Tag Archives: Positive Reinforcement Training

PLACING THE FEET ACCURATELY USING A RAIL

This task continues the attention we gave the ‘halt’ and ‘walk on’. We also add a ‘back up’ and pay a bit more attention to ‘wait time’.

There are five different tasks, but since we do them in the horse’s left and right eyes, they are actually ten tasks. Then we consolidate the tasks by doing them in two directions, so we have a total of 20 tasks, or 10 tasks which each have two variations.

Once all the tasks are going smoothly, we can mix them up in any order, which teaches us to be crystal clear for the horse and has the horse watch us carefully to pick up our next signal.

When confusion arises, it is because we are not clear enough. Horses working for a food reward are usually super-observant of all our body language as well as carefully taught voice and gesture signals.

When we use our less dominant side, it’s common for our body language and gesture signals to be less clear until we become more conscious of what we are doing. If you haven’t usually done much on your horse’s right side, there will be a lot of learning going on.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse leads smoothly beside the handler’s shoulder. (See Additional Resource 1 at the end of the post.)
  • Handler and horse agree on clear ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals. (See Additional Resource 2 at the end of the post.)
  • Horse and handler agree on a ‘back up’ signal. (See  Additional Resources 3 & 4 at the end of the post.)

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Halter and lead or liberty.
  • A rail. I use a round rail in the clip, but using a half-round rail that doesn’t roll is ideal to teach this. Or we can put blocks under a round rail. In the clip, I put my foot on it to stop it rolling.
  • One or two of these tasks during one segment of a training session is plenty. If it’s all done quietly with no fuss or drilling, the horse will think on it and remember what behaviors will earn a click&treat. It works best to do a little bit often.

AIMS:

  1. Handler works on smooth ‘walk on’, ‘halt’ and ‘back up’ signals using a single rail as a focal point.
  2. Handler builds small pauses into the work to encourage the horse to relax while waiting for the next set of signals.
  3. Horse develops confidence with standing over a rail under his belly.
  4. Horse has practice to place his feet carefully in response to handler signals.

VIDEO CLIPS:

With halter and lead:

 Liberty

NOTES:

  1. In the video clip, I change between left eye and right eye for each task. An option is to teach them all smoothly with the handler on one side of the horse and then teach them again from the other side.
  2. I didn’t film the tasks using a mat destination between repeats of the task, but when first beginning to teach the tasks, it can help to have a familiar mat some distance from the rail and head to it for an extra click&treat between repeats.
  3. For challenges like this with multiple parts, I find it useful to carry a written memo card in my pocket.

SLICES:

  1. Walk right over the rail, halt a few paces beyond the rail (or at a destination mat/target), click&treat.
  2. Halt with the rail under the horse’s belly, click&treat; pause, walk on forward over the rail.
  3. Halt before stepping over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on over the rail.
  4. Halt after all four feet have stepped over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on.
  5. Halt with the rail under the horse’s belly, click&treat. Pause, ask the horse to back his front feet over the rail, click&treat; pause, walk on forward over the rail. If you have not taught backing up, add this slice later when the horse already backs confidently in different situations.

GENERALIZATION:

  • Approach the rail from different directions.
  • Put the rail in different venues.
  • Use different rails.
  • Do it at liberty or add halter and lead if you taught at liberty.
  • Work on a slope.
  • Use a similar exercise to get a horse comfortable with stepping into and out of a hoop on the ground with front feet, then with back feet.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

  1. Video clips: #29 HorseGym with Boots: Leading Position 3 with a Circle of Markers: https://youtu.be/jtTnlvn0SjE. #85 HorseGym with Boots: Walk On, Halt, Back Up: https://youtu.be/PS01zopa6J0.  #30 HorseGym with Boots: Leading Position 3 Duration Exercise: https://youtu.be/kjH2pS1Kfr8
  2. Blog & video: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  3. Video clip: #41 HorseGym with Boots: Back Up Standing in Front of the Horse: https://youtu.be/AtTCA85e8l4
  4. Video clip: Shoulder-to-Shoulder Back Up: https://youtu.be/wZ7hnFSkxUU

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Target Chin to Hand: Begin Targeting of Body Parts

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

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

ENVIRONMENT:

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

AIMS:

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

NOTES:

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

VIDEO CLIP:

SLICES:

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

GENERALIZATION:

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

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

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

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

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

Add Pics of chin

A very relaxed, loose chin/lower lip.

