Category Archives: Clicker Training Skills

Resetting Tasks

We first played with this task at liberty and Boots scared herself when her leg touched the pipe on her left as she backed into the space. She jumped forward.
She jumped forward a step or two and then stopped. I was standing well back (you can just see the toe of my shoe) in case this happened.
We quietly reset the task with the help of halter and lead, with click&treat for each step back and she quickly regained her confidence. I’m standing to the side in case she feels the need to suddenly come forward.

The task above is a good one to prepare a horse for being restricted behind, as in a horse trailer. It is also a task for preparing a horse to back between cart shafts.

Rather than correct something that did not go well, we learn to reset* a task without placing a negative value judgement on what the horse just did. This makes a huge difference to how horses perceive their training.

While he is learning a new task, a horse can’t be wrong, because he does not yet know what you want.

Clicker-savvy* horses often don’t want their sessions to end. The positive vibrations that go with good clicker training make it fun rather than a chore.

Clicker training gives us a way to let the horse know instantly, by the sound of the marker signal* (click), when he is right. It takes away much of the guessing horses must do as they strive to read our intent* (which is often fuzzy to them).

A horse’s perceptions and world view are quite different from human perception and world view. While we are with our horse, the more closely we can align our world view with that of the horse, the easier it is for him to understand us and comply with our requests.

There is much more about this in my book: Conversations with Horses: An In-depth look at the Signals & Cues between Horses and their Handlers available as an e-book or a paperback.

Key Features of Equine Clicker Training

Clicker training is not a quick fix for problems. It is a carefully crafted language between horse and handler used during every interaction. People often have to let go of what they have always done in order to make room for a new way of interacting with their horse(s).

If frustration becomes part of the equation, for the horse or the handler or both, it is usually a sign of going too fast and expecting too much too soon.

The solution is usually to slow down, think things through, decide on the exact behavior required and write a careful shaping plan to achieve that behavior.

Keeping emotions (horse and person) on the calm/relaxed/joyful side of the emotional continuum is a major part of effective clicker training.

Counting with the Front Feet

Introduction

You may have heard the story about a horse called Hans who could add, subtract, multiply and divide. I think it was eventually found that Hans responded to eyebrow signals from his person to let him know when he should start and stop lifting his foot.

My horse, Boots, and I won’t reach such a level of sophistication, but teaching ‘counting’ can be fun. It also forced me to refine and clarify the way I presented my signals, as well as improve the timing of my ‘click’.

Leg lifts without moving are a good way to play with mobilization. Viewing the video clips, I notice that lifting one leg engages her whole body.

‘Counting’ is a game we developed over many months with several starts and stops to focus on other things. It’s an engaging game when the weather is too hot, wet, windy, or cold to be out and about.

The key, as for most of equine clicker training, is to have two or three-minute sessions over many, many days. By keeping it short, the horse begins to look forward to the new game (trick) as a relatively easy way to earn clicks&treats.

Developing Boots’ Individual Education Program* for ‘Counting’ helped me:

  • Be more aware of deciding and stabilizing my body orientation, which is a key part of any signal.
  • Refine the nature and energy of my signal.
  • Improve the timing for when I turn the signal on and off.
  • Remember to take up my ‘zero intent*’ position to wait for the horse to tell me when she is ‘ready to repeat’ (Consent Signals*) [Items with an asterisk {*} are described in the GLOSSARY which you can access at the top of the page.
  • Relax when the horse attends to external distractions and wait for her to bring her attention back to me.

This exercise is an extension of tasks we did to create confidence with standing on three legs for hoof care. Detail is available in my book, Confident Foot Care using Reward Reinforcement.

Once Boots lifted a leg when I pointed to it, it was not a big leap to ask for two lifts in a row before the click&treat*. She is presently on her way to counting to ten. Which lets us have fun doing simple math questions when the grandchildren visit.

Aim

To have the horse understand a signal for lifting a front leg (either one) and able to repeat the lifting up to ten times on request (number is optional) before a click&treat.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker-savvy.
  2. Handler uses clear body language to indicate ‘intent’ and ‘zero intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse is relaxed about foot care and willingly lifts his feet for cleaning/trimming. Or this task can be part of improving balance on three legs.
  4. Horse has developed one or more ‘Consent Signals*’ to let the handler know when he is ready to go ahead with current task. Click here.
  5. Horse understands touching a target with his nose, his knee, and his foot. #89 HorseGym with Boots: Balance on Three Legs looks at foot targeting. Click here.

Videos

MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT

  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • A space where the horse stands relaxed and confident.
  • A safe fence (not electrified or wire) or similar barrier.
  • A target safe for foot targeting and easy to handle. I find a piece of cloth slipped into the leather end loop of an old riding crop makes a nice lightweight target. Something bulky like a pool noodle is harder to hold and harder to remove from view so it is ‘take it out of play’.
  • A rail on the ground may be helpful in some cases.

Notes

  1. Using props when we begin a new task makes it much easier for the horse to understand what to do to earn his next click&treat. Use of well-planned props takes us halfway to achieving our aim.
  2. Once the horse understands the task, we gradually fade out the props.
  3. Pawing is not the same as counting with a discreet signal from you for each ‘number’ counted. If pawing becomes an issue, repeated (over many short sessions) click&treat for ONE lift of the foot may make it clearer for the horse.
  4. Each session (once we can count more than ONE, I start with click&treat for ONE, and work up the numbers to our present limit.
  5. I like to encourage the horse to use both front feet for the counting. Boots sometimes uses both and sometimes mostly one foot. Using both gives better distribution of the muscle movement throughout the body.
  6. HANDLER SKILL: Your horse may begin to offer foot lifts once you’ve started this game. Boots does it in the video clips. This ‘offering’ is precious. It shows you that the horse understands the game and is volunteering to start. If I’m ready, I count such an ‘offer’ as ONE and begin to signal for TWO and so on.
  7. HANDLER SKILL: Click as the horse is in the act of lifting his foot. Good timing is not always easy and can always be improved. Don’t worry if you don’t get it exactly right each time. Focus on the upward movement of the foot. Once you are conscious of this, and with practice, our timing gets better.
  8. HANDLER SKILL: Carefully check your body orientation to keep it the same each time you begin to ask for ‘counting’. Horses are super aware of how our body is orientated. Consistent orientation is a large part of signal clarity.
  9. HANDLER SKILL: Ensure that you always use the hand closest to the horse to give the ‘lift foot’ signal. Which hand you use is highly significant to the horse. I use the hand furthest from the horse to give signals for ‘hip away’ and ‘hip toward me’.
  10. HANDLER SKILL: The signal for each ‘foot lift’ is an ON-OFF signal.
  11. HANDLER SKILL: As you click, remove the target to behind your body to consciously take it ‘out of play’ – the OFF part of the signal. When you present it again for the next ‘repeat’ it will catch the horse’s attention and be your ON signal.
  12. HANDLER SKILL: I begin the task by using a voice signal. I say, “Counting – Fronts” and quietly count each foot lift, exaggerating my voice for the number I will click. Boots has learned that while I say the number softly, she will need to do another one – in other words, she listens for my loud, happy final number plus click. I’m also teaching her to count with the back feet, where I start by saying, “Counting – Rear” and my body orientation is quite different.
  13. HANDLER SKILL: In the clips you will notice that occasionally Boots pauses. She is not being slow or stubborn, she is thinking. Be sure to give your horse ample thinking time and sometimes they like a bit of time to enjoy their last treat before resuming the game.
  14. HANDLER SKILL: Always click before you reach for the treat or the horse will learn to watch your hand rather than focus on what you are teaching. This is especially important for this task because your hand moving slightly forward with a finger wiggling will become the ON signal as you fade out the target prop.
  15. HANDLER SKILL: Feed the treat away from your body. Try to position your treat hand so the horse straightens his head to retrieve the treat.
  16. HANDLER SKILL: If the horse is distracted, wait with ‘zero intent*’ body language until the horse brings his attention back to you – hopefully using a ‘consent’ signal*. Sometimes the waiting feels like a long time, but it is usually only a few seconds. Pay attention to whatever has caught the horse’s attention by looking at it keenly, then breathe out deeply. This shows the horse that you have noticed his concern but are not worried about it.
  17. HANDLER SKILL: Teach everything on either side of the horse. One side may feel more difficult. The horse may be less comfortable with you on one side. We are usually less smooth giving signals when we use the non-dominant side of our body. I like to teach each slice of this task on both sides before moving on to the next slice. While the horse is learning, I am learning to be more particular about everything mentioned in these notes.
  18. HANDLER SKILL: Stay with X-number of leg lifts until it feels like the horse is ho-hum with that number (even if you stay at ONE or TWO for what feels like ages. Nothing derails our training as quickly as going faster than the horse is able to absorb each new slice and put it into deep memory.
  19. HANDLER SKILL: If you get a nice series of ‘counting’, resist the natural urge to ‘do it again to see if we can do it again’. Stop when it feels really nice and wait until your next session.

Slices

  1. If you already have a space where the horse stands comfortably relaxed, start with Slice 2. If not, we first need to establish a place we can use consistently for teaching this task. One way is to ensure your horse is comfortable standing between a safe fence and a rail on the ground. Walk him through the space in both directions. Then halt in the space; click&treat, in both directions. The fence and rail help show the horse that you don’t want him to move sideways. When he is relaxed in the space, start with Slice 2.
  2. Set the scene to let the horse know that ‘targeting’ is the game of the moment by asking him to target his nose, a knee, then a front foot to your target.
  3. Repeat touching the foot to the target ONCE with a click&treat each time. Somewhere between three and five repeats is plenty at one time. (See The Rule of Three. Click here. )
  4. When the horse readily lifts his foot once, ask for twice before the click&treat.
  5. When the horse readily ‘counts’ to TWO, ask for THREE before the click and treat.
  6. And so on, to as high a number as you like, always staying within the horse’s ability and interest level.
  7. As you reach a higher number (over five), the horse may pause more often to think. He may be thinking about which foot to lift next.
  8. When it feels like the horse has a good understanding of the task, gradually introduce a finger wiggle with the hand holding the target. Horse peripheral vision is magic at picking up movement, so they will notice the finger wiggle easily.
  9. Gradually lessen the movement of the target stick toward the horse as you wiggle your finger. Eventually you’ll realize that you no longer need the target stick – that your hand/finger movement is the signal.
  10. Remember, bringing your hand forward and the wiggling your finger is your ON signal. Put your hand ‘away’ and out of play as your OFF signal. Then when you bring your hand with wiggling finger forward again, the horse will notice it as your ON signal to do another ‘count’.

Generalizations

  1. When the horse is ho-hum about his ‘counting’ task in the familiar spot you have been using, move to different venues. You may want to begin with fence and rail props in a new venue. Horses let us know when the props are no longer needed.
  2. At some point you can begin to mix up the number you ask for – sometimes THREE, sometimes FIVE, occasionally SEVEN, and so on.

Learning the Mechanics of Clicker Training

Timing of the click and smooth, prompt treat delivery are harder than it looks at first glance.

Practice with a Person

It’s ideal (perhaps even essential) to learn the process of when/how to click and how to deliver the treat with a person standing in for the horse. The more adept we are with the mechanics of treat delivery before heading out to the horse, the more our horse will buy into our confidence that we know what we are doing.

We want to practice with another person until we have the mechanics of click timing and treat delivery in our muscle memory. Then, when we start with the horse, we can focus more clearly on the horse and the consistency of our actions.

Simulation with a Person

The first step to becoming a clicker trainer with good timing skills is to get our head around how to carry out the click&treat routine smoothly.

We need to practice enough to put the sequence of events into our muscle memory. If we are familiar and confident with what we are doing, the horse will buy into our confidence.

Neither person is allowed to speak.

You can put the clicker on a string around your neck or on a string around your wrist so you can let go of it to use your hand. However it takes lots of practice to smoothly slip the clicker back into position so that ‘letting go’ doesn’t interfere with good timing* of your next click.

Slices:

  1. Have your hand ready on the clicker (if using a clicker).
  2. Present the target a little bit away from the person, so he or she must reach toward it slightly, to touch it.
  3. Wait for the person to touch the target with their hand (be patient).
  4. The instant they touch it, click or say your chosen word or sound.
  5. Lower the target down and behind your body to take it out of play.
  6. Reach into your pocket/pouch for the treat (maybe use coins or bits of cardboard or mini chocolates).
  7. Extend your arm fully to deliver the treat.
  8. Stretch your treat hand out flat so it is like a dinner plate with the treat on it.
  9. Keep your arm and flat hand firm, so your pretend horse can’t push it down as he takes the treat.
  10. When your pretend horse has taken the treat, relax and pause briefly, then begin again with slices one and two (hand on clicker, present target).
  11. Ignore any unwanted behavior as much as possible.
  12. Turn a shoulder or move your body/pouch out of reach if the person pretending to be your horse tries to mug you for a treat (in case you are using chocolate). Your pretend horse must learn that he or she earns the click&treat only by touching the target. If your ‘pretend horse’ is strongly invasive, put a barrier between you.
  13. Multiple short sessions (up to three minutes long) at different times during the day allow your brain and your muscle memory to absorb the technique, especially the finer points of timing.
  14. If your helper is willing, let him/her be the teacher and you take a turn being the horse. Playing with ‘being the horse’ is often a huge eye-opener. The ‘horse’ is not allowed to ask questions or make comments but he can use body language to express his opinions.
Playing with different people will be as different as playing with different horses.

Using Hoops for Foot Awareness – and More

Hoops are handy obstacles to use for teaching a variety of skills. They are easy to set up and store. We can use them in numerous contexts. They can help us achieve a variety of objectives. For example:

Handler:

  • Identify prerequisites for each exercise.
  • Practice thin-slicing the tasks.
  • Practice writing a training (shaping) plan for each configuration.
  • Hone our timing of the click.
  • Make our signals as clear and consistent as possible.

Horse:

  • Develop foot awareness.
  • Gives a defined spot to learn the ‘wait’.
  • Generalize signals (cues) to new situations.
  • New puzzles to work through – mental stimulation.
  • Flexion exercises.

Boots and I have played with hoops on and off for quite a while, as in the following video clips.  For a 15hh horse hoops about one metre across work well for trotting through, but we also use smaller ones for some of the other activities.

The hoops are made with plastic water pipe with the ends held together either with the right-sized twig pushed into the ends or a stretch of hose either one size smaller to fit inside the ends or one size larger to form a sleeve across the ends. To make them more visible I wound electrical tape around them.

Clip 1

 

Clip 2

 

Clip 3

 

Clip 4

 

Clip 5

Developing Relaxed Food Retrieval

Photo: Relaxed treat retrieval is the essence of clicker training.

Lunging for the Treat = Anxiety or Assertive Horse Behavior

Some horses are always polite, others not so. Something in their background may have created anxiety around food. But the character type of the horse is also involved. Each horse lies somewhere along a shy ——– assertive continuum. A horse on the assertive end will be keen to follow his nose to the source of the food, which is obviously a helpful survival behavior.

For effective clicker training we have to carefully navigate this crucial aspect of using positive reinforcement in the form of food. The handler must feel safe and the horse must feel safe and have a sound understanding of when a food treat will be offered. It requires us to be careful and consistent and willing to explore options.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a way to let the horse know when we want him to stand with us quietly. We need to teach him when our body language indicates that all we want is to stand together in a relaxed manner, and when our body language is asking him to do something which will earn a click&treat.

  1. Be safe. Organize a barrier between you and the horse so you can move back out of range if he gets excited about the idea of food rewards. Depending on the horse and your expertise, you may not need the barrier for long, or you may need it for quite a while.

If your horse is energetic, use the energy by setting up a roomy reverse round pen and teach the horse to follow your target as you walk or jog along.

A reverse round pen is one where the handler stays inside the pen and the horse moves around the outside of it. Or you can do the same on the other side of an existing fence. For this, you want to click for the actual movement, rather than catching up with the target. For example, click after three steps, then five steps, and so on until you get whole circuits or stretches of fence before the click&treat. Find out more about using reverse pens here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-64e

  1. Make sure that the horse is not hungry. We want the horse interested in clicker work, but not over-excited or aroused by the thought of food tit-bits. In other words, make sure he has ample access to grazing or hay before you start a clicker training session.
  2. Check out your food delivery technique.
  3. Does it take too long to get your hand into and out of your pocket or pouch? Can you find easier pockets or a more open pouch?
  4. Do you move your hand toward your treats before you’ve clicked? This causes problems because the horse will watch your hand rather than focusing on what you are teaching.
  5. Be sure to only feed treats if they have been earned and you have clicked. Ask the horse to do something before giving a treat, either have him touch a target or take a step or two backwards; click for the action and deliver the treat.
  6. Avoid feeding any treats by hand unless you have asked for a behavior and clicked for it. When not clicker training, put treats in a feed dish or on the grass.
  7. Often, we can influence the horse’s position by holding our treat-delivery hand where we want the horse’s head to be rather than where he has stuck his nose.

