Category Archives: Clicker Training Skills

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 or 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.

 

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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.
  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 demonstrates introducing the mat target after a quick revision about nose targets.

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.

Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals

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.

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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