Tag Archives: Safety with horses

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.

 

 

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Training with a Marker Signal and Positive Reinforcement

Click & Scritch Bridget 01-08-2016_082102

Photo: Using targets as ‘destinations’ makes it much easier to give meaning to our request in a way that the horse easily understands. Reaching the target, whether it is putting the front feet on a mat or touching the nose on a stationary object, earns the horse a click&treat. We can then move between targets to encourage the horse to come with us willingly because there is always something for him to look forward to – the next click&treat when we reach the next destination.

Training with a Marker Signal and Positive Reinforcement

Training with the click&treat dynamic is a skill worth learning well, but it is not the only thing we have to learn well.

Some people handle/condition a horse’s behavior in a way that encourages the horse to always look to the handler – a form of ‘learned helplessness’.  The horse is asked to subjugate his own observations, feelings and natural responses in favor of what the handler requires him to do.

Other people set themselves the interesting challenge of doing everything with their horses using only positive reinforcement training (often called ‘clicker training’).  They pair each desired response with a marker signal (click) followed immediately by a food treat.  They feel that this is the only way to keep a horse’s ‘sparkle’ alive.

Somewhere between these two extremes, fall the people who teach many things with the click&treat dynamic, but they also understand, respect, learn and use universal horse language.  In their view, any horse education system that fails to acknowledge group social order, different horse character types and how horses succinctly communicate with body language, will have limited success.

From our human standpoint, we could define ‘success‘ as having a horse that is safe and fun to be with and that we can take places for exercise to maintain blood circulation health, overall fitness and mental stimulation.

Success could mean that the horse:

  • greets us willingly
  • enters our space politely
  • offers feet confidently for foot care
  • accepts gear on and off comfortably
  • leads safely and willingly in a variety of positions
  • responds equally well to upward and downward transition requests
  • confidently accepts touch and grooming all over its body
  • confidently accepts ropes draped all over its body and legs
  • willingly, at request, moves away from a food dish, pile of hay or grazing spot
  • not unduly spooked by dragging ropes, wheelbarrows, flapping things, balls, bicycles, vehicles
  • able to stay ‘parked’ quietly or stand and ‘wait’ for a further signal
  • confident moving through gates/narrow spaces/lanes and over water/unusual surfaces at our request
  • approaches new/spooky things as long as we give him the approach & retreat time to convince himself it is harmless
  • at ease with any body extensions the handler might use to clarify or accentuate signals

Once we have all that, we can endlessly refine the basics and teach new patterns and tricks.

Teaching with the click&treat dynamic is hugely helpful to horse handlers for two main reasons:

  1. Encourages accurate observation of what the horse is doing in order to pick the ‘clickable moments‘, which are also the moments that signal/cue pressure is released.  Therefore becoming a good clicker trainer also hones the skill of becoming an excellent trainer with simple ‘release reinforcement’.
  2. It teaches ‘thin-slicing’ — the cutting of a large task into its smallest ‘clickable’ components so that we can get the horse confident with each tiny ‘slice’.  Then we can chain the slices together until the whole task is achieved.  This way of teaching/learning, often called ‘mastery learning‘ keeps the horse successful all the way through the process.  A clicker-savvy horse knows that if the click&treat is withheld, they need to try something else.

Developing the two skills above will greatly increase the ‘feel‘ of the handler.  That ‘feel‘ will translate to the times when a good choice is use of ‘release reinforcement’ by itself.  Feeling what the horse is doing — understanding what his body language is saying and knowing how to respond to that with our feel and body language, is the key to training with signal pressure and release of signal pressure (‘release reinforcement’).

What horses gain from positive reinforcement  Horses trained with the click&treat dynamic discover that they can have a voice.  Once they learn that a certain behavior will earn them a click&treat, they can become pro-active in offering that behavior.  For many horses this is huge because in the past things have only been done to them or demanded of them — they could only be re-active.

When a task is thin-sliced so they understand each part of the training process, the horse’s learning can progress in leaps and bounds.  We’d all rather work for a boss who praises what he likes rather than one who only criticizes what he doesn’t like.

Horses are not blank pages on which we write what we want.  They already have a perfectly good language.  It seems logical to learn it and use it as best as we can with our non horse-shaped bodies.  Horses are very generous with their interpretation of what we mean.  No doubt we have a very funny accent, but unless they have been traumatized by humans, they are happy to learn new things and accept us as part of their personal herd.

Social Group  Once the horse accepts us as part of her personal ‘ in-group’, we have a position in the group social order.  The two things go together.  We can’t form a bond of understanding with a horse unless he or she lets us into their social group.  Once we are part of the social group, we have a ranking within it.  If the horse can move our feet at will, she or he stands above us in the social order.  If we can ask move the horse’s feet, we rank above him her in the social grouping recognized by the horse.  When people don’t understand this dynamic, or chose to deny/ignore it, things might not go well.

Horse Character Types  Like us, horses can be innately anxious or innately confident and imaginative.  They come as extroverts who like to/need to move their feet a lot and they come as introverts who prefer the quiet life.  A careful look at how our horse perceives and reacts to things can give us insight into how we can best proceed with an individualized training program.  What works perfectly with one horse can be quite problematic with another.

Universal Horse Language  Horses have a complex communication system using their body language and a few vocalizations. They ‘message’ other horses with body tension, body orientation, neck position/movement, ear position, tail activity, posturing, striking out, kicking, biting, nibbling.   How they use each of these depends on their intent at the time.  An ‘alarm snort’ will instantly have the whole herd on alert. Quietly turning the head away as another horse (or a person) approaches is an appeasement signal.

With the aid of body extensions which make us as tall and long as a horse, and simulate a horse’s expressive tail, we can more clearly emulating universal horse language.  If we are good at it and use our movements consistently, any horse will understand our intent without us ever needing to touch the horse or use a rope.  We can establish our position in the social order by ensuring we can move the horse’s feet in a variety of situations while the horse is at liberty to move away, as it would be in a natural herd situation.

Once we have established our social position, we maintain it by the way we behave.  Anxious type horses may rarely challenge our position.  Confident, imaginative type horses may well challenge our position regularly.  In a natural herd situation, they have the drive and sparkle to work their way up the group’s social order.

With an understanding of, horse character typesequine body language,  and how the social order works, we can flow with the information the horse gives us via his behavior and body language.  Skills of observation, timing and ‘feel’ allow us to decide how we will use clicker training to make his life in his strange human-dominated world a little bit more interesting and understandable.

With equine clicker training, we experiment to find out what the horse can already do, then build his skills in a way that has him being continually successful.

The link below contains a bit more information about horse character types.

PDF Ch 5 READING HORSES

 

Safety

smile while st&s 2 06-16-2016_155354

Photo: Sitting with the horse in a roomy, enclosed area, asking nothing of him except politeness. This is a superb way to build a new relationship with a new horse or to to build an improved relationship with a horse we have already.

Safety

It’s only when we feel safe with our horse and our horse feels safe with us that real teaching and learning can go on.  If our horse makes us feel worried or afraid, we need to take heed of the feeling and organize our environment so that we can be with the horse in a way that allows us to regain our safe, calm, centered core. Maybe we need to sit in our chair just outside the horse’s enclosure to start with.

It will be difficult for a horse to remain in his calm, centered core in our presence if we are sending out vibes that tell him we are uneasy and nervous.  A very 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 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