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.