Tag Archives: herthamuddyhorse

Developing Relaxed Food Retrieval

Photo: Relaxed treat retrieval is the essence of clicker training.

Lunging for the Treat = Anxiety or Assertive Horse Behavior

Some horses are always polite, others not so. Something in their background may have created anxiety around food. But the character type of the horse is also involved. Each horse lies somewhere along a shy ——– assertive continuum. A horse on the assertive end will be keen to follow his nose to the source of the food, which is obviously a helpful survival behavior.

For effective clicker training we have to carefully navigate this crucial aspect of using positive reinforcement in the form of food. The handler must feel safe and the horse must feel safe and have a sound understanding of when a food treat will be offered. It requires us to be careful and consistent and willing to explore options.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a way to let the horse know when we want him to stand with us quietly. We need to teach him when our body language indicates that all we want is to stand together in a relaxed manner, and when our body language is asking him to do something which will earn a click&treat.

  1. Be safe. Organize a barrier between you and the horse so you can move back out of range if he gets excited about the idea of food rewards. Depending on the horse and your expertise, you may not need the barrier for long, or you may need it for quite a while.

If your horse is energetic, use the energy by setting up a roomy reverse round pen and teach the horse to follow your target as you walk or jog along.

A reverse round pen is one where the handler stays inside the pen and the horse moves around the outside of it. Or you can do the same on the other side of an existing fence. For this, you want to click for the actual movement, rather than catching up with the target. For example, click after three steps, then five steps, and so on until you get whole circuits or stretches of fence before the click&treat. Find out more about using reverse pens here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-64e

  1. Make sure that the horse is not hungry. We want the horse interested in clicker work, but not over-excited or aroused by the thought of food tit-bits. In other words, make sure he has ample access to grazing or hay before you start a clicker training session.
  2. Check out your food delivery technique.
  3. Does it take too long to get your hand into and out of your pocket or pouch? Can you find easier pockets or a more open pouch?
  4. Do you move your hand toward your treats before you’ve clicked? This causes problems because the horse will watch your hand rather than focusing on what you are teaching.
  5. Be sure to only feed treats if they have been earned and you have clicked. Ask the horse to do something before giving a treat, either have him touch a target or take a step or two backwards; click for the action and deliver the treat.
  6. Avoid feeding any treats by hand unless you have asked for a behavior and clicked for it. When not clicker training, put treats in a feed dish or on the grass.
  7. Often, we can influence the horse’s position by holding our treat-delivery hand where we want the horse’s head to be rather than where he has stuck his nose.

In the beginning, we ideally want him to have his head straight to retrieve the treat. If he is over-eager, it can help to hold the treat toward his chest, so he must shift backwards to receive it.

This is the clearest way to let the horse know that lunging at your hand for the treat won’t benefit him. It also begins to build the habit of stepping back when you shift your weight toward him, as in the photo coming up. It’s a great way to begin teaching the ‘back’ voice and body language signal.

Video: Encouraging stepping back to retrieve the treat.

 

In some cases, it can help to have a halter on the horse, so we can take hold of the side of the halter after the click, giving us some control of where the horse puts his mouth. See the section called ‘Developing Good Table Manners’ that is coming.

It can help to run your closed treat hand down the horse’s nose from above, asking him to target your fist before you open your hand right under his lips so he can retrieve the treat.

When you do this, use a bit of upward pressure to stop the horse pushing your hand down. If your hand does not stay firm, it can cause a horse to get anxious about where his treat is and cause him to push down harder or become grabby.

  1. It may also work to bring your fist (closed around the treat) up under his chin and have him target your fist before you flatten your hand (and apply upward pressure) so he can retrieve the treat. Often one of these little intervening steps can help build the habit of polite treat-taking.
  2. A bit of experimentation will determine what works best with a specific horse.
  3. If the horse is overly keen, try using treats that he doesn’t consider quite so yummy. Be sure to set up your routines so the horse has ample time to graze or eat hay before each session.
  4. With consistency and patience on the handler’s part, over-enthusiastic treat-taking usually improves once:
  5. The horse understands that a click only happens when he carries out a request you have made.
  6. A treat always follows the click.He’ll learn that a treat will only follow if there has been a click first. That is why we must be totally consistent with when and how we click&treat.
  7. The horse’s character type and current emotional state will influence how he takes the treat. If a horse who usually takes the treat softly becomes grabbier, he is giving us information to take on board. Alternately, a horse who starts out grabby may over many sessions become relaxed about retrieving his treat, once he understands how the system works.
  8. Prompt, cleanly-executed treat delivery is always important. If things are not going smoothly, the first things to check are inconsistency and sloppy treat delivery. It helps to video what is happening, so you can look closely at your body position, orientation, timing* and treat delivery.
  9. Another approach is to put the treat in a container after each click. It can either be a food bucket in the horse’s pen, into which we toss the treat, or a flat dish or scoop we hold out for the horse to retrieve the treat, then remove again. Some boarding facilities have a ban on hand feeding, which is a little hurdle to overcome. There is a video clip about this here: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-651

What to Check for:

  1. Timing of your click to the action you want.
  2. Smoothness getting the treat out of pocket or pouch while you take the target ‘out of play’.
  3. How promptly you present the treat to the horse.
  4. How you hold out the treat to the horse and how firm you keep your hand so the horse doesn’t push it down.

 

Developing Good Table Manners

A video clip called Table Manners for Clicker Training in my Starting Clicker Training playlist illustrates how we can use the timing of the click to improve politeness around treat retrieval. The clip shows Smoky, early in his clicker training education, with Zoë who had never done it before. Click here.

The method shown on the clip can be improved by not waiting so long to click&treat again. When we begin teaching a horse about keeping his head facing forward rather than toward us, we want to click&treat the moments when the horse remains facing forward and the moments when he turns his head away from the food source.

In some parts of the clip we waited for Smoky to turn toward Zoë and then turn away again before she clicked. Doing this runs the risk of having the horse think that turning toward the handler first is part of what we want him to do. In this exercise, we also want to mainly click&treat the act of keeping his head facing forward.

Summary: to develop good table manners while we stand beside the horse’s neck or shoulder, we click&treat for:

  • The horse turning his head away from us into the ‘straight forward’ position.
  • The horse keeping his head straight, away from us.
  • The horse keeping his head straight for longer, building up duration one second at a time.

Be sure to teach good table manners standing on either side of the horse as well as facing the horse. Begin the table manners training in protected contact, i.e. standing on the other side of a fence, gate, or stall guard.

Or have the horse tied up if that is your safest choice. When it is all going well with protected contact and you feel safe, change to standing with the horse.

It may take lots of very short sessions before the horse is able to relax into the ‘head forward’ position while we stand with zero intent* beside his shoulder.

Do a little bit of this ‘Polite Table Manners’ exercise every time you are with your horse to keep it strong in the repertoire.

As mentioned earlier, I prefer to introduce the idea of click&treat by asking the horse to do something more specific such as touch his nose to a target object.

Whether or not we are using protected contact in the form of a fence or gate, it’s easier to introduce the target if we stand in front of the horse and a little bit to one side.

If the horse is tied up, it may be easier to stand beside the horse to present the target.

Maintaining politeness around food is always part of the clicker training equation. It’s good to teach food manners standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse as soon as the horse has clearly made the connection between the click and the treat.

  1. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a way to let the horse know when we want him to stand beside us quietly. We need to teach him when our body language indicates that all we want is to stand together in a relaxed manner.

One way to do this is to stand with both hands laid flat across our belly button, and our energy as close to zero (deflated) as possible, breathing quietly, relaxing our hips. We look down or gaze softly into the distance.

If you do this consistently, the horse will soon recognize this posture as your ‘neutral’ signal when you have zero intent and all you want is for him to stay quietly parked. (See the Blog: ‘Zero Intent and ‘Intent’: Click here.)

My body language is at ‘zero intent’. My stance and hands lying quietly on my belly tell Boots that the task is to stand quietly. My focus is soft and away from the horse. My breathing is quiet.

 Every time we are with our horse, we should spend a few minutes focused on taking up our ‘zero intent’ position with click&treat reinforcement for the horse standing quietly without offering any behavior except standing quietly.