In the beginning, we ideally want him to have his head straight to retrieve the treat. If he is over-eager, it can help to hold the treat toward his chest, so he must shift backwards to receive it.

This is the clearest way to let the horse know that lunging at your hand for the treat won’t benefit him. It also begins to build the habit of stepping back when you shift your weight toward him, as in the photo coming up. It’s a great way to begin teaching the ‘back’ voice and body language signal.

Video: Encouraging stepping back to retrieve the treat.

 

In some cases, it can help to have a halter on the horse, so we can take hold of the side of the halter after the click, giving us some control of where the horse puts his mouth. See the section called ‘Developing Good Table Manners’ that is coming.

It can help to run your closed treat hand down the horse’s nose from above, asking him to target your fist before you open your hand right under his lips so he can retrieve the treat.

When you do this, use a bit of upward pressure to stop the horse pushing your hand down. If your hand does not stay firm, it can cause a horse to get anxious about where his treat is and cause him to push down harder or become grabby.

  1. It may also work to bring your fist (closed around the treat) up under his chin and have him target your fist before you flatten your hand (and apply upward pressure) so he can retrieve the treat. Often one of these little intervening steps can help build the habit of polite treat-taking.
  2. A bit of experimentation will determine what works best with a specific horse.
  3. If the horse is overly keen, try using treats that he doesn’t consider quite so yummy. Be sure to set up your routines so the horse has ample time to graze or eat hay before each session.
  4. With consistency and patience on the handler’s part, over-enthusiastic treat-taking usually improves once:
  5. The horse understands that a click only happens when he carries out a request you have made.
  6. A treat always follows the click.He’ll learn that a treat will only follow if there has been a click first. That is why we must be totally consistent with when and how we click&treat.
  7. The horse’s character type and current emotional state will influence how he takes the treat. If a horse who usually takes the treat softly becomes grabbier, he is giving us information to take on board. Alternately, a horse who starts out grabby may over many sessions become relaxed about retrieving his treat, once he understands how the system works.
  8. Prompt, cleanly-executed treat delivery is always important. If things are not going smoothly, the first things to check are inconsistency and sloppy treat delivery. It helps to video what is happening, so you can look closely at your body position, orientation, timing* and treat delivery.
  9. Another approach is to put the treat in a container after each click. It can either be a food bucket in the horse’s pen, into which we toss the treat, or a flat dish or scoop we hold out for the horse to retrieve the treat, then remove again. Some boarding facilities have a ban on hand feeding, which is a little hurdle to overcome. There is a video clip about this here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-651

What to Check for:

  1. Timing of your click to the action you want.
  2. Smoothness getting the treat out of pocket or pouch while you take the target ‘out of play’.
  3. How promptly you present the treat to the horse.
  4. How you hold out the treat to the horse and how firm you keep your hand so the horse doesn’t push it down.

 

Developing Good Table Manners

A video clip called Table Manners for Clicker Training in my Starting Clicker Training playlist illustrates how we can use the timing of the click to improve politeness around treat retrieval. The clip shows Smoky, early in his clicker training education, with Zoë who had never done it before. Click here.

The method shown on the clip can be improved by not waiting so long to click&treat again. When we begin teaching a horse about keeping his head facing forward rather than toward us, we want to click&treat the moments when the horse remains facing forward and the moments when he turns his head away from the food source.

In some parts of the clip we waited for Smoky to turn toward Zoë and then turn away again before she clicked. Doing this runs the risk of having the horse think that turning toward the handler first is part of what we want him to do. In this exercise, we also want to mainly click&treat the act of keeping his head facing forward.

Summary: to develop good table manners while we stand beside the horse’s neck or shoulder, we click&treat for:

  • The horse turning his head away from us into the ‘straight forward’ position.
  • The horse keeping his head straight, away from us.
  • The horse keeping his head straight for longer, building up duration one second at a time.

Be sure to teach good table manners standing on either side of the horse as well as facing the horse. Begin the table manners training in protected contact, i.e. standing on the other side of a fence, gate, or stall guard.

Or have the horse tied up if that is your safest choice. When it is all going well with protected contact and you feel safe, change to standing with the horse.

It may take lots of very short sessions before the horse is able to relax into the ‘head forward’ position while we stand with zero intent* beside his shoulder.

Do a little bit of this ‘Polite Table Manners’ exercise every time you are with your horse to keep it strong in the repertoire.

As mentioned earlier, I prefer to introduce the idea of click&treat by asking the horse to do something more specific such as touch his nose to a target object.

Whether or not we are using protected contact in the form of a fence or gate, it’s easier to introduce the target if we stand in front of the horse and a little bit to one side.

If the horse is tied up, it may be easier to stand beside the horse to present the target.

Maintaining politeness around food is always part of the clicker training equation. It’s good to teach food manners standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse as soon as the horse has clearly made the connection between the click and the treat.

  1. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a way to let the horse know when we want him to stand beside us quietly. We need to teach him when our body language indicates that all we want is to stand together in a relaxed manner.

One way to do this is to stand with both hands laid flat across our belly button, and our energy as close to zero (deflated) as possible, breathing quietly, relaxing our hips. We look down or gaze softly into the distance.

If you do this consistently, the horse will soon recognize this posture as your ‘neutral’ signal when you have zero intent and all you want is for him to stay quietly parked. (See the Blog: ‘Zero Intent and ‘Intent’: Click here.)

My body language is at ‘zero intent’. My stance and hands lying quietly on my belly tell Boots that the task is to stand quietly. My focus is soft and away from the horse. My breathing is quiet.

 Every time we are with our horse, we should spend a few minutes focused on taking up our ‘zero intent’ position with click&treat reinforcement for the horse standing quietly without offering any behavior except standing quietly.

Over many sessions, we build up the ‘waiting quietly’ time, second by second, to fifteen or twenty seconds.

It is hard to overemphasize how important this is as part of our everyday interactions.

Hand Feeding at Other Times

It’s important not to hand feed the horse unless we have asked for something specific which we can click&treat. If we randomly hand feed when we are not clicker training, the horse will be confused, and problems can arise.

As with everything, it is up to us to be clear and consistent all the time. If we visit the horse or check up on him and want to give him a treat, we can put it in a feed bin or on the grass.

20 Steps Exercise

Photo: Our horse walking with us confidently is basic to everything else we want to do.

INTRODUCTION

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.

AIMS

  1. Handler refines clear ‘walk-on’ and ‘halt’ body language, energy level and voice signals.
  2. Horse willingly mirrors the handler’s energy changes and stays in position with his neck/shoulder area beside the handler.

PREREQUISITES

  1. 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.
  2. Handler had decided on clear ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ voice signals.
  3. Handler has developed a consistent ‘walk on’ arm gesture.
  4. 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.

  1. Horse walks smoothly beside the handler’s shoulder.
  2. Horse understands ‘Whoa’ voice, breathing and body language signals.
  3. 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.

VIDEO CLIPS

December 2017 Obstacle Challenge: 20 Steps Exercise.

 

#30 HorseGym with Boots illustrates Boots helping Zoë learn the process with halter and lead.

SLICES

  1. 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.
  1. We will click&treat for EACH halt.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.

Next Slices

  1. When one or two steps together is smooth, take three steps before the halt, click&treat.
  2. When three steps together are smooth, take four steps before the halt, click&treat, and so on.
  3. Each time you walk on, begin counting at ‘one’ again.
  4. Stay with four-five steps until moving off together is smooth and the horse stays in position beside you for the halt.
  5. 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.
  6. With some horses you can soon add steps in 2’s, 3’s or 5’s to reach the twenty steps.
  7. 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.
  8. Gradually work up to 10, 15, then 20 steps before each halt, click&treat.
  9. 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.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • 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.

 

 

Alternative to Hand-Feeding Food Reinforcement

REASONS

There are several reasons why feeding the treat from our hand may not be the way forward with either a person or a horse new to clicker training.

For example:

  • The horse is new to people and has no idea about eating from a person’s hand.
  • The person is nervous about offering food from their hand.
  • The horse tends to mug the person once he realizes they have food in a pocket or pouch.
  • The horse is not gentle about taking the food from the hand.
  • Some horses are shy of people’s hands due to experience, or they don’t like taking food from a person’s hand.

In such situations, we can set up protected contact with a handy bucket or dish into which we toss the treat after the click.

We want the container situated so it’s easy to toss in the treats. We also want to use a container from which the horse can easily retrieve the treats.

In the video I’ve put a shallow round-bottomed bowl into the trough that sits on the gate. The depth and corners of the trough make it hard for the horse to retrieve a small strip of carrot or horse pellets.

In the video, I use the word CLICK (and clicker) to stand in for any marker sound you have chosen to use with your horse.

Charging the Clicker

‘Charging the Clicker’ is the first thing we must do when be begin clicker training. We want the horse to relate the sound of our ‘marker sound’ with the idea that a bit of food always follows that sound.

Some horses pick this up very quickly. Others need many short repeat sessions before they make the connection. For horses taught to wait to be told what to do next or get into trouble, the idea of offering a behavior may be a new idea.

This video clip demonstrates just one way of ‘Charging the Clicker’. It has the advantage of using protected contact – a barrier between horse and person. Until we start using food reinforcers with a horse, we don’t know how he will respond to the idea.

Protected contact keeps the person safe and some horses feel safer if a handler is on the other side of a fence. Using a hand-held target means the horse can easily find the YES answer that results in a click&treat.

To me, it feels more meaningful to the horse to ‘charge the clicker’ this way, rather than by waiting for the horse to move his head away from the handler. Using a target gives the horse a tangible destination for his behavior. Asking him to keep his head away from the treats goes totally against the nature of how horses find nourishment. It requires a ‘no’ answer rather than the ‘yes’ answer provided by touching nose to a target.

Once the horse understands the click&treat dynamic, we can work on keeping the head facing forward rather than seeking out the treat pouch.

We can also use this set-up when things are not going well. The horse may have developed the habit of mugging for the treats – pushing his nose into the person. It is totally normal horse foraging behavior – to follow their nose to a likely food source.

By using a bucket or dish, we separate the location of the retrievable food from the person’s body. That alone is a good reason to begin with this technique. Once the horse understands the concept and we understand how the horse is responding to the idea of working for food reinforcement, we can work toward offering the food in our outstretched hand. We can make the switch to hand-feeding while still in protected contact.

Video Clip

The Rule of Three

Introduction

The time I spend with my horse does not always exactly follow the ‘rule of three’ described here. However, in general and especially when I have a specific training project, I find that the ‘rule of three’ makes it easier to:

  • Structure our time together.
  • Keep us learning new things.
  • Build in the movement that is key to the horse’s welfare.

A training session usually works well if it consists of three general parts:

  1. Something new we want to teach.
  2. Something we want to improve.
  3. A few things that the horse already knows how to do well, often used for warm-up or cool-down.

The ‘rule of three’ suggests practicing three repeats in a row, unless the first one is perfect and calls for a celebration.

The ‘rule of three’ is an ideal way to teach something new, work on improving something else and maintain the horse’s enthusiasm to tackle the harder work by frequently relaxing back into doing things he knows well. It helps if the tasks are quite different.

If the ‘new’ and ‘to improve’ tasks have limited movement, it is good to have more energetic well known tasks. If the ‘new’ or ‘to improve’ tasks are energetic, then it may be more helpful to use quieter well known tasks.

In the following video clip, this is our ‘new task’: the horse to sidestep along the rail away from me while I keep my feet still. In the past I’ve always moved along with her. Now I’d like her to confidently move across to the barrel by herself.

 

In the video clip, this is our ‘task to improve’ because it is a long time since we played with the balance beam.

 

In the video clip, weaving a row of markers was one of the several, ‘tasks we already know well’, that we did for relaxation and more sustained movement between the new learning.

During the overall training session, we return to the new task three times, with up to three repeats each time. We also return to the task we are improving three times and do up to three repeats each time. When the horse is in the learning stage, each tiny improvement over last time is a ‘release/click point’.

In-between the new task and the task we want to improve, we do things the horse already knows well and where he can easily earn his clicks&treats or down time. We might walk out and about, stop for a spot of grazing, flexion exercises or gymnastic type routines for overall body fitness, or just hang out together.

Rule of Nine

One of my evergreen training protocols is to ensure confident responses over nine consecutive training sessions before moving on to the next part of the training sequence.

For some tasks, communication may become smooth before nine sessions – but carry on for nine anyway.

For other tasks it may take a long time to get confident responses over nine consecutive sessions. Every horse is different. Every handler is different. Every horse-handler combination is different.

Also see Blogs number 44 and number 13 in the ‘Blog Contents List’ tab at the top of the page for more about planning and thin-slicing.

Movement Routine 4 – Rags for Focus

INTRODUCTION

This time we set the rags to form a continuous ‘rail’ to make it different from the first ‘Rags’ challenge. It is a good arrangement to see if the horse accepts that the rags are not the same as mats for standing on.

The purpose of this series of challenges is to play with communication basics in slightly different contexts. This mixture of familiarity and novelty encourages the handler to work on precision of timing and consistency of signals.

It allows the horse to consolidate behaviors he already knows in slightly different situations and in different sequences.

This routine has five basic tasks. Since we do them on both sides of the horse, the routine has ten parts in total (or more if we do more than one stationary task).

AIM

Smoothly carry out a sequence of tasks using a ‘rag rail’:

  • Walk a circuit around all the rags.
  • Halt alongside, parallel to the rags.
  • Carry out one or more stationary tasks.
  • Approach the rag rail at 90 degrees, halt, back up several steps.
  • Approach the rag rail at 90 degrees and step over it with the front feet; halt, pause, then walk forward stepping across cleanly.

PREREQUISITES

  1. We have ‘step on the mat’ strongly ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal’ or ‘under stimulus control’. (Using Mats: Parking or ‘Stationing’ and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9)
  2. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT)
  3. Signals for counterturns are smooth. (Smooth Counterturns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WK)
  4. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO)
  5. Smooth change of direction plus changing the side of the horse the handler is on. (Changing Direction in Motion: https://youtu.be/3oqPs4LM5AM)
  6. Horse is comfortable standing across and walking across solid rails. (Placing the Feet Accurately Using a Rail: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Wc)
  7. Horse backs up confidently. (Finesse Back-Up: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5XL and The Balancera Exercise: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Wm)
  8. Horse knows one or more stationary exercises, e.g., head forward, head down, target knee, eye, ear or chin to hand, belly crunch. (There are several ‘stationary’ exercises illustrated here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Un.)

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′ (3m) or longer lead.
  • A set of chunky rags. In the videos I uses five rags, but we can easily use more.

VIDEO CLIPS

#190 HorseGym with Boots: MOVEMENT ROUTINE 4: RAGS AS FOCUS: https://youtu.be/v3B8rZJf5jg

#191 HorseGym with Boots: MOVEMENT ROUTINE 4: AT LIBERTY: https://youtu.be/yr_0wAt5kWw

NOTES

  1. Lay your rags in a long straight line touching each other, to resemble a rail on the ground.
  2. Ensure that the horse is confident with each prerequisite before you begin to link them together.
  3. I like to memorise the sequence of events by walking the patten without the horse and often visualizing the sequence (a good substitute for counting sheep!).
  4. How often you click&treat depends entirely on where you are with developing each of these skills. To begin with, I opt for too often rather than not often enough. I want the horse to be continually successful as much as possible.

TASKS

  1. On the left side of horse, with the horse closest to the rags (but far enough away from them so he doesn’t step on them), walk a circuit (counter clockwise) around the rags. In this case, we need to do a counter-turn when we reach the end of the rags. Adjust how far the horse is from the rags to ensure that he does not step on them. We want him to be sure that these rags are not the same as mats. Once he understands that they are not mats, have him walk as close to them as he can.
  2. Change to the right side of the horse and repeat 1. This will be a clockwise circuit with a counter-turn.
  3. Still on his right side (and the horse closest to the rags), walk him alongside and parallel to the rags and ask him to halt; click&treat for the halt. Then ask him to carry out one or more stationary exercises that he already knows. Click&treat each exercise. For example: a) Head kept straight forward for ‘x’ number of seconds. b) Head down. c) Target knee, eye, ear, or chin to hand. d) Belly crunch.
  1. Move to the horse’s left side and repeat 3 above (horse closest to rags).
  2. Remaining on his left side, walk away from the rags in an arc to you can directly approach the center of the rag rail at 90 degrees. Halt facing the rags back far enough so the horse doesn’t step on them. Pause up to three seconds, then ask for three – five steps of back-up; either shoulder-to-shoulder or a finesse back-up (turning to face the horse).
  3. Change to his right side, walk a loop and repeat 5 above.
  4. Staying on his right side, approach the rags at 90 degrees again, but his time ask the horse to step his front feet over them and halt with the rags under his belly; pause.
  5. Ask him to walk forward across the rags.
  6. Finish with a jackpot or triple treat.
  7. Repeat 7 and 8 on the horse’s left side.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. Vary how long you remain at ‘halt’ while standing in front of or across the rags.
  2. Vary which stationary exercise(s) you ask for as party of task 3 above.
  3. Set up your ‘rag rail’ in different places.
  4. When if all feels smooth, play with it at liberty.
  5. Do all the tasks on one side of the horse, then switch to the other side.
  6. Change the sequence of the tasks.
  7. Repeat using a solid rail instead of rags.
  8. If you have a large tarp, use that laid out instead of a rag rail.