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

RELATED RESOURCES:

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

 

SMOOTH 90-DEGREE TURNS – Handler on the Inside

INTRODUCTION:

This activity makes a nice warm-up or cool-down exercise. It also does wonders for maintaining horizontal flexibility. The bone structure of the horse limits flexion to only three points along the body. They simply are not as sinuous as a cat or even a dog.

A horse’s three flexion points are:

  1. Head alone flexes right and left a little bit.
  2. Base of the neck is the main area of flexion.
  3. A small degree of flexion is possible between the end of the ribs and the hip.

This exercise encourages maintenance of flexion for 2 and 3 above. To make a nice clean 90-degree (right-angle) turn, the horse must flex a little bit at the shoulder and step the inside hind foot forward and under the belly to navigate the turn as elegantly as possible.

It’s a good exercise to note the degree of stiffness or flexibility that a horse has in his body.

If we have a stiff horse, we can set up this exercise so it is relatively easy to accomplish at first. If we consistently do a few repeats of this exercise several times each session, we’ll note that it gradually gets easier for the horse (unless he is incapacitated due to past injury).

As the horse gets smooth with one level of bend, we can gradually ask for a tighter bend.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Linked Resources’ at end of this post.)
  3. Handler understands the skill of shifting his/her body axis away from the horse as a signal for turning when the horse is on the outside of the turn. Practice this first without the horse. If you have a willing human helper, have them be the horse so they can give you feedback about the clarity of your body orientation signal just prior to navigating each corner. (See the ‘Linked Resource’ about 180-Degree Turns. I teach this before these 90-degree turns.)
  4. Handler understands the skill of maintaining ‘forward energy’ at the same time as slowing down to give the horse time to scribe the bigger arc of the turn. This is also improved by practice with another person standing in for the horse.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (kept loose as much as possible, as we want to use orientation and body language for communication, not rope pressure).
  • Four rails (or similar) that clearly outline the shape of a square or rectangle.
  • Four markers to place beyond the corners of our square or rectangle.

AIMS:

  1. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 90-degree (right-angle) turns when the horse is on the outside of the handler; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
  2. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth 90-degree (right-angle) turns when the horse is on the outside of the handler; handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.

VIDEO CLIP:

#171 HorseGym with Boots: SMOOTH 90-DEGREE TURNS.

NOTES:

  1. What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result of many very short sessions over a long time. I strive to improve the timing of my body axis turned away from the horse as a signal for the right-angle turn.
  2. If you use ‘right’ and ‘left’ turn voice signals, add the relevant one at the same moment as you shift the angle of your body axis away from the horse
  3. If the horse has been resting or contained, it is important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for these types of flexion. Walking over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises.

SLICES:

  1. Ask the horse to walk with you around the shape (box or rectangle), with you walking on the inside of the turn. At first be content with fairly wide, flowing corners. At first, click&treat after each corner. Eventually begin to click&treat only especially well done corners.
  2. Focus on three things;

One: turn your body axis away from the horse just as you approach each corner.

Two: slow down slightly around the corner but keeping your body energy up as you turn in order to give the horse plenty of time to organize his much longer body and four legs. Raising your knees to ‘march on the spot’ is one way to maintain the energy with less forward movement. If you pause your energy through the turn, the horse may also fade out, as he is taking his cues from your energy.

Three: note how efficiently or elegantly your horse is bringing his body around each corner; click&treat turns that seem extra efficient or elegant. Offer the click&treat just after the corner has been navigated, not during the turn.

  1. After a few times around with you on the horse’s left side, change direction so you are on his right side. You may notice that the horse is less flexible on one side. You may notice that you are less flexible and less clear with your body language in one direction.
  2. If you have previously taught voice signals for going ‘around’ something or for ‘left turn’ and ‘right turn’, you can use them here at the same moment you are turning your body axis away from the horse.
  3. When 2 and 3 above feel relaxed and easy, set four markers out from each corner of the square or rectangle as in the photo below. At first, make the gap between the rail and the marker much wider than in the photo. Also note that I’v begun walking inside the square, giving the horse more space to navigate the turn.

  1. Repeat  from the beginning with the horse walking inside each corner marker. As you note his suppleness improving day by day, gradually move the markers closer. In the photo above you can see the tracks of our first easy wide turns when I was also walking outside the square. Now Boots is making the tracks close to the rails.
  2. A little bit of this exercise done often, but never ‘drilled’, encourages the horse to flex because a nice turn earns a click&treat. When all the turns feel nice and tight, be sure to still click&treat often – sometimes after 1, 2, 3 or 4 corners and mix up the number of corners done before the click&treat. If you always do the same, the horse will expect you to always do the same. By varying how many corners before the click&treat, he will listen for the click rather than count the turns. Change direction frequently.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Set up more than one rectangle and do a few circuits of each one.
  2. Set rectangles up in different venues, if possible, or change the spot in the same general venue.
  3. Set up rectangles of different sizes.
  4. Set up rectangles using different props, such as tread-in posts or tall cones and tape.
  5. Use parallel rails as your rectangle so you can change which rails you decide to walk between so the horse watches more carefully for the change in your body axis.
  6. Set up a rectangle on a slope.
  7. Eventually you may only need four corner markers as a baseline.
  8. Walk a square or rectangle without any props to see how well you have established the change in body axis orientation to communicate with your horse. Vary the size of these – maybe by counting your steps.
  9. Use your body axis orientation change consistently when doing other exercises such as weaving.
  10. Walk a circle rather than a square, by keeping your body axis turned slightly from the horse as the signal.
  11. Play with it all at liberty if you didn’t already train it all at liberty.

LINKED RESOURCES:

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

Blog: 180-Degree Turns. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Ug

Clip: #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y

180-Degree Turns

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse willingly moves to target his front feet on a mat. (There is a relevant link under ‘Addition Resources’ at the end of this post.)
  3. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder. (There is a relevant link under ‘Addition Resources’ at the end of this post.)
  4. Handler understands the skill of maintaining ‘forward energy’ at the same time as slowing down to give the horse time to scribe the bigger arc of the turn. This can be improved by practice with another person standing in for the horse. We have to remember that the horse has four legs to organize and a long body that more resembles an ocean-liner than a ballerina.
  5. Handler is aware of using the orientation of his/her body axis as a key body language signal for the horse.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (lead kept loose as much as possible. We want to use orientation and body language for communication, not touch signals via the rope, but we may use these when we first teach teach this pattern).
  • 6 or 8 markers set out in a relatively large circle. The markers can be anything safe: cones, stones, pieces of firewood, tread-in posts if working on grass, jump stands, barrels, 5-liter containers of water, cardboard boxes, rags. In the beginning, it’s easiest if the markers are relatively large, so the horse sees the sense in walking around them rather than across or through them.
  • Different-colored markers make it easier to keep track of where we are heading and where we have been. If they are the same size and shape, they give continuity to the development of the horse’s fluidity since it needs the same body adjustment around each marker. Therefore, identical markers are best to first teach this exercise.
  • Different-sized markers encourage the horse to vary his body adjustment to navigate each one, so they are a good generalization.
  • A familiar mat placed in the center of the circle.

AIMS:

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

VIDEO CLIP:

NOTES:

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

SLICES:

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

GENERALIZATION:

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

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

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

 

THE FOUR STAGES OF NEW LEARNING

Acquisition, Fluidity, Generalization and Maintenance

Acquisition

Acquisition includes getting our head around how we will ask for a unique behavior and then explaining what we want to the horse.

The way we first present new material to the horse is crucial. As much as possible, we want the horse to be continuously successful.

It’s helpful to practice our ideas and techniques first on a person standing in for the horse. If you are lucky enough to have an experienced horse, it also helps to work out techniques with him before moving on to a novice horse.

Even a well-educated, experienced horse appreciates learning new things in small slices. This allows him to build confidence and expertise with each step toward being able to carry out the whole task smoothly with one click&treat at the end.

We always begin with low-key experimentation to see what the horse can already offer. We may find that some of the basic elements in our Individual Education Program  are missing or not quite good enough. We might find some major training holes that need to be addressed.

For example, before we can teach our horse to weave a series of objects, have we taught him to confidently walk with us on a loose lead rope? Does he easily stay beside us, stepping off when we step off, halting when we halt and turning when we turn?

Gentle experimentation may also lead us to discover that the horse already has a solid foundation on which we can easily build a new task.

How we first present the halter to a horse and the way we handle the rope will have a huge influence on how confident the horse will be about joining in with activities that include the halter and lead.

 

Fluency

Once we have created an Individual Education Program and carefully taken the horse through it, we have acquired the ability to carry out a specific behavior together.

If the task is part of daily general care and recreation, such as safety around gates, the horse will have ample opportunity to use the new behavior often and receive reinforcement for it. His response to the signal will become more fluent as long as the handler’s signals are consistent.

If, on the other hand, the new behavior is for a specific purpose, such as loading onto a trailer or trotting through a tunnel for Horse Agility, we have to set up special training opportunities to allow the horse to become fluent.

Thin-slicing the many skills required for trailer-loading leads to fluency. Here we are using a trailer simulation to build duration while standing in a closed-off spot.

In my experience, if we train a new behavior to the point of fluency, the horse tends to remember it forever.

If a behavior is unreliable, it was not originally taught to the point of fluency and was not adequately generalized or maintained.

GENERALIZATION

Once the horse understands a new task or a new skill, it is important to take it out into the world. Through generalization, the horse gains further fluency with a task.

Generalization includes:

  1. Asking for the behavior in different places but still at home.
  2. Using different props.
  3. Working at different times of the day.
  4. Asking for the behavior away from home.
  5. Working with unusual distractions.
  6. Working at a different gait.
  7. Handler using a different body orientation.
  8. Fading out a signal and replacing it with a new one.
  9. Requesting more repeats or duration before the click&treat.
  10. Working with a different handler (who uses the same signals).

Generalization helps the horse put the new learning into his long-term memory. Each time we quietly repeat the task, we help build the horse’s confidence. If the horse is unable to do the task in a specific situation or context, it gives us vital information about where we are in our Education Program* with this horse for this task.

Once the horse confidently jumps simple obstacles, we generalize the skill to different-looking obstacles and obstacles in different venues.

MAINTENANCE

As already mentioned under Fluency, some behaviors become and remain fluent because we use them a lot, for example, putting on and taking off a halter or cleaning out the feet every day.

Other behaviors are specialized, and we have to create a plan to refresh and use them occasionally so that they stay in our repertoire. Vet procedures usually come into this category.

If we teach our horse to flex toward the prick of a toothpick, so his muscles are loose rather than taut, we need to do such needle simulations on a regular basis. Likewise, if we want the horse to be confident with a worming tube, we can practice with applesauce as frequently as we like.

Hoof trimming, whether we do it ourselves or hire someone, can cause anxiety for a horse if it suddenly happens out of the blue. It’s much easier for us and the horse if we pick up feet regularly and move the feet into trimming positions to make it a normal request. We can also introduce the horse to a variety of different people who are allowed to touch him and handle his legs and feet.

