Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Trailer Loading 101

Very successful evening last night! All three babies had some trailer loading practice. Ande had been on before- as a yearling he had a day or two of practice and then even went to a clinic with Alex Kurland an hour away. He had not been on since and the other two had never had any experience.

I was SO proud of all three of them. I saw some amazing similarities based on their clicker training basics and also some differences based on their personalities and histories.

Ande was first and Ande just is not a worryer! Tempered curiosity is as far as it goes. All it took with him was C/T for approaching every few steps. C/T for each new foot on the ramp. C/T when the front feet got into the trailer, then lots of C/T for just standing inside and looking around. He was concerned about backing out so there was lots of C/T for the hind feet proceeding back down the ramp. Then we walked away, turned around and did it again. It was so easy that I called it quits right there for him!

Next in line was Rumer. Rumer reminds me of a little girl in kindergarten right now- she wears pink sundresses, runs the classroom hierarchy and can beat all the boys in any races or climbing they challenge her with. She likes excitement- she's the first one to the window if anything is going on. So the trailer was exciting! Eyes wide, hairdo bouncing, her little snorts expressing all kinds of alarm as we approached. Then I clicked. Well, this is still a Big Deal but if teacher is giving out treats then all you guys stay in the classroom and I'll go see if it's safe out there. So we then did just about the exact same thing as with Ande- C/T for steps toward the trailer and C/T for each new foot on the ramp. She put her little front toes in the crack between the ramp and the trailer floor and teetered there for a while- I think she was showing off. Then she stepped in and walked to the front. I pulled out a peppermint and she chomped happily. She, like Ande, was worried about putting her feet out behind her so we C/T'd each step backward. We made a big circle and I was going to repeat the whole thing again but she said, "heck no- the peppermints come out when I'm IN the trailer- hurry up!" and she proceeded to drag me into the trailer! So yes, she got another peppermint in there but then I asked the little busybody to stand still for half a minute with C/Ts marking the time. That was hard but she did it :)

Last but not least, was Percy. Approaching the trailer took longer with him because he had never even been to the area where the trailer was parked. So there were Other Things to look at: wood piles, a hose, sheep panels, etc. His head was up and boy is he getting big! I had to look UP at him! The trailer was just one more thing to look at- no different than the other new things. Routine was the same but I took more breaks. When he made a big step- first time sniffing the ramp, first step on the ramp, etc, he didn't immediately take the treat after I clicked. To me, that meant we were approaching overload so I turned away and let him graze in some deep clover right next to the ramp for half a minute or so while he looked around at all the other things. Then we'd have another go. With these little breaks, we made the same progress as with the others. He looked huge in the trailer. I managed to take a picture (above) of him with my cell phone....such a good boy. Surprisingly- he had no problem with backing off. He marched right backward just as we've been practicing on the ground.

So- the overarching themes?
  • the mat work I had done with all three was invaluable. Stepping onto that ramp with each foot was just the same as stepping on the piece of plywood I use for a mat. I had a communication with all three to be able to ask them to just take a baby step and that would be good. They had experience with the noise and feel of stepping onto something. And the back feet were critical.
  • I never used any pressure. There was a loop in the rope the entire time with each one. I stayed near their heads and just walked myself. I was able to click before anyone felt the need to stop themselves. When we got to the ramp, I did step on first to be sure they heard and saw that before doing it themselves. But then I just waited for them to initiate the steps onto the trailer and in. They knew there was reinforcement coming so they volunteered the whole way.
  • I have lured many a horse with grain, carrots, etc. onto a trailer in my life- this was totally different. All three clearly showed they knew that this was about doing better than you did before at each step. Each time I turned away and then reapproached, they went beyond the previous stopping point without any hesitation. The clicks didn't come until progress had been made.
Clicker training is not about how fast you can get something done- no contests about who can accomplish something faster than somebody else. It's about being as thorough as possible. But I have to brag here: this entire process, from the time I put Ande's halter on until I let Percy go- half an hour! That's an average of 10 minutes a piece which for two of them was their first experience ever and they loaded all the way in. SUCH good babies.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


So how much concentration can we expect from our horses when the flies are chewing on them? After a very damp June and July, we have had a couple hot and humid days which seem to have brought out herds of green heads and horse flies like I've never seen before. Last week, I squashed fourteen of them on Stowaway during one 1/2 hour Jr Pony Club lesson.

The ponies don't usually share a hay pile as well as they are in this photo here but I think they have been huddling together to take advantage of each other's tail and so aren't as focused on personal space. Percy and Rumer rub on each other and when a particularly nasty fly takes hold, they tend to body slam each other in an effort to get it off. Along with the regular chasing and wrestling they do, it has made Rumer less sensitive to my space. I also tend to focus on Percy when I lead them out to pasture together because Rumer has become so dependable. Unfortunately, it all had a negative affect on Rumer's leading so we've been reviewing some basics just the way Sarah recommended I do for Ande: duration lessons with leading. She wasn't doing anything dangerous or naughty- just was no longer staying right at my side but would hang back or get ahead of me; or cross over in front of me if I stopped to pay attention to Percy.

The first night I took her out to work on it, I was astonished at how oblivious she had become. I reviewed the cue to step away from a touch on her shoulder. She was a pro at this earlier this year but when I asked this time, she leaned into me instead...just as I have seen her lean into Percy when they get playing or tussling for a hay pile. So I waited. I didn't increase the pressure but just waited (she increased the pressure a bit herself when she leaned into me). She tried going forward and I was able to keep my finger on her shoulder and step her back. She tried backing and I just followed her back. Then she stepped forward again but I saw the leg closer to me step a hair toward the other front foot so I clicked and treated. Oh....she seemed to say. I did it again and this time she went forward one step, I stepped her back; she stepped back and I followed her; and then she stepped right across with a front foot- C/T. "Got it!" she said. Every request after that was met with a nice neat step away. So then we started off walking and I occasionally asked for a step away while going forward and she happily obliged. She just needed a reminder lesson.

Then I proceeded to the duration lesson of "loose leash leading" with the expectation that she stay with me as I walked even though the lead was thrown over her neck. I only had to ask her back a time or two when she seemed to be experimenting with what would happen if she started to walk away. I got to a count of 15 before running out of treats and taking her back to the barn. I think I need to combine this lesson with her ground driving.

Yesterday and this morning I led both Percy and Rumer out together. I was very careful to position them both clearly when we started off and C/Td after 5 steps while they were both still in position. I took turns as to who I treated first and thankfully this kept them satisfied. I increased the steps before C/T gradually but I also C/Td for each turn through a gate or around the barn as I knew those were places that they could have crowded each other or me. What a difference it made! Back to my polite little babies.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ande's Lesson

Today I was fortunate to have a clicker trained set of eyes helping me with Ande. I felt I needed someone else to observe him and give me an objective opinion about where he is and what to do next. Lucky for me, the feedback was positive (this was a clicker trainer after all). My concerns were:
  • are his ears back a sign of crabbiness, confusion, frustration, boredom or nothing to worry about?
  • how does his attitude look when I am on his back? Because he is new to having a rider on his back, I didn't feel confident in gauging his attitude by feel. Was his wiggliness a sign of unhappiness or just uncoordination?
  • was there any sign that I should do more work with him before progressing with his under saddle education?
After watching him do some WWYLM, Sarah's advice was to work on more duration with him and think about the 300 peck pigeon exercise. I did a google search for 300 peck pigeon to try to give some accurate background information on the name of the exercise and actually found a great article written by Alexandra Kurland which explains the whole exercise and more! I think it was written quite some time ago from the ages of the horses in the clinic she reports on, but nonetheless, it is pertinent information and covers more than I could in this blog. You can read the article at

In it, Alex details similar issues with her horse Robin as a youngster so I think Sarah hit the nail on the head with her suggestion. She didn't think it looked like a major issue and after watching me sit on him and ask for a few steps, she thought he looked quite happy, relaxed and safe. So- my goals now are 300 peck pigeon and more riding!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From Single Rein Riding....

I had a great ride on Elly this afternoon. The girl who rides her most frequently is away at camp for a month so I decided I will take this time and work with Elly some more. I have been reading a lot about the "3 flip 3" and Hip Shoulder Shoulder exercises on The Click That Teaches list and wanted to experiment some more. I've been using them both with Ande on the ground but last time I tried the Hip Shoulder Shoulder (HSS) under saddle, I couldn't make it work. Today, it worked like a charm and wow, was it amazing. I felt completely connected to Elly by thought-strings. I wish I could get some video of her- my only concern is whether or not she is forward enough. She is a complete slug with students but I did pay close attention to her walk as I led her to the arena and she was marching along nicely. I didn't think to check until we were halfway there when I got a mental image of the way she and the student creeeeep slooooowly out. I was walking right out and she was right at my side, marching along as well. I think she just matches the energy of who she is with. All I do to get her to walk from a halt when I am on is lift my reins and off she goes, so I know she is responsive. Still, it would be nice to SEE that she is tracking up sufficiently. Maybe if we get a day that I can be comfortable that it won't rain, I'll set up the tripod outside the arena.

