Tag Archives: suppleness

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

 

 

PLACING THE FEET ACCURATELY USING A RAIL

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

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

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

AIMS:

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

VIDEO CLIPS:

With halter and lead:

 Liberty

NOTES:

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

SLICES:

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

GENERALIZATION:

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building Task Complexity Using Hoops

INTRODUCTION:

This is a superb flexion exercise because it causes the horse to become super aware of what his feet are doing. It also encourages the horse to pick up his feet and stretch his stride, so it aids muscle lengthening and hock flexion.

It is also an example of how we can gradually build the complexity of a task until eventually the whole task is done with one click&treat at the end.

Sadly, not all horses are aware of exactly where their feet are and what their feet are doing. Horses raised in flat paddocks or those who spend much of their life stabled have not had opportunity to develop good proprioception. Horses who can move freely in rugged country will have a much stronger sense of where their feet are.

We can purposefully teach tasks that encourage foot awareness. See ‘Related Resources’ 8 at the end of this post.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 1 at end of this post.)
  3. Horse knows about nose and/or foot targets as destinations where a click&treat occurs each time. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 at end of this post.)
  4. Horse confidently steps over rails, ropes, logs or similar. (See ‘Related Resources’ 4 and 5 at end of this post.)
  5. Horse confidently walks onto and over unusual surfaces such as tarps, boards, and so on. (See ‘Related Resources’ 6 at 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.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Five or six hoops. Make hoops with ropes laid into circles or make hoops using plastic water pipe pieces held together with a strip of large or smaller diameter pipe so the hoop can come apart if the horse gets in a muddle.
  • A destination where the horse will receive a click&treat after negotiating the hoop(s). Put the destination, either a mat or a nose target, at a spot an equal distance from either end of your (eventual) line of hoops so it works in either direction of travel.
  • Halter and lead kept loose as much as possible, as we want to use body language for communication as much as possible, rather than rope pressure.

AIM:

To smoothly walk (and maybe jog) across a series of five (or more) hoops staying together in the shoulder-to-shoulder position.

VIDEO CLIP:

#172 HorseGym with Boots: Building Task Complexity using Hoops

https://youtu.be/h0sVZqLfNI8

NOTES:

  1. Boots’ demonstration on the video is the sum of many short training sessions over a long time. During the teaching or acquisition phase, we played with one hoop for a long time before adding the second hoop. As she gained confidence, we added more hoops one at a time.
  2. It’s good to first build confident stepping over things such as rails and as many other safe objects that you can find.
  3. Remember to keep each session short. We don’t want to drill this. We want the horse to learn that stepping through the hoops cleanly earns him a bonus click&treat.
  4. When we have accomplished the task fully, we will be able to cross a series of hoops cleanly in either direction with the handler on either side of the horse.
  5. Some people like to teach everything on both sides from the beginning. Others prefer to get it all smooth staying on one side of the horse and then teach it again from the beginning on the other side of the horse.
  6. Be careful to keep the shoulder-to-shoulder position intact so you are consistently moving in a synchronized way.

SLICES:

