, is to refine our own body language. The horse can only be as precise in his responses as we are precise with our body language.
We want to be as clear as possible when we ask the horse to do something, and equally clear when we want him to stand quietly or walk with us in a relaxed manner. In other words, we are teaching active inaction.
If we reliably assume a distinct stance and put our hands in a certain position to indicate that we don’t need anything to happen, the horse soon realizes that our posture is meaningful for him.
It is a bit like the computer binary system of zero and one. Either we want the horse to stand (or walk with us) in a relaxed manner or we want him to begin moving part of his body or his whole body in a particular way.
‘Zero Intent’ (sometimes called ‘neutral’) means that we want the horse to keep on doing what he is doing. On the ground, this might include:
- Standing ‘parked’.
- Walking beside us at a steady pace in a relaxed manner.
- Maintaining a gait.
VIDEO CLIP: #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent illustrates. On the video clip I use ‘No Intent’ to mean the same as ‘zero Intent’. The clip demonstrates a variety of tasks that begin with the ‘parked’ position.
Viewing the video clip makes it easier to get an overall picture. It can be helpful to practice visualizing changes from ‘zero intent’ to ‘intent’ during our day’s general activity away from the horse.
We express ‘Intent’ with signals we have taught the horse. When we first teach a new task, we can make our intent clearer if we arrange the horse’s environment to make the behavior we want more likely to happen. Once the horse does the desired behavior reliably, we can add voice and gesture signals.
For example. If our intent is to have the horse confidently walk onto a tarp, we can put a favorite treat on the tarp, so it becomes the horse’s idea to put his feet on the tarp in order to reach the treat. We are still free-shaping the behavior of walking onto a tarp, but we are helping it along by setting up an environment that increases the chances of it happening.
Behaviors that start and end with the horse standing parked with us in a relaxed manner are ideal for improving our ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’ body language. For example:
- Touch a hand-held target which we then put behind us ‘out of play’ as we deliver the treat. Then we at zero intent for a few seconds before presenting the target again.
- Halt-walk transitions followed by walk-halt transitions.
- Backing up from halt.
- Yielding forequarters.
- Yielding hindquarters.
- Head down.
- Picking up a foot.
We begin with zero intent, signal the horse with intent, click&treat when the horse carries out our intent, then return to zero intent for X number of seconds.
When we practice this consciously, we remove much of the ‘noise’ and unnecessary energy or tension we hold in our bodies, which confuses horses because they are so much more sensitive to body language than we are. To survive in the wild they have to to be continuously aware of the body language of their herd-mates, other animals around, and local predators.
If there is no consistency in our body language, horses tend to regard all of it as meaningless and tune it out.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse has learned a few tasks that he can do from a parked position.
- Handler has practiced awareness of his/her ‘zero intent’ posture away from the horse. If you can, use another person as a ‘sounding board’ for your changes in body language. Using a mirror will help. Things to work with for zero intent are:
- Energy deflated from body with a deep breath out.
- Shoulders relaxed down.
- Breathing slow and quiet.
- Hands lying quiet on bellybutton.
- Hips relaxed.
- Maybe one knee cocked.
- Eyes soft and away from the horse (e.g. gazing at the ground – looking nowhere).
- Then practice coming out of ‘zero intent’ posture into the body language and gesture signals for the behavior that you would like the horse to do.
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:
- A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
- Horse is not hungry.
- Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
- If halter and lead are necessary, avoid pressure on the lead.
- Handler becomes super-aware of (and consistent with) moving into and out of ‘zero intent’ body language.
- Horse becomes super-aware of the difference between ‘intent’ and ‘zero intent’ in the handler’s body language.
Before you begin, visualize what tasks you will ask the horse to do with your ‘intent’ signals.
Here are some possibilities:
- Present a hand-held target, then remove it out of sight behind you as you deliver the treat. Wait for a while before presenting the target again. Start with waiting for one second only. When that is good, wait for two seconds. Increase the wait duration one second at a time.
- From halt to walk toward a mat destination to halt again.
- From halt to back-up to halt again.
- From halt to move forequarters to halt again.
- From halt to move hindquarters to halt again.
- From halt to target one of: chin, knee, eye, ear, cheek, shoulder to hand.
- The ’20-Steps Exercise’ is another context to help become fluid with the ‘intent’ and ‘no intent’ dynamic.
- Once the horse stays parked reliably, we can begin to move into different positions around him, taking up the ‘no intent’ body language so he easily understands that nothing is required of him except to remain parked. The skill is to maintain our ‘zero intent’ while we move into different positions around the horse. This video clip demonstrates.
- Focus on developing ‘no intent’ body language when walking with your horse beside you. By walking in a relaxed posture, with a drape (smile) in the lead rope, breathing evenly, the horse has the opportunity to mirror your ‘at ease’ demeanor. Just as horses are conscious of any tension we hold in our bodies, so they are conscious when we let go of the tension.
- As we become more aware of our body language, it gets easier and easier to apply our ‘zero intent’ postures to let the horse know that nothing is required of him at the moment except to stand or walk with us quietly.
The ‘no intent’ position sitting down.
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