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SMOOTH COUNTER TURNS

INTRODUCTION

This flexion activity follows on from teaching the 90 and 180-degree turns when the handler is on the inside of the turn. Now we want to develop a smooth turn when the handler is on the outside of the turn; counter turns.

When we are on the inside of a turn, we teach ourselves to slow down but maintain energy to give the horse time to organize his longer body and four legs to negotiate the larger arc of the turn without losing forward motion.

When we are on the outside of the turn, we have to travel a bigger arc than the horse to get around the turn. If we ‘hurry’ our strides it can cause the horse to hurry around the corner too, leaving us behind. Or our ‘hurrying’ may block the horse and he halts or moves away.

Ideally, we want the horse to slow his turn so we can negotiate our wider arc without stress.

Boots and I did a lot of experimentation to get this flowing smoothly. I have new knees, so it is hard for me to hurry myself around the turn. When we started the task in the shoulder-to-shoulder position, I ended up beside her butt after the corner.

It was time to re-think and play with possibilities. Eventually it became obvious that adjusting our leading position, so the horse’s nose was beside my shoulder, made the whole thing much more manageable.

In my book, Walking with Horses, I did a detailed exploration of the eight basic body positions or orientations we use when communicating with our horse. Each of these of course has many nuances of angle. Here are the eight positions:

  1. Walking directly in front of the horse, with our back to the horse.
  2. The horse is beside us with his head at our shoulder.
  3. Shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse.
  4. Walking beside the ribs, just behind the withers, where we would be if riding.
  5. Walking or standing alongside the horse’s rump, as for tending hind feet or brushing tail.
  6. Walking behind the horse as in long-reining.
  7. In front of the horse, facing him.
  8. Facing the horse’s ribs, as in saddling or lunging.

Eventually Boots and I worked out that the first slice we needed for counter turns was to review our signal for staying in Leading Position 2 – where my shoulder stays beside the horse’s head.

Much of our recent work has been using Leading Position 3 – shoulder-to-shoulder, but it didn’t take long to review and update the gesture signal we used for walking together with my head beside her ears.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals while keeping his head next to the handler’s shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ at end of this post.)
  3. Handler understands the skill of shifting his/her body axis toward the horse as a signal for turning when the horse is on the inside of the turn. Practice this first without the horse. If you have a willing human helper, have them be the horse so they can give you feedback about the clarity of your body orientation signal just prior to navigating each corner. (See ‘Related Resource’.)
  4. Handler understands the skill of navigating the bigger arc of the turn without raising his/her energy so much that it influences the horse to either speed up or stall out. This can also be practiced with another person standing in for the horse.

MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (kept draped as much as possible, as we want to use orientation and body language for communication, not rope pressure).
  • Safe stretches of fence along which you can walk in position beside the ears, keeping the horse between the fence and the handler to encourage straightness.
  • Four markers. The markers can be anything safe. In the beginning, it’s easiest if the markers are relatively large, so the horse sees the sense in walking around them rather than across or through them. Barrels, tall cones, tread-in posts if working on grass, or if these are not available, cardboard boxes can do the job.
  • Four rails to set up in a square or rectangular shape with one of the large markers set into each corner.

AIMS

  1. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth counter turns when the horse is on the inside of the turn; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
  2. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth counter turns when the horse is on the inside of the turn; handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.

VIDEO CLIPS

Clip 1:

Clip 2:

NOTES

  1. What you see Boots doing in the video clips is a result of many very short sessions over a long time. I always strive to improve the timing of my body axis turned toward the horse as a signal for the counter turn.
  2. If the horse has been resting or contained, it is important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for this sort of flexion. A relaxed road walk or moving over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises.
  3. It’s important to teach each slice on both the left and right sides of the horse.
  4. Quite often it is harder for the horse and/or the handler when they are using the non-dominant side of their body. With patience and extra practice on the harder side, it will start to feel more equal.
  5. Signals given with the handler’s non-dominant side are often not as fluid or well-timed as signals given on the dominant side. Once we become aware of this, we can focus on it as necessary.
  6. As with most things, progress without causing soreness is best made by doing a few counter turns every session; never turning it into drilling.

SLICES

Stay with each slice until if feels easy for both handler and horse.