My friend Bridget helping Boots get used to other people handling her feet.

 

Step Aerobics

 

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

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

AIM:

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

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

SLICES:

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

Video Clip: #159 HorseGym with Boots: STEP AEROBICS

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

GENERALIZATIONS:

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

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

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

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

Seeking the Horse’s Consent Signals

INTRODUCTION:

Most of horse training is to teach the horse our signals that he needs to know to keep ourselves and the horse as safe as possible in different situations. If we check human health insurance claims, a fair number are horse-related.

New Zealand, with a population in 2017 of 4.79 million people saw 7873 people with horse-related injuries. Of these, 2852 fell off a horse. Horse accident insurance claims for 2017 came to $9,669,964.00.

No one knows how many horses have a short life because they don’t fit in with the demands of their constrained domestic existence which is, in many cases, completely foreign to a horse’s natural lifestyle.

The health insurance figures above suggest that there is room for improvement in human-horse and horse-human communication.

Fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware that the best training fosters two-way communication between person and horse.

Writers such as Sharon Wilsie (HorseSpeak) and Rachaël Draasima (Language Signs & Calming Signals of Horses) and my book, Conversations with Horses (see my Books section), are helping horse people to appreciate just how much information horses impart to us with their body language.

A horse’s world view is dictated by the way he senses the environment. His vision, hearing, smell and sense of proximity are different and mostly superior to ours. He has evolved adaptations that allow him to survive in open grassland rife with predators and profound seasonal changes.

Humans have a different history with different selection pressures. We sense our environment differently. With us, verbal language has, on the surface, supplanted body language.

Horses use distinct body language. Sadly, many people are blind to this language or choose to ignore it. The magic is that once we begin to observe and pay attention to what horses are saying, we start to pick up the nuances and get better at tailoring our training to the sensitivities of individual horses.

While there are differences, there are also similarities. Both humans and horses are gregarious*. They live in groups with extensive social interaction between group members. Living in a group means that there is always a balance between competition for the same resources and the need to maintain peaceful relations.

When resources are plentiful, there is minimum competition and maximum peacefulness. When resources are scarce, peacefulness is interrupted by competition as the more assertive group members jockey for the best resources.

Although people don’t consider body language as important as spoken language, we still display it clearly. We also react to it subconsciously. Between spouses and close friends, it speaks volumes. People like scam artists, who prey on other people’s susceptibilities, are astute readers of body language, using it to single out their victims. Horses can definitely read our body language, despite the species barrier.

As well as reading each other’s body language, horses read the body language of their predators. They know when they are in hunting mode, just passing by, or resting in the vicinity.

Horses are also aware that their own body language sends messages to predators, who look for signs of weakness or lameness. That is why it is often so hard to know if our horse is in pain. They will hide pain and infirmity as much as they possibly can.

What are ‘Okay to Repeat’ or ‘Okay to Proceed’ Signals?

‘Okay Signals’ are initiated by the horse to let us know that they feel okay for us to repeat what we are doing or to carry on with a procedure that involves a variety of things.

When I’m walking on the road with Boots, I’ve become aware of her need to stop and assess things such as cows moving in the distance, a vehicle in an unusual place or something that has changed in the environment since we last passed by.

If I stop with her and wait, paying attention to what has caught her attention, we are ‘on the same page’. I breathe out loudly to show that I’m okay with this thing that has caught our attention and relax into ‘zero intent*’. Eventually Boots will lower her head and bring her attention back to me, which tells me that she has satisfied her need to notice and is ready to walk on. This is the most basic ‘okay’ signal for us to watch out for.

Once we learn to pause with zero intent* (items with an asterisk are defined on the GLOSSARY page)  long enough to allow the horse to communicate with us, we can discover ways that individual horses will let us know when they are ready to repeat whatever we are asking, so they can earn another click&treat.