Finesse Back-Up

At one point a friend and I came up with 29 different ways of backing up a horse, including groundwork, long-reining and riding. This Finesse Back-Up is one of my favorites when I am leading a horse and we need a prompt back-up.

I learned the essence of this process from Alexandra Kurland, a true pioneer of equine clicker training. I’ve added the idea of using corners to teach because it arranges the environment so that stepping back makes sense to the horse right from the beginning.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse understands putting his nose on a target results in click&treat. (See Related Resource 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. Horse walks confidently between the handler and a safe fence or similar barrier.
  3. Horse understands ‘Walk On’ and ‘Whoa’ voice and body language signals. (See Related Resource 2 at the end of this post.)
  4. Handler easily slip into and out of ‘zero intent’ so the horse easily knows when he can relax in a ‘wait’ and when he is being asked to move. (See Related Resource 3 at the end of this post.)
  5. Horse understands the handler’s body axis orientation as a signal for bending. (See Related Resource 4 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.
  • A safe fence or barrier which leads into a safe corner.
  • Halter and lead.
  • Mat (optional). A mat can make it easier for a mat-savvy horse to settle into standing in a corner.

AIMS:

  • Handler uses clear, consistent orientation, body language and voice ‘back up’ signals.
  • Horse smoothly shifts from walking forward to stepping backwards on request when the handler turns to face him.

Clips:

https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

Notes:

  1. Once the horse readily parks calmly in the corner, we can begin to teach the Finesse Back-Up. I call it that because it requires gently running our hand or fingers up the rope toward the halter, until we reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  2. Each horse will be different. I had trouble having Boots demonstrate clearly because she knows the task so well that she reads the very beginning of my body language sentence and steps back right away. If we teach this well, the horse will step back as soon as we begin to turn and use our voice signal, so that even our hand on the rope eventually becomes redundant.
  3. This is tricky to explain in words. Hopefully the video clips and still pictures will make it easier to understand.
  4. Two terms explained:  Outside hand refers to the hand furthest away from the horse.Inside hand refers to the hand nearest the horse.These obviously change depending on which side of the horse you are on, and whether you are shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse, i.e. both facing the same direction, or you are facing the horse front-on.

SLICES:

A: Getting Comfortable in a Corner

  1. Walk with the horse and halt in a corner set up with a gate or a barrier. The handler is on the open side of the corner. It the horse finds it hard to stand relaxed in the corner, and you have taught him to love standing his front feet on a mat, use a mat for your ‘halt’ position. Click&treat for the halt.
  2. Relax into zero intent and ask the horse to ‘wait’ for a little while in the corner. Click&treat the ‘wait’ task a few times.
  3. Turn the horse 90 degrees toward you so he can walk forward out of the corner. Walk a loop and come back to park in the corner again. Click&treat the halt. (This bit is not on the video clip but when first teaching this, we want the horse totally comfortable standing in the corner. It’s helpful to generalize the task to several corners if you have them available or can build them.)
  4. Teach relaxed standing in the corner on the horse’s left and right sides.

B: The Back-Up Maneuver

To ask for the back-up, you are going to smoothly pivot 180 degrees, so you face the opposite direction to the direction the horse is facing, but you are a bit to one side of him.

BUT: ***In the moment before you pivot…*** 

  1. Gently reach across your body with your ‘outside hand’ and slide it quietly up the rope to a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  2. At first, this may be right up to the snap on the halter (or if using a rope halter, even beyond the snap to hold the bottom of the halter) so you can give the horse a very direct backwards feel on the halter.
  3. As you pivot to face the horse, what was your ‘outside hand’ becomes your ‘inside hand’ — the one nearest the horse.
  4. Then simply keep a ‘hold’ tension on the rope and bring up your energy and intent for the horse to step back. This stance causes the horse slight discomfort by making him feel unbalanced. We want him to work out that he can regain his balance/comfort by shifting backwards. Our first click point is the moment he thinks of moving back. Because he’s in a corner, his easiest choice is to step backwards to regain his balance.
  5. When first teaching this task, release your ‘hold’ and simultaneously click&treat at the horse’s smallest inclination to shift his weight back. After the treat, walk a circuit, return to the corner, and ask again.
  6. When you can feel the horse readily shifting his weight back, release the rope pressure, but then, right away, slide up the rope again and ‘hold’ a bit longer to get a whole step back. Drop your signaling hand off the rope as soon as you get backward movement. Walk a circuit, return to the corner, and ask again.
  7. As he begins to understand, eventually ask for two steps, then three steps and so on, before the click&treat. The horse will soon know that when you relax your intent and take your signaling hand off the rope, he can stop backing.
  8. Ask for two or three back-ups (of several steps each) in a row, with release, click&treat for each one. Then ask the horse to step forward into the corner again; click&treat.
  9. Build a little dancing rhythm of movement: back up = click&treat. Forward into corner = click&treat. Back up = click&treat, and so on. After about 3 of these, go away for a bit of relaxation or doing other things.
  10. Gradually, over many short sessions, ask for more steps back until the horse willingly offers as many as you like.

Generalizations

  1. Move away from the corner and use just a fence on the far side.
  2. Move away from the fence and use just a low raised rail on the far side.
  3. Repeat with just a ground rail along the far side of the horse.
  4. Check to see how well the horse can back with this signal (turning to face him) out in the open. If you lose straightness at any point, return to using a fence or rail on the far side. If the horse begins to swing his hind end away from you, you can straighten his body by touching his neck to move his head away, which will straighten his body.
  5. Back through increasingly narrow spaces; e.g. two barrels, gates, into and out of stalls, always being careful that the horse does not catch his hip on an upright.
  6. Back through lanes set up with higher sides.
  7. Back along a track or trail.
  8. Back down slopes and up slopes. Start with gentle inclines.
  9. Back into a trailer or trailer simulation.
  10. Weave backwards (you need to create signals to direct his butt to the right, to the left and to keep it straight). If you are asking the horse to back up while you face him front on, moving his head a bit to his left (your right) will cause his butt to move to his right (your left). And vice versa if you move his head a little bit to his right, his butt will move to his left. If you want him to back straight, ask his head to stay straight.
  11. Back an L-bend.
  12. Back a U-bend.
  13. Back a Z-bend.
  14. Back in a circle.

Related Resources:

  1. Using a target: https://youtu.be/IfbdNme5UQA
  2. ‘Walk On’ and ‘Whoa’ Signals: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  3.  ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  4. Body Axis Orientation: https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y

Movement Routine 1 – Fence

Photo: Standing with ‘no intent’ at halt is part of these five chained tasks.

INTRODUCTION

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:

  1. They are a way to keep skills we have already taught current in our repertoire.
  2. 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.
  3. They include movement tasks we can do between working on stationary tasks, so giving the horse a good mix of activities.
  4. 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.

AIM

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;
  • Recall.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. 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.)
  3. Change of direction plus changing side of horse the handler is on. (See Related Resources 3 at the end of this post.
  4. Horse and handler agree on clear ‘stay’ signals. (See Related Resources 4 at the end of this post.)
  5. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. (See Related Resources 5 at the end of this post.)
  6. 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.

VIDEO CLIP

https://youtu.be/HqyJA_E7waY

NOTES

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

SLICES

  1. Memorize the sequence of tasks.
  2. 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.
  3. Walking with the horse nearest the fence, chain the first two tasks together (3 x walk & halt plus change of direction and sides).
  4. When 3 is smooth, chain the last three mini-tasks together (stay plus wait plus recall).
  5. When both 3 and 4 are going well, chain it all together.
  6. 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.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. 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.
  2. Practice alongside as many different fences as you can.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  3. Changing Sides in Motion: https://youtu.be/3oqPs4LM5AM
  4. Park and Wait (Stay): https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  5. Wait Duration: https://youtu.be/jVn3WBuqpno
  6. Recall Clip 1: https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24     Recall Clip 2: https://youtu.be/5BQCB2Fe5RE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Step at a Time

Photo above: Boots gained the confidence to step up on this balance beam by being rewarded for venturing one step at a time. After many short, successful sessions, she felt secure enough to target individual legs to my hand.

INTRODUCTION

The skill of being able to ask your horse to move one specific foot at a time is worthy of time and attention. It is a task that can be used and refined when riding or doing groundwork, including Horse Agility competition. It starts with being able to visualize the pattern in which horses move their feet.

Carefully observe the footfall sequences when horses walk, back-up, trot and canter. Reviewing slow motion video is best. Learn the footfall (foot-rise) for walk and trot, one gait at a time. When they are clear in your mind, add the canter.

Get down on all fours so you can mimic the pattern with your limbs. That helps put the patterns into your deep memory. Once you can easily replay the memory tape for each gait in your mind, you can give your horse much clearer signals.

Perfecting this helps to build the feel you need in order to time your riding or leading signals to the horse’s feet.

This is a great task for teaching us to carefully note the horse’s intent and time our click&treat to the moment a foot is lifting. The ability to see and feel footfall (foot-rise) is a huge bonus in a horse training kit.

It is actually the moment of foot-rise that we need to learn because it is only when the foot is lifted that we can influence where it goes next. Therefore during this exercise we want to click&treat as the foot is lifting.

Directing our horse’s feet one at a time has many uses. For example:

  • Cleaning/trimming feet.
  • Positioning for mounting.
  • Backing into stalls/wash bays.
  • Breed and showmanship classes .
  • Leading through narrow spaces.
  • Trailer loading and unloading.
  • Precision riding or long-reining/driving.
  • Placing a foot for an x-ray.
  • Precise mat or hoop work.
  • Pedestals.
  • Bridges.
  • Water obstacles.
  • Horse Agility obstacles
  • Getting out of tricky situations on the trail.
  • Stepping up and down a pedestal or balance beam or bridge.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. The horse responds willingly to light pressure on the halter via the lead rope. (See ‘Related Resource’ 1 at the end of this post.)
  3. We have taught the ‘finesse back up’. (See ‘Related Resource’ 2 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 lead. A shorter lead is easier to use for this task.

AIM

To create signals for asking the horse to move either front foot one step at a time, both back and forward.

VIDEO CLIP

https://youtu.be/http://A6RUNijvf18

NOTES

  1. Ensure the horse is in a learning frame of mind.
  2. Keep each session working with short – three minutes is plenty. Three minutes of focused work over many sessions will get you the result without lapsing into human or horse frustration.
  3. To lift and move a front foot, the horse must first shift his balance to take the weight off that foot.
  4. Unless the horse is pacing, the hind feet move in unison with the diagonal front foot.
  5. I’m not good with left/right or 3-dimensional thinking so it took me a long time to get these moves firmly into my muscle memory. I had to learn to carefully note where the horse’s feet were and how he was balanced before I asked a foot to move. Then I could decide which way I needed to tilt the horse’s head to move a particular foot.
  6. Remember to click&treat the moment the foot is lifting during this exercise.

SLICES

One Step Back

In order to lift his right front foot, the horse must shift his weight to his left shoulder and slightly back.

  1. Face the horse, slightly to the right side of his head and orientate your belly button toward his nose (when his head is straight).
  2. Hold the rope about an arm’s length from the halter, lightly draped, in the hand nearest the horse’s shoulder (rope hand).
  3. Reach across with the other hand (sliding hand) and slide it gently up the rope toward the halter. If you’ve taught a ‘back’ voice signal, use it as well.
  4. At some stage, you will reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  5. When you reach the point of contact tilt his nose/neck slightly to the left and put a bit of backward pressure on the halter. Release immediately when you feel his intent to move back (click&treat). Relax, then ask again.
  6. When you get a whole step, release (click&treat), relax. Maybe rub him if you are not using Clicker Training and he likes to be touched. If you get more than one step, accept it, reward it, and then adjust your signal so it has less energy.

Some horses may at first respond by leaning forward into the backward pressure you are putting on the halter. They are not ‘wrong’ because moving into pressure is a natural horse response. They are also not wrong because they don’t yet understand what you want.

If your horse leans into the pressure:

  1. Take up a power position (feet shoulder-width apart, one slightly ahead, hips dropped).
  2. Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse, about 2’-3’ from the halter with a bit of slack in it.
  3. Reach across with your other hand and softly run it up the rope toward the halter until you meet resistance from the horse.
  4. At that point, simply ‘hold’ just strongly enough to make the horse feel unbalanced.
  5. The moment he shows the slightest tendency to shift backwards to regain his balance, release the pressure (click&treat).
  6. Repeat. If you are clear and consistent and release (click&treat) promptly, the horse will soon read your body language energy and intent and step back before you can even slide your fingers up the rope.
  7. During multiple short practices, also introduce a voice ‘back’ signal.

When you reach a reliable response as in 6 above, you have created a gesture signal you can use at liberty to ask the horse to step back. Keep the gesture exactly as it was, i.e. running your hand up an imaginary rope.

When you have one step back at a light signal, ask for two steps back. It’s important to ‘release’ the halter pressure slightly after the first step, then increase the pressure slightly to ask again for the second step before a bigger release (click&treat).

Once that is smooth, ask for three steps, then four, and so on until you have as many individual steps as you like. Release the pressure at each step, then apply it again lightly to ask for another step. The horse will soon read the intent in your body language and will step back by reading your ‘intent’.

Pressure on the rope will no longer be necessary except maybe in unusual situations of high stress. In such situations the horse will have an advantage over horses who don’t understand this part of the task because he will remember what the rope pressure means and how to respond to it.

To move his left front foot back, tilt his nose/neck slightly to the right, i.e. always tilt the nose away from the foot you want him to move.

If the horse tends to push forward into the handler, it can help to have a rail in front of the horse or start in a blocked-off lane, so that stepping back is the easiest and common-sense thing to do.

When backing from the halt feels easy, we can expand and generalize the task by walking along beside the horse, halting and smoothly pivoting into position to face the horse and ask him to back up. Teach this first along a safe fence to encourage the horse to back up in a straight line.

One Step Forward

To move one step forward, tilt his nose slightly away from the foot you want to move (to take the weight off it) and put gentle forward pressure on the halter.

GENERALIZATIONS

Be sure to teach ‘one step at a time’ standing on the horse’s left side and on his right side. If he finds one side harder, work at bit more on that side.

Most people find giving signals with their less dominant hand harder as well. When each side feels the same, you’ve reached a big milestone.

When we can use a light signal to ask the horse to glide from walk into a halt, then as we turn to face him, we can ask for an individual step back or forward, we have achieved our task.

Eventually, get him to put a specific front foot on things. Start with a largish item like a doormat or a piece of carpet. Work toward smaller things like paper plates, Frisbees and leaves, then higher things like stumps, steps, pedestals, ramps, balance beams, hoof stands if he doesn’t already know all these things.

Be aware that once the horse is close to the object, he can’t see it, but is working from memory. The area directly under his head/neck is a blind spot.

Be particular but not critical. Always relax, pause and reset if the horse gets confused. After a good effort, go away from the site and do other things the horse already knows.

Then come back to moving one foot until you get another good effort. Don’t drill. After you’ve had two or three good attempts, stop and come back to it another time.

The essence of this teaching is that you create mutually-understood signals that communicate to the horse about moving individual feet.

This clip shows some possible generalizations.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Blog: Soft Response to Rope Pressure: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sq
  2. March 2018 Challenge; Backing Up Part 2; FINESSE BACK-UP https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

 

GROUND-TYING

INTRODUCTION

Having a horse stop and wait when his lead rope is dropped onto the ground is useful for management around home as well as out on the trail. It pops up occasionally as a challenge in Horse Agility competitions.

SAFETY

When first teaching this I prefer to use a wide webbing or leather halter. If the horse moves he may step on his rope and react by jerking his head up. With a wide halter there is less chance of spinal trauma. Alternately, we can attach the rope to the halter with a bit of wool that will break in such a situation.

I also suggest using a soft, thick rope not longer than 12 feet. If something causes the horse to move, it’s better if there isn’t a long, thin rope chasing him.

First we must of course make sure that the horse is totally relaxed with ropes dragging all around his body and legs. He must be cool with ropes moving in front of him, behind him and dragging alongside while attached to his halter.

PREREQUISITES

  • Rope relaxation and rope calmness in various situations. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 5, 6, and 7 at the end of this post.)
  • Able to stand still in relaxed mode while things are happening around him. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 8, 9 and 10 at the end of this post.)
  • Stop willingly to target his front feet to a mat. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 1 at the end of this post.)
  • Smooth ‘walk-on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying beside the handler on a draped lead rope. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 2 at the end of this post.)
  • Willing response to a “Whoa” voice signal. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 3 at the end of this post.)
  • Smooth ‘back-up’ with the handler beside the horse or in front facing the horse. (See ‘Additional Resources’ 4 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; he’s had ample time to graze or eat hay right before the training session.
  • Halter and lead kept loose (draped) as much as possible, because as much as possible, we want to use body language for communication, not rope pressure.
  • Two or more familiar mats.
  • A second rope.

AIM

When we drop the lead rope and give our horse a ‘wait’ hand signal, we would like him to stay parked in that spot until we return.

VIDEO CLIPS

#72 HorseGym with Boots: Ground-tie Clip 1 GETTING STARTED:

 

#73 HorseGym with Boots: Ground-tie Clip 2 ANOTHER VENUE:

NOTES

  1. Boots’ demonstration on the video clips is the sum of many short sessions over a long time. When teaching something new, we stay with each slice of the task over as many short sessions as necessary until it feels ho-hum (easy and smooth). Then we link in the next slice.
  2. Teach the whole process from the horse’s left side, then teach it again walking on his right side. Alternatively, teach each slice on both sides before adding in the next slice.

SLICES

  1. Walk on the horse’s left side with a loose lead toward a mat. Hold the horse’s lead rope in the hand nearest the horse. Carry a second rope in your other hand.
  • Halt with the horse at the mat using your halt voice signal and body language.
  • Drop your second rope on the ground under the horse’s nose.
  • Allow him to satisfy his curiosity about it (sniff it, put a foot on it, and so on); relax (click&treat.)
  • Keep a drape or ‘smile’ in your actual lead rope.

Pick up the dropped rope and walk together to another mat, or walk a large loop that returns you to the same mat.

Looking for: Horse halts with front feet on the mat and remains relaxed when the second rope is dropped and picked up again.

If you set up a circuit of several mats, you can move from mat to mat.

Remember to do something easy the horse already knows and build in ‘down time’ in between bursts of activity with this new task.

If you have a circuit of several mats, do the circuit once. Then do something else that’s easy and come back to the circuit again if it feels right to do more.

  1. As 1, but without using mats. Everything stays the same except that we have removed the prop of the mat or mats. It may help the horse at first if you walk the same circuit as you walked when you were using the mat(s). Halt and drop the second rope where the mats were during the previous lessons.

Once the horse seems to recognize the dropped rope as a place to stop and stand, gradually generalize to dropping the second rope in new places.

  1. As 2, but now drop the lead rope itself: relax as the horse halts; pause for a second or two, with neutral (no intent) body language. We want to begin building duration into the time the horse stands quietly after the lead rope is dropped. Be sure to click&treat well before the horse shows any tendency to move.

Looking for: Horse halts when you use body language and voice signal plus drop the lead rope and relax (click&treat). Horse relaxes too.

  1. It’s helpful if we can ground-tie the horse after we’ve asked him to back up. Ask the horse to back up and while he is backing drop the lead rope and at the same time use your halt voice signal, relax (click&treat) when the horse halts. Intersperse these requests with walking forward.

Looking for: Horse backs up on request and halts with the handler’s voice halt signal plus the dropped rope.

  1. Experiment to see what happens when:
  • Walking along you slow to a halt and gently drop the lead rope without using your voice signal as well.
  • If you have developed clear body language to communicate that you are going to stop, the horse will respond to just your body language and the dropped rope.
  • Relax (click&treat) at the first sign of a halt.

If the horse finds this difficult, leave it out for now and maybe return to it as part of your generalization when he knows the ground-tying task better.

Looking for: Horse brings himself to a halt when the handler halts and the rope is gently dropped in even in the absence of a voice signal.

  1. Bring back the mats and the second rope. Ask the horse to jog (or trot) with you and halt with you when you halt beside the mat. Use your voice signal plus drop the second lead rope from the jog. When it feels smooth, phase out the second rope and drop the horse’s lead rope.

Looking for: Horse willingly halts at the mat from jog/trot when the handler halts, gives the voice halt signal and drops the lead rope.

  1. Slices 1-6 above have the handler stopping with the horse. Now we want to generalize the skill so the horse stops when rope is dropped plus stays parked while handler keeps walking. Ask the horse to halt at a mat, drop the lead rope, and use your ‘wait’ signal to let the horse know you want him to remain parked while you walk away from him. For the ‘wait’ I use a gesture and voice signal at the same time.

For the early lessons with this generalization, it’s good to use a circuit of mats again, until you see that the horse understands the new nuances of the task consistently over several sessions.

Walk with a loose lead toward a mat. Halt with horse at the mat using:

  • Halt voice signal
  • Dropped lead rope
  • Give your voice and gesture ‘wait’ signals Then walk forward a few steps away from the horse.
  • Turn to face the horse and take up a neutral (no intent) body language position – place both hands flat over your belly button, drop your shoulders and have a soft focus not looking at the horse.
  • Wait a second or two, be sure to return before the horse even thinks about moving. Count the seconds. Start with one second and don’t wait longer until one second is completely okay with the horse.
  • If the horse moves, gently return to him, pick up the lead rope, walk together in a relaxed manner and start again. This is a re-set. Don’t make the horse feel wrong. He can’t be wrong because he doesn’t yet know what you want. Next time don’t go as far away and return to him sooner rather than waiting that extra moment.
  • Pick up the lead rope and walk on to the next mat to repeat, or walk a loop to return to the same mat.

Looking for: Horse halts at mat and remains there confidently while the handler walks on a few steps, turns, pauses, and walks back to the horse.

  1. Gradually walk a few more steps away from the horse and increase how long you wait before returning to the horse; relax (click&treat). Click&treat after you return to the horse.

If he loses confidence, immediately return to the distance and time he can cope with. Add distance and duration very slowly – one second and/or half a step at a time over many, many short sessions.

Looking for: Horse stays with the mat and the dropped rope until the handler returns.

  1. This slice asks the horse to halt at the mat while you keep on walking without stopping first. You drop the lead rope and use  your voice & gesture ‘stay’ signals but you don’t halt yourself – you keep on walking.

If the horse has been mainly watching your body language as his signal to halt, it could be hard for him at first until he realizes that,

  • the mat
  • dropped lead rope
  • voice signal

all mean he still should halt, even if you keep moving.

The Task: Walk toward a mat with a loose lead. When you reach the mat, simultaneously:

  • use your halt voice signal
  • drop the lead rope
  • give your ‘wait’ signal without stopping your feet when the horse stops
  • walk on a few steps.

Turn and face the horse, then:

  • wait a second or two
  • return to the horse
  • relax (click&treat).

Pick up the lead rope and walk on to the next mat.

Looking for: Horse stays halted on the mat while the handler walks on, halts, turns, pauses and walks back to the horse.

Play with this by gradually moving further away from the horse.

  1. Still using a mat, play with 9 above at the trot. Handler keeps jogging forward while the horse halts on the mat.
  2. Repeat 9 above without the mat, at walking pace.
  3. Repeat 9 above without the mat at jog or trot.
  4. Make sure the horse is comfortable when you leave from his left eye and from his right eye. Spend a bit more time with the harder side, if there is one.

Further Generalization

Generalize ground-tying to new venues and around new distractions, as long as it’s safe. Include mats initially if it helps the horse, then phase them out.

Additional Resources

  1. Blog: Using Mats: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
  2. Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  3. Blog: Willing Response to a Voice Halt Signal: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5R9
  4. Video Clip: #27 HorseGym with Boots: Good Backing = Good Leading: https://youtu.be/M6gxa2iriQ8
  5. Video Clip: #121 HorseGym with Boots; Stick and Rope Confidence: https://youtu.be/WIpsT4PPiXo
  6. Video Clip: #22 HorseGym with Boots; Rope Relaxation: https://youtu.be/6Y34VlUk0Iw
  7. Video Clip: #60 HorseGym with Boots; Rope Calmness: https://youtu.be/9WC_7d8M6lQ
  8. Video Clip: #22 HorseGym with Boots: The Art of Standing Still: https://youtu.be/F4Rn9kIc7FQ
  9. Video Clip: October 2017 Challenge: Park and Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  10. Video Clip: #22 HorseGym with Boots: Parking with Commotion: https://youtu.be/M6p5w8QZaIA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Balancera Exercise

INTRODUCTION:

Horses have an inbuilt action pattern for moving in synchronization with each other. One way to play with this wonderful ability is to devise an exercise where the ‘walk on’ signal balances rhythmically with the ‘back up’ signal.

First, we ensure that our ‘walk on’ and ‘back up’ signals, used individually, give us fluid movement together staying shoulder-to-shoulder. Then we link these two tasks together to form a sequence of dance-like steps.

While walking forward, we pause momentarily before shifting our energy to step backward. The pause gives the horse time to re-organize his body to step back with us. The message to shift gears must travel a lot further in a horse than in our smaller body. Also, the horse has four legs to organize, so it is important to build in a pause long enough for the horse to accomplish the change.

It can look and feel rough at first, but by spending a short time with this exercise often, the shift from forward to reverse gear can become fluid and polished. The two video clips below show the stages of training that Boots and I went through.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ signals and walks in a relaxed manner with the handler beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 1 at end of this post.)
  3. Horse responds easily to ‘back-up’ signals and walks backward willingly with the handler staying in position beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 at end of this post.)
  4. Horse and handler understand the ‘Zero Intent’ dynamic. (See ‘Related Resources’ 3 at 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; he’s had ample time to graze or eat hay right before the training session.
  • Halter and lead (kept draped as much as possible, as we want to use body language for communication, not rope pressure). If the horse already backs up easily with the handler in the shoulder-to-shoulder position, you can teach this task at liberty.
  • A selection of barriers which we walk toward and ask for a ‘halt’.
  • A safe fence or similar to work alongside.
  • Supports and rails to build a dead-end lane.

AIM:

To smoothly change from walking forward ten steps to backing up ten steps in a straight line, staying together in the shoulder-to-shoulder position.

VIDEO CLIPS:

Balancera Clip 1 of 2: #173 HorseGym with Boots

 

Balancera Clip 2 of 2. #174 HorseGym with Boots

NOTES:

  1. The slice numbers on the clips don’t correspond to the slice numbers below.
  2. Boots’ demonstration on the video is the sum of many short sessions over a long time. When teaching something new, we stay with each slice of the task over as many short sessions as necessary until it feels ho-hum (easy and smooth). Then we move on to the next slice.

SLICES:

  1. Ensure that you can ‘walk on’ together fluidly toward a destination, staying in position shoulder-to-shoulder (as for this whole exercise).
  2. Ensure that you can ‘halt’ together fluidly, staying in position shoulder-to-shoulder.
  3. Set up a lane and walk the horse through it in both directions. The horse walks inside the lane, handler walks on the outside.
  4. When 3 is ho-hum, walk the horse into the lane and ask for a halt about halfway along; click&treat. Do this in both directions.
  5. Repeat 4 above, asking the horse to wait a second longer before the click&treat, until he can comfortably wait 4 or 5 seconds while you relax with Zero Intent.
  6. Block off one end of the lane with a barrier placed about half a horse’s length inside the lane. Walk the horse into the lane and halt at the barrier; click&treat.
  7. Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse. Lift your rope hand straight up and jiggle the rope lightly to put a distinctive touch signal on the halter. If your horse already understands a voice ‘back’ signal, use this as well. Watch for any movement backwards, even a body shift back; click&treat. If your horse already responds reliably to a back-up gesture and/or voice signal, you can probably teach this at liberty.
  8. Walk the horse into the lane again, to halt at the barrier; click&treat. Repeat 7 above, gradually building up to several steps back.
  9. Block off the lane a little further along so the horse is halting with his whole body inside the lane. Repeat backing out, aiming for a fluid, confident back-up of 5-6 steps. Make sure the handler remains shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse during the backing steps.
  10. Now we want to switch the halter jiggle signal to a hand signal. As you lift the rope-hand straight up to jiggle the rope, also lift your outside hand to the horse’s eye level and make a backward gesture with it. And use your voice signal. Click&treat for any stepping back.
  11. When 10 is good, repeat, using the outside hand and voice signal BEFORE you lift your rope-hand to put jiggle energy into the halter. The moment the horse begins to step back, stop jiggling the rope but ask for another step or two with the outside hand and voice signals.
  12. When the horse moves back readily with your outside hand gesture and voice signal, fade out the rope-jiggle. You have taught what it means, and it is there as a reminding-signal in times of need.
  13. Now we want to combine walk forward, pause, back-up with one click&treat after the whole task. This is the Balancera. Walk into the lane, halt at the barrier, signal for the back-up; click&treat for any back-up that is offered. Because we are introducing new complexity, we relax our criteria for number of steps back.
  14. Gradually, over many very short sessions that always end on a good note, ask for more steps back after the halt before you click&treat. 5-6 steps are good during the learning process.
  15. Practice with a lane of ground rails. Most horses will tend to veer right or left when they back up, due to the natural asymmetry of their bodies. One hind leg pushes off harder, so their hind end veers away from the stronger leg. By frequent backing through a lane of ground rails or between barrels, we help the horse organize his body to stay straighter. I often practice this slice as part of our regular gymnastic work.
  16. Practice with one barrier on the far side of the horse but still halting at a barrier. This gives you another opportunity to note which way his hind end tends to veer.
  17. Work on all the above on both sides of the horse. Each slice has two parts – handler in the left eye and handler in the right eye.
  18. When you feel the time is right, repeat 15 and 16 without a barrier at the end of the lane or along the fence.
  19. Play with halting facing a fence followed by a back-up without the prop of a lane or rails.
  20. When you feel the time is right, ask for a halt away from any barriers, followed by a back-up. Celebrate hugely when you get this. Done with finesse, the horse becomes light and keeps his full attention on your body language so he can maintain the synchronization. I always click&treat after this task.
  21. Gradually build up to 10 steps forward and 10 steps back but vary the number of steps each time you do it. He will be listening for your click to know when he can stop backing.
  22. Whenever it feels ‘broken’, go back to whatever slice the horse feels confident with and work forward from there.
  23. Ask for two ‘forward & back’ repeats before the click&treat.
  24. Ask for three ‘forward & back’ repeats before the click&treat.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  • Adopt doing the Balancera between two ground rails as a regular part of your gymnastic warm-up and cool-down routines.
  • Play with this in new venues.
  • Play with it around new distractions.
  • Play at liberty.
  • Play with it to and from paddocks or while out on a walk.
  • Play with it on slopes, both backing down and backing up the slope.
  • Play with it long-reining using your voice and hand signal from behind the horse rather than beside him.
  • If you ride, play with it ridden. You can use the straight upward jiggle of your rope or rein to remind the horse about what you want, along with your voice signal and your body weight shift signal. If you use a cordeo (neck rope) while riding, you have probably already taught a touch signal with that for the back-up. If you begin by riding into a corner, it will easily make sense to the horse that you want him to back up.

RELATED RESOURCES:

  1. Blog: Smooth Walk-On and Halt Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Playlist: Backing-Up: This is the link to the first clip in the playlist: https://youtu.be/wZ7hnFSkxUU
  3. Blog: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO

Target Chin to Hand: Begin Targeting of Body Parts

Targeting body parts is fun to do when we are short on time or it’s too hot, wet, cold, or muddy to be out and about, which is often the case in January.

I’ve started with targeting chin to hand, because it is probably the easiest one to establish the IDEA of targeting a body part to our hand. It gives us a simple task to practice good timing of the click, plus consistent treat-delivery that keeps or returns the horse’s head to facing forward.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse confidently touches his nose to a variety of different targets held in a variety of positions. In other words, he seeks out the target.
  2. Horse confidently touches his nose to our outstretched fist in a variety of positions and with us standing beside him or in front of him.
  3. Handler has developed a clear ‘zero intent’ body language stance. (See Related Resources 1.)
  4. Horse understands the handler’s ‘zero intent’ position, by remaining calmly facing forward for several seconds, rather than turning toward the treat pouch or pocket when the handler stands beside the horse’s neck. There are training plans for these prerequisite skills in my book: “How to Begin Equine Clicker Training” (See the link to BOOKS at the top of the screen).