  1. Walk along a safe fence with the horse between the handler and the fence. Keep a nice drape in the lead rope. For this slice, we are not yet focusing on keeping a position beside the ears. Our focus is the horse walking calmly and willingly along the fence. Occasionally ask for a halt; click&treat.
  2. When 1 feels smooth, put yourself into position beside the horse’s ears while you are at the halt; click&treat (still halted). Then ask for ‘walk on’ and see how well you can maintain the shoulder/ear position (I’ll refer to this as just the ‘ear position’ from now on).
  3. If the horse tends to want to walk behind you, he may have been taught to lead mainly by staying behind, so treat this gently. Slow down with him to stay by his ear; click&treat when you achieve the position. Ask for only a couple of steps in ‘ear position’ before you halt; click&treat. We want to gradually have him realize that being in the ‘ear position’ is what elicits the click&treat.
  4. If the horse tends to forge ahead, it makes more sense to me to use a body extension to block the forward surge, rather than to ‘correct’ with pressure on the rope.
  • A horse with the habit of cutting in front of the person leading is not in a good place in terms of getting along with people. If the horse has been taught to lead by following a hand-held target or walking calmly between stationary targets, this problem may never arise. You may want to go back and work on these skills before continuing with this exercise.
  • If your horse has been traumatized by stick objects in the past, the prerequisite task now becomes to build his confidence with body extensions before proceeding any further. (See ‘Related Resource’ 6 at the end of this chapter.)
  • Note: I am a fan of using targets for many things, but they can become a problem when the training does not progress to developing the relevant skills so a target is no longer needed.
  • In the first video clip, I use my arm to indicate a halt. Eventually this arm signal will no longer mean halt; it will instead be our signal for communicating that we are about to do a counter turn.
  • If the horse has the habit of surging ahead and is not traumatized by sticks, simply use a stick to put motion energy out in front of him to block his surge, followed by click&treat when he stops surging / stays beside you. This is an example of ‘combined reinforcement’. We use negative reinforcement to help the horse quickly understand the answer we need. The instant he finds the answer, we click&treat. There is no need to touch the horse with the body extension. We only use it to disturb the air in front of the horse by moving it up and down.
  • If the horse is full of energy, for whatever reason, the way forward is to give him opportunity to run off the energy so he can regain focus on the quieter work you want to do. Every horse is different and every training situation is a new combination of environment and events.
  • He will learn to keep the ‘ear position’ both while moving and when you ask for the halt. Eventually your raised arm will be enough and the body extension becomes redundant. If you feel your ‘halt’ could be improved, see Getting a Smooth Halt in Many Situations: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5R9

5.   Work with ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ in the ‘ear position’ until it feels fluid in a variety of places and  with the handler walking on either side of the horse.

6.  When 5 is smooth, set up your rectangle of ground rails with a bulky object at each corner. Make the square/rectangle as large as you like. The one in the video clip is small for easier filming. As you approach a corner of the rectangle, turn your body axis toward the horse and raise your outside arm as you did previously for the halt.

The horse will feel your energy as you continue to step the arc around the corner and realize you are not stopping. Click&treat as soon as you come around the corner. If the horse does halt when you raise your arm, use some of your ‘walk on’ multi-signals to let him know that you are not stopping.

7.  At first, click&treat after each corner. Gradually change to every second corner, and so on. Eventually vary the number of corners done before the click&treat. I don’t often ask for more than four corners in a row before the click&treat.

8.  Change direction (and therefore side of the horse) often. This is a fairly concentrated flexion exercise and we don’t want to make the horse stiff.

9.  When 7 is going well, remove the rails and use just the corner markers.

10.  When 9 is going well, put markers at random throughout the training area Walk toward one and adjust your position so you can ask for a counter turn around it. I couldn’t fit this into the video clip, but it is an easy way to include a few counter turns in any training session.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1.  Set out a row of markers to weave for practicing your ‘drive’ and ‘draw’ body axis changes to really consolidate the idea for both of you. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 and 3 at the end of this post.)
  2. Set out markers around which you can do figure eight patterns, which combines the counter turn with the turn where you are on the inside. (See ‘Related Resource’ 4 and 5 at the end of this post.)
  3. When everything is going smoothly, we can increase the challenge by asking for 180-degree counter turns (U-turns). We achieve this by keeping our body axis turned toward the horse for longer.

These are fairly extreme flexion tasks, so be gentle and only ask for a couple at a time at first. A few done often will certainly increase suppleness but be careful if your horse has (or might have) joint, stifle or arthritis issues. Always make sure the horse is well warmed up.

