Tag Archives: herthamuddyhorse

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

180-Degree Turns

INTRODUCTION:

I learned this exercise from Alex Kurland. It seems simple but is enormously useful in maintaining both physical and mental suppleness for the horse and handler.

It also serves to practice our ‘walk on’ signals and allows us to consolidate our ‘halt’ signals each time we approach the mat, with special emphasis on our voice ‘whoa’ signal.

It is a super exercise to check the flexibility of our horse and we may also gain insight into the flexibility of our own body as we improve the timing of shifting our body axis on the approach to each marker. We are usually more flexible bending either right or left, just like horses are.

If we consistently do short bursts of this exercise over many sessions, we’ll notice that it gets easier and easier to do tighter, elegant 180-degree turns (unless horse or handler are restricted due to past injury or arthritis).

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse willingly moves to target his front feet on a mat. (There is a relevant link under ‘Addition Resources’ at the end of this post.)
  3. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder. (There is a relevant link under ‘Addition Resources’ at the end of this post.)
  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 can be improved by practice with another person standing in for the horse. We have to remember that the horse has four legs to organize and a long body that more resembles an ocean-liner than a ballerina.
  5. Handler is aware of using the orientation of his/her body axis as a key body language signal 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 (lead kept loose as much as possible. We want to use orientation and body language for communication, not touch signals via the rope, but we may use these when we first teach teach this pattern).
  • 6 or 8 markers set out in a relatively large circle. The markers can be anything safe: cones, stones, pieces of firewood, tread-in posts if working on grass, jump stands, barrels, 5-liter containers of water, cardboard boxes, rags. 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.
  • Different-colored markers make it easier to keep track of where we are heading and where we have been. If they are the same size and shape, they give continuity to the development of the horse’s fluidity since it needs the same body adjustment around each marker. Therefore, identical markers are best to first teach this exercise.
  • Different-sized markers encourage the horse to vary his body adjustment to navigate each one, so they are a good generalization.
  • A familiar mat placed in the center of the circle.

AIMS:

  1. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 180-degree turns (U-turns) with the horse on the outside of the turn; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
  2. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth U-turns – horse on the outside of the turn, handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.
  3. Handler becomes super conscious of the position and timing of his/her body axis orientation to signal the turn coming up.

VIDEO CLIP:

NOTES:

  1. What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result many very short sessions over a long time. I’m  always striving to improve the timing of my body axis turned away from the horse as a signal for the turn.
  2. If the horse has been resting or contained, it’s important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for this sort of flexion. A companionable walk or moving over rails and weaving obstacles are good warm-up exercises.

SLICES:

  1. Walk on the left side of the horse to target the mat in the middle of the circle; click&treat.
  2. Focus on one of the markers ahead of you of the circle and ‘walk on’ toward it. Ensure that you walk off together by using all your ‘walk on’ multi-signals. We don’t want the horse surprised and left behind.
  3. Walk around the marker and back to the mat; click&treat.
  4. Did you manage to keep up your energy while walking the inner curve around the marker? If we let our energy drop, the horse can fade out too. In the learning phase, it can help to raise our knees as in ‘marching on the spot’ to keep our energy up, as demonstrated in the video clip.
  5. Not only does the horse have further to travel, he must organize two pairs of legs and a non-bendy torso to navigate the corner, so we have to give him time.
  6. At first the U-turns might be wide and/or sloppy. Don’t worry, you will both gradually improve if you stick with the task over many short sessions.
  7. The horse will soon work out that each time you go around a marker, you head straight back to the mat where he will earn another click&treat. This realization motivates him to begin making his U-turns more efficient and elegant.
  8. As you begin the change of direction at each marker, turn the axis of your body away from the horse. This will become a body language signal you can eventually use later in many different situations and to communicate at liberty.
  9. Add a voice signal at some point. I use “Round”. Choose a word that is short, clear, and not used in other contexts.
  10. As you notice improvement in his flexion during the turns, you can begin to selectively click&treat nice tight ones as he comes out of the turn, then carry on for another click&treat at the mat.
  11. After each return to the mat (click&treat), choose a different marker and repeat.
  12. After navigating all the markers walking on the left side of the horse, repeat walking on his right side. Once around each marker on each side of the horse is usually enough of this exercise during one session.
  13. Often it is harder for the horse and/or the handler when they are using the non-dominant sides of their bodies. With patience and extra practice on the harder side(s), it will start to feel more equal.
  14. 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.

GENERALIZATION:

  1. The first generalization is to repeat walking on the horse’s right side.
  2. Begin to focus on using body axis orientation in other contexts such as weaving obstacles
  3. The clip below demonstrates how Boots and I use my body axis orientation to work on flexion during our walks down the road.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Blog: Using Mats: Parking and Stationing and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9

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

 

Training with a Marker Signal and Positive Reinforcement

Click & Scritch Bridget 01-08-2016_082102

Photo: Using targets as ‘destinations’ makes it much easier to give meaning to our request in a way that the horse easily understands. Reaching the target, whether it is putting the front feet on a mat or touching the nose on a stationary object, earns the horse a click&treat. We can then move between targets to encourage the horse to come with us willingly because there is always something for him to look forward to – the next click&treat when we reach the next destination.

Training with a Marker Signal and Positive Reinforcement

Training with the click&treat dynamic is a skill worth learning well, but it is not the only thing we have to learn well.

Some people handle/condition a horse’s behavior in a way that encourages the horse to always look to the handler – a form of ‘learned helplessness’.  The horse is asked to subjugate his own observations, feelings and natural responses in favor of what the handler requires him to do.

Other people set themselves the interesting challenge of doing everything with their horses using only positive reinforcement training (often called ‘clicker training’).  They pair each desired response with a marker signal (click) followed immediately by a food treat.  They feel that this is the only way to keep a horse’s ‘sparkle’ alive.

Somewhere between these two extremes, fall the people who teach many things with the click&treat dynamic, but they also understand, respect, learn and use universal horse language.  In their view, any horse education system that fails to acknowledge group social order, different horse character types and how horses succinctly communicate with body language, will have limited success.

From our human standpoint, we could define ‘success‘ as having a horse that is safe and fun to be with and that we can take places for exercise to maintain blood circulation health, overall fitness and mental stimulation.

Success could mean that the horse:

  • greets us willingly
  • enters our space politely
  • offers feet confidently for foot care
  • accepts gear on and off comfortably
  • leads safely and willingly in a variety of positions
  • responds equally well to upward and downward transition requests
  • confidently accepts touch and grooming all over its body
  • confidently accepts ropes draped all over its body and legs
  • willingly, at request, moves away from a food dish, pile of hay or grazing spot
  • not unduly spooked by dragging ropes, wheelbarrows, flapping things, balls, bicycles, vehicles
  • able to stay ‘parked’ quietly or stand and ‘wait’ for a further signal
  • confident moving through gates/narrow spaces/lanes and over water/unusual surfaces at our request
  • approaches new/spooky things as long as we give him the approach & retreat time to convince himself it is harmless
  • at ease with any body extensions the handler might use to clarify or accentuate signals

Once we have all that, we can endlessly refine the basics and teach new patterns and tricks.

Teaching with the click&treat dynamic is hugely helpful to horse handlers for two main reasons:

  1. Encourages accurate observation of what the horse is doing in order to pick the ‘clickable moments‘, which are also the moments that signal/cue pressure is released.  Therefore becoming a good clicker trainer also hones the skill of becoming an excellent trainer with simple ‘release reinforcement’.
  2. It teaches ‘thin-slicing’ — the cutting of a large task into its smallest ‘clickable’ components so that we can get the horse confident with each tiny ‘slice’.  Then we can chain the slices together until the whole task is achieved.  This way of teaching/learning, often called ‘mastery learning‘ keeps the horse successful all the way through the process.  A clicker-savvy horse knows that if the click&treat is withheld, they need to try something else.

Developing the two skills above will greatly increase the ‘feel‘ of the handler.  That ‘feel‘ will translate to the times when a good choice is use of ‘release reinforcement’ by itself.  Feeling what the horse is doing — understanding what his body language is saying and knowing how to respond to that with our feel and body language, is the key to training with signal pressure and release of signal pressure (‘release reinforcement’).

What horses gain from positive reinforcement  Horses trained with the click&treat dynamic discover that they can have a voice.  Once they learn that a certain behavior will earn them a click&treat, they can become pro-active in offering that behavior.  For many horses this is huge because in the past things have only been done to them or demanded of them — they could only be re-active.

When a task is thin-sliced so they understand each part of the training process, the horse’s learning can progress in leaps and bounds.  We’d all rather work for a boss who praises what he likes rather than one who only criticizes what he doesn’t like.

Horses are not blank pages on which we write what we want.  They already have a perfectly good language.  It seems logical to learn it and use it as best as we can with our non horse-shaped bodies.  Horses are very generous with their interpretation of what we mean.  No doubt we have a very funny accent, but unless they have been traumatized by humans, they are happy to learn new things and accept us as part of their personal herd.

Social Group  Once the horse accepts us as part of her personal ‘ in-group’, we have a position in the group social order.  The two things go together.  We can’t form a bond of understanding with a horse unless he or she lets us into their social group.  Once we are part of the social group, we have a ranking within it.  If the horse can move our feet at will, she or he stands above us in the social order.  If we can ask move the horse’s feet, we rank above him her in the social grouping recognized by the horse.  When people don’t understand this dynamic, or chose to deny/ignore it, things might not go well.

Horse Character Types  Like us, horses can be innately anxious or innately confident and imaginative.  They come as extroverts who like to/need to move their feet a lot and they come as introverts who prefer the quiet life.  A careful look at how our horse perceives and reacts to things can give us insight into how we can best proceed with an individualized training program.  What works perfectly with one horse can be quite problematic with another.

Universal Horse Language  Horses have a complex communication system using their body language and a few vocalizations. They ‘message’ other horses with body tension, body orientation, neck position/movement, ear position, tail activity, posturing, striking out, kicking, biting, nibbling.   How they use each of these depends on their intent at the time.  An ‘alarm snort’ will instantly have the whole herd on alert. Quietly turning the head away as another horse (or a person) approaches is an appeasement signal.

With the aid of body extensions which make us as tall and long as a horse, and simulate a horse’s expressive tail, we can more clearly emulating universal horse language.  If we are good at it and use our movements consistently, any horse will understand our intent without us ever needing to touch the horse or use a rope.  We can establish our position in the social order by ensuring we can move the horse’s feet in a variety of situations while the horse is at liberty to move away, as it would be in a natural herd situation.

Once we have established our social position, we maintain it by the way we behave.  Anxious type horses may rarely challenge our position.  Confident, imaginative type horses may well challenge our position regularly.  In a natural herd situation, they have the drive and sparkle to work their way up the group’s social order.

With an understanding of, horse character typesequine body language,  and how the social order works, we can flow with the information the horse gives us via his behavior and body language.  Skills of observation, timing and ‘feel’ allow us to decide how we will use clicker training to make his life in his strange human-dominated world a little bit more interesting and understandable.

With equine clicker training, we experiment to find out what the horse can already do, then build his skills in a way that has him being continually successful.

The link below contains a bit more information about horse character types.

PDF Ch 5 READING HORSES

 

Parameters: Setting the Rules for the Games we Play

Parameters

Photo: I’m teaching my horse, Boots, to back up to a mounting block. My parameters include backing straight (hence the guide rails for this early lesson), backing for 6-8 steps (she started at the fence on the right) and halting with her withers just in front of the two tubs. This time she moved back an extra step, but it was a very good response for early in the training of this task. I’ve stepped off the black tub so I could deliver the treat while she stayed in the position I wanted.

Parameters: Setting the Rules for the Games we Play

Because of their role in the web of life —  to be a meal for predators — horses are so much more observant than we are.  They read our mood the moment we appear.  They read our body language with exquisite care.  When something in the environment is different from last time, they notice instantly.

If we want to become good at communicating with our horse, it helps to become more aware of what our mood, our body orientation and our body energy may be saying to the horse.  Horses get confused and worried when our body language does not agree with what we are asking them to do.  Or if we use a similar message to mean two different things.

As horsemen often say, “Nothing means nothing to a horse”.  So if everything means something, it is good to be aware of the parameters we are setting when we interact with a horse.  Here is a bit more detail about what parameters are, and things to remember to become better teachers for our horse.

A parameter is something we decide to keep the same or constant.

For example:

  • Walking on the horse’s left side would be a constant or parameter you have chosen.
  • If you then change to walking on his right side, that is a new parameter.
  • If you decide to walk beside the horse’s ribs (where you will be if you ride) rather than beside his neck, you have changed a parameter.
  • If you decide to walk behind the horse rather than beside him, you have changed a major parameter.
  • When you ask the horse to walk with you on the road rather than at home in his paddock or arena, you have changed a major parameter.
  • Walking on an unfamiliar road or track is changing a parameter.
  • If you are walking together toward a familiar destination, where he knows he will halt to earn a click&treat, the first time you ask him to halt before he reaches the destination, you have changed a parameter.
  • If you are walking and change to asking for a trot or jog, you are changing a parameter.

Whenever we change a parameter, it is important that we increase the rate of reinforcement (i.e. click&treat more often) and work our way forward again until we and the horse are both confident in the new situation, with one click&treat at the end of a task or a series of tasks. For example, relating to the photo above, once Boots confidently backed up in a straight line to stand between the two tubs, I removes the rails (one at a time) and ask her to back up for just a step or two, then work forward again to get 6-8 steps straight back.

Horses are super observant of all changes, large or small, and can often be ‘thrown’ by them if we proceed too fast or ask for too much too soon. They also immediately pick up if we are unsure about what we are doing.

This is why it’s important to have a written Individual Education Program suited to this horse in this environment before we delve into teaching our horse something new. If we are clear in our mind about what we are working on, that confidence will be picked up by the horse.

If you want to look at 20+ training sessions to achieve the objective outlined in the photo above, done at liberty with no extra props, here is the link to the very first session (lessons were mostly one a day, weather willing and lasted about three minutes each day). I can’t ride any more (dodgy hips & knees) so we did this as a just an interesting training project. The second video clip below takes you to the last clip in the series, in case you don’t want to see all the others in between!

 

 

Safety

smile while st&s 2 06-16-2016_155354

Photo: Sitting with the horse in a roomy, enclosed area, asking nothing of him except politeness. This is a superb way to build a new relationship with a new horse or to to build an improved relationship with a horse we have already.

Safety

It’s only when we feel safe with our horse and our horse feels safe with us that real teaching and learning can go on.  If our horse makes us feel worried or afraid, we need to take heed of the feeling and organize our environment so that we can be with the horse in a way that allows us to regain our safe, calm, centered core. Maybe we need to sit in our chair just outside the horse’s enclosure to start with.

It will be difficult for a horse to remain in his calm, centered core in our presence if we are sending out vibes that tell him we are uneasy and nervous.  A good first step is to spend undemanding time with the horse, in his home if we feel safe there, or on the other side of a fence or gate if we don’t.  We need to carry a swishy type body extension so that we can enlarge our bubble without offending the horse by striking out toward him.  Horses are very sensitive to the air movement of two swishy twigs or dressage whips, or the swishing of a string rotated like a helicopter blade.

Horses easily understand when we are merely enlarging our bubble of personal space.  If we strike out toward their personal bubble rather than just protect our own space, the horse will realize it instantly.  It is important to be aware of the difference between acting in an assertive way and acting in an aggressive way, and to be mindful of which one we are doing.

As we sit with our horse, we can read, meditate or just enjoy the quiet of being in the moment, looking and listening and breathing.  It’s nice if the horse can be in a roomy area where he is comfortable, able to see his companions but not where they can interfere with your special time together.

It works well to set a time limit.  It doesn’t matter what the horse does.  We are there as a companion, a paddock mate for the time we have set.  We expect nothing of the horse except politeness.  If he becomes overbearing, we move away with our chair or ask him to back off by swishing the air toward his feet to protect our personal bubble.

The PDF attached has a look at ways to ensure our safety.

Safety with Protected Contact and Body Extensions