Photo above: Boots gained the confidence to step up on this balance beam by being rewarded for venturing one step at a time. After many short, successful sessions, she felt secure enough to target individual legs to my hand.
The skill of being able to ask your horse to move one specific foot at a time is worthy of time and attention. It is a task that can be used and refined when riding or doing groundwork, including Horse Agility competition. It starts with being able to visualize the pattern in which horses move their feet.
Carefully observe the footfall sequences when horses walk, back-up, trot and canter. Reviewing slow motion video is best. Learn the footfall (foot-rise) for walk and trot, one gait at a time. When they are clear in your mind, add the canter.
Get down on all fours so you can mimic the pattern with your limbs. That helps put the patterns into your deep memory. Once you can easily replay the memory tape for each gait in your mind, you can give your horse much clearer signals.
Perfecting this helps to build the feel you need in order to time your riding or leading signals to the horse’s feet.
This is a great task for teaching us to carefully note the horse’s intent and time our click&treat to the moment a foot is lifting. The ability to see and feel footfall (foot-rise) is a huge bonus in a horse training kit.
It is actually the moment of foot-rise that we need to learn because it is only when the foot is lifted that we can influence where it goes next. Therefore during this exercise we want to click&treat as the foot is lifting.
Directing our horse’s feet one at a time has many uses. For example:
- Cleaning/trimming feet.
- Positioning for mounting.
- Backing into stalls/wash bays.
- Breed and showmanship classes .
- Leading through narrow spaces.
- Trailer loading and unloading.
- Precision riding or long-reining/driving.
- Placing a foot for an x-ray.
- Precise mat or hoop work.
- Water obstacles.
- Horse Agility obstacles
- Getting out of tricky situations on the trail.
- Stepping up and down a pedestal or balance beam or bridge.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- The horse responds willingly to light pressure on the halter via the lead rope. (See ‘Related Resource’ 1 at the end of this post.)
- We have taught the ‘finesse back up’. (See ‘Related Resource’ 2 at the end of this post.)
ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS
- A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
- Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
- The horse is not hungry.
- Halter and lead. A shorter lead is easier to use for this task.
To create signals for asking the horse to move either front foot one step at a time, both back and forward.
- Ensure the horse is in a learning frame of mind.
- Keep each session working with short – three minutes is plenty. Three minutes of focused work over many sessions will get you the result without lapsing into human or horse frustration.
- To lift and move a front foot, the horse must first shift his balance to take the weight off that foot.
- Unless the horse is pacing, the hind feet move in unison with the diagonal front foot.
- I’m not good with left/right or 3-dimensional thinking so it took me a long time to get these moves firmly into my muscle memory. I had to learn to carefully note where the horse’s feet were and how he was balanced before I asked a foot to move. Then I could decide which way I needed to tilt the horse’s head to move a particular foot.
- Remember to click&treat the moment the foot is lifting during this exercise.
One Step Back
In order to lift his right front foot, the horse must shift his weight to his left shoulder and slightly back.
- Face the horse, slightly to the right side of his head and orientate your belly button toward his nose (when his head is straight).
- Hold the rope about an arm’s length from the halter, lightly draped, in the hand nearest the horse’s shoulder (rope hand).
- Reach across with the other hand (sliding hand) and slide it gently up the rope toward the halter. If you’ve taught a ‘back’ voice signal, use it as well.
- At some stage, you will reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
- When you reach the point of contact tilt his nose/neck slightly to the left and put a bit of backward pressure on the halter. Release immediately when you feel his intent to move back (click&treat). Relax, then ask again.
- When you get a whole step, release (click&treat), relax. Maybe rub him if you are not using Clicker Training and he likes to be touched. If you get more than one step, accept it, reward it, and then adjust your signal so it has less energy.
Some horses may at first respond by leaning forward into the backward pressure you are putting on the halter. They are not ‘wrong’ because moving into pressure is a natural horse response. They are also not wrong because they don’t yet understand what you want.
If your horse leans into the pressure:
- Take up a power position (feet shoulder-width apart, one slightly ahead, hips dropped).
- Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse, about 2’-3’ from the halter with a bit of slack in it.
- Reach across with your other hand and softly run it up the rope toward the halter until you meet resistance from the horse.
- At that point, simply ‘hold’ just strongly enough to make the horse feel unbalanced.
- The moment he shows the slightest tendency to shift backwards to regain his balance, release the pressure (click&treat).
- Repeat. If you are clear and consistent and release (click&treat) promptly, the horse will soon read your body language energy and intent and step back before you can even slide your fingers up the rope.
- During multiple short practices, also introduce a voice ‘back’ signal.
When you reach a reliable response as in 6 above, you have created a gesture signal you can use at liberty to ask the horse to step back. Keep the gesture exactly as it was, i.e. running your hand up an imaginary rope.
When you have one step back at a light signal, ask for two steps back. It’s important to ‘release’ the halter pressure slightly after the first step, then increase the pressure slightly to ask again for the second step before a bigger release (click&treat).
Once that is smooth, ask for three steps, then four, and so on until you have as many individual steps as you like. Release the pressure at each step, then apply it again lightly to ask for another step. The horse will soon read the intent in your body language and will step back by reading your ‘intent’.
Pressure on the rope will no longer be necessary except maybe in unusual situations of high stress. In such situations the horse will have an advantage over horses who don’t understand this part of the task because he will remember what the rope pressure means and how to respond to it.
To move his left front foot back, tilt his nose/neck slightly to the right, i.e. always tilt the nose away from the foot you want him to move.
If the horse tends to push forward into the handler, it can help to have a rail in front of the horse or start in a blocked-off lane, so that stepping back is the easiest and common-sense thing to do.
When backing from the halt feels easy, we can expand and generalize the task by walking along beside the horse, halting and smoothly pivoting into position to face the horse and ask him to back up. Teach this first along a safe fence to encourage the horse to back up in a straight line.
One Step Forward
To move one step forward, tilt his nose slightly away from the foot you want to move (to take the weight off it) and put gentle forward pressure on the halter.
Be sure to teach ‘one step at a time’ standing on the horse’s left side and on his right side. If he finds one side harder, work at bit more on that side.
Most people find giving signals with their less dominant hand harder as well. When each side feels the same, you’ve reached a big milestone.
When we can use a light signal to ask the horse to glide from walk into a halt, then as we turn to face him, we can ask for an individual step back or forward, we have achieved our task.
Eventually, get him to put a specific front foot on things. Start with a largish item like a doormat or a piece of carpet. Work toward smaller things like paper plates, Frisbees and leaves, then higher things like stumps, steps, pedestals, ramps, balance beams, hoof stands if he doesn’t already know all these things.
Be aware that once the horse is close to the object, he can’t see it, but is working from memory. The area directly under his head/neck is a blind spot.
Be particular but not critical. Always relax, pause and reset if the horse gets confused. After a good effort, go away from the site and do other things the horse already knows.
Then come back to moving one foot until you get another good effort. Don’t drill. After you’ve had two or three good attempts, stop and come back to it another time.
The essence of this teaching is that you create mutually-understood signals that communicate to the horse about moving individual feet.
This clip shows some possible generalizations.
- Blog: Soft Response to Rope Pressure: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sq
- March 2018 Challenge; Backing Up Part 2; FINESSE BACK-UP https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA