Category Archives: Training Plans

Developing Soft Response to Rope/Rein Pressure

Photo above shows how we started teaching voice signals for turning right and left using a target. When the voice signals were established, I added a light rope touch – creating a multi-signal.

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. This is a task that needs thoughtful teaching.

Confidence with halter and lead rope is critical to help horses deal well with life in captivity. Essentially, we want putting a halter and rope on our horse similar to putting on our ‘work clothes’ – 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 send 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.

AIMS:

  1. To have the horse comfortable standing in a safe corner.
  2. To teach a ‘head straight’ 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.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse is comfortable wearing a halter. (See Number 7 in my Blog Contents List. The link is at the top of the page.)
  2. Horse is comfortable with a lead rope.
  3. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  4. Horse understands standing on a mat with duration. (See Number 9 in my Blog Contents List.)
  5. 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:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • 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 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.
  • A familiar mat to ‘station’ or ‘park’ the horse.
  • A familiar hand-held target.

GENERAL NOTES

  1. When eventually using the touch signal via the rope or rein, 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.
  2. 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.

SLICES:

A: STANDING COMFORTABLY IN A CORNER

  1. 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.
  2. If the horse readily yields hindquarters and forequarters we can use these to adjust his position (see Numbers 83 and 84 in my Blog Contents List).
  3. Or we can lead him through the corner and back him into it.
  4. If using a rail, we can walk him over the rail and halt with the rail behind him.
  5. 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

Clip 1: on right side of horse

Clip 2: on left side of horse

NOTES:

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 ‘stand quietly waiting’ anchor task might be to always hang a special nose target in the spot you would like the horse to stand (park) while you tack up.

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 to lift the reins in preparation to giving a 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 until you click&treat for 3-4 seconds.

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

Covered in video clips 1 & 2 as above. Clip 2 is on the left side of horse.

  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.
  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 bending is harder, spend more click&treat on asking for the bend.

D. ADD VOICE SIGNAL

NOTES:

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 REIN SIGNALS

Video Clip 3 introduces the rope:

  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 for a straight head.
  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.

GENERALIZATION

Video Clip 4 includes generalizations:

  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. 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.
  7. These five short clips called Soft Rein Response give further ideas about how we can generalize the task further using reins but without being mounted.

Line Dancing with the Front Feet

Introduction

An interesting aspect of horse anatomy is that their shoulder blades are not linked to each other with bone. Horse shoulder blades are embedded in muscles, tendons and ligaments. The spine passes between them. In other words, horses have no equivalent to our collar bone.

This ‘line-dancing’ exercise helps keep the muscles and ligaments in the shoulder area supple.

We can introduce this task once our horse knows the tasks of yielding the forequarters on request and targeting the shoulder to our hand. We ask for one movement yielding the near front leg away from us and a second movement bringing the near front leg back into its normal position.

AIM

When we cross our leg toward the horse we’d like him to move his near front leg across in front of his far front leg. When we uncross our leg and draw away from him, we would like him to bring his leg back into normal position.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Horse and handler understand ‘Intent and Zero Intent’ body language. See Number 10 in my Blog Contents List – the link is at the top of the screen.
  2. Handler and horse have worked out Consent Signals so the horse can tell the handler when he is ready to repeat the task. See Number 11 in my Blog Contents List.
  3. Horse and handler agree on a signal to yielding the forequarters. See Number 85 in my Blog Contents List.
  4. Horse and handler agree on a signal for asking the horse to target his shoulder to our hand. See Number 27 in my Blog Contents List.
  5. Handler is aware of the Rule of Three to help set up training sessions that don’t turn into drilling. See Number 46 in my Blog Contents List.

VIDEO

#262 HorseGym with Boots; Line Dance Front Feet.

MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT

  • A training area where the horse is relaxed.
  • Ideally he can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Handler in a relaxed frame of mind.

NOTES

  1. When first teaching a task like, this it helps to always do it in the same place until our signals are consistently smooth and the horse is fluent with the task. I started in our open-fronted shelter because it meant that we could do a short daily practice even when the weather was unpleasant.
  2. Ensure the prerequisites above are all well established.
  3. Once the horse understands the concept, I introduce the voice signal “Across” for moving away and “Return” for bringing the leg back.
  4. Be aware that when we give signals with the non-dominant side of our body, we tend to be stiffer, less precise, and therefore less clear. Awareness of this means we can work on improvement.
  5. It’s important to only do a few of each of these per training session. The Rule of Three, as in Prerequisite 5, is a useful guideline. The brain consolidates new nerve pathways during times of rest. We never want training to become drilling. We want the horse keen to try something new we are teaching because he is keen to earn his next click&treat. If he loses interest we have gone too fast or for too long.

SLICES

  1. Do a few repeats of click&treat for standing quietly together in your chosen area, using your ‘no intent’ body language during the ‘wait’ time. We need to remember to include this task in every session with our horse, no matter what we are doing.
  2. Cross your feet to model the behavior you want and gently touch the horse’s shoulder to ask him to move his shoulder over, so his near front leg crosses in front of his far leg. Click&treat this movement and at the same time uncross your legs and lean away from the horse to encourage the horse to return his leg to its starting position – feed the treat.
  3. If the horse steps away with both front legs or goes straight into a full turn on the haunches, we probably need to reduce the energy of our signal and time our click exactly to when the near leg lifts and begins moving in front of the far leg.
  4. Once the horse has the idea, shift the timing of your click to when the horse returns his leg into the start position – two behaviors chained to become the complete movement we want.
  5. Pause at zero intent for a little while before asking again. We can click&treat for standing quietly at zero intent any time it seems helpful.
  6. Repeat 2 above. If you get two or three good repeats. Pause. Then teach it again from the beginning standing on the horse’s other side. To maintain suppleness in both shoulders we must work hard to get both sides moving equally freely. If one side is stiffer, it is valuable information for us. Do a few more repeats on that side. And be aware of Note 4 above.
  7. When our signal is smooth and the horse is responding easily most of the time, ask for two ‘Across & Returns’ before the click&treat. Stay with two until it feels ho-hum.
  8. When two is easy, ask for three. You can gradually ask for more if you want to. I tend to stick with three or four on each side as our daily shoulder-stretching exercise.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. Do the task in different places.
  2. Work on a slope, standing either uphill or downhill.
  3. Add another element such as standing across a rail.

Yielding the Forequarters

Yielding the front end is an act of polite submission between horses. Bold, confident, imaginative horses especially, or fearful horses, may however not be keen to yield their forequarters. They may want to stand their ground and ask, “You and who else is going to make me move?”

Horses engaged in games nip at each other’s legs and neck in an attempt to make the other horse ‘give way’, so scoring an advantage. This can be good-natured play or in the case of stallions, it can be a serious dispute drawing blood. When young horses living a natural life play this game it teaches them where they stand in the social order among their peers and this knowledge stays with them. A predetermined social order results in a more harmonious group life with reduced confrontational behavior.

Depending on your horse’s character type and the relationship you have, he may be reluctant to move his front end away, or he may do it easily. By using clicker training, the horse can see the instant benefit (click&treat) of yielding his shoulder.

People teach the shoulder-yield in different ways. The process outlined below uses props and positive reinforcement by starting with mat destinations that already have a strong reinforcement history.

Some people use a hand-held target to lure the horse into the movement. However, I use a hand-held target for stretching exercises while the horse stands still, so also using it to ask for movement would contradict the stretching exercises.

WHY TEACH THIS?

  1. Safety. We want to develop a signal that easily moves the front end of our horse away from us.
  2. Smooth counter-turns to aid flexibility to change position easily. It also helps to create smooth weave or serpentine tasks.
  3. Aids proprioception (awareness of where feet are, what they are doing and how much effort is involved).
  4. Allows us to easily position the horse for foot care.
  5. Builds into a full turn on the hindquarters.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse keenly targets mats with his front feet. (See Number 9 in my Blog Contents List.)
  2. Horse smoothly steps across rails. (See Number 18 in my Blog Contents List.)
  3. Horse understands ‘Whoa’ signals and can stand relaxed on a mat. (See Number 16 in my Blog Contents List.)
  4. Handler clearly moves into and out of ‘zero intent’ so the horse knows when he can relax in a ‘wait’ and when he is being asked to move. (See Number 10 in my Blog Contents List.)
  5. Handler has developed the habit of holding the lead rope in the hand nearest the horse.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • A safe fence or barrier in front of the horse.
  • Something to make a barrier to create a corner. I used plastic jump stands in the video clip, but a raised rail, barrels or a couple of big cardboard boxes would do the job.
  • Two mats. Place one mat in the L-shaped corner and lay the second mat at 90-degrees from the corner mat, a few steps away from the open side of your L-shaped barrier.
  • A rail for the horse to step over to get into the corner.
  • Halter and lead or liberty. A short lead rope is easiest to manage.

AIMS:

  • Handler uses clear, consistent orientation, voice, touch and gesture signals.
  • Horse crosses front feet to yield the shoulder away from the handler on request.
  • Horse can eventually do a 360-degree turn on the haunches in either direction.

Video Clip:

https://youtu.be/eSlin8ZYcRA

Notes:

  1. STAY WITH EACH SLICE UNTIL IT FEELS SMOOTH AND EASY FOR BOTH OF YOU.
  2. TEACH EVERYTHING ON BOTH SIDES OF THE HORSE. Remember, we often give clearer signals on one side because of our own one-sidedness, so be sure to focus on being equally clear on either side of the horse.
  3. If one side is harder, stiffer, do a bit extra on that side, over many sessions, until both sides feel even.

SLICES: 

  1. Walk into the corner, with you on the open side of the L-shaped barrier. Ask the horse to target the mat with his front feet; click&treat.
  2. Stand together with zero intent* for a few moments (it’s good to vary how long you stay at zero intent each time), then ask the horse to turn with you to exit the corner and head for the second mat you have set at right angles to the mat in the corner. At this point, you are drawing him with you out of the corner. Click&treat the halt at the second mat. For this slice we are showing the horse that the task is to move himself over to target the second mat.
  3. Add a rail for the horse to step over to reach the mat in the corner. The rail will make it less convenient for the horse to step back when you ask for the shoulder yield. In the video, I raised this rail a little bit to make more of a barrier. Proceed as in 1 & 2 above. Click&treat each halt at the mat in the corner and every time the horse targets the second mat with his front feet. FOR THE FIRST ONE OR TWO LESSONS, REACHING THIS POINT MAY BE AMPLE AT ONE TIME.
  4. When 1-3 above are smooth, adjust your side barrier so it has a space at the front where you can stand beside the horse’s shoulder. Walk the horse to the corner mat, with you now on the the barrier side, and end up standing in the gap you made beside the horse’s shoulder.
  5. Quietly place one hand on or toward the horse’s cheek or neck and the other hand on or toward his shoulder. Breathe in and raise your energy as you do this. Send your ‘intent’ (that the horse should move his front end away) out of your belly button. You are asking him to turn away from you and walk to the second mat for his next click&treat.
  6. Repeat once or twice and that is plenty at one time. Repeat in very short bursts. Two or three times during a training session, interspersed with other thing you are doing, is good. Frequent short practices work best.
  7. Each time you walk the horse into the corner to target the mat, put your body into ‘zero intent’ and click&treat a few times for standing quietly with you. Vary how long you stay at ‘zero intent’ each time.
  8. Re-arrange your props so you can do slices 1-7 on the horse’s other side.
  9. If you can, repeat 1-7 in different locations.
  10. Replace the high side barrier with a rail on the ground. The front barrier is still high. You’ll continue to use the second mat as your ‘destination’. Reaching either mat always earns a click&treat.
  11. When the horse smoothly moves out of the corner by yielding his shoulder and heading for the second mat, we can change a parameter. We will now click for the first step of the shoulder moving away. Ideally, we want the horse to step the near front leg in front of the far front leg. As soon as you see this happening, click&treat. In the video clip you’ll see how surprised Boots is to get clicked at this point (rather than moving all the way to the second mat) and she has a little ‘jolt’ to regain her balance when she hears the click which tells her she can stop to collect a treat. Teach in on both sides. Often one side feels harder.
  12. When the horse is smooth moving his shoulder over a single step as in 11 above, remove the side rail and the rail behind. But keep the front barrier in place. Hopefully he will not have formed a habit of stepping back when you ask for the shoulder to yield. Practice without side and back rails on both sides. Click&treat once for the first step yielding the shoulder, then again upon reaching the second mat.
  13. Once the horse smoothly yields the shoulder on both sides without the side and back rails, omit the barrier in front and work with two mats. If that is too big a leap, have a low raised barrier or just a ground rail as a front barrier.
  14. When 13 is good on both sides, work with one mat. Start with the front feet on the mat, then, one step at a time, ask for a full turn until the front feet end up on the mat again. Click&treat as often as often during the turn as you need to to keep the horse successfully earning his next click&treat. Click&treat too often is better than not often enough. We want to keep the shoulder-yield movement as pure as possible, without creeping back or surging forward becoming part of the behavior loop.
  15. When 14 is good, play at liberty without a mat. Click&treat for one good yielding step until that is excellent both sides, then ask for two and stay with two until they are excellent, etc. until you can get 180 degrees before the first click&treat, then the other 180 degrees, click&treat. Keep your ‘yield shoulder signal’ ON for the number of steps you want, then turn it OFF at the same moment you click, then treat. You want to use a ‘constant on’ signal for the duration of your request. If we are really consistent, eventually just our energy toward the horse’s shoulder will be enough of a signal for many horses.
  16. The day will come when you feel ready to ask for a full 360-degree turn with one click&treat upon completion. Objective reached.

Yielding the Hindquarters

In the first photo above, I am using intent and a hand signal to ask Boots to move her hind end away from me. In the second photo, she has responded by stepping her right hind leg under her belly. I have removed my signal and clicked, and am in the process of getting a treat out of my pouch.

INTRODUCTION:

In horse language, yielding the hind end can be a ‘calming signal*’ – one horse telling another horse that he is moving away and therefore not a threat. Bold, confident, horses may not be keen to yield their hindquarters. They may prefer to first check out the other horse’s resolve by testing the boundaries.

(Words with an asterisk – * – are defined in detail via the GLOSSARY link.)

In some situations it is instinctive for horses to move their hindquarters toward pressure rather than away from it. Moving the hindquarters toward another horse is a sign of assertiveness. In reaction to a predator it is fear aggression. When dealing with predators such as wolves who dash in to hamstring large prey, a hind end swing with a well-aimed kick might injure the predator and/or break his resolve.

Your horse’s character type, his past experiences with other horses and his previous training experiences will all influence how he responds to a request to move his hind end away from a handler.

There are a couple of ways to approach this task. The slices* outlined below suit a horse who is well used to handling and being rubbed all over. With some horses, it is common sense to build in mobile protected contact* by carrying a body extension*. Once the horse understands the task and the owner is aware of how the horse will respond, using body orientation and hand touch or hand gesture, along with intent, is usually enough of a signal*.

To help the horse understand that we want his front feet to remain roughly in the same place, we can start with his front feet on a mat, presuming that keeping front feet on a mat has a strong history of reinforcement*.

WHY TEACH THIS?

  1. Safety. Especially in tight places, we need the horse to understand the concept of moving his butt end away any time we ask for it.
  2. Helps proprioception (awareness of where feet are, what they are doing and how much effort is involved).
  3. Builds into a full turn on the forequarters.
  4. Handy for all sorts of specific maneuvers such as navigating gates, shoulder-in, lateral movements, staying ‘straight’ on a curved path while lunging, setting up for canter departs.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse keenly targets mats with his front feet and stands on a mat in a relaxed manner. (See Number 9 in my Blog Contents List.)
  2. Horse smoothly steps across a rail. (See Number 18 in my Blog Contents List.)
  3. Handler clearly moves into and out of ‘zero intent’* so the horse knows when he can relax in a ‘wait’ and when he is being asked to move. (See Number 10 in my Blog Contents List.)

VIDEO:

#260 HorseGym with Boots. https://youtu.be/AkjIT8Tjxw0

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • A safe fence or barrier in front of the horse.
  • To begin with, a rail for the horse to step over situated so it is behind him when his front feet step onto a mat. This helps discourage the idea of backing up rather than moving his hind end across.
  • Halter and lead. A short lead rope is easiest to manage.

AIMS:

  • Handler uses clear, consistent orientation, voice, touch, and gesture signals.
  • Horse crosses near hind foot in front of the far hind foot to move his butt away on request.
  • Horse can eventually do a 360-degree turn on the forehand in either direction.

NOTES

  1. Stay with each slice until it feels smooth and easy for both of you.
  2. Teach everything on both sides of the horse. Remember, we often give clearer signals on one side because of our own one-sidedness, so be sure to focus on being equally clear on either side of the horse.
  3. If one side is harder/stiffer, do a bit extra on that side, over many sessions, until both sides feel even.
  4. Keep the sessions short, three – five minutes maximum. This is quite a demanding, concentrated task.
  5. Always be prepared to back up to an easier slice when the horse loses confidence. This is often the hardest part of training a complex task.

SLICES:

  1. Walk the horse across a rail to park his front feet on a mat. Click&treat.
  2. Keeping your energy as low as possible, rub him all over with your hands or a body extension; click&treat for standing still. Keep an upright posture while you do the rubbing because it makes the change into your ‘asking’ posture more distinct.
  3. When 1 and 2 are good, stand with your belly beside the horse’s ribs and turn your body axis slightly toward the rear of the horse. Drop your head and shoulders to direct your focus, with strong intent, at the horse’s hindquarters. At the same time, touch him lightly on the side of the hindquarters. Click&treat for a step over or, in the beginning, even a weight shift away from your hand or the body extension.
  4. If the horse pushes into your touch, quietly stay in position without releasing the extra pressure created by his move against the pressure. Wait in position until he works out his other option – moving away from the pressure.
  5. Each horse will be a little different. Each will have a ‘best place’ where your touch makes most sense to him. Be confident to experiment a little bit to seek out where the ‘best place to touch’ is for a particular horse. As always, try to keep your body language and signals as consistent as possible. At times I slip up with my body language in the video clip and became unclear for the horse.
  6. Once the horse understands the touch signal, it is usually easy to also teach a gesture hand signal we can use further away from the horse.
  7. Intersperse click&treat for standing still with Zero Intent* (while you rub) with the hindquarter-yield task. Try to keep your energy as close to zero as you can while you rub him. If the horse tends to escape your rubbing touch to move his hind end, do more of the rubbing = click&treat. If the horse is reluctant to move his hind end, do a bit more of asking him to move it = click&treat. We only want the horse to yield his hind end when we specifically ask him to move it, not whenever we put our hands anywhere near his back end.
  8. After one or two repeats of 3 above, walk a small circuit, click& treat for returning to the mat and begin again. We are looking for the near hind leg to step across under the belly in front of the far hind leg, without the front legs shuffling very much. (Time 4:46 in the video clip shows this in slow motion.) When you get one step like this, CELEBRATE hugely, and take a break. It could happen the very first time you ask.
  9. For a few sessions, stay with achieving one good step under and across, on both sides of the horse.
  10. When the time feels right, remove the mat, and ask for two steps. Stay with two steps (on either side) for a few sessions.
  11. At some point the rail behind and the fence in front will become redundant.
  12. When two steps is solid, begin to ask for quarter circles (90 degrees), then half circles (180 degrees). Celebrate. Stay with these for several sessions.
  13. When half circles feel easy, ask for a full turn (360 degrees). Celebrate.
  14. Ask for the task in different places.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • Become aware of when using this task can be helpful (e.g., positioning horse for foot care, moving safely through gates).
  • Teach at liberty.
  • Teach with the front feet up on a pedestal.
  • Teach with the front feet standing in a roomy, low-sided, soft rubber tub.
  • Teach with the front feet in a hula hoop.
  • Teach from further and further away, using body language and gesture signals.

Book Launch!

My new book, Horse Fun Without Riding using Positive Reinforcement, is now available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback. The photo above is the e-book cover. Look below for a free preview.

The e-book is available for a FREE download until midnight (11.59 pm) on Monday December 13 PACIFIC TIME. Be sure to work out when this is in your time zone.

The photo below is the cover for the paperback.

Ringing a Bell

Introduction

This is one way to teach a horse to ring a bell. It has the bell suspended at nose height so it is easy for the horse to move it with his lips. Some horses may easily pick up a bell attached to an object and nod their head to cause it to ring.

Aim

On request, the horse nuzzles a bell to cause it to ring.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse understands putting his nose on a variety of targets to earn a click&treat.
  3. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Number 11 in my Blog Contents List: Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals. Click here.
  4. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  5. Revisit the Rule of Three in Chapter 1: Click here.

Videos

#229 HorseGym with Boots: Ringing a Bell as a hand-held target.

#253 HorseGym with Boots: Ringing a Bell. This clip introduces the bell hanging freely.

#252 HorseGym with Boots: Bell Ringing.

#231 HorseGym with Boots:  This clip looks at introducing the idea of picking up the bell and walking with it.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A large bell that can be hung.
  • Something on which to hang the bell so it is freely suspended at the height of the horse’s nose.
  • For generalization, a bell attached to a rope or similar easy for the horse to pick up.

Notes

  1. The horse will think about it and be willing to try again next day. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again.
  2. With tasks like this we can fit several mini-lessons of three repeats in-between chores or other things we are doing with our horse.
  3. When the bell is a hand-held target, remove the bell behind you to take it ‘out of play’ each time you click&treat. This will allow the horse time to enjoy his treat and let you know with a consent signal (Prerequisite 3) when he is ready to do it again. Also, it will be obvious to him when you present the bell into view again.
  4. Some horses quickly progress through the early slices as soon as you start. Others need a great deal of patience over may days of mini-sessions.
  5. Click for any interest in the bell, even if it’s just sniffing the bell, then gradually click&treat for any sign of moving his lips to nuzzle the bell, even if it is not yet ‘ringing.

Slices

  1. Ring the bell yourself, followed by a click&treat for the horse. We want to let him know that the sound of the bell results in a click&treat. We also want to be sure that he is not spooked by the sound of the bell.
  2. If you think he might find it startling at first, use protected contact. Start ringing as softly as possible and make it louder as the horse shows confidence.
  3. Attach the bell to a hand-held stick so you can hold it out as a target. Click&treat when the horse puts his nose on it. This is outlined in video clip #229.
  4. Repeat 3 above with a major celebration if the horse nuzzles the bell enough to make it ring.
  5. Once it is reliable on one side of the horse, teach it again standing on his other side.
  6. Attach the bell to an object where it can hang freely at the normal height of the horse’s nose. This is outlined in video clip #253. Click&treat for targeting the bell.
  7. Wait in ‘zero intent’ until the horse nuzzles it enough to make it ring. Time your click as closely as you can to the very first bell sound. If this is not happening, try taping a string to the bell which you can quietly pull to make the bell ring a tiny bit as the horse puts his nose on it: click&treat at the very first bell sound. We want the horse to make the connection between the bell sound and the click&treat so he is motivated to make the bell ring himself.
  8. Once the horse is nuzzling the bell enough to make it ring, gradually withhold the click&treat, one second at a time, to encourage him to ring it for a bit longer. We might consider the task ‘complete’ if we get up to five seconds of bell-ringing.

Generalizations

  1. Set up the dangling bell in new venues and around other distractions. It could be part of a ‘circuit’ of different tasks.
  2. Once the horse is ho­-hum about ringing a dangling bell, we can generalize to him picking up a bell and walking with it as in video clip #231.
  3. Once the horse is carrying the bell attached to a soft item easy for the horse to carry, play with that in different venues. It could become part of your ‘Fetch’ games.
  4. Teach him to use his nose to ‘ping’ one of the little metal devices some shops use to let you announce that you need attention.
  5. Teach the horse to ‘play’ a keyboard with his lips
  6. Teach the horse to squeeze a bicycle horn for another novel sound.

Kill the Tiger

Introduction

This is a fun trick once your horse is good at picking up rags from the ground or off a fence. However, we have to be careful to put it solidly ‘on cue’ or ‘on signal’ so that the horse doesn’t generalize the task to pulling off his saddle blanket if he is a ridden horse.

I call it ‘Kill the Tiger’ because we only do it with the striped car seat cover we used in the video because, again, I don’t want her to generalize the idea to saddle pads or horse covers.

It’s another trick to keep our horse amused if it is too wet, windy, hot or cold to do more active things. The process of putting this trick ‘on signal’ consolidates our ‘wait’ signal. It’s also a lateral flexion exercise.

Aim

On request, the horse pulls a large cloth off his back and delivers it to our hand.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse understands a ‘pick’ signal which we’ve taught for picking items off the ground as in Number 73 in the Blog Contents List: Picking Things Up. Click here.
  2. ‘Zero Intent’ is well established. Number 10 in the Blog Contents List: Intent and Zero Intent. Click here.
  3. Horse and handler agree on a ‘wait’ signal. Number 65 in the Blog Contents List:  The Wait Game. Click here.
  4. Horse is confident about having large cloths draped all over his body.

Videos

#226 HorseGym with Boots: Kill the Tiger.

#254 HorseGym with Boots: Kill the Tiger 2.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A large cloth or similar easy for the horse to grab.
  • Perhaps a mat for parking the front feet to clarify that we don’t want the horse to move his feet.

Notes

  1. Ensure that the horse has a sound understanding of the prerequisite tasks. Give them the time it takes rather than focus on the end behavior too soon.
  2. Three repeats are usually plenty to start with. The horse will think about the task and be willing to try again next day. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again.
  3. Click&treat with a frequency that keeps the horse being continually successful with the slice of the task you are working on.
  4. Decide on a specific cloth or gunny sack or similar that you will always use for this exercise. It’s a task we don’t want to generalize to anything we put on his back.
  5. It’s probably easiest to teach this thoroughly on one side of the horse, then begin again on the other side.

Slices

  1. Ask the horse to pick your chosen cloth off the ground; click&treat. Repeat a couple of times to ensure this prerequisite is smooth and reliable and that he understands your ‘pick’ voice and gesture signals.
  2. Ask the horse to take the cloth from your hand when you give your ‘pick’ signal.
  3. Make sure the horse is relaxed with your chosen cloth draped all over his body.
  4. Lay the cloth over his back and ask the horse to ‘wait’, using your zero intent body language.
  5. Gently pull the cloth forward with your hand so it is easy for the horse to reach with his mouth and ask the horse to ‘pick’ it off his back. At first you may need to pull the cloth partially off. Click as soon as he grabs it and treat after he releases the cloth to your hand.
  6. Repeat 5 above a few times each session. As the horse gets to understand the task, gradually use your hand less but make sure the cloth is relatively easy for him to reach. We want him to be successful each time.
  7. At this stage you will often get the horse keen to ‘pick’ the cloth as soon as you put it on his back (or even before you can get it on his back), so we must emphasize the WAIT GAME from Slice 5 and frequently put the cloth on his back for a few seconds and take it off again without asking him to ‘kill the tiger’.
  8. When the task is ho-hum for the horse on one side of his body, teach it again from the beginning on the other side.
  9. Since this is a flexion exercise, routinely do a couple on each side of the horse. If one side feels stiffer, do a few more on that side.

Generalizations

  1. Ask the horse to walk along with the ‘tiger’ on his back before you ask him to ‘kill the tiger’.
  2. Gradually extend the ‘wait’ time before asking him to pull the cloth off his back.
  3. Generalize to pulling a rope off his back.
  4. Generalize to other venues.

How We Introduce Something New is Critical

Before We Start

Ideally, we consider the following points before we start.

  • We have thin-sliced the task into its smallest teachable parts and have an idea of where the early click points will be.
  • We have organized a training environment where the horse is able to relax. Ideally, he can see his herd mates, but they are not able to interfere.
  • We have thought about which part of the horse’s body we need to influence, and we’ve planned possible signal(s) to use (energy levels, body posture, body position, gesture, touch, words, strong intent). My book, Conversations with Horses, An In-Depth Look at Signs and Signals between Horses and their Handlers, looks at this topic in great detail.
  • The environment is set up to make it as easy as possible for the horse to understand what we want (use of a ‘lane’ or a corner; where we place the mat target or a nose target; use of barriers on the far side of the horse; where we position our body).

We want to make the desired behavior as east as possible for the horse to do. Setting up the training environment to achieve this means we are already halfway there.

For example, if water is challenging for the horse, we can start with walking through a box of rails on the ground, then put unusual surfaces down, like a tarp or these plastic bottles, before moving on to water.

If, instead, the horse learns evasive moves during our first fumbling with a new task, our education program has suddenly become more complex and longer. A bit of thoughtful planning can make things much easier for us and for the horse.

Ideally, we first try out our ideas with another person standing in as the horse. Or we can trial our process on a more experienced, forgiving horse. That allows us to eliminate some of the early trial and error in relation to our positioning and body language. 

By practicing with a person standing in for the horse, our horse does not have to put up our first fumbling as we learn new motor skills.

It allows us to be clearer for the horse when we first introduce something new, rather than confuse him because we have not yet worked out a smooth way to proceed.

The first step is always to make sure the horse is relaxed and in a learning frame of mind. If something has brought up his adrenalin, we do calming procedures or something active until he’s used up the adrenalin and can return to relaxation. If he is uninterested, we need to make ourselves and our treats more interesting. Or stop and just hang out. Maybe the horse is tired due to the weather or other activities.

Or we wait to start the new thing in a later session. If the horse gets tense during a training session, we must first look closely at our own emotional state and the energy we are communicating to the horse, often unconsciously. Both handler and horse need to return to relaxation before continuing.

We start teaching each slice of the whole task with click points determined by what the horse is able to offer already. As both horse and handler get smooth with each tiny additional slice leading toward the whole task, we gradually chain the slices together and shift the click point until the whole task can be achieved with one click point at the end.

When we begin teaching something new, we start by finding a beginning click point. For some things, this may be a very rough approximation of the final goal behavior, e.g. just a tiny drop of the head when we begin to teach head lowering right to the ground.

This is illustrated in the first of two Head Lowering video clips in my Free-Shaping Examples playlist. Click here.

We gradually shift the click point toward closer and closer approximations of what we want until we achieve the goal behavior.

Good timing of the click allows the horse to become more and more accurate. Once the horse understands a task that we are free-shaping, like the head-lowering example, we add a signal (cue) so we can ask for the task and also put in ON CUE so that the horse learns that a click&treat will only follow if we have asked for the task to be done.

When teaching something new, the focus of click&treat is on the new learning, but we can still click&treat good execution of things the horse already knows.

Short clip about introducing water as an unusual surface.

Consolidation of New Learning & Developing Fluidity

The Consolidation Phase begins when the horse generally understands our intent, our signals and usually responds willingly with the move we want. 

At this point, we can keep up interest and enthusiasm by providing an extra click&treat whenever any part of the task is done really well. 

To put a new task into long-term memory (for horses and for people) it needs to be practiced at least 9 or 10 sessions in a row; ideally over 9 or 10 days in a row. Some tasks will take longer, depending on their complexity. If we can’t have a session every day, we need to accept that it will take longer to build a new behavior solidly. Keeping a written record becomes essential.

How many ‘repeats’ we should do during one session is hard to pin down because it depends so much on:

  • What we are teaching.
  • The character type, age and history of the horse.
  • The skill of the handler.
  • The nature of the handler-horse relationship.

For some tasks, a rule of thumb might be three practice repeats in a row, unless the first one is perfect and calls for a major celebration. Clicker-savvy horses are usually keen to work until you decide to stop, but even a keen horse can use a short break after 10 repeats of learning something new.

If the horse is in the initial learning stage, a tiny improvement over last time is a valid click point, followed by celebration and doing something relaxing. During the whole training session, we could return to the ‘new learning’ task three times, in-between doing other things. 

Generalizing walking in water out and about.

Playing Fetch

Introduction

Some horses easily walk along carrying something in their mouth. Other horses find this a foreign concept. For such horses we must work through a series of slices to build up a new skill. My horse, Boots, has never worn a bit for riding, so walking with something in her mouth was a truly new experience.

Some horses learn this quickly at liberty. Others gain security by being on halter and lead (kept loose) so we can give more guidance as we walk along together.

This is only a possible training plan – each person/horse partnership must tweak the ideas to suit their situation – Individual Education Plans are different for each horse.

Aim

On request, the horse moves to an item we have tossed away, picks it up and returns it to us.

Prerequisites

  • 1. The horse understands the task of picking items up off the ground and handing them to you. (See Number 73 in the Blog Contents List for the detailed Training Plan).

#224 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Things Up. https://youtu.be/gis3PF7OLlM

#255 HorseGym with Boots: Picking up Cones. https://youtu.be/pHAPExzdUPk

  • 2. Horse and handler are comfortable going for walks together.

Videos

#231 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Up Bell. https://youtu.be/x_Jk570Pnlc

Short clip showing combining PICK UP with WALK TOWARD ME.

#234 HorseGym with Boots: Playing Fetch. https://youtu.be/9L8xszYARaM

Clip showing the various slices of the Training Plan.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Places to walk together.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Lightweight items easy for the horse to hold.
  • Halter and lead to go for walks.

