Category Archives: skills

HANGING OUT with a HORSE

Sharing Time and Space — Communicating Zero Intent

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

Building a Connection Involves Relaxing Together

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Checklist Two:  PHYSICAL – Keeping you both safe and comfortable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shy, Anxious, Flighty, Timid or Suspicious Horse

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

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

Additional Resources:

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

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

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

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaining Fluidity without Drilling

Questions:

How do we become truly fluid with a specific task or series of tasks?

How can the handler practice a clear, consistent signal or group of signals?

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 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.

Gaining fluidity, with either new thought processes or 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 and muscle memory.

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

Not recommeded – 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 or 1-3 repeats suggests that they do seem to ‘mull over’ new learning and bring a brighter response to 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, a jackpot or a very 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 un-shelled 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 mini-objective items for the 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 many practices 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 a 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 background in 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

An un-shelled 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 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 up to 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.

 

 

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.

GENERALIZATION:

  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.

 

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

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.

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.
  4. One 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 the horse has learned about nose targets.
  8. #124 HorseGym with Boots is another look at introducing the mat.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

‘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:

One way we can 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 new, and equally clear when we want him to just stand 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.

The video clips make it much easier to get an overall picture. Practice with visualizing changes from ‘zero intent’ to ‘intent’ can be most helpful.

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).
  • Then practice coming out of ‘zero intent’ posture into the body language and gesture signals for the behaviors that you will ask for.

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.
  • 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 (see Jan 2018 Challenge).

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. The video clip from the Oct 2017 Park & Wait challenge 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.