This is an interesting exercise to help refine the timing of our signals and the ‘click’ (or whatever marker sound we have chosen) that lets the horse know when he is doing exactly what will result in a treat.
Boots and I first learned this task years ago and play with it occasionally. If a task is taught well enough to be in a horse’s deep memory, it seems it is never forgotten. Usually a bit of guidance to clarify which task I’m asking for is enough to bring back the memory. When I made these video clips we hadn’t revisited straddling a rail for several months.
However, we play with ‘shoulder/hip yield’ and ‘shoulder/hip toward me’ often, so our signals for these are current – well-honed and well-practiced.
Straddling a rail is an exercise useful for balance, foot awareness and general proprioception. We teach it in tiny slices that keep the horse being continually successful. In other words, we celebrate each approximation.
The horse confidently moves his feet individually to straddle a rail lengthwise.
- The horse understands yielding the shoulder. This clip is in my Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers PLAYLIST: April 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Yield the Shoulder. Click here.
- The horse understands targeting the shoulder to our hand. Number 27 in my Blog Contents List: Target Shoulder to Hand. Click here.
- The horse understands yielding the hindquarters. This clip is in my Obstacle Challenges for Clicker Trainers PLAYLIST: May 2018 Obstacle Challenge: Yield the Hindquarters. Click here.
- Horse understands bringing hip toward hand. Number 28 in my Blog Contents List: Targeting Hindquarters to Our Hand. Click here.
- Horse is comfortable standing across and walking across solid rails. Number 18 in my Blog Contents List: Placing the Feet Accurately Using a Rail. Click here.
- Horse understands a signal for sidestepping. Number 29 in my Blog Contents List: Sidestepping. Click here.
- Handler is aware of teaching in short segments. Number 46 in my Blog Contents List. Click here.
- Triple Treat for celebration: #16 HorseGym with Boots: Triple Treat. Click here.
#222 HorseGym with Boots: Prep for Straddling Rails
#223 HorseGym with Boots: Straddling Rails
Materials and Environment
- A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
- Horse is not hungry.
- Halter and lead to clarify signals during the teaching (acquisition) stage unless you prefer to teach everything at liberty.
- Rail: a half-round rail is ideal because it doesn’t roll/move while the horse is figuring out where and how to move his feet.
We can mound sand at the ends of a round rail to minimize rolling or chock round rails with bits of wood or stones at either end.
A long rail, or two short rails end-to-end, make it easier for the horse at the beginning. We could also use a tightly rolled tarp to stand in for a rail, or a thick rope/hose.
- Ensure that the horse can carry out the prerequisite tasks calmly and accurately.
- Give each slice of the ‘straddle’ the time it takes rather than focus on the end behavior.
- Doing a few repeats of ‘hip/shoulder away’ and ‘hip/shoulder toward me’ each session will keep them topical and smooth.
- Click and treat each approximation at first. Celebrate when you get either front feet or hind feet (or both) straddling the rail.
- Three repeats at one time are usually plenty to start with. The horse will think about it and be willing to try again next day. If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose willingness to engage again. (See Prerequisite 7.)
- Decide whether you will initially teach the task by asking the horse to yield shoulder/hip away from you or if you will ask the horse to bring shoulder/hip toward you. Don’t mix them up until the horse has a sound understanding about where you want his feet.
- Be careful to not ‘correct’ or make the horse feel wrong as he figures out what you want him to do with his feet to earn his next click&treat. He can’t be wrong because he doesn’t yet know what you want him to do.
The lack of ‘click’ tells the horse that he hasn’t quite got it yet. If he feels lost, increase your rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat) and lower your criteria – i.e., click for all approximations toward the finished task and stop after a good effort for that session. Then he will be keen to try again next session.
- Run through your ‘hip/shoulder away’ and/or ‘hip/shoulder toward me’ routines away from the rail, to set the scene.
- Introduce the rail by walking across it in both directions. Then park parallel to it several times — on both sides and facing both directions.
- Start with the side and direction that feel easiest.
- Ask for either front or hind end to straddle the rail. Click&treat for all and any approximations. Your horse may offer to do the full straddle right away – major celebration.
- Then quietly ask for the other end to straddle the rail. Don’t worry if he moves one end off the straddle to adjust his balance so he can straddle with the other end. You will notice in #223 video clip that Boots does this a couple of times.
- Also don’t worry if he steps his whole body across the rail. Simply breathe deeply, relax, and reset the task. If the horse moves both front or hind feet across the rail, try giving a less-energetic signal.
- The key is to quietly reset and try again. Finish on a good effort and go away from the rail to do something else.
- Resist the temptation to ask again to see if you can do it again. At first a ‘good effort’ may still be far from the finished movement. That doesn’t matter. If the horse is willing to try in a relaxed manner, you have a ‘good effort’.
- If it becomes a muddle, walk away, do something easy with a high rate of reinforcement (how often you click&treat). Then return to the rail and start again or leave it until the next session. (See number 5 in the NOTES.)
- Explore different ways of coming off the straddle – turn and sidestep off, back off, walk forward with the feet staying on either side of the rail, and so on.
- Once the horse is adept at straddling the rail, click&treat for duration. Start with one second and increase duration one second at a time.
- Once the horse understands the task, it can be fun to also explore other ways of signaling the ‘straddle a rail’ task.
- I was delighted when Boots offered to sidestep into the straddle as at the end of clip #223, because I’d never asked her to do that before. We do, however, practice plain sidestepping regularly.
- Walk forward to straddle the rail.
- Back up to straddle the rail.
- Mix up ‘hip/shoulder away’ and hip/shoulder toward me’.
- Straddle different kinds of rails.
- Different venues.
- On a slope – facing downhill and facing uphill.