Over many sessions, we build up the ‘waiting quietly’ time, second by second, to fifteen or twenty seconds.

It is hard to overemphasize how important this is as part of our everyday interactions.

Hand Feeding at Other Times

It’s important not to hand feed the horse unless we have asked for something specific which we can click&treat. If we randomly hand feed when we are not clicker training, the horse will be confused, and problems can arise.

As with everything, it is up to us to be clear and consistent all the time. If we visit the horse or check up on him and want to give him a treat, we can put it in a feed bin or on the grass.

Reverse Pens

Photo: using the fence around a grazing area as a reverse pen.

A reverse pen is set up so the horse moves along one side of a barrier and the handler moves on the other side. People come up with all sorts of ways to make reverse pens. Larger is better for reverse pens so that the horse is not working on a tight bend. It’s important to change direction often. The video clips coming up show several ways of setting up a reverse pen.

Any fence line that allows delivery of the treat across or through it can be used for reverse pen exercises. In a couple of the video clips I used the fence around the area Boots is grazing so I had nothing extra to set up. If the horse is comfortable working across electric fence materials (not electrified) we can easily set up (and take down as necessary) pens of any size or shape.

Reverse pens are useful for:

  • Keeping ourselves in protected contact while in motion.
  • Some horses horses also feel more secure if the handler is on the other side of a fence at first. 
  • Working without halter and rope.
  • Discourage the horse moving his shoulder into the handler.
  • Encourage the horse to develop muscles that help him stay on a circle and not ‘fall in’ with the shoulder or to navigate corners elegantly if we use a rectangular or triangular reverse pen..
  • Using a hand-held target to encourage walking with us, gradually morphing into a hand gesture.
  • Consolidating ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ multi-signals (also see https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT).
  • Creating duration – maintaining a gait for longer.
  • Playing with transitions: halt to walk to halt; walk to trot to walk; trot to canter to trot.

Often reverse pens are round, as in Connection Training’s ‘Around the Round Pen’ exercises. But they can also be rectangular or triangular, giving the horse the different challenge of organizing his body to negotiate the corners effectively.

Using a Hand-Held Target to Encourage Walking with Us

If we are going to use a hand-held target and a reverse round pen to encourage the horse to walk with us, we want to click&treat for the movement, not the catching up to and putting nose on the target. We don’t want to turn it into a chasing game. We present the target to encourage forward movement, click for the number of steps we decided to take before moving off, put the target down behind us out of sight, then deliver the treat.

 Building Duration Walking with Us

#210 HorseGym with Boots: Reverse Pens Clip 4; Duration Walking Together

 

Details

We must decide how many steps will earn a click&treat before we begin. That is:

  1. We present the target.
  2. Walk ‘X’ number of steps (previously decided – kept within the horse’s present ability)
  3. Click.
  4. Remove the target while we reach for a treat.
  5. Feed the treat.

Start with one step; click&treat. Add one more step at a time as long as the horse shows interest. Stop to do something else if his interest wanes or wait until your next session. Start each session with a few steps and gradually add more.

Keep the sessions short and as you present the target, also use your body language, big breath in, energy raised and your voice ‘walk on’ signal.

Fading out Hand-held Targets

While targets are a great tool to initiate all sort of behaviors, it is important that we teach voice, body language and gesture signals once each behavior is established, so we don’t need to rely on carrying a target.

By consistently using your ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ multi-signals, you will soon be able to fade out using the target, keeping your hands free. Your voice, energy and body language tell the horse what you would like him to do. Voice and body language ‘halt/whoa’ signals (as well as the click) tell him when you would like him to halt.

Using Foot Targets

If the horse has a strong history or reinforcement for putting his front feet on a mat, we can use that to work with a reverse pen. Using a mat target has the advantage of leaving our hands free. This clip looks at using mats after the first minute.

In the following video clip, I began with the horse on a lead because that can be another way to start. Not everyone has the facility to work safely at liberty. The video clip explains the process: #162 HorseGym with Boots: Introduction to Liberty Circles.

Once the horse understands our body language, gesture, voice and breathing signals, we can use them whenever we lead the horse. For walking side-by-side at liberty, we can develop the Twenty Steps Exercise: https://youtu.be/xYYz0JIpZek

The mat idea works with riding as well as with groundwork.

Some More Reverse Pen Clips

In the next two clips I’m using the fence around the area that Boots is grazing, so there nothing extra to set up/take down.

Over and Between Things

Other Shapes of Reverse Pens

 

 

Movement Routine 8 – Rags as Focus

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

INTRODUCTION

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

AIM

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

PREREQUISITES

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

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

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

VIDEO CLIPS

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

 

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

NOTES

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

TASKS

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

GENERALIZATIONS

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

Movement Routine 7 – Fence as Focus

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

INTRODUCTION

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

AIMS

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

PREREQUISITES

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

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

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

VIDEO CLIP

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

 

NOTES

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

TASKS

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

GENERALIZATIONS

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

 

Movement Routine 6 – Rags as Focus

INTRODUCTION

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

AIM

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

PREREQUISITES

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

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

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

NOTES

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

VIDEO CLIPS

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

 

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

 

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

 

TASKS

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

GENERALIZATIONS

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

 

Movement Routine 5 – Fence for Focus

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

AIM

To link this series of tasks into a sequence:

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

PREREQUISITES

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

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

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

VIDEO CLIP

NOTES

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

TASKS

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

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

GENERALIZATIONS

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

 

 

The Planning Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of the Planning Process

  1. Decide Your Overall Objective

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

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

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

A. Decide on your Overall Objective

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Break Down Each Goal

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Define the Tasks that will Achieve each Goal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Brainstorm Possible Thin-Slices for Each Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Venues, Props and Time

Think about:

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

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

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

  1. Decide How You Will Document Your Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Create your Individual Education Program (IEP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Tweak Your Individual Education Program (IEP)

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

A good plan does the following:

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

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?

 

Finesse Back-Up

At one point a friend and I came up with 29 different ways of backing up a horse, including groundwork, long-reining and riding. This Finesse Back-Up is one of my favorites when I am leading a horse and we need a prompt back-up.

I learned the essence of this process from Alexandra Kurland, a true pioneer of equine clicker training. I’ve added the idea of using corners to teach because it arranges the environment so that stepping back makes sense to the horse right from the beginning.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse understands putting his nose on a target results in click&treat. (See Related Resource 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. Horse walks confidently between the handler and a safe fence or similar barrier.
  3. Horse understands ‘Walk On’ and ‘Whoa’ voice and body language signals. (See Related Resource 2 at the end of this post.)
  4. Handler easily slip into and out of ‘zero intent’ so the horse easily knows when he can relax in a ‘wait’ and when he is being asked to move. (See Related Resource 3 at the end of this post.)
  5. Horse understands the handler’s body axis orientation as a signal for bending. (See Related Resource 4 at the 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.
  • A safe fence or barrier which leads into a safe corner.
  • Halter and lead.
  • Mat (optional). A mat can make it easier for a mat-savvy horse to settle into standing in a corner.

AIMS:

  • Handler uses clear, consistent orientation, body language and voice ‘back up’ signals.
  • Horse smoothly shifts from walking forward to stepping backwards on request when the handler turns to face him.

Clips:

https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

Notes:

  1. Once the horse readily parks calmly in the corner, we can begin to teach the Finesse Back-Up. I call it that because it requires gently running our hand or fingers up the rope toward the halter, until we reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  2. Each horse will be different. I had trouble having Boots demonstrate clearly because she knows the task so well that she reads the very beginning of my body language sentence and steps back right away. If we teach this well, the horse will step back as soon as we begin to turn and use our voice signal, so that even our hand on the rope eventually becomes redundant.
  3. This is tricky to explain in words. Hopefully the video clips and still pictures will make it easier to understand.
  4. Two terms explained:  Outside hand refers to the hand furthest away from the horse.Inside hand refers to the hand nearest the horse.These obviously change depending on which side of the horse you are on, and whether you are shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse, i.e. both facing the same direction, or you are facing the horse front-on.

SLICES:

A: Getting Comfortable in a Corner

  1. Walk with the horse and halt in a corner set up with a gate or a barrier. The handler is on the open side of the corner. It the horse finds it hard to stand relaxed in the corner, and you have taught him to love standing his front feet on a mat, use a mat for your ‘halt’ position. Click&treat for the halt.
  2. Relax into zero intent and ask the horse to ‘wait’ for a little while in the corner. Click&treat the ‘wait’ task a few times.
  3. Turn the horse 90 degrees toward you so he can walk forward out of the corner. Walk a loop and come back to park in the corner again. Click&treat the halt. (This bit is not on the video clip but when first teaching this, we want the horse totally comfortable standing in the corner. It’s helpful to generalize the task to several corners if you have them available or can build them.)
  4. Teach relaxed standing in the corner on the horse’s left and right sides.

B: The Back-Up Maneuver

To ask for the back-up, you are going to smoothly pivot 180 degrees, so you face the opposite direction to the direction the horse is facing, but you are a bit to one side of him.

BUT: ***In the moment before you pivot…*** 

  1. Gently reach across your body with your ‘outside hand’ and slide it quietly up the rope to a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  2. At first, this may be right up to the snap on the halter (or if using a rope halter, even beyond the snap to hold the bottom of the halter) so you can give the horse a very direct backwards feel on the halter.
  3. As you pivot to face the horse, what was your ‘outside hand’ becomes your ‘inside hand’ — the one nearest the horse.
  4. Then simply keep a ‘hold’ tension on the rope and bring up your energy and intent for the horse to step back. This stance causes the horse slight discomfort by making him feel unbalanced. We want him to work out that he can regain his balance/comfort by shifting backwards. Our first click point is the moment he thinks of moving back. Because he’s in a corner, his easiest choice is to step backwards to regain his balance.
  5. When first teaching this task, release your ‘hold’ and simultaneously click&treat at the horse’s smallest inclination to shift his weight back. After the treat, walk a circuit, return to the corner, and ask again.
  6. When you can feel the horse readily shifting his weight back, release the rope pressure, but then, right away, slide up the rope again and ‘hold’ a bit longer to get a whole step back. Drop your signaling hand off the rope as soon as you get backward movement. Walk a circuit, return to the corner, and ask again.
  7. As he begins to understand, eventually ask for two steps, then three steps and so on, before the click&treat. The horse will soon know that when you relax your intent and take your signaling hand off the rope, he can stop backing.
  8. Ask for two or three back-ups (of several steps each) in a row, with release, click&treat for each one. Then ask the horse to step forward into the corner again; click&treat.
  9. Build a little dancing rhythm of movement: back up = click&treat. Forward into corner = click&treat. Back up = click&treat, and so on. After about 3 of these, go away for a bit of relaxation or doing other things.
  10. Gradually, over many short sessions, ask for more steps back until the horse willingly offers as many as you like.

Generalizations

  1. Move away from the corner and use just a fence on the far side.
  2. Move away from the fence and use just a low raised rail on the far side.
  3. Repeat with just a ground rail along the far side of the horse.
  4. Check to see how well the horse can back with this signal (turning to face him) out in the open. If you lose straightness at any point, return to using a fence or rail on the far side. If the horse begins to swing his hind end away from you, you can straighten his body by touching his neck to move his head away, which will straighten his body.
  5. Back through increasingly narrow spaces; e.g. two barrels, gates, into and out of stalls, always being careful that the horse does not catch his hip on an upright.
  6. Back through lanes set up with higher sides.
  7. Back along a track or trail.
  8. Back down slopes and up slopes. Start with gentle inclines.
  9. Back into a trailer or trailer simulation.
  10. Weave backwards (you need to create signals to direct his butt to the right, to the left and to keep it straight). If you are asking the horse to back up while you face him front on, moving his head a bit to his left (your right) will cause his butt to move to his right (your left). And vice versa if you move his head a little bit to his right, his butt will move to his left. If you want him to back straight, ask his head to stay straight.
  11. Back an L-bend.
  12. Back a U-bend.
  13. Back a Z-bend.
  14. Back in a circle.

Related Resources:

  1. Using a target: https://youtu.be/IfbdNme5UQA
  2. ‘Walk On’ and ‘Whoa’ Signals: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  3.  ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  4. Body Axis Orientation: https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y

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