Photo: Our horse walking with us confidently is basic to everything else we want to do.
This is one of my favorite exercises. It is fun to do as a warm-up or a cool-down or if horse time is short. If you are energetic you can eventually do it trotting.
This exercise encourages the horse to walk with us in position beside his neck or shoulder. It is a way of teaching ‘leading’ without the need to put pressure on the lead rope or use a lead rope at all. We can teach this exercise totally at liberty once the horse is clicker-savvy.
The more precise we can be with our body language, the easier it is for the horse to read our intent.
When we invite the horse to walk with us in the ’20 Steps Exercise’ we adjust our pace to the horse’s natural pace, so we can walk ‘in step’ with each other.
When we do this task at liberty, it’s easy for the horse to let us know if he is not in the mood to do things with us because he can peel off in his own direction.
If you have a safe, enclosed area, and protected contact is no longer needed, starting at liberty is ideal.
If the horse is exuberant and protected contact remains a good idea, you can still do this exercise with the horse at liberty by using a reverse round pen (person in the pen, horse moves around the outside of it) or a stretch of paddock fence. If your fencing is electric tape, make sure it is turned off. Lots more about reverse pens here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-64e
Doing a little at a time keeps this exercise fresh and lively in the repertoire.
If protected contact is a good idea, we can set up a reverse round pen with uprights and fencing tape. The horse moves around the outside of the ‘pen’ while the handler stays inside. We can make it a size that best suits the task we are working with.
- Handler refines clear ‘walk-on’ and ‘halt’ body language, energy level and voice signals.
- Horse willingly mirrors the handler’s energy changes and stays in position with his neck/shoulder area beside the handler.
- Handler is aware of using breathing and body energy level to indicate ‘energy up’ before moving off and ‘energy down’ before coming to a halt.
- Handler had decided on clear ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ voice signals.
- Handler has developed a consistent ‘walk on’ arm gesture.
- Handler uses clear preparatory body language before coming to a ‘halt’, e.g. slowing down, breathing out and dropping weight into the hips.
Optional: These prerequisites are nice but not essential. This task is a way of achieving or improving the three skills below.
- Horse walks smoothly beside the handler’s shoulder.
- Horse understands ‘Whoa’ voice, breathing and body language signals.
- Horse willingly responds to ‘Walk On’ voice, breathing, gesture and body language signals.
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS
- A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
- Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
- Horse is not hungry.
- A safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
- If protected contact is the best choice, use a reverse round pen or use a paddock fence, whichever suits your situation best.
- If there are no other options, use halter and lead, keeping a non-influencing drape in the lead rope. A light-weight lead is preferable.
December 2017 Obstacle Challenge: 20 Steps Exercise.
#30 HorseGym with Boots illustrates Boots helping Zoë learn the process with halter and lead.
- Standing beside the horse’s neck/shoulder, do the following pretty much all at the same time:
- Raise torso and look ahead.
- Breathe in deeply.
- Gesture forward with the hand furthest from the horse.
- Step off with your outside leg to walk one step using ‘draw energy’ to encourage the horse to move with you. The horse can more easily see movement of your outside leg.
- Halt after one step by breathing out and releasing your energy; click&treat when your feet are stopped. If the horse has moved out of position accept that for now – deliver the treat as close as possible to where you want him to be.
- We will click&treat for EACH halt.
- If the horse is a bit surprised and moves out of position, move YOURSELF back into position beside his neck/shoulder and start again, raising torso breathing in, gesturing and stepping off to walk on. Slow down, breathe out, and drop into your hips to stop. If you are consistent, the horse will begin to take note of your breathing and posture.
If you are on the other side of a barrier or fence from the horse, walk on and click&treat any indication that the horse is willing to come join you, then start again with 1 above.
- If you are not in protected contact, it’s ideal to start with the horse between the handler and a safe fence, so the option of swinging the hindquarters away is removed. I didn’t show this part in the video clip.
If protected contact is necessary and the horse is unsure about what you want to do if you try using a reverse round pen or paddock fence, we can use a lane. A lane can work well because it reduces the horse’s options. The horse walks in the lane and the handler walks on the outside of the lane.
Lanes can be set up with fencing tape and uprights next to an existing fence or made with bits and pieces like the one in the photo below.
We can usually make learning easier for the horse by organizing our training environment so that what we will click&treat is easy for the horse to discover. Here ware are using a lane to initiate walking side-by-side together.
- When one or two steps together is smooth, take three steps before the halt, click&treat.
- When three steps together are smooth, take four steps before the halt, click&treat, and so on.
- Each time you walk on, begin counting at ‘one’ again.
- Stay with four-five steps until moving off together is smooth and the horse stays in position beside you for the halt.
- Adjust how many steps you add before each halt and click&treat. It will depend on how fast the horse catches on to the pattern, the clarity and consistency of your signals, as well as how the horse is feeling that day.
- With some horses you can soon add steps in 2’s, 3’s or 5’s to reach the twenty steps.
- If the horse gets lost or seems to forget, go back to where he can be successful and work with a smaller number of steps until you gain true confidence.
- Gradually work up to 10, 15, then 20 steps before each halt, click&treat.
- Asking for 20 steps before the click&treat, carried out on both sides of the horse, is usually plenty at one time. But there is no reason we can’t do several sets of 20 steps if the horse stays keen.
Be sure to teach this walking on either side of the horse. One side may be easier. Start again from the beginning (along a fence or in a lane) for the second side. Some horses easily transfer new learning to the other side. Other horses find everything harder on one side.
Handlers usually must also focus to consciously produce clear, consistent body language with the less dominant side of their body. If the horse’s and handler’s stiffer sides coincide, everything will feel a bit harder at first.
When a task feels equally smooth on either side of the horse, a big milestone has been achieved.
- If you started with a lane, move from the lane to working alongside a fence.
- Play the game in an open area, away from a fence-line.
- Teach, then add drawing the horse into arcs and turns with the horse on the outside of the turn. See also: Smooth 90-Degree Turns: Handler on the Inside: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
- Teach, then add walking arcs and turns toward the horse (counter-turns). See also: Smooth Counter Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WK
- If you can run, play with it at trot. It’s best to begin this in protected contact in case the horse finds it exciting.