I have to presume that everyone is already familiar with the basics of clicker training, since the new shaping plans I share here build on those basics. If you are not familiar, the information in the book is a great place to start.

ENVIRONMENT:

  • Horse is not hungry, so he can focus on what we are teaching, rather than the treats.
  • Horse at liberty in an area he finds comfortable.
  • Ideally, herd mates in view but not able to interfere.

AIMS:

  • The horse willingly moves his chin to touch our hand held toward his chest from his chin.
  • The handler becomes more confident with slipping into and out of a ‘zero intent’ posture. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)

NOTES:

  1. Play with this in very short sessions. Stop when it feels good. Sessions can be before or between other things that you are doing.
  2. Have the short sessions as frequent as possible. Every day is good, twice a day is even better.
  3. Stick with one body part until you and horse are totally ho-hum with it.
  4. When you are ready to introduce a second body part, the PROCESS is exactly the same as the one outlined below for the chin.
  5. To introduce another body part, begin each session with the one(s) you have already taught, then suggest the new spot by touching it: click&treat, and progress through the same thin-sliced process.

VIDEO CLIP:

SLICES:

  1. Touch the flat palm of your hand to the horse’s chin; click&treat.
  2. Repeat several times so the horse can make the connection between the ‘touch’ and the click&treat.
  3. Hold your hand a tiny distance back from the chin (toward the horse’s chest) and wait for the horse to close the distance so he touches your hand: click the instant you feel the touch & treat plus celebrate largely (happy praise and a triple treat or jackpot).
  4. If you do slice 3 above, and the horse does not make the connection, resume with slice 2.
  5. Once the horse is making the connection over a tiny distance, gradually increase the distance one millimeter at a time.
  6. Early on in your teaching program, start each new session with a touch to the chin, to remind the horse about which task you are doing.
  7. Once the horse clearly understands the task, take up the ‘zero intent’ position between repeats, to build a bit of ‘wait duration’ between your requests. Build up the ‘wait time’ in one second increments.
  8. Some horses will develop a little signal to tell you when they have finished chewing and are ready for a repeat. (See Related Resource 6.) Watch out for these and value them by doing a repeat. Boots illustrates this in the video clip.

GENERALIZATION:

We can use how the chin (lower lip) feels to our touch to estimate the horse’s relaxation level. It’s easier to feel the chin (lower lip) tension than to see it when we are actively doing things with the horse.

While interacting with the horse, occasionally pause and feel his chin (lower lip). A soft, floppy lower lip suggests a horse relaxed about what is going on.

With increasing anxiety, the lip tightens, so it might be:

  • Very Loose
  • Moderately loose
  • A little bit tight
  • Quite tight
  • Very hard indeed.

Likewise, as anxiety reduces and relaxation returns, a tight lip will loosen up.

Add Pics of chin

A very relaxed, loose chin/lower lip.

A tighter chin/lower lip. When with the horse, it is easier to feel the difference than to see it.

RELATED RESOURCES:

  1. Blog: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  2. Blog: Target Shoulder to Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SH
  3. Blog: Target Hindquarters to our Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk
  4. Blog: Target Flexions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Ty
  5. Blog: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RV

 

RAINY DAY and STALL REST ACTIVITIES

INTRODUCTION:

These activities are all based on equine clicker training. Please see my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training: Improve Horse-Human Communication if you would like to investigate clicker training with horses. Details of my books are on the ‘BOOKS’ page link above. The books are all available via Amazon.com. Topics in the books contain free links to relevant YouTube video clips.

I keep the clips short – most are under five minutes. Each relates to a specific skill. Keeping them short makes them easier to find and review.

Each of the activities listed below has one or more accompanying video clips. Depending on the reason a horse is on stall rest, some  tasks may be a more useful than others.

  1. Nose to Target

This is fully discussed and explained in the book mentioned above. It is usually one of the first tasks when we introduce clicker training with horses.

Once the horse understands that touching his nose to a target held out by the handler earns him a click&treat, and he has a strong history of reinforcement for the task, we can use it to gradually develop flexion.

This clip shows a way to introduce the ‘nose to target’ task with the handler in protected contact (i.e. on the other side of a barrier). It’s good to use protected contact until we know how the horse responds to food being part of the training process. https://youtu.be/Rat3P1pGKjU

  1. Head Lowering (and Head Up)

This illustrates the process of free-shaping a behavior. Free-shaping means that we wait for the horse to do something it naturally does (e.g. lower the head) and ‘mark’ that behavior with a click&treat. It’s important to accurately ‘mark’ and treat each little approximation toward the final behavior we want, so timing of the click and smooth treat delivery are necessary. It’s helpful to work on these away from the horse by asking another person to stand in for the horse.

Clip One: https://youtu.be/AoqtJj2X1bU

Clip Two: https://youtu.be/Ol-BHB1QCnw

Clip Three: https://youtu.be/CYhgwlmrfps

  1. Okay to Repeat Signals and Grooming with ‘Okay to Repeat’ Signals

This post contains the background and video clip links.  https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RV

  1. “Intent and Zero Intent”

This post contains the background and video clip links. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO

  1. Target Feet to Mat and Duration on the Mat

This post with clips introduces the idea of mats. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9

  1. Target Flexions

This post contains the background and video clip. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Ty

  1. Target Chin to Hand

Clip: https://youtu.be/Fsigp8wB0LU

  1. Target Shoulder to Hand

This post contains the background and video clip. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SH

  1. Targeting Body Parts Overview

This clip shows an overview. Each body part would be taught separately following the outline for targeting chin or shoulder to our hand, as in items 7 and 8 above. https://youtu.be/tFGvmRRYdHQ

  1. Bell Ringing

Clip: a thin-slicing technique to teach bell ringing: https://youtu.be/wBdJMgtHU6A

Clip: bell and horn playing: https://youtu.be/pHvgJxJsmc4

  1. Picking Things Up

This clip looks at a first lesson: https://youtu.be/EDGRpM2yLBo

This clip is with a horse a bit further into the process. https://youtu.be/FCQrlMc01RE

This clip shows the skill generalized to picking up and carrying a feed bucket. https://youtu.be/zRM8kO992EY

The two clips below demonstrate the final slices of our process for learning to retrieve a cap tossed away.

Clip 1: https://youtu.be/bvRkCk___3M

Clip 2: https://youtu.be/hMIB5mlx65E

  1. Willing Haltering

Clip showing ‘halter prep’ using a hoop.  https://youtu.be/WKeLxfpBFAo

This post contains the background and video clip. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sw

  1. Relaxation with Body Extensions

Clip: https://youtu.be/nkwxYwtCP_Y

Clip: Stick and Rope Confidence: https://youtu.be/WIpsT4PPiXo

  1. Balance on Three Legs

Clip: https://youtu.be/x1WKppV3N_0

  1. Clean all Feet from One Side

Clip: https://youtu.be/UMyApCj9wBQ

  1. Hoof Stand Confidence

Clip: https://youtu.be/khsEm1YBtLs

  1. Head Rocking

Clip: https://youtu.be/-2VjmbfkfS4

  1. One Step at a Time

Clip: https://youtu.be/wStHxqNs7nk

  1. Soft Response to Rope Pressure

This post contains the background and video clips. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sq

  1. In-Hand Back-Up

Clip: https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

  1. Step Aerobics

This post contains the background and video clip. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sf

  1. Foot Awareness (Proprioception)

Some of the little tasks in this clip can be done in a restricted space. https://youtu.be/7bEkFk0w_gk

  1. Counting

This clip looks at the beginning of teaching ‘counting’: https://youtu.be/2os0DTE2SoE

  1. Kill the Tiger

This clip shows the final task. It was thin-sliced to first teach it. Be aware that some horses might generalize this bit of fun to pulling off their saddle pads unless you put it on cue or ‘on signal’. https://youtu.be/M8vzn1JsR_k

  1. Bursting Balloons

This clip shows Smoky after a few sessions when he is just beginning to get the hang of it. https://youtu.be/Md7ui1DejaI

  1. Target Hindquarters to our Hand

https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk

 

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

 

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

TARGET SHOULDER TO HAND

INTRODUCTION:

In the photo above Boots is leaning her weight toward me to connect with my hand which I held a small distance away from her shoulder.

Teaching the horse a signal to target his shoulder to our hand fits in nicely after we have taught him a signal to yield his shoulder away from us.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse is mat-savvy.
  • Horse is comfortable standing ‘parked’ with the handler standing alongside. To review, check out my ‘Using Mats’ blog.
  • Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. To review, see the clip #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent toward the end of this blog or check out the ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’ blog.

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) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty, if possible.
  • Mat.
  • For generalization, a hoop, ground rail, mounting block or similar.

AIM:

Horse confidently moves his left or right shoulder toward the handler’s ‘outstretched hand’ gesture signal.

Video Clip:  #160 HorseGym with Boots: TARGET SHOULDER TO HAND

 

Note:

When we request the shoulder to yield away, we project energy at the horse’s shoulder from our body’s core at the belly-button which causes our posture to be upright.

When we request the shoulder to move toward us, it is important to pull our belly-button back so that we 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 totally 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, 2-3 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. Ask the horse to park squarely; click&treat.
  2. Take up a position shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse and relax; click&treat. Work up to standing together quietly for five seconds before the click&treat, on each side of the horse.
  3. Reach out the flat back of your hand to lightly touch the horse’s shoulder; click&treat the moment your hand makes contact.
  4. Take up the ‘no intent’ or ‘zero intent’ body position and wait 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.

ZERO or ‘NO’ INTENT POSITION

  1. Repeat 3 and 4 above, watching for any weight shift the horse makes toward your hand as you move it toward his shoulder. If he does, celebrate hugely with happy words and a jackpot or triple treat. Avoid the urge to see if he will do it again. Wait until your next session.
  2. When you feel the time is right, hold your hand a tiny distance away from touching the shoulder and WAIT for the horse to shift his weight to make the contact; click&treat. Some horses may step toward you to make the contact right away. For either one, celebrate hugely once again. Maybe do it once or twice more to consolidate the idea.
  3. It took Boots a couple of weeks of daily mini-sessions before she consistently leaned toward my hand to make the contact. Then it took more days before she confidently stepped toward my hand when I held it further away.
  4. Decide whether you want to continue teaching on the side you started with, or if you want to teach slices 1-6 on the other side of the horse before proceeding.
  5. When 6 is ho-hum, gradually hold your hand a little bit further away so the horse must take a sideways step to contact your hand; click&treat.
  6. Whenever the response seems slow or unsure (or is missing), go back to touch the shoulder; click&treat. Then work forward again at a rate that keeps the horse being continually successful as much as possible.
  7. When starting a new session, always introduce the task with a shoulder touch; click&treat, to let the horse know which game you are playing.
  8. Work to having the response equally smooth on either side of the horse.
  9. If the horse is mat-savvy, lay a mat beside the horse to act as a destination. Place the mat so the horse takes one step over to reach it. Gradually increase the distance to get two steps, then three steps.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Turn on the haunches: ask the horse to step around to complete one/quarter of a circle (90 degrees). When that is smooth, work toward 180 degrees, and finally a full turn on the haunches (360 degrees). It can take a while to build confidence to do more than a quarter or half circle keeping the hind feet relatively in one place.
  2. Repeat 1 above on the other side of the horse. Because our bodies and the horse’s body are asymmetrical, one side is usually easier. It helps to do a bit more on the harder side until, after lots of short sessions, both sides feel smooth.
  3. Add a hoop (made so it comes apart if it catches on the horse’s leg) to the turn on the haunches exercise. This increases the level of difficulty, so start at the beginning with just one step and work up very gradually. Be careful not to make the horse feel wrong if he steps out of the hoop with a hind foot. If he does step out, quietly walk away together and return for a reset. The video clip demonstrates where I got too greedy, wanting too much, and it blew Boots’ confidence for a while.
  4. Keep each session super short and celebrate each new success hugely. This exercise enhances foot awareness.
  5. Stand the horse with his hind end nearer the mounting block than his shoulder, step on the block and ask him to bring his shoulder over so he is in the mounting position.
  6. If you want to focus on the horse moving toward you in a straight line, rather than in a circular pattern as above, stand the horse over a rail and see if he will bring his hind end along. If not, leave moving straight for now until you teach the ‘ribs toward me’ lessons.
  7. When shoulder to hand is smooth, start again at the beginning with ‘ribs to hand’. Follow the exact same procedure but start with a touch to the center of the ribs instead of the shoulder.

 

THE FOUR STAGES OF NEW LEARNING

Acquisition, Fluidity, Generalization and Maintenance

Acquisition

Acquisition includes getting our head around how we will ask for a unique behavior and then explaining what we want to the horse.

The way we first present new material to the horse is crucial. As much as possible, we want the horse to be continuously successful.

It’s helpful to practice our ideas and techniques first on a person standing in for the horse. If you are lucky enough to have an experienced horse, it also helps to work out techniques with him before moving on to a novice horse.

Even a well-educated, experienced horse appreciates learning new things in small slices. This allows him to build confidence and expertise with each step toward being able to carry out the whole task smoothly with one click&treat at the end.

We always begin with low-key experimentation to see what the horse can already offer. We may find that some of the basic elements in our Individual Education Program  are missing or not quite good enough. We might find some major training holes that need to be addressed.

For example, before we can teach our horse to weave a series of objects, have we taught him to confidently walk with us on a loose lead rope? Does he easily stay beside us, stepping off when we step off, halting when we halt and turning when we turn?

Gentle experimentation may also lead us to discover that the horse already has a solid foundation on which we can easily build a new task.

How we first present the halter to a horse and the way we handle the rope will have a huge influence on how confident the horse will be about joining in with activities that include the halter and lead.

 

Fluency

Once we have created an Individual Education Program and carefully taken the horse through it, we have acquired the ability to carry out a specific behavior together.

If the task is part of daily general care and recreation, such as safety around gates, the horse will have ample opportunity to use the new behavior often and receive reinforcement for it. His response to the signal will become more fluent as long as the handler’s signals are consistent.

If, on the other hand, the new behavior is for a specific purpose, such as loading onto a trailer or trotting through a tunnel for Horse Agility, we have to set up special training opportunities to allow the horse to become fluent.

Thin-slicing the many skills required for trailer-loading leads to fluency. Here we are using a trailer simulation to build duration while standing in a closed-off spot.

In my experience, if we train a new behavior to the point of fluency, the horse tends to remember it forever.

If a behavior is unreliable, it was not originally taught to the point of fluency and was not adequately generalized or maintained.

GENERALIZATION

Once the horse understands a new task or a new skill, it is important to take it out into the world. Through generalization, the horse gains further fluency with a task.

Generalization includes:

  1. Asking for the behavior in different places but still at home.
  2. Using different props.
  3. Working at different times of the day.
  4. Asking for the behavior away from home.
  5. Working with unusual distractions.
  6. Working at a different gait.
  7. Handler using a different body orientation.
  8. Fading out a signal and replacing it with a new one.
  9. Requesting more repeats or duration before the click&treat.
  10. Working with a different handler (who uses the same signals).

Generalization helps the horse put the new learning into his long-term memory. Each time we quietly repeat the task, we help build the horse’s confidence. If the horse is unable to do the task in a specific situation or context, it gives us vital information about where we are in our Education Program* with this horse for this task.

Once the horse confidently jumps simple obstacles, we generalize the skill to different-looking obstacles and obstacles in different venues.

MAINTENANCE

As already mentioned under Fluency, some behaviors become and remain fluent because we use them a lot, for example, putting on and taking off a halter or cleaning out the feet every day.

Other behaviors are specialized, and we have to create a plan to refresh and use them occasionally so that they stay in our repertoire. Vet procedures usually come into this category.

If we teach our horse to flex toward the prick of a toothpick, so his muscles are loose rather than taut, we need to do such needle simulations on a regular basis. Likewise, if we want the horse to be confident with a worming tube, we can practice with applesauce as frequently as we like.

Hoof trimming, whether we do it ourselves or hire someone, can cause anxiety for a horse if it suddenly happens out of the blue. It’s much easier for us and the horse if we pick up feet regularly and move the feet into trimming positions to make it a normal request. We can also introduce the horse to a variety of different people who are allowed to touch him and handle his legs and feet.

My friend Bridget helping Boots get used to other people handling her feet.

 

Willing Haltering

Willing Haltering

One horse may learn to sniff his halter (click&treat) and put his head in the halter (click&treat) in less than two minutes.  Another horse may take weeks of short sessions to just approach a halter lying on the ground or hanging on a fence.  An Individual Education Program (IEP) for such a horse might be sliced to include click&treat for each of the slices outlined below.