  1. Lay out one hoop and set up your destination (mat or nose target) a good distance away from the hoop so it is not immediately distracting.
  2. Approach the hoop with the horse; click&treat for any interest he shows in the hoop. Allow him to sniff it and paw at it for as long as he wants. Click&treat when he finishes sniffing and/or pawing, walk away from the hoop to the mat or nose target destination; click&treat at the destination.
  3. When the horse is ho-hum about the hoop, ask him to step his front feet into the hoop and halt; click&treat. Walk on to your destination; click&treat.
  4. Ignore any clipping of the hoop with his feet as he steps into it or out of it. Most horse will correct themselves with practice. It is addressed in 8 below.
  5. When 3 above is smooth, ask him to walk through the hoop with his front feet and halt with his hind feet in the hoop; click&treat. Walk on to your destination; click&treat.
  6. Alternate between 3 and 5 above, walking on to your destination each time for a second click&treat.
  7. When the horse feels confident about halting with either his front feet or his hind feet in the hoop, begin to ask him to walk right through the hoop and on to your destination.
  8. At this point, ignore any clipping of the hoop with his feet, BUT when he walks right through CLEANLY, CLICK right after he has cleanly exited the hoop, and deliver the treat. When he does clip the hoop, there is no extra click&treat. You simply move on to your destination; click&treat.
  9. Repeat 7 and 8 until the horse can walk across the hoop smoothly without touching it most of the time. The first time he walks through without touching the hoop, celebrate hugely with a bonus click&treat or a jackpot before walking on to your destination for another click&treat.
  10. When the horse walks across the hoop cleanly almost every time, add a second hoop. Allow him time to investigate if he wants to.
  11. Repeat as above with two hoops, then three hoops, then four hoops, then five hoops, then more if you want.
  12. Be sure to stay with each number of hoops until the horse is super confident and moving across them cleanly almost every time. The easiest way to make it all fall apart is to go too fast or to try to do too much during one session.
  13. By keeping the sessions short and fun, he will be keen to do it again next time.
  14. Ensure that the horse is confident working in both directions.
  15. Ensure the horse is confident with you on his left side or his right side.
  16. When it feels ho-hum to walk across five or more hoops, start the whole process again with one hoop and ask him to jog or trot across it.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Set up hoops in new venues; slopes can make it more challenging.
  2. Set up hoops where there are different distractions.
  3. If you have a friend that trains in the same way, ask them to do the exercise with your horse.
  4. Use the exercise regularly as part of your warm-up or cool-down gymnastics.
  5. See ‘Related Resources’ 7 below for more ways to play with hoops.

RELATED RESOURCES:

  1. Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Blog: Using Mats: Parking or Stationing and Much More: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9
  3. Destinations: Video Clip: #3 HorseGym with Boots; Stationary Nose Targets: https://youtu.be/TcRjoAnDYPQ
  4. Video Clips: a) Precision with a Single Rail: https://youtu.be/bJzwDq-NvtE 
  5.                      b) Same task at Liberty: https://youtu.be/kvIso5iv-gA
  6. Unusual Surfaces clips:
    1. Thin-Slicing the One Meter Board: https://youtu.be/pLLqtbQJqMs
    2. Tarp and Water Surface: https://youtu.be/AOhKu6oHdkk
  7. Hoops Playlist: First clip in the playlist: Single Obstacle Challenge Hoops 1 https://youtu.be/AfDIAQSOmE0
  8. Video Clip: Foot Awareness: https://youtu.be/7bEkFk0w_gk

 

180-Degree Turns

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

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

AIMS:

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

VIDEO CLIP:

NOTES:

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

SLICES:

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

GENERALIZATION:

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

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

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

 

WALK and HOCK GYM with OBSTACLES

INTRODUCTION:

A horse training area without obstacles is like a playroom without toys. When we have a collection of obstacles, each one allows us to have a conversation with our horse.

It’s much easier if our horse lives with us and we can set up and change obstacles as convenient, as opposed to having to book time to use a training area.

However, we can amass a collection that is relatively easy to set out, pick up, transport and store. Rags make excellent markers and can be set out to weave or act as a rail or delineate a lane. Smaller cones are easy to set out, collect and store.

Tarps can be folded to different sizes or rolled up to stand in for a rail. If you have use of an indoor arena or it is not a windy day, a collection of cardboard boxes that can be nested for easy storage are useful to act as destinations, create novel gaps, outline lanes or act as rails.

Ropes can take the place of rails to create lanes. Hoops are light and easy to move and store. I prefer hoops made of hose and joined with doweling (or a twig the correct size).

If your horse is boarded, there may be available gear that is not too heavy to move to create circuit. If you have a grazed area for training, tread-in posts have many uses and can be paired with tape to create reverse round pens or high-sided lanes. Some people may have trees, banks, ditches, bridges, stumps, slopes and/or natural water to incorporate into circuits.

