Tag Archives: Safety with horses

SMOOTH COUNTER TURNS

INTRODUCTION

This flexion activity follows on from teaching the 90 and 180-degree turns when the handler is on the inside of the turn. Now we want to develop a smooth turn when the handler is on the outside of the turn; counter turns.

When we are on the inside of a turn, we teach ourselves to slow down but maintain energy to give the horse time to organize his longer body and four legs to negotiate the larger arc of the turn without losing forward motion.

When we are on the outside of the turn, we have to travel a bigger arc than the horse to get around the turn. If we ‘hurry’ our strides it can cause the horse to hurry around the corner too, leaving us behind. Or our ‘hurrying’ may block the horse and he halts or moves away.

Ideally, we want the horse to slow his turn so we can negotiate our wider arc without stress.

Boots and I did a lot of experimentation to get this flowing smoothly. I have new knees, so it is hard for me to hurry myself around the turn. When we started the task in the shoulder-to-shoulder position, I ended up beside her butt after the corner.

It was time to re-think and play with possibilities. Eventually it became obvious that adjusting our leading position, so the horse’s nose was beside my shoulder, made the whole thing much more manageable.

In my book, Walking with Horses, I did a detailed exploration of the eight basic body positions or orientations we use when communicating with our horse. Each of these of course has many nuances of angle. Here are the eight positions:

  1. Walking directly in front of the horse, with our back to the horse.
  2. The horse is beside us with his head at our shoulder.
  3. Shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse.
  4. Walking beside the ribs, just behind the withers, where we would be if riding.
  5. Walking or standing alongside the horse’s rump, as for tending hind feet or brushing tail.
  6. Walking behind the horse as in long-reining.
  7. In front of the horse, facing him.
  8. Facing the horse’s ribs, as in saddling or lunging.

Eventually Boots and I worked out that the first slice we needed for counter turns was to review our signal for staying in Leading Position 2 – where my shoulder stays beside the horse’s head.

Much of our recent work has been using Leading Position 3 – shoulder-to-shoulder, but it didn’t take long to review and update the gesture signal we used for walking together with my head beside her ears.

PREREQUISITES

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals while keeping his head next to the handler’s shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ at end of this post.)
  3. Handler understands the skill of shifting his/her body axis toward the horse as a signal for turning when the horse is on the inside 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 ‘Related Resource’.)
  4. Handler understands the skill of navigating the bigger arc of the turn without raising his/her energy so much that it influences the horse to either speed up or stall out. This can also be practiced with another person standing in for the horse.

MATERIALS AND ENVIRONMENT

  • 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 draped as much as possible, as we want to use orientation and body language for communication, not rope pressure).
  • Safe stretches of fence along which you can walk in position beside the ears, keeping the horse between the fence and the handler to encourage straightness.
  • Four markers. The markers can be anything safe. 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. Barrels, tall cones, tread-in posts if working on grass, or if these are not available, cardboard boxes can do the job.
  • Four rails to set up in a square or rectangular shape with one of the large markers set into each corner.

AIMS

  1. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth counter turns when the horse is on the inside of the turn; handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
  2. To have the horse and handler execute fluid, smooth counter turns when the horse is on the inside of the turn; handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.

VIDEO CLIPS

Clip 1:

Clip 2:

NOTES

  1. What you see Boots doing in the video clips is a result of many very short sessions over a long time. I always strive to improve the timing of my body axis turned toward the horse as a signal for the counter turn.
  2. If the horse has been resting or contained, it is important to walk around for a general overall body warm-up before asking for this sort of flexion. A relaxed road walk or moving over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises.
  3. It’s important to teach each slice on both the left and right sides of the horse.
  4. Quite often it is harder for the horse and/or the handler when they are using the non-dominant side of their body. With patience and extra practice on the harder side, it will start to feel more equal.
  5. 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.
  6. As with most things, progress without causing soreness is best made by doing a few counter turns every session; never turning it into drilling.

SLICES

Stay with each slice until if feels easy for both handler and horse.

  1. Walk along a safe fence with the horse between the handler and the fence. Keep a nice drape in the lead rope. For this slice, we are not yet focusing on keeping a position beside the ears. Our focus is the horse walking calmly and willingly along the fence. Occasionally ask for a halt; click&treat.
  2. When 1 feels smooth, put yourself into position beside the horse’s ears while you are at the halt; click&treat (still halted). Then ask for ‘walk on’ and see how well you can maintain the shoulder/ear position (I’ll refer to this as just the ‘ear position’ from now on).
  3. If the horse tends to want to walk behind you, he may have been taught to lead mainly by staying behind, so treat this gently. Slow down with him to stay by his ear; click&treat when you achieve the position. Ask for only a couple of steps in ‘ear position’ before you halt; click&treat. We want to gradually have him realize that being in the ‘ear position’ is what elicits the click&treat.
  4. If the horse tends to forge ahead, it makes more sense to me to use a body extension to block the forward surge, rather than to ‘correct’ with pressure on the rope.
  • A horse with the habit of cutting in front of the person leading is not in a good place in terms of getting along with people. If the horse has been taught to lead by following a hand-held target or walking calmly between stationary targets, this problem may never arise. You may want to go back and work on these skills before continuing with this exercise.
  • If your horse has been traumatized by stick objects in the past, the prerequisite task now becomes to build his confidence with body extensions before proceeding any further. (See ‘Related Resource’ 6 at the end of this chapter.)
  • Note: I am a fan of using targets for many things, but they can become a problem when the training does not progress to developing the relevant skills so a target is no longer needed.
  • In the first video clip, I use my arm to indicate a halt. Eventually this arm signal will no longer mean halt; it will instead be our signal for communicating that we are about to do a counter turn.
  • If the horse has the habit of surging ahead and is not traumatized by sticks, simply use a stick to put motion energy out in front of him to block his surge, followed by click&treat when he stops surging / stays beside you. This is an example of ‘combined reinforcement’. We use negative reinforcement to help the horse quickly understand the answer we need. The instant he finds the answer, we click&treat. There is no need to touch the horse with the body extension. We only use it to disturb the air in front of the horse by moving it up and down.
  • If the horse is full of energy, for whatever reason, the way forward is to give him opportunity to run off the energy so he can regain focus on the quieter work you want to do. Every horse is different and every training situation is a new combination of environment and events.
  • He will learn to keep the ‘ear position’ both while moving and when you ask for the halt. Eventually your raised arm will be enough and the body extension becomes redundant. If you feel your ‘halt’ could be improved, see Getting a Smooth Halt in Many Situations: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5R9

5.   Work with ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ in the ‘ear position’ until it feels fluid in a variety of places and  with the handler walking on either side of the horse.

6.  When 5 is smooth, set up your rectangle of ground rails with a bulky object at each corner. Make the square/rectangle as large as you like. The one in the video clip is small for easier filming. As you approach a corner of the rectangle, turn your body axis toward the horse and raise your outside arm as you did previously for the halt.

The horse will feel your energy as you continue to step the arc around the corner and realize you are not stopping. Click&treat as soon as you come around the corner. If the horse does halt when you raise your arm, use some of your ‘walk on’ multi-signals to let him know that you are not stopping.

7.  At first, click&treat after each corner. Gradually change to every second corner, and so on. Eventually vary the number of corners done before the click&treat. I don’t often ask for more than four corners in a row before the click&treat.

8.  Change direction (and therefore side of the horse) often. This is a fairly concentrated flexion exercise and we don’t want to make the horse stiff.

9.  When 7 is going well, remove the rails and use just the corner markers.

10.  When 9 is going well, put markers at random throughout the training area Walk toward one and adjust your position so you can ask for a counter turn around it. I couldn’t fit this into the video clip, but it is an easy way to include a few counter turns in any training session.

GENERALIZATIONS

  1.  Set out a row of markers to weave for practicing your ‘drive’ and ‘draw’ body axis changes to really consolidate the idea for both of you. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 and 3 at the end of this post.)
  2. Set out markers around which you can do figure eight patterns, which combines the counter turn with the turn where you are on the inside. (See ‘Related Resource’ 4 and 5 at the end of this post.)
  3. When everything is going smoothly, we can increase the challenge by asking for 180-degree counter turns (U-turns). We achieve this by keeping our body axis turned toward the horse for longer.

These are fairly extreme flexion tasks, so be gentle and only ask for a couple at a time at first. A few done often will certainly increase suppleness but be careful if your horse has (or might have) joint, stifle or arthritis issues. Always make sure the horse is well warmed up.

4.  Eventually, we can ask for 360-degree counter turns around a marker. At first, a barrel or cluster of markers may make it easier because the turn is wider. With practice, the horse will get adept with tighter turns, but please note the cautions in 3 above.

5.  Freestyle Counter turns: When it feels right, begin to ask for 90-degree counter turns without markers. If these fall apart, you have feedback about which slice to return to in order to regain the horse’s confidence and willingness. Usually we have to ask for less or in other words, raise the rate of reinforcement.

6.  Morph the freestyle counter turns into a quiet, relaxed circle with the handler on the outside, then gradually change that into a tidy turn on the haunches. It may look messy at first, but with practice can become lovely and fluent.

7.  Back-Up Counter Turns: Ask the horse to back up with you for a few steps, then ask for a counter turn; click&treat. These may also feel messy at first, but once you and the horse get synchronized via many mini-practices, they will become more and more exact. When one of these feels good, ask for two in a row before the click&treat.

Then do three in a row and finally four in a row so you have backed a complete square. I count our steps back and usually do the turn after every third or fourth step. If you are consistent with the number of the steps back before you ask for the turn, you will find that horses are excellent at counting. Teach again on the horse’s other side, which will probably feel quite different due to handler and horse asymmetry.

RELATED RESOURCES

  1. Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Video Clip: #170 HorseGym with Boots: Body Axis Orientation Signals: https://youtu.be/mjBwyDsVX6Y
  3. Video Clip: #70 HorseGym with Boots ONLY HORSE WEAVES: https://youtu.be/AhwwC783Kh0
  4. Video Clip: Figure 8: https://youtu.be/QrberCzAO6c
  5. Video Clip: Figure 8 at Liberty: https://youtu.be/0HXfJTv15eY
  6. Video Clip: #121 HorseGym with Boots: STICK & ROPE CONFIDENCE: https://youtu.be/WIpsT4PPiXo

 

 

HANGING OUT with a HORSE

Sharing Time and Space — Communicating Zero Intent

‘Zero Intent’ is being in our horse’s presence without asking him to do anything. As long as he remains polite and we feel safe, we just want to hang out with the horse in the same way that horses hang out with each other.

Building a Connection Involves Relaxing Together

Learning something new and meaningful always requires a lot of mental, physical and emotional energy, especially when first getting started. Sharing of Time and Space becomes something we can do with our horse forever, whenever we can fit in a few minutes of quiet time.

To help with the nuts and bolts of starting this exercise, I’ve created three checklists.

If this is new to you, be sure to go through the detail of all three checklists before you begin.

This clip, #75 HorseGym with Boots, gives an overview of the process.  I’ve edited the footage to show key points, leaving out the actual relaxed ‘chilling out together’ time or it would be like watching paint drying.

There are three older but quite interesting clips in the “Additional Resources” at the end of this post.

 

Checklist 1:  INTELLECTUAL – Getting your head ready to do this

It’s up to you to decide how much close contact you are comfortable with. As long as you don’t feel intimidated, it’s fine to let a polite horse get up close and personal. Be aware if nudging might turn into nipping, as it does with this horse.

  1. The purpose of Quiet Sharing of Time and Space is to get the person accepted as part of the horse’s in-group. Horses perceive people either as something to be wary of, or as part of their social group.
  2. Wary horses will remain poised on the edge of fear and flight. They feel unsafe around people and they will be unsafe around people.
  3. Horses that see you as part of their in-group will relate to you as they relate to other horses as long as you consistently use body language they understand and remain within the boundaries of their understanding.
  4. The purpose of all training or educating of domestic horses is obviously to enlarge their boundaries of understanding in order to make them more comfortable in their strange life captive to humans.
  5. Quiet Sharing of Time and Space allows you to become more like a horse. It puts you in the zone where time by the clock doesn’t exist, where life follows the natural rhythms of day and night, of seasons, of looking for food, of being constantly aware of danger, of interacting with group members. This can be a big stretch for some people. Other people find it hugely relaxing and life-enhancing.

Bridget is enjoying the winter sun while Boots grazes. How long we spend sitting with our horse depends on what we can fit into our lifestyle. Frequent short dates with our horse are more effective than longer dates.

  1. Quiet Sharing of Time and Space allows time for the horse to accept our relaxed presence in his space.  This can be a huge stretch for some horses who have only had demanding forced interactions with people. Other horses may be all over a person like a rash and need to be shown how to stand back politely.
  2. Be mentally prepared to move your chair if the horse gets too overbearing. There is a fine line between friendly exploration with nose and lips and seeing if you can be pushed around. Moving your chair tells your overbearing horse that you don’t want to be near him right now. It is what horses do. They just move away to give the message that they don’t want to interact right now. In this situation moving away is a neutral action. If he follows you and continues to be overbearing, you’ll use your body language and swishies to ask him to back out of your space as described shortly in items 3 – 11 of Checklist 2).
  3. When you move your chair, position it side-on to the horse, not facing him. We don’t want to stare at the horse or send energy toward him from our front. Horses are extremely sensitive to orientation.
  4. Sit outside the enclosure fence if you feel unsafe inside it.
  5. Realize you will need to experiment with understanding when your horse is investigating you, when he is pushing on you, when you should move your chair or ask him to back off.
  6. It’s by experimenting that you start to get the feeling for the whole exercise. No one can give you a recipe. Every horse-human relationship is different. You’ll begin to feel what is probably the best thing to do next.
  7. Understand the powerful effect of the swishies to expand your bubble and make the horse back off or move away any time you feel intimidated.
  8. Pushing the horse away too strongly at first is better than not being strong enough. If you are not strong enough, you are teaching the horse that he doesn’t have to pay attention. Your signals turn into nagging. If you are too strong at first, you can always get lighter next time.
  9. If the horse is being overbearing, define your personal space strongly enough so he doesn’t want to come back right away. In other words, avoid nagging him back repeatedly. Be sure in your mind show him clearly that you don’t want him around for a while. Make being near you a bit of a privilege. You could lay a rail at a distance you find comfortable and ask him to stay behind it. If you and the horse are clicker-savvy, you can reward the standing away by going to the horse to deliver a click&treat.
  10. Use assertive (not aggressive) body language. Horses higher in the group’s social order use their energy to enlarge their personal space as necessary to re-direct the behavior of others. Self-assertion is different from striking out at the horse in fear or anger. Horses understand the difference clearly as long as the handler is consistent.
  11. It may seem counter-intuitive to ask the horse to stand back in this way, but it is signal language used between horses and adds to creating mutual understanding with a horse who readily moves into a person’s space without invitation. The last section of this post looks at horses who are wary or afraid of approaching people.

Checklist Two:  PHYSICAL – Keeping you both safe and comfortable

Bridget is using her swishies to ask Boots to step back after she got a bit overbearing and intimidating. Note the energy is directed at the horse’s feet.

