Tag Archives: equine body language

Greet and Go: How Horses Acknowledge Each Other

Greet & Go = Acknowledging Another Group Member

Background

The Greet & Go process is based on how horses who know each other greet upon meeting. In this exercise, the horse can choose to greet us. If he decides not to greet us, nothing happens, so this exercise shows the horse that it is okay to say, ‘No, not right now’. It helps to build trust because the horse gains a sense of control in the situation.

It seems that control over one’s actions is a primary reinforcing element in life, whether one is human or any other critter. A sense of having control is probably strongly related to routine. A sense of well-being arises if we can move, eat/drink, sleep, seek shelter, choose our company (if a gregarious species) according to our daily and seasonal rhythms and our personal preferences.

Any departure from having control about what happens next induces unpleasant stress (‘distress’, as opposed to ‘eustress’, the useful stress involved with learning new things at a rate we can easily absorb). For horses, any sort of containment causes distress because they are adapted for freedom of movement over 24 hours, strong environmental awareness and the ability to flee rapidly if a worrying situation arises.

The more we can allow our horses control over their lives, the better the probability that they will be relatively comfortable in captivity and willing to form working relationships with people.

The human-horse interaction dynamic is always problematic for the horse. By introducing the Greet & Go to every meeting with a horse, we relate to him in a way that acknowledges his reality rather than imposing only our desires.

Greet & Go is an activity done every single time we meet a horse.

The Human Tendency

When I introduce this exercise to people, they invariably want to pat the horse’s face after the horse has politely put his nose on their hand. In terms of horse etiquette, I have the feeling that horses find this distinctly impolite. Most horses dislike it, especially from a stranger.

They often try to move their head away. Some horses have learned to stop people doing this by using their teeth if a warning with the ears is ignored.

As already mentioned, new horses greeting each other often put their foreheads together, check each other’s breath and push to help get the measure of the other horse. I think putting our hand onto the horse’s face might feel to them like a dominating gesture.

The Greet & Go exercise does not include any fondling of the horse’s head or ears.

The Greet & Go Process

A brown horse standing next to a fence

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We can do this across a fence or in with the horse. The key is to always let the horse close the last 2 inches of space. If he chooses not to connect, we walk away.

A boy feeding a cow through a fence

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Wait with zero intent while the horse decides whether he wants to make contact or not.

Smoky making contact with the back of Bridget’s hand. We always allow the horse to close the last two inches of space between his nose and our hand.

The Greet & Go exercise is simple but profound. You can do it across a fence or while in with the horse. You approach the horse from the front in a quiet, relaxed, friendly manner and before you quite reach him, you hold out your arm with a lightly curled fist, and invite the horse to touch the back of your hand.  Your hand stands in as another horse’s nose. Horses use their noses to explore like we use our hands.

As soon as the horse has touched your hand, which is the Greet, you quietly walk away. Walking away is the Go part of the process. You approach the horse, Greet, then immediately do the opposite, Go, by walking away. You are showing the horse that you respect his space and his place in the universe and in your life. You no longer approach his bubble only when you want to halter him and make him do things.

Horses appreciate the opportunity to greet us politely. The act of turning and walking away (Go) is a neutral act another horse might do, i.e. touch noses and share breath to say hello and then move away to mind his own business because he is secure in the relationship. It shows that neither party is looking for any sort of further interaction or confrontation.

The whole dynamic is like the friendly recognition we give to colleagues as we walk past them at work or when we briefly greet a neighbor out shopping.

Here is an important point that runs through all our interactions with a horse. If the horse comes into our space (our bubble) of his free will, he needs to do so politely. If he’s not polite, it’s fair for us to send him away. If we go into our horse’s space (bubble) we need to do so politely. If we intend to ask him to do something, we need to ask politely, giving the horse time to think about our signal and respond to it.

Do the Greet & Go routine as often as you can during your usual interactions with your horse. Approach the horse from the front offering your outstretched hand. A horse that wants to greet you will put his nose on your hand. As soon as he does, walk away and carry on doing what you were doing. If you clean your own paddocks every day, it is a nice way of recognizing the horse and letting him know it is not time to play clicker games.

Bridget and Boots having a greeting during Quiet Sharing of Time and Space.

A brown horse standing next to a fence

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Stopping for a greeting during a filming session.

If the horse does not want to put his nose on your hand, that’s okay. Go away and carry on what you were doing or go do something else. The horse will appreciate that you understood his feelings at that moment in time.

The greeting is also a good way to begin further contact, such as clicker training, grooming or getting ready for an activity.

If your horse does not want to greet you, you have instant feedback on his mood of the moment and can adjust your plans accordingly.

If the horse does not want to greet you (ignores you or walks off) you can choose to carry on the interaction by walking a loop away from the horse and approaching him again, creating another opportunity to offer your hand. Allowing the horse to say, “No,” without consequences builds his self-confidence.

It may take just a couple of approaches before he is willing to greet you, or it may take more than ten relaxed approaches spread over one or more sessions. Eventually he will. Meanwhile, you are learning how to relax yourself out of frustration.

Relaxing Ourselves out of Frustration

  1. Pause and turn away from the horse.
  2. Breathe deeply and slowly, in and out.
  3. Roll your shoulders slowly until they can stay in a relaxed, down position.
  4. Gently bend your neck up and down, right and left.
  5. Stretch both arms straight up and down again – slowly.
  6. Smile.
  7. If the situation allows, sit for a while in the horse’s area, watching the clouds, noting your breathing, meditating.
  8. Walk around the horse’s enclosure, noting specifics. If the horse comes over to you at any point, Greet & Go.
  9. Breathe while doing all the above.
  10. Sometimes it is good to quietly finish the session and go away.

The Horse Unwilling to Greet the Human

Horses with unknown histories can have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to greet a person. If you make five or ten approaches every day and they are all rejected, keep a written log. At some point, it will happen. Celebrate quietly and Go away. If you feed hay, offer to Greet & Go before you put down the hay.

Remember, horses have all day every day. If you have the time and good humor to persist, the horse will eventually greet you. A treat offered after the greeting (put on the ground if the horse does not accept food from your hand) can amplify the importance of your offer to greet.

If you don’t have all day, you might decide to simply go away. The horse misses out on attention and treats. Maybe you can openly give your treats to another horse before you go. Horses will observe this and think on it overnight. Or you can move away and put a treat on the grass or in a feed bin well away from the horse before you leave. The horse will also think about that.

If the horse usually moves away at your approach, you probably need to go back and spend more time with Quiet Sharing of Time and Space to build the bond. Most likely he has benefited from human avoidance behavior in the past – he was able to control the interaction by moving away.

If he seems to have an “I’d rather avoid you” habit, there are ways of making yourself more interesting. If they are around, you could pay attention to other horses or pets or things. Sit down and eat an apple or a carrot. Go back to Quiet Sharing of Time and Space and ignore him.

If you’ve set up the usual environment for a one-on-one date, the horse may initiate an interaction as more interesting than ignoring you. Whenever something seems broken, go back to Quiet Sharing of Time and Space to re-forge the bond.

You can also, if your environment allows, hide behind trees, buildings, vehicles or barrels to pique your horse’s curiosity. Sitting or reclining on the ground changes our profile and may encourage curiosity. I had great fun running from tree to tree and hiding for a while behind each one. My horse couldn’t stand watching this novelty without coming over to investigate. Make yourself interesting. Seek ideas outside the square.

The point of the Greet & Go exercise is that the horse is free to choose whether he wants to greet you. If you’ve approached him several times and he’s wandered away rather than touch your outstretched hand, you are receiving a clear message.

The challenge becomes to consciously change your behavior and observe closely to see how the horse responds. How does his behavior change when you act differently? Such experimentation is fun. There is no right and wrong. At any time, your horse unbounded by ropes is free to choose what he thinks is the best thing to do at that moment.

These exercises allow you to see what works to your advantage and what doesn’t.  It’s very different from making horses do things when you decide they’ll do it because you have a rope on them, and/or they are contained in a small area.

Used every time you approach your horse; the Greet & Go exercise helps build a powerful connection. If you include a gift with the greeting (food treat or a scratch and rub and eventually putting on the halter and going for a grazing walk), it becomes even more powerful. If you do clicker training, the Greet habit can be strengthened using click&treat whenever the horse approaches you at the beginning of a clicker training session.

Greet & Go

Target Chin to Hand: Begin Targeting of Body Parts

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

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

ENVIRONMENT:

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

AIMS:

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

NOTES:

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

VIDEO CLIP:

SLICES:

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

GENERALIZATION:

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

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

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

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

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

Add Pics of chin

A very relaxed, loose chin/lower lip.

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

RELATED RESOURCES:

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

 

RAINY DAY and STALL REST ACTIVITIES

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

  1. Nose to Target

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

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

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

  1. Head Lowering (and Head Up)

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. “Intent and Zero Intent”

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

  1. Target Feet to Mat and Duration on the Mat

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

  1. Target Flexions

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

  1. Target Chin to Hand

Clip: https://youtu.be/Fsigp8wB0LU

  1. Target Shoulder to Hand

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

  1. Targeting Body Parts Overview

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

  1. Bell Ringing

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

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

  1. Picking Things Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Willing Haltering

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

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

  1. Relaxation with Body Extensions

Clip: https://youtu.be/nkwxYwtCP_Y

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

  1. Balance on Three Legs

Clip: https://youtu.be/x1WKppV3N_0

  1. Clean all Feet from One Side

Clip: https://youtu.be/UMyApCj9wBQ

  1. Hoof Stand Confidence

Clip: https://youtu.be/khsEm1YBtLs

  1. Head Rocking

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

  1. One Step at a Time

Clip: https://youtu.be/wStHxqNs7nk

  1. Soft Response to Rope Pressure

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

  1. In-Hand Back-Up

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

  1. Step Aerobics

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

  1. Foot Awareness (Proprioception)

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

  1. Counting

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

  1. Kill the Tiger

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

  1. Bursting Balloons

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

  1. Target Hindquarters to our Hand

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

 

HANGING OUT with a HORSE

Sharing Time and Space — Communicating Zero Intent

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

Building a Connection Involves Relaxing Together

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Checklist Two:  PHYSICAL – Keeping you both safe and comfortable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shy, Anxious, Flighty, Timid or Suspicious Horse

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

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

Additional Resources:

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

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

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

 

Gaining Fluidity without Drilling

Questions:

  1. How do we become truly fluid with a specific task or series of tasks?
  2. How can the handler practice a clear, consistent signal or group of signals?
  3. How can we engage the horse to willingly carrying out tasks confidently at our request?

It’s natural to want to ‘practice’ to get better. It’s especially challenging when it’s the handler that needs/wants the practice in order to improve:

  • Optimum body orientation.
  • Moving easily between ‘no intent’ and ‘intent’ body language.
  • Gesture signal clarity.
  • Consistent voice signal.
  • Timing of the click to truly mark the desired behavior.
  • Prompt treat delivery.

The temptation is to get the horse to ‘do it again’ so we can practice. However, if a horse had carried out a complex task to a good standard, does it make sense to him to have to do it again right away?

Probably not. He may instead think that he didn’t get it right the first time. He may try a different variation in good faith and become confused if it does not result in a click&treat.

We acquire a complex task by teaching it via thin-slicing. The ACQUISITION STAGE is finished when our signals are relatively consistent, and the horse’s response is accurate about 90% of the time. Then we enter the STAGE OF BUILDING FLUIDITY with the task. (There is a link at the end of this post about ‘The Four Stages of Learning’.)

Gaining fluidity, with new thought processes or with new movements, means building up nerve connections. The only way to build up nerve connections is to apply our full attention to repeating the learning process.

Once we have a general idea about what we are learning, we focus our attention on the detail by reviewing the new skills often enough to put them into our long-term mental memory and our muscle memory.

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

Not recommended – DRILLING:

Drilling involves repeating something over and over. Good point: it will become habitual. Bad point: it can kill enthusiasm for both that task and learning anything else by drilling.

For example, horses who are routinely made to move endless circles in a round pen, or constantly repeat dressage movements, often form an aversion to going into a round pen or arena.

Recommended – CHERISHING EACH MINI-OBJECTIVE:

To put a behavior into the horse’s long- term memory and have it ‘on signal’ or ‘on cue’ seems to be best done with 1-3 repeats each session over the number of days, weeks, or months that it might take, depending on the complexity of the final objective.

If the horse does a behavior to a pleasing standard the first time we ask, it is often a good idea to wait until the next session or later in the same session before asking for it again.

Helpful – Visualizing:

There is evidence (human studies) to suggest that if we focus on clearly visualizing the muscular movements needed to achieve an outcome, the brain views this as almost as good as actually doing it.

We can’t know whether horses visualize things, but my experience with teaching horses in mini-sessions (1-3 repeats) suggests that they do seem to ‘mull over’ new learning and bring a brighter response the next time we do it.

This is especially noticeable if we can have a short repeat most days. Once the horse shows a good knowledge of a task, a break of 2-3 days between requests often brings even more keenness to have ‘another go’ to earn a special high-value treat.

My horse, Boots, has a distinct little smug expression when she nails something especially well, earning approbation, applause, and a triple treat, jackpot, or special treat like a peppermint.

Helpful – SIMULATION:

To improve our expertise with the task, we can ask another person to stand in for our horse so we can practice developing clear signals and build up our mental and muscle memory for our part of the equation. The horse can only be as smooth in his responses as we are smooth and clear (fluid) with our signals.

If we are lucky enough to have an older, more experienced horse available, we can practice with him so we can be more coherent for a young or new horse.

A Possible Solution

To have a way of steadily improving the fluidity of challenging tasks, I decide on what mini-objectives I want to play with today, before we begin a session.

I pocket the exact number of higher-value treats to cover those objectives; usually one peppermint for a spot-on effort. In addition, I have unshelled peanuts or carrot strips for good attempts. This stops me from being tempted to ‘do it again’ once we have a peppermint-worthy response.

I also carry (horse pellets) for getting organized with resets and for when we do more relaxing things between the main mini-objective for that day.

In a way, it’s an example of getting more by doing less.

The video clip below shows three examples. They are either fun tricks to keep us amused, moving and supple, or they are Horse Agility tasks that are getting rather tricky because we have reached the higher-level ‘walk only’ class. Instead of increasing task difficulty with trot or canter, the tasks get more convoluted.

I’ve chosen relatively complex tasks. To reach the point shown in the video, the prerequisites for each task were taught with thin-slicing over a long time.

Example One

One peppermint for a 180-degree turn and back through a gate. Previously she learned a 360-degree turn by following the feel of a rope, then learned hand and voice signals and willingly did it at liberty during a recall. Some people teach this using a target. Boots also has had lots of practice backing up when I stand behind her, including months of long-reining training.

Example Two

A jackpot of five rapid treats for backing 8 steps in a straight line to end up in a 2.5-foot space between a barrel and me on a mounting block or between two barrels. In one session I did this once in each direction, so she could earn two peppermints. She knows ‘park and wait’ thoroughly, as well as backing up with me behind her. She also has a strong history of backing out of narrow dead-end lanes as part of trailer loading preparation, which is how we started training this task. I simply added the barrel on one side and me on a mounting block on the other side.

Example Three

Boots earns an unshelled peanut for our line-dancing move while I’m on the right side of the horse and another while I’m on her left side. We’ve been doing this for only a few months. She already understood yielding the shoulder to touch or gesture as well as targeting her shoulder to my hand before we started. She had also learned to target her knee to my hand, so I had to be careful about developing a distinctly different hand signal. For a long time, I asked for only one repeat before the click&treat. We are now gradually building in more repeats before the click&treat.

Video Clip:

#163 HorseGym with Boots: Gaining Fluidity without Drilling.

In Addition:

If our first attempt at a task is a bit sketchy, we do a quiet reset and try again, looking for improvement, click&treat for the improvement and usually we don’t repeat it again until later in the session or next day.

Instead, we go on to one of the other things we are working on, or just do activities that are well-established.

It seems that after a few weeks of repeating a complex task once daily, the horse often begins to look forward to doing it, knowing that a higher-value treat follows.

Cherishing each mini-objective set for the day’s session and rewarding it with a higher-value treat keeps alive the fresh desire to do it again tomorrow.

Extra:

If you are really keen, you can watch the whole filmed video series from which I took example two in the clip above, showing Boots backing eight steps to end up between a barrel and me on a mounting block. This is what we did for the first 30 days. During days 31-38 we practiced Boots backing up to stand between two barrels when I stood in front, facing her.

I filmed each of the first 30 training sessions. Over 38 days we trained an average of 5 minute on this task per day, so the total training time was 3 hours, 10 minutes.

She already knew about backing up when I stood behind her, so we were adding more detail to the task. She had to learn to stay straight and to target her withers to my hand.

The clips clearly show how we were both learning stuff each day. I was learning how to be clearer in my teaching and she was figuring out exactly what she had to do to earn the click&treat. Before and after each short session we did other things.

This is the first clip in the series. They all follow in a playlist called Backing Up to a Mounting Block.  Each clip is quite short.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCE:

The Four Stages of Learning: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5SO

Willing Haltering

Willing Haltering

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

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

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

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

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

We can and should move on when:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLICES

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

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

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

Eventually we can click&treat the following slices.

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

 

Step Aerobics

 

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (as minimal pressure as possible on the lead, but enough to be effective) and a safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • Materials to build a simple lane (one side can be a safe fence) and to block off one end of it.
  • Different mats familiar to the horse.
  • A pedestal or a step-up situation safe for the horse. A step-up trailer is an option, or setting up the trailer ramp as a step.

AIM:

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

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

SLICES:

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

Video Clip: #159 HorseGym with Boots: STEP AEROBICS

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

GENERALIZATIONS:

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

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

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

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