Tag Archives: Positive Reinforcememnt training

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 3 – Fence for Focus

Photo: Walking concentric circles is part of this routine.

INTRODUCTION

For Movement Routine 3 we are back to using a fence as a focal point to initially build the routine. A fence helps the horse maintain straight movement. It also makes it easy to establish beginning and end points for each circle in this sequence of tasks.

AIMS

  • Transitions from walking forward into finesse back-ups.
  • Walking concentric circles.
  • Stay and Wait.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. We have taught the finesse back-up. (See Related Resources 2 at the end of this post.)
  3. Handler has developed a clear ‘Zero Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (See Related Resources 3 at the end of this post.)
  4. While walking shoulder-to-shoulder, the horse follows the movement of the handler’s body axis away from the horse to move into a circle. (See Related Resources 4 at the end of this post.)
  5. We have taught the horse to ground-tie. (See Related Resources 5 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 10′ (3m) or longer lead.
  • A safe fence or similar. A safe fence or barrier is one the horse can’t put his foot/leg through if he suddenly steps back. Tape fences can work well with some horses – NOT electrified.

VIDEO CLIPS

With halter and lead:  https://youtu.be/BHSztrpA8oo

 

At liberty: https://youtu.be/O0dpTo6mXSs

NOTES

  1. Memorize the sequence of tasks by walking the pattern without the horse and then visualizing the sequence often.
  2. The number of steps you take walking forward is not important. I tend to not take many steps when making the video clips to keep the viewing time short. I sometimes suggest a number of steps, but please suit that to your horse and your environment.
  3. However, the number of steps I suggest for moving backwards is significant. Horses don’t naturally do a lot of stepping backwards. We want to stay with only 2-3 steps at first, and gradually, over many short sessions, build it up one or two additional steps at a time. We want to avoid making the horse sore.
  4. While teaching this routine, or revisiting it after a long time, I generally click&treat for each part of each task. When the routine feels familiar, I move the click point along so we are doing more before a click&treat. Each horse will be different and each time doing the pattern will be different. I like to move the click points around a bit to stop the horse anticipating a treat at a specific point every time.
  5. The key to all these tasks is to keep a continuous drape in the lead rope, using halter pressure via the rope only momentarily for additional guidance. Most of our guided shaping comes via our body position, gestures, breathing, energy level and voice signals.

TASKS

  1. On the horse’s left side, with the horse nearest the fence, walk forward maybe ten steps, halt for a second or two, then turn into a finesse back-up – asking for 2-3 steps back. Repeat two more times (three times in total).
  2. Walk a large circle (handler on the inside). At the point along the fence where you began the large circle, switch to walk a medium-sized circle. Reaching the same spot again, carry on walking a small circle. The circle sizes will depend on the space you have and how flexible your horse is. Start with large circles and gradually make them smaller as indicated by the increasing suppleness of the horse.
  3. Ask the horse to HALT alongside the fence, either ground-tied or put the rope over his neck/back. Then ask him to WAIT while you walk away about ten steps with your back to the horse. Turn to partly face the horse and take up your ‘Zero Intent’ body position for x number of seconds. Then walk back to the horse; click&treat. Gradually (over lots of short sessions with this routine) work up to a WAIT of ten seconds or more.
  4. Walk forward shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse, then turn into a finesse back-up without a halt first. With practice this can get lovely and fluid.
  5. Repeat the whole sequence of tasks walking on the horse’s right side.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. Practice alongside different fences/walls/hedges if you can.
  2. Once the horse shows that he knows the pattern, play with it at liberty along a fence using the same signals you have used all along.
  3. Once the routine is smooth along the fence, play with it out in the open first with a lead rope, then at liberty. Alternate on which side of the horse you begin the routine.

Note that during backing up, horses usually push harder with one hind leg, so their hind end tends to veer away from the stronger leg. You may want to teach a gesture signal that allows you to regain straightness.

Experiment with how your position to the right or the left of the horse’s head affects his backing up.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Finesse Back-Up: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5XL
  3. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  4. Smooth 90-Degree Turns: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5VM
  5. Ground Tie: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5WX

 

 

 

Movement Routine 1 – Fence

Photo: Standing with ‘no intent’ at halt is part of these five chained tasks.

INTRODUCTION

This is the first of a series of movement routines we can do with only a fence and an open working area. The routines put together many of the individual skills and movements that my resources have looked at so far.

The key purpose of these routines is to encourage handlers to work on the precision of their signals in a relaxed manner.  The routines require the handler to pay close attention to refining his/her signals to improve timing, clarity and softness. A horse can only be as precise as we are precise. A horse can only be as soft as we are soft.

Each routine has five elements that are chained together into a pattern of movement. Horses are pattern learners and, like all of us, like to know what will happen before it happens. We tend to forget that horses living natural lives in the wild are totally in control of all their actions.

We can increase the positive feeling of ‘certainty’ by teaching these routines in a light-hearted but methodical way. Boots usually picks up a new pattern after three-six repeats over three days. Some horses will be quicker, and some will take longer.

Other reasons for playing with these routines:

  1. They are a way to keep skills we have already taught current in our repertoire.
  2. They give a way of interacting with our horse when time is short, we don’t have time to set up objects and obstacles, we don’t have access to objects and obstacles, or we are past the point of lugging around heavy rails and other objects.
  3. They include movement tasks we can do between working on stationary tasks, so giving the horse a good mix of activities.
  4. They make excellent cool-down routines after energetic riding or groundwork.

I’ve called them ‘routines’ because gymnasts first learn the individual elements of a performance and then form the elements into a ‘routine’. First each element is mastered emotionally, intellectually and physically. Then the routine is put into brain memory. Then it is practiced until it is also in muscle memory.

All this is a little bit tricky because doing a routine with a horse involves two brains and two sets of muscles.

After jotting down a plan for a possible routine, I try it out with Boots multiple times. The feedback I get from Boots and myself always shows that the initial plan needs a lot of changes. Most of the changes concern my body position plus when and how I give the signal for each part of the action.

AIM

Smooth execution of a series of five individual tasks chained together:

  • ‘Walk on’ and ‘halt’ repeated three times;
  • Change of direction and side of horse (so horse remains nearest the fence);
  • ‘Stay’ while handler backs away from the horse to the end of rope (keeping a drape in the rope);
  • Horse Waits for ___ seconds;
  • Recall.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Smooth ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ transitions staying shoulder-to-shoulder. (See Related Resources 1 at the end of this post.)
  2. Handler has developed a clear ‘No Intent’ signal so the horse knows when standing quietly is what is wanted. (See Related Resources 2 at the end of this post.)
  3. Change of direction plus changing side of horse the handler is on. (See Related Resources 3 at the end of this post.
  4. Horse and handler agree on clear ‘stay’ signals. (See Related Resources 4 at the end of this post.)
  5. Horse has learned to ‘wait’ until handler gives a new signal or clicks&treats. (See Related Resources 5 at the end of this post.)
  6. Handler and horse agree on a clear ‘recall’ signal. (See Related Resources 6 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 10′ (3 m) or longer lead.
  • A safe fence line to work alongside. It can be straight, curved or the inside or outside of a round pen fence.

VIDEO CLIP

https://youtu.be/HqyJA_E7waY

NOTES

  1. Since I don’t find memorizing a sequence of tasks easy, I use a ruler as a fence and practice the movements with my small toy hippopotamus. Then I walk the sequence outside by myself, practicing the signals I will use, accompanied by an invisible unicorn.
  2. While working out the plan with Boots’ help, I’ve usually managed to confuse her to some extent, so once the plan feels right, I wait a few days before starting to do the final version with her. Meanwhile we have been practicing the tasks separately.
  3. For the first task, walk as few or many steps as you like. I walked only a few steps in the video to make it easier to film. Vary how long you stand at halt before asking for the next walk transition. Work to get the ‘walk on’ transition with raising your chest, breathing in deeply plus your voice signal. Work on refining your body language and voice signal for each halt.
  4. How often you click&treat depends on where you are with each skill. I always begin with click&treat for each portion of each task. As the horse gets the hang of what we are doing, I move the click point along so the horse does more for each click&treat. I like to eventually be able to do the whole chain with one click point at the end.
  5. As with everything, we keep the sessions short in among other things we are doing. I often do it just once, sometimes twice and rarely three times in a row.
  6. There is no need to rush through the chain of tasks. Walk slowly. Give the horse time put the pattern into his mind and from there into his muscle memory.
  7. Stay’ means that the horse understands that you can walk away while he stays put. ‘Wait’ means that the horse is able to keep standing still for a specific length of time until you click&treat or give another signal. They may appear to be the same at first glance, but teaching/learning ‘Wait’ with duration is a skill set that goes beyond the idea of ‘stay’ for a short period.
  8. For the ‘wait’ task, gradually work up to ten seconds, but be sure to stay well within the time the horse is comfortable with. Better to recall sooner rather than after the horse moves. If he moves, go back to working on the ‘wait’ task by itself for several days. In the video clip, you will note that on the day we filmed at liberty, Boots found it hard to relax into the ‘wait’. There was a lot of commotion including a huge noisy hedge clipping machine working close by.
  9. The more time we spend playing with exercises like this, which look relatively simple on the surface, the more positive spin-offs there will be to the other things we do with the horse.

SLICES

  1. Memorize the sequence of tasks.
  2. Play with each of the skills separately until you and the horse feel fluent. This might take one session or a long time if some of the tasks are new to you.
  3. Walking with the horse nearest the fence, chain the first two tasks together (3 x walk & halt plus change of direction and sides).
  4. When 3 is smooth, chain the last three mini-tasks together (stay plus wait plus recall).
  5. When both 3 and 4 are going well, chain it all together.
  6. Always adjust your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) to what the horse is able to offer on the day. If he seems unsure, click&treat more of the slices. If he is showing keenness and understanding about what comes next, use your voice to praise and move the click&treat further along the chain.

We can’t expect our horse to be the same every day, just as we are not the same every day. Good training adjusts what we do to what the horse is telling us. Some days it will feel very smooth. Other days parts will feel sticky. This is normal ebb and flow.

The day will come when you do it all with one click and treat at the end, but it may not happen again the day after that. Horses read our tension or relaxation in a nanosecond. Often what is happening with the horse relates to ourselves, our emotional state, and how the horse perceives us that day.

Other times, the horse may be tired or anxious due to rough weather or other changes in his external and/or internal environment.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1. If you usually start walking on the horse’s left side, start instead walking on his right side. Be aware of keeping your signals equally clear on the side you use less often.
  2. Practice alongside as many different fences as you can.
  3. Once the horse shows that he knows the pattern, play with it at liberty along fences using the same signals you have used all along.
  4. Once the routine is smooth along the fence, play with it out in the open, first with the lead rope and then at liberty. Alternate on which side of the horse you begin the routine.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Smooth Walk and Halt transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO
  3. Changing Sides in Motion: https://youtu.be/3oqPs4LM5AM
  4. Park and Wait (Stay): https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  5. Wait Duration: https://youtu.be/jVn3WBuqpno
  6. Recall Clip 1: https://youtu.be/XuBo07q8g24     Recall Clip 2: https://youtu.be/5BQCB2Fe5RE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Step at a Time

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.

INTRODUCTION

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.
  • Pedestals.
  • Bridges.
  • Water obstacles.
  • Horse Agility obstacles
  • Getting out of tricky situations on the trail.
  • Stepping up and down a pedestal or balance beam or bridge.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. The horse responds willingly to light pressure on the halter via the lead rope. (See ‘Related Resource’ 1 at the end of this post.)
  3. 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.

AIM

To create signals for asking the horse to move either front foot one step at a time, both back and forward.

VIDEO CLIP

https://youtu.be/http://A6RUNijvf18

NOTES

  1. Ensure the horse is in a learning frame of mind.
  2. 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.
  3. To lift and move a front foot, the horse must first shift his balance to take the weight off that foot.
  4. Unless the horse is pacing, the hind feet move in unison with the diagonal front foot.
  5. 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.
  6. Remember to click&treat the moment the foot is lifting during this exercise.

SLICES

One Step Back

In order to lift his right front foot, the horse must shift his weight to his left shoulder and slightly back.

  1. Face the horse, slightly to the right side of his head and orientate your belly button toward his nose (when his head is straight).
  2. Hold the rope about an arm’s length from the halter, lightly draped, in the hand nearest the horse’s shoulder (rope hand).
  3. 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.
  4. At some stage, you will reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  1. Take up a power position (feet shoulder-width apart, one slightly ahead, hips dropped).
  2. Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse, about 2’-3’ from the halter with a bit of slack in it.
  3. Reach across with your other hand and softly run it up the rope toward the halter until you meet resistance from the horse.
  4. At that point, simply ‘hold’ just strongly enough to make the horse feel unbalanced.
  5. The moment he shows the slightest tendency to shift backwards to regain his balance, release the pressure (click&treat).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

GENERALIZATIONS

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.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Blog: Soft Response to Rope Pressure: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sq
  2. March 2018 Challenge; Backing Up Part 2; FINESSE BACK-UP https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

 

The Balancera Exercise

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

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

AIM:

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

VIDEO CLIPS:

Balancera Clip 1 of 2: #173 HorseGym with Boots

 

Balancera Clip 2 of 2. #174 HorseGym with Boots

NOTES:

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

SLICES:

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

GENERALIZATIONS:

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

RELATED RESOURCES:

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

Building Task Complexity Using Hoops

INTRODUCTION:

This is a superb flexion exercise because it causes the horse to become super aware of what his feet are doing. It also encourages the horse to pick up his feet and stretch his stride, so it aids muscle lengthening and hock flexion.

It is also an example of how we can gradually build the complexity of a task until eventually the whole task is done with one click&treat at the end.

Sadly, not all horses are aware of exactly where their feet are and what their feet are doing. Horses raised in flat paddocks or those who spend much of their life stabled have not had opportunity to develop good proprioception. Horses who can move freely in rugged country will have a much stronger sense of where their feet are.

We can purposefully teach tasks that encourage foot awareness. See ‘Related Resources’ 8 at the end of this post.

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 ‘Related Resources’ 1 at end of this post.)
  3. Horse knows about nose and/or foot targets as destinations where a click&treat occurs each time. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 at end of this post.)
  4. Horse confidently steps over rails, ropes, logs or similar. (See ‘Related Resources’ 4 and 5 at end of this post.)
  5. Horse confidently walks onto and over unusual surfaces such as tarps, boards, and so on. (See ‘Related Resources’ 6 at end of this post.)

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Five or six hoops. Make hoops with ropes laid into circles or make hoops using plastic water pipe pieces held together with a strip of large or smaller diameter pipe so the hoop can come apart if the horse gets in a muddle.
  • A destination where the horse will receive a click&treat after negotiating the hoop(s). Put the destination, either a mat or a nose target, at a spot an equal distance from either end of your (eventual) line of hoops so it works in either direction of travel.
  • Halter and lead kept loose as much as possible, as we want to use body language for communication as much as possible, rather than rope pressure.

AIM:

To smoothly walk (and maybe jog) across a series of five (or more) hoops staying together in the shoulder-to-shoulder position.

VIDEO CLIP:

#172 HorseGym with Boots: Building Task Complexity using Hoops

https://youtu.be/h0sVZqLfNI8

NOTES:

  1. Boots’ demonstration on the video is the sum of many short training sessions over a long time. During the teaching or acquisition phase, we played with one hoop for a long time before adding the second hoop. As she gained confidence, we added more hoops one at a time.
  2. It’s good to first build confident stepping over things such as rails and as many other safe objects that you can find.
  3. Remember to keep each session short. We don’t want to drill this. We want the horse to learn that stepping through the hoops cleanly earns him a bonus click&treat.
  4. When we have accomplished the task fully, we will be able to cross a series of hoops cleanly in either direction with the handler on either side of the horse.
  5. Some people like to teach everything on both sides from the beginning. Others prefer to get it all smooth staying on one side of the horse and then teach it again from the beginning on the other side of the horse.
  6. Be careful to keep the shoulder-to-shoulder position intact so you are consistently moving in a synchronized way.

SLICES:

  1. Lay out one hoop and set up your destination (mat or nose target) a good distance away from the hoop so it is not immediately distracting.
  2. Approach the hoop with the horse; click&treat for any interest he shows in the hoop. Allow him to sniff it and paw at it for as long as he wants. Click&treat when he finishes sniffing and/or pawing, walk away from the hoop to the mat or nose target destination; click&treat at the destination.
  3. When the horse is ho-hum about the hoop, ask him to step his front feet into the hoop and halt; click&treat. Walk on to your destination; click&treat.
  4. Ignore any clipping of the hoop with his feet as he steps into it or out of it. Most horse will correct themselves with practice. It is addressed in 8 below.
  5. When 3 above is smooth, ask him to walk through the hoop with his front feet and halt with his hind feet in the hoop; click&treat. Walk on to your destination; click&treat.
  6. Alternate between 3 and 5 above, walking on to your destination each time for a second click&treat.
  7. When the horse feels confident about halting with either his front feet or his hind feet in the hoop, begin to ask him to walk right through the hoop and on to your destination.
  8. At this point, ignore any clipping of the hoop with his feet, BUT when he walks right through CLEANLY, CLICK right after he has cleanly exited the hoop, and deliver the treat. When he does clip the hoop, there is no extra click&treat. You simply move on to your destination; click&treat.
  9. Repeat 7 and 8 until the horse can walk across the hoop smoothly without touching it most of the time. The first time he walks through without touching the hoop, celebrate hugely with a bonus click&treat or a jackpot before walking on to your destination for another click&treat.
  10. When the horse walks across the hoop cleanly almost every time, add a second hoop. Allow him time to investigate if he wants to.
  11. Repeat as above with two hoops, then three hoops, then four hoops, then five hoops, then more if you want.
  12. Be sure to stay with each number of hoops until the horse is super confident and moving across them cleanly almost every time. The easiest way to make it all fall apart is to go too fast or to try to do too much during one session.
  13. By keeping the sessions short and fun, he will be keen to do it again next time.
  14. Ensure that the horse is confident working in both directions.
  15. Ensure the horse is confident with you on his left side or his right side.
  16. When it feels ho-hum to walk across five or more hoops, start the whole process again with one hoop and ask him to jog or trot across it.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Set up hoops in new venues; slopes can make it more challenging.
  2. Set up hoops where there are different distractions.
  3. If you have a friend that trains in the same way, ask them to do the exercise with your horse.
  4. Use the exercise regularly as part of your warm-up or cool-down gymnastics.
  5. See ‘Related Resources’ 7 below for more ways to play with hoops.

RELATED RESOURCES:

  1. Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Blog: Using Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
  3. Destinations: Video Clip: #3 HorseGym with Boots; Stationary Nose Targets: https://youtu.be/TcRjoAnDYPQ
  4. Video Clips: a) Precision with a Single Rail: https://youtu.be/bJzwDq-NvtE 
  5.                      b) Same task at Liberty: https://youtu.be/kvIso5iv-gA
  6. Unusual Surfaces clips:
    1. Thin-Slicing the One Meter Board: https://youtu.be/pLLqtbQJqMs
    2. Tarp and Water Surface: https://youtu.be/AOhKu6oHdkk
  7. Hoops Playlist: First clip in the playlist: Single Obstacle Challenge Hoops 1 https://youtu.be/AfDIAQSOmE0
  8. Video Clip: Foot Awareness: https://youtu.be/7bEkFk0w_gk

 

RAINY DAY and STALL REST ACTIVITIES

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

  1. Nose to Target

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

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

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

  1. Head Lowering (and Head Up)

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. “Intent and Zero Intent”

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

  1. Target Feet to Mat and Duration on the Mat

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

  1. Target Flexions

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

  1. Target Chin to Hand

Clip: https://youtu.be/Fsigp8wB0LU

  1. Target Shoulder to Hand

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

  1. Targeting Body Parts Overview

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

  1. Bell Ringing

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

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

  1. Picking Things Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Willing Haltering

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

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

  1. Relaxation with Body Extensions

Clip: https://youtu.be/nkwxYwtCP_Y

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

  1. Balance on Three Legs

Clip: https://youtu.be/x1WKppV3N_0

  1. Clean all Feet from One Side

Clip: https://youtu.be/UMyApCj9wBQ

  1. Hoof Stand Confidence

Clip: https://youtu.be/khsEm1YBtLs

  1. Head Rocking

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

  1. One Step at a Time

Clip: https://youtu.be/wStHxqNs7nk

  1. Soft Response to Rope Pressure

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

  1. In-Hand Back-Up

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

  1. Step Aerobics

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

  1. Foot Awareness (Proprioception)

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

  1. Counting

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

  1. Kill the Tiger

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

  1. Bursting Balloons

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

  1. Target Hindquarters to our Hand

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

 

Gaining Fluidity without Drilling

Questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not recommended – DRILLING:

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

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

Recommended – CHERISHING EACH MINI-OBJECTIVE:

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

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

Helpful – Visualizing:

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

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

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

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

Helpful – SIMULATION:

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

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

A Possible Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example One

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

Example Two

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

Example Three

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

Video Clip:

#163 HorseGym with Boots: Gaining Fluidity without Drilling.

In Addition:

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

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

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

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

Extra:

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

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

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

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

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCE:

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

Chaining Behaviors

INTRODUCTION:

Chaining behaviors refers to linking together individual tasks into a flow of activity. The photo above shows how we chained repetitions of the task, “Go touch the cone” in order to build confidence walking down the road away from home. Once the horse understands this game, the cones can be put further apart, less in number and eventually phased out and replaced with items naturally found along the route to use as click&treat spots.

We might aim for one click&treat at the end of a series of behaviors. Alternatively, we might click for each specific behavior in the chain, or for two or three behaviors within the chain that easily link into each other.

We can also back-chain, where we begin with the last behavior in the series, and gradually link in each previous behavior. If we specifically want the horse to do a series of behaviors with only one click&treat at the end, this method can work well.

People who have spent more time studying ‘chaining’ in detail prefer to start with a concept called ‘sequencing’.  They then describe different kinds of sequences.

Tandem Units – when each part of the sequence is exactly the same. Examples are  the ‘cone-to -cone’ exercise in the photo above and the 20 Steps Exercise outlined below.

Conjunctive Units – when there is a sequence to be done, but they could be done in any order. For example, if we have a selection of obstacles set out to do gymnastic exercises with our horse, we can do them in any order.

Chained Units – step one of the sequence must occur before step, 2, step 2 before step 3, and so on. For example, saddling or harnessing a horse. Another example might be walking into the pasture, haltering the horse, walking back to the gate with the horse, opening the gate, asking the horse to walk through the gate, closing the gate, which is outlined in one of the clips below.

When we train by splitting a goal behavior into its smallest teachable units (slices), we link the slices together as the horse becomes competent with each bit of new learning. In most cases, the sequence is important, so each slice is part of a chained unit. The example below about Head Rocking illustrates.

Something like a dressage test, horse agility course, jumping course or western equitation course is made up of discrete units or behavior (conjunctive) but the competition requires them to be done in a strict order, so they become ‘chained’. We can train each unit in a ‘conjunctive’ context, then present them in the required chain for the competition.

CHAINING FORWARD TO CREATE DURATION (A sequence of ‘tandem units’)

This clip clearly shows how we can create a chain of ‘duration’ of the same behavior (tandem units). 20 Steps Exercise

 

This clip is the same as the one above but done with halter and lead and a handler new to the exercise. #30 HorseGym with Boots: Leading Position Three Duration Exercise. Increasing duration of a behavior is basically increasing the number or duration of ‘tandem units’ before we click&treat. The units might be steps, as in this exercise, or they might be increasing time staying parked or they might be the number of times your horse paws if you are teaching him to count.

CHAINING THIN-SLICES TO CREATE A COMPLEX TASK

This clip shows how we first train, then chain, tiny components of a task (slices). As the horse understands each slice, we ask for a bit more or a new variation before the next click&treat. This clip is an introduction to building confidence with pushing through pairs of horizontally set pool noodles. We start with the simplest unit and gradually work up to more complexity, so this is an example of mostly chained units

 

This clip is an introduction to head rocking. The slices are quite tiny and are steadily chained together to accomplish the final task. Since the order or units matters, it is a true chained sequence.

CHAINING A SERIES OF TASKS THAT OCCUR IN A PARTICULAR ORDER

This clip looks at how we chain a series of tasks when we do something like bringing our horse in from a paddock. Usually I would do the whole process with one click&treat after putting on the halter, and another when I take off the halter. The horse has previously (separately) learned each of the tasks that make up this chain of events.

 

The clip below looks at using a mat to help chain a series of tasks. #12 HorseGym with Boots: CHAINING TASKS. This could be seen as an ‘artificial’ chain because we have decided on the order of the tasks. They could be done in any order making it a conjunctive chain.

 

The clip below shows a series of more difficult tasks. Each task is individually taught to a high standard. Then I forward chain or back-chain them according to the requirement of that month’s competition.The order of the tasks has been arbitrarily set for the competition, so this too is an ‘artificial’ chain made up of a series of unrelated tasks.

TRAINING PLAN FOR BACK-CHAINING ROPE-FREE CIRCLE WORK

Back-chaining simply means that we begin with the final behavior in a series and work backward toward the eventual starting point.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.

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 to introduce the idea to the horse.
  • Safe, enclosed area for working at liberty.
  • Objects to create the circle outline, as in the video clip or set up a raised barrier.

AIMS:

The horse moves willingly on the outside of a circle of objects, firs to  mat destination, later listening for a ‘whoa’ signal.

Back-Chaining Circle Work with a Mat (see video below)

If we want to teach a horse to move in a circle around the outside of a round pen, we can use a mat as the horse’s destination and back-chain a whole circle at walk and a whole circle at trot (energetic horses may offer a canter).

The set-up requires a round pen of ground or raised rails or tape on uprights or a collection of items to outline the circle. The horse walks around the outside of the barrier and the handler walks on the inside of the barrier.

SLICES:

Note: Keep the sessions very short – just a few minutes. We never want to turn anything into a drill. Five minutes a day over a few weeks will give a lot of results.

Stay with each slice until both you and the horse are totally comfortable with it.

With halter and lead:

  1. Lead the horse around the circle and have him target the mat with his feet; click&treat. Repeat until the horse has a strong association with the mat due to always receiving a click&treat there.
  2. Walk the horse and halt a few steps away from the mat. (Horse is on the outside of the barrier, handler on the inside.)
  3. With a looped rope (or unclip the rope if you are in a safe, enclosed area) ask the horse to ‘walk on’ to the mat; click&treat. Snap on the lead rope, walk around the circle and repeat 2 at the same distance until the horse keenly heads to the mat. Walk along with the horse, at the horse’s pace, inside the barrier.
  4. Gradually halt further from the mat before asking the horse to go target the mat. If he loses confidence, return to a smaller distance. Better to increase the distance by very small increments rather than ask for too much too soon. Click&treat each arrival at the mat.
  5. If the horse offers a trot at any time (or a canter) and stays on the circle, celebrate hugely. Such willingness is precious.
  6. When the horse willingly offers a whole circle, celebrate large with happy words and a jackpot or triple treat.
  7. When it is good in one direction, teach it again, from the beginning, walking in the other direction.
  8. Make the task more interesting by putting the mat in different places on the circle.
  9. Once you have whole circles, and you are in a safe area where you can work without the lead, leave it off. This allows you to gradually walk a much smaller circle as the horse stays on his big circle on the outside of the barrier. Click&treat each time the horse reaches the mat. He will soon realize that even if you are a distance away from him when you click, you will quickly walk to him to deliver the treat. Some horses get anxious when they can’t stay right next to the handler.
  10. Play with 9 until you can just rotate in the center of the circle as the horse walks around.
  11. If you’d like to work with trot, and the horse has not already offered it, start again with slice 2 and use your body energy to suggest a trot. If your horse knows a voice ‘trot’ signal, use that too. Celebrate if he trots to the mat.
  12. If you like, gradually make your circle larger.

This is back-chaining because you have shown the horse the final result which will earn the click&treat (targeting the mat) and then added in the previous requirements, which in this case were increasing distances from the mat. In the final behavior, the mat is both the starting point and the end point.

If you are wondering about how we can get multiple circles this way, we can eventually use our ‘halt’ signal to replace the mat and ask the horse to do more than one circle (in gradual increments) before asking him to halt for his click&treat.

 

Example 2:  Back-chaining a 10-task Horse Agility Course (based on the clip before the one immediately above)

  1. Consolidate the final task: Trot through the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a click&treat.
  2. Back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  3. Trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  4. Trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  5. Through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  6. Trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  7. Drag the bottles, trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  8. Weave five markers, drag the bottles, trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  9. From halt, trot off the tarp, weave five markers, drag the bottles, trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.
  10. Walk onto the tarp and halt, trot off the tarp, weave five markers, drag the bottles, trot through scary corridor of flags, through the pool noodles, trot through the z-bend, trot through the curtain, back up seven steps, halt, then trot over the plastic bottles and halt on the tarp for a treat.

Back-chaining works well when we want/need to consolidate the place and time for the click&treat at the very end of a sequence of events.

 

Willing Haltering

Willing Haltering

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

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

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

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

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

We can and should move on when:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLICES

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

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

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

Eventually we can click&treat the following slices.

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

 

Sidestepping

 

INTRODUCTION

To teach sidestepping, we carefully and quietly add the forequarter yield and the hindquarter yield together until the horse is able to move sideways in a straight line.

Teaching willing hindquarter yields on request is one of the essentials for safety around horses. Anything unexpected can cause serious harm around the most benign horse. A willing hindquarter yield eases daily care and husbandry, especially around gates, stables, or any tight space.

Teaching the forequarter yield makes it easy to ask our horse to stand in the best position for foot care, grooming or saddling. Teaching these yields on both sides of the horse aids in strengthening proprioception.

Proprioception is an animal’s clear perception about where various body parts are, what they are doing, and the amount of energy needed to carry out a specific activity.

Sportspeople tend to have much better proprioception than people who spend most of their times sitting. Horses raised in flat paddocks and stables lack the proprioception evident in horses who grew up moving extensively in rugged, hilly country.

When our horse can co-ordinate the front-end and hind-end yields to smoothly sidestep on one plane, his proprioception will have improved considerably. Some horses almost fall over when first asked to step across sideways with a front foot, so we have to be gentle and take the time it takes with short, frequent sidestepping sessions.

In horse language, yielding the quarters seems to be an appeasement action. The horse is willing to shift his personal space away from you. Horses with a relatively timid or anxious nature are usually quick to grant you this space.

Horses with a bold or exuberant nature may be less willing (or extremely resistant) when this task is first introduced. They are more prepared to ‘stand their ground’. Who moves whose feet is highly significant in the horse word. Much the same is true for people.

How readily a horse sidesteps on request depends on his innate nature, his opinion of the handler and how he is being (or has been) taught the tasks.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Handler has taught or revised clear ‘Yield Forequarters’ and ‘Yield Hindquarters’ signals with touch, gesture and body language intent.
  • Horse responds readily and confidently to ‘Yield Forequarters’ and ‘Yield Hindquarters’ signals.

Forequarter Yield: April 2018 Challenge: https://youtu.be/eSlin8ZYcRA

Hindquarter Yield: May 2018 Challenge: https://youtu.be/AkjIT8Tjxw0

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  1. Work area where the horse is relaxed.
  2. Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  3. Safe fences or other barrier to inhibit forward movement and to generalize the task.
  4. Ground rails and raised rails for generalizing the task.
  5. Depending on what you choose to do: halter and lead or safe enclosed area for working at liberty.
  6. Horse warmed up with a few active tasks before asking for these yields.

AIM:

To have the horse willingly yield six to eight steps sideways away from the handler, in a variety of contexts.

GETTING STARTED WITH A BARRIER IN FRONT:

SLICES (Illustrated in Clip 1)

Click here for Clip 1.

  1. Ask the horse to halt facing a safe fence: click&treat.
  • Repeat a few times until you are both comfortable and confident doing this.
  • If you can, practice at a variety of different fences or other barriers to generalize this first part of the task and make it ho-hum.
  • Teach all the slices on both sides of the horse. One side is often easier. Do a bit more with the harder side until both sides feel the same.
  1. When 1 above is easy and relaxed, while the horse is standing facing the fence:
  • Focus strongly on his hip. Use touch or gesture to quietly ask the horse to yield the hindquarters one step: click&treat.
  • Try to click the moment the near hind leg passes in front of the far hind leg.
  • Walk away from the fence together to a relaxation spot (mat, hoop, nose target): click and treat.
  • Repeat a few times, walking to the relaxation spot after each yield, or walk to another barrier and repeat the task there.
  1. When 2 is easy and relaxed, repeat the procedure but this time ask the horse to yield his forequarters: click&treat.
  • Clearly direct your focus plus touch or gesture signal toward his front-end. Click&treat for one step over. Ideally click just as the near foot crosses in front of the far foot.
  • Walk away for a break or head to a different barrier to repeat, as you did in 2.
  1. Start with either 2 or 3 above, whichever feels better for you and your horse.
  • Some horses may do these yields smoothly after one session.
  • Others may take many sessions over many days.
  1. When 2 and 3, done individually, are smooth and ho-hum, we can begin to put them together.
  • Vary which end you ask to yield first.
  • We still click&treat for each yield, but right after the click&treat for the first yield, we ask for the other end to yield (click&treat).
  1. Now we will ask for front end plus hind end BEFORE the click&treat. This part is illustrated at the beginning of Clip 2.
  • Stay with this slice for several short sessions until you are sure the horse is comfortable with it – often there is a bit of tail swishing, blinking and chewing as the horse is figuring something out.
  • After a good effort, it pays not to do it again right away. A triple treat or a wee break walking to a target or a spot of grazing helps the horse realize that what he did was what you wanted.
  • Be sure not to ‘drill’. We don’t want to lose the horse’s interest or enthusiasm to do it again.
  1. Once we have the horse easily moving both ends on request, with one click&treat after both have moved, we can begin to ask for additional steps sideways.
  • Ask for two sets of sideways steps before the click&treat. Stay with this slice until it is smooth.
  • Ask for three or four sets of sideways steps. Stay with this slice until it is smooth.
  • This is hard work for the horse, so build up his strength to do more sidestepping gradually until he can easily do six to eight steps.
  • Sidestepping is a great suppling exercise when the horse is warmed up.

GENERALIZATIONS

Clips 2, 3 and 4 look at generalizations

Click here for Clip 2.

Click here for Clip 3.

Click here for Clip 4.

  • The first generalization was to ensure that the horse could stand comfortably in front of a variety of barriers.
  • The generalizations after achieving part 7 above all serve to help the horse become more fluid with the sidestepping task and to put it into his long-term muscle memory.
  • With each new generalization, start right at the beginning with a high rate of reinforcement. Gradually work toward the point at which the horse easily does 6-8 sidesteps with one click&treat at the end.
  • It’s important to be consistent with our gesture, voice, touch and body language signals, despite the different obstacles in use. Once the horse understands what I am asking, I add a voice signal, which for us is “Across” because we use “Over” for jumping things.

Generalizations on the video clips include:

  1. Between two rails.
  2. Rail under the horse’s belly.
  3. Half-barrels under the horse’s belly.
  4. Toward a barrier such as tall cones, (or a fence, a wall, the side of a horse trailer).
  5. Toward a mat or a hoop.
  6. Toward a mounting block.
  7. Without a barrier in front.
  8. With handler face to face with the horse.
  9. Around a square of rails (possibilities are: front feet in box, hind feet in box, no feet in box, whole horse in box).
  10. Straddle a rail.

 

 

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

 

Destination Training

mat cameo boots 10-30-2017_122916

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

Destination Training

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

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

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

Target discs 1 10-26-2017_153255

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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