We stay with each slice until the horse is ho-hum with it.

One main element of teaching like this is that the handler maintains a relaxed attitude and observes the horse closely to see when he’s had enough for one session. The sessions are usually very short – maybe three minutes. Ideally three sets of two-three minutes among other things being done with or around the horse during any one visit.

A second main element is for the handler to keep a relaxed, consistent body position, orientation and way of presenting the halter (hoop) during the teaching/learning stage. Our focus is on what the horse CAN do (click&treat), not on what he can’t do YET.

We start with teaching the most basic prerequisite behavior.  When the horse clearly understands our request for that behavior (which could take a couple of minutes or up to many, many sessions), we add in the next ‘slice’ of behavior that will lead to our ultimate goal.

We can and should move on when:

  • The way we give the signal is consistent and clear (e.g., put our right arm over his neck and hold the halter open so the horse can put his nose into it).
  • The horse presents the behavior we want 99% of the time (when we hold the halter open, he puts his nose into it).
  • The horse does not add in any unwanted behavior (e.g. running away first, chewing on the halter).

If the situation becomes confused, it is usually because we have not cut the whole task into thin enough slices. Although we have an ultimate goal, the ultimate goal is not where we put our attention. Our attention is directed at each ‘slice’ or mini-skill.

Mastering these one by one and linking them together, as the horse is ready, will seamlessly bring us to our ultimate goal – the whole task that we thin-sliced at the beginning is performed smoothly with one click&treat at the end.

When confusion arises (in either the horse or the handler or both), it is essential to return to previous work until we find the ‘slice’ at which both the horse and the handler can regain their confidence. Then we simply work forward again from that point. This is Mastery Learning. Each small part is mastered before moving on to the next part.

By slicing the overall goal small enough, we can gradually create a positive association with a halter.

We want to teach the horse to be proactive about putting his nose into the halter/hoop. Something like a small hula hoop is easier to hold into position to teach the idea of dropping the nose into the hoop/halter.

#168 HorseGym with Boots illustrates an early lesson using a hoop to introduce the idea of something moving around the head, across the eyes and over the ears.

#65 HorseGym with Boots illustrates starting with a hoop and moving on to a halter.  In this clip I cut out the chewing and waiting time between trials to make the clip shorter, but didn’t really like the result as much as if I had left them all in, which would give a better overview of the pace of the session.

It’s easier to hold a small hoop when we first teach the horse to drop his head into an opening. This will eventually be the nose-piece of a halter. I also have to  build confidence about having my right arm lying across the horse’s neck.

SLICES

If the horse is wary about the look of a halter, for whatever reason, use a small hula hoop or similar made with a piece of hose.

Stay with each slice of the task until your body language and orientation are consistent and the horse is ho-hum with what you are doing.

  1. The horse looks toward the halter/hoop.
  2. The horse steps even the tiniest step toward the halter/hoop (Note that for very anxious horses, we can provide encouragement by putting the halter/hoop beside a familiar dish of feed or a pile of hay. In other words, we use complementary motivating environmental signals to help initiate a response that we can click&treat).
  3. He confidently touches his nose to the halter/hoop.
  4. As 3. when the halter/hoop is in different places.
  5. As 3. when the halter/hoop is in a person’s hand.
  6. Confidence when the halter/hoop in the hand is moved.
  7. Confidence with allowing himself to be touched on the neck with the halter/hoop.
  8. Confident with the halter/hoop touching his face.
  9. Confident with the handler putting and resting one arm up over his neck.

Eventually we can click&treat the following slices.

  1. When the horse moves his head toward the hoop.
  2. When the horse moves his head to the left and drops his nose into the hoop.
  3. When we can lift the hoop up toward his eyes and take it away again.
  4. When we can lift the hoop up over his eyes and take it away again.
  5. When we can lift the hoop past his ears and take it away again.
  6. When we can lift the hoop over his ears and lay it on his neck and take it away again.
  7. When we can do the steps above with a halter rather than a hoop.
  8. When we can slip on the halter and lay the halter strap behind his ears and take it away again.
  9. When we can hold the halter strap in position for longer.
  10. When we can do up the halter strap and undo it again and take the halter off.
  11. When we can put on the halter and leave it on for a short time.
  12. When we can put the halter on and take it off two or three times in a row.

 

Soft Response to Rope Pressure and Voice Direction Signals

INTRODUCTION:

It’s not uncommon for a horse to have bad feelings or mixed emotions about halters and ropes. My book, WALKING WITH HORSES has a detailed section about developing a horse’s willingness to put his nose into a halter. For more details, click on the BOOKS section above. Also, see ‘Willing Haltering‘ in the Further Resources section at the end of this post.

To help horses deal well with captivity, confidence with halter and lead rope needs careful attention. Essentially, putting a halter and rope on our horse is similar to putting on our ‘work clothes’, which will be an outfit or uniform suitable for the type of work we do. When we work for an organization or with other people, we adjust our behavior to what is appropriate at our job.

In the same way, a horse carefully educated about halters and ropes will recognize that he is wearing his ‘uniform’ and relate it to certain ways of behaving. Mainly, it limits his behavior choices. Ideally it also encourages him to pay careful attention to requests made via messages sent along the rope.

We can use the rope to send text messages. But, obviously, we must first carefully teach the horse what the ‘letters’ of our text mean. The lighter the pressure of our ‘texting’, the lighter the horse’s responses can be. In other words, the horse can only be as light in his responses to rope messages as we are light in sending them.

A rope is a way of ‘holding hands’ with our horse, not a tether kept tight to stop the horse escaping our influence. There is nothing so heartbreaking as see a gasping dog at the end of a tight leash or a horse struggling to understand why the tightness of the rope won’t go away, no matter what he does.

The key to lead rope handling is that the rope is always slack except for the brief moments it is sending a message to the horse. The instant the horse complies with our request, the slack is returned to the rope. It is the instant release of rope pressure plus the simultaneous click (and the accompanying treat) that enables the horse to understand which task we are requesting.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse is comfortable wearing a halter.
  • Horse is comfortable with a lead rope.
  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse has established the behavior of touching his nose to a target to earn a click&treat.
  • Horse understands standing on a mat with duration.
  • For the early sessions, it’s helpful to have the horse standing with his butt in a safe corner so that backing up and swinging the hind end away are not options. The first slices will therefore involve making sure the horse is comfortable and relaxed standing in a corner.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  1. A work area where the horse is relaxed.
  2. The horse is not hungry.
  3. Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  4. A safe corner the horse can stand in confidently. A safe corner is one where there is no chance of the horse putting a leg through wire or rails if he steps back or sideways. Hedges, sides of buildings or a corner made with barrels or jump stands plus rails tend to be the safest. Even a raised rail or a log behind the horse with a small barrier on the far side of the horse might be enough of a corner.
  5. A familiar mat to ‘station’ or ‘park’ the horse.
  6. A familiar hand-held target.
  7. When using the halter touch signal via the rope, be ready to click&treat for even the tiniest turn of the head at first. If we miss the horse’s first attempt to solve a puzzle, he can think his idea was wrong, and it can take a while for him to try it again.
  8. When we lead, long-rein or ride a horse, it does not take much movement of the head to cause the horse to change direction. What we are doing here is not an extreme flexion exercise. It is an exercise to see how softly we can give what will become our ‘please change direction’ signals once the horse is moving.

AIMS:

  1. To have the horse comfortable standing in a safe corner.
  2. To teach an ‘anchor task’ that precedes our request to turn the head.
  3. Use a target to teach head flexion to right and left; no rope.
  4. Add ‘right’ and ‘left’ voice signals to the task.
  5. Teach soft lateral flexion (turning the head right or left) using gentle touch on the halter via a rope until it feels equally smooth to the right and the left.
  6. Generalize the task to different places and situations.

SLICES:

A: STANDING COMFORTABLY IN A CORNER

Introduce the horse to each corner in small, easy steps. Thin-slice the process to what your horse needs. Use a familiar mat to indicate where you would like his front feet to be . Three  kinds of corners are shown in the videos clips.

  • If the horse readily yields hindquarters and forequarters we can use these to adjust his position.
  • Or we can lead him through the corner and back him into it.
  • If using a rail, we can walk him over the rail and halt with the rail behind him .
  • Play with as many safe corners as you can find or set up, to generalize the ‘corner task’ to different situations.

B: TEACH AN ANCHOR TASK

VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Right side)

Clip 1:

 

Clip 2:

In the same way that music is made up of notes and the pauses between the notes, we must have pauses between asking the horse to repeat the same task. Because the horse is at halt for this challenge, the anchor task creates the pauses between our requests.

We begin teaching the anchor task once the horse is comfortable standing in a corner, on a mat, with reasonable duration.

An anchor task is what we do to ‘set the stage’ for what we will do next. For example, when I play with targeting body parts to my hand with Boots, our anchor task is lifting a front knee to my hand. It tells her what game we are about to play.

Another example of a ‘stand quietly waiting’ anchor task might be to hang a special nose target in the spot you would like the horse to stand (park) while you tack up. Used like this, the foot or nose targets become a way that the horse can tell us that he is okay with us to proceed with what we are doing. There is a link to more about this in the Further Resources section at the end of the post.

As an anchor task for this behavior, I’ve chosen to rest my nearest hand lightly on Boots’ withers while she keeps her head forward. It is the position my hand would be if I were resting my reins while not giving a rein signal while riding. You might prefer a different anchor task.

In our case, this is a bit tricky because I use the same anchor position I use when we do belly crunches while standing beside the horse. The handler’s body orientation is often a large part of an anchor task.

I decided that Boots is far enough along in her training to learn to pause in this anchor position and wait for the next signal to find out whether a crunch or head flexion is the hot topic of the moment. You’ll see that we have a couple of conversations about this.

SLICES:

  • Stand beside horse’s withers.
  • Lightly rest your near hand on the withers.
  • Click&treat when the horse’s head is straight, or he is in the process of moving his head into the ‘straight’ position.
  • Step forward to deliver the treat so the horse keeps his head straight, then step back into position beside the withers.
  • Repeat until the horse confidently stays facing forward for 3-4 seconds until you click&treat .

C: LATERAL FLEXION TO A TARGET and D. THE VOICE SIGNAL

VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Left side)

  1. Hold the target out of sight behind your back and review the anchor task.
  2. When the horse stands reliably with his head forward in the anchor position, bring the target forward so he has to turn his head a little bit to touch it: click&treat & step forward so the horse straightens his head to receive the treat, putting the target out of sight behind your back as you step forward.
  3. Step back beside the withers and put your hand back on his withers: click&treat for head forward until that is firmly established again (3-4 seconds). Be patient about establishing (and frequently re-establishing) this step because clever horses will want to skip straight from your anchor (hand on withers) to telling you that they know what to do – turn toward you (as Boots does in Clip Two).
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 above until the horse reliably waits for you to produce the target before turning his head. If he turns without your signal, spend more click&treat on facing forward. Make sure you keep the target out of view behind your back. If turning his head is harder, spend more click&treat on asking for the bend.
  5. ADD VOICE SIGNAL
  • You will obviously want different voice signals for right and left. Voice signals need to be short, clear, and sound different from other voice signals you use. I use “and Gee” for right. I use “and Left” for left. “Haw” for left sounds too much like “Whoa” which we use a lot. The “and” in front of the key word is a bit of a preparatory signal that lets the horse know a request is coming. My voice emphasis is on the key word.
  • Some horses do better if you teach something thoroughly on one side, then repeat from the beginning on the other side.
  • Some horses may cope well with doing a little bit on each side from the beginning.
  • Some handlers do better when teaching the task thoroughly on one side first.

E. RESPONSE TO ROPE or REINS SIGNALS

VIDEO CLIPS 3 & 4

Clip 3:

  1. Stand beside the horse’s ribs just behind the withers, facing forward, rope in the hand closest to the horse. Keep a drape or ‘smile’ in the rope. Ensure that the horse can stay facing forward with relaxed body language for 3-4 seconds in the presence of the rope: (click&treat).
  2. When 1 above is ho-hum, say your voice signal and gently use both hands to ‘milk’ the rope, putting light pressure on the halter, looking for the slightest ‘give’ of the horse’s nose toward you. Release (click&treat). Step forward to deliver the treat in a way that has the horse straighten his head again.
  3. Work with 1 and 2 above until the horse waits for the touch signal on the halter and willingly yields his nose. If he turns before you give the rope signal, spend more click&treat time on keeping the nose forward.
  4. If he begins to turn his head as soon as you move back into position behind his withers, also go back to click&treat more for a head kept straight.
  5. Some horses catch on very quickly. Others may need multiple short sessions.
  6. Teaching a horse with no rope experience is usually easier than teaching a horse who has had rough treatment with ropes. In the second case, you must adjust your training plan to help overcome any anxiety the horse carries from previous handling.

Clip 4:

F: GENERALIZATION

Some of these are shown in clip 4:

  1. Once the whole task is smooth and ho-hum on both sides of the horse, move away from the corner but still use a mat. Do the task in a variety of different places.
  2. Once 1 above is good in a variety of places, omit the mat and again work in a variety of places and spaces.
  3. Replace the rope/halter touch signal with a distinctive hand signal that can be used to draw the horse right or left at liberty.
  4. Once the horse understands the halter touch signal via the rope, plus the voice signal, the anchor task can morph into just standing quietly together.
  5. Use the touch and voice signals while in motion to change direction, keeping the pressure on the rope as light as possible.
  6. The YouTube playlist called Developing Soft Rein Response (see Further Resources at the end of the post for the link) gives further ideas about how we can generalize the task further using reins but without being mounted.
  7. Building a strong history of response to directional voice signals is most helpful if you are planning to teach long-reining and if you take part in Horse Agility. The following clips suggest ways of strengthening the voice signals.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Blog: Willing Haltering: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sw

Clip: Park & Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys

Blog: Okay to proceed or ‘Seeking the Horse’s Consent‘: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RV

First clip (of six) in the Playlist: Developing Soft Rein Response: https://youtu.be/6nP2XU2urak

Step Aerobics

 

INTRODUCTION:

This exercise developed from something my horse offered when I was in the tack room where there is a wooden platform in front of the door. While I was in the tack room getting organized, Boots would step up onto the wooden platform to see what I was doing.

I recognized the beneficial gymnastic effect when I asked her to back off the platform and step up again in a rhythmic pattern. It became one of her favorite things to do. Interestingly, she never seems to have enough of it, and I have to be the one to suggest that we should do something else.

This Step Aerobics task has become our go-too exercise when time is limited but we want a bit of a warm-up before cleaning her feet or doing other tasks. When it’s too wet or hot or windy for much else, it’s a fun way to build some movement into our time together.

Step Aerobics, just like the human version, is an exercise that requires whole-body movement and flexion of all the joints, so it is an ideal task to do often in short bursts.

Items with an asterisk (*) are training plans covered in detail in my book, Precision Horse Training with Positive Reinforcement: 12 Thin-Sliced Groundwork Plans, available as e-book or paperback via Amazon.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for placing his front feet on a mat, so he is keen to stand on a mat whenever we put one out. #124 HorseGym with Boots: Free-Shaping Mat Targets* illustrates: https://youtu.be/xMaZWt5gK2o
  • Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent* illustrates: https://youtu.be/3ATsdPvld4Q
  • The ‘Finesse Back-Up’ exercise is ideal to teach a reliable back-up while we are facing the horse. The description and two clips below show how we evolved it.
  1. Working across a barrier, using a hand-held target for stepping forward, and using body language, breathing, intent and voice signals for backing up.
  2. Adding a halter and rope signal to the back-up so we can use it anywhere. Once the horse knows the task, the rope pressure signal usually isn’t needed because the horse responds to the breathing, body language, voice and distinct orientation signals.
  3. Once voice, body language, intent and orientation signals are well established, we have a reliable back up at liberty while we are facing the horse.
  4. To the signals in 3 above, we add a clear ‘raised fingers’ gesture signal to the back-up while we are facing the horse, allowing us to communicate clearly from further away.

Back-Up Part 1*:  https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

Back-Up Part 2*:  https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

  • The other part of Step Aerobics is a recall signal. Teaching and consolidating a recall signal are outlined in these video clips.

Recall Clip 1: https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24

Recall Clip 2: https://youtu.be/5BQCB2Fe5RE

My ‘recall’ gesture signal in this context is a movement where I shrink backwards and drop my energy and make a circle with my arms.

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 (as minimal pressure as possible on the lead, but enough to be effective) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • Materials to build a simple lane (one side can be a safe fence) and to block off one end of it.
  • Different mats familiar to the horse.
  • A pedestal or a step-up situation safe for the horse. A step-up trailer is an option, or setting up the trailer ramp as a step.

AIM:

Boots has taken herself to stand on a tire-pedestal while I organize the camera.

Horse steps up onto a pedestal (or step), then steps backwards down again, in a rhythmic pattern repeated several times.

SLICES:

A simple lane made with two rails, blocked off at one end with two tall cones, and a mat in the lane, demonstrating Slice 4 of the training plan.

Video Clip: #159 HorseGym with Boots: STEP AEROBICS

  1. Set up a simple lane. My lane in the video is two ground rails. You may want to begin with a higher-sided lane to make the behavior option we want as clear as possible for the horse. One side can be a safe fence.
  2. Ensure that the horse can walk right through the lane confidently; click&treat each time he calmly passes right through the lane. Handler walks on the outside of the lane. Walk a loop with the horse to repeat.
  3. Set a target mat near the end of the lane. Walk the horse into the lane and ask him to halt with his feet on the mat; click&treat. Walk him out of the lane forward, making a circuit to repeat targeting the mat.
  4. When 3 is done reliably with confidence, block off the lane at the end nearest the mat. Ask the horse to walk into the lane and target the mat; click&treat. Position yourself facing the horse, a bit to one side.
  5. Review the ‘Finesse Back-Up procedure as outline in the prerequisites. Click&treat for one or two steps back on request.
  6. When you no longer need to run your hand up the rope because the horse responds to your body language, inward breath, intent, and voice signals, begin holding your hands up higher until eventually your gesture signal morphs into your fingers held up beside your ears waggling to suggest backward movement; click&treat and celebrate hugely when he does (triple treat or jackpot or special treat). Keep a non-influencing loop in the rope or lay the rope over the horse’s neck out of the way.
  7. We want the raised fingers to become a main ‘back up please’ gesture. But at this point we still emphasize our inward breath, posture expressing intent and voice along with the gesture.
  8. If the horse comes forward to target the mat again right away, accept this with a click&treat the first time, but ideally, we want him to wait to be asked to move forward. You may, at first, need to invite him forward again very quickly after delivering the treat for backing up. If you have taught him a ‘wait’ signal, you can use it here. The October 2017 Challenge: Park and Wait* illustrates creating duration with the ‘wait’;
  9. Use your recall signal to ask the horse to come forward onto the mat again; click&treat. My recall signal as shown in the clips is a movement where I shrink backwards and drop my energy and make a circle with my arms. I learned it from Sharon Wilsie’s book, HorseSpeak.
  10. Alternate the back-up (click&treat) with the recall (click&treat). The aim is to smoothly get a series of these one after the other.
  11. Eventually, when 10 is really solid, you can ask for a back-up and a recall before the click&treat. Or ask for a recall followed by a back-up before the click&treat, moving toward the horse to deliver the treat.
  12. Once 10 is smooth, practice with a barrier on only one side of the horse.
  13. When 12 is smooth, practice with no barriers.
  14. When 13 is smooth, practice with a variety of mats and in a variety of different places.
  15. When 14 is smooth, introduce a pedestal or step. If the ‘step up’ idea is new to your horse, it can be helpful if you place a familiar mat on the pedestal the first time you ask.
  16. For some horses, it may help to begin with a relatively low ‘step up’ situation, such as a plank or thick board before asking for a higher step.
  17. At first be careful about asking for too many repeats. For some horses it will be an unaccustomed way of using their joints. Three repeats at one time is plenty to start with. Doing a little bit often is ideal. Once you are doing it at liberty the horse will probably let you know if he’s done enough.

GENERALIZATIONS:

We can use the back or sides of a trailer ramps as our ‘step’. I have used a solid piece of timber under the end of the ramp to create a step-up situation.

  • If you’re able to move your pedestal, move it to different locations. I have three ‘tire-pedestals’ set up in different parts of our training areas.
  • A step-up trailer is another option.
  • If you have a trailer with a ramp, and there are no jagged bits on the sides of the ramp, use the sides of the ramp as a ‘step-up’ spot.
  • If you ride or walk with your horse out in the countryside, look for spots that create a natural safe step. I’ve used our concrete front door step in the past.
  • Some people fill different-sized tires giving different heights for a step or build a series of pedestals.
  • If your pedestal is large enough, or you have a spot like the one in the photo below, ask the whole horse to step up and step down again.

I’ve asked Boots to step up with all four feet, then step back down again. The wooden lip and uneven ground make it more challenging.

I look forward to hearing and seeing  how you get on if you take up this challenge.

Using Mats: Parking or ‘Stationing’ and Much More

INTRODUCTION:

An easy way to teach parking with duration is to use mats as foot targets. Mats can be anything safe for the horse to put his feet on. My horses were especially fond of a small piece of foam mattress.

The series of video clips in this post begin with introducing a horse to mats, and go on to explore building duration on the mat and using mats as destinations.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse understands the basics of clicker work.
  • Handler can consistently time the click/marker sound to the desired action.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Halter and lead (with no pressure on lead) if you don’t have a space where the horse can be at liberty.
  • One mat to begin with, then a variety of different mats.

AIMS:

  • To encourage the horse to explore an object and make up his own mind that it is harmless.
  • To encourage the horse to see a mat as a desirable spot because standing on it always results in a click&treat.
  • To build duration stayed relaxed standing on a mat.

SLICES:

  1. Lay out a mat well away from the horse while the horse is watching.
  2. Stand back and observe the horse’s responses.
  3. Click & walk to the horse to deliver the treat if:   a) he looks at the mat.   b) he steps toward the mat.   c) he sniffs the mat.   d) he touches the mat with a foot.   e) he paws at the mat, click the moment he stops pawing OR at the moment he first touches the mat, them ask him to move forward or back from the mat to avoid pawing becoming part of what he things he has to do. (See the first video clip below.)
  4. Once he has put a foot on the mat, move the horse or pick up the mat and toss it away, and go back to observing, repeating 3 above.
  5. If the horse shows little interest in the mat, put a treat he really likes on it and show him it is there.
  6. If you are working alone, it may be easier to have two mats and as he eats the treat on one mat, you can be putting another treat on the other mat.
  7. #6 HorseGym with Boots below demonstrates introducing the mat target after a quick revision about nose targets.

Video Clips

Once the horse confidently heads over to put his feet on a mat as soon as we set one out, we can begin to build duration staying on the mat. #8 HorseGym with Boots looks at building duration.

Once the horse loves going to mats due to a strong history of reward reinforcement, we can use mats as parking spots for things like waiting tied up, grooming, foot care, vet care.

I’ve found that carpet stores are happy to give away their old carpet sample books. They are amused when I tell them what I want them for.

#14 HorseGym with Boots is the very first introduction of a young horse to the idea of stepping on something and it was also new for the young handler. 

The following videos look at generalizing mats to a variety of situations.

#9 HorseGym with Boots looks at putting mats ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal’.

 

#10 HorseGym with Boots looks at mats in different places and using different kinds of mats.

 

#11 HorseGym with Boots looks at more generalization with a ‘Mat-a-thon’.

 

#15 HorseGym with Boots looks at the horse staying parked at a distance.

 

#18 HorseGym with Boots looks at the horse staying parked while the handler goes out of sight.

 

Related Resources:

Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Signals:  https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT

Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals

 

Photo: Slight turn of her head toward me is consent to lift her lip.

INTRODUCTION:

Most of horse training is to teach the horse our signals that he needs to know to keep ourselves and the horse as safe as possible in different situations. If we check human health insurance claims, a fair number are horse-related.

New Zealand, with a population in 2017 of 4.79 million people saw 7873 people with horse-related injuries. Of these, 2852 fell off a horse. Horse accident insurance claims for 2017 came to $9,669,964.00.

No one knows how many horses have a short life because they don’t fit in with the demands of their constrained domestic existence which is, in many cases, completely foreign to a horse’s natural lifestyle.

The health insurance figures above suggest that there is room for improvement in human-horse and horse-human communication.

Fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware that the best training fosters two-way communication between person and horse.

Writers such as Sharon Wilsie (HorseSpeak) and Rachaël Draasima (Language Signs & Calming Signals of Horses) and my book, Conversations with Horses (see my Books section), are helping horse people to appreciate just how much information horses impart to us with their body language.

A horse’s world view is dictated by the way he senses the environment. His vision, hearing, smell and sense of proximity are different and mostly superior to ours. He has evolved adaptations that allow him to survive in open grassland rife with predators and profound seasonal changes.

Humans have a different history with different selection pressures. We sense our environment differently. With us, verbal language has, on the surface, supplanted body language.

Horses use distinct body language. Sadly, many people are blind to this language or choose to ignore it. The magic is that once we begin to observe and pay attention to what horses are saying, we start to pick up the nuances and get better at tailoring our training to the sensitivities of individual horses.

While there are differences, there are also similarities. Both humans and horses are gregarious*. They live in groups with extensive social interaction between group members. Living in a group means that there is always a balance between competition for the same resources and the need to maintain peaceful relations.

When resources are plentiful, there is minimum competition and maximum peacefulness. When resources are scarce, peacefulness is interrupted by competition as the more assertive group members jockey for the best resources.

Although people don’t consider body language as important as spoken language, we still display it clearly. We also react to it subconsciously. Between spouses and close friends, it speaks volumes. People like scam artists, who prey on other people’s susceptibilities, are astute readers of body language, using it to single out their victims. Horses can definitely read our body language, despite the species barrier.

As well as reading each other’s body language, horses read the body language of their predators. They know when they are in hunting mode, just passing by, or resting in the vicinity.

Horses are also aware that their own body language sends messages to predators, who look for signs of weakness or lameness. That is why it is often so hard to know if our horse is in pain. They will hide pain and infirmity as much as they possibly can.

What are ‘Okay to Repeat’ or ‘Okay to Proceed’ Signals?

‘Okay Signals’ are initiated by the horse to let us know that they feel okay for us to repeat what we are doing or to carry on with a procedure that involves a variety of things.

When I’m walking on the road with Boots, I’ve become aware of her need to stop and assess things such as cows moving in the distance, a vehicle in an unusual place or something that has changed in the environment since we last passed by.

If I stop with her and wait, paying attention to what has caught her attention, we are ‘on the same page’. I breathe out loudly to show that I’m okay with this thing that has caught our attention and relax into ‘zero intent*’. Eventually Boots will lower her head and bring her attention back to me, which tells me that she has satisfied her need to notice and is ready to walk on. This is the most basic ‘okay’ signal for us to watch out for.

Once we learn to pause with zero intent* (items with an asterisk are defined on the GLOSSARY page)  long enough to allow the horse to communicate with us, we can discover ways that individual horses will let us know when they are ready to repeat whatever we are asking, so they can earn another click&treat.

I think many good trainers are already unconsciously aware of these signals, without having given the concept a name. I think that isolating and focusing on this type of horse-initiated signal can open a new vista of training.

It is not hard to recognize horses communicating loudly when they don’t want to do something. It is not always easy, however, to know whether not wanting to do something stems from:

  • Anxiety or fear.
  • Pain.
  • The horse not understanding what we would like him to do.
  • Environmental distractions taking precedence over trainer requests.

We have to observe carefully if we want to learn to recognize horses communicating when they are not shouting loudly with their body language. Unless we train ourselves to understand the finer points of their signaling, we miss most of what they are trying to tell us.

Most horse communication is visual. Horses in an established group seem harmonious because a flick of an ear, the tilt of the neck, a single swish of the tail, a certain posture of the body, are all highly meaningful to another horse.

People are usually, understandably, so focused on their own agenda that they miss most of these signals. But we can do better. Since we remove horses from their natural life and make them captive to us, the least we can do is try hard to learn their language and use it to aid two-way communication.

The concept of waiting for a horse to give permission or consent for us to carry on with a task may be a novel idea for some people.

As mentioned earlier, good trainers probably do this subconsciously. They continuously observe the horse’s body language to gauge whether the horse is comfortable about proceeding with the training or repeating a specific task. Is it best to pause for a while, do something easy or finish for the day?

Our fondest personal memories are often of things we have successfully initiated and controlled. In the same way, horses respond positively to having control and ownership of what is going to happen next in their lives.

In other words, a sense of control is as reinforcing to horses as it is to people. We steal a great deal of their personal control when we bring them into captivity.

When it becomes the horse’s idea to initiate their handler’s next action, the horse begins to share ‘ownership’ of the behavior we are working with. Such a feeling of ownership alleviates the anxiety and tension that arise if the horse is constrained and forced to accept what is being done to him.

Much of what we do with a horse requires him to stand still. Standing still when unusual things are happening is not what evolution found useful for horse survival. lt is very much a skill that must be taught and developed.

For many activities, we’ll still have to read the horse’s overall body language to know if he is okay to proceed with what we are doing. But for some specific tasks, we can incorporate an ‘okay to repeat’ or an ‘okay to proceed’ signal from the horse. There are several ways of doing this.

‘Okay to Repeat’ Using Nose Targets

If a horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement* for staying parked in a relaxed manner with his nose on or near a nose target, we can use his willingness to stay, and touch the target again, as his ‘okay to repeat’ signal.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for touching a target .
  • Handler is aware of moving in and out of his/her ‘zero intent’ posture.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • A familiar target tied or set at the height of the horse’s nose.
  • Start with halter and lead on, with the lead draped over the horse’s neck or back so it is easy to reach if the horse chooses to walk away. If he moves away, quietly walk a circuit that brings you both back to the target; click&treat if the horse touches his nose to the target, then finish the session.
  • If he chooses not to touch the target when you return to it, go back to a few sessions with a high rate of reinforcement for touching a series of targets hung around your training area, before returning to the task in this chapter.
  • You can also have the horse at liberty and if he chooses to walk away, the session is automatically finished.
  • Keep each session very short. Ideally always stop before the horse shows any desire to walk away, even if it means you only do one repeat. Mini-sessions where the horse is continually successful at earning his click&treat make for rapid learning and a willingness to ‘do it again’ next time.
  • You are also showing the horse that it is okay to say, “I don’t feel like doing that right now,” without any value judgement on his behavior. You are giving him the choice about whether he wants to keep on working for clicks&treats, or he’d rather go away and do his own thing.

AIMS:

  1. Horse realizes that the handler will stay at ‘zero intent’ unless he touches his nose to the target.
  2. Handler waits patiently for the horse to touch the target as a sign that the horse is ‘okay to repeat’ the task.
  3. Horse realizes that he can move away if he doesn’t feel like playing.
  4. Handler realizes that there are times when it is okay to let the horse have a ‘say’ in what will happen next.

VIDEO CLIP:

#156 HorseGym with Boots: OKAY TO REPEAT SIGNALS.

If the horse is wary about the object, walk away backwards (or have another person walk away backwards holding it while you follow with the horse at the horse’s pace) and have the horse follow; click&treat any sign of willingness to approach the object more closely until he is able to put his nose on it to earn a click&treat.

Horses tend to follow things moving away from them and move away from things coming toward them. Yet most horse handlers expect a horse to stand still while they approach with an unusual object.

If we allow the horse the time to make up his own mind that an object is harmless, he will accept it as so. Horses naturally use approach and retreat whenever they come across something new. Life is much easier if we use their world view to facilitate our training, rather than restrict their movement and force them to accept something.

SLICES:

  1. Horse touches nose to target: click&treat in a position that has the horse take his nose slightly away from the nose target.
  2. Handler allows horse to investigate any gear he is about to use (brush, spray bottle, clippers, halter, cover, saddle blanket, paste worming tube, saddle or harness, bridle): click&treat, maybe several times, depending on how comfortable the horse is with the item already.
  3. Handler lifts arm with brush (or whatever) toward the horse keeping it at a distance that maintains the horse’s relative relaxation (under threshold): click&treat.
  4. Horse either leaves after the treat or touches the nose target again.
  5. If the horse touches the target again, the handler repeats approaching the horse with the brush, careful to click&treat while the horse is still under threshold, i.e. he still looks confident about what is going on.
  6. After each click&treat, the handler resumes the ‘zero intent’ position and waits for the horse to either touch the nose target again or take the option to leave.
  7. Ideally the handler will stop each mini-session before the horse feels the need to walk away. If the horse leaves, it is also the end of that mini-session. The handler now has useful feedback. He or she asked for more than the horse could offer comfortably at that time.

Done quietly and carefully with many mini-sessions that don’t push the horse beyond his comfort zone, the horse can usually relax into the new game which consists of the new things he has to allow if he wants to elicit more treats from the environment (his handler).

The horse’s comfort zone will gradually expand to include the new task we are doing with him. At that point, the acquisition stage is over, and we start to focus on fluidity, generalization and maintenance.

This is a video clip from a while ago which demonstrates the same idea. #4 HorseGym with Boots: Parking at a Nose Target.

‘Okay to Proceed’ with Mat Foot Targets

Another way to ensure consent or ‘permission to proceed’ is to ask the horse to park his feet on a mat. The horse’s willingness to stay parked lets us know that he is okay for us to proceed.

‘Okay to Proceed’ is a little different from ‘Okay to Repeat’. I use it for foot care which is a series of tasks rather than a repetition of the same task. Changing bandages and dealing with riding boots on and off, blankets on and off are also more in the line of ‘procedures’.

A procedure like putting on riding or driving tack could also be thought of in the same way, although I found a nose target also worked well for tacking up.

Once we have taught standing on a mat with some duration, we can use the horse’s willingness to stay there as a sign that he is probably okay for us to proceed with whatever we are doing.

VIDEO CLIP:

#157 HorseGym with Boots: ‘OKAY TO PROCEED’ WITH A MAT

If we use a mat with frequent short sessions for teaching vet procedures or foot care, the horse will soon realize that the mat coming out means clicks&treats are on the way.

If the horse feels the need to move off the mat it is critical that we don’t restrict or punish him in any way. We quietly walk a circuit together to return to the mat and halt on it: click&treat for the halt on the mat. We must ensure that the mat always remains a desirable place in the horse’s mind.

After returning to the mat, we can return to earlier slices with the task we are working on to find where the horse can still be continually successful, then end on a good note. Or we can use the mat to do something easy that the horse already knows to re-establish the mat as a good place to be.

Ideally, the handler will be able to read the horse’s increasing body tension before the horse moves off the mat and take one of the two options above or initiate a relaxation break before resuming the training.

Horse Specific ‘Okay’ Body Language Signals

To explore this concept with your horse, choose a simple task that the horse will probably find pleasant. Once the horse buys into the concept of giving us an ‘okay to repeat’ signal, we can expand to other physical care and vet procedures.

If you can choose one that is new to the horse it may be easier because it won’t have the baggage of past experiences. But we can also add this new dimension to a task the horse already knows.

Once I became more consciously aware of these signals, I realized that Boots had been using them in a variety of contexts and I had been taking note of them. Once I began observing more closely, I soon realized that she had several signals for letting me know when it was ‘okay to repeat’.

VIDEO CLIPS:

#154 HorseGym with Boots OKAY to REPEAT shows Boots’ signal for rubbing the inside of her ear, which we had never done purposefully before. It also has an interlude of belly-scratching with a new tool.

#155 HorseGym with Boots OKAY to REPEAT for TOOTH INSPECTION:  shows Boots’ signals for allowing me to lift her lips to inspect her teeth. This is a very early session.

Some other possibilities are:

  • Targeting the eye to a cloth.
  • Targeting the mouth to a paste worming tube.
  • Simulating injections.
  • Comfort with spray bottles.
  • Comfort with scissors or clippers.
  • Teaching specific tasks within a chained procedure such as comfort with saddle pad put on and removed, saddle put on and removed, girth tightened and loosened, handler putting foot in stirrup, handler leaning across horse, and so on.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse at liberty in a safe area. The horse needs to be free to move away if he no longer wants to take part.

AIMS:

  1. Handler is consistent with returning to ‘zero intent’ to wait for the horse to give his ‘okay to repeat’ signal.
  2. Horse learns that nothing will happen until he initiates it with his ‘okay to repeat’ signal.

SLICES:

The procedure is basically the same with any task.

We have to be mindful that some horses have never been given a say in what is going to happen once they are haltered or confined in a small space, so it could take a long time for them to try something brand new to their experience.

If you have played with your horse at liberty in the past, and allowed expression of opinion, it may all happen quickly.

  1. Gently indicate to the horse what you would like to do; click&treat. Maybe repeat a couple of times to establish the task.
  2. Then remove all signal pressure and take up your ‘zero intent’ position.
  3. Observe the horse closely but don’t stare at him with intent. Keep your body language totally relaxed. It may take a while for the horse to make a movement that seems significant.
  4. When the horse makes a movement that you think is an expression of his willingness for you to repeat the task, quietly activate the task with short duration, then click&treat. When I did this with ear-rubbing, I initially rubbed only once or twice before the click&treat. Eventually I began rubbing a bit longer before the click&treat.
  5. After the treat is delivered, return to ‘zero intent’ mode and wait for the horse to repeat his signal (he may have, or develop, a variety of these signals, as Boots shows in the video clips).
  6. As with most training, doing a little bit (three minutes or 20 treats) often is the key to rapid progress. It gives the horse time to process what has happened and often he is keen to repeat next time you set up the situation.

It could be that ear-rubbing is intrinsically pleasant for a horse already relaxed in human company. Even if it is, I want the horse to eventually relate offering of an ‘okay to repeat’ signal to any task that will earn a click&treat.

Tasks like eye care and checking teeth and allowing skin pinching and toothpick pricking to prepare for inoculations will not be intrinsically pleasant.

All horses are different, both innately and due to their life experiences. Therefore, each horse and handler will together create a unique ‘okay to repeat’ signal language that works for them.

The video clips are best at demonstrating the flow of the training. So far, Boots’ body language ‘okay to repeat’ signals include:

  • bringing her attention back to me after scanning the environment
  • dropping her head
  • momentarily turning her head toward me
  • her smile, and offering to place her nose between my hands for tooth inspection.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AVAILABLE:

Blogs:

Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO

‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’

Left Photo: ‘Zero Intent’ posture for staying parked: energy drained from my body, hands lying on my bellybutton, hips relaxed, one knee cocked, shoulders down, looking nowhere.

Right Photo: ‘Intent’: I’ve lifted my torso, breathed in and am activating my fingers into our signal for Boots to move her shoulder over.

INTRODUCTION:

A key way to make it easier for our horse to understand what we would like him to do, is to refine our own body language. The horse can only be as precise in his responses as we are precise with our body language.

We want to be as clear as possible when we ask the horse to do something, and equally clear when we want him to stand quietly or walk with us in a relaxed manner.

If we reliably assume a distinct stance and put our hands in a certain position to indicate that we don’t need anything to happen, the horse soon realizes that our posture is meaningful for him.

It is a bit like the computer binary system of zero and one. Either we want the horse to stand (or walk with us) in a relaxed manner or we want him to begin moving part of his body or his whole body in a particular way.

‘Zero Intent’ (sometimes called ‘neutral’) means that we want the horse to keep on doing what he is doing. On the ground, this might include:

  • Standing ‘parked’.
  • Walking beside us at a steady pace in a relaxed manner.
  • Maintaining the gait we have asked for if we are lunging the horse.

VIDEO CLIP:  #153 HorseGym with Boots: Zero Intent and Intent illustrates. On the video clip I use ‘No Intent’ to mean the same as ‘zero Intent’. The clip demonstrates a variety of tasks that begin with the ‘parked’ position.

Viewing the video clip makes it easier to get an overall picture. It can be helpful to practice visualizing changes from ‘zero intent’ to ‘intent’ during our day’s general activity away from the horse.

We express ‘Intent’ with signals we have taught the horse. When we first teach a new task, we can make our intent clearer if we engineer the horse’s environment to make the behavior we want more likely to happen. Once the horse does the desired behavior reliably, we can add voice and gesture signals.

For example. If our intent is to have the horse confidently walk onto a tarp, we can put a favorite treat on the tarp, so it becomes the horse’s idea to put his feet on the tarp in order to reach the treat. We are still free-shaping the behavior of walking onto a tarp, but we are helping it along by setting up an environment that increases the chances of it happening.

Behaviors that start and end with the horse standing parked with us in a relaxed manner are ideal for improving our ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’ body language. For example:

  • Touch a hand-held target which we then put behind us ‘out of play’ as we deliver the treat
  • Halt-walk transitions followed by walk-halt transitions.
  • Backing up from halt.
  • Yielding forequarters.
  • Yielding hindquarters.
  • Head down.
  • Picking up a foot.

We begin with zero intent, signal the horse with intent, click&treat when the horse carries out our intent, then return to zero intent.

When we practice this consciously, we remove much of the ‘noise’ and unnecessary energy or tension we hold in our bodies, which confuses horses because they are extremely sensitive to body language.

If there is no consistency in our body language, horses tend to regard all of it as meaningless and tune it out.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse has learned a few tasks that he can do from a parked position.
  • Handler has practiced awareness of his/her ‘zero intent’ posture away from the horse. If you can, use another person as a ‘sounding board’ for your changes in body language. Using a mirror will help. Things to work with for zero intent are:
    1. Energy deflated from body with a deep breath out.
    2. Shoulders relaxed down.
    3. Breathing slow and quiet.
    4. Hands lying quiet on bellybutton.
    5. Hips relaxed.
    6. Maybe one knee cocked.
    7. Eyes soft and away from the horse (e.g. gazing at the ground – looking nowhere).
  • Then practice coming out of ‘zero intent’ posture into the body language and gesture signals for the behavior that you would like the horse to do.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • If halter and lead are necessary, avoid pressure on the lead.

AIMS:

  • Handler becomes super-aware of (and consistent with) moving into and out of ‘zero intent’ body language.
  • Horse becomes super-aware of the difference between ‘intent’ and ‘zero intent’ in the handler’s body language.

SLICES:

Before you begin, visualize what tasks you will ask the horse to do with your ‘intent’ signals.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Present a hand-held target, then remove it out of sight behind you as you deliver the treat. Wait for a while before presenting the target again. Start with waiting for one second only. When that is good, wait for two seconds. Increase the wait duration one second at a time.
  • From halt to walk toward a mat destination to halt again.
  • From halt to back-up to halt again.
  • From halt to move forequarters to halt again.
  • From halt to move hindquarters to halt again.
  • From halt to target one of: chin, knee, eye, ear, cheek, shoulder to hand.

GENERALIZATION:

  • The ’20-Steps Exercise’  is another context to help become fluid with the ‘intent’ and ‘no intent’ dynamic.
  • Once the horse stays parked reliably, we can begin to move into different positions around him, taking up the ‘no intent’ body language so he easily understands that nothing is required of him except to remain parked. The skill is to maintain our ‘zero intent’ while we move into different positions around the horse. This video clip demonstrates.

  • Focus on developing ‘no intent’ body language when walking with your horse beside you. By walking in a relaxed posture, with a drape (smile) in the lead rope, breathing evenly, the horse has the opportunity to mirror your ‘at ease’ demeanor. Just as horses are conscious of any tension we hold in our bodies, so they are conscious when we let go of the tension.
  • As we become more aware of our body language, it gets easier and easier to apply our ‘zero intent’ postures to let the horse know that nothing is required of him at the moment except to stand or walk with us quietly.

The ‘no intent’ position sitting down.

Link

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What is Equine Clicker Training?

Clicker training is also called Positive Reinforcement Training.  It is a way of establishing 2-way communication with a horse.

When the horse presents a behavior that we want to encourage, we use a special sound followed right away with a small food treat that the horse really likes.  Like all of us, horses will seek to re-create a behavior that gives them a positive result.

The special sound can be made mechanically with a ‘clicker’ or it can be a ‘tongue click’ or a special sound/word that we never use any other time.  Often a mechanical clicker is useful to first teach a new behavior.  Then it is easy to change to a tongue click or our chosen sound/word.  This makes it easier because working with horses we usually need our hands free to use ropes and body extensions.

Since horses are designed to eat much of the time, a food treat is usually appreciated as long as we make sure it is something they really like.  It’s important to keep each treat very small and to include the treats in the horse’s daily calorie intake.

A good way to learn clicker training skills is to start with the Target Game.  Before communication can start, the horse has to understand the connection between the marker sound and the treat that will follow.  Some people call this  ‘charging the clicker’.  It just means that the horse has learned that if he hears that particular sound, a treat will always follow.

Target Game:

It’s a good idea to first practice the mechanics of this with another person standing in as the horse.  Well-timed food delivery is a key to success with this way of training. It is easier for the horse if the handler had muddled through the learning of  the mechanics of treat delivery. At the beginning it can feel a bit like tapping ones head and rubbing ones belly at the same time.

Ideally have the horse in view of his friends, but separated from them.  He will learn best if he is not hungry or thirsty and if he is in a relaxed frame of mind. I always ensure that the horse has been grazing or had access to hay before I train.

We’d like the horse to put his nose on a ‘target’ that we present near his nose.

The handler’s task is to:

  1. Have a hand ready on the clicker, if using one.
  2. Have a safe barrier between you and the horse.  Present the target – gently to one side of his nose, not thrust directly at him.  A plastic drink bottle or a safe object taped onto a stick is good to start with.
  3. Wait patiently until the horse touches the target with his nose or whisker at which point CLICK, move the target down out of the way
  4. And promptly reach into a pocket or pouch to get out a treat.  Use a pocket or pouch that allows the hand to smoothly slip in and out.  Be careful never to reach into the pocket or pound until after you’ve clicked.  This gets important later.
  5. Present the treat to the horse in a firm, totally flat hand so it is easy for him to retrieve the treat.  For some horses it may work better at first to toss the treat into a nearby familiar food bucket.  The skill of taking a treat politely from the hand can be learned later.  If he pushes your hand down, gently push upwards with equal pressure.
  6. When he’s eaten his treat, present the target again.

If we keep each targeting session short (3-4 minutes) and are able to repeat them 2 or 3 times in a day, the horse will learn quickly and look forward to each session.

The Target Game is a good one to start with because when you finish you simply put the target away.  Using the Target Game will let you decide whether Clicker Training (Training with Positive Reinforcement) is something you’d like to carry on with. It can be done alongside anything else you do with your horse.

The little clip below shows the beginnings and how it might develop over time.  The horses in the clip are already clicker-savvy. Be aware that at first we should always present the target in the same place.  When the horse consistently gets 10/10 for that, we can change to holding it higher up.  Then eventually lower down and to the side and requiring the horse to move to reach it.  But it’s important to get 10/10 for each of these, before we make a change.

Clip: Starting Equine Clicker Training

 

 

 

Destination Training

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Photo: Mats laid out in our training area make good destinations to encourage willing movement to the next destination. First we can have them close together, then further apart.

Destination Training

Destination training adds an important dimension to a horse’s ability to understand what we would like him to do.  We have to remember that the horse is captive to an alien species. Unless we take him through a careful, thin-sliced training plan to teach him what we would like him to do, he has no way of knowing what we want.

Every moment we are trying to figure out how to communicate with our horse, he is trying even harder to figure us out, and work out what we want him to do.

Giving the horse destinations helps him to make sense of many of our signals, because he sees a purpose to what we are asking him to do, rather than keep him forever locked into a mystery tour.  Like us, to remain confident, horses like to know what is going to happen before it happens.

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Photo: Here we have set up a series of white target disks along a track. Boots earns a click&treat for targeting each one with her nose. Gradually we would spread them out further and further, eventually attach them in appropriate places along a longer ride on road or trail.

Once the horse eagerly targets hand-held targets, we can tie similar targets around our environment and ask the horse to walk with us from target to target. This gives us lots of opportunity to seamlessly show the horse that walking with us (being led) is a fun thing because we are always heading to a destination that will result in a click&treat.

We can ‘stretch the value of each click&treat’ by gradually putting the targets further and further apart and/or in more challenging places. Doing this, we build the horse’s willingness to come along with us because he knows that we know where those magic ‘click&treat spots’ are.
When we introduce mats as a foot target destination, we open up further possibilities for seamless teaching/learning. Once the horse is eager to approach his mats because he knows he will earn a click&treat, the mats can serve the same purpose as the nose targets — desirable destinations.

But that’s not all. When a horse learns to line up his front feet tidily on a mat, he will generalize this to a tidy approach to the mat so he can step on it elegantly. We have given him a reason to line up his body and use it with more precision.
An energy conserving horse will be motivated to speed up to reach the mat. A rushing horse will be motivated to calm and collect himself to reach the mat.
For teaching the leading positions, the mat can help sustain the horse’s attention and focus, as well as giving him positive destinations or a ‘relaxation spot’ to visit periodically

Once the horse loves to move on to find the next target, we can introduce targeting of natural objects like trees or rocks, bushes, particular fence posts. We can also teach ‘target places’ like corners of paddocks or favorite grazing spots.

My  video clips are available on YouTube by searching for HorseGym with Boots or Herthamuddyhorse on the YouTube search engine.

Parts #3-#14 of HorseGym with Boots go through the detail of using destinations to give the horse a sense of purpose when we are asking him to walk along with us.
#128 HorseGym with Boots looks at the detail of smooth “walk on” using mat destinations. #131 HorseGym with Boots loots at the detail of teaching a good ‘halt’ using mats.

Here is one clip which will take you to the whole playlist: