This is one of those activities that we can do:
- As part of a cool-down after active work.
- As an interlude between other activities.
- As an ‘end of session’ routine.
- As purposeful gymnastics to help our horse keep flexible.
- When it is too cold, hot, wet or windy to be out and about.
- As a ‘stall rest’ activity as much as the recuperation allows.
- When we feel low energy but want to do something with our horse.
- The knee and hock targeting, done regularly, ensure adequate balance when we ask the horse to stand on three legs for foot care.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse is comfortable standing ‘parked’ with the handler standing and moving around the horse. A link to a post about relaxed ‘Parking’ is added at the end of this post.
- Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. Links are added at the end of this post.
- Horse confidently touches a variety of targets with his nose.
- We can teach targeting with the knees and hocks in the same way as outlined in the Targeting the Hindquarters to our Hand post. See the link at the end of this post.
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.
- A safe, enclosed area for working at liberty, if possible. Otherwise, halter and lead (kept loose or the rope safely draped over the horse’s neck).
- A hand-held target on a long stick and a short target like a plastic bottle.
- A familiar mat to park on when first teaching this.
- The horse moves his nose to touch a target held in different positions while keeping his feet still.
- Horse lifts his knees to touch a target.
- Horse lifts his hocks to touch a target.
VIDEO CLIP: #166 HorseGym with Boots TARGET FLEXION
- What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result of lots of very short sessions over a long time. I had to consciously improve the consistency of my body orientation and how I presented the target to make what I wanted as clear as possible for the horse.
- If the horse has been resting or contained, we must do a general overall body warm-up before asking for these flexions. Walking over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises. If this is not possible, adjust your flexion expectations accordingly.
Neck Flexion High and Low
- As per prerequisite 2, ensure that the horse is totally comfortable standing parked while you move and stand in a variety of positions around his body.
- Ask the horse to stand squarely with his front feet on a familiar mat; click&treat.
- Let him know what game you are about to play by having him touch a familiar long-handled target held near his nose; click&treat.
- Gradually, making sure to stay within the boundary of the horse’s comfort zone for this type of activity, hold the target progressively a little higher while you stand facing him slightly to the left side of his nose; click&treat every time he touches the target.
- Ideally, do three or four repeats on each side of the horse, before moving to the other side.
- Repeat 4 holding the target progressively a little higher while you stand facing him slightly to the right side of his nose.
- You may not get a full upward stretch as Boots shows on the video clip until you’ve done it for several sessions, but on the other hand, you may get it quickly.
- Stay with 4, 5 and 6 until the horse is ho-hum with them.
- Then move on to progressively hold the target a bit lower to the ground; click&treat for each touch standing slightly to the left of his nose, then stretch out your arm so the horse’s nose stays straight in front is he lowers it.
- Repeat 9 standing slightly to the right of the horse’s nose.
- For each new session, begin with the upward stretches done previously, then add the downward stretches until the horse is ho-hum with them also
Lateral (Sideways) Neck Flexion
- Have the horse stand as squarely as possible.
- Present the target so the horse must bend his neck a little bit to the left toward his ribs to put his nose on it; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
- Repeat 2 on the right side.
- Present the target so the horse must bend his neck to the left a little further to touch the target; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
- Repeat 4 on the right side.
- Present the target so the horse must bend his neck to the left as far as he comfortably can to touch the target; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
- Repeat 6 to the right.
How far a horse can bend his neck laterally will depend on a variety of factors such as age, health, overall fitness, frequency and type of flexion exercises, breed conformation, past injuries, arthritis, and so on. Healthy horses can reach around to scratch an itch on a lifted hock with their teeth. Observe carefully to find out how far the horse you are working with can reach in comparative comfort.
You may find considerable difference between the right and left sides if the horse has not been trained to accomplish a variety of exercises with either side of his body leading. Most horses have right or left dominance, just as people do.
If you adopt these flexion exercises and do them several times a week, or a few daily, you may notice increased suppleness in your horse if restrictions due to past injury or chronic conditions such as arthritis are not limiting factors.
- Once the extreme bend (however far that is for a particular horse) is going well on either side, ask for a bend to the left, then step behind the horse to his right side and ask for the extreme bend to the right before the click&treat.
Knee and Hock Flexion
1. At the start of each session of flexion work with a target, I ask the horse to put his nose on the target; click&treat. This lets him know what game we are playing.
2. Teach ‘knee-to-target’ by touching the target gently above the horse’s knee; click&treat. Repeat several times.
If the horse thinks you want his nose on the target when it touches his leg above the knee, don’t click&treat. Remove the target out of sight behind you and take up the ‘no intent’ position for about three seconds. Then begin again. Repeat until the horse realizes that you are not asking for nose to target in this situation. The lack of click&treat gives him this information.
It may help the horse if you use a different, shorter target to teach ‘knee to target’.
3. After several successful mini-sessions with 2 above, hold the target just a tiny bit above the horse’s knee and see if the horse will lift his knee to make the contact; click&treat the instant he does. The basic technique is the same as in my clip, Targeting the Hindquarters to our Hand to which there is a link at the end of this post. Some horses will pick up the idea quickly and some will need many days of quiet, relaxed, short repeats. A clip about teaching ‘Target Chin to Hand‘ posted at the end, may also be helpful.
4. Repeat on the horse’s other side.
5. Once 3 and 4 above are ho-hum, teach ‘hock-to-target’ in the same way, using your long-handled target. Mixing up knee and hock too soon can lead to confusion, so keep the daily focus on the knee targeting only (on both sides of the horse) until your orientation and signals are truly consistent and the horse shows he is truly confident by being 99% accurate with his responses. Then change your focus to hock-targeting and stick with only that until it is ho-hum. Then you can begin to ask them in random order.
Head Between Legs Flexion
For this, a shorter target like the plastic bottle I use in the video clip is easier to use than a long-handled target.
- Ask the horse to stand squarely.
- Ask him to touch the target with his nose while you hold it down and straight in front of him; click&treat when he touches it. Be sure to keep your head to the side of the horse’s head so you don’t get knocked in case he brings his head up quickly.
- When 2 is good, switch to holding the target forward between his front legs. You may need to wiggle it a bit to get his attention. Click&treat the moment he puts his nose or whiskers on the target.
- Present the target between his front legs standing on either side of the horse. Two or three of these per session is plenty.
Links to other resources:
This video clip looks at making the horse feel comfortable staying parked on a mat while we move into different orientations around him: Challenge: Park and Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
This video clip looks at teaching targeting the chin to our hand, which is a nice way to introduce the whole idea of targeting body parts to our hand or a target. https://youtu.be/Fsigp8wB0LU
Blog: Targeting Hindquarters to our Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk
Blog: Using Mats for Targeting and Stationing and Much more: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
Blog: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO