Author Archives: herthajames

About herthajames

* BSc Zoology, University of Calgary, Canada * Lifelong interest in animal behavior * 5 years working as a zookeeper and movie set animal handler * Diploma of Secondary School Teaching, Christchurch, New Zealand * 23 years teaching high school Biology and Science * Diploma of Information and Library Science, Wellington, NZ * Writer specializing in creating teaching and learning resources * Lifelong student of horsemanship in its many guises * Began study of 'natural horsemanship' in early 1990's * Author of NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP STUDY GUIDE * Took up Equine Clicker Training in 2008 * Author of Obstacle Challenges for Equine Clicker Trainers on Facebook. * Author of nine books about training horses with positive reinforcement available as e-books or paperbacks from Amazon.

HANGING OUT with a HORSE

Sharing Time and Space — Communicating Zero Intent

‘Zero Intent’ is being in our horse’s presence without asking him to do anything. As long as he remains polite and we feel safe, we just want to hang out with the horse in the same way that horses hang out with each other.

Building a Connection Involves Relaxing Together

Learning something new and meaningful always requires a lot of mental, physical and emotional energy, especially when first getting started. Sharing of Time and Space becomes something we can do with our horse forever, whenever we can fit in a few minutes of quiet time.

To help with the nuts and bolts of starting this exercise, I’ve created three checklists.

If this is new to you, be sure to go through the detail of all three checklists before you begin.

This clip, #75 HorseGym with Boots, gives an overview of the process.  I’ve edited the footage to show key points, leaving out the actual relaxed ‘chilling out together’ time or it would be like watching paint drying.

There are three older but quite interesting clips in the “Additional Resources” at the end of this post.

 

Checklist 1:  INTELLECTUAL – Getting your head ready to do this

It’s up to you to decide how much close contact you are comfortable with. As long as you don’t feel intimidated, it’s fine to let a polite horse get up close and personal. Be aware if nudging might turn into nipping, as it does with this horse.

  1. The purpose of Quiet Sharing of Time and Space is to get the person accepted as part of the horse’s in-group. Horses perceive people either as something to be wary of, or as part of their social group.
  2. Wary horses will remain poised on the edge of fear and flight. They feel unsafe around people and they will be unsafe around people.
  3. Horses that see you as part of their in-group will relate to you as they relate to other horses as long as you consistently use body language they understand and remain within the boundaries of their understanding.
  4. The purpose of all training or educating of domestic horses is obviously to enlarge their boundaries of understanding in order to make them more comfortable in their strange life captive to humans.
  5. Quiet Sharing of Time and Space allows you to become more like a horse. It puts you in the zone where time by the clock doesn’t exist, where life follows the natural rhythms of day and night, of seasons, of looking for food, of being constantly aware of danger, of interacting with group members. This can be a big stretch for some people. Other people find it hugely relaxing and life-enhancing.

Bridget is enjoying the winter sun while Boots grazes. How long we spend sitting with our horse depends on what we can fit into our lifestyle. Frequent short dates with our horse are more effective than longer dates.

  1. Quiet Sharing of Time and Space allows time for the horse to accept our relaxed presence in his space.  This can be a huge stretch for some horses who have only had demanding forced interactions with people. Other horses may be all over a person like a rash and need to be shown how to stand back politely.
  2. Be mentally prepared to move your chair if the horse gets too overbearing. There is a fine line between friendly exploration with nose and lips and seeing if you can be pushed around. Moving your chair tells your overbearing horse that you don’t want to be near him right now. It is what horses do. They just move away to give the message that they don’t want to interact right now. In this situation moving away is a neutral action. If he follows you and continues to be overbearing, you’ll use your body language and swishies to ask him to back out of your space as described shortly in items 3 – 11 of Checklist 2).
  3. When you move your chair, position it side-on to the horse, not facing him. We don’t want to stare at the horse or send energy toward him from our front. Horses are extremely sensitive to orientation.
  4. Sit outside the enclosure fence if you feel unsafe inside it.
  5. Realize you will need to experiment with understanding when your horse is investigating you, when he is pushing on you, when you should move your chair or ask him to back off.
  6. It’s by experimenting that you start to get the feeling for the whole exercise. No one can give you a recipe. Every horse-human relationship is different. You’ll begin to feel what is probably the best thing to do next.
  7. Understand the powerful effect of the swishies to expand your bubble and make the horse back off or move away any time you feel intimidated.
  8. Pushing the horse away too strongly at first is better than not being strong enough. If you are not strong enough, you are teaching the horse that he doesn’t have to pay attention. Your signals turn into nagging. If you are too strong at first, you can always get lighter next time.
  9. If the horse is being overbearing, define your personal space strongly enough so he doesn’t want to come back right away. In other words, avoid nagging him back repeatedly. Be sure in your mind show him clearly that you don’t want him around for a while. Make being near you a bit of a privilege. You could lay a rail at a distance you find comfortable and ask him to stay behind it. If you and the horse are clicker-savvy, you can reward the standing away by going to the horse to deliver a click&treat.
  10. Use assertive (not aggressive) body language. Horses higher in the group’s social order use their energy to enlarge their personal space as necessary to re-direct the behavior of others. Self-assertion is different from striking out at the horse in fear or anger. Horses understand the difference clearly as long as the handler is consistent.
  11. It may seem counter-intuitive to ask the horse to stand back in this way, but it is signal language used between horses and adds to creating mutual understanding with a horse who readily moves into a person’s space without invitation. The last section of this post looks at horses who are wary or afraid of approaching people.

Checklist Two:  PHYSICAL – Keeping you both safe and comfortable

Bridget is using her swishies to ask Boots to step back after she got a bit overbearing and intimidating. Note the energy is directed at the horse’s feet.

  1. You need a safe, secure place to hang out together, e.g. a roomy corral or a small paddock. It may be possible to separate a corner of an arena or a big paddock or a nice shady area under a tree by using electric fence tape and standards (not electrified).
  2. Allocate ‘date time’ as frequently as possible. Shorter frequent dates are better than long infrequent dates.
  3. Sort out two swishies — supple willow twigs, bamboo canes or dressage whips about 130 cm long. These let you to enlarge your personal bubble for your own safety. They allow you to disturb the air at the edge of the horse’s bubble if you want to move him away. We usually don’t need to touch the horse with the swishies.
  4. Sadly, statistics indicate that many people get hurt interacting with horses. Despite the best intent in the world, unexpected situations arise. The sheer size, power and split-second reaction rate of horses cause injury or death, with no direct fault to either horse or human. While many more horses are hurt by people than horses hurt people, it’s important to have the risk radar on all the time people and horses are in proximity.
  5. It is not surprising that horses can make us nervous. If we feel even the slightest nervous tension close to our horse, the horse will instantly be aware of our tension and read it as a reason to be wary and aware, just as they read the body language and energy field of another horse.
  6. By knowing that we can, at any time, move the horse out of our personal space, we are able to relax into the moment. If we can relax, the horse has a chance to relax.
  7. Get another person to use the swishies on your bubble. Ask them to start swishing at ground level right and left (not up and down), then move up (still swishing right to left) until they are swishing above your head. Note your physical and emotional reactions.
  8. Use the swishies on other people and get both their physical, emotional and verbal responses.
  9. Horses are so sensitive to the moving air created by this swishing motion that we seldom need to do more than direct it toward their feet and legs.
  10. Always bring up your body into an assertive posture before you activate the swishies. The horse will soon learn to recognize the significance of your posture.
  11. Use as much assertive body and swishy energy as you need to move a pushy horse, but, once he understands, don’t use more than you need to make your point that he must move out of your personal space.
  12. Have carrot strips (or treats of your choice) to reward polite behavior. For a timid horse, keep the treats under your chair to act as a draw card for him to come and see you. For a pushy horse, keep them outside the enclosure in screw top plastic containers, but you can also have them under your chair if you want the horse to push on you so you can teach him to be polite by rewarding him when he stands back and relaxes. If you use clicker training all the time, your normal treat pouch may be fine.
  13. Comfortable chair.
  14. Something to read or write with or just relax into the moment.
  15. Grazing or hay for the horse is optional at this point. Ideally you want your horse feeling well fed before your date. To learn the procedure, it’s easier to be in a grass-less or well-grazed area.
  16. With little or nothing to eat in your ‘dating’ enclosure, he will pay more attention to you, which is what you want at the beginning. It makes it easier to read his intentions and relate to him. Being in a non-grazing area allows you to either entice him with carrots (shy horse) or teach him to stand back politely to receive a treat (pushy horse).
  17. For some sessions, you could put out several piles of hay. If you don’t want hay on an arena surface you could use big tubs, carpets, tarps, sheets or blankets.
  18. Eventually, once the horse is confident and polite, it’s nice to do Sharing of Time and Space in the horse’s usual grazing environment.

Checklist Three:  EMOTIONAL – Getting your heart ready to do this

Boots is spending time with Bridget without needing to push on her. They are able to relax in each other’s company and enjoy the sunny afternoon.

  1. Let go of expectations, goals, presumptions, worry and anxiety.
  2. Just start and know it will improve each time you get out there.
  3. Nothing will be perfect; learning is a messy business.
  4. No one cares except you and your horse (and other people studying this).
  5. Others may laugh at you and think you are peculiar. That’s their privilege.
  6. Others may be really interested. It’s up to you how much (or little) you want to tell them.
  7. Observe what your horse does without staring directly at him.
  8. Observe (without making value judgements) what your horse is actually doing.
  9. For a session or two, you could record exactly what your horse is doing at regular time intervals (e.g., every two minutes or every five minutes). If this interests you, it is a great study, especially if you can also do it when the horse is in a paddock interacting with other horses. You may begin to see interesting patterns.
  10. Appreciate that everything the horse does is FEEDBACK. Feedback can be positive, negative or neutral and all of it has the same value.
  11.  For this exercise of becoming more horse-like, you need to let go of all your horsemanship aims, goals, desires and dreams. I doubt that horses dream positively of people on their backs, driving them forward over, through and into things for no reason the horse can see (other than to get it over with).
  12. You can retrieve your goals when you need them and play with making your goals your horse’s goals. But first you need to understand his goals by observing and listening to his body language.

Bridget is moving her chair because Boots became a bit too overbearing. Moving our chair resembles another horse walking away to gain more personal space. It is an alternative to asking the horse to step back using the swishies.