Notes

  1. With this exercise, we are chaining a whole series of tasks together to build a new skill: 1) pick up, 2) walk holding the item, 3) release the item into the handler’s hand without dropping it, 4) turn holding the item, 5) move toward the item when it is thrown out and pick it up, 6) turn to walk back to deliver the item to the handler.
  2. Several repeats one after the other, of the slice you are currently working on, is usually plenty. A little bit often builds an enduring habit and the horse will be willing to take part next time you bring out your item(s). If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose the horse’s willingness to engage again.
  3. Each time you click, remove the item behind you to take it ‘out of play’. It will then be obvious to him when you preset the item into view again.
  4. Some horses quickly progress through the early slices as soon as you start. Others need a great deal of patience over may days of mini-sessions.
  5. Any time the horse loses confidence, go back to what he can do confidently and gradually work forward again. Horses instantly pick up any emotion of frustration or annoyance or anger, so be sure to practice emotional neutrality except for gleeful celebration when things go well.
  6. A horse can’t be ‘wrong’ until we have carefully taught him what we want in a way that he can understand and does not make him anxious.

Slices

  1. Take your horse for a walk and occasionally halt and ask him to take the item out of your hand, hold it for x number of seconds (starting with one second) before asking him to release it back to your hand; click&treat.
  2. While taking your horse for walks, occasionally ask him to hold, then carry the item for one step, then release it to your hand. With some horses this slice may take many, many repeats. If he drops it, have zero reaction, pick it up and try again, asking for it back BEFORE he drops it, even if so far you haven’t been able to walk one step ­– i.e., return to Slice 1 for a while.
  3. Once you have a single step and it is good 90% of the time, ask for two steps, and so one, adding one step at a time over as many sessions as it takes to maintain the horse’s willingness to try again. It’s easy to rush these early slices. To build a confident, lasting behavior, we do a little bit often over many days, weeks, months, depending on your horse.
  4. Gradually add more steps, one at a time, before asking for the item back. If he drops it, ignore it with zero reaction, pick it up and go back to what the horse can do confidently. Slowly work forward again from that point.
  5. Once he will walk beside you carrying the item for 15-20 steps, we’ll change a parameter* by slowly walk backwards so the horse turns and walks toward us, hopefully still carrying his item. Have a big celebration the first time he turns without dropping it.
  6. When he can reliably hold the item as he walks with you, turns toward you as you walk backwards, and walks toward you, we can add the ‘picking up’ part. We use the ‘pick’ signals we taught as in video clip #224. Ask him to pick  the item up and walk along holding it. Because we’ve changed a parameter (please pick it up first), we again click&treat for one step walking, and as before, build up to numerous steps gradually.
  7. Fetch: when he picks it up readily and walks with it, start to toss it a wee bit further away. Go to him as he picks it up, receive it from him and click&treat right away.
  8. When 7 above is good, after you toss the item away, walk into a position that makes it easy for him to walk toward you after he’s picked it up; accept it from him; click&treat. Gradually position yourself a bit further away ( and eventually at different angles to him) so he takes two steps, three steps, and so on to deliver the item back to you. When you change the angle note how well he can orientate himself to deliver the item to you.
  9. Once the horse understands that the task is to fetch the item and return it to you, wherever you are, toss out the item and stay where you are so the horse picks it up and turns to bring it back to you.
  10. Some horses will get into this game with enthusiasm. Others will do it in a sedate manner to earn their click&treat.

Generalizations

  1. Use a variety of item that are easy for the horse to carry.
  2. Play in a variety of venues.
  3. Add variety like walking over rails, backing up, or weaving while carrying an item.

Ponying from a Bike or Scooter

Introduction

When my hips gave up riding horses but not riding my bike, it made sense to teach Boots to ‘pony’ from my bike. Usually people ‘pony’ a second horse while riding another horse.

It’s a skill developed for pack horses or to exercise two horses at the same time. When my son was very small we rode together with his pony on a lead. Leading a horse from a bike or scooter rather than another horse comes with its own hazards and challenges.

Aim

The horse walks/trots confidently and safely led by a person on a bike or a scooter.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse and handler agree on voice and breathing signals for ‘walk on’, ‘halt’ with the handler beside the horse. Number 16 in the Blog Contents List.
  3. Horse and handler agree on voice and gesture signals for ‘back up’ while the handler is beside the horse. Number 32 in the Blog Contents list.
  4. Horse and handler have a good command of prompt transitions upward and downward using voice signals.
  5. Horse is relaxed about a dragging rope. It’s inevitable that we will drop the rope at some point to stop being pulled off our bike. #60 HorseGym with Boots – specifically the second half of this clip. Click Here.
  6. Horse and handler agree on voice signals for ‘right turn’ and ‘left turn’. #137 HorseGym with Boots: Click here.
  7. Horse and handler agree on signals for ‘go around and turn’. This is important to have smooth because as much as possible, we want ourselves between the horse and anything ahead that he might find worrisome. If he needs more space, we want him to move away from us, not into us. # 250 HorseGym with Boots: https://youtu.be/3oqPs4LM5AM and video clip #251 below.
  8. If riding on public roads or tracks, we must ensure that the horse has been given the time and opportunity to be comfortable around cars, motorbikes, trucks, dogs, pushchairs, other people on bikes, tractors, hikers, and children while the handler is walking with the horse. We need to feel secure with other road users approaching from in front or from behind. Trailers with flapping plastic are an ultimate test. Essential to get used to flapping plastic at home.

Videos

#247 HorseGym with Boots: Boots and Bicycle. Older video – short.

#228 HorseGym with Boots: Intro to Bike. Recent video.

#230 HorseGym with Boots: Bike on the Road. Recent video.

#251 HorseGym with Boots: Changing Sides. Recent video.

#249 HorseGym with Boots: Scooter Outings. Recent video.

#248 HorseGym with Boots: Bob meets Bicycle. Click here. Older video featuring a young horse seeing a bike for the first time.

Materials and Environment

  • We need a safe enclosed place where it’s possible to use free-shaping to introduce the horse to the bicycle and establish the basic protocols using a lead rope.
  • A helper is great to have at the beginning.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Quiet tracks, trails or roads to expand confidence. For public roads, the key is usually choosing the quietest part of the day.
  • Walk with the horse on the routes you will take, for many days, weeks, months, so the route is as familiar as possible. I’d walked or ridden our routes for a long time before ponying on my bike.
  • Bicycle or mobility scooter or similar.
  • Be especially sure the horse is not hungry before you set off. For some horses, a light mesh grazing muzzle can be a safety feature if the horse tends to dive for grass. Use it first walking out so it is not directly related to the bike. Munch-N-Go make a muzzle that is light and its easy to slip a treat into the side.

Notes

  1. It’s important to take the time to get all the prerequisites established. Although I put up monthly challenges, each challenge is just an idea that you may like to work toward. The real magic is in getting the prerequisites into good shape, which can take months or years, depending on many factors.
  2. Keep each session short. Three repeats is often plenty. Many short sessions keep the horse keen to ‘do it again’ next time.
  3. Click&treat often enough to keep the horse continually successful with what you are asking him to learn. Build duration gradually, but always be conscious of increasing duration as you can.
  4. Create a strong habit of using your voice signals all the time when they are appropriate, not just with the bike. Our “Whoa” response has saved my bacon numerous times. The “Back-up” with voice and gesture signals is essential. We don’t want the horse crossing in front of us unless we are inviting him to change sides.
  5. You may be fortunate enough to have tracks and trails where the horse can accompany you on your bike without the need for a lead rope. Some horses, like mine, will gravitate to the closest grass and stay there. If you are limited to public roads or tracks, safety with the lead rope is a must.
  6. When I take my horse out and about in the neighborhood, we have grazing destinations. If there is no grass, I take an ample supply of carrots and horse pellets which we stop to enjoy at the furthest point of our outing. In other words, I don’t expect the horse to randomly go with me. I give her a destination that makes sense to her. Horses who can move freely always know where they are going and why. We remove much of this self-determination from them when we want to do something with the horse. Working with destinations is a way to return it in a small way. See also Number 17 in my Blog Contents List: Destination Training.

Slices

  1. Have someone walk with your bike and you follow behind with your horse wearing halter and lead. Allow the horse to decide how close (or not) he will get to the bike. As soon as you see/feel interest or less tension (sighing, blowing out, lower head, softer body) – click&treat.
  2. Repeat 1 above until the horse is confident enough to walk right up close to the back of the bike, with click&treat for each sign of greater confidence.
  3. Ask the person wheeling the bike to slow gradually to a stop so the horse can touch his nose to the bike if he’s ready for that step; click&treat. Repeat a few times to consolidate.
  4. Have your helper ride the bike and repeat 1-3 above.
  5. At this point, if it feels safe, take off the lead rope so the horse makes his own decisions about approaching and/or following the bike.
  6. Without a helper: Walk with the bike yourself. Click&treat any movement of the horse toward you and the bike. The aim here is for him to want to come and target your hand or the bike to earn a click&treat.
  7. When 6 is smooth, ride the bike. Click&treat coming over plus any offer to move with you and the bike. At this point, it’s helpful to expect little but click&treat each tiny sign of increasing interest and confidence.
  8. Gradually work on duration of staying with you and the bike. Setting up a roomy reverse round pen is helpful at this stage – protected contact for you as the horse gains confidence. You bike inside the barrier while the horse follows outside the barrier. You can use foot targets in set places on the path of travel where you will always stop to click&treat, so the horse knows that there is a destination – a stop point if he stays with you. Eventually have just one foot target on the perimeter of the reverse pen.
  9. When the horse stays with you on the bike willingly and with confidence, see if you can speed it up so he trots. Sometimes transitioning to a higher gait brings out a spurt of excited energy. It’s good to test this out while you are in protected contact inside the reverse pen. It’s also a good place to work with upward and downward transitions using voice signals. Use your downward transition (trot-walk or walk-halt) voice signals as you approach the foot target when slowing down makes sense to the horse. Use your upward transition signal (halt-walk) as you leave the mat and your walk-trot signal a little while after you leave the foot target when the horse is anticipating reaching it again.
  10. Build duration without the reverse round pen by using foot or nose targets as destinations. Start with them close together and gradually put them further apart. If you used this method for teaching good leading behavior while walking with the horse, the horse will already be familiar with the concept.
  11. Introduce the lead rope into the situation. At first, walk the bike while leading the horse. When you introduce a new element to a situation, always go back to click&treat more often (in this case, anytime the horse is coming along smoothly for a few steps), then gradually less often as the horse gains confidence.
  12. When ponying from the bike at home in familiar places is smooth, venture out on the road first walking the bike. As mentioned in the prerequisites, ensure that you have walked with the horse many times on the public roads you plan to bike with your horse, so that dogs running out, horses or cattle galloping in adjoining paddocks, vehicles, children, and so on, have all been met before and worked through.
  13. When walking with the horse and bike is smooth, one day it will feel right to get on your bike. Keep the early sessions going away from home and returning home short – celebrate your safe return. It takes a long time to build confidence (yours and the horse’s) but it can be lost in a nanosecond.
  14. When you reach the farthest point of your day’s outing, allow the horse grazing time or stop for a generous jackpot of treats, before heading home again. This gives the horse a sense of ‘destination’ as outlined in NOTE 6.
  15. Slowly build up confidence with the types of landscapes you have for biking or scootering with your horse. Shorter distances done often are preferable to long distances less often.
  16. If you have graduated to a mobility scooter or similar, play with it at home first. Play with having the horse follow it with you while another person drives it. Walk the horse on the left side and the right side of the scooter, first with you nearest the scooter, then with the horse nearest the scooter. Practice the ‘walk on’, ‘halt’, ‘back-up’ transitions. Practice the ‘go around in front and turn to change sides’ maneuver (Prerequisite 7) from both sides until both sides feel smooth.

Generalizations

  1. Different venues.
  2. Electric bike.
  3. Four-wheeler – avoid horse having to breathe in exhaust.
  4. Golf cart.
  5. Introduce a rider to horse’s movement without having to ‘be in charge’.
  6. Ride one horse and lead a second horse.

Signals versus ‘Cues’ or ‘Stimuli’

This is an extract from my book, Conversations with Horses: an in-depth look at signals and cues between horses and their handlers. Please see the BOOKS tab above to easily preview any of my books.

Defining a Signal

In the horse world, there are several terms used for the signals we give horses. One is ‘aids’ which is commonly used when riding. The term ‘cue’ seems to have become popular with clicker trainers.

Much more about Clicker Training is available in my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training. The term ‘stimulus’ comes from animal behavior laboratories.

I prefer the term ‘signal’ because it suggests that a message is sent and the ‘correct’ or intended message is received by the other party.

If a Morse code sender carefully sends his message, but the person at the other end does not know Morse code well enough to decode the message accurately, then the signal has failed. The garbled message may well lead to troubled times.

In other words, if a signal does not relay the desired message, then whatever we have used as a signal is not acting as a signal. By definition, a signal must communicate the person’s message and be received as such by the other party, in this case, the horse.

If it is not working as intended, the signal needs to be adjusted or changed so the message sent equals the message received.

When we are with the horse, he is busy sending us signals about his emotional, mental and physical well-being. If we can’t pick up these signals accurately, then the horse becomes frustrated and misunderstood and often retreats from willing interaction by trying to leave or ‘shutting down’. He becomes reactive rather than responsive.

Cues and stimuli are constantly bombarding all of us. A signal is something we want to stand out from everything else the horse is noticing and everything else we are noticing. We want the horse to easily separate our signal from all the other many cues that are constantly flowing in.

At the same time as we are communicating our intent with our signals, the horse is trying hard to communicate his intent and his feelings with his body language. The more ‘in tune’ we can get with the signals our horse sends us, the better our two-way communication can become.

In this work, I will use the term ‘signal’ rather than ‘aid’, ‘cue’ or ‘stimulus’. I’ll also refer to all horses as ‘he’ for ease of reading, unless I’m talking about a specific mare or filly.

Like the rest of us, horses thrive on clarity and consistency of communication. 

Building a relationship with a horse is like locating a set of keys to unlock a door so the horse’s true nature can come out.

The horse’s total well-being depends on how well we can help him adapt to the peculiar life a horse must live in a human-centered world.

While we are trying to get to know our horse better and understand his emotional, mental and physical boundaries, the horse is doing exactly the same with us.

He is trying to read our intentions so he can be ready to react or respond, according to his perceptions. The more we understand about the signals we are giving the horse, the more we can develop a mutual language.

Boots is reading my body language and gesture signals for stepping onto the balance beam.

The more we realize that much of what we are communicating to the horse is in our unconscious body language, the more we can ‘still’ our body between meaningful signals. 

‘No Intent’ body language tell the horse that all we are doing is standing together quietly.

We would like the horse to respond confidently to our requests rather than become anxious, reactive and bracing against the pressure of our signals. 

The horse would also prefer to respond rather than become anxious, adrenalized and feeling the need to react by trying to escape, push through pressure or mentally and physically ‘shut down’ – hiding inside himself. 

A horse needs a sound foundation of knowledge to enable him to cope with the very strange things people expect of their captive horses. 

To do this we need to:

  • Take the horse through a careful education program 
  • Set up a teaching schedule suited to the individual horse’s background and ability and adapted continually to the feedback the horse gives us 
  • Give him every opportunity to master each small step of a large task, before asking him to string all the parts of a big task together. 

This cutting of a whole task into its smallest teachable parts can be referred to as ‘thin-slicing the task’. 

My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans, looks in detail at thin-slicing and writing Individual Education Programs (IEPs).

For each step of the teaching process, we must make sure we are sending a clear message rather than a confusing mumble. Therefore, a key element for the success of any teaching and learning program is ensuring that our signals are consistent and clear.

Horses are so sensitive that if we alter a signal even a little bit, they often think it means something else. The more things we teach our horse, the more carefully we need to think about the signals we use.

We can give our horse the best deal by becoming more aware about:

  • The specific types of signals we can use
  • How we are orientating our body
  • How we can refine our signals as the horse becomes confident
  • How to use a ‘signal bundle’ or ‘multi-signal’
  • When we are ‘nagging’ rather than communicating.

As mentioned earlier, it is the most natural thing in the world to expect the horse to change so it does what we want. However, in reality, it is by changing what we do that yields the results we want. 

There will be variations in horse behavior based on each horse’s innate character type, his personal history, his relationship with the handler and the situation of the moment.

Horses will always be horses and will respond in the way that horses respond. Being prey animals, their main concern is safety.

Before we can cause change in the horse, we must become hyper aware of what we are doing while the horse is watching.

Whenever we are in our horse’s view, he is picking up all sorts of signals from us – our posture, our energy level, our intent, what we usually do that time of day, any specific signal we may be giving and so on.

Once we learn to pay close attention to the horse’s body language, we get better at understanding the signals the horse is sending us.

A signal is a direct, purposeful communication between horse and handler. If we’ve carefully taught a signal for backing up, then the horse will back up when we give that signal. 

Boots understand the ‘raised fingers’ signal to mean ‘please back up’. I may be using a “Back” voice signal at the same time, which means I’m using a multi-signal to be especially clear.

If the horse raises his head and points his ears with strong concentration, we pick up his signal that something in the environment has his full attention. 

The horse’s body language of raised head and ears focused strongly forward tells us that some cue or stimulus in the distance has captured his whole attention.

First, we learn the horse’s language – his signals. Then it is up to us to teach the horse the language he needs to remain safe and comfortable in the human world – our signals.

Since we have taken the horse away from his natural lifestyle and made him our captive, it is up to us to become fluent in Universal Horse Language and learn to use it effectively. To be effective we need:

  • An understanding of different horse character types.
  • An understanding of our particular horse’s character type.
  • Awareness of our body language and the different ways we use signals.
  • Knowledge about horse senses and sensitivity.
  • As much knowledge as possible about a particular horse’s background experiences.
  • To write good training plans which can be turned into individual education programs (IEPS) designed for a specific horse.
  • Adept use of body language, body extensions, ropes, reins.
  • Timely application of release reinforcement.
  • Adept use of reward reinforcement along with release reinforcement.

There is detailed information about using reward reinforce-ment in my book, How to Begin Equine Clicker Training.

The more fluent we are about understanding horse body language and the mechanics of both release (negative) and reward (positive) reinforcement, the better a teacher we can be for our horse.

It is hard for the horse to learn from someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of who and what they are teaching.

Before we head into an overview of the signals we use with horses, followed by a detailed look at each signal type, we need to look in detail at how horses sense and perceive their environment. (The next part of the book delves into this.)

 Once we are conscious of the biological differences between horse and human perception, it is easier to allow horses the leeway they need to feel safer in our company.

Counting with the Hind Feet

This task is an excellent exercise to work on the timing of our ‘click’ and melting into ‘zero intent’ to wait for the horse’s ‘consent signal’ to do a repeat. The task forces us to focus on the timing and consistency of our On/Off gesture signals. It is also an excellent mobilization exercise for the horse.

Boots and I played with this occasionally for over a year, especially when time was short or the weather was rough, but also as a regular ‘end of session’ exercise. We did this after a year of working on confident ‘counting’ with the front feet as in Prerequisite 3 below.

Aim

When I face the back of the horse and point to his hind feet with my inside hand, using an On/Off gesture signal, the horse lifts a hind foot when I point and sets it down when I remove my hand signal.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse and Handler have developed good table manners standing quietly together. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  2. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.
  3. Horse and handler are already confident ‘counting’ with the front feet. Click here.
  4. Triple Treat: #16 HorseGym with Boots. Click here.
  5. Horse is comfortable rubbed all over with a long object (video clip below).

Videos: Counting with Hind Feet

#246 HorseGym with Boots

#243 HorseGym with Boots. The following clip shows the detail of working with ‘zero intent’ and waiting for the horse to give a ‘consent signal’ that tells us he is ready to try again.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A long-handled target to introduce the idea of lifting a hind foot to touch a target (which we eventually fade out).
  • A shorter target to accentuate the On/Off gesture signal (also gradually faded out).
  • A mat at first, to help the horse understand that we want him to stand still.
  • A safe fence or barrier alongside which we can stand the horse.
  • A variety of other barriers to use for generalization.
  • Two raised rails (or similar) to stand between.

Notes

  1. It’s important to stay with each slice of this task until the horse is fully ho-hum with it. In other words, repeat each slice a few time over as many short sessions as it takes for the horse to respond smoothly to your ON/OFF signal. If we take the time it takes to establish each slice, all steps of the overall task will be embedded in the horse’s long-term memory, giving us relaxed responses.
  2. Timing of the click is essential at first. It is the only way the horse can understand what you want him to do (lift his foot). Try hard to click as the foot is coming UP. If you’re unsure about your timing, practice by bouncing a ball and clicking when it leaves the ground. Or practice with a person standing in for the horse. Eventually we can relax the timing and click for the completion of one UP and DOWN movement. In the video clip you will notice that at one point I had to specifically wait to click after the foot returned to earth. Each horse will show his own little foibles.
  3. I don’t mind which foot the horse lifts. I prefer if he uses both. If a horse seems to use the same leg most of the time, make a big deal (triple treat / celebration) when he uses the other one. This is a mobilization exercise, so using both legs is good.
  4. When starting with this task, use the same location, same mat, same targets (until faded out) until the horse is truly confident with what you are asking.
  5. Often, it’s helpful to start on the horse’s left side, but we need to build the pattern standing on his right side as well. Spend a little more time on the side that feels harder. I like to teach each slice on both sides as we go along. An option is to teach all the slices on one side then teach them all again from the beginning on the other side. Or teach several slices on one side and then on the other side.
  6. Any time there is confusion (horse and/or handler), return to where you both feel confident and gradually work forward again. I had a terrible time remembering to use my inside hand for the gesture signal. When I used my outside hand I thoroughly confused my horse because gestures with my outside hand already had two different meanings, as shown on the video clip.
  7. Consistently use the hand closest to the horse (the inside hand) for your signal.
  8. A major part of the signal is the turning of our body to face the horse’s hind feet while we remain at his shoulder. As I turn, I add a voice signal, “Counting Rear”, to help differentiate this task from other things I do facing the back of the horse.
  9. It took us a long time (months) to put all these pieces together, with a short practice most days. I started in a consistent place as mentioned in Note 4.

Slices

  1. Stand the horse alongside a safe barrier in a place that you can use consistently for each session. The barrier stops the horse thinking we want him to move his hind end away. Ask him to park his front feet on a mat.
  2. Set the stage for the exercise by asking the horse to count with his front feet – a major prerequisite for success with this task.
  3. Turn so you are facing his hind end. Holding your long-handled target in the hand nearest the horse (inside hand) gently touch it to his hock; click as you touch and deliver the treat as you move the target out of play behind you.
  4. Repeat 3 above with Click&treat for any movement, even a shift of weight off that foot. When first teaching this, remember to click as the foot lifts UP.
  5. As the horse begins to understand that you click&treat when his foot comes up, hold the target near his hock, not touching it. The movement of your arm will become the horse’s clue.
  6. When 5 above is good, use a shorter target to point to the hind foot. Or shorten the target you have been using – or use the same-looking end on a shorter stick (a different-looking target may confuse an extremely sharp horse). Boots did not find this a problem.
  7. When 6 above feels ho-hum, go to an even shorter target and/or introduce the wiggling of your finger along with the target.
  8. When 7 above feels confident, refine your gesture to just lifting your arm and wiggling your finger. Immediately the horse lifts his foot, click, return your signaling hand to its OFF position lying on your belly, feed the treat with your other hand.
  9. When getting one foot-lift is reliable, and it feels right, ask for a second lift before the click&treat. Huge celebration if you get it. Remember we are using an ON/OFF signal, so put your signal hand into neutral on your belly before asking for the second lift.
  10. Vary between asking for one lift and two lifts. I count out loud as the horse lifts the foot: “One, Two” with a voice emphasis on the number I will click&treat if it is more than one. The horse learns that a soft counting voice means a request for another ‘lift’ is coming up.
  11. When 10 above feels ho-hum, ask for a third lift before the click&treat. Again, a huge celebration.
  12. Over time work up to as many lifts as you want. I usually stick with a maximum of five standing on the left and five standing on the right, but I vary the number requested each time we do it and might occasionally ask for six or seven.
  13. Once you have reliable lifts standing alongside a familiar barrier, generalize to other locations where you can stand the horse with a safe barrier along his far side to maintain the idea that he doesn’t need to move his body.
  14. Once 13 above is relaxed, stand the horse between rails raised to gradually wean away from a high barrier.
  15. The task is ‘finished’ when you can easily count your decided number of lifts on either side of the horse without needing any props.

Generalizations

  1. Play with the exercise in different venues.
  2. Play on a slope.
  3. Incorporate it into your WAIT game or your Four Corners Exercise. Click on the Blog Contents List at the top of the page to access these (Number 65 and Number 71 on the list).
  4. Use it as a mobilization exercise when it’s too hot, cold, windy, wet to do much else.

Picking Things Up

Introduction

Some horses show a natural inclination to pick things up, in which case we can ‘capture’ the behavior with well-timed click&treat. The challenge with such horses is to quickly put the task ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ to counteract a tendency to pick up anything and everything in the hope of earning a treat.

Others, like my horse Boots, learn to pick things up because it earns a click&treat. For such horses, we can thin-slice the whole process, starting with sniffing an item, taking an item out of our hand, and so on. Such thin slices might also help to put the task ‘on signal’ for the keen horse.

Aim

On request, the horse picks up items , holds them, and presents them to our hand.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for standing with front feet on a mat. #8 HorseGym with Boots: Duration on the Mat. Click here.
  2. Horse and Handler have developed good table manners standing quietly together. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.
  4. For Generalization with the bell as in the second video clip, handler and horse agree on a clear ‘recall’ signal. February 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Simple Recall Pt. 1. Click here.

Videos

#224 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Things Up.

#231 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Up a Bell.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse can relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A variety of items safe and easy for a horse to pick up.
  • One or two objects that can serve as platforms so we can gradually put the items closer and closer to the ground. E.g. chair or a tub turned over.
  • Horse at liberty if possible.
  • For some horses, rubbing something that smells nice to the horse on the item can gain initial interest, but make sure it does not encourage the horse to eat your item, especially if it is something like a cloth.

Notes

  1. Three repeats of the slice you are currently working with is usually plenty. A tiny bit often is the key. The horse will think about it and be willing to try again next time. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again.
  2. Each time you click, remove the item behind you to take it ‘out of play’. This will give the horse time to enjoy his treat and let you know with a consent signal (Prerequisite 3) when he is ready to do a repeat. Also, it will be obvious to him when you preset the item into view again.
  3. Some horses quickly progress through the early slices as soon as you start. Others need a great deal of patience over may days of mini-sessions.
  4. Any time the horse loses confidence, go back to what he can do confidently and gradually work forward again. Horses instantly pick up any emotion of frustration or annoyance or anger, so be sure to practice emotional neutrality except for gleeful celebration when things go well.
  5. A horse can’t be ‘wrong’ until we have carefully taught him what we want in a way that he can understand and does not make him anxious.
  6. We are building a little chain of behaviors: pick up – hold – move item to my hand – release item to my hand.

Slices

  1. With the horse parked confidently on a mat so he knows you want him to stand still, offer your item: click&treat any willingness to sniff the item.
  2. Look for and click&treat any tendency to move his lips around the item. As always, take the item ‘out of play’ as you click&treat
  3. Look for and click&treat any tendency to open the mouth and use the teeth to investigate the item.
  4. Look for and click&treat any instance that you can momentarily remove your hand and the horse doesn’t drop the item. If he drops it, have zero reaction, pick it up, and go back to click&treat a couple of times for the previous slice the horse IS able to do, before finishing the session.
  5. Once you can remove your hand momentarily, gradually build duration of him holding the item one second at a time. We want the horse to eventually hold the item until we put our hand out to receive it. Three seconds is good. Five seconds is great. Also praise and click&treat any indication that the horse is moving his head toward your hand to deliver the item to you.
  6. At this point, we can introduce a voice signal for picking up an item. I use the word, “Pick”. I also eventually introduce the voice signal, “Hold”, once the horse can hold the item for three or more seconds without dropping it.
  7. Once 5 above is smooth and reliable over several mini-sessions, introduce something that can act as a platform about halfway to the ground and put the item on it. At first you may need to keep your hand on it or near it by pointing to it and using your voice signal. Gradually move your hand further away. Pointing to the object along with the voice signal makes a useful multi-signal.
  8. We’d like the horse to move his head toward our hand to ‘deliver’ the item to us. Gradually move your receiving hand a bit further away so the horse raises/turns his head a bit more to ‘deliver’ the item to you. If he drops it, have zero reaction, pick it up and return to the slice where he can be successful.
  9. When 7 and 8 above are smooth, organize a platform a bit closer to the ground and repeat.
  10. When 9 above is smooth, put the item on the ground and ask him to pick it up and hand it to you.

Generalizations

  1. Set out a series of items and move along to to pick each one up.
  2. Ask the horse to pick objects like ropes or rags off a fence or similar. Some people have fun setting up a ‘clothes line’ with cloths for the horse to take off.
  3. Ask the horse to walk a step or two holding the object. Boots had great difficulty with this. She happily picked things up and gave them to me, but the idea of moving holding something in her mouth was totally foreign to her, maybe because we never used a bit when riding. I started out asking her to walk-on after giving her a willow twig which she ate as she walked. Then we progressed to one step holding an old riding crop; click&treat. When one step was solid we added steps one at a time. It took us all winter of playing with this during our morning walks before she felt comfortable carrying an object for about 15 steps.
  4. Ask the horse to recall a few steps, to ‘deliver’ the object to you. This is the beginning of teaching ‘fetch’.

Navigating Gates and Gaps

Introduction

Gates come in a variety of shapes, orientations, and sizes. Teaching our horses to calmly negotiate gates in different situations gives us excellent training opportunities.

Aims

Horse confidently:

  1. Waits while the handler passes through the gate, comes through on request and turns 180 degrees once through the gate.
  2. Moves though a gate ahead of the handler and turns 180 degrees to face the handler.
  3. Moves though a gate ahead of the handler and waits without turning.
  4. Backs through a gate.

Prerequisites

  1. Smooth walking shoulder-to-shoulder and confident HALT. Number 16 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions. Click here.
  2. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. Mainly as in this clip: #8 HorseGym with Boots: Duration on the Mat. Click here.
  3. Smooth 180-degree turns. Number 23 in my Blog Contents List: 180 Degree Turns. Click here.
  4. Handler and horse agree on a clear ‘recall’ signal. February 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Simple Recall Pt. 1.Click here.
  5. Horse and handler have a ‘move away from me please’ signal paired with a ‘whoa’ signal while the handler is behind the horse. #213 HorseGym with Boots: Send & Halt. Click here.
  6. For generalizations, we have taught the finesse back-up. Number 40 in my Blog Contents List: Finesse Back-Up. Click here.
  7. For generalizations, the horse understands a back-up signal when the handler is behind the horse. #105 HorseGym with Boots: Trailer Simulation with Dead End. Click here.

Videos

Clip 1: #237 HorseGym with Boots

Clip 2: #238 HorseGym with Boots

Clip 3:  #239 HorseGym with Boots: Click here.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Six or eight low markers around which the horse can turn 180 degrees without the lead rope getting snagged. 5L containers of water or blocks of firewood work well.
  • A familiar mat.
  • Halter and lead at least 12 feet or 4 meters long. Light cord works fine.
  • Two tall objects to create a gap (gate simulation) or a fence/wall and one tall object.
  • A rope or similar to simulate a gate.
  • A variety of real gates.

Notes

  1. Navigating a gate requires a chain of small individual tasks. We teach the individual tasks, then link them together.
  2. As we link the small tasks, our Click Point* shifts along so the horse does progressively more before each click&treat.
  3. It’s important to stay with each slice and each small task until our signals are clear and consistent and the horse responds readily.
  4. Once a maneuver is smooth on one side of the horse, we teach it again on the other side of the horse. I like to teach each small task on both sides as we go along.

Slices

  1. Ensure that the horse confidently targets a mat with his feet to earn a click&treat.
  2. Set up a low marker object with a mat nearby. Start at the mat and ask the horse to walk around the marker with you and return to the mat, so you are doing a 180-degree turn together. Click&treat at the mat.
  3. When 2 above is smooth, do the same exercise without the mat. At first, ask for a HALT about where the mat used to be; click&treat the halt.
  4. Set up a line or circuit of objects to walk around to practice 3 above. And also generalize to different places if you can.
  5. When 3 and 4 above are smooth, hang back a bit and send the horse around the marker on his own. The Click Point is now shifted to when the horse returns to you after walking around the marker.
  6. Once 5 above is solid, send the horse away from you between two markers instead of around a marker. This is the first approximation of a gate.
  7. When 6 above is smooth, ask the horse to HALT and WAIT on the other side of the gap from you. The ‘halt and wait’ becomes your new Click Point. Go to the horse to deliver the treat.
  8. Create an obvious gap with two tall objects (or fence/wall and one tall object). Place a low markers on either side of the gap for the horse to walk around as he did in 3 above. Repeat 7 above using this gap.
  9. Negotiate the gap in both directions.
  10. Introduce the idea of the horse waiting on one side of the gap while you walk through the gap first. Once you’ve walked through, pause, then invite the horse through the gap and around the marker so he ends up beside you. This becomes the new Click Point when the handler goes through the gate first.
  11. When 10 above feels smooth, add a rope to simulate a gate. Play with opening the gate toward you and away from you.
  12. When the gate opens toward you, ask the horse to go through the gap first plus turn to face you and WAIT. Then you go through the gate and shut it. Click&treat.
  13. When the gate opens away from you, ask the horse to WAIT while you move through first, then ask him to come through and turn so he is beside you and facing the gate as you close it. Click&treat.
  14. Use a ‘gate’ gap to teach sending the horse through the gate but not turning around. If we long-rein or drive our horse, we won’t want him to turn after going through the gate. So teach him to walk through the gap while you stay behind him, plus halt and WAIT in the facing away position (Prerequisite 5). Go to the horse to deliver the treat.
  15. Ask the horse to back through a gate. Begin with walking him through the gate, then back up through it. Eventually walk to the gate, then ask him to turn so the gate is behind him and ask him to back through.
  16. When all the above are going smoothly, move on to practicing with as many real gates as you can.

Generalizations

  1. Play with simulation gates at liberty.
  2. Play with real gates at liberty if you can safely do that.
  3. Ask the horse to WAIT on one side of the gap while you walk through it and turn to face him. Ask the horse to recall through the gate. (Prerequisite 4).
  4. Play with simulation gates on a slope.
  5. Gradually make your ‘gate spaces’ narrower and narrower.
  6. Teach backing through gates with a signal while you face the front of the horse (Prerequisite 6).
  7. Teach backing through gates with a signal from behind the horse (Prerequisite 7).

4 Corners Pattern for Exercise

Introduction

If we have a non-ridden horse because we prefer not to ride, our horse is retired or recovering from injury, or we love small ponies, donkeys, or mules, it can be tricky to ensure regular adequate continuous movement in a way that is not boring.

Walking out in-hand is ideal if we have safe places to go. But lack of time or weather might not make this a regular option. Or the handler may not be able to walk long distances due to injury, infirmity, or age.

Horses in the wild move a lot, especially during the seasons when fodder is scarce and water sources are limited. Grazing horses continually move along one step at a time as they search out the nicest grass.

When we have to restrict grass, feed hay, and keep our horse in a relatively small space, we obviously also severely restrict the natural continuous gentle movement that accompanies grazing and life unrestricted by fences.

In a natural situation, most horse movement is walking. Occasionally they trot. Gallop is generally in response to a perceived threat. The play drive of younger horses may initiate occasional energetic movement. Some horses are by nature more energetic than others. As with people, daily sustained movement is a cornerstone of good health.


If we can’t do sustained walking out and about, we can organize novel walking patterns at home in a limited space.

Wanting horses to move consistently at faster gaits is a human construct. While brisk trotting and a good canter or gallop are great to occasionally increase the heart rate and clear out the lungs, we can easily maintain or improve our horse’s welfare with regular sustained walking and a bit of trotting.

Sustained walking means twenty or thirty minutes of continuous movement. Steady walking increases circulation and helps the horse ‘blow out’ to clear his breathing system. Horses living in a peaceful group in a paddock will do some walking, but it is not usually sustained.

Aim

To create interesting walking and movement routines for our horse in a relatively small area.

Prerequisites

  1. Confident with walking shoulder-to-shoulder. Number 16 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions. Click here.
  2. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. Number 10 in my Blog Contents List: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’. Click here.
  3. Horse is comfortable standing across and walking across solid rails. Number 18 in my Blog Contents List: Placing the Feet Accurately Using a Rail. Click here.
  4. While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse follows the movement of the handler’s body axis away from the horse to navigate turns. Number 31 in my Blog Contents List: Smooth 90-Degree Turns. Click here.
  5. Established clear signals for weaving obstacles. #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals. Click here. There are more clips about weaving in my YouTube playlist called: Weave and Tight Turns.
  6. If you want to add in the ‘wait’ game for variety, ensure the horse understands a ‘wait’ signal to stay parked while we move away. This clip is in my playlist called Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers: October 2017 Challenge Park & Wait. Click here.
  7. If you want to walk or trot together at liberty: see Number 68 in my Blog Contents List: 20 Steps Exercise: Click here.

Videos

#169 HorseGym with Boots: Walk and Hock Gym with Obstacles is found as Number 21 in my Blog Contents List. It is a simple circuit around the perimeter of a defined area.

The next two video clips divide a defined area into four quarters and describe a pattern of movement that makes exercising our horse more interesting. We can add moves our horse knows into the pattern and change our obstacles and objects around to create a variety of novel situations.

This clip demonstrates the pattern of movement through the ‘four corners’ arrangement. #232 HorseGym with Boots.

This clip shows the pattern walking with a horse. #233 HorseGym with Boots.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue with good or reasonable footing. If it’s dry, the corner of a grazed paddock can work well. An arena is excellent. A round pen can also be cut into quarters. Once the handler has the pattern in memory, it can be carried out anywhere and include natural features of the landscape.
  • Ideally the horse can see his buddies but they can’t or don’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • An assortment of safe objects and obstacles. The only limit is our imagination.
  • Halter and lead, with the lead kept draped unless used momentarily to give the horse directional information.

Notes

  1. The prerequisites above cover the basics. We can, of course, add other tasks our horse knows. Or we can use one part of the pattern to work on something new.
  2. The idea is to use voice, gesture, body language, breathing and energy changes to signal the horse, not halter pressure via the rope. However, we can use rope pressure to give the horse momentary guidance so that he can more quickly figure out what will result in the click&treat.
  3. Each pattern contains 12 right angle turns. When we’ve mastered the basic pattern we can factor in halts, back-ups, sidestepping and a variety of other movements.
  4. To begin with, have the horse on the outside of the turns. Eventually you may want to do the pattern with counter-turns at each corner.
  5. The pattern is done once on the left side of the horse and again on the right side of the horse. It’s easiest to start in the center each time.
  6. When you begin to do the pattern with counter-turns, start again at the beginning with click&treat for each elegant turn.
  7. The arena in the video clips is 30 meters long and 20 meters wide. Therefore walking this pattern once is about 200 meters. Walking it on either side of the horse gives us 400 meters. If we walk the pattern first with no stops for special tasks (400 meters) and again on right and left sides adding special tasks, we’ve walked 800 meters. If you have a larger area, it will be easy to walk over a kilometer within your restricted space.
  8. To first learn the pattern, it’s helpful if the handler walks the basic pattern on their own or with another person (or dog) standing in for the horse. There are 12 corners in the pattern. We don’t stop in the center again until we’ve walked the whole pattern. We can add variation by facing any one of the four directions to begin the pattern.

The pattern starts and finishes in the middle of the area. The 12 turns are numbered. We don’t stop in the middle until we’ve completed the whole pattern. We can add variety by facing a different direction to begin the pattern.

Slices

  1. You may want to begin by asking the horse to walk the basic pattern with you for several days, before introducing objects and obstacles. It can be helpful to have markers at the four turning points which are not in the four corners, as well as a center marker.
  2. Stand in the center with zero intent. Click&treat for standing quietly. If you are on the horse’s left side, you will be turning left 12 times. If you want to teach a ‘turn left’ voice signal, use it just before your body language shifts into the turn. At first, exaggerate the shift of your body axis into the turn. We want the horse to shadow our movement so that touch on the halter via the lead rope is seldom needed. Click&treat each smooth turn. The stop for delivering the treat and walking on again add another dimension of flexibility. Eventually click&treat only for especially crisp turns.
  3. As the horse becomes familiar with the pattern and all the turns are nice and clean, I tend to click&treat only for the specific tasks I’ve added into the pattern.

Standing in the middle of our work area, ready to start. Bridget is on the horse’s left side and they will turn left 12 times. The open hoop is our center marker.
  • Match your walk to the horse’s natural walk. Boots’ natural walk is 5km/h. Smoky’s natural walk is about 7km/h. It was always interesting when leading both of them at the same time.
  • Once you know the pattern, set up the obstacles you want to begin with. Start with items your horse knows well. To maintain interest over time, add new things and/or change where they are in the circuit.
  • Click&treat often enough to keep the horse walking with you in a willing manner. To begin with, I click&treat each brisk right-angle turn as well as successful negotiation of every obstacle. Once the pattern is well-known, I tend to click&treat for the more challenging obstacles or any new ones I’ve added since last time.
  • Once it is smooth walking on the horse’s left side, repeat on his right side. That will include 12 turns to the right. We can add a ‘turn right’ voice signal.

Generalizations

  1. Once the horse understands the pattern we can use it at liberty (Prerequisite 7). Some people may like to teach the whole thing at liberty.
  2. Add objects to weave along the center lines.
  3. Teach again asking for counter-turns at each corner.
  4. Add trotting if you are fit to run with your horse or are riding the exercise. Begin with trotting the straight lines through the center. That will give you four upward and four downward transitions within each circuit.
  5. Add challenge with sloping ground.
  6. If you’ve taught your horse to lead smoothly when you ride a bike, the pattern can be adapted.
  7. We can use one or two of the corners in the pattern to ask the horse for any behaviors we have in our repertoire. They could be stationary behaviors or movement we can do in a smallish space. This video clip illustrates some of the things Boots and I sometimes practice in the corners (#235 HorseGym with Boots: 4 Square Generalizations.)

Drive-By Grooming

Introduction

This is a fun way to work on the clarity of our voice, touch, and gesture signals for walk on, halt, and back up. If we have a tall horse (or we are short) it can make grooming the upper parts of the horse much easier.

Having our feet ‘planted’ in one place means we have to refine our signals to make them super clear for the horse.

Aim

To groom the upper areas of both sides of our horse while standing on a raised platform (or keeping our feet on a mark on the ground if we have small equines).

Prerequisites

  1. Horse confidently comes to a mounting block or similar structure without the need for a mat. #240 HorseGym with Boots: Wait and Recall. Click here.
  2. Horse confidently targets his cheek to a brush. #242 HorseGym with Boots: Target Cheek to Brush. Click here.
  3. Horse understands a ‘move forward please’ signal paired with a ‘whoa’ signal while the handler remains in one spot. #213 HorseGym with Boots: Send & Halt. Click here.
  4. Horse is familiar with backing up one step at a time and moving forward one step at a time. Number 37 in my Blog Contents List. One Step at a Time. Click here.
  5. Horse understands hand and voice signals for backing up when the handler is beside the withers. #173 HorseGym with Boots: Balancera Clip 1 of 2. Click here.
  6. Horse and handler agree on signals the horse gives when he is ready to do something again. Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals: Click here.
  7. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List: Rule of Three: Click here.

Video

#194 HorseGym with Boots:

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse and Handler are clicker-savvy.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A mounting block or anything safe for the handler to stand on. If you have a small pony, stand on a marker of some sort, so you are not tempted to move your feet other than turning as necessary.
  • A safe fence or similar barrier.
  • Grooming gear.
  • To start with guided shaping, use a target that’s easy to handle and take out of play (tuck into a belt or pocket), or a halter and lead.

Notes

  1. Short sessions of Slice 1 can be done alongside the other slices. But stay with each of the other slices until you are both confident with it. Better to go a bit too slow than to go too fast.
  2. Have each task working smoothly on the ground before putting them together and eventually adding the platform to stand on.
  3. The timing of the click is the only thing that tells the horse how to earn the treat, so strive to get your timing as accurate as you can.
  4. When the horse moves ahead of you, or backs up so he is behind you, we want him to halt and wait ‘on the spot’ when he hears the click. You go to him to deliver the treat.
  5. Remember to celebrate each approximation toward the final goal. Start with a high rate of reinforcement. As the horse gets to understand each task, ask for a bit more before each click&treat.
  6. But always be prepared to slow down and increase the rate of reinforcement if the horse (or the handler) gets lost. I always do this task with a high rate of reinforcement because Boots has never been keen on grooming.

Slices

  1. Ensure that your horse willingly comes to you when you call him while you stand on a pedestal, mounting block or marker. Usually this includes have taught a ‘wait’ so that you can move easily between your standing places (Prerequisite 1).
  2. On the ground, ensure that your horse willingly targets a brush in your hand, both with his nose and with his cheek (Prerequisite 2). This is a great task to teach your horse about consent signals (Prerequisite 6) by doing a little bit often (Prerequisite 7). A consent signal for brushing by the horse might be touching his cheek to your brush. Do all this standing on the ground.
  3. On the ground, ensure that your horse understands a signal for moving forward one step and back one step while you are beside him (Prerequisites 3, 4, 5).
  4. On the ground, play with asking the horse to move forward one or two steps with an arm gesture or a touch signal just behind the withers. We can teach this by standing back from a nose target and using the gesture or touch signal to request the horse to move to the target and wait there for you to move to him to deliver the treat. (Prerequisite 3). Eventually phase out the nose target. Click for one or two steps forward away from you when you use your touch signal behind the withers.
  5. On the ground, play with asking the horse to back up a few steps while you are at or behind his withers (Prerequisite 5). Work alongside a fence in a corner or build a dead-end lane to make it easier for the horse to understand what you want.
  6. Once all the tasks above are in place on the ground, add the mounting block or pedestal.
  7. When 6 above is smooth on one side of the horse, ask the horse to back up far enough so you can ask him to walk forward on the other side of the mounting block so his other side is nearest you.
  8. Once you have your ‘ready to brush’ Consent Signal in place (Prerequisite 6), use it for drive-by grooming while you stand on the mounting block or pedestal. Boots’ consent signals are coming over to me on the mounting block or pedestal and touching the brush with her cheek when I hold it out.

Generalizations

  • Move your mounting block to different locations.
  • Vary whether you start grooming on the left side or right side.
  • Stand on different pedestals to do drive-by grooming.
  • Play with asking him to come to the mounting block from further and further away.
  • Teach another person the signals so they can brush your horse.

Straddling a Rail

Introduction

This is an interesting exercise to help refine the timing of our signals and the ‘click’ (or whatever marker sound we have chosen) that lets the horse know when he is doing exactly what will result in a treat.

Boots and I first learned this task years ago and play with it occasionally. If a task is taught well enough to be in a horse’s deep memory, it seems it is never forgotten. Usually a bit of guidance to clarify which task I’m asking for is enough to bring back the memory. When I made these video clips we hadn’t revisited straddling a rail for several months.

However, we play with ‘shoulder/hip yield’ and ‘shoulder/hip toward me’ often, so our signals for these are current – well-honed and well-practiced.

Straddling a rail is an exercise useful for balance, foot awareness and general proprioception. We teach it in tiny slices that keep the horse being continually successful. In other words, we celebrate each approximation.

Aim

The horse confidently moves his feet individually to straddle a rail lengthwise.

Prerequisites

  1. The horse understands yielding the shoulder. This clip is in my Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers PLAYLIST: April 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Yield the Shoulder. Click here.
  2. The horse understands targeting the shoulder to our hand. Number 27 in my Blog Contents List: Target Shoulder to Hand. Click here. 
  3. The horse understands yielding the hindquarters. This clip is in my Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers PLAYLIST: May 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Yield the Hindquarters. Click here.
  4. Horse understands bringing hip toward hand. Number 28 in my Blog Contents List: Targeting Hindquarters to Our Hand. Click here.
  5. Horse is comfortable standing across and walking across solid rails. Number 18 in my Blog Contents List: Placing the Feet Accurately Using a Rail. Click here.
  6. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping. Number 29 in my Blog Contents List: Sidestepping. Click here.
  7. Handler is aware of teaching in short segments. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List. Click here.
  8. Triple Treat for celebration: #16 HorseGym with Boots: Triple Treat. Click here.

Videos

#222 HorseGym with Boots: Prep for Straddling Rails

#223 HorseGym with Boots: Straddling Rails

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead to clarify signals during the teaching (acquisition) stage unless you prefer to teach everything at liberty.
  • Rail: a half-round rail is ideal because it doesn’t roll/move while the horse is figuring out where and how to move his feet.

We can mound sand at the ends of a round rail to minimize rolling or chock round rails with bits of wood or stones at either end.

A long rail, or two short rails end-to-end, make it easier for the horse at the beginning. We could also use a tightly rolled tarp to stand in for a rail, or a thick rope/hose.

Notes

  1. Ensure that the horse can carry out the prerequisite tasks calmly and accurately.
  2. Give each slice of the ‘straddle’ the time it takes rather than focus on the end behavior.
  3. Doing a few repeats of ‘hip/shoulder away’ and ‘hip/shoulder toward me’ each session will keep them topical and smooth.
  4. Click and treat each approximation at first. Celebrate when you get either front feet or hind feet (or both) straddling the rail.
  5. Three repeats at one time are usually plenty to start with. The horse will think about it and be willing to try again next day. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again. (See Prerequisite 7.)
  6. Decide whether you will initially teach the task by asking the horse to yield shoulder/hip away from you or if you will ask the horse to bring shoulder/hip toward you. Don’t mix them up until the horse has a sound understanding about where you want his feet.
  7. Be careful to not ‘correct’ or make the horse feel wrong as he figures out what you want him to do with his feet to earn his next click&treat. He can’t be wrong because he doesn’t yet know what you want him to do.

The lack of ‘click’ tells the horse that he hasn’t quite got it yet. If he feels lost, increase your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) and lower your criteria – i.e., click for all approximations toward the finished task and stop after a good effort for that session. Then he will be keen to try again next session.

Slices

  1. Run through your ‘hip/shoulder away’ and/or ‘hip/shoulder toward me’ routines away from the rail, to set the scene.
  2. Introduce the rail by walking across it in both directions. Then park parallel to it several times — on both sides and facing both directions.
  3. Start with the side and direction that feel easiest.
  4. Ask for either front or hind end to straddle the rail. Click&treat for all and any approximations. Your horse may offer to do the full straddle right away – major celebration.
  5. Then quietly ask for the other end to straddle the rail. Don’t worry if he moves one end off the straddle to adjust his balance so he can straddle with the other end. You will notice in #223 video clip that Boots does this a couple of times.
  6. Also don’t worry if he steps his whole body across the rail. Simply breathe deeply, relax, and reset the task. If the horse moves both front or hind feet across the rail, try giving a less-energetic signal.
  7. The key is to quietly reset and try again. Finish on a good effort and go away from the rail to do something else.
  8. Resist the temptation to ask again to see if you can do it again. At first a ‘good effort’ may still be far from the finished movement. That doesn’t matter. If the horse is willing to try in a relaxed manner, you have a ‘good effort’.
  9. If it becomes a muddle, walk away, do something easy with a high rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat). Then return to the rail and start again or leave it until the next session. (See number 5 in the NOTES.)
  10. Explore different ways of coming off the straddle – turn and sidestep off, back off, walk forward with the feet staying on either side of the rail, and so on.
  11. Once the horse is adept at straddling the rail, click&treat for duration. Start with one second and increase duration one second at a time.

Generalizations

  1. Once the horse understands the task, it can be fun to also explore other ways of signaling the ‘straddle a rail’ task.
  2. I was delighted when Boots offered to sidestep into the straddle as at the end of clip #223, because I’d never asked her to do that before. We do, however, practice plain sidestepping regularly.
  3. Walk forward to straddle the rail.
  4. Back up to straddle the rail.
  5. Mix up ‘hip/shoulder away’ and hip/shoulder toward me’.
  6. Straddle different kinds of rails.
  7. Different venues.
  8. On a slope – facing downhill and facing uphill.

Treasure Hunt

Introduction

This is a fun activity when we don’t have a lot of time with our horse. Or we can use it to begin or finish a longer training session.

We can expand the task as much as we like, depending on the space we have available to lay out the ‘treasures’.

Aim

Horse confidently follows a trail of markers to find a treat under or alongside each marker.

Prerequisites

  1. Horse is relaxed enough in the venue for his curiosity to be engaged.
  2. Horse readily targets the ‘markers’ you will use when you hold them in your hand. In the clip I used small plastic plant pots that are easy for the horse to push aside and easy to see.
  3. Horse is used to picking treats off the ground (not sand or open soil).
  4. Horse understands a signal to move away from the handler so we can ask him to explore markers on the ground. This clip demonstrates touch and voice signals to ask the horse to move forward away from me. Instead of a halt signal, the horse moves on to seek out the circuit of treasures. Click here.
  5. A strong WAIT with duration is helpful if we want to set up a treasure trail without having to contain the horse physically. See The Wait Game: Click here. Alternately, we can teach ground-tying to a high standard: Click here.

Videos

#227 HorseGym with Boots: TREASURE HUNT

#236 HorseGym with Boots: TREASURE HUNT GENERALIZATIONS

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally the horse is at liberty, but if that’s not possible, the horse can be on a long light lead and encouraged to do the exploring for each treasure while we tag along behind keeping the lead out of his way.
  • Targets we can place or hang around our training area, e.g. rags or plastic drink bottles if we need to teach the horse to move out ahead of us.
  • A surface from which the horse can safely pick up treats, e.g. grazed paddock, solid footing areas (not sand). If only a sand or soft soil area is available, we can lay out mats or similar to put under each marker.
  • Markers to put over each treat. The purpose of the markers is to have the horse use his initiative to move the marker to find the treat. In the video clips I use small plastic plant pots. Any small pot or pottle will do – margarine containers, even something as large as one-liter ice cream containers or cut down milk containers. Make sure that it is safe and easy for the horse to move the container aside with his nose to reach the treat, especially when first introducing the task.
  • Treats to put with each marker. These can be carrot/apple strips, pieces of celery, an unshelled peanut, horse pellets.
  • Halter and long, light lead if you can’t have the horse at liberty.
  • Halter and short lead if you want to ask the horse to wait while ground-tied.
  • Mat, pedestal, or balance beam if you want to use a WAIT spot while you set out the treasure trail.
  • For generalization, stones or pieces of wood to set out as marking points.

Notes

  1. At first, use single obvious treats such as a large strip of carrot or any vegetable or fruit your horse likes. Once the horse understands the game, it is easy to switch to a few horse pellets or an unshelled peanut under each marker.
  2. Ensure the horse can easily move the marker with his nose.

Slices

  1. As a first task, we have to teach the horse (or refresh) a signal indicating to ‘seek’ by moving away from us toward a target. Begin by hanging targets at nose level around your training area and have the horse walk with you between the targets, with a click&treat for putting his nose on each one. Rags or plastic drink bottles make good targets.
  2. Once 1 above is ho-hum, stay back a little bit as you approach each target and develop a hand gesture paired with a voice signal to let the horse know you would like him to move ahead of you to ‘seek’ the target. I use a light tap behind the withers as a touch signal, as well as an arm/hand gesture. Click when he touches the target and walk forward to his head to deliver the treat. This builds up Prerequisite 4 – horse confidently moves forward away from you.
  3. Play with having the horse target the type of marker you will use on the ground, while you hold it in your hand.
  4. With the horse nearby and watching (behind a gate or tied or held by a helper), be obvious about putting a treat on the ground nearby and cover it with the marker the horse has been targeting in your hand.
  5. Encourage the horse to move forward away from you to ‘seek’ and explore the marker to discover the treat under it. Some horses may need you to ‘help’ move the marker during the first one or two trials. As the horse begins to understand the game, gradually hang back until he can do it on his own.
  6. Begin to create a trail of multiple markers. Put them close together at first, then gradually further and further apart. If your horse lives on a track, you might lay the trail around corners.

Generalizations

  1. Lay out the treasure hunt in different venues.
  2. We can use rocks or pieces of firewood to mark the site of each ‘treasure’ and occasionally move these around to change the puzzle. We may need to guide the horse from marker to marker the first few times. Start with them close together and gradually put them further apart. This system means we don’t have to pick up the markers each time.
  3. We can add complexity by using a variety of markers as long as we teach each one separately at first.
  4. We can add interest by putting a variety of treats or fresh herbs/willow twigs into a series of cardboard boxes scattered around in different places each time. These are more visible and work well if we set them up before releasing the horse(s) into the space. However, be careful not to use boxes with staples and the glue in the carboard is not safe to eat. Some boxes will also have been sprayed.
  5. When the horse finishes seeking out a line of treasures, we can add a recall back to us, which earns a click&treat celebration.
  6. When trailering a horse to a venue, have him wait in the trailer while you set out a circuit of treats with familiar markers. Then as soon as he exits the trailer, encourage him to come with you to do the treasure hunt. By having something familiar to do right away, the idea of a new/different place can be less worrying for the horse. I used to do this without markers and found it hard to remember exactly where I’d put the strips of carrot, so markers are helpful.
  7. We can ground-tie the horse or ask him to stand on a mat, pedestal, or beam for the ‘WAIT’ while we set out the treasure hunt. This gives him a definite place to be. Of course, we’d have to spend time teaching ground-tying or WAIT duration first.
  8. We can set out rails between the markers to encourage more varied movement. The horse will usually step across them if they are in direct line to reach the next marker.

Counting with the Front Feet

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

NOTE: Items with an asterisk {*} are described in the GLOSSARY which you can access at the top of the home page.

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

  • Be more aware of deciding and stabilizing my body orientation, which is a key part of any signal. Horses are super aware of body positioning.
  • Refine the nature and energy of my signal for this task. We do a lot of different things, so it is tricky to keep all my signals ‘clean’.
  • Improve the timing for when I turn the signal on and off.
  • Remember to take up my ‘zero intent*’ position to wait for the horse to tell me when she is ‘ready to repeat’ (Consent Signals*)
  • Relax when the horse attends to external distractions and wait for her to bring her attention back to me.

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

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

Aim

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

Prerequisites

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

Videos

MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT

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

Notes

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

Slices

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

Generalizations

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

Movement Routine 10 – Rags as Focus

Photo: Task 6; U-turn around one rag.

INTRODUCTION

This routine presents a novel way to walk ever-decreasing circles. It also includes weaving and 180-degree turns.

AIM

Smoothly carry out a routine walking together in a variety of configurations.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Walking together shoulder-to-shoulder. Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions. Click here.
  2. While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse changes direction in response to the handler moving his/her body axis toward the horse or away from the horse. #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals; Click here.
  3. Weaving. #70 HorseGym with Boots: Only Horse Weaves; Click here.
  4. Smooth 180 Degree Turns: Click here.

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and relatively short lead rope (8′).
  • Rags: I used six rags in this video clip for easier filming and to avoid boring viewers, but you can use as many as you like and make the circle as large as you like.

VIDEO CLIP

#215 HorseGym with Boots: Movement Routine 10 Rags as Focus; https://youtu.be/HpMSjqYdagk

NOTES

  1. I like to memorize the sequence of tasks by walking the pattern without the horse and/or with a person standing in for the horse. It also works to visualize the sequence often.
  2. Make the circle a size that suits your horse. We want him to be able to do the weave part easily. As he gets more adepts, you can gradually make the circle smaller to encourage more bend.
  3. I found it a challenge to remember which rag we were going to leave out next as we made the circle smaller. Having different colored rags made it easier.
  4. Boots is now so good about recognizing that the rags are not mats, that I could walk on the rags or inside the rag circle without her stepping on them. If your horse tends to step on the rags, walk on the outside of the rags so he is further away from them.
  5. Use a rate of reinforcement that keeps your horse continually successful. This can be very often when you first introduce the routine. As the horse gets to know the routine, gradually decrease your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat).
  6. Be careful not to drill. Multiple short sessions will keep the horse keen to do it again next time.

TASKS

  1. On the horse’s left side, starting from the center of the circle, ask the horse to weave the rags while you remain walking inside the rags.
  2. When you’ve weaved through all the rags, walk a full circle around all the rags.
  3. Walk a second circle leaving out one rag.
  4. Walk a third circle leaving out two rags, and so on, systematically, until you reach your last circle around just one rag.
  5. Walk to the center of the circle for a rest; click&treat.
  6. From the center, walk straight ahead and do a U-turn around the nearest rag and return to the center.
  7. You’re now facing the opposite direction, so choose another rag in front of you, walk toward it and do a U-turn and return to the center.
  8. Use your ‘end of routine’ routine so the horse knows it is the end of the routine. I use a Triple Treat.
  9. Repeat on the horse’s right side. You may want to do something else before you repeat this on the other side because it is such concentrated work.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. When it feels smooth, work at liberty.
  2. If you are able, set up a big circle and do some of the routine at trot.
  3. Add the task of ever-increasing circles.
  4. Work on a slope if you have one handy.
  5. Use more rags.
  6. Set the rags into a rectangle or a triangle to encourage more variety of movement. Or have one end round and the other end with two right angles.

20 Steps Exercise

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

INTRODUCTION

This is one of my favorite exercises. It is fun to do as a warm-up or a cool-down or if horse time is short. If you are energetic you can eventually do it trotting.

This exercise encourages the horse to walk with us in position beside his neck or shoulder. It is a way of teaching ‘leading’ without the need to put pressure on the lead rope or use a lead rope at all. We can teach this exercise totally at liberty once the horse is clicker-savvy.

The more precise we can be with our body language, the easier it is for the horse to read our intent.

When we invite the horse to walk with us in the ’20 Steps Exercise’ we adjust our pace to the horse’s natural pace, so we can walk ‘in step’ with each other.

When we do this task at liberty, it’s easy for the horse to let us know if he is not in the mood to do things with us because he can peel off in his own direction.

If you have a safe, enclosed area, and protected contact is no longer needed, starting at liberty is ideal.

If the horse is exuberant and protected contact remains a good idea, you can still do this exercise with the horse at liberty by using a reverse round pen (person in the pen, horse moves around the outside of it) or a stretch of paddock fence. If your fencing is electric tape, make sure it is turned off. Lots more about reverse pens here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-64e

Doing a little at a time keeps this exercise fresh and lively in the repertoire.

If protected contact is a good idea, we can set up a reverse round pen with uprights and fencing tape. The horse moves around the outside of the ‘pen’ while the handler stays inside. We can make it a size that best suits the task we are working with.

AIMS

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

PREREQUISITES

  1. Handler is aware of using breathing and body energy level to indicate ‘energy up’ before moving off and ‘energy down’ before coming to a halt.
  2. Handler had decided on clear ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ voice signals.
  3. Handler has developed a consistent ‘walk on’ arm gesture.
  4. Handler uses clear preparatory body language before coming to a ‘halt’, e.g. slowing down, breathing out and dropping weight into the hips.

Optional: These prerequisites are nice but not essential. This task is a way of achieving or improving the three skills below.

  1. Horse walks smoothly beside the handler’s shoulder.
  2. Horse understands ‘Whoa’ voice, breathing and body language signals.
  3. Horse willingly responds to ‘Walk On’ voice, breathing, gesture and body language signals.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • A safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • If protected contact is the best choice, use a reverse round pen or use a paddock fence, whichever suits your situation best.
  • If there are no other options, use halter and lead, keeping a non-influencing drape in the lead rope. A light-weight lead is preferable.

VIDEO CLIPS

December 2017 Obstacle Challenge: 20 Steps Exercise.

 

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

SLICES

  1. Standing beside the horse’s neck/shoulder, do the following pretty much all at the same time:
  • Raise torso and look ahead.
  • Breathe in deeply.
  • Gesture forward with the hand furthest from the horse.
  • Step off with your outside leg to walk one step using ‘draw energy’ to encourage the horse to move with you. The horse can more easily see movement of your outside leg.
  • Halt after one step by breathing out and releasing your energy; click&treat when your feet are stopped. If the horse has moved out of position accept that for now – deliver the treat as close as possible to where you want him to be.
  1. We will click&treat for EACH halt.
  2. If the horse is a bit surprised and moves out of position, move YOURSELF back into position beside his neck/shoulder and start again, raising torso breathing in, gesturing and stepping off to walk on. Slow down, breathe out, and drop into your hips to stop. If you are consistent, the horse will begin to take note of your breathing and posture.

If you are on the other side of a barrier or fence from the horse, walk on and click&treat any indication that the horse is willing to come join you, then start again with 1 above.

  1. If you are not in protected contact, it’s ideal to start with the horse between the handler and a safe fence, so the option of swinging the hindquarters away is removed. I didn’t show this part in the video clip.

If protected contact is necessary and the horse is unsure about what you want to do if you try using a reverse round pen or paddock fence, we can use a lane. A lane can work well because it reduces the horse’s options. The horse walks in the lane and the handler walks on the outside of the lane.

Lanes can be set up with fencing tape and uprights next to an existing fence or made with bits and pieces like the one in the photo below.

We can usually make learning easier for the horse by organizing our training environment so that what we will click&treat is easy for the horse to discover. Here ware are using a lane to initiate walking side-by-side together.

Next Slices

  1. When one or two steps together is smooth, take three steps before the halt, click&treat.
  2. When three steps together are smooth, take four steps before the halt, click&treat, and so on.
  3. Each time you walk on, begin counting at ‘one’ again.
  4. Stay with four-five steps until moving off together is smooth and the horse stays in position beside you for the halt.
  5. Adjust how many steps you add before each halt and click&treat. It will depend on how fast the horse catches on to the pattern, the clarity and consistency of your signals, as well as how the horse is feeling that day.
  6. With some horses you can soon add steps in 2’s, 3’s or 5’s to reach the twenty steps.
  7. If the horse gets lost or seems to forget, go back to where he can be successful and work with a smaller number of steps until you gain true confidence.
  8. Gradually work up to 10, 15, then 20 steps before each halt, click&treat.
  9. Asking for 20 steps before the click&treat, carried out on both sides of the horse, is usually plenty at one time. But there is no reason we can’t do several sets of 20 steps if the horse stays keen.

Be sure to teach this walking on either side of the horse. One side may be easier. Start again from the beginning (along a fence or in a lane) for the second side. Some horses easily transfer new learning to the other side. Other horses find everything harder on one side.

Handlers usually must also focus to consciously produce clear, consistent body language with the less dominant side of their body. If the horse’s and handler’s stiffer sides coincide, everything will feel a bit harder at first.

When a task feels equally smooth on either side of the horse, a big milestone has been achieved.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • If you started with a lane, move from the lane to working alongside a fence.
  • Play the game in an open area, away from a fence-line.
  • Teach, then add drawing the horse into arcs and turns with the horse on the outside of the turn. See also: Smooth 90-Degree Turns: Handler on the Inside: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
  • Teach, then add walking arcs and turns toward the horse (counter-turns). See also: Smooth Counter Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WK
  • If you can run, play with it at trot. It’s best to begin this in protected contact in case the horse finds it exciting.

 

 

Alternative to Hand-Feeding Food Reinforcement

REASONS

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

Charging the Clicker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Clip

Movement Routine 8 – Rags as Focus

Photo: The first task is to weave the rags together.

INTRODUCTION

Maintaining mobility is an important aspect of keeping horses in captivity. Usually they live without the freedom of movement over large areas with varied terrain. We can take a small step to encourage whole-body movement with short routines done often but never turned into a drill.

AIM

To combine weaving (serpentines) with sidestepping, backing up and recall using rags as markers.

PREREQUISITES

  1. ‘Walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. We have established clear mutual signals for weaving obstacles. https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y. As well as this clip,there are several more in my playlist called Weave and Tight Turns.
  3. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping. Sidestepping: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RL
  4. Horse understands a ‘wait’ signal to stay parked while we move away so we can do a recall. Park & Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  5. Horse understands signal for backing up face-to-face with handler. March 2018 Challenge: Backing Up Part 1: https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y
  6. Horse recalls after staying parked. https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and a lead long enough so we can keep a nice drape in the rope but not so long it gets in the way. 12′ (4m) is a useful length.
  • Six rags laid out in a straight line far enough apart to allow comfortable weaving of the rags walking the pattern together. As the horse becomes more supple, the rags can be put closer together.

VIDEO CLIPS

#203 HorseGym with Boots: Routine 8, Rags as Focus:  Click here.

 

#204 HorseGym with Boots: Routine 8 at Liberty: Click here.

NOTES

  1. It helps to memorize the sequence of tasks by walking the pattern without the horse. If you have a willing human friend, take turns being the horse or the handler. Usually, as handler precision improves, horse precision improves.
  2. The aim is to keep the rope with a nice drape or loop as much as possible, so the horse is getting his signals from our body language and signals rather than rope pressure. We want the horse to find his own balance rather than be pushed or held into a certain outline.
  3. Click&treat at a rate that keeps your horse being successful. As a horse learns a pattern through frequent short repetitions, we can gradually ask for a bit more before each click&treat.

TASKS

  1. Handler on the horse’s left side, weave the rags together.
  2. Turn at the end of the rags and weave in the opposite direction.
  3. Walk a circle around the last rag to end up between the last two rags plus several steps beyond them.
  4. Halt, then ask the horse to back up between the rags. If he backs up on his own, go to the horse to deliver a click&treat.
  5. Ask the horse to sidestep to put him in line with the middle of the next two rags.
  6. Ask the horse to ‘wait’ while you walk between the rags to the end of the rope.
  7. Ask the horse to ‘recall’.
  8. Ask the horse to sidestep so he is in line with the middle of the next two rags.
  9. Halt, then ask the horse to back up between the rags. If he backs up on his own go to the horse to deliver a click&treat.
  10. Ask the horse to sidestep so he is in line with the middle of the next two rags.
  11. Ask the horse to ‘wait’ while you back away to the end of the rope.
  12. Ask the horse to ‘recall’.
  13. Ask the horse to do the final sideways so he is in line with the middle of the last two rags if you are using six rags.
  14. Ask the horse to back up.
  15. Do an established ‘end of routine’ celebration. I use a ‘Triple Treat’.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • Repeat with the handler on the horse’s right side for the weaving.
  • Practice in different venues.
  • Use more rags.
  • Play at liberty.
  • Have only the horse weave – handler walks a straight line.
  • Practice on a slope.
  • Carry out the same sequence of tasks without marker rags.

Movement Routine 7 – Fence as Focus

Photo: Parking for up to 10 seconds with the handler standing behind. This is the seventh task of the routine.

INTRODUCTION

This routine refines 90-degree turns, stepping sideways, parking, and backing up with the handler in two different positions.

AIMS

  1. To improve the precision of handler/horse communication by linking a series of tasks into a sequence.
  2. To do a series of gentle gymnastic moves to engage the horse’s mind and muscles.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Smooth 90-degree Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
  3. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping. Sidestepping: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RL
  4. Backing up with handler shoulder beside withers and beside hindquarters. https://youtu.be/501PSnAA-po and https://youtu.be/MWAH_Csr960
  5. Horse understands a ‘wait’ signal to stay parked until further notice. Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
  6. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and a lead long enough so you can keep a nice drape in it but not so long it gets in the way. Or work at liberty.
  • Safe fence line or similar.

VIDEO CLIP

#201 HorseGym with Boots: Routine 7 – Fence as Focus. https://youtu.be/548G5Ektt4c

 

NOTES

  1. I find it easier to memorize the sequence of tasks like this by walking the pattern without the horse and then visualizing the sequence often. If you have a human friend, take turns being the horse or the handler. Usually, as handler precision improves, horse precision improves.
  2. The aim is to keep the rope with a nice drape or loop as much as possible, so the horse is getting his signals from our body language and signals rather than pressure on the halter. Then it will be easy to morph into working at liberty.
  3. Click&treat at a rate that keeps your horse being successful. As the horse learns a pattern through frequent short repetitions, we can gradually ask for a bit more before each click&treat. For this routine I began with click&treat at each halt, then gradually did a bit more before a click&treat.

TASKS

  1. Handler closest to fence, walk along shoulder-to-shoulder and make a U-turn, staying on the same side of the horse, which will put the horse closest to the fence. Walk to your starting point; halt.
  2. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse, beside or just behind his withers, ask the horse to back up several steps; halt.
  3. From halt, with the handler on the inside of the turn, make a 90-degree turn and walk 4 or 5 steps, halt. Repeat three more times so that you have walked an entire square with a halt at each corner, ending up where you started.
  4. From halt, walk the first two sides of the square as you did in 3 above, but with no halt at the corner. Halt at the end of the second side. The horse is now parallel to the fence.
  5. Move to face the horse and ask for sidesteps to the fence; halt.
  6. Ask the horse to stay parked with your ‘wait’ signal. Walk up to a couple of meters behind the horse and take up your ‘no intent’ position. Start with only a couple of seconds of ‘wait’ but try to gradually build up to ten seconds. Over multiple sessions gradually increase the distance you move away.
  7. Walk to stand beside the horse’s butt (facing the same way as the horse) and ask for several steps of back-up.
  8. Jackpot on completion of the sequence.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • Ask for a few more steps during the back-ups (tasks 2 and 7).
  • Walk a larger square (task 3).
  • Ask the horse to wait longer when he is parked (task 6).
  • Walk further away after asking the horse to ‘wait’ (task 6).
  • Start the exercise with a trot along the fence (task 1).
  • Ask for the second back-up (task 7) from further and further behind the horse.
  • Work at liberty or add halter and lead if you started at liberty.
  • Work on a slope if you have one handy.
  • Change the order of the tasks.

 

Movement Routine 6 – Rags as Focus

INTRODUCTION

This routine has us alternating frequently between the left and right sides of the horse. The objective is to develop our ‘walk on’, ‘halt’ and ‘turn’ signals to make them as clear and precise as possible.

AIM

To improve handler precision by linking a series of tasks into a sequence.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT)
  2. Smooth 90-degree Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
  3. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping. (Sidestepping: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RL)
  4. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO)

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and a lead long enough so we can keep a nice drape in it but not so long it gets in the way.
  • Six or more rags marking out a roomy circle. Have an even number of rags.

NOTES

  1. For this routine, it helps if the rags are a different color.
  2. Make the circle as large as you like. It is small in the clips for ease of filming.
  3. I like to memorize the sequence of events by walking the pattern without the horse and then visualizing the sequence often (a good substitute for counting sheep to go to sleep!) If you have a human friend, take turns being the horse or the handler. Usually, as handler precision improves, horse precision improves.
  4. Walk should-to-shoulder with the horse for all the tasks except the last two.
  5. The aim is to keep the rope with a nice drape or loop as much as possible, so the horse is getting his signals from our body language and signals rather than rope pressure.
  6. Click&treat at a rate that keeps your horse being successful. As a horse learns a pattern through frequent short repetitions, we can gradually ask for a bit more before each click&treat.

VIDEO CLIPS

#196 HorseGym with Boots: Routine 6, Rags as Focus: https://youtu.be/tqmY4RPKLrc

 

#197 HorseGym with Boots: Routine 6 at Liberty: https://youtu.be/KnXk8WEhXiA

 

#198 HorseGym with Boots: Routine 6 without Rags: https://youtu.be/ZSfK3i2Zq04

 

TASKS

  1. With the handler nearest the rag and on the horse’s left, stand together beside one of the rags.
  2. Walk a full circle around the rags (anticlockwise).
  3. On completing a full circle, turn into the middle of the circle and halt. Move to the horse’s right side.
  4. Vary how long you stay at the halt each time you halt in the circle’s center. Be clear with your ‘no intent’ body language during the standing together, and your ‘intent’ body language when you want to walk on again.
  5. Walk forward and curve around to circle the rags in the opposite direction (clockwise). Handler walks closest to the rags.
  6. On completing one full circle, turn into the middle again, halt and change to the horse’s left side.
  7. Walk forward and curve into an anticlockwise circle, but this time halt at every second rag. Vary how long you stay parked at the rags.
  8. After one circuit halting at every second rag, turn into the center of the circle again and change to the right side.
  9. Repeat 7 (stop at every second rag) but walking a clockwise circle.
  10. On completing the circle, turn into the middle of the circle and halt.
  11. Ask the horse to back up between two rags, halting when his belly is between the rags. In the clips, I face Boots to ask her to back up, but we could back up shoulder-to-shoulder.
  12. Ask the horse to sidestep either right or left so that one of the rags passes under his belly.
  13. Large Celebration on completion of the sequence.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • Practice in different venues.
  • Change the size of your circle.
  • Add more rags to your circle.
  • Build in walk-trot-walk transitions.
  • Repeat each task before changing to the next task.
  • Add walk-trot-walk transitions.
  • Add halt-trot transitions.
  • Add trot-halt transitions.
  • Play with it at liberty.
  • Carry out the sequence of tasks in an open area without marker rags. For the three halts along the circle (tasks 7 and 9), halt after each quarter circle.
  • Practice on a slope.

 

The Rule of Three

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule of Nine

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

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

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

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

Movement Routine 5 – Fence for Focus

Photo: Task 3: Walking a half-circle away from the fence.

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this series of movement routines is to regularly have the horse doing a series of gentle movements that aid his overall flexion and suppleness.

We need to consider both physical suppleness and mental suppleness. Mental suppleness is about the horse’s ability to understand the signals for each task and to move calmly between tasks.

Once the horse is adept with each of the tasks in the routine, this whole routine takes about two minutes. But it might take weeks or months of short daily practices to teach each element of the routine to the proficiency needed to link them all together.

I like to mark the end of a routine such as this with a celebration which in our case is a triple treat (details in Prerequisite 8).

AIM

To link this series of tasks into a sequence:

  1. Walk together.
  2. Recall toward fence.
  3. Walk a half-circle
  4. Yield shoulder to put horse’s butt at 90 degrees to fence.
  5. Back butt against fence.
  6. Two steps forward, one step back.
  7. One step forward, one step back; repeat once.
  8. Yield shoulder so horse faces fence and morph into sidestepping away.
  9. Sidestep in the opposite direction.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT)
  2. Horse can smoothly U-turn into a recall when the handler changes from walking forward to walking backwards. (https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24)
  3. The horse understands yielding the shoulder. (Yielding the Shoulder: https://youtu.be/eSlin8ZYcRA)
  4. Horse backs up easily to put his butt against a solid barrier. (#186 HorseGym with Boots: Backing Against Objects: https://youtu.be/SBcdVtV-eCo)
  5. Horse is familiar with backing up one step at a time and recalling one step at a time. (One Step at a Time: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5X6)
  6. Horse understands a signal for sidestepping away from the handler. (Sidestepping: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RL)
  7. Horse understand a signal for sidestepping toward the handler. (Target Shoulder to Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SH and Targeting Hindquarters to Our Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk)
  8. Triple Treat: #16 HorseGym with Boots: https://youtu.be/FaIajCMKDDU

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and 10′ (3m) or longer lead.
  • A safe fence or other barrier. For this challenge, we ask the horse to back his butt against the barrier, so something solid like a wooden fence, a wall or a hedge is best. We could also use a line of barrels or a raised rail.

VIDEO CLIP

NOTES

  1. Be sure that the horse is confident with each task before starting to link them together. We never want to make the horse feel wrong. He can’t be wrong because he doesn’t yet know what you want. Do a quiet reset and start again if things don’t go to plan.
  2. It is usually helpful to link pairs of tasks at first, then add the first pair to the second pair, and so on.
  3. I like to memorize the sequence of events by walking the pattern without the horse and then visualizing the sequence often (a good substitute for counting sheep to go to sleep!) If you have a human friend, take turns walking the sequence being both the horse and the handler.

TASKS

Use a rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) that keeps your horse being continually successful as much as possible. As he learns the routine, ask for a bit more before the next click&treat but always be prepared to increase the rate of reinforcement again if the horse needs you to clarify your intent.

  1. Walk along shoulder-to-shoulder with the handler nearest the fence.
  2. Gently change to walking backwards, asking the horse to make a U-turn toward the fence, so he is walking toward you.
  3. Stop walking backwards and ask him to halt in front of you.
  4. Move to the side that allows you to easily walk a half-circle together, with you on the inside of the circle.
  5. Halt when you have walked a half-circle away from the fence. Ask the horse to yield his shoulder 90 degrees so his butt is toward the fence.
  6. Ask the horse to back up until his butt (or tail) is against fence.
  7. Ask the horse to take two steps forward toward you, then ask for one step back.
  8. Now ask for one step forward, followed by one step back; repeat once.
  9. Ask the horse to yield his shoulder 180 degrees so he faces the fence and morph that movement into stepping away from you sideways.
  10. Ask the horse to sidestep toward you or move to his other side and ask him to sidestep away from you.
  11. Finish with a big celebration (e.g. a Triple Treat).
  12. Repeat from task 1 walking on the horse’s other side.

GENERALIZATIONS

  • Practice in different spots and/or different venues.
  • When it is super smooth with rope and halter, play at liberty.
  • Move away from the fence to do the routine. Change task 6 to ask for a set number of back-up steps or have a ground rail as a back-up destination.
  • Chain the tasks in a different order.

 

 

Movement Routine 4 – Rags for Focus

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

AIM

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

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

PREREQUISITES

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

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and 10′ (3m) or longer lead.
  • A set of chunky rags. In the videos I uses five rags, but we can easily use more.

VIDEO CLIPS

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

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

NOTES

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

TASKS

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

GENERALIZATIONS

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

The Planning Process

Our training behavior and the horse’s response behavior are totally intertwined.

Creating a detailed but flexible training or ‘shaping’ plan is essential for successful progression. A good plan helps us develop our training skills, and through our skills we show the horse how to relate confidently to what people ask of him.

A written plan lets us to look both forward and backward, giving us a good idea of where we have been as well as where we are heading.

If we keep records of each session, we can easily see where we must tweak our plan; where we must slow down and where it is going smoothly.

Difference between a Training Plan and an Individual Education Plan (IEP)

A Training Plan is an outline of the possible thin-slices (click points) that we might be able to use to teach a horse a particular skill. We can share training plans with other people to adapt to their own horses in their own environment.

A Training Plan is the starting point for writing an Individual Education Program (IEP) that suits a specific handler, the specific horse and the specific training environments that they have available.

An Individual Education Program (IEP) is a Training Plan carefully customized to suit the character type, age, health and background experience of the individual horse to be educated.

The IEP must also consider the same factors in relation to the handler. For example, although I was athletic in my youth, bionic knees now set a limit to how fast and far I can move.

My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans has much more detail than I can fit into this blog post.

If you would like  a hand developing your next plan after reading this post, send me an email at: herthamuddyhorse@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to have a look at it.

Summary of the Planning Process

  1. Decide Your Overall Objective

Everything we do with our horse needs to be designed to increase his confidence with the human-dominated world he has to live in. If we are watching and listening, the horse will usually tell us what we should work on next to reach the overall objective we have set.

Training that relates to the care, welfare and safety of all horses includes:

  • Haltering.
  • Rope relaxation and calmness.
  • Leading along and backing up.
  • Staying parked at a target or ground-tied.
  • Grooming.
  • Feeding time behavior.
  • Specifics like safely navigating gates and other tight spots.
  • Understanding the handler’s various leading or guiding positions.
  • Hoof care.
  • Vet procedures.
  • Being tied up.
  • Ground-work skills.
  • Gymnastic exercises for general fitness.
  • Road and traffic confidence.
  • Walking or driving out without other horses.
  • Walking or driving out with other horses.
  • Water and hill confidence.
  • Trailer loading, travelling and unloading if we intend to go elsewhere or if we need to evacuate due to flood, fire, earthquake
  1. Scope your Overall Objective

A. Decide on your Overall Objective

Now is the time to create a mind map or make a list of all the aspects of teaching  our overall objective that we can think of. We write down all our ideas, large and small, without giving them a value judgement at this point. Also pick the brains of other people you trust, especially if they also use positive reinforcement training.

  1. We then use the mindmap/list to come up with a set of TOPICS that relate to and underpin our overall objective.
  2. Next, we must put our TOPICS into a logical order of progression.
  3. Then we must decide which items on our mindmap/list are GOALS which fit under our various TOPIC headings.
  4. Then we organize the GOALS within each TOPIC into an order that seems to make sense.

B. Next we define and sort specific GOALS that fit under our TOPICS.

If our overall objective is complex, we achieve it by first teasing out the topics involved as in the mindmap above. Then we decide what goals fit within each topic.

If we let the ideas ferment in our mind for a while and revisit them over several days, we usually end up with a more comprehensive plan. Every time I revise my initial lists or mindmaps, I have a few more ideas to add or I see new connections between things that I didn’t notice before.

  1. Break Down Each Goal

It is helpful to have an overview of the whole planning process. We can outline the decreasing complexity of what we are teaching like this:

  • overall objective (most complex)
    • topics
      • goals within the topic
        • tasks to achieve a specific goal
          • thin-slices to achieve each task. (least complex)

If we read this from the bottom up, thin-slices allow us to achieve a task. Several tasks allow us to achieve a goal. The goal is part of a larger training topic. Good training in all the topics allows us to achieve our overall objective.

It’s important to set tasks that can be achieved in a relatively short time frame. Some goals might be so small that they easily become one task.

On the other hand, a major goal may take months or years to achieve. But the individual tasks leading to that goal should be small enough so that the horse and the handler have a continuous experience of small achievements.

  1. Define the Tasks that will Achieve each Goal

For each goal we teach a set of related tasks. When we have achieved all the tasks for each goal in a topic, we have mastered that topic. All the topics together achieve our overall objective.

To review where tasks sit, let’s quickly revisit this outline of the decreasing complexity of what we are teaching:

  • overall objective e.g. FOR YOU TO DECIDE.
    • topics are all relevant to teaching confidence with the overall objective.
      • goals which all relate to a specific topic
        • tasks we need to master to reach a goal
          • thin-slices organized to achieve each task.

Defining specific tasks is made easier by using a format called the ABCD method.

A = Audience (of our teaching), B = exact Behavior we are seeking, C = in what Conditions will we ask for the specified behavior, D = what Degree of proficiency does the behavior need to achieve our purpose.

A = Audience: your horse is the audience of your teaching. Think of the horse’s character type and what best motivates him. What do you think he may find easy or hard? If you are coaching another person, consider the character type of the person too. If you are working by yourself, consider your own character type.

B = Behavior: exactly what do you want to see when the horse is carrying out the task the way you want? Sometimes as well as seeing, we can feel the horse’s response through the rope or reins, or we feel his body energy, relaxation or tension. Additionally, how do you want your signals for the horse to look and feel?

C = Conditions: in what venues, with what props, in what environment(s)?

D = Degree of Perfection or Proficiency: how are you going to measure what you are doing? Decide on how long, how many strides, how many rails, zero tight lead-ropes, how far, how fast?

Once you have taught the basic task, it can be further developed to be performed more proficiently or to a higher standard as well as in different contexts and environments.

When you describe each task with these ABCD points in place, your Individual Education Plan will progress nicely.

Not defining tasks clearly is a major hurdle to good planning and good training outcomes.

5. Brainstorm Possible Thin-Slices for Each Task

Now all your thinking about your defined tasks can be put to work to create a brainstorm mind map or list of the smallest parts (slices) that make up each task.

We can begin this part of the planning by writing down all the possible slices of the task as they came to mind, without putting them in any specific order.

Remember, it’s easy to have too few slices, but we can never have too many. The more we can keep the horse feeling successful, the more he will enjoy his sessions (and so will we). If the horse is not being successful, we must adjust our plan so he can be almost continuously successful.

Pretty much everything we ask horse in captivity to do is entirely unrelated to their natural life in the wild. If we always keep this in mind during our training, it is easy to cherish each small accomplishment toward our final objective.

6. List your thin-slices in an order that might work

Once you have a brainstormed list/mindmap of the smallest slices you can think of, it’s time to put them into an order that might work nicely for you and the horse.

If the slices have been clearly thought out on paper, it’s easier to know what we are doing while we’re out with the horse. We can stay in the moment and our mind is free to interact with the horse rather than wonder what we are doing next.

Pocket cue cards with the slices listed in order can be helpful. I generally use these if I’m working on a complex task.

None of the sequences in a plan are written in stone. We get important feedback from each session with the horse. Either things went smoothly, or we need to tweak something.

Maybe we need to spend a lot more time on a certain slice. We are always free to add, delete, expand or move our ideas around.

When we have thin-sliced all the tasks for all the goals in each topic leading to our overall objective, our Training Plan is written! More accurately, the first version of a Training Plan for the overall objective is written.

We don’t have to write the whole plan all at once. We can simply choose the first topic to work on, set the goals for that, work out the tasks needed to achieve one of the goals, then thin-slice the tasks one at a time.

Thin-slicing tasks gets easier as we practice it. We get better at imagining all the pieces that make up the puzzle we have set for ourselves and the horse.

7. Venues, Props and Time

Think about:

  • The training venue(s) you have available.
  • The time you can spend with your horse.
  • How long you think it may take the horse to learn the task you are currently working on?
  • How long might it take the horse to learn all the tasks relating to the goal you are presently working on?
  • What props and helpers do you have available?

You outlined the Conditions for teaching when you defined your task with the ABCD format. Now is the time to work out the detail of where and when and how you can set up the conditions that will make the teaching and learning as easy as possible for you and your horse.

This is especially important if you must book venues or check when your helper(s) will be available.

  1. Decide How You Will Document Your Progress

As part of your Training Plan, decide how you will keep a record of what you’re doing, when you did it and how it went during each session.

My book, How to Create Good Horse Training Plans: The Art of Thin-Slicing outlines a variety of ways to document progress. There are digital record-keeping formats that some people find useful. One possibility is illustrated below.

This format has numbered spaces to record ‘session scores’ – one for the horse and one for the handler, to fill in after each training session. This chart has spaces to record 18 training sessions.

The format above has the benefit of being quick to fill in. Most of us have busy lives into which we must fit our horse time. Once our mind switches over to other parts of our life, it is easy to forget the detail of what we specifically did with our horse and how the session felt. The horse and the handler each get a ‘score’ which is just a shorthand way of recording a ‘session assessment’.

We can use symbols or emoticons to indicate how we felt, how we thought the horse felt and weather details (make sure you create a key for your symbols). Hot, cold, wind, wet all affect how a session goes. If we train in various places, we can have a symbol for each place. If there is a time-break in our training due to life and/or weather interfering, we can note this as well.

The sort of detail mentioned above is priceless when we look back on it. We can see how many repeats we did to get from introduction of a new task to getting it fluent and generalized to different situations.

If we keep charts like this in our tack room or car there is an increased chance that we will fill it in right away while the session is still fresh in our mind.

The following chart shows one possible way to score each session’s progress. Some people may prefer a ten-point scale so more nuances can be recorded.

It probably works best for each person to make up a scoring details page that best suits their environment and their horse and how they like to record things.

Note that the ‘score’ is just a quick way to define our assessment of a session. It helps indicate where we are while working through a process.

There is no other value judgement added to the score numbers. For some tasks the handler may stay at ‘1’ for a while until he/she has sorted out the best way to introduce an idea to the horse.

Every task we undertake will have its own time-frame to move from Score 1 to Score 5, depending on the many variables that relate to the horse and the handler.

A possible scoring (session assessment) range may look something like this:

   Score    Horse’s Score (session assessment)      Person’s Score (session assessment)
      1 Situation and signals are unfamiliar to the horse. Experimenting to find best props/gear, best orientation, clearest signal and best timing.
      2 Horse is experimenting with responses to find those that yield a click&treat.

 

Gear, body orientation and body language, voice and other signals are developing to be as clear as possible for the horse.
      3 Noticeably more fluent with the requested movements (or stillness).

 

Signals are becoming smoother. Beginning to link one or more thin-slices of a complex task.
      4 Getting it right in a familiar area most of the time. Feeling the rapport of two-way communication with the horse.

 

      5 Desired responses are reliable in various situations and venues. Signals are fluid and consistent.

 

Remember, the ‘scores’ are session assessments which are simply points along a continuum ranging from first introduction to something new all the way to smooth execution of the task. We are assessing the session, not critiquing it.

Most things we want to do with a horse is a trick/game to the horse – something he would rarely do on his own. To teach the rules of our games fairly we need to be aware of the following questions that underpin all training.

  • What thin-slices do I needed in order to teach this horse this task?
  • How little or how much does this horse already understand about the task?
  • What gaps are there in my knowledge, gear handling and training skills that I should address first?
  • Am I aware of how am I orientating my body in relation to the horse?
  • How consistent are my signals?
  • How good is the timing of my release (click&treat)?
  • How good and consistent are my rope handling skills?
  • How well and consistently do I handle my body extensions (including rope/reins)?
  • How good am I at using my breathing and core body energy to show intent or relaxation?

The horse can only be as smooth as the handler is smooth. The horse can only learn as smoothly as we can teach smoothly.

9. Experiment with Horse and Self to Find a Starting Point

This is where you find out whether your proposed thin-slices are thin enough and whether you have thought through the prerequisites carefully enough. The aim is to begin each task at a point where both you and the horse are relaxed and confident.

You can, of course, do gentle experimentation all the time during the planning process. If you mostly work with the same horse, your starting point for a specific task may become obvious while you are doing other things.

For example, if your horse is not able to easily lift each leg in turn to touch a target, then he may find it difficult to sort out his balance on three legs when you want to tend a foot. So addressing this would be a starting point for relaxed hoof care.

10. Create your Individual Education Program (IEP)

Now is the time to tailor your Training Plan by considering the character type, health, age, fitness level, and background experience of your horse and yourself.

You already considered this to some extent when you thought about the Audience portion of the ABCD used for defining your task.

Consider the time you can put into the project. Be careful to link your expectations realistically to the time you have available to be with the horse.

Your experimentation may show that your Training Plan is too ambitious, and you need to slow down and do more thin-slicing of certain parts. Or you may discover that the horse already knows more than you realized, allowing you to move quickly through some of the foundation lessons from your IEP.

It is important to still work through the exercises that already feel easy, rather than leave them out.

You may discover that your horse finds something particularly difficult, so you give that more time and attention. Life, weather or injury may interfere, forcing you to adjust the time frame.

As mentioned earlier, it’s important that the tasks you set are achievable in a relatively short time frame. Each small success is worth its weight in gold for motivation to keep learning, for both the handler and the horse.

You may decide that some of your defined tasks are too large, so you go back to redefine them, slice them more thinly, until you have tasks that you can master in a comfortable, shorter time frame.

11. Tweak Your Individual Education Program (IEP)

Every horse, every handler, and every horse-handler combination are unique. What works magically with one horse may be a total dead-end with another horse. Each horse brings new challenges and triumphs.

Every session with a horse gives you valuable feedback and new ideas. Things that don’t work are just as valuable as things that do work. By using a pre-planned set of thin-slices, we avoid a lot of unfocused activity that confuses the horse and leads to handler frustration.

Inevitably, we’ll still get confusion. The IEP is always a work in progress. Tweak it as you get new information by listening to your horse, and when you make new connections as you think through a challenge.

CONCLUSION

A good plan does the following:

  1. Decides on the overall objective and expresses it clearly.
  2. Scopes the topics that fall withing the overall objective and decides which topic might be best tackled first.
  3. Works out the individual goals that are part of each topic and decides on an order in which you will tackled the goals – but stays flexible.
  4. Carefully defines the tasks you need to master in order to achieve each goal and decides the order in which you will work with the tasks. You might work to develop elements of one, two or three different tasks during one training session.
  5. Diligently thin-slices each task into its smallest teachable/clickable portions and organizes these slices into an order that will probably make sense to the horse. Again, we must stay flexible and adjust our training to the horse that shows up on the day.
  6. Experiments gently with the horse to find a starting point at which you both feel comfortable. We do this for each task within each goal.
  7. Sets up your Individual Education Program (IEP), once you know your starting point, by customizing your plan to suit the horse you are working with.
  8. Tweaks your IEP to make learning easier for the horse any time you and the horse are not being continually successful most of the time. A vibrant planner is always thinking of different ways to approach things. If we are listening, the horse usually shows us the direction we should take.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?

 

Movement Routine 3 – Fence for Focus

Photo: Walking concentric circles is part of this routine.

INTRODUCTION

For Movement Routine 3 we are back to using a fence as a focal point to initially build the routine. A fence helps the horse maintain straight movement. It also makes it easy to establish beginning and end points for each circle in this sequence of tasks.

AIMS

  • Transitions from walking forward into finesse back-ups.
  • Walking concentric circles.
  • Stay and Wait.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. We have taught the finesse back-up. (See Related Resources 2 at the end of this post.)
  3. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (See Related Resources 3 at the end of this post.)
  4. While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse follows the movement of the handler’s body axis away from the horse to move into a circle. (See Related Resources 4 at the end of this post.)
  5. We have taught the horse to ground-tie. (See Related Resources 5 at the end of this post.)

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and 10′ (3m) or longer lead.
  • A safe fence or similar. A safe fence or barrier is one the horse can’t put his foot/leg through if he suddenly steps back. Tape fences can work well with some horses – NOT electrified.

VIDEO CLIPS

With halter and lead:  https://youtu.be/BHSztrpA8oo

 

At liberty: https://youtu.be/O0dpTo6mXSs

NOTES

  1. Memorize the sequence of tasks by walking the pattern without the horse and then visualizing the sequence often.
  2. The number of steps you take walking forward is not important. I tend to not take many steps when making the video clips to keep the viewing time short. I sometimes suggest a number of steps, but please suit that to your horse and your environment.
  3. However, the number of steps I suggest for moving backwards is significant. Horses don’t naturally do a lot of stepping backwards. We want to stay with only 2-3 steps at first, and gradually, over many short sessions, build it up one or two additional steps at a time. We want to avoid making the horse sore.
  4. While teaching this routine, or revisiting it after a long time, I generally click&treat for each part of each task. When the routine feels familiar, I move the click point along so we are doing more before a click&treat. Each horse will be different and each time doing the pattern will be different. I like to move the click points around a bit to stop the horse anticipating a treat at a specific point every time.
  5. The key to all these tasks is to keep a continuous drape in the lead rope, using halter pressure via the rope only momentarily for additional guidance. Most of our guided shaping comes via our body position, gestures, breathing, energy level and voice signals.

TASKS

  1. On the horse’s left side, with the horse nearest the fence, walk forward maybe ten steps, halt for a second or two, then turn into a finesse back-up – asking for 2-3 steps back. Repeat two more times (three times in total).
  2. Walk a large circle (handler on the inside). At the point along the fence where you began the large circle, switch to walk a medium-sized circle. Reaching the same spot again, carry on walking a small circle. The circle sizes will depend on the space you have and how flexible your horse is. Start with large circles and gradually make them smaller as indicated by the increasing suppleness of the horse.
  3. Ask the horse to HALT alongside the fence, either ground-tied or put the rope over his neck/back. Then ask him to WAIT while you walk away about ten steps with your back to the horse. Turn to partly face the horse and take up your ‘Zero Intent’ body position for x number of seconds. Then walk back to the horse; click&treat. Gradually (over lots of short sessions with this routine) work up to a WAIT of ten seconds or more.
  4. Walk forward shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse, then turn into a finesse back-up without a halt first. With practice this can get lovely and fluid.
  5. Repeat the whole sequence of tasks walking on the horse’s right side.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. Practice alongside different fences/walls/hedges if you can.
  2. Once the horse shows that he knows the pattern, play with it at liberty along a fence using the same signals you have used all along.
  3. Once the routine is smooth along the fence, play with it out in the open first with a lead rope, then at liberty. Alternate on which side of the horse you begin the routine.

Note that during backing up, horses usually push harder with one hind leg, so their hind end tends to veer away from the stronger leg. You may want to teach a gesture signal that allows you to regain straightness.

Experiment with how your position to the right or the left of the horse’s head affects his backing up.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Finesse Back-Up: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5XL
  3. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  4. Smooth 90-Degree Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
  5. Ground Tie: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WX