In a nutshell (and God forbid don't try this exercise from this explanation as it's WAY simplified- go to Alex's book or DVD!), 3 flip 3 (3F3) is 3 flexions of increasing amount, followed by a step under of the inside hind (degree anywhere from a full "flip" of the hip to a simple engagement of the inside hind, depending on how much you ask for), followed by 3 lateral steps. Hope I got that right- anybody out there who knows what they're doing is free to correct me!

With her child rider, Elly has started a new little bizarre evasion in that when she is asked for a walk-trot transition, she inverts, both laterally and longitudinally and stalls out. It's very bizarre to watch and I'm not sure if it's a reaction to the too-deep sand in the arena or a severe crookedness in the rider. I have done a lot of work with the rider to keep her hands from crossing over the neck: I actually had to have her hold the mane with her outside hand) and then make her look OUTSIDE the the direction she would go if she was leg yielding out. This all works to correct it- but doesn't prevent it from happening initially. The girl was quite tickled to do several lateral steps from a 15 m circle to a 20 so thankfully it was rewarding for her but sure is a weird puzzle.

So today, after we had done several successful 3F3 exercises at the walk, I asked for a trot and she did the same thing to me. I immediately asked for a 3F3 and she corrected. Ask for another transition- same thing. So I think it either is the sand that makes her not want to trot or it's just something she's learned and become a little habit. We kept working at it and each time she inverted less and corrected more easily until finally she gave a little trot step and got an immediate C/T. We repeated that several times; if she inverted at all, I just quietly asked for the 3F3....using all my willpower not to have my request be punishing, but just a request back into correct carriage until she decided it was a lot more rewarding to go straight to trot for a C/T than to have to go through all the steps of 3F3 first! When I got a nice upward transition with just a hint of a leg aid and no inverting and a forward 3 trot steps, C/T and jumped off. I could have a lot of fun with this mare in the next month.....:)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rumer and mat work

In continuing Rumer's preparation for driving, I have had two people suggest that the first thing she pull is a tire. I thought this sounded like a great idea and set about getting her used to having a tire around. Like other new things these days, the tire quickly became something to investigate in exchange for clicks and treats. I was a bit concerned about what would happen if she got tangled up in it and fate decided to let me have some experience dealing with that. Rumer likes to paw at new things and so she pawed at the tire. When Percy paws, it's a huge reach out front but when Rumer does it, she keeps her leg pretty tightly curled and sure enough, she hooked the inside of the tire and pulled it under her which scared her and she leaped and the tire jumped and rolled and oh my. Now it was a Dangerous Tire. It didn't take long with C/T to have her touching it again but she was not keen on having it move at all.
So I decided this was another job for the mat work. My goal is to have her stand quietly on her mat while I pull the tire around her and THEN we will progress to having it follow along behind as she walks. She was very happy to see the mat come out and plunked her feet right on it (I still have to ignore a few initial paws before her feet are still). But it became apparent that we need to work more on it before introducing the tire. Even though I had worked up to a count of about 5 (the issue being that she thinks pawing will start the game going again when I get too slow), we needed to solidify the whole exercise before being able to use it with the tire.
Being a youngster, Rumer likes action. Just standing still is hard work. After a bit, it seems to her like perhaps she could DO something to get that clicker going again, rather than just waiting. So we've done a lot of re-setting her back on the mat, using simple targeting as a secondary reinforcer and patience on my part. From there, I worked up to stepping away from her as I counted. First one step, click and return to treat; then two steps, click and return to treat, etc. I did this in all different directions- off to the side, back behind her and the biggest challenge was stepping off in front of her- you could see her thinking hard about whether she was supposed to be stepping off with me or staying on her mat! Since I do use the cue of a slide on the lead to mean "go forward", I think it was easier for her to distinguish that when she was on the mat and I walked away without that cue, the right answer was to stay put. And of course she got reinforced for it to confirm that yes, she was right!
Last night, I attached three bale strings to the tire and set it that length from her, out to the side. I had left the tire in the paddock ever since the it had attacked her and we had done more games with her touching it and watching me pick it up. I occasionally found it in a different place so they must have played with it on their own as well. I put Rumer on the mat and after a short session of just standing on the mat, I pulled the bale string so the tire approached her by 6 inches. She did her funny little arched head cock that she does but stayed put: C/T. I pulled it another 6 inches closer- same result. We played this game for a while and she would let it get pretty close before she felt she had to move or it would jump up and get her again. She did have a halter on but I had removed the lead so she was free to go when she was her choice to stand and let the tire approach.
I am spending a lot of time doing this in this fashion but I am going back to what I learned about Rumer and Clicker Training in general when I taught her to wear a blanket. She was terrified of it and I spent many sessions using Alex Kurland's "Overcoming Fear and the Power of Cues" to get her to be relaxed about it. But- when it came to putting the harness on her the first time, she was FINE. I was astonished that it was so easy since she had been so fearful of the blanket, but I think all the work I did with the blanket transferred to the harness. So I hope that this little set back with the tire will give us the same opportunity to work through any fear she has of things approaching her and following her: from carts to anything else which may appear unexpectedly under her feet or up behind her.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Foundation Lesson Review

I have two new students- at this point I should probably call them tentative students- and have been spending my stall cleaning time (which is when I do a lot of my thinking) trying to figure out the best way to begin with them. I know that clicker training will work for both their horses but I also know how unconventional it can appear and I want to introduce it in a way which entices and encourages them sufficiently that they are willing to "take the time it takes" to go back to the basics.

In Riding with the Clicker, Alexandra Kurland lists four foundation lessons:
  1. Happy Faces
  2. Head Lowering
  3. Backing
  4. Grownups Are Talking
Just like the Dressage Pyramid, the longer you work at it, the more you realize the importance of the foundation and the more benefit you get from returning to the foundation regardless of how far up the training program you are. An advantage of the four foundation lessons is that they both keep the handler safe and immediately address some questions, concerns and skepticism people have about using food as a reinforcer. Happy Faces keeps the horse from thinking he can threaten you into providing the goods; Head Lowering builds a calming exercise into a horse who is loving this clicker game and might get over-excited; Backing and Grownups both teach respect for handler space. The added advantages of Head Lowering and Backing are the stretch and balance which build and evolve into a horse who is more physically prepared for self-carriage. And on top of that, the horse and handler develop a communication of ultra-light cues and responses which makes for a much more comfortable and confident pair.

The problem of course, is that people don't see themselves as needing this practice. So many people are accustomed to dragging their horses around or being dragged around by them- and then they can't figure out why they don't have a responsive horse under saddle!

Wish me luck!

Friday, July 10, 2009


Positive reinforcement works for all species and the humans I train are no less enthusiastic than the equine and canine ones. TAGteach is an organization dedicated to using the same methods on people as Clicker Training uses on animals. It is a real challenge not to correct riders constantly, only pointing out when they are doing something wrong and occasionally telling them when they have something right! Instead, with TAGteach, as with Clicker Training, I have to ignore the bad and reward the good. It works!
I use a different marker signal for the humans than the animals....if I used a clicker for the students, my ponies would think I was clicking them and get confused. The marker signal I use is called a clicker plus. You can see what it looks like in the photo above- it's the yellow thing on the left with the blue button. Requiring 2 batteries, it has setting for 4 different sounds: a "ping", a bird trill, a cricket chirp and another one I can't describe! I use the "ping" one as it seems to carry across an arena better than the others.
As with clicker training animals, TAGteach requires that I chunk down behaviors into tiny achievable goals. This is ideal for position work. A frequent "tag point" is "heels down". When I am first getting a student to get heels down far enough, I ask them to push their heels down and when I see the heel lower even a fraction, I tag them. If the heels are now in a good position, great! They have felt what the proper position is. If they still need to lower them further, I repeat "tag point is heels down" and they push a little further down and I tag again. I ignore it if the leg goes forward, or the seat slides back or any other position distortion. What I am focusing on in this initial step is simply "heels down". Compare this to my saying, "push your heels down- no more, even more, ok but don't push your legs forward when you do that, no your heels just went back up again and you aren't sitting up right any more". Frustrating for the learner? You bet! The alternative is simply positive reinforcement- a "ping" for "you got it!". After a while, when the learner just needs reminders to KEEP the heels down once they know what the correct position is, then I say "Tag point is heels down at the dressage letters". So every time they pass a dressage letter, they get a little reminder to check their heels and every time they get them down, they get the noise that says "yes!". If they aren't down, then nothing happens- that is enough for them to realize they need to work harder- no criticism, no nagging.
So what is the reward for people? In the photo above, you can see a little row of "tagulators": these are 10 beads strung on colorful string which can be pulled down one at a time. In my lessons, the little riders know that 3 or 4 "tags" (each ping) is worth one bead. When they get the 3rd ping, they can pull down a bead. At the end of the lesson, they count how many beads are pulled down and write it down in a personal little notebook in the tack room. There are prizes worth different numbers of beads. I have some stickers, pencils and things that are worth 3 beads. I have a little container of model ponies worth 10 each, some larger models worth 25 - 40 beads, etc. as well as lifesavers worth 1 each (only one per lesson!).
For the older children, usually the opportunity to do something fun in the lesson is enough. "Four tags and you can jump the crossrail"....when the four tags are for heels down, I know the base of support is what it needs to be to safely jump and the incentive is there for the rider! For adult riders, being tagged for doing something correct rather than harassed for doing something wrong is a thrill! Lateral work? I just keep my mouth shut and wait for a true step over and "ping!"....the rider gets feedback of what a correct step feels like.
There is science behind it- how the sound is accurately perceived by the body and integrated into learning....but all you have to do is experience it as a learner or teacher to know the effectiveness and see the positive attitudes of the learners. I will be attending a TAGteach seminar in the end of August and can't wait to learn more about utilizing it!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Backing Ande

The way I am backing Ande with clicker training is the same way I would do it without a clicker except that I have the added benefit of telling Ande exactly when he is doing something I standing still! The biggest difference is the amount of work he has already had before I get on. So much of Alexandra Kurland's work just makes all the beginning riding lessons easier and safer.
While I have had a saddle on him and have longed him in it etc, I have so far just ridden him bareback. It seems to follow the "chunk it down" philosophy of breaking all things down into the tiniest steps possible so that progession can be slow and steady without missing any steps or overwhelming the horse. By climbing on him bareback, it also makes it easier for me to slide on and off easily which I do a lot to accustom him to all the movements.
In this first photo, I am asking him to put his head down, a relaxation exercise. He knows several cues for head down: a light touch on his poll, a slide down the lead and a slide down the rein with a little lift. Once on the mounting block, I practiced this exercise with my hands at his withers, where they would be once I got on. I wanted to be able to get on him and ask for him to put his head down and stay relaxed and quiet while I sat up there. You can just barely see one of his ears by my left knee to see that he has dropped his head and I have clicked and am reaching in my pouch for his hay stretcher pellets. This is also an opportunity to teach him to turn his head around and reach back for his treat. I always delivered the treat to him when working him in hand, but that will be very difficult while riding- he needs to learn that when he hears the click, he can turn (always in the direction his was bending) and get the treat from me.

Next step is to heave myself up onto his back, lie there, kick my legs, pat him on the far side of the barrel, wiggle around, etc to accustom him to having me on both sides of his body. Each one of these steps has been done individually with a C/T after each one. Then I combined them and just C/T'd occasionally. I have to concentrate when I do this that I am clicking him for doing something and not me! I tend to transition into "I did it" mode and find myself wanting to click if I get on etc....but I have to be careful that HE has done what I wanted in the process. Did he keep four feet still? DId he keep his head low and relaxed? Is his expression quiet? I look for all those things both to reward him and to be attentive to how he is reacting.
These photos were not taken on the first day on him. I spent a lot of time lying on his back while astride. It can be very scary for a horse to see you that much higher than they are when you sit up so I went slowly with that too. The first time I sat up, I clicked immediately and slid off. Then repeated. Even though I may have been on him 10 different days, I have probably gotten on 50-75 times. So he has had that many experiences with mounting. And he has been reinforced for each step along the way many times.
The last photo show him with his head lowered a little. I had asked him for head down and the camera caught him in this halfway point but I was very happy to see him understand and comply with my requests. The last thing I did with him today (and yesterday), was to take the slack out of one rein and wait until he yielded his hips a baby step. I saw a brief portion of a breaking demo with Kenny Harlow this spring at Everything Equine and I loved the way his methods were adaptable to Alex's and clicker training. Rather than getting a just-backed horse to go forward in some fashion when they are not familiar with leg aids, he has them step over behind which gets them moving with a cue they know solidly already. My only problem with it is that the mounting block is in the way so I think I may have to get my camera man to move my mounting block next time.