This exercise developed from something my horse offered when I was in the tack room where there is a wooden platform in front of the door. While I was in the tack room getting organized, Boots would step up onto the wooden platform to see what I was doing.
I recognized the beneficial gymnastic effect when I asked her to back off the platform and step up again in a rhythmic pattern. It became one of her favorite things to do. Interestingly, she never seems to have enough of it, and I have to be the one to suggest that we should do something else.
This Step Aerobics task has become our go-too exercise when time is limited but we want a bit of a warm-up before cleaning her feet or doing other tasks. When it’s too wet or hot or windy for much else, it’s a fun way to build some movement into our time together.
Step Aerobics, just like the human version, is an exercise that requires whole-body movement and flexion of all the joints, so it is an ideal task to do often in short bursts.
Items with an asterisk (*) are training plans covered in detail in my book, Precision Horse Training with Positive Reinforcement: 12 Thin-Sliced Groundwork Plans, available as e-book or paperback via Amazon.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for placing his front feet on a mat, so he is keen to stand on a mat whenever we put one out. #124 HorseGym with Boots: Free-Shaping Mat Targets* illustrates: https://youtu.be/xMaZWt5gK2o
- Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent* illustrates: https://youtu.be/3ATsdPvld4Q
- The ‘Finesse Back-Up’ exercise is ideal to teach a reliable back-up while we are facing the horse. The description and two clips below show how we evolved it.
- Working across a barrier, using a hand-held target for stepping forward, and using body language, breathing, intent and voice signals for backing up.
- Adding a halter and rope signal to the back-up so we can use it anywhere. Once the horse knows the task, the rope pressure signal usually isn’t needed because the horse responds to the breathing, body language, voice and distinct orientation signals.
- Once voice, body language, intent and orientation signals are well established, we have a reliable back up at liberty while we are facing the horse.
- To the signals in 3 above, we add a clear ‘raised fingers’ gesture signal to the back-up while we are facing the horse, allowing us to communicate clearly from further away.
Back-Up Part 1*: https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y
Back-Up Part 2*: https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA
- The other part of Step Aerobics is a recall signal. Teaching and consolidating a recall signal are outlined in these video clips.
Recall Clip 1: https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24
Recall Clip 2: https://youtu.be/5BQCB2Fe5RE
My ‘recall’ gesture signal in this context is a movement where I shrink backwards and drop my energy and make a circle with my arms.
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:
- A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
- Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
- The horse is not hungry.
- Halter and lead (as minimal pressure as possible on the lead, but enough to be effective) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
- Materials to build a simple lane (one side can be a safe fence) and to block off one end of it.
- Different mats familiar to the horse.
- A pedestal or a step-up situation safe for the horse. A step-up trailer is an option, or setting up the trailer ramp as a step.
Boots has taken herself to stand on a tire-pedestal while I organize the camera.
Horse steps up onto a pedestal (or step), then steps backwards down again, in a rhythmic pattern repeated several times.
A simple lane made with two rails, blocked off at one end with two tall cones, and a mat in the lane, demonstrating Slice 4 of the training plan.
Video Clip: #159 HorseGym with Boots: STEP AEROBICS
- Set up a simple lane. My lane in the video is two ground rails. You may want to begin with a higher-sided lane to make the behavior option we want as clear as possible for the horse. One side can be a safe fence.
- Ensure that the horse can walk right through the lane confidently; click&treat each time he calmly passes right through the lane. Handler walks on the outside of the lane. Walk a loop with the horse to repeat.
- Set a target mat near the end of the lane. Walk the horse into the lane and ask him to halt with his feet on the mat; click&treat. Walk him out of the lane forward, making a circuit to repeat targeting the mat.
- When 3 is done reliably with confidence, block off the lane at the end nearest the mat. Ask the horse to walk into the lane and target the mat; click&treat. Position yourself facing the horse, a bit to one side.
- Review the ‘Finesse Back-Up procedure as outline in the prerequisites. Click&treat for one or two steps back on request.
- When you no longer need to run your hand up the rope because the horse responds to your body language, inward breath, intent, and voice signals, begin holding your hands up higher until eventually your gesture signal morphs into your fingers held up beside your ears waggling to suggest backward movement; click&treat and celebrate hugely when he does (triple treat or jackpot or special treat). Keep a non-influencing loop in the rope or lay the rope over the horse’s neck out of the way.
- We want the raised fingers to become a main ‘back up please’ gesture. But at this point we still emphasize our inward breath, posture expressing intent and voice along with the gesture.
- If the horse comes forward to target the mat again right away, accept this with a click&treat the first time, but ideally, we want him to wait to be asked to move forward. You may, at first, need to invite him forward again very quickly after delivering the treat for backing up. If you have taught him a ‘wait’ signal, you can use it here. The October 2017 Challenge: Park and Wait* illustrates creating duration with the ‘wait’;
- Use your recall signal to ask the horse to come forward onto the mat again; click&treat. My recall signal as shown in the clips is a movement where I shrink backwards and drop my energy and make a circle with my arms. I learned it from Sharon Wilsie’s book, HorseSpeak.
- Alternate the back-up (click&treat) with the recall (click&treat). The aim is to smoothly get a series of these one after the other.
- Eventually, when 10 is really solid, you can ask for a back-up and a recall before the click&treat. Or ask for a recall followed by a back-up before the click&treat, moving toward the horse to deliver the treat.
- Once 10 is smooth, practice with a barrier on only one side of the horse.
- When 12 is smooth, practice with no barriers.
- When 13 is smooth, practice with a variety of mats and in a variety of different places.
- When 14 is smooth, introduce a pedestal or step. If the ‘step up’ idea is new to your horse, it can be helpful if you place a familiar mat on the pedestal the first time you ask.
- For some horses, it may help to begin with a relatively low ‘step up’ situation, such as a plank or thick board before asking for a higher step.
- At first be careful about asking for too many repeats. For some horses it will be an unaccustomed way of using their joints. Three repeats at one time is plenty to start with. Doing a little bit often is ideal. Once you are doing it at liberty the horse will probably let you know if he’s done enough.
We can use the back or sides of a trailer ramps as our ‘step’. I have used a solid piece of timber under the end of the ramp to create a step-up situation.
- If you’re able to move your pedestal, move it to different locations. I have three ‘tire-pedestals’ set up in different parts of our training areas.
- A step-up trailer is another option.
- If you have a trailer with a ramp, and there are no jagged bits on the sides of the ramp, use the sides of the ramp as a ‘step-up’ spot.
- If you ride or walk with your horse out in the countryside, look for spots that create a natural safe step. I’ve used our concrete front door step in the past.
- Some people fill different-sized tires giving different heights for a step or build a series of pedestals.
- If your pedestal is large enough, or you have a spot like the one in the photo below, ask the whole horse to step up and step down again.
I’ve asked Boots to step up with all four feet, then step back down again. The wooden lip and uneven ground make it more challenging.
I look forward to hearing and seeing how you get on if you take up this challenge.