4.  Eventually, we can ask for 360-degree counter turns around a marker. At first, a barrel or cluster of markers may make it easier because the turn is wider. With practice, the horse will get adept with tighter turns, but please note the cautions in 3 above.

5.  Freestyle Counter turns: When it feels right, begin to ask for 90-degree counter turns without markers. If these fall apart, you have feedback about which slice to return to in order to regain the horse’s confidence and willingness. Usually we have to ask for less or in other words, raise the rate of reinforcement.

6.  Morph the freestyle counter turns into a quiet, relaxed circle with the handler on the outside, then gradually change that into a tidy turn on the haunches. It may look messy at first, but with practice can become lovely and fluent.

7.  Back-Up Counter Turns: Ask the horse to back up with you for a few steps, then ask for a counter turn; click&treat. These may also feel messy at first, but once you and the horse get synchronized via many mini-practices, they will become more and more exact. When one of these feels good, ask for two in a row before the click&treat.

Then do three in a row and finally four in a row so you have backed a complete square. I count our steps back and usually do the turn after every third or fourth step. If you are consistent with the number of the steps back before you ask for the turn, you will find that horses are excellent at counting. Teach again on the horse’s other side, which will probably feel quite different due to handler and horse asymmetry.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Video Clip: #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals: https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y
  3. Video Clip: #70 HorseGym with Boots ONLY HORSE WEAVES: https://youtu.be/AhwwC783Kh0
  4. Video Clip: Figure 8: https://youtu.be/QrberCzAO6c
  5. Video Clip: Figure 8 at Liberty: https://youtu.be/0HXfJTv15eY
  6. Video Clip: #121 HorseGym with Boots: STICK & ROPE CONFIDENCE: https://youtu.be/WIpsT4PPiXo

 

 

The Balancera Exercise

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ signals and walks in a relaxed manner with the handler beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 1 at end of this post.)
  3. Horse responds easily to ‘back-up’ signals and walks backward willingly with the handler staying in position beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 at end of this post.)
  4. Horse and handler understand the ‘Zero Intent’ dynamic. (See ‘Related Resources’ 3 at end of this post.)

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry; he’s had ample time to graze or eat hay right before the training session.
  • Halter and lead (kept draped as much as possible, as we want to use body language for communication, not rope pressure). If the horse already backs up easily with the handler in the shoulder-to-shoulder position, you can teach this task at liberty.
  • A selection of barriers which we walk toward and ask for a ‘halt’.
  • A safe fence or similar to work alongside.
  • Supports and rails to build a dead-end lane.

AIM:

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

VIDEO CLIPS:

Balancera Clip 1 of 2: #173 HorseGym with Boots

 

Balancera Clip 2 of 2. #174 HorseGym with Boots

NOTES:

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

SLICES:

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

GENERALIZATIONS:

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

RELATED RESOURCES:

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

PLACING THE FEET ACCURATELY USING A RAIL

This task continues the attention we gave the ‘halt’ and ‘walk on’. We also add a ‘back up’ and pay a bit more attention to ‘wait time’.

There are five different tasks, but since we do them in the horse’s left and right eyes, they are actually ten tasks. Then we consolidate the tasks by doing them in two directions, so we have a total of 20 tasks, or 10 tasks which each have two variations.

Once all the tasks are going smoothly, we can mix them up in any order, which teaches us to be crystal clear for the horse and has the horse watch us carefully to pick up our next signal.

When confusion arises, it is because we are not clear enough. Horses working for a food reward are usually super-observant of all our body language as well as carefully taught voice and gesture signals.

When we use our less dominant side, it’s common for our body language and gesture signals to be less clear until we become more conscious of what we are doing. If you haven’t usually done much on your horse’s right side, there will be a lot of learning going on.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse leads smoothly beside the handler’s shoulder. (See Additional Resource 1 at the end of the post.)
  • Handler and horse agree on clear ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals. (See Additional Resource 2 at the end of the post.)
  • Horse and handler agree on a ‘back up’ signal. (See  Additional Resources 3 & 4 at the end of the post.)

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Halter and lead or liberty.
  • A rail. I use a round rail in the clip, but using a half-round rail that doesn’t roll is ideal to teach this. Or we can put blocks under a round rail. In the clip, I put my foot on it to stop it rolling.
  • One or two of these tasks during one segment of a training session is plenty. If it’s all done quietly with no fuss or drilling, the horse will think on it and remember what behaviors will earn a click&treat. It works best to do a little bit often.

