Tag Archives: Safety with horses

Developing Relaxed Food Retrieval

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

Lunging for the Treat = Anxiety or Assertive Horse Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video: Encouraging stepping back to retrieve the treat.

 

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

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

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

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

What to Check for:

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

 

Developing Good Table Manners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hand Feeding at Other Times

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

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

Alternative to Hand-Feeding Food Reinforcement

REASONS

There are several reasons why feeding the treat from our hand may not be the way forward with either a person or a horse new to clicker training.

For example:

  • The horse is new to people and has no idea about eating from a person’s hand.
  • The person is nervous about offering food from their hand.
  • The horse tends to mug the person once he realizes they have food in a pocket or pouch.
  • The horse is not gentle about taking the food from the hand.
  • Some horses are shy of people’s hands due to experience, or they don’t like taking food from a person’s hand.

In such situations, we can set up protected contact with a handy bucket or dish into which we toss the treat after the click.

We want the container situated so it’s easy to toss in the treats. We also want to use a container from which the horse can easily retrieve the treats.

In the video I’ve put a shallow round-bottomed bowl into the trough that sits on the gate. The depth and corners of the trough make it hard for the horse to retrieve a small strip of carrot or horse pellets.

In the video, I use the word CLICK (and clicker) to stand in for any marker sound you have chosen to use with your horse.

Charging the Clicker

‘Charging the Clicker’ is the first thing we must do when be begin clicker training. We want the horse to relate the sound of our ‘marker sound’ with the idea that a bit of food always follows that sound.

Some horses pick this up very quickly. Others need many short repeat sessions before they make the connection. For horses taught to wait to be told what to do next or get into trouble, the idea of offering a behavior may be a new idea.

This video clip demonstrates just one way of ‘Charging the Clicker’. It has the advantage of using protected contact – a barrier between horse and person. Until we start using food reinforcers with a horse, we don’t know how he will respond to the idea.

Protected contact keeps the person safe and some horses feel safer if a handler is on the other side of a fence. Using a hand-held target means the horse can easily find the YES answer that results in a click&treat.

To me, it feels more meaningful to the horse to ‘charge the clicker’ this way, rather than by waiting for the horse to move his head away from the handler. Using a target gives the horse a tangible destination for his behavior. Asking him to keep his head away from the treats goes totally against the nature of how horses find nourishment. It requires a ‘no’ answer rather than the ‘yes’ answer provided by touching nose to a target.

Once the horse understands the click&treat dynamic, we can work on keeping the head facing forward rather than seeking out the treat pouch.

We can also use this set-up when things are not going well. The horse may have developed the habit of mugging for the treats – pushing his nose into the person. It is totally normal horse foraging behavior – to follow their nose to a likely food source.

By using a bucket or dish, we separate the location of the retrievable food from the person’s body. That alone is a good reason to begin with this technique. Once the horse understands the concept and we understand how the horse is responding to the idea of working for food reinforcement, we can work toward offering the food in our outstretched hand. We can make the switch to hand-feeding while still in protected contact.

Video Clip

Finesse Back-Up

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • A safe fence or barrier which leads into a safe corner.
  • Halter and lead.
  • Mat (optional). A mat can make it easier for a mat-savvy horse to settle into standing in a corner.

AIMS:

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

Clips:

https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y

https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA

Notes:

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

SLICES:

A: Getting Comfortable in a Corner

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

B: The Back-Up Maneuver

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

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

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

Generalizations

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

Related Resources:

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

One Step at a Time

Photo above: Boots gained the confidence to step up on this balance beam by being rewarded for venturing one step at a time. After many short, successful sessions, she felt secure enough to target individual legs to my hand.

INTRODUCTION

The skill of being able to ask your horse to move one specific foot at a time is worthy of time and attention. It is a task that can be used and refined when riding or doing groundwork, including Horse Agility competition. It starts with being able to visualize the pattern in which horses move their feet.

Carefully observe the footfall sequences when horses walk, back-up, trot and canter. Reviewing slow motion video is best. Learn the footfall (foot-rise) for walk and trot, one gait at a time. When they are clear in your mind, add the canter.

Get down on all fours so you can mimic the pattern with your limbs. That helps put the patterns into your deep memory. Once you can easily replay the memory tape for each gait in your mind, you can give your horse much clearer signals.

Perfecting this helps to build the feel you need in order to time your riding or leading signals to the horse’s feet.

This is a great task for teaching us to carefully note the horse’s intent and time our click&treat to the moment a foot is lifting. The ability to see and feel footfall (foot-rise) is a huge bonus in a horse training kit.

It is actually the moment of foot-rise that we need to learn because it is only when the foot is lifted that we can influence where it goes next. Therefore during this exercise we want to click&treat as the foot is lifting.

Directing our horse’s feet one at a time has many uses. For example:

  • Cleaning/trimming feet.
  • Positioning for mounting.
  • Backing into stalls/wash bays.
  • Breed and showmanship classes .
  • Leading through narrow spaces.
  • Trailer loading and unloading.
  • Precision riding or long-reining/driving.
  • Placing a foot for an x-ray.
  • Precise mat or hoop work.
  • Pedestals.
  • Bridges.
  • Water obstacles.
  • Horse Agility obstacles
  • Getting out of tricky situations on the trail.
  • Stepping up and down a pedestal or balance beam or bridge.

PREREQUISITES

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

ENVIRONMENT AND MATERIALS

  • A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
  • Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead. A shorter lead is easier to use for this task.

AIM

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

VIDEO CLIP

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

NOTES

  1. Ensure the horse is in a learning frame of mind.
  2. Keep each session working with short – three minutes is plenty. Three minutes of focused work over many sessions will get you the result without lapsing into human or horse frustration.
  3. To lift and move a front foot, the horse must first shift his balance to take the weight off that foot.
  4. Unless the horse is pacing, the hind feet move in unison with the diagonal front foot.
  5. I’m not good with left/right or 3-dimensional thinking so it took me a long time to get these moves firmly into my muscle memory. I had to learn to carefully note where the horse’s feet were and how he was balanced before I asked a foot to move. Then I could decide which way I needed to tilt the horse’s head to move a particular foot.
  6. Remember to click&treat the moment the foot is lifting during this exercise.

SLICES

One Step Back

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

  1. Face the horse, slightly to the right side of his head and orientate your belly button toward his nose (when his head is straight).
  2. Hold the rope about an arm’s length from the halter, lightly draped, in the hand nearest the horse’s shoulder (rope hand).
  3. Reach across with the other hand (sliding hand) and slide it gently up the rope toward the halter. If you’ve taught a ‘back’ voice signal, use it as well.
  4. At some stage, you will reach a point of contact to which the horse responds.
  5. When you reach the point of contact tilt his nose/neck slightly to the left and put a bit of backward pressure on the halter. Release immediately when you feel his intent to move back (click&treat). Relax, then ask again.
  6. When you get a whole step, release (click&treat), relax. Maybe rub him if you are not using Clicker Training and he likes to be touched. If you get more than one step, accept it, reward it, and then adjust your signal so it has less energy.

Some horses may at first respond by leaning forward into the backward pressure you are putting on the halter. They are not ‘wrong’ because moving into pressure is a natural horse response. They are also not wrong because they don’t yet understand what you want.

If your horse leans into the pressure:

  1. Take up a power position (feet shoulder-width apart, one slightly ahead, hips dropped).
  2. Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse, about 2’-3’ from the halter with a bit of slack in it.
  3. Reach across with your other hand and softly run it up the rope toward the halter until you meet resistance from the horse.
  4. At that point, simply ‘hold’ just strongly enough to make the horse feel unbalanced.
  5. The moment he shows the slightest tendency to shift backwards to regain his balance, release the pressure (click&treat).
  6. Repeat. If you are clear and consistent and release (click&treat) promptly, the horse will soon read your body language energy and intent and step back before you can even slide your fingers up the rope.
  7. During multiple short practices, also introduce a voice ‘back’ signal.

When you reach a reliable response as in 6 above, you have created a gesture signal you can use at liberty to ask the horse to step back. Keep the gesture exactly as it was, i.e. running your hand up an imaginary rope.

When you have one step back at a light signal, ask for two steps back. It’s important to ‘release’ the halter pressure slightly after the first step, then increase the pressure slightly to ask again for the second step before a bigger release (click&treat).

Once that is smooth, ask for three steps, then four, and so on until you have as many individual steps as you like. Release the pressure at each step, then apply it again lightly to ask for another step. The horse will soon read the intent in your body language and will step back by reading your ‘intent’.

Pressure on the rope will no longer be necessary except maybe in unusual situations of high stress. In such situations the horse will have an advantage over horses who don’t understand this part of the task because he will remember what the rope pressure means and how to respond to it.

To move his left front foot back, tilt his nose/neck slightly to the right, i.e. always tilt the nose away from the foot you want him to move.

If the horse tends to push forward into the handler, it can help to have a rail in front of the horse or start in a blocked-off lane, so that stepping back is the easiest and common-sense thing to do.

When backing from the halt feels easy, we can expand and generalize the task by walking along beside the horse, halting and smoothly pivoting into position to face the horse and ask him to back up. Teach this first along a safe fence to encourage the horse to back up in a straight line.

One Step Forward

To move one step forward, tilt his nose slightly away from the foot you want to move (to take the weight off it) and put gentle forward pressure on the halter.

GENERALIZATIONS

Be sure to teach ‘one step at a time’ standing on the horse’s left side and on his right side. If he finds one side harder, work at bit more on that side.

Most people find giving signals with their less dominant hand harder as well. When each side feels the same, you’ve reached a big milestone.

When we can use a light signal to ask the horse to glide from walk into a halt, then as we turn to face him, we can ask for an individual step back or forward, we have achieved our task.

Eventually, get him to put a specific front foot on things. Start with a largish item like a doormat or a piece of carpet. Work toward smaller things like paper plates, Frisbees and leaves, then higher things like stumps, steps, pedestals, ramps, balance beams, hoof stands if he doesn’t already know all these things.

Be aware that once the horse is close to the object, he can’t see it, but is working from memory. The area directly under his head/neck is a blind spot.

Be particular but not critical. Always relax, pause and reset if the horse gets confused. After a good effort, go away from the site and do other things the horse already knows.

Then come back to moving one foot until you get another good effort. Don’t drill. After you’ve had two or three good attempts, stop and come back to it another time.

The essence of this teaching is that you create mutually-understood signals that communicate to the horse about moving individual feet.

This clip shows some possible generalizations.

RELATED RESOURCES

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

 

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