This flexion activity follows on from teaching the 90 and 180-degree turns when the handler is on the inside of the turn. Now we want to develop a smooth turn when the handler is on the outside of the turn; counter turns.
When we are on the inside of a turn, we teach ourselves to slow down but maintain energy to give the horse time to organize his longer body and four legs to negotiate the larger arc of the turn without losing forward motion.
When we are on the outside of the turn, we have to travel a bigger arc than the horse to get around the turn. If we ‘hurry’ our strides it can cause the horse to hurry around the corner too, leaving us behind. Or our ‘hurrying’ may block the horse and he halts or moves away.
Ideally, we want the horse to slow his turn so we can negotiate our wider arc without stress.
Boots and I did a lot of experimentation to get this flowing smoothly. I have new knees, so it is hard for me to hurry myself around the turn. When we started the task in the shoulder-to-shoulder position, I ended up beside her butt after the corner.
It was time to re-think and play with possibilities. Eventually it became obvious that adjusting our leading position, so the horse’s nose was beside my shoulder, made the whole thing much more manageable.
In my book, Walking with Horses, I did a detailed exploration of the eight basic body positions or orientations we use when communicating with our horse. Each of these of course has many nuances of angle. Here are the eight positions:
- Walking directly in front of the horse, with our back to the horse.
- The horse is beside us with his head at our shoulder.
- Shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse.
- Walking beside the ribs, just behind the withers, where we would be if riding.
- Walking or standing alongside the horse’s rump, as for tending hind feet or brushing tail.
- Walking behind the horse as in long-reining.
- In front of the horse, facing him.
- Facing the horse’s ribs, as in saddling or lunging.
Eventually Boots and I worked out that the first slice we needed for counter turns was to review our signal for staying in Leading Position 2 – where my shoulder stays beside the horse’s head.
Much of our recent work has been using Leading Position 3 – shoulder-to-shoulder, but it didn’t take long to review and update the gesture signal we used for walking together with my head beside her ears.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals while keeping his head next to the handler’s shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ at end of this post.)
- Handler understands the skill of shifting his/her body axis toward the horse as a signal for turning when the horse is on the inside of the turn. Practice this first without the horse. If you have a willing human helper, have them be the horse so they can give you feedback about the clarity of your body orientation signal just prior to navigating each corner. (See ‘Related Resource’.)
- Handler understands the skill of navigating the bigger arc of the turn without raising his/her energy so much that it influences the horse to either speed up or stall out. This can also be practiced with another person standing in for the horse.
MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT
- 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 (kept draped as much as possible, as we want to use orientation and body language for communication, not rope pressure).
- Safe stretches of fence along which you can walk in position beside the ears, keeping the horse between the fence and the handler to encourage straightness.
- Four markers. The markers can be anything safe. 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. Barrels, tall cones, tread-in posts if working on grass, or if these are not available, cardboard boxes can do the job.
- Four rails to set up in a square or rectangular shape with one of the large markers set into each corner.
- To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth counter turns when the horse is on the inside of the turn; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
- To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth counter turns when the horse is on the inside of the turn; handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.
- What you see Boots doing in the video clips is a result of many very short sessions over a long time. I always strive to improve the timing of my body axis turned toward the horse as a signal for the counter turn.
- If the horse has been resting or contained, it is important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for this sort of flexion. A relaxed road walk or moving over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises.
- It’s important to teach each slice on both the left and right sides of the horse.
- Quite often it is harder for the horse and/or the handler when they are using the non-dominant side of their body. With patience and extra practice on the harder side, 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.
- As with most things, progress without causing soreness is best made by doing a few counter turns every session; never turning it into drilling.
Stay with each slice until if feels easy for both handler and horse.
- Walk along a safe fence with the horse between the handler and the fence. Keep a nice drape in the lead rope. For this slice, we are not yet focusing on keeping a position beside the ears. Our focus is the horse walking calmly and willingly along the fence. Occasionally ask for a halt; click&treat.
- When 1 feels smooth, put yourself into position beside the horse’s ears while you are at the halt; click&treat (still halted). Then ask for ‘walk on’ and see how well you can maintain the shoulder/ear position (I’ll refer to this as just the ‘ear position’ from now on).
- If the horse tends to want to walk behind you, he may have been taught to lead mainly by staying behind, so treat this gently. Slow down with him to stay by his ear; click&treat when you achieve the position. Ask for only a couple of steps in ‘ear position’ before you halt; click&treat. We want to gradually have him realize that being in the ‘ear position’ is what elicits the click&treat.
- If the horse tends to forge ahead, it makes more sense to me to use a body extension to block the forward surge, rather than to ‘correct’ with pressure on the rope.
- A horse with the habit of cutting in front of the person leading is not in a good place in terms of getting along with people. If the horse has been taught to lead by following a hand-held target or walking calmly between stationary targets, this problem may never arise. You may want to go back and work on these skills before continuing with this exercise.
- If your horse has been traumatized by stick objects in the past, the prerequisite task now becomes to build his confidence with body extensions before proceeding any further. (See ‘Related Resource’ 6 at the end of this chapter.)
- Note: I am a fan of using targets for many things, but they can become a problem when the training does not progress to developing the relevant skills so a target is no longer needed.
- In the first video clip, I use my arm to indicate a halt. Eventually this arm signal will no longer mean halt; it will instead be our signal for communicating that we are about to do a counter turn.
- If the horse has the habit of surging ahead and is not traumatized by sticks, simply use a stick to put motion energy out in front of him to block his surge, followed by click&treat when he stops surging / stays beside you. This is an example of ‘combined reinforcement’. We use negative reinforcement to help the horse quickly understand the answer we need. The instant he finds the answer, we click&treat. There is no need to touch the horse with the body extension. We only use it to disturb the air in front of the horse by moving it up and down.
- If the horse is full of energy, for whatever reason, the way forward is to give him opportunity to run off the energy so he can regain focus on the quieter work you want to do. Every horse is different and every training situation is a new combination of environment and events.
- He will learn to keep the ‘ear position’ both while moving and when you ask for the halt. Eventually your raised arm will be enough and the body extension becomes redundant. If you feel your ‘halt’ could be improved, see Getting a Smooth Halt in Many Situations: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5R9
5. Work with ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ in the ‘ear position’ until it feels fluid in a variety of places and with the handler walking on either side of the horse.
6. When 5 is smooth, set up your rectangle of ground rails with a bulky object at each corner. Make the square/rectangle as large as you like. The one in the video clip is small for easier filming. As you approach a corner of the rectangle, turn your body axis toward the horse and raise your outside arm as you did previously for the halt.
The horse will feel your energy as you continue to step the arc around the corner and realize you are not stopping. Click&treat as soon as you come around the corner. If the horse does halt when you raise your arm, use some of your ‘walk on’ multi-signals to let him know that you are not stopping.
7. At first, click&treat after each corner. Gradually change to every second corner, and so on. Eventually vary the number of corners done before the click&treat. I don’t often ask for more than four corners in a row before the click&treat.
8. Change direction (and therefore side of the horse) often. This is a fairly concentrated flexion exercise and we don’t want to make the horse stiff.
9. When 7 is going well, remove the rails and use just the corner markers.
10. When 9 is going well, put markers at random throughout the training area Walk toward one and adjust your position so you can ask for a counter turn around it. I couldn’t fit this into the video clip, but it is an easy way to include a few counter turns in any training session.
- Set out a row of markers to weave for practicing your ‘drive’ and ‘draw’ body axis changes to really consolidate the idea for both of you. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 and 3 at the end of this post.)
- Set out markers around which you can do figure eight patterns, which combines the counter turn with the turn where you are on the inside. (See ‘Related Resource’ 4 and 5 at the end of this post.)
- When everything is going smoothly, we can increase the challenge by asking for 180-degree counter turns (U-turns). We achieve this by keeping our body axis turned toward the horse for longer.
These are fairly extreme flexion tasks, so be gentle and only ask for a couple at a time at first. A few done often will certainly increase suppleness but be careful if your horse has (or might have) joint, stifle or arthritis issues. Always make sure the horse is well warmed up.
4. Eventually, we can ask for 360-degree counter turns around a marker. At first, a barrel or cluster of markers may make it easier because the turn is wider. With practice, the horse will get adept with tighter turns, but please note the cautions in 3 above.
5. Freestyle Counter turns: When it feels right, begin to ask for 90-degree counter turns without markers. If these fall apart, you have feedback about which slice to return to in order to regain the horse’s confidence and willingness. Usually we have to ask for less or in other words, raise the rate of reinforcement.
6. Morph the freestyle counter turns into a quiet, relaxed circle with the handler on the outside, then gradually change that into a tidy turn on the haunches. It may look messy at first, but with practice can become lovely and fluent.
7. Back-Up Counter Turns: Ask the horse to back up with you for a few steps, then ask for a counter turn; click&treat. These may also feel messy at first, but once you and the horse get synchronized via many mini-practices, they will become more and more exact. When one of these feels good, ask for two in a row before the click&treat.
Then do three in a row and finally four in a row so you have backed a complete square. I count our steps back and usually do the turn after every third or fourth step. If you are consistent with the number of the steps back before you ask for the turn, you will find that horses are excellent at counting. Teach again on the horse’s other side, which will probably feel quite different due to handler and horse asymmetry.
- Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
- Video Clip: #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals: https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y
- Video Clip: #70 HorseGym with Boots ONLY HORSE WEAVES: https://youtu.be/AhwwC783Kh0
- Video Clip: Figure 8: https://youtu.be/QrberCzAO6c
- Video Clip: Figure 8 at Liberty: https://youtu.be/0HXfJTv15eY
- Video Clip: #121 HorseGym with Boots: STICK & ROPE CONFIDENCE: https://youtu.be/WIpsT4PPiXo