I think many good trainers are already unconsciously aware of these signals, without having given the concept a name. I think that isolating and focusing on this type of horse-initiated signal can open a new vista of training.

It is not hard to recognize horses communicating loudly when they don’t want to do something. It is not always easy, however, to know whether not wanting to do something stems from:

  • Anxiety or fear.
  • Pain.
  • The horse not understanding what we would like him to do.
  • Environmental distractions taking precedence over trainer requests.

We have to observe carefully if we want to learn to recognize horses communicating when they are not shouting loudly with their body language. Unless we train ourselves to understand the finer points of their signaling, we miss most of what they are trying to tell us.

Most horse communication is visual. Horses in an established group seem harmonious because a flick of an ear, the tilt of the neck, a single swish of the tail, a certain posture of the body, are all highly meaningful to another horse.

People are usually, understandably, so focused on their own agenda that they miss most of these signals. But we can do better. Since we remove horses from their natural life and make them captive to us, the least we can do is try hard to learn their language and use it to aid two-way communication.

The concept of waiting for a horse to give permission or consent for us to carry on with a task may be a novel idea for some people.

As mentioned earlier, good trainers probably do this subconsciously. They continuously observe the horse’s body language to gauge whether the horse is comfortable about proceeding with the training or repeating a specific task. Is it best to pause for a while, do something easy or finish for the day?

Our fondest personal memories are often of things we have successfully initiated and controlled. In the same way, horses respond positively to having control and ownership of what is going to happen next in their lives.

In other words, a sense of control is as reinforcing to horses as it is to people. We steal a great deal of their personal control when we bring them into captivity.

When it becomes the horse’s idea to initiate their handler’s next action, the horse begins to share ‘ownership’ of the behavior we are working with. Such a feeling of ownership alleviates the anxiety and tension that arise if the horse is constrained and forced to accept what is being done to him.

Much of what we do with a horse requires him to stand still. Standing still when unusual things are happening is not what evolution found useful for horse survival. lt is very much a skill that must be taught and developed.

For many activities, we’ll still have to read the horse’s overall body language to know if he is okay to proceed with what we are doing. But for some specific tasks, we can incorporate an ‘okay to repeat’ or an ‘okay to proceed’ signal from the horse. There are several ways of doing this.

‘Okay to Repeat’ Using Nose Targets

If a horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement* for staying parked in a relaxed manner with his nose on or near a nose target, we can use his willingness to stay, and touch the target again, as his ‘okay to repeat’ signal.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Horse has a strong history of positive reinforcement for touching a target .
  • Handler is aware of moving in and out of his/her ‘zero intent’ posture.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • A familiar target tied or set at the height of the horse’s nose.
  • Start with halter and lead on, with the lead draped over the horse’s neck or back so it is easy to reach if the horse chooses to walk away. If he moves away, quietly walk a circuit that brings you both back to the target; click&treat if the horse touches his nose to the target, then finish the session.
  • If he chooses not to touch the target when you return to it, go back to a few sessions with a high rate of reinforcement for touching a series of targets hung around your training area, before returning to the task in this chapter.
  • You can also have the horse at liberty and if he chooses to walk away, the session is automatically finished.
  • Keep each session very short. Ideally always stop before the horse shows any desire to walk away, even if it means you only do one repeat. Mini-sessions where the horse is continually successful at earning his click&treat make for rapid learning and a willingness to ‘do it again’ next time.
  • You are also showing the horse that it is okay to say, “I don’t feel like doing that right now,” without any value judgement on his behavior. You are giving him the choice about whether he wants to keep on working for clicks&treats, or he’d rather go away and do his own thing.

AIMS:

  1. Horse realizes that the handler will stay at ‘zero intent’ unless he touches his nose to the target.
  2. Handler waits patiently for the horse to touch the target as a sign that the horse is ‘okay to repeat’ the task.
  3. Horse realizes that he can move away if he doesn’t feel like playing.
  4. Handler realizes that there are times when it is okay to let the horse have a ‘say’ in what will happen next.

VIDEO CLIP:

#156 HorseGym with Boots: OKAY TO REPEAT SIGNALS.

If the horse is wary about the object, walk away backwards (or have another person walk away backwards holding it while you follow with the horse at the horse’s pace) and have the horse follow; click&treat any sign of willingness to approach the object more closely until he is able to put his nose on it to earn a click&treat.

Horses tend to follow things moving away from them and move away from things coming toward them. Yet most horse handlers expect a horse to stand still while they approach with an unusual object.

If we allow the horse the time to make up his own mind that an object is harmless, he will accept it as so. Horses naturally use approach and retreat whenever they come across something new. Life is much easier if we use their world view to facilitate our training, rather than restrict their movement and force them to accept something.

SLICES:

  1. Horse touches nose to target: click&treat in a position that has the horse take his nose slightly away from the nose target.
  2. Handler allows horse to investigate any gear he is about to use (brush, spray bottle, clippers, halter, cover, saddle blanket, paste worming tube, saddle or harness, bridle): click&treat, maybe several times, depending on how comfortable the horse is with the item already.
  3. Handler lifts arm with brush (or whatever) toward the horse keeping it at a distance that maintains the horse’s relative relaxation (under threshold): click&treat.
  4. Horse either leaves after the treat or touches the nose target again.
  5. If the horse touches the target again, the handler repeats approaching the horse with the brush, careful to click&treat while the horse is still under threshold, i.e. he still looks confident about what is going on.
  6. After each click&treat, the handler resumes the ‘zero intent’ position and waits for the horse to either touch the nose target again or take the option to leave.
  7. Ideally the handler will stop each mini-session before the horse feels the need to walk away. If the horse leaves, it is also the end of that mini-session. The handler now has useful feedback. He or she asked for more than the horse could offer comfortably at that time.

Done quietly and carefully with many mini-sessions that don’t push the horse beyond his comfort zone, the horse can usually relax into the new game which consists of the new things he has to allow if he wants to elicit more treats from the environment (his handler).

The horse’s comfort zone will gradually expand to include the new task we are doing with him. At that point, the acquisition stage is over, and we start to focus on fluidity, generalization and maintenance.

This is a video clip from a while ago which demonstrates the same idea. #4 HorseGym with Boots: Parking at a Nose Target.

‘Okay to Proceed’ with Mat Foot Targets

Another way to ensure consent or ‘permission to proceed’ is to ask the horse to park his feet on a mat. The horse’s willingness to stay parked lets us know that he is okay for us to proceed.

‘Okay to Proceed’ is a little different from ‘Okay to Repeat’. I use it for foot care which is a series of tasks rather than a repetition of the same task. Changing bandages and dealing with riding boots on and off, blankets on and off are also more in the line of ‘procedures’.

A procedure like putting on riding or driving tack could also be thought of in the same way, although I found a nose target also worked well for tacking up.

Once we have taught standing on a mat with some duration, we can use the horse’s willingness to stay there as a sign that he is probably okay for us to proceed with whatever we are doing.

VIDEO CLIP:

#157 HorseGym with Boots: ‘OKAY TO PROCEED’ WITH A MAT

If we use a mat with frequent short sessions for teaching vet procedures or foot care, the horse will soon realize that the mat coming out means clicks&treats are on the way.

If the horse feels the need to move off the mat it is critical that we don’t restrict or punish him in any way. We quietly walk a circuit together to return to the mat and halt on it: click&treat for the halt on the mat. We must ensure that the mat always remains a desirable place in the horse’s mind.

After returning to the mat, we can return to earlier slices with the task we are working on to find where the horse can still be continually successful, then end on a good note. Or we can use the mat to do something easy that the horse already knows to re-establish the mat as a good place to be.

Ideally, the handler will be able to read the horse’s increasing body tension before the horse moves off the mat and take one of the two options above or initiate a relaxation break before resuming the training.

