Photo: Standing with ‘no intent’ at halt is part of these five chained tasks.
This is the first of a series of movement routines we can do with only a fence and an open working area. The routines put together many of the individual skills and movements that my resources have looked at so far.
The key purpose of these routines is to encourage handlers to work on the precision of their signals in a relaxed manner. The routines require the handler to pay close attention to refining his/her signals to improve timing, clarity and softness. A horse can only be as precise as we are precise. A horse can only be as soft as we are soft.
Each routine has five elements that are chained together into a pattern of movement. Horses are pattern learners and, like all of us, like to know what will happen before it happens. We tend to forget that horses living natural lives in the wild are totally in control of all their actions.
We can increase the positive feeling of ‘certainty’ by teaching these routines in a light-hearted but methodical way. Boots usually picks up a new pattern after three-six repeats over three days. Some horses will be quicker, and some will take longer.
Other reasons for playing with these routines:
- They are a way to keep skills we have already taught current in our repertoire.
- They give a way of interacting with our horse when time is short, we don’t have time to set up objects and obstacles, we don’t have access to objects and obstacles, or we are past the point of lugging around heavy rails and other objects.
- They include movement tasks we can do between working on stationary tasks, so giving the horse a good mix of activities.
- They make excellent cool-down routines after energetic riding or groundwork.
I’ve called them ‘routines’ because gymnasts first learn the individual elements of a performance and then form the elements into a ‘routine’. First each element is mastered emotionally, intellectually and physically. Then the routine is put into brain memory. Then it is practiced until it is also in muscle memory.
All this is a little bit tricky because doing a routine with a horse involves two brains and two sets of muscles.
After jotting down a plan for a possible routine, I try it out with Boots multiple times. The feedback I get from Boots and myself always shows that the initial plan needs a lot of changes. Most of the changes concern my body position plus when and how I give the signal for each part of the action.
Smooth execution of a series of five individual tasks chained together:
- ‘Walk on’ and ‘halt’ repeated three times;
- Change of direction and side of horse (so horse remains nearest the fence);
- ‘Stay’ while handler backs away from the horse to the end of rope (keeping a drape in the rope);
- Horse Waits for ___ seconds;
- Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)
- Handler has developed a clear ‘No Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (See Related Resources 2 at the end of this post.)
- Change of direction plus changing side of horse the handler is on. (See Related Resources 3 at the end of this post.
- Horse and handler agree on clear ‘stay’ signals. (See Related Resources 4 at the end of this post.)
- Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. (See Related Resources 5 at the end of this post.)
- Handler and horse agree on a clear ‘recall’ signal. (See Related Resources 6 at the end of this post.)
ENVIRONMENT AND 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 10′ (3 m) or longer lead.
- A safe fence line to work alongside. It can be straight, curved or the inside or outside of a round pen fence.
- Since I don’t find memorizing a sequence of tasks easy, I use a ruler as a fence and practice the movements with my small toy hippopotamus. Then I walk the sequence outside by myself, practicing the signals I will use, accompanied by an invisible unicorn.
- While working out the plan with Boots’ help, I’ve usually managed to confuse her to some extent, so once the plan feels right, I wait a few days before starting to do the final version with her. Meanwhile we have been practicing the tasks separately.
- For the first task, walk as few or many steps as you like. I walked only a few steps in the video to make it easier to film. Vary how long you stand at halt before asking for the next walk transition. Work to get the ‘walk on’ transition with raising your chest, breathing in deeply plus your voice signal. Work on refining your body language and voice signal for each halt.
- How often you click&treat depends on where you are with each skill. I always begin with click&treat for each portion of each task. As the horse gets the hang of what we are doing, I move the click point along so the horse does more for each click&treat. I like to eventually be able to do the whole chain with one click point at the end.
- As with everything, we keep the sessions short in among other things we are doing. I often do it just once, sometimes twice and rarely three times in a row.
- There is no need to rush through the chain of tasks. Walk slowly. Give the horse time put the pattern into his mind and from there into his muscle memory.
- Stay’ means that the horse understands that you can walk away while he stays put. ‘Wait’ means that the horse is able to keep standing still for a specific length of time until you click&treat or give another signal. They may appear to be the same at first glance, but teaching/learning ‘Wait’ with duration is a skill set that goes beyond the idea of ‘stay’ for a short period.
- For the ‘wait’ task, gradually work up to ten seconds, but be sure to stay well within the time the horse is comfortable with. Better to recall sooner rather than after the horse moves. If he moves, go back to working on the ‘wait’ task by itself for several days. In the video clip, you will note that on the day we filmed at liberty, Boots found it hard to relax into the ‘wait’. There was a lot of commotion including a huge noisy hedge clipping machine working close by.
- The more time we spend playing with exercises like this, which look relatively simple on the surface, the more positive spin-offs there will be to the other things we do with the horse.
- Memorize the sequence of tasks.
- Play with each of the skills separately until you and the horse feel fluent. This might take one session or a long time if some of the tasks are new to you.
- Walking with the horse nearest the fence, chain the first two tasks together (3 x walk & halt plus change of direction and sides).
- When 3 is smooth, chain the last three mini-tasks together (stay plus wait plus recall).
- When both 3 and 4 are going well, chain it all together.
- Always adjust your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) to what the horse is able to offer on the day. If he seems unsure, click&treat more of the slices. If he is showing keenness and understanding about what comes next, use your voice to praise and move the click&treat further along the chain.
We can’t expect our horse to be the same every day, just as we are not the same every day. Good training adjusts what we do to what the horse is telling us. Some days it will feel very smooth. Other days parts will feel sticky. This is normal ebb and flow.
The day will come when you do it all with one click and treat at the end, but it may not happen again the day after that. Horses read our tension or relaxation in a nanosecond. Often what is happening with the horse relates to ourselves, our emotional state, and how the horse perceives us that day.
Other times, the horse may be tired or anxious due to rough weather or other changes in his external and/or internal environment.
- If you usually start walking on the horse’s left side, start instead walking on his right side. Be aware of keeping your signals equally clear on the side you use less often.
- Practice alongside as many different fences as you can.
- Once the horse shows that he knows the pattern, play with it at liberty along fences using the same signals you have used all along.
- Once the routine is smooth along the fence, play with it out in the open, first with the lead rope and then at liberty. Alternate on which side of the horse you begin the routine.
- Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
- ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
- Changing Sides in Motion: https://youtu.be/3oqPs4LM5AM
- Park and Wait (Stay): https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
- Wait Duration: https://youtu.be/jVn3WBuqpno
- Recall Clip 1: https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24 Recall Clip 2: https://youtu.be/5BQCB2Fe5RE