  1. Be prepared to move your chair if the horse gets overbearing.
  2. When you sit down, put your chair side-on to the horse. Try to not stare directly at him.
  3. Be ready to defend your bubble with your assertive (not aggressive striking out) body language and your swishies as necessary to stay safe. Being with a horse requires that our risk management radar is always on.
  4. Be ready to notice when your pushy horse is standing back politely. Casually stand up, get a treat from where you stashed them and walk over to him to give it to him, then go sit down again. He might follow you right back to your chair and give you another opportunity to ask him to stand back politely.
  5. At first expect only a few seconds of politeness, then gradually ask him to wait longer and longer before you fetch the treat (or click&treat if you are a clicker trainer). Watch for signs that he is relaxing while standing away from you (sighing, licking, chewing, head shaking, head lowering, cocked hind leg, relaxed tail, relaxed ears, soft eyes).

The Shy, Anxious, Flighty, Timid or Suspicious Horse

Sharing time and space while the horse eats hay. This distance may be too close for some horses, so we need to experiment to find the distance at which the horse can eat without anxiety. Gradually, over time, we reduce the distance. At first, we may need to sit on the far side of the fence.

  1. If you feed hay, sit (on a raised surface is safer than sitting on the ground) in the horse’s vicinity – far enough away so he is able to eat his hay without anxiety. Alternatively, if the horse is grazing, take a chair to sit at a distance he finds acceptable.
  2. Once the horse can relax while you share his space, put out a familiar feed dish at a distance that the horse seems to feel comfortable with.
  3. When you notice him glancing at you, walk to his dish and drop in a bit of something he especially likes to eat. Then return to your chair and wait for him to make the discovery in the dish. Watch him without staring at him. If you run out of time, leave the dish and food there for him to eventually find, unless, or course, another horse will gobble it up first.
  4. As the horse becomes more confident over multiple sessions, put the feed dish closer and closer to your chair. Look for signs of relaxation (sighing, licking, chewing, head shaking, head lowering, cocked hind leg, relaxed tail, relaxed ears, soft eyes) that let you know he is feeling okay with the situation.
  5. Success for both of you is when he will come and accept food out of the dish in your lap and eventually out of your hand. It could happen in a day or two or it could take a long series of short, frequent sessions.
  6. If the horse acts fearfully when his nose contacts a hand, you will need to put in extra thin slices such as hands resting on the side of the bucket, one hand in the bucket under the feed, hand full of feed raised up a bit inside the bucket, until eventually the horse becomes confident about eating from your hand.
  7. Going through the slices too fast is more of a problem than going a bit too slow. Stay with each increase in confident behavior for at least three, maybe up to ten repeated mini-sessions before asking for more.

Additional Resources:

Bridget and Smoky Hang Out. https://youtu.be/-Y8OVYInnqY

Reading with Boots. https://youtu.be/dGMz5JxCjnE

Bob and Lorraine Sharing Time & Space. https://youtu.be/XSdI0DfjZLg

 

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WALK and HOCK GYM with OBSTACLES

INTRODUCTION:

A horse training area without obstacles is like a playroom without toys. When we have a collection of obstacles, each one allows us to have a conversation with our horse.

It’s much easier if our horse lives with us and we can set up and change obstacles as convenient, as opposed to having to book time to use a training area.

However, we can amass a collection that is relatively easy to set out, pick up, transport and store. Rags make excellent markers and can be set out to weave or act as a rail or delineate a lane. Smaller cones are easy to set out, collect and store.

Tarps can be folded to different sizes or rolled up to stand in for a rail. If you have use of an indoor arena or it is not a windy day, a collection of cardboard boxes that can be nested for easy storage are useful to act as destinations, create novel gaps, outline lanes or act as rails.

Ropes can take the place of rails to create lanes. Hoops are light and easy to move and store. I prefer hoops made of hose and joined with doweling (or a twig the correct size).

If your horse is boarded, there may be available gear that is not too heavy to move to create circuit. If you have a grazed area for training, tread-in posts have many uses and can be paired with tape to create reverse round pens or high-sided lanes. Some people may have trees, banks, ditches, bridges, stumps, slopes and/or natural water to incorporate into circuits.

Circuit activities like this are great as warm-up or cool-down exercises, or just to give horses a stretch of continuous movement and a bit of mental stimulation.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder, on both sides of the horse. (See LINKED RESOURCE 1. at the end of the 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.
  • Halter and lead (kept loose as much as possible, as we want to use body language for communication, not rope pressure).
  • A circuit of objects and obstacles. Ideally some to step over for hock flexion, lanes to walk through, gaps to negotiate, unusual surfaces to walk across, slopes if possible, hoops to step into, markers to weave, pedestals to put one or two front feet on, and so on. If your horse likes to pick things up, add that as an element of your circuit.

AIMS:

  1. To have the horse and handler and horse fluidly navigate a circuit of objects and obstacles at the walk with the handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
  2. To have the horse and handler and horse fluidly navigate a circuit of objects and obstacles at the walk with the handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.

VIDEO CLIP:

NOTES:

  • The horse in the video clip is an old hand at negotiating circuits and the circuit in the clip is a basic one.
  • This activity refines ‘walking together shoulder-to-shoulder’ with a draped lead rope or no lead rope. A key is to first establish solid, mutually understood, ‘walk on’ signals that ensure you step off together. It is a common habit for the handler to begin walking without ensuring that the horse is stepping off at the same time. (See LINKED RESOURCE 1. at the end of the post.)

SLICES:

  1. Make a list of obstacles available and draw a diagram of where you might put them in your training area.
  2. Experiment gently to find your horse’s response to each obstacle: Either one a day or a couple each session, whatever suits your time and facility.
  3. For horses new to this sort of activity, introduce one obstacle at a time and add a new one when he his totally confident with the previous ones.
  4. If the horse is an old hand at this sort of activity, set up your designed circuit. Move on to generalizations once walking around the basic circuit is fluid on both sides of the horse.
  5. Sometimes I use three, four or five obstacles and do various things with each one, or sometimes I set up a longer circuit like the one in the clip which has twelve obstacles.
  6. If new to the activity, stay with each new obstacle until the horse is ho-hum with it. For example, if it takes one session for the horse to be comfortable with a new object or obstacle, and you add a new one each session, you can have a circuit of twelve obstacles after twelve sessions. Or you can do two different things with six obstacles.
  7. But: some obstacles will be harder and take longer than one session to establish comfort and willingness. As long as we always start where the horse shows confidence, and we proceed in small slices when he shows he is ready to do more, things usually progress well.
  8. Success breeds success. Over-facing and going too fast destroy confidence and the willingness to try again. If you notice you’ve done this, simply relax and go back however far you need to go to where the horse is confident and slowly work forward again.
  9. When it all flows smoothly while you are on the horse’s left side, start again on his right side.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Add in the occasional halt, either between obstacles, in a lane, across a rail, on a pedestal, in front of a rail, just after stepping across a rail, between uprights, with front or back feet in a hoop. Decide beforehand how long your halts will be. Start with one second and work up gradually to five or ten seconds. Once you have duration, ask the horse to ‘wait’ while you move away and/or around him. (See LINKED RESOURCE 4. at the end of the post.)
  2. Add in the occasional back-up between uprights, through a lane, before reaching the next obstacle, backing front feet over a rail, backing all four feet over a rail. (See the LINKED RESOURCES 5. and 6. at the end of this post for training plans relating to backing up.)
  3. Ask for sidestepping away from you or toward you along a rail. (See LINKED RESOURCE 1. at the end of the post.)
  4. Walk a small circle to do the same obstacle twice.
  5. Change your leading position so you are in front of the horse and he walks behind you. See the LINKED RESOURCES 8. at the end of this post
  6. Add the occasional trot between or over selected obstacles.
  7. Long-rein the circuit. (See my Long-Reining book on the ‘Books’ page.)
  8. If you lunge, ask for continuous trot through a series of obstacles set up so your rope doesn’t catch on them. I like to trot an obstacle, then have horse trot a circle around me while I move into position for trotting over or through the next obstacle. This is an exercise that allows continuous sustained movement without being dead boring.

LINKED RESOURCES:

  1. Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Blog: Sidestepping: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RL
  3. Blog: Step Aerobics: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sf
  4. Video Clip: Park & Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  5. Video Clip: Backing Up Clip 1: https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y
  6. Video Clip: Backing Up Clip 2: https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA
  7. Video Clips: This is the first clip in a playlist series about using hoops. https://youtu.be/AfDIAQSOmE0
  8. Video Clip: first of two clips to teach walking in front of the horse. https://youtu.be/n8uZOtO5hEc

 

 

 

Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions

INTRODUCTION:

‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ are the foundation of pretty much everything we want a horse to do with us. Even teaching ‘parking’ starts with a solid, confident ‘halt’.

Teaching the basic ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ is most easily done in position beside the horse’s neck or shoulder. I like to teach these with a ‘multi-signal’ or ‘signal bundle’. In the science literature multi-signals are referred to as “a compound stimulus”.

Using the multi-signals consistently from the beginning means that once the horse knows them well, I can use any one of them, or any combination of them, depending on what best suits the situation. It makes it easier for the horse to recognize the signals when I am walking beside his ribs or behind him (outside his blind spot).

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker-savvy.
  2. Horse readily targets stationary objects with his nose and/or feet. (See ADDITIONAL RESOURCE 5. at the end of this post.)
  3. Horse is comfortable wearing a halter and lead rope.
  4. It’s highly recommended to practice the rope handling mechanical skills to signal ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ first with a person standing in for the horse. Simulations are a wonderful way to get our body language and rope handling skills organized and smooth before we inflict ourselves on the horse.

MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT:

  • Horse in a familiar area where he is comfortable.
  • Other horse buddies in view, but not able to interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry and in a relaxed frame of mind.
  • Halter and lead. A relatively short lead rope is easier to manage.
  • Destination objects. These can be a series of stationary nose targets, mats as foot targets. Alternatively, we can use a Frisbee or old cap thrown out ahead for the horse to target, then thrown forward again.

AIM:

Elegant ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions with the horse and handler staying shoulder-to-shoulder, with the handler on either side of the horse.

VIDEO CLIPS:

‘Walk on’ signals are illustrated in HorseGym with Boots clip #129.

‘Halt’ signals are illustrated in HorseGym with Boots clip #131.

NOTES:

  1. What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result many short sessions over a long time.
  2. We can aid the horse’s understanding if we begin teaching this along a safe fence to remove the horse’s option of swinging the hindquarters away from the handler.
  3. We want to strive for consistently staying in the area alongside the horse’s neck and shoulder.

Photo to illustrate Slice 3 below. A ‘halt’ signal without pulling on the halter: hold the rope straight up into the air and jiggle it lightly. We can use this as part of our ‘halt’ multi-signal if necessary. We can also use it during the process of teaching backing up with a hand gesture signal staying shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse. Teach it as a ‘halt’ signal by using it as the horse approaches a fence or other dead-end where it makes total sense for him to halt .

SLICES:

  1. Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse with no pressure on the halter. If you need to send a ‘halt’ signal with the rope, hold the rope straight upwards and jiggle it. The instant the horse responds, stop jiggling, breathe out and lower your hand.
  2. Halt: Ask the horse to walk beside you toward a familiar mat. As you approach the mat, use the following multi-signals almost simultaneously:
  • Visibly drop your weight down into your hips (like we want the horse to do).
  • Breathe out audibly.
  • Say ‘whoa’ or whatever halt voice signal you decided.
  1. Only if necessary, raise the inside hand holding the rope straight up into the air and jiggle the rope. If the horse is initially taught the ‘rope jiggle’ halt signal using a fence or a blocked-off lane, there will be little need to jiggle the rope. As the horse halts on the mat, immediately relax your body language; breathe out; click&treat.
  2. At first, pause briefly before walking on to the next mat; click&treat. Gradually, over many sessions, teach the horse to wait confidently for up to 10 seconds.
  3. Walk On: Ensure you are holding the rope in the hand nearest the horse with no pressure on the halter. To send a ‘walk on’ signal along the rope, reach across with your outside hand and run it gently up the rope toward the halter. As soon as the horse moves, take away your outside hand.
  4. We use our ‘walk on’ multi-signals almost simultaneously:
  • Look up toward the next destination.
  • Breathe in audibly and raise your body energy. Horses are very conscious about our breathing, so this can become an important signal if we use it consistently.
  • Run your outside hand gently up the rope toward halter to a point to which the horse responds by shifting his weight to step forward. This will eventually become a simple arm gesture without needing to touch the rope.
  • Step off with your outside leg (easier for horse to see).
  • Say ‘walk-on’ (or whatever voice signal you’ve decided). A voice signal is useful later when working at liberty, exercising on a long line, or guiding from behind, as in long-reining.

Our aim is to initiate the first intention of movement, then move in synchronization with the horse. It’s important not to move off without the horse, so losing our position beside the horse’s neck or shoulder.

People often tend to start walking without first inviting the horse to move in sync with them. The whole point of this exercise is to move forward together companionably, staying shoulder-to-shoulder.

  1. Each time you halt, you have another opportunity to practice the ‘walk on’ multi-signals. Each time you ‘walk on’, you have another opportunity to practice your ‘halt’ multi-signals.
  2. Every time you come to a destination marker, drop your hips and your energy, breathe out, say your voice signal and relax; click&treat. Pause, then politely use your ‘walk on’ multi-signal to ask the horse to walk forward with you to the next destination marker.
  3. It won’t take the horse long to realize that each destination marker is a ‘click point’. He will soon begin to look forward to reaching each destination. He will also begin to organize his body to halt efficiently. Horses love to know what will happen before it happens. Remember, they have four legs and a long body to organize, so begin your ‘halt’ signals well before you reach the destination.
  4. Many short sessions will show improvement in suppleness and body management more quickly than occasional long sessions.
  5. Be sure to teach this in both directions and on each side of the horse. Spending a little time on this, over many sessions, will build a lovely habit of walking with you on a loose rope.

In a way, although you have the horse on a rope, you are allowing him to self-shape the most efficient way to set himself up to halt at the next marker ready for his click/treat. Because the horse has worked out his way of halting for himself, he has more ‘ownership’ of the task.

Over time, walking together companionably will become a strongly established habit. As mentioned in Generalization 2. below, we can gradually introduce the ‘whoa’ as our click point, which means we can phase out using destination targets. The horse will comfortably walk with us until we signal for a ‘halt’. Of course, we must reliably reinforce each halt request with a click&treat.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Gradually increase distances between destinations.
  2. Gradually introduce ‘whoa’ as the click&treat indicator to replace nose or foot targets. Start by asking for ‘whoa’ between destinations. (See ADDITIONAL RESOURCE 2. below.)
  3. Add objects and obstacles to your training spaces to walk through, across, over, weave among. (See ADDITIONAL RESOURCES 3. & 4. below.)
  4. Walk together at liberty. (See ADDITIONAL RESOURCE 1. below.)
  5. Walk together in different venues including public places with slopes, water, trees.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

  1. Clip: Walking Together at Liberty: https://youtu.be/fD5lWQa6wmo
  2. Clip: 20 Steps Exercise with halter & lead: https://youtu.be/kjH2pS1Kfr8
  3. Clip: Precision Leading: https://youtu.be/2vKe6xjpP6I
  4. Clip: Walk & Hock Gym: https://youtu.be/R62dP1_siaU
  5. Blog about mats: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TARGET FLEXIONS

INTRODUCTION:

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.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. 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.
  3. Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. Links are added at the end of this post.
  4. Horse confidently touches a variety of targets with his nose.
  5. 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.

AIMS:

  1. The horse moves his nose to touch a target held in different positions while keeping his feet still.
  2. Horse lifts his knees to touch a target.
  3. Horse lifts his hocks to touch a target.

VIDEO CLIP: #166 HorseGym with Boots TARGET FLEXION

Notes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

SLICES:

Neck Flexion High and Low

  1. 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.
  2. Ask the horse to stand squarely with his front feet on a familiar mat; click&treat.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Ideally, do three or four repeats on each side of the horse, before moving to the other side.
  6. Repeat 4 holding the target progressively a little higher while you stand facing him slightly to the right side of his nose.
  7. 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.
  8. Stay with 4, 5 and 6 until the horse is ho-hum with them.
  9. 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.
  10. Repeat 9 standing slightly to the right of the horse’s nose.
  11. 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

  1. Have the horse stand as squarely as possible.
  2. 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.
  3. Repeat 2 on the right side.
  4. 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.
  5. Repeat 4 on the right side.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Ask the horse to stand squarely.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

 

Targeting Hindquarters to our Hand

INTRODUCTION:

Once the horse understands targeting his shoulder to our hand, we might like to teach targeting his hindquarters to our hand. If we can ask for ‘shoulder to hand’ and ‘hip to hand’ we have a way of asking the horse to bring his whole body toward us.

It’s a useful maneuver when we would like him to line up at a mounting block, fence or bank and he’s not quite close enough. It is also a gymnastic exercise and one that encourages handlers to develop their timing plus clear, consistent body language.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse is comfortable standing ‘parked’ with the handler standing alongside facing behind the horse.
  • Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. To review, see the clip or blog link at the end of this post.
  • Signals for moving the hip away from the handler are well established. There are various ways to teaching this. A clip demonstrating one way is also added 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, a mid-length target and a short target.
  • For generalizations, pedestal, mounting block or similar, hoop.

My current collection of targets. In the video below, I used the three on the right-hand side of the photo. The others come in handy in various contexts.

AIM:

Horse confidently moves his hindquarters toward the handler’s ‘outstretched hand’ signal.

Video Clip: #164 HorseGym with Boots: TARGET HIPS TO HAND  https://youtu.be/aYlILbkwsBA

 

Note: When we request the horse to yield his hip away from us, we project energy toward the horse’s hindquarters from our body’s core at the belly-button, which causes our posture to be upright.

When we request the horse to move toward us, it’s important to pull our belly-button back so that we shrink back and create a ‘draw toward me’ energy with our whole body.

Horses are so sensitive to advancing and receding energy from another body, that they easily read the intent of our posture as long as we are consistent and not sloppy.

SLICES:

Stay with each slice until it feels ho-hum and smooth for both of you.

Make each session extremely short, a few minutes. The magic is not in the final result as much as it is in the process of helping the horse figure it out.

  1. Choose a spot where you can easily stand the horse alongside a safe fence, wall, or similar with the barrier on the horse’s far side. The barrier discourages the option of moving the hindquarters away, which is something you have hopefully taught previously.
  2. Ask the horse to stand squarely beside the fence; click&treat.
  3. Take up a ‘zero intent’ position standing beside the horse’s neck, facing behind the horse, holding the target down by your side ‘out of play’ and relax; click&treat. Work up to standing together quietly like this for three or four seconds before the click&treat, on either side of the horse. Have the space between you and the horse’s neck at a distance comfortable for both of you. Close is usually safer than standing away, but it depends.
  4. Stretch your arm to gently touch the long-handled target to the side of the horse’s hindquarters. Click just as the target makes contact; deliver the treat.
  5. Move the target down behind your leg to take it ‘out of play’ and resume the ‘zero intent’ body position. Observe to see if the horse is okay for you to carry on. If he continues to stand in a relaxed manner, he is probably okay to carry on, or you may have sorted out one or more ‘okay to proceed’ signals. A link to information about these is at the end of this post.
  6. Repeat 4 and 5 above, watching for any weight shift the horse might make toward the target as you move it toward his hindquarters. If he does, celebrate hugely with happy words and a jackpot or triple treat. Maybe ask for one or two repeats, then wait until your next session to do more.
  7. When you feel the time is right, hold the target a tiny distance away from touching the hindquarters and WAIT for the horse to shift his weight to make the contact; click&treat. Some horses may step over to make the contact right away. For either a weight shift or a whole step toward the target, celebrate hugely again. Maybe repeat the request once or twice more to consolidate the idea. If you have waited 3-4 seconds and nothing happens, simply return to slices 4, 5, 6 above.
  8. It took Boots a good number of daily mini-sessions before she a) consistently leaned toward the target and  b) consistently moved a tiny distance toward the target to make the contact. Then it took more days before she confidently stepped toward the target when I held it further away.
  9. Decide whether you want to continue teaching on the side you started with, or if you want to teach slices 1-7 on the other side of the horse before proceeding.
  10. When 7 is ho-hum, gradually hold your target a little bit further away so the horse must take a full step to contact the target; click&treat.
  11. Whenever the response seems slow or unsure (or is missing), go back to touch the target to the hindquarters; click&treat. Then work forward again at a rate that keeps the horse being continually successful as much as possible.
  12. This willingness to back up in the teaching is sometimes hard, but we always must go where the horse tell us he is, not where we want him to be.
  13. When starting a new session, always introduce the task with a touch of the target (and eventually your hand) to the hindquarters; click&treat, to let the horse know which game you are playing.
  14. Work to having the response equally smooth on either side of the horse.
  15. You may want to introduce a voice signal to go along with your body language and orientation signals.
  16. When all is smooth using your long-handled hand-held target, repeat the slices using a shorter target. The one I use in the clip is a soft plastic toy sword.
  17. When all is smooth with the mid-length target, reach out with an even shorter target. You may have to move from beside his neck to beside his shoulder or ribs, depending on the size of the horse.
  18. When 16 and 17 are smooth on either side of the horse, ask for the hindquarters over using just your arm lifted up in the same way you did when holding a target. Most horses will respond readily to the arm movement. I personally hold my hand open with my palm facing the horse. Handler body position is upright. By pulling back our belly-button area we create a ‘draw toward me’ energy.

When we ask for hindquarters to yield away, we send energy toward the horse and look down and gesture toward his hocks, so it is a very different body orientation and energy. Plus, we may have added distinct and different voice signals for each one.

It’s good to frequently practice ‘hip away’ and ‘hip toward’ as a little sequence to make sure our signals stay true and the horse easily responds to either one without confusion.

Left photo: ‘hip toward me’ signal and body language. Right photo: ‘hip away please’ signal and body language.

GENERALIZATIONS:

Clip: #165 HorseGym with Boots TARGET BUTT TO HAND:

 

Generalizations:

  1. Stand the horse so his shoulder is near a mounting block, but his hindquarters are angled away. Ask him to bring his butt (hip) toward your hand. If he gets confused, return to using your long, medium and short targets, fading out each one as his confidence returns, until your outstretched arm and hand are sufficient.
  2. Generalize the ‘bring your hip over’ skill to different venues and different mounting situations, e.g. fences, gates, stumps, banks – especially if you ride out in wider and varied environments. Before my hips gave up riding, I would often have been totally grounded after dismounting if Boots wasn’t 100% confident about lining up quietly alongside a gate or any other raised surface in the vicinity.
  3. If you have a pedestal on which the horse puts his front feet, you can ask him to bring his hindquarters toward you in a circle while his front feet stay on the pedestal.
  4. Alternately, if you have a soft rubber tub, ask the horse to put his front feet into the tub and repeat 3 above.
  5. To increase the expertise required (by horse and handler) ask the horse to place his front feet into a hoop and keep them in the hoop while moving his butt to target the handler’s arm (or a target) moving in a circular pattern, both clockwise and anti-clockwise. Start with one step and a high rate of reinforcement.
  6. Be careful not to ask too much at first. A frequent minute or two of exercises such as these is enough to have a worthwhile gymnastic effect.
  7. Whenever you do ‘hip toward me’, balance it with ‘hip away please’.

BACKGROUND CLIPS FOR QUICK REVIEW:

Clip: #153 HorseGym with Boots: ZERO INTENT AND INTENT

https://youtu.be/3ATsdPvld4Q

Clip: May 2018 Challenge: YIELD HINDQUARTERS: https://youtu.be/AkjIT8Tjxw0

Clip: #154 HorseGym with Boots: OKAY TO REPEAT SIGNALS

https://youtu.be/W3-Pw6d-Gic

BLOG LINKS FOR MORE DETAILED REVIEW:

Blog: No Intent and Intent

https://herthamuddyhorse.com/2018/11/30/dec-2018-challenge-no-intent-and-intent/

Blog: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals.

https://herthamuddyhorse.com/2018/12/22/seeking-the-horses-consent-signals/)

 

Gaining Fluidity without Drilling

Questions:

  1. How do we become truly fluid with a specific task or series of tasks?
  2. How can the handler practice a clear, consistent signal or group of signals?
  3. How can we engage the horse to willingly carrying out tasks confidently at our request?

It’s natural to want to ‘practice’ to get better. It’s especially challenging when it’s the handler that needs/wants the practice in order to improve:

  • Optimum body orientation.
  • Moving easily between ‘no intent’ and ‘intent’ body language.
  • Gesture signal clarity.
  • Consistent voice signal.
  • Timing of the click to truly mark the desired behavior.
  • Prompt treat delivery.

The temptation is to get the horse to ‘do it again’ so we can practice. However, if a horse had carried out a complex task to a good standard, does it make sense to him to have to do it again right away?

Probably not. He may instead think that he didn’t get it right the first time. He may try a different variation in good faith and become confused if it does not result in a click&treat.

We acquire a complex task by teaching it via thin-slicing. The ACQUISITION STAGE is finished when our signals are relatively consistent, and the horse’s response is accurate about 90% of the time. Then we enter the STAGE OF BUILDING FLUIDITY with the task. (There is a link at the end of this post about ‘The Four Stages of Learning’.)

Gaining fluidity, with new thought processes or with new movements, means building up nerve connections. The only way to build up nerve connections is to apply our full attention to repeating the learning process.

Once we have a general idea about what we are learning, we focus our attention on the detail by reviewing the new skills often enough to put them into our long-term mental memory and our muscle memory.

This involves repetition. How we do the repetition can vary.

Not recommended – DRILLING:

Drilling involves repeating something over and over. Good point: it will become habitual. Bad point: it can kill enthusiasm for both that task and learning anything else by drilling.

For example, horses who are routinely made to move endless circles in a round pen, or constantly repeat dressage movements, often form an aversion to going into a round pen or arena.

Recommended – CHERISHING EACH MINI-OBJECTIVE:

To put a behavior into the horse’s long- term memory and have it ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ seems to be best done with 1-3 repeats each session over the number of days, weeks, or months that it might take, depending on the complexity of the final objective.

If the horse does a behavior to a pleasing standard the first time we ask, it is often a good idea to wait until the next session or later in the same session before asking for it again.

Helpful – Visualizing:

There is evidence (human studies) to suggest that if we focus on clearly visualizing the muscular movements needed to achieve an outcome, the brain views this as almost as good as actually doing it.

We can’t know whether horses visualize things, but my experience with teaching horses in mini-sessions (1-3 repeats) suggests that they do seem to ‘mull over’ new learning and bring a brighter response the next time we do it.

This is especially noticeable if we can have a short repeat most days. Once the horse shows a good knowledge of a task, a break of 2-3 days between requests often brings even more keenness to have ‘another go’ to earn a special high-value treat.

My horse, Boots, has a distinct little smug expression when she nails something especially well, earning approbation, applause, and a triple treat, jackpot, or special treat like a peppermint.

Helpful – SIMULATION:

To improve our expertise with the task, we can ask another person to stand in for our horse so we can practice developing clear signals and build up our mental and muscle memory for our part of the equation. The horse can only be as smooth in his responses as we are smooth and clear (fluid) with our signals.

If we are lucky enough to have an older, more experienced horse available, we can practice with him so we can be more coherent for a young or new horse.

A Possible Solution

To have a way of steadily improving the fluidity of challenging tasks, I decide on what mini-objectives I want to play with today, before we begin a session.

I pocket the exact number of higher-value treats to cover those objectives; usually one peppermint for a spot-on effort. In addition, I have unshelled peanuts or carrot strips for good attempts. This stops me from being tempted to ‘do it again’ once we have a peppermint-worthy response.

I also carry (horse pellets) for getting organized with resets and for when we do more relaxing things between the main mini-objective for that day.

In a way, it’s an example of getting more by doing less.

The video clip below shows three examples. They are either fun tricks to keep us amused, moving and supple, or they are Horse Agility tasks that are getting rather tricky because we have reached the higher-level ‘walk only’ class. Instead of increasing task difficulty with trot or canter, the tasks get more convoluted.

I’ve chosen relatively complex tasks. To reach the point shown in the video, the prerequisites for each task were taught with thin-slicing over a long time.

Example One

One peppermint for a 180-degree turn and back through a gate. Previously she learned a 360-degree turn by following the feel of a rope, then learned hand and voice signals and willingly did it at liberty during a recall. Some people teach this using a target. Boots also has had lots of practice backing up when I stand behind her, including months of long-reining training.

Example Two

A jackpot of five rapid treats for backing 8 steps in a straight line to end up in a 2.5-foot space between a barrel and me on a mounting block or between two barrels. In one session I did this once in each direction, so she could earn two peppermints. She knows ‘park and wait’ thoroughly, as well as backing up with me behind her. She also has a strong history of backing out of narrow dead-end lanes as part of trailer loading preparation, which is how we started training this task. I simply added the barrel on one side and me on a mounting block on the other side.

Example Three

Boots earns an unshelled peanut for our line-dancing move while I’m on the right side of the horse and another while I’m on her left side. We’ve been doing this for only a few months. She already understood yielding the shoulder to touch or gesture as well as targeting her shoulder to my hand before we started. She had also learned to target her knee to my hand, so I had to be careful about developing a distinctly different hand signal. For a long time, I asked for only one repeat before the click&treat. We are now gradually building in more repeats before the click&treat.

Video Clip:

#163 HorseGym with Boots: Gaining Fluidity without Drilling.

In Addition:

If our first attempt at a task is a bit sketchy, we do a quiet reset and try again, looking for improvement, click&treat for the improvement and usually we don’t repeat it again until later in the session or next day.

Instead, we go on to one of the other things we are working on, or just do activities that are well-established.

It seems that after a few weeks of repeating a complex task once daily, the horse often begins to look forward to doing it, knowing that a higher-value treat follows.

Cherishing each mini-objective set for the day’s session and rewarding it with a higher-value treat keeps alive the fresh desire to do it again tomorrow.

Extra:

If you are really keen, you can watch the whole filmed video series from which I took example two in the clip above, showing Boots backing eight steps to end up between a barrel and me on a mounting block. This is what we did for the first 30 days. During days 31-38 we practiced Boots backing up to stand between two barrels when I stood in front, facing her.

I filmed each of the first 30 training sessions. Over 38 days we trained an average of 5 minute on this task per day, so the total training time was 3 hours, 10 minutes.

She already knew about backing up when I stood behind her, so we were adding more detail to the task. She had to learn to stay straight and to target her withers to my hand.

The clips clearly show how we were both learning stuff each day. I was learning how to be clearer in my teaching and she was figuring out exactly what she had to do to earn the click&treat. Before and after each short session we did other things.

This is the first clip in the series. They all follow in a playlist called Backing Up to a Mounting Block.  Each clip is quite short.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCE:

The Four Stages of Learning: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SO