Horse Specific ‘Okay’ Body Language Signals

To explore this concept with your horse, choose a simple task that the horse will probably find pleasant. Once the horse buys into the concept of giving us an ‘okay to repeat’ signal, we can expand to other physical care and vet procedures.

If you can choose one that is new to the horse it may be easier because it won’t have the baggage of past experiences. But we can also add this new dimension to a task the horse already knows.

Once I became more consciously aware of these signals, I realized that Boots had been using them in a variety of contexts and I had been taking note of them. Once I began observing more closely, I soon realized that she had several signals for letting me know when it was ‘okay to repeat’.

VIDEO CLIPS:

#154 HorseGym with Boots OKAY to REPEAT shows Boots’ signal for rubbing the inside of her ear, which we had never done purposefully before. It also has an interlude of belly-scratching with a new tool.

#155 HorseGym with Boots OKAY to REPEAT for TOOTH INSPECTION:  shows Boots’ signals for allowing me to lift her lips to inspect her teeth. This is a very early session.

Some other possibilities are:

  • Targeting the eye to a cloth.
  • Targeting the mouth to a paste worming tube.
  • Simulating injections.
  • Comfort with spray bottles.
  • Comfort with scissors or clippers.
  • Teaching specific tasks within a chained procedure such as comfort with saddle pad put on and removed, saddle put on and removed, girth tightened and loosened, handler putting foot in stirrup, handler leaning across horse, and so on.

PREREQUISITES:

  • Horse and handler are clicker savvy.

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • Horse at liberty in a safe area. The horse needs to be free to move away if he no longer wants to take part.

AIMS:

  1. Handler is consistent with returning to ‘zero intent’ to wait for the horse to give his ‘okay to repeat’ signal.
  2. Horse learns that nothing will happen until he initiates it with his ‘okay to repeat’ signal.

SLICES:

The procedure is basically the same with any task.

We have to be mindful that some horses have never been given a say in what is going to happen once they are haltered or confined in a small space, so it could take a long time for them to try something brand new to their experience.

If you have played with your horse at liberty in the past, and allowed expression of opinion, it may all happen quickly.

  1. Gently indicate to the horse what you would like to do; click&treat. Maybe repeat a couple of times to establish the task.
  2. Then remove all signal pressure and take up your ‘zero intent’ position.
  3. Observe the horse closely but don’t stare at him with intent. Keep your body language totally relaxed. It may take a while for the horse to make a movement that seems significant.
  4. When the horse makes a movement that you think is an expression of his willingness for you to repeat the task, quietly activate the task with short duration, then click&treat. When I did this with ear-rubbing, I initially rubbed only once or twice before the click&treat. Eventually I began rubbing a bit longer before the click&treat.
  5. After the treat is delivered, return to ‘zero intent’ mode and wait for the horse to repeat his signal (he may have, or develop, a variety of these signals, as Boots shows in the video clips).
  6. As with most training, doing a little bit (three minutes or 20 treats) often is the key to rapid progress. It gives the horse time to process what has happened and often he is keen to repeat next time you set up the situation.

It could be that ear-rubbing is intrinsically pleasant for a horse already relaxed in human company. Even if it is, I want the horse to eventually relate offering of an ‘okay to repeat’ signal to any task that will earn a click&treat.

Tasks like eye care and checking teeth and allowing skin pinching and toothpick pricking to prepare for inoculations will not be intrinsically pleasant.

All horses are different, both innately and due to their life experiences. Therefore, each horse and handler will together create a unique ‘okay to repeat’ signal language that works for them.

The video clips are best at demonstrating the flow of the training. So far, Boots’ body language ‘okay to repeat’ signals include:

  • bringing her attention back to me after scanning the environment
  • dropping her head
  • momentarily turning her head toward me
  • her smile, and offering to place her nose between my hands for tooth inspection.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AVAILABLE:

Blogs:

Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO