Thursday, April 30, 2009

More single rein riding- part 2

Once I got Elly off the grass of the hayfield and on to the driveway where it meets the dirt road, she stopped dead. Her head was up as she was looking down the road and then at the young cattle across the road. I decided to let her stand and look for a moment so we could both take a breather from the maneuvers we'd just been doing. Then I closed my leg lightly, she took a couple steps and stopped again, head higher. I had a hard time believing she was really scared but I also know there are a LOT of wild turkeys around right now, and they frequently cross the road just beyond where we were. I decided to give her, as well as the clicker training process, the benefit of the doubt and asked her for head down by lifting up on one rein. She complied by lowering her head a little, so I released and then asked again. She lowered it further so I clicked and treated, then asked again. This time she lowered her head to the ground and left it there so again I C/T'd. She definitely felt more relaxed so I closed my leg again and off we went. After about 2 or 3 steps I C/T'd again.

This was my reasoning: in the field, she had not been listening to me; her focus was on the grass, not me. Therefore, my actions had been to avoid letting her reinforce her independent behavior which would have been the result if she had gotten any grass. Every independent move she made, I countered by sliding down the rein which prevented her from getting her head down. While she did make a couple "cooperative" moves, I did not think I could get a treat to her before her head dove down again and I really wanted to avoid having her get any grass. Once we got on the road, she was no longer behaving that way. Granted, she did stop, which I had not asked for, but I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt that there might have been something worrying her. She was not behaving in a dangerous or selfish way; she had just stopped. So I asked for head down in order to help her calm down. She did listen to my request so she got reinforced. Then after she was calm, I asked for forward and again, she complied with my request so I reinforced this also.

The rest of the ride was very interesting. There were a couple more times that she stopped and raised her head. Each time I would let her look for a moment, then ask for head down. Each time she complied easily and then we would continue. We did not do the serpentine this day, as we had done last time. I let her wander back and forth across the road as she went, since she seemed to be enjoying herself. She also stopped once to sniff a flattened manure pile and I let her do that. I decided to treat her like a dog on a walk. Within reason, she was allowed to go where she wanted (not off the side of the road into the grass!), allowed to stop and look, allowed to sniff the ground. I decided this was a good theme for going for a hack. We could both enjoy ourselves and the surroundings, with no agenda for how far we went or how fast we got there. It was very different from my previous perceptions of what a hack should be....but it was very relaxing and enjoyable. And I think she enjoyed it as much as I did so I hope it makes her more willing and happy about going out in the future.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

More single rein riding

I had another interesting experience again today with Elly and single rein riding. One of the biggest challenges that kids have with Elly is that she is VERY food motivated. She understands the rules about mugging when clicker training but if she sees food elsewhere: she is a freight train about dragging kids to a little dropped piece of hay or to the prime target- grass! When being ridden, she doesn't casually drop her head, she rams it down with an intent that makes you feel like your arm has been pulled right out of its socket. And trying to get it back up again is not easy. When she's done it to me, I have the experience, strength and timing to almost always prevent it and if not, to get her back again immediately. The kids don't have a chance and it can make riding her very unpleasant.

I have given some thought to all this as it corresponds to single-rein riding and decided that the theory about using SRR to prevent a horse from bolting or bucking should work for grass diving as well. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to watch the tail end of a demonstration given by a western trainer about starting horses and he demonstrated what happens when you pull on 2 reins to try to stop a horse who has put his head down to buck. You end up with a horse with his head curled under....exactly the position a horse puts his head to power off a good buck. By using one rein and taking the hip away from the horse, he can't do so. My theory was that it should work for Elly's piggish habits as well.

We began in the round pen although I was a bit distracted thinking "riding" and didn't do any ground work with her first. I was on the mounting block when I realized this and thought, well, she's been so good, I might as well see what happens if I skip the ground work this time. She was just wonderful. I'm trying to work on catching her with a 2nd and 3rd ask for a give before she goes completely back to straight and low. Riding down the road in our little serpentine was good practice for this. I want to get her hind end more underneath her and so I really focus on the step under response and we had a great session. I even went to some trot work with it and it was a fun time.

So I hopped off and opened the round pen, climbed back on and headed through the barnyard for the road. She was very good going through the potentially scary parts and wandered toward grass once or twice along the way but it was easy to re-direct her with a simple slide down. Once we got to the driveway where the hayfield is on one side and the lawn on the other, it was a different story and I really got to put my technique to work! The grass is at its spring premium right now and she hasn't had but a nibble here and there. Pretty quickly I found myself about 15 feet into the hayfield with a backing, circling horse. She did have a habit when I got her, of backing when she was displeased with something. Usually it was when someone was asking for more than simple dressage work.

I did find success but it wasn't simple. It was really important to anchor my hand on the saddle to give some added strength to resist her diving. And I had to be quick when she did dive to catch her before her head was down too far. I also had to be willing to let her back up and not give to her until she gave her hip....and then of course immediately give to her to reward her and immediately after that be prepared to slide down again. I also had to switch from left to right in a heartbeat depending on where she headed....I had the road as my goal and she twisted and turned so much that I was constantly having to change the side I slid down in order to keep her headed in the correct direction. I used no leg aids unless she was simply standing with her head up- which wasn't much- but then I just quietly closed my leg to ask her to go forward....which initially just got her resisting but after some time I guess she realized she wasn't getting what she wanted and so she gave in. Not at all once of course. She'd go a few steps and try again but we eventually made it to the road.

This is long already so I'll save "Part 2" for another time because our experience once we got to the road was interesting as well.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Self-haltering and bridling are common things to teach a horse with clicker training. Percy is very good at self-haltering....I just need to remember to give him time to do it. I hold out his halter at my waist height and he puts his nose down into the noseband and holds it very still so I can slip the crownpiece over his head.

Today I decided to do a little clipper work with him since I had gotten the clippers out to trim up bridle paths and such on the others. As he's just a baby, I'm not worried about any fuzzy bits on him, but clippers can be Scary Things so I might as well introduce them long before I ever have a need to really use them. I first let him sniff them all over. I was carrying them to the barn when he accosted me with his typical "hey, whatcha got there? What are those things? Can I sniff them? Can I eat them? What are you going to do with them?" So that was a pretty simple process.

Next I waited until he was about 10 feet away but looking at me and I turned them on. I wanted him paying attention so he wasn't startled but not so close he was frightened. At this point, I was in the barn with a panel between us. I just wanted to see his reaction. His head went up and his eyes got very big- and he came closer to investigate. As soon as he began to approach, I clicked and turned them off. So of course he came to me for his treat and to check out those clippers again. I turned them on again and he leaned away with his nostrils flaring and keeping a close eye on them. As soon as he moved toward them at all, I clicked and turned them off.

This was one of those things I didn't really have a plan for. I was just flying by the seat of my pants. The concepts going through my head were: any approach needed to be rewarded and I wanted him to feel in control of the situation rather than at risk. So by clicking and turning them off when he approached, he was getting reinforced for approaching them AND was able to make them stop being so noisy. The other thing I hadn't planned out but that worked well was the panel between us. I certainly didn't feel the need for any safety reasons, but realized that it was preventing ME from falling into my traditional training of "just get it done" and try to approach him with the clippers rather than letting him approach me. The added benefit was that I was able to sit my camera on the edge of a stall and not worry about him investigating IT instead of the clippers!

Once he got to the point where he was staying right with me and sniffing the running clippers willingly although very cautiously, I stopped turning them off. I just left them running and held them out and he began his "self-clipping". I held them in different positions so they would touch different parts of his muzzle as he investigated- C/T for each touch. Slowly, the whiskers on his top lip got trimmed pretty well! I was careful not to move them as he investigated. As it was, he got poked by them several times and startled himself but came right back. I think it was different than if I had reached toward him and he'd gotten poked.

During this time, Rumer heard the clicking and came running. I had just fed everyone their noon hay so both these guys had been eating 2nd cut hay and had left it to come play with clippers. This is just another example of how much horses love this training. Some people claim it's because we are using food but I don't think many horses unfamiliar with clicker training would leave a large pile of green 2nd cut hay out in their paddock to come in and get clipped in exchange for hay stretcher pellets being doled out 2 at a time.

Rumer and I had played with clippers last year when she was a yearling and had not been too successful....I had done much more of an "approach" method with her. So I just let her hang around and any time she touched the clippers, she got C/T'd too. It was pretty funny to see the two babies pushing each other out of the way to get at the clippers! She was not nearly as bold as he was but I just let her do as much as she felt like. She certainly had a lot more whiskers left afterward than he did. She also was not as patient when I walked away to reset the camera and would get halfway back to her hay pile before hearing me clicking again and would come hustling back.

It was a great introduction for Percy and a good re-start for Rumer. I think I'll do a little bit each day when I spend time with them.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Flipping on down the road

Earlier this week I took Elly down our dirt road for the first time this Spring. I have ridden her in the round pen several times and been very pleased with how the single rein riding is going. I set up cones and focus on softening her to one direction as we cross the round pen, then when we arrive at a cone, I slide down the rein further, look back at her inside hip, and release the rein when I feel her step under herself. I need a lot of practice at this so that I can feel the subtle differences in how far she steps under.

I've gotten a bit of a chuckle out of her as I warm her up with the same exercise on the ground as well as some WWYLM, and some mat work. A couple times she has spied the mat in the center of the round pen when I am riding and in a very determined fashion, marches over and plunks her front feet firmly on it. The first time, she caught me off guard and her effort was so genuine, her stomp stomp of each foot so confident, that I had to Click/Treat. But then she did not want to leave the mat. She figured she ought to be able to stand there and get rewarded for it. Luckily, having watched Keri and Oliver on the "Shaping on a Point of Contact" DVD, I had a good model to follow, although Keri had been working in hand at the time. I closed my leg and asked her walk off and although she was not happy about it, she did eventually step forward and I immediately C/T'd for that. As Alex says, for everything you teach, you also have to teach the opposite. So she had been taught to stand on a mat, now she had to be taught to leave it as well. One might think she should already know that since she knows to move off from a leg aid, but this is new territory and she might have thought that she should stand regardless of how much I tried to "distract" her with my leg! So I did reward her for leaving it, and worked some on riding past it without letting her pull me to it, and then rode her directly to it, rewarded her for standing and then again for leaving.

At this point I decided we were ready to enjoy some of the lovely weather with a walk down our dirt road. Lessons will be starting up soon and if there were going to be any problems with heading out this Spring, I wanted to see them while I was on board, not a student. Elly came with the reputation of being a fantastic trail horse but I've seen a fair bit of wiggly, not wanting to go forward from her, as well as a "I'll just drag this kid off into the puckerbrush and find myself some sustenance". I did allow her to stop a couple times as we went through the barnyard to look at flapping plastic, different pieces of equipment here and there, etc. She never spooked but did want to take a good look. The end of the driveway is always a bit challenging because we have young cattle across the road and the noise, smell, and odd movements seem to be reason for alarm for the horses. We got past that but as we headed off down the road (which is literally down as it goes downhill), her wiggliness appeared.

Having just been using the single rein riding, I decided to continue. When she veered left to try to turn around and go back to the barn, I slid down the right rein and asked for a give of the hip. This redirected her but she over corrected and headed off to the right in an effort to turn back that way. I slid down the left rein and asked for a give of the hip in that direction. And so on we went, in a many-looped serpentine. I focused on the stepping under of that inside hind and as soon as I felt it, I was sure to release the rein, regardless of whether she really felt like the front end was going in the right direction. I knew I could always ask again if she didn't completely give. But I don't think I ever had to. Instead, I could catch her sooner before she got perpendicular in the road and redirect her. And she softened and didn't require as much of a slide down before yielding her hip. As a result, our tight serpentine gradually flattened out until we were doing a very shallow serpentine down the center of the road. I kept "straight" in my mind and did not allow her to wander, but neither did I insist on absolute straightness. Before long, I decided to be happy with the progress we'd made and did ask for a big step under in order to turn around.

Then I had a bit of a surprise because instead of hustling back up the hill to the barn, she was very relaxed, looking around at the surroundings and walked calmly home. I'm quite sure that if I had "gotten after her" to make her go down the road and go straight, I would have also have had to get after her to walk slowly up the hill. Now we shall see how well I can convey that to her younger riders!!!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Counting on Cross-ties

I remember when I first starting clicker training, someone recommended that I count out loud for duration work. I tried it a couple times but I felt so silly that I didn't keep it up. I've tried again over the years but it wasn't until this Spring that I have been able to do it and not feel self-conscious; I have really seen the benefits. This photo shows Percy standing on the cross-ties this morning. I am very very proud of him! He's only 10 months old and has had a couple unpleasant experiences with tying when I didn't realize how worried he was and put too much pressure on him. That was back at weaning time, about 6 months of age which is when I began tying the others. But Percy's a different breed and really panicked when he was restricted. As a result, I did a little work with him just running the rope through the ring and teaching him to yield to gentle pressure as I moved around him. He pulled back a couple times but when he found he could back up, he relaxed. I have not done any more with him since until this past week or so.

I started the same way, running the rope through the ring, but also having another line in my hand on the other side. So I could pull him toward me and away from me and Click/Treat each time he responded appropriately. Finally he seemed pretty relaxed about the whole thing so a couple days ago I went ahead and hooked up the left cross-tie. He wanted to move around a fair bit so I threw in some C/T for standing still while I moved around. The criteria was that he leave his feet still. If the feet didn't move when I moved away, he got C/T. At this point I was not counting yet as I wanted to keep the reinforcement rate high. I wasn't increasing the time away from him much, just taking a step or two away in various directions while he stood. In addition, any time his head went down, I gave him a special treat. Pretty soon, he figured out that if he just hung his head on the cross-ties, it was best!

Yesterday I added in some grooming as well as running the second line through the other ring. Now he was tied to one wall, and looped pulley style to the other wall. If he panicked, I would be able to let some pressure off, but if he stepped back, I could also pull on the rope to get him to step forward....even though it was away from me. This all went well, with me just giving a curry or two, or a brush or two followed by C/T. I did this all over his body, but did not increase the time he had to stand. My criteria here was for him to keep his feet still even if I brushed him for a second or two in tickly places.

So today, I added in the counting. My goal was to get up to a count of 10 and we did! I did it gradually, first just standing next to him until we worked up to 10. That went quickly so I began counting while I curried, brushed, brushed his legs and even held up and picked out his front feet! The counting seems to lull him and tell him to just keep waiting, a click is coming....! The interesting thing I found with his feet is that even though I have picked out his feet before, I didn't realize how long a steady count to 10 is. My tendency was to pick it out quick and set it down before he had a chance to object. With the farrier coming tomorrow, it's good that he got some practice standing and holding that foot up for a long time....although I'm sure tomorrow will be a lot longer than 10. We'll have some work to go back and do afterward, but his education is certainly progressing.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Planning the Day

I think the lesson I learned today was that I need to be very careful in the order I work horses in and the thought preparation I need to do between different horses. The other day went so well, having the same general lesson for three different horses and one flowed nicely into another and I got smarter about what I was doing with each horse. Each one benefited from the work I did with the previous horse.

Today I had a different experience. I managed to salvage the day but I had to put some serious effort into it. The morning started out with a lovely short ride on Elly. Actually, it started with some lovely ground work with her, followed by a bit of time spent on the Mounting Block Lesson which had fantastic results (trickling down from the mat lesson and getting her four feet under her) and then some lovely riding. It was my first time back in the saddle this Spring and felt great. Elly was responsive and quiet...I saw none of the anxious uncomfortable horse that she can sometimes be.

So that should have set me up for a perfect afternoon. The next horse (pony) I chose to get out was Stowaway. He is the least clicker savvy of all the horses here and the most shut down. Having been a lesson/camp horse, he is pretty dead. It took many many targeting lessons to get any positive reaction out of him at all. I'm not sure he really gets it yet that he can actually do something to enhance the game, but at least there is a light in his eyes when he hears a click. I felt he was overdue for some time with me which is why I made him my second project of the day. But he is so heavy to work with- accustomed to being dragged around and having to ignore all manner of tactless handling- that by the time I was done with him, my handling had become pretty coarse. He did really well and I longed him for a bit and he was thrilled to get clicked for some trot work- it was great to see a little liveliness to his step.

So then I got Ande out and that's when I noticed the trouble. I was carrying over some of the heavy feel I had from Stowaway. Ande had been so light and positive the previous day, and I realized I had lost that. As I worked, I focused hard on what we had achieved, how I had achieved it and what that had felt like. I did get it toward the end but it took a lot of mental/emotional effort on my part. I think if I had taken a few moments before I pulled him out of his paddock, to mentally prepare myself...the way watching the DVD had inspired me...we would have had a smoother day together.

After putting him away, I turned to Percy and then Rumer. The farrier is due on Monday so that always gets me hustling to work on feet. I had a really good time with both of them yesterday and was hoping to build on it today. But they had both had been listening to me click others in the round pen next to their paddock and were very anxious to get their turn! I knew Percy could get antsy listening so I chose to do him first but oh boy was he a wiggle worm. He just couldn't contain himself waiting for me to give him something to do. Every move I made, he tried to figure out something special to do in response. Back up? Step over? Swing my hip around? Good grief he was all over the place and getting more frustrated each second because he wasn't getting it right! I finally froze in place and clasped my hands together at my waist: Grownups are Talking cue. He got it- phew, he seemed to say, I know that one! And it got him to hold still! I did a lot of Click/Treat for that because I knew he was really itching to move. I then proceeded to head down because I wanted to calm him down some more and he seemed to be OK now that he at least knew what I wanted and he was getting rewarded for it. That was fairly successful but he also took a swipe at my leg while his head was down- typical colt style but he hasn't done that in a long time and with just breeches on, I reacted a lot more strongly than I had during the winter when I knew I had a lot of cushion between me and any teeth! So I knew he was a little more stressed than I really wanted so I decided to give him something to sink his teeth into! I got out his loopie toy and let him pick it up and hand it to me about 10 times. By this time, he really seemed quieter so I returned to yesterday's cross-tying lesson. I ran a long lead through a tie ring on one side of the aisle and another through the other side and attached both to his halter. I did not tie either but just held them and played with pulling first one and then the other, C/T ing when he yielded to each. He remembered from yesterday so I dropped both leads, leaving them through the tie rings and began working with his feet. He was an absolute star for that (front feet only) so I called it quits for the day and considered it a good day to go from Mr Ants-in-his-Pants to standing quietly for having his feet picked out!

Then I cross-tied Rumer and we did more work with her feet. She made huge progress yesterday with her hind feet. Really relaxing her hind legs and letting me pick them up instead of snatching them up. Today we went through the same process but I was even able to pick them out without her pulling away. I did consciously let go of her foot any time she pulled away at all. My instinct is to want to hold on and not "let her get away with" pulling away. But she knows the game well enough now that pulling away and getting her foot back is no reward compared to getting a C/T! So that was another good lesson for me today.

So now, I know I need to get an emotional/mental frame of reference as well as an objective lesson plan before I work with each horse. And I need to plan the day so that each horse gets the best opportunity to do his best work.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Shaping on a Point of Contact

Last night I finished watching "Shaping on a Point of Contact", one of Alexandra Kurland's DVDs from the middle of her series. Somehow I had a hole in my collection and was missing that one until just recently. Not surprisingly, after watching the DVD, I found corresponding holes in my training!

The DVD stars Keri Gorman and her 3 year old Oliver. In it, they work on the mat and the transformation that Oliver undergoes in this 3 day clinic is astounding. He starts out as a typically gangly 3 year old with legs all higgledy piggledy as Alex says, and ends up standing foursquare and well balanced! All from the mat work! As I watched, I had several ah hah! moments...although I'm not sure it really counts when Alex points these things out in plain English. Sometimes my ah hah! moments require someone else shining a bright light and using a loudspeaker I guess :)

What I saw, since Alex pointed it out, is how Oliver finds his own balance during these sessions. While Keri consistently "suggests" that he reposition himself and try something different, she never molds or pushes or holds him in any spot. He rocks back and forth within his stance as he rebalances himself, all the while experimenting with his body to find the balance point. And find it he does. He is absolutely stunning standing there at the conclusion.

The other thing Alex pointed out is how critical it was that Keri was using rope cues to achieve this, as opposed to direct pressure or whip cues etc. She said this ties in to gives of the jaw and will carry over to riding. Now this point I'm just going to have to trust her on because it blows my mind to think that a rope and halter can actually soften a jaw, but I've had my mind blown several times by this stuff, so trust her I will. And Keri was so amazingly soft with her rope cues and quick to release as soon as she got a response, I was inspired.

So filled with these new found morsels, I headed out to the barn this afternoon and gave it a try with three different horses: 3 yr old Ande, 12 yr old Elly, who has had very basic dressage training and didn't enjoy it, and 12 year old Zoe, who has had more extensive dressage training....and doesn't really enjoy it! I have not done any mat work with Ande, I have done quite a bit with Elly (see other blog posts here) and minimal work with Zoe. Having seen the video, I now focused on whether Elly was square with her hind feet since I had been focusing solely on her front feet...using that as my determining factor for her duration work. I could see how she too, was gently rocking forward and back, looking for her balance. She obviously enjoyed this break from "just standing" on the mat and after a bit, I proceeded to having her target her hind feet to the mat. I really got to play around with the rope and see how much I could accomplish with just that as a cue and it was quite amazing.

Since Ande had never done it, we began with the experimental bang bang of his hooves which was 3 yr old fun. But he quickly progressed and soon we were doing the same thing and my little Quarter Pony was looking pretty impressive. But the bonus to all this? The ears were not pinned as we walked around betwen time spent on the mat (see yesterday's post!) Somehow, I had his attention and his interest and he was more interested in listening to me than in charging off. This had clicked with me while watching the DVD as Alex predicted that horses will learn that the mat is where treats get delivered and will anticipate and try to drag you there as you approach. She explained that you have to remind the horse that you have to go there while listening and maintaining connection with the handler. That was a beautiful bonus for today!

The only mat work I have done with Zoe was last winter (a full year ago) using a doormat. Today I did not actually use the mat with her, just used the feel I had gotten from the other two to adjust her stride as we walked. Zoe can walk out and leave others in her dust and she likes to do that! So after some head down to relax her, we headed out across the paddock with me focusing on a methodical, relaxed walk. If she got out ahead of me, I tried my best to slide down the rope smoothly to stop her and ask her to rock back. We played with this all the way to the round pen and I was pretty impressed with how well she responded (considering I have spent a fair bit of time practically jogging alongside this mare at events just to take her for a walk!). I took her into the round pen and again, she was quiet and very responsive as we walked around, changed directions, stopped for head down, etc. She was better at the head down than she's ever been.

All in all it was a great afternoon and I wanted to get it written down so that I can re-read it and recapture it again!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ande- finding and filling in holes: ears

One of the things I regret most about what I have done with Ande is not focusing more on his ears. I really don't know the psychology behind the connection between facial expression and the way we feel. I know when I was little and feeling grumpy, my father would tell me to smile and it would just make me crabbier! But when the effort is initiated from within, it does help to improve attitude. I did not pay attention to Ande's ears when I was teaching him some leading skills and having his ears pinned back gradually crept in as a standard piece of the leading behavior (now that I think about it, his ears are up when I long line him so that's a good thing!). I do not want it to continue so that's a big hole that I need to focus on.

Initially, I tried to work on it while I was doing other things- leading etc. But that was not clear enough to him and I needed to climb down deep into that hole to begin filling it in properly. So I put him on the cross ties (he does not have a stall or I would have let him loose in his stall) and just watched and clicked for ears. Without the distraction of working on anything else, his ears were more likely to flick around. For a long time, all I could get was one ear but I really worked hard at that one because his expression totally changed with even one ear up. His eye softened. Initially, he would flick it forward when something in the environment interested him- Click/Treat. Then he became curious about what I was clicking him for and so would flick that far ear forward as he looked at me- C/T. It took a while, but finally I could see that he was thinking about it as he flicked his right ear up and looked at me out of the corner of his eye. I repeated this exercise over many days. Any time both ears happened to go forward, he got a jackpot and a lot of fussing over. By the time he looked like he really got it and was putting that one ear up on purpose, I tried to incorporate it into some other work.

Today I had him in the round pen and just stood next to him while we worked on the ears. I also worked on some head down, wanting to build more duration into that for future uses. He does not pin his ears for this. I figured that was a relaxing exercise that would not trigger any cranky faces. Then we tried the cha-cha- steps forward and back from a very light rein cue (or even no rein but just my body turning to face him for the backing). Since "forward" has a tendency to trigger the ears pinned, I hoped that a couple steps forward, immediately followed by backing might interrupt his routine of charging forward with his ears pinned. It worked pretty well to interrupt it- he did some very nice forward and back off my body language and/or light rope cues (he was just in a halter and lead). But he still seemed to flatten his ears as soon as we went forward- even one step. The back step would stop it, but I needed to go deeper so that I could prevent it.

So I thought about some chaining behavior and secondary reinforcements. Actually, it came to me after I decided what to try that I realized that's what it was! I think he likes moving, so I think that it is rewarding to him to be able to go forward. (that may seem backwards since he pins his ears when I ask him to walk, but I really think the ears came coincidentally, not because he doesn't like to go places). So I would wait for that ear to flick, and then instead of clicking, I asked for a step forward. If the ear stayed forward, I'd click that first step- he was being rewarded for moving forward with his ear up. AND, putting his ear up got the reinforcement of being allowed to move. I found I needed to be even quicker and click as I asked him to go forward to really be sure of clicking when the ear was up. But this worked! At this point I was about out of hay stretcher pellets so I knew I had to quit. I will definitely go back to this tomorrow though as I think we may finally be on the right track of a forward moving, Happy Face boy!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Keeping Training Records

Sometimes when you keep coming across the same information/advice in rapid succession, it's a sign that you need that advice. I've been reading recently about the necessity of making training plans and keeping training records. This blog was one effort to do so and I think it has been helpful in a reflective sense. But I've been reading more about keeping detailed records, including things like the actual count in duration work and even rating the quality of responses you get in certain behaviors. I think overall, this just helps you analyze the success of your training and underscores the fact that things are improving when you might feel like you're stuck. And I know it would be helpful if I had a real plan when I worked with a horse because it would make for a more logical "lesson".

So today I wrote up a plan for working with Elly. My big goal is to have her "stay with" her handler, whether it is rider or someone leading her. She is fine with me, but can really drag a kid around if grass is available. I'm not sure if this is really a reasonable goal. The kids just don't seem to have the muscle to stop her and I worry about whether they have the mental sharpness to be quick enough to outwit her. My hope, therefore, is to teach her to pay attention to her handler- in this situation it would be me- and see if it will carry over to the kids when the time comes. In any case, I'm sure all these little lessons will come in handy for her general education.

In clicker fashion, I had to come up with things she should do, not things she shouldn't do....I need to have things that I can reward her for. It is not clear enough to a horse that they are being rewarded for "not eating". I came up with three mini-goals toward this larger goal:
  1. relaxation- she needs to be relaxed with her handler, not worried about anything, nor on the hunt!
  2. self-control- she needs to be able to resist the grass or other food temptations when she is being asked to work in any way- under saddle or in hand
  3. attentive- she should be looking for the next cue, wondering what she could do next.
After that, I came up with one of Alexandra Kurland's foundation lessons which would address each one of these goals. I decided to use them as exercises toward each mini-goal. The following are the exercises/lessons I came up with:
  1. relaxation-"Grownups are Talking"...she needs to learn to just hang out next to a person and not fidget
  2. self-control- "You can't Get Me to Eat that Carrot"...this will be identical to practicing her self-control around grass.
  3. attentiveness- I chose a combination of the "Cha-cha" and "Duct Tape" lessons. My thought was that by doing a combination of all these, it would keep her busy and focused on what I was going to ask for next so she wouldn't get bored.
So then I had to break each one of these exercises down into tiny, measurable pieces. This is called "splitting" as opposed to "lumping". Lumping is when one asks for a behavior that is just too big for the horse to figure out.....stand still on that mat and don't move your feet or your head and don't try to get treats out of my pocket and don't put your head down....etc! Splitting, on the other hand, splits all those pieces apart and trains each one separately before asking the horse to combine them.

It was easy to break down the Grownups Lesson. That was simply a matter of duration so I just continued to count as I asked her to stand and just increased the duration by a second or two at a time.

I broke the "You Can't Make Me Eat that Carrot" lesson down into holding the carrot out, approaching her with a carrot, standing in reach of her with the carrot, and then trying the same with a fresh cut apple, then with a flake of hay and then with a bucket of grain.

The third mini-goal was the Cha-Cha and Duct Tape Lesson exercises. I set up a random series of movements to ask her for to see if she would pay attention both to each request and to the long series of them as I switched from one to another. The different moves were:
  • one step forward, one step back
  • forward, back, forward
  • forward and then back 5 steps
  • forward half a circle, then back 2 steps, then forward again
  • repeat all of the above from the other side
  • ask for step over from hip cue from each side
  • ask for step over from shoulder cue from each side
Now we'll see how this plan works!

Friday, April 10, 2009


It's been a little difficult to get enthusiastic about going to the barn the last couple days. On Wednesday, I lost Smarty to a freak reaction to his yearly immunizations. It's funny the little things that trip sadness. Things that might have been a pain in the past are now reasons to miss him. I had gotten completely used to having to feed him "soup" at his meals. When I got Smarty, I was told that he loved his grain served "soupy", not moist, but really soupy. So I complied and it was actually a pleasure to watch him eat. The look on his face was pure bliss as his eyes would half close and he'd just slowly suck up his soup. If you neglected to add water, he'd bang and crash his feed tub around as he ate. Of course, it was best to stay out of the way until he was all done or he'd happily drizzle soup all over you. I learned that lesson the hard way and many many times.
In the summer, I just added water from the hydrant to his meals. But in colder temperatures, I would always fill a cider jug in the house with hot water to carry out to add to his food so he'd have a warm soup. This is what trips me up now. I habitually reach for the cider jug each chore time after I have dressed to go out- and then I remember. It's not like I've forgotten about it all day- but just something about not having to do that little piece of my day brings back all the memories of Smarty and his unique self.
I'm trying to use his memory as a good reason to be more consistent in my training give others the opportunity to express themselves the way he so uniquely could.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Clicking for Grooming

The weather has been really nasty here for the last several days but in the days before this I spent a lot of time with the shedding blade. I found myself using the clicker for many different behaviors while grooming.

Starting with the youngest, Percy got clicked for letting the shedding blade touch him all over his body. This is his first experience with it and he was happy to sniff it and bite it and showed no fear of the thing itself. As a result, I did not feel the need to click for just touching it and did not want him to think that was the purpose of the exercise! But I did click for standing still while I used it on his neck, and then progressed on to the rest of his body. When I first began with clicker training, it was hard to always think in terms of clicking FOR a particular behavior. I found myself almost clicking for MY behavior. In other words, if I was able touch a horse with the blade, then I clicked. Then if I was able to touch him twice with the blade, I clicked. This was very unproductive because I wasn't pinpointing a specific behavior of the horse. The horse might have been standing, might have been fidgeting, might have actually been pulling away. So the horse was getting rewarded for all these things. I am better now at deciding what specific behavior to look for...and knowing that I have to teach that behavior before I can expect the horse to do it in difficult circumstances. So in this case, I knew Percy already knew the rules for standing still (no moving feet) and for head down. I did a quick review of these behaviors so he knew what track I was on, and then began to use the blade, clicking after 1 swipe with the blade, then 2 swipes, then 3 etc. When I moved to a different part of the body, I began again with clicking for 1 swipe...being willing to stand still for having your neck worked with is different than standing still for having your tummy tickled! I think the most difficult thing for him was that at times it felt really good and he wanted to lean into it and his little nose would screw up as he tried so hard to hold still!

With Ande, I did the same basic exercise but required stillness from more of his body. I had done Percy just loose in his paddock, but Ande is familiar with cross-ties and I am trying to do it a lot so it becomes very natural for him to stand on them and not fidget with his head or bite the ropes, etc. He is really quite good, but more practice and reinforcement never hurts. I was also much more random with the clicks with him. I basically just worked away on him and clicked about once on each general body part (neck, barrel, rump, upper leg) when he was in the ideal position. He didn't move much but sometimes his head was up, or looking around at me. I chose the times that his head was low (as low as the cross ties allowed) and he had a relaxed expression on his face.

Rumer needs a lot of work on her feet. I clicked for the shedding blade as well- somewhere between the frequency of Ande and Percy, but I focused a lot of time on working with her feet. She is quick to pick up her feet like her mom. It almost seems like she is snatching them away from you but since I know Kizzy does the same, I don't try to change it. But that's her front feet. With her back feet, she does snatch them away and can kick out...she has been quick with her hind feet since she was a day old foal! I have always reasoned that she was different from the colts in this way- the boys bit, the girl kicked...seemed like a natural response. Luckily, Rumer gave up kicking when I started clicker training her- she began offering her front end instead of her hind end! But she is still sensitive to someone else touching her hind feet. The farrier tends to just hold on when she does that, but I want her to learn to relax and not have to go through that bit. So I am clicking her for leaving her foot down when I touch it. Then I gradually proceed to letting her just rest her foot and I will work up to having her rest it and letting me actually pick it up, rather than her doing the lifting.

Kizzy is the one who had me giggling because with all the cone work I've done with her, she is really getting into this game! For such a timid mare when I got her, it's great to see her putting herself out there and try things. With her, I wanted to teach her to stand with her nose on the cone for a duration of time so that I could groom her without tying her. I had taken her out of her paddock so there was the whole barnyard to explore and bits of hay just begging to be vacuumed by Kizzy the professional cleaning woman! I got her enthusiastically bonking the cone with her nose and then progressed to waiting a fraction of a second before clicking to give her the idea that she needed to leave her nose there as opposed to just a quick tap. She was pretty quick and pretty accustomed to just having touch it so it took several tries but she got it- sort of. The reason I got laughing was because she was so enthusiastic that she kept trying to do different things to the cone- smacking it with her nose to send it teetering like one of those punching clowns. But- she did get better at it- and in the process, I was able to give her a thorough shedding while she never left the cone. More practice to come with that one!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Kizzy learns lateral work

I certainly had no intention of teaching Kizzy lateral work when I took her to the round pen today. It was one of those situations where my training plan worked backwards. I started at one place and kept backing up steps until I finally found a place that we could work from. That isn't the best method to approach these things with but it is eye-opening to see all the layers of training that can be missed if you don't take the time to back up.

Since Kizzy has learned to love targeting cones (and even went so far as to start smacking one around the other day!), I thought my next step would be to teach her to go between a set of cones. My purpose is to use this to give her a gateway of cones to go through, between which I could then place ground poles or small jumps for kids. It is challenging enough for kids to worry about position and pace without having to steer as well. Since Kizzy has no jumping background, she isn't a "point and shoot" pony who will figure out which general direction she's pointed at and find the jump for the child.

So I picked out some very different-looking cones so she could learn which to target and which to go through- these are smaller, white, flimsy and not solid whereas her targeting cones are the big road construction type cones. I also used two sets of "Bloks"...the plastic blocks that can be set at different heights and used to make little jumps. That way, they will transition perfectly to their jumping purpose. So with those 3 pairs of "gates" set evenly around the round pen, I started out leading her around and would Click/Treat every time we went through a pair. I am trying to be careful to get behaviors more solid before progressing with them so I made myself count out 10 repetitions of this behavior- 5 in one direction and then 5 in another. I found a huge discrepancy between the two directions. To the left, with me leading her on the traditional side, she marched right along eagerly and even quickened a tad as we approached the gate. But to the right, when I was leading from her right, she lagged behind me and would always try to go around behind me either when I clicked or after I treated. So I changed my criteria to doing 10 full repetitions to the right alone. By the tenth, she was staying more consistently next to me but still with nowhere near the enthusiasm she had to the left.

My next step was to lay the leadrope over her neck and walk to the inside of the inside cone while she walked between the cones. I want to progess to my standing in the middle of the round pen and sending her around on her own. Yes, I could just chase her around with the longe whip, but that would not have showed me all that going through these steps did and I think I am going to have a much happier and more cooperative pony in the end this way. Again, to the left, she seemed to pick that up pretty well, but she had a tendency to drift toward me so she wasn't in the center of the gate. I needed a way to send her away from me. I tried the same cue I had used to send her to target a cone....but that made her go to one of the cones or bloks and touch it with her nose. Well, that was good I guess, that she figured out that cue so well! But I was going to need something different here. So I thought of the longe whip. My traditional training has taught me how to send a horse out on a longe line, so that's what I decided to try next.

I let Kizzy loose in the round pen while I went to get a whip and do some thinking. What I was remembering was how Kizzy behaves while I longe her with kids on her. She does this a lot and is still happiest the closer she is to me. When I try to point the whip at her shoulder to push her out, she gets VERY cranky, pins her ears and swings her head at me. I realized I have never taught her to move away from a whip, I have just used the threat of a whip to send her out. Not that I really meant to threaten her with it....but when you wave a whip at somebody to make them go away...well that's what you are doing! And what I got in return was Kizzy's defensive behavior. I'll refrain from commenting on why that wouldn't be a good form of longeing in any situation but it certainly wasn't ideal for trying to teach kids on her back.

So I decided to use the same method I had used with Percy- if an 8 mo old weanling can do it, a teenaged pony should be able to! So I restocked my treat pouch, and took my lashless longe whip back to Kizzy. It only took me a trial or two to abandon the whip entirely and realize I had started (and in fact so far only used) my finger with Percy. Kizzy's pretty reactive and she wanted to move when I touched her shoulder. I clicked for that once or twice, just to tell her that moving was what I wanted (as opposed to a situation where I wanted her to stand still while I groomed or handled a wound). But then I withheld the click and lightly held the lead so she couldn't go forward. I didn't put any pressure on the lead, just held it so that if she tried to go forward, she would hit it and be stopped. She stepped forward and back a couple times before I saw a step that I could see was at least fractionally to the right and I clicked that. I tried again and once again we got a forward-backward try first, but then a distinct step to the right- away from my hand. I clicked and made a big fuss over her. That was all it took- she now knew that she needed to step away from the pressure (very light) of my finger on her shoulder. I was able to pretty quickly focus on her outside front leg as the clickable moment and within minutes, she was offering that as the first step and got lots of repetitions of that and lots of treats as well as verbal praise. I think that is important with her because of her worried temperament. She really responds to the kids and moms who fuss over her in a soothing manner :)

That quickly evolved into letting her walk forward, applying my finger and voila! beautiful lateral steps! We only did that about three times but I was sure she had it and so she got a huge handful of all the hay stretcher pellets left in my pouch as well as some carrot pieces I had. What a difference it will make if she will willingly move away from me pointing the whip at her shoulder instead of feeling threatened and forced to. Now if only I had started the day's session there :)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kizzy, kids, cones & cues

Last Saturday, Kizzy got a chance to "show off" what she knew about targeting cones. I had a couple Pony Club kids here and I like to use the off-season to help them brush up on their handling skills. It's so easy to get caught up in Riding and forget how important all of our interactions are. Everything we do with our horses on the ground carries over into what we happens in the saddle- by being conscious of our actions, we can really see the benefit when we ride.

An example of this is our cues. Animals are very aware of our body language. We don't give them enough credit for figuring out what we want much of the time! A common example of this is when we walk off and expect our horse to come right along with us. And yet when we want to walk around in front of our horse, we walk off the same way and then firmly admonish "whoa!" when the horse "rudely" walks into us as we pass in front of them. Unless we have told them, in some way, to stand still, they think they are supposed to walk off when we do! And if they don't, they may get pulled on, yelled at or worse.

So what started off as a show-off for Kizzy, became a brief introduction for this concept that I hope to focus more on in the future. Kizzy has gotten very good at targeting cones within a distance of about 30 feet. That is as far as I have tested her which is within the confines of the round pen. That way, there are no distractions- I hope to really build it into a solid enough behavior that I can also do it outside a confined area where there may be distractions. I can now set 3 cones around the round pen and send her off from one to the other. I still click/treat after each cone. When the two girls were here, I demonstrated how I cue Kizzy to go to a cone. Starting with both hands by her nose, I extend my hand out in front of her in a sweeping movement that ends by pointing at the cone I want her to go to. She has occasionally decided it's easier to just make a little circle around me and go back to the cone that's right next to us but that doesn't earn the C/T! The girl who usually rides Kizzy got to practice a couple times and they did great. I was glad Kizzy was willing to do this for her as it's the first time she has done it for anyone other than me!

Then I got the other girl into it by posting each one of us at a cone so that we could send Kizzy from one to the other around the pen. This was new for Kizzy also so she wasn't as confident but did do it. What I noticed though, was the second girl just wanted to let her go and expected her to go to the cone herself. She did not understand the importance of the cue. Now when I began teaching this to Kizzy, there was no cue- except the presence of the cone. Simply seeing a cone was a signal to Kizzy that she could go touch it and get a treat! This was fine in the beginning at getting her enthusiastic. However, what happens if I want to use a cone in a lesson for another purpose? What if she goes to another farm where there happens to be cones in the arena? Kizzy will undoubtedly go to the cones and get frustrated because she's not being rewarded and her rider will get frustrated because the pony just wants to go to the cones! So I developed this cue as a way of telling her when it is OK to go to a cone and expect to be rewarded for it. She is just now learning that going to a cone without getting the cue first won't be rewarded. So it is important that she always get the cue.

So if WE remember how important our cues are and remember to be aware of how we cue things on the ground, we will be that much more aware of our riding cues/aids.