  1. You need a safe, secure place to hang out together, e.g. a roomy corral or a small paddock. It may be possible to separate a corner of an arena or a big paddock or a nice shady area under a tree by using electric fence tape and standards (not electrified).
  2. Allocate ‘date time’ as frequently as possible. Shorter frequent dates are better than long infrequent dates.
  3. Sort out two swishies — supple willow twigs, bamboo canes or dressage whips about 130 cm long. These let you to enlarge your personal bubble for your own safety. They allow you to disturb the air at the edge of the horse’s bubble if you want to move him away. We usually don’t need to touch the horse with the swishies.
  4. Sadly, statistics indicate that many people get hurt interacting with horses. Despite the best intent in the world, unexpected situations arise. The sheer size, power and split-second reaction rate of horses cause injury or death, with no direct fault to either horse or human. While many more horses are hurt by people than horses hurt people, it’s important to have the risk radar on all the time people and horses are in proximity.
  5. It is not surprising that horses can make us nervous. If we feel even the slightest nervous tension close to our horse, the horse will instantly be aware of our tension and read it as a reason to be wary and aware, just as they read the body language and energy field of another horse.
  6. By knowing that we can, at any time, move the horse out of our personal space, we are able to relax into the moment. If we can relax, the horse has a chance to relax.
  7. Get another person to use the swishies on your bubble. Ask them to start swishing at ground level right and left (not up and down), then move up (still swishing right to left) until they are swishing above your head. Note your physical and emotional reactions.
  8. Use the swishies on other people and get both their physical, emotional and verbal responses.
  9. Horses are so sensitive to the moving air created by this swishing motion that we seldom need to do more than direct it toward their feet and legs.
  10. Always bring up your body into an assertive posture before you activate the swishies. The horse will soon learn to recognize the significance of your posture.
  11. Use as much assertive body and swishy energy as you need to move a pushy horse, but, once he understands, don’t use more than you need to make your point that he must move out of your personal space.
  12. Have carrot strips (or treats of your choice) to reward polite behavior. For a timid horse, keep the treats under your chair to act as a draw card for him to come and see you. For a pushy horse, keep them outside the enclosure in screw top plastic containers, but you can also have them under your chair if you want the horse to push on you so you can teach him to be polite by rewarding him when he stands back and relaxes. If you use clicker training all the time, your normal treat pouch may be fine.
  13. Comfortable chair.
  14. Something to read or write with or just relax into the moment.
  15. Grazing or hay for the horse is optional at this point. Ideally you want your horse feeling well fed before your date. To learn the procedure, it’s easier to be in a grass-less or well-grazed area.
  16. With little or nothing to eat in your ‘dating’ enclosure, he will pay more attention to you, which is what you want at the beginning. It makes it easier to read his intentions and relate to him. Being in a non-grazing area allows you to either entice him with carrots (shy horse) or teach him to stand back politely to receive a treat (pushy horse).
  17. For some sessions, you could put out several piles of hay. If you don’t want hay on an arena surface you could use big tubs, carpets, tarps, sheets or blankets.
  18. Eventually, once the horse is confident and polite, it’s nice to do Sharing of Time and Space in the horse’s usual grazing environment.

Checklist Three:  EMOTIONAL – Getting your heart ready to do this

Boots is spending time with Bridget without needing to push on her. They are able to relax in each other’s company and enjoy the sunny afternoon.

  1. Let go of expectations, goals, presumptions, worry and anxiety.
  2. Just start and know it will improve each time you get out there.
  3. Nothing will be perfect; learning is a messy business.
  4. No one cares except you and your horse (and other people studying this).
  5. Others may laugh at you and think you are peculiar. That’s their privilege.
  6. Others may be really interested. It’s up to you how much (or little) you want to tell them.
  7. Observe what your horse does without staring directly at him.
  8. Observe (without making value judgements) what your horse is actually doing.
  9. For a session or two, you could record exactly what your horse is doing at regular time intervals (e.g., every two minutes or every five minutes). If this interests you, it is a great study, especially if you can also do it when the horse is in a paddock interacting with other horses. You may begin to see interesting patterns.
  10. Appreciate that everything the horse does is FEEDBACK. Feedback can be positive, negative or neutral and all of it has the same value.
  11.  For this exercise of becoming more horse-like, you need to let go of all your horsemanship aims, goals, desires and dreams. I doubt that horses dream positively of people on their backs, driving them forward over, through and into things for no reason the horse can see (other than to get it over with).
  12. You can retrieve your goals when you need them and play with making your goals your horse’s goals. But first you need to understand his goals by observing and listening to his body language.

Bridget is moving her chair because Boots became a bit too overbearing. Moving our chair resembles another horse walking away to gain more personal space. It is an alternative to asking the horse to step back using the swishies.

  1. Be prepared to move your chair if the horse gets overbearing.
  2. When you sit down, put your chair side-on to the horse. Try to not stare directly at him.
  3. Be ready to defend your bubble with your assertive (not aggressive striking out) body language and your swishies as necessary to stay safe. Being with a horse requires that our risk management radar is always on.
  4. Be ready to notice when your pushy horse is standing back politely. Casually stand up, get a treat from where you stashed them and walk over to him to give it to him, then go sit down again. He might follow you right back to your chair and give you another opportunity to ask him to stand back politely.
  5. At first expect only a few seconds of politeness, then gradually ask him to wait longer and longer before you fetch the treat (or click&treat if you are a clicker trainer). Watch for signs that he is relaxing while standing away from you (sighing, licking, chewing, head shaking, head lowering, cocked hind leg, relaxed tail, relaxed ears, soft eyes).

The Shy, Anxious, Flighty, Timid or Suspicious Horse

Sharing time and space while the horse eats hay. This distance may be too close for some horses, so we need to experiment to find the distance at which the horse can eat without anxiety. Gradually, over time, we reduce the distance. At first, we may need to sit on the far side of the fence.

  1. If you feed hay, sit (on a raised surface is safer than sitting on the ground) in the horse’s vicinity – far enough away so he is able to eat his hay without anxiety. Alternatively, if the horse is grazing, take a chair to sit at a distance he finds acceptable.
  2. Once the horse can relax while you share his space, put out a familiar feed dish at a distance that the horse seems to feel comfortable with.
  3. When you notice him glancing at you, walk to his dish and drop in a bit of something he especially likes to eat. Then return to your chair and wait for him to make the discovery in the dish. Watch him without staring at him. If you run out of time, leave the dish and food there for him to eventually find, unless, or course, another horse will gobble it up first.
  4. As the horse becomes more confident over multiple sessions, put the feed dish closer and closer to your chair. Look for signs of relaxation (sighing, licking, chewing, head shaking, head lowering, cocked hind leg, relaxed tail, relaxed ears, soft eyes) that let you know he is feeling okay with the situation.
  5. Success for both of you is when he will come and accept food out of the dish in your lap and eventually out of your hand. It could happen in a day or two or it could take a long series of short, frequent sessions.
  6. If the horse acts fearfully when his nose contacts a hand, you will need to put in extra thin slices such as hands resting on the side of the bucket, one hand in the bucket under the feed, hand full of feed raised up a bit inside the bucket, until eventually the horse becomes confident about eating from your hand.
  7. Going through the slices too fast is more of a problem than going a bit too slow. Stay with each increase in confident behavior for at least three, maybe up to ten repeated mini-sessions before asking for more.

Additional Resources:

Bridget and Smoky Hang Out. https://youtu.be/-Y8OVYInnqY

Reading with Boots. https://youtu.be/dGMz5JxCjnE

Bob and Lorraine Sharing Time & Space. https://youtu.be/XSdI0DfjZLg

 

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

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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

 

Safety

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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