Saturday, March 21, 2009

Whip cues (the Duct Tape lesson) and harnessing steps

Along with teaching the babies to back out my space, I am going to brush up on their ability to move various parts of their bodies away from me with a whip cue. I want to be very careful to define the word cue here the way I use it. When I give a horse a cue, he or she has the option not to respond to it. My hope is that they will always respond to my cues because they want to get along with me. I hope that they will learn to respond to a cue so automatically that they will respond even in a questionable situation. That is what didn't happen the other day when Ande scooted off. If he had been more solid in his response to my request for a hip yield, he should have hit the end of the rope so that his front end stopped and the back end swung around. So- here we are once again back at basics.

As shedding season is upon us, I put both Ande and Rumer, in turn, on crossties for a grooming session. I used the cross ties in the shed for Rumer where there is a solid wall behind her in case she should pull back but Ande was in the aisle of the barn as he needs to get big boy training. I had done a little backing with each as I approached the gate to get them. They like to crowd at the gate and push each other for the chance to be the one to be taken out. Obviously, this is a good thing that they are so willing to come work with me but it gets dangerous with them pushing and shoving while I'm trying to get through the gate. They both seemed to have "gotten it" though: today I could just point the whip at their chest and they promptly backed away so they were C/T'd promptly as well. This is the repetition I want to try to keep up and not just assume they know it and drop it before it becomes automatic for them.

After currying, brushing and using the shedding blade, I took out a long whip that I have. It used to be a longe whip but my first Jack Russell chewed the lash off it so now it is just a long stiff whip- which I actually really like in a lot of situations! The lash can get so tangled up in things and sometimes a dressage whip just isn't long enough. Standing in front of them (again, I did this at separate times for each of them), I pointed at their chest and C/T'd for prompt energetic steps back. I only asked for one step. I am not increasing the criteria at this point- just getting the behavior solid. After they had been successful a couple times, I reached back and tapped on one hip. I had done a quick review to make sure neither was at all afraid of the whip and they were both fine with having it all over them and their legs etc as I had done that before. Rumer was pretty responsive and it didn't take many taps before she stepped away- C/T. I was careful to keep the taps light and in a steady rhythm and not escalating the pressure at all. The second she took any weight off either hind foot in the beginnings of stepping away, I dropped the point of the whip to the ground and clicked. I also told her she was wonderful and rubbed her face. I had her step away to each side and then for an easy treat, asked her to back. It's nice for them to be able to do something easy once in a while when they are learning something new or difficult. We only did this a few times to each side and I thought that was sufficient introduction for her.

I also took a few minutes to introduce the breeching of the harness to her. She has worn the surcingle and had the long reins flapped around but the breeching sits on the top of her rump and against the back of her hind legs. As a filly, she has been a little goosy at times but she was great about this. She got C/T'd for letting me put it on her back, then letting me put it on her rump (I was careful at first not to let it go over the back of her legs), then since she had shown no concern, I did let the back part slide down the back of her legs. She was great for it all and so I quit there. I will work with the crupper and her tail on another day.

Ande is not a reactive type horse (bolting in his case I think was more of a whoopee! than a reaction). Last year I had tried to introduce a whip cue to start him longeing but it seemed like I could tap away on him all day without getting a reaction. I didn't want to increase the pressure so I was a bit stumped. It turned out to be more successful with him to use my hand to lead him forward and/or a voice cue. I am now learning that I can use these cues which are successful to transition him over to the whip cue. But since I was asking for a step sideways, I couldn't ask for forward, so instead I just took a hold of his halter and bent him slightly toward me so that his position also made him want to step away in order to straighten out. I only had to do this once or twice and then I could just ask with a tap of the whip. He actually began to move when I simply raised the whip to point and that was great. That's what I'd like the behavior to end up as- simply a pointing of the whip or even my hand at a body part and have him move away from it.

Something I noticed was that both Ande and Rumer stepped to the right more easily than the left. A lot of people say that horses naturally bend more easily to the left, which would set them up better for a step away to the right with the hip. But I wonder how much of it is being taught to lead from the left so they get consistent practice bending and giving in that direction. In either case, I need to remember to work that other side!

I titled this the "Duct Tape Lesson" because that is what Alex Kurland calls it when we teach horses to move various body parts in different directions. She puts duct tape on the part of the horse she wants to move to show people which parts are most successful at moving a horse. You can read more about this in her book The Click That Teaches, A Step-by-Step Guide.

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