AIMS:

  1. Handler works on smooth ‘walk on’, ‘halt’ and ‘back up’ signals using a single rail as a focal point.
  2. Handler builds small pauses into the work to encourage the horse to relax while waiting for the next set of signals.
  3. Horse develops confidence with standing over a rail under his belly.
  4. Horse has practice to place his feet carefully in response to handler signals.

VIDEO CLIPS:

With halter and lead:

 Liberty

NOTES:

  1. In the video clip, I change between left eye and right eye for each task. An option is to teach them all smoothly with the handler on one side of the horse and then teach them again from the other side.
  2. I didn’t film the tasks using a mat destination between repeats of the task, but when first beginning to teach the tasks, it can help to have a familiar mat some distance from the rail and head to it for an extra click&treat between repeats.
  3. For challenges like this with multiple parts, I find it useful to carry a written memo card in my pocket.

SLICES:

  1. Walk right over the rail, halt a few paces beyond the rail (or at a destination mat/target), click&treat.
  2. Halt with the rail under the horse’s belly, click&treat; pause, walk on forward over the rail.
  3. Halt before stepping over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on over the rail.
  4. Halt after all four feet have stepped over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on.
  5. Halt with the rail under the horse’s belly, click&treat. Pause, ask the horse to back his front feet over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on forward over the rail. If you have not taught backing up, add this slice later when the horse already backs confidently in different situations.

GENERALIZATION:

  • Approach the rail from different directions.
  • Put the rail in different venues.
  • Use different rails.
  • Do it at liberty or add halter and lead if you taught at liberty.
  • Work on a slope.
  • Use a similar exercise to get a horse comfortable with stepping into and out of a hoop on the ground with front feet, then with back feet.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

  1. Video clips: #29 HorseGym with Boots: Leading Position 3 with a Circle of Markers: https://youtu.be/jtTnlvn0SjE. #85 HorseGym with Boots: Walk On, Halt, Back Up: https://youtu.be/PS01zopa6J0.  #30 HorseGym with Boots: Leading Position 3 Duration Exercise: https://youtu.be/kjH2pS1Kfr8
  2. Blog & video: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  3. Video clip: #41 HorseGym with Boots: Back Up Standing in Front of the Horse: https://youtu.be/AtTCA85e8l4
  4. Video clip: Shoulder-to-Shoulder Back Up: https://youtu.be/wZ7hnFSkxUU

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SMOOTH 90-DEGREE TURNS – Handler on the Inside

INTRODUCTION:

This activity makes a nice warm-up or cool-down exercise. It also does wonders for maintaining horizontal flexibility. The bone structure of the horse limits flexion to only three points along the body. They simply are not as sinuous as a cat or even a dog.

A horse’s three flexion points are:

  1. Head alone flexes right and left a little bit.
  2. Base of the neck is the main area of flexion.
  3. A small degree of flexion is possible between the end of the ribs and the hip.

This exercise encourages maintenance of flexion for 2 and 3 above. To make a nice clean 90-degree (right-angle) turn, the horse must flex a little bit at the shoulder and step the inside hind foot forward and under the belly to navigate the turn as elegantly as possible.

It’s a good exercise to note the degree of stiffness or flexibility that a horse has in his body.

If we have a stiff horse, we can set up this exercise so it is relatively easy to accomplish at first. If we consistently do a few repeats of this exercise several times each session, we’ll note that it gradually gets easier for the horse (unless he is incapacitated due to past injury).

As the horse gets smooth with one level of bend, we can gradually ask for a tighter bend.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Linked Resources’ at end of this post.)
  3. Handler understands the skill of shifting his/her body axis away from the horse as a signal for turning when the horse is on the outside of the turn. Practice this first without the horse. If you have a willing human helper, have them be the horse so they can give you feedback about the clarity of your body orientation signal just prior to navigating each corner. (See the ‘Linked Resource’ about 180-Degree Turns. I teach this before these 90-degree turns.)
  4. Handler understands the skill of maintaining ‘forward energy’ at the same time as slowing down to give the horse time to scribe the bigger arc of the turn. This is also improved by practice with another person standing in for 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.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (kept loose as much as possible, as we want to use orientation and body language for communication, not rope pressure).
  • Four rails (or similar) that clearly outline the shape of a square or rectangle.
  • Four markers to place beyond the corners of our square or rectangle.

AIMS:

  1. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 90-degree (right-angle) turns when the horse is on the outside of the handler; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
  2. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 90-degree (right-angle) turns when the horse is on the outside of the handler; handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.

VIDEO CLIP:

#171 HorseGym with Boots: SMOOTH 90-DEGREE TURNS.

NOTES:

  1. What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result of many very short sessions over a long time. I strive to improve the timing of my body axis turned away from the horse as a signal for the right-angle turn.
  2. If you use ‘right’ and ‘left’ turn voice signals, add the relevant one at the same moment as you shift the angle of your body axis away from the horse
  3. If the horse has been resting or contained, it is important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for these types of flexion. Walking over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises.

SLICES:

  1. Ask the horse to walk with you around the shape (box or rectangle), with you walking on the inside of the turn. At first be content with fairly wide, flowing corners. At first, click&treat after each corner. Eventually begin to click&treat only especially well done corners.
  2. Focus on three things;

One: turn your body axis away from the horse just as you approach each corner.

Two: slow down slightly around the corner but keeping your body energy up as you turn in order to give the horse plenty of time to organize his much longer body and four legs. Raising your knees to ‘march on the spot’ is one way to maintain the energy with less forward movement. If you pause your energy through the turn, the horse may also fade out, as he is taking his cues from your energy.

Three: note how efficiently or elegantly your horse is bringing his body around each corner; click&treat turns that seem extra efficient or elegant. Offer the click&treat just after the corner has been navigated, not during the turn.

  1. After a few times around with you on the horse’s left side, change direction so you are on his right side. You may notice that the horse is less flexible on one side. You may notice that you are less flexible and less clear with your body language in one direction.
  2. If you have previously taught voice signals for going ‘around’ something or for ‘left turn’ and ‘right turn’, you can use them here at the same moment you are turning your body axis away from the horse.
  3. When 2 and 3 above feel relaxed and easy, set four markers out from each corner of the square or rectangle as in the photo below. At first, make the gap between the rail and the marker much wider than in the photo. Also note that I’v begun walking inside the square, giving the horse more space to navigate the turn.

  1. Repeat  from the beginning with the horse walking inside each corner marker. As you note his suppleness improving day by day, gradually move the markers closer. In the photo above you can see the tracks of our first easy wide turns when I was also walking outside the square. Now Boots is making the tracks close to the rails.
  2. A little bit of this exercise done often, but never ‘drilled’, encourages the horse to flex because a nice turn earns a click&treat. When all the turns feel nice and tight, be sure to still click&treat often – sometimes after 1, 2, 3 or 4 corners and mix up the number of corners done before the click&treat. If you always do the same, the horse will expect you to always do the same. By varying how many corners before the click&treat, he will listen for the click rather than count the turns. Change direction frequently.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Set up more than one rectangle and do a few circuits of each one.
  2. Set rectangles up in different venues, if possible, or change the spot in the same general venue.
  3. Set up rectangles of different sizes.
  4. Set up rectangles using different props, such as tread-in posts or tall cones and tape.
  5. Use parallel rails as your rectangle so you can change which rails you decide to walk between so the horse watches more carefully for the change in your body axis.
  6. Set up a rectangle on a slope.
  7. Eventually you may only need four corner markers as a baseline.
  8. Walk a square or rectangle without any props to see how well you have established the change in body axis orientation to communicate with your horse. Vary the size of these – maybe by counting your steps.
  9. Use your body axis orientation change consistently when doing other exercises such as weaving.
  10. Walk a circle rather than a square, by keeping your body axis turned slightly from the horse as the signal.
  11. Play with it all at liberty if you didn’t already train it all at liberty.

LINKED RESOURCES:

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

Blog: 180-Degree Turns. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Ug

Clip: #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y

Soft Response to Rope Pressure and Voice Direction Signals

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

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

AIMS:

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

SLICES:

A: STANDING COMFORTABLY IN A CORNER

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

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

B: TEACH AN ANCHOR TASK

VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Right side)

Clip 1:

 

Clip 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLICES:

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

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

VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Left side)

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

E. RESPONSE TO ROPE or REINS SIGNALS

VIDEO CLIPS 3 & 4

Clip 3:

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

Clip 4:

F: GENERALIZATION

Some of these are shown in clip 4:

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

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

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

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

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

Destination Training

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

Destination Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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