Circuit activities like this are great as warm-up or cool-down exercises, or just to give horses a stretch of continuous movement and a bit of mental stimulation.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ and ‘halt’ signals when the handler is beside his neck/shoulder, on both sides of the horse. (See LINKED RESOURCE 1. at the end of the 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.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • Halter and lead (kept loose as much as possible, as we want to use body language for communication, not rope pressure).
  • A circuit of objects and obstacles. Ideally some to step over for hock flexion, lanes to walk through, gaps to negotiate, unusual surfaces to walk across, slopes if possible, hoops to step into, markers to weave, pedestals to put one or two front feet on, and so on. If your horse likes to pick things up, add that as an element of your circuit.

AIMS:

  1. To have the horse and handler and horse fluidly navigate a circuit of objects and obstacles at the walk with the handler on the LEFT side of the horse.
  2. To have the horse and handler and horse fluidly navigate a circuit of objects and obstacles at the walk with the handler on the RIGHT side of the horse.

VIDEO CLIP:

NOTES:

  • The horse in the video clip is an old hand at negotiating circuits and the circuit in the clip is a basic one.
  • This activity refines ‘walking together shoulder-to-shoulder’ with a draped lead rope or no lead rope. A key is to first establish solid, mutually understood, ‘walk on’ signals that ensure you step off together. It is a common habit for the handler to begin walking without ensuring that the horse is stepping off at the same time. (See LINKED RESOURCE 1. at the end of the post.)

SLICES:

  1. Make a list of obstacles available and draw a diagram of where you might put them in your training area.
  2. Experiment gently to find your horse’s response to each obstacle: Either one a day or a couple each session, whatever suits your time and facility.
  3. For horses new to this sort of activity, introduce one obstacle at a time and add a new one when he his totally confident with the previous ones.
  4. If the horse is an old hand at this sort of activity, set up your designed circuit. Move on to generalizations once walking around the basic circuit is fluid on both sides of the horse.
  5. Sometimes I use three, four or five obstacles and do various things with each one, or sometimes I set up a longer circuit like the one in the clip which has twelve obstacles.
  6. If new to the activity, stay with each new obstacle until the horse is ho-hum with it. For example, if it takes one session for the horse to be comfortable with a new object or obstacle, and you add a new one each session, you can have a circuit of twelve obstacles after twelve sessions. Or you can do two different things with six obstacles.
  7. But: some obstacles will be harder and take longer than one session to establish comfort and willingness. As long as we always start where the horse shows confidence, and we proceed in small slices when he shows he is ready to do more, things usually progress well.
  8. Success breeds success. Over-facing and going too fast destroy confidence and the willingness to try again. If you notice you’ve done this, simply relax and go back however far you need to go to where the horse is confident and slowly work forward again.
  9. When it all flows smoothly while you are on the horse’s left side, start again on his right side.

GENERALIZATIONS:

  1. Add in the occasional halt, either between obstacles, in a lane, across a rail, on a pedestal, in front of a rail, just after stepping across a rail, between uprights, with front or back feet in a hoop. Decide beforehand how long your halts will be. Start with one second and work up gradually to five or ten seconds. Once you have duration, ask the horse to ‘wait’ while you move away and/or around him. (See LINKED RESOURCE 4. at the end of the post.)
  2. Add in the occasional back-up between uprights, through a lane, before reaching the next obstacle, backing front feet over a rail, backing all four feet over a rail. (See the LINKED RESOURCES 5. and 6. at the end of this post for training plans relating to backing up.)
  3. Ask for sidestepping away from you or toward you along a rail. (See LINKED RESOURCE 1. at the end of the post.)
  4. Walk a small circle to do the same obstacle twice.
  5. Change your leading position so you are in front of the horse and he walks behind you. See the LINKED RESOURCES 8. at the end of this post
  6. Add the occasional trot between or over selected obstacles.
  7. Long-rein the circuit. (See my Long-Reining book on the ‘Books’ page.)
  8. If you lunge, ask for continuous trot through a series of obstacles set up so your rope doesn’t catch on them. I like to trot an obstacle, then have horse trot a circle around me while I move into position for trotting over or through the next obstacle. This is an exercise that allows continuous sustained movement without being dead boring.

LINKED RESOURCES:

  1. Blog: Smooth ‘Walk On’ and ‘Halt’ Transitions. https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5TT
  2. Blog: Sidestepping: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RL
  3. Blog: Step Aerobics: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Sf
  4. Video Clip: Park & Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys
  5. Video Clip: Backing Up Clip 1: https://youtu.be/6YYwoGgd_0Y
  6. Video Clip: Backing Up Clip 2: https://youtu.be/safxxu90lkA
  7. Video Clips: This is the first clip in a playlist series about using hoops. https://youtu.be/AfDIAQSOmE0
  8. Video Clip: first of two clips to teach walking in front of the horse. https://youtu.be/n8uZOtO5hEc

 

 

 

TARGET FLEXIONS

INTRODUCTION:

This is one of those activities that we can do:

  • As part of a cool-down after active work.
  • As an interlude between other activities.
  • As an ‘end of session’ routine.
  • As purposeful gymnastics to help our horse keep flexible.
  • When it is too cold, hot, wet or windy to be out and about.
  • As a ‘stall rest’ activity as much as the recuperation allows.
  • When we feel low energy but want to do something with our horse.
  • The knee and hock targeting, done regularly, ensure adequate balance when we ask the horse to stand on three legs for foot care.

PREREQUISITES:

  1. Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
  2. Horse is comfortable standing ‘parked’ with the handler standing and moving around the horse. A link to a post about relaxed ‘Parking’ is added at the end of this post.
  3. Handler has developed his/her ‘zero intent’ and ‘intent’ body language. Links are added at the end of this post.
  4. Horse confidently touches a variety of targets with his nose.
  5. We can teach targeting with the knees and hocks in the same way as outlined in the Targeting the Hindquarters to our Hand post. See the link 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.
  • The horse is not hungry.
  • A safe, enclosed area for working at liberty, if possible. Otherwise, halter and lead (kept loose or the rope safely draped over the horse’s neck).
  • A hand-held target on a long stick and a short target like a plastic bottle.
  • A familiar mat to park on when first teaching this.

AIMS:

  1. The horse moves his nose to touch a target held in different positions while keeping his feet still.
  2. Horse lifts his knees to touch a target.
  3. Horse lifts his hocks to touch a target.

VIDEO CLIP: #166 HorseGym with Boots TARGET FLEXION

Notes:

  1. What you see Boots doing in the video clip is a result of lots of very short sessions over a long time. I had to consciously improve the consistency of my body orientation and how I presented the target to make what I wanted as clear as possible for the horse.
  2. If the horse has been resting or contained, we must do a general overall body warm-up before asking for these flexions. Walking over rails and weaving obstacles make great warm-up exercises. If this is not possible, adjust your flexion expectations accordingly.

SLICES:

Neck Flexion High and Low

  1. As per prerequisite 2, ensure that the horse is totally comfortable standing parked while you move and stand in a variety of positions around his body.
  2. Ask the horse to stand squarely with his front feet on a familiar mat; click&treat.
  3. Let him know what game you are about to play by having him touch a familiar long-handled target held near his nose; click&treat.
  4. Gradually, making sure to stay within the boundary of the horse’s comfort zone for this type of activity, hold the target progressively a little higher while you stand facing him slightly to the left side of his nose; click&treat every time he touches the target.
  5. Ideally, do three or four repeats on each side of the horse, before moving to the other side.
  6. Repeat 4 holding the target progressively a little higher while you stand facing him slightly to the right side of his nose.
  7. You may not get a full upward stretch as Boots shows on the video clip until you’ve done it for several sessions, but on the other hand, you may get it quickly.
  8. Stay with 4, 5 and 6 until the horse is ho-hum with them.
  9. Then move on to progressively hold the target a bit lower to the ground; click&treat for each touch standing slightly to the left of his nose, then stretch out your arm so the horse’s nose stays straight in front is he lowers it.
  10. Repeat 9 standing slightly to the right of the horse’s nose.
  11. For each new session, begin with the upward stretches done previously, then add the downward stretches until the horse is ho-hum with them also

Lateral (Sideways) Neck Flexion

  1. Have the horse stand as squarely as possible.
  2. Present the target so the horse must bend his neck a little bit to the left toward his ribs to put his nose on it; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
  3. Repeat 2 on the right side.
  4. Present the target so the horse must bend his neck to the left a little further to touch the target; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
  5. Repeat 4 on the right side.
  6. Present the target so the horse must bend his neck to the left as far as he comfortably can to touch the target; click&treat. Repeat two or three times.
  7. Repeat 6 to the right.

How far a horse can bend his neck laterally will depend on a variety of factors such as age, health, overall fitness, frequency and type of flexion exercises, breed conformation, past injuries, arthritis, and so on. Healthy horses can reach around to scratch an itch on a lifted hock with their teeth. Observe carefully to find out how far the horse you are working with can reach in comparative comfort.

You may find considerable difference between the right and left sides if the horse has not been trained to accomplish a variety of exercises with either side of his body leading. Most horses have right or left dominance, just as people do.

If you adopt these flexion exercises and do them several times a week, or a few daily, you may notice increased suppleness in your horse if restrictions due to past injury or chronic conditions such as arthritis are not limiting factors.

  1. Once the extreme bend (however far that is for a particular horse) is going well on either side, ask for a bend to the left, then step behind the horse to his right side and ask for the extreme bend to the right before the click&treat.

Knee and Hock Flexion

1. At the start of each session of flexion work with a target, I ask the horse to put his nose on the target; click&treat. This lets him know what game we are playing.

2.  Teach ‘knee-to-target’ by touching the target gently above the horse’s knee; click&treat. Repeat several times.

If the horse thinks you want his nose on the target when it touches his leg above the knee, don’t click&treat. Remove the target out of sight behind you and take up the ‘no intent’ position for about three seconds. Then begin again. Repeat until the horse realizes that you are not asking for nose to target in this situation. The lack of click&treat gives him this information.

It may help the horse if you use a different, shorter target to teach ‘knee to target’.

3.  After several successful mini-sessions with 2 above, hold the target just a tiny bit above the horse’s knee and see if the horse will lift his knee to make the contact; click&treat the instant he does. The basic technique is the same as in my clip, Targeting the Hindquarters to our Hand to which there is a link at the end of this post. Some horses will pick up the idea quickly and some will need many days of quiet, relaxed, short repeats. A clip about teaching ‘Target Chin to Hand‘ posted at the end, may also be helpful.

4.  Repeat on the horse’s other side.

5.  Once 3 and 4 above are ho-hum, teach ‘hock-to-target’ in the same way, using your long-handled target. Mixing up knee and hock too soon can lead to confusion, so keep the daily focus on the knee targeting only (on both sides of the horse) until your orientation and signals are truly consistent and the horse shows he is truly confident by being 99% accurate with his responses. Then change your focus to hock-targeting and stick with only that until it is ho-hum. Then you can begin to ask them in random order.

Head Between Legs Flexion

For this, a shorter target like the plastic bottle I use in the video clip is easier to use than a long-handled target.

  1. Ask the horse to stand squarely.
  2. Ask him to touch the target with his nose while you hold it down and straight in front of him; click&treat when he touches it. Be sure to keep your head to the side of the horse’s head so you don’t get knocked in case he brings his head up quickly.
  3. When 2 is good, switch to holding the target forward between his front legs. You may need to wiggle it a bit to get his attention. Click&treat the moment he puts his nose or whiskers on the target.
  4. Present the target between his front legs standing on either side of the horse. Two or three of these per session is plenty.

Links to other resources:

This video clip looks at making the horse feel comfortable staying parked on a mat while we move into different orientations around him: Challenge: Park and Wait: https://youtu.be/UvjKr9_U0ys

This video clip looks at teaching targeting the chin to our hand, which is a nice way to introduce the whole idea of targeting body parts to our hand or a target. https://youtu.be/Fsigp8wB0LU

Blog: Targeting Hindquarters to our Hand: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5Tk

Blog: Using Mats for Targeting and Stationing and Much more: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5S9

Blog: ‘Zero Intent’ and ‘Intent’: https://wp.me/p4VYHH-5RO

 

Step Aerobics

 

INTRODUCTION:

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

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

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

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

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

PREREQUISITES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:

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

AIM:

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

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

SLICES:

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

Video Clip: #159 HorseGym with Boots: STEP AEROBICS

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

GENERALIZATIONS:

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

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

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

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