Thursday, March 12, 2009

Smarty and Microshaping

Smarty is a 23 year old TB who I have had for 4 1/2 years. Before that, he carried many people through the world of eventing. His name is perfect for him as he is almost too clever. He loves a good joke :).

Smarty loves clicker training and is very vocal when we work on things- nickering happily each time I click. He's great at totally new behaviors (targeting, mat work, etc), but being a 23 year old who has been around, I've had some trouble getting him to trust me through some traditional type experiences. Like scary things we meet when out riding- head down just is not an option in his mind. When he gets worried, he head goes so high I can almost not see around it! I tried over the years to work backwards: continuing to ride and just asking for head down when necesary. But that didn't seem to work- and I think now it's because my mind was not in the right place. I was "commanding" him to put his head down, even though I was doing it with my usual cue. So this winter I have tried to back off those kinds of things and work more on new behaviors until I build his trust enough that we can transition over, from the bottom up.

So I decided he would be a great candidate for microshaping. Microshaping involves looking for teeny movements, for instance just the twitch of a muscle- to reinforce and then build on. Others have experienced amazing physical results in their horses by building muscle, keeping laid up horses toned, bringing back horses who have been injured etc. I decided it would be good for Smarty since he has been incredibly fit at times in his life and as he ages, I'd like to help him maintain some condition without putting too much wear and tear on his aging structure.

So I began with Smarty in his stall and with just the stall guard across his door. He, of course, stuck his head out, then reached for me, then leaned on the stall guard, etc which were all perfect because I knew he would eventually rock his weight back and that was what I was looking for. As soon as he did, I clicked. That's all it took and he was figuring it out. So then I had to decide exactly what I was looking for. In Alex Kurland's microshaping DVD, she points out various muscles to watch and reinforce. But it's winter in Vermont and even though I take his blanket off to do this, he's so fuzzy that individual muscles are hard to identify! I plan to watch her DVD again and try to get some ideas.

At this point, he knows it is about shifting his weight back but not sure how much or how far. Smarty has perfected the "air paw". He lifts his right front up high in front of him and paws without touching the ground. I can only imagine he figured out in some previous time in his life that he could express his impatience this way without getting in trouble for the noise of pawing! But I do occasionally get that when I'm microshaping because to do it, he shifts his weight to his hind end. So I'm trying to see if I can distinguish before he does it whether he is going to air paw or just shift.

Yesterday I was working on seeing if I could get him to stand square with microshaping. Since he always does the air paw with his RF, he usually is supporting himself on the LF. I thought it would be important to work both sides and ask him sometimes to support with the RF and lift the LF. So sometimes I wouldn't click until he took a full step back- but if he was supporting with his RF and beginning to take the weight off the LF, I would click for just a muscle flex.

Boggles the mind how they figure this out and are SO aware of what they are doing!

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