I learned this exercise from Alex Kurland. It seems simple but is enormously useful in maintaining both physical and mental suppleness for the horse and handler.
It also serves to practice our ‘walk on’ signals and allows us to consolidate our ‘halt’ signals each time we approach the mat, with special emphasis on our voice ‘whoa’ signal.
It is a super exercise to check the flexibility of our horse and we may also gain insight into the flexibility of our own body as we improve the timing of shifting our body axis on the approach to each marker. We are usually more flexible bending either right or left, just like horses are.
If we consistently do short bursts of this exercise over many sessions, we’ll notice that it gets easier and easier to do tighter, elegant 180-degree turns (unless horse or handler are restricted due to past injury or arthritis).
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse willingly moves to target his front feet on a mat. (There is a relevant link under ‘Addition Resources’ at the end of this post.)
- Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder. (There is a relevant link under ‘Addition Resources’ at the end of this post.)
- Handler understands the skill of maintaining ‘forward energy’ at the same time as slowing down to give the horse time to scribe the bigger arc of the turn. This can be improved by practice with another person standing in for the horse. We have to remember that the horse has four legs to organize and a long body that more resembles an ocean-liner than a ballerina.
- Handler is aware of using the orientation of his/her body axis as a key body language signal for the horse.
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 (lead kept loose as much as possible. We want to use orientation and body language for communication, not touch signals via the rope, but we may use these when we first teach teach this pattern).
- 6 or 8 markers set out in a relatively large circle. The markers can be anything safe: cones, stones, pieces of firewood, tread-in posts if working on grass, jump stands, barrels, 5-liter containers of water, cardboard boxes, rags. In the beginning, it’s easiest if the markers are relatively large, so the horse sees the sense in walking around them rather than across or through them.
- Different-colored markers make it easier to keep track of where we are heading and where we have been. If they are the same size and shape, they give continuity to the development of the horse’s fluidity since it needs the same body adjustment around each marker. Therefore, identical markers are best to first teach this exercise.
- Different-sized markers encourage the horse to vary his body adjustment to navigate each one, so they are a good generalization.
- A familiar mat placed in the center of the circle.
- To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 180-degree turns (U-turns) with the horse on the outside of the turn; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
- To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth U-turns – horse on the outside of the turn, handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.
- Handler becomes super conscious of the position and timing of his/her body axis orientation to signal the turn coming up.
- What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result many very short sessions over a long time. I’m always striving to improve the timing of my body axis turned away from the horse as a signal for the turn.
- If the horse has been resting or contained, it’s important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for this sort of flexion. A companionable walk or moving over rails and weaving obstacles are good warm-up exercises.
- Walk on the left side of the horse to target the mat in the middle of the circle; click&treat.
- Focus on one of the markers ahead of you of the circle and ‘walk on’ toward it. Ensure that you walk off together by using all your ‘walk on’ multi-signals. We don’t want the horse surprised and left behind.
- Walk around the marker and back to the mat; click&treat.
- Did you manage to keep up your energy while walking the inner curve around the marker? If we let our energy drop, the horse can fade out too. In the learning phase, it can help to raise our knees as in ‘marching on the spot’ to keep our energy up, as demonstrated in the video clip.
- Not only does the horse have further to travel, he must organize two pairs of legs and a non-bendy torso to navigate the corner, so we have to give him time.
- At first the U-turns might be wide and/or sloppy. Don’t worry, you will both gradually improve if you stick with the task over many short sessions.
- The horse will soon work out that each time you go around a marker, you head straight back to the mat where he will earn another click&treat. This realization motivates him to begin making his U-turns more efficient and elegant.
- As you begin the change of direction at each marker, turn the axis of your body away from the horse. This will become a body language signal you can eventually use later in many different situations and to communicate at liberty.
- Add a voice signal at some point. I use “Round”. Choose a word that is short, clear, and not used in other contexts.
- As you notice improvement in his flexion during the turns, you can begin to selectively click&treat nice tight ones as he comes out of the turn, then carry on for another click&treat at the mat.
- After each return to the mat (click&treat), choose a different marker and repeat.
- After navigating all the markers walking on the left side of the horse, repeat walking on his right side. Once around each marker on each side of the horse is usually enough of this exercise during one session.
- Often it is harder for the horse and/or the handler when they are using the non-dominant sides of their bodies. With patience and extra practice on the harder side(s), it will start to feel more equal.
- Signals given with the handler’s non-dominant side are often not as fluid or well timed as signals given on the dominant side. Once we become aware of this, we can focus on it as necessary.
- The first generalization is to repeat walking on the horse’s right side.
- Begin to focus on using body axis orientation in other contexts such as weaving obstacles
- The clip below demonstrates how Boots and I use my body axis orientation to work on flexion during our walks down the road.
Blog: Using Mats: Parking and Stationing and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT