Sunday, September 26, 2010

Freeshaping the Mounting Block

Continuing with what I'm doing with 2 year old Percy, I am beginning to introduce the mounting block. My expectations for him before I try to "ride" him will be that
  1. I can let go of him in the ring and go to the mounting block
  2. he willingly approaches the mounting block
  3. he lines himself up in the perfect position for me to place my foot in the stirrup
  4. he stands quietly while I get on
  5. he continues to stand quietly until I ask him to move off.
The reasoning behind this method of Alexandra Kurland's is that a horse who will do this is willing and ready to be ridden. A day that a horse trained this way does not go to the mounting block is a day that the horse for some reason is expressing he does not want to be ridden. There are numerous stories of situations when the horse was ill or sore and not approaching the mounting block to be ridden was the sign he gave his rider. Also, a horse who willingly approaches the mounting block is happy with being ridden. If he refuses, he might be telling me that he finds riding confusing, uncomfortable, scary, etc. That is an opportunity for me to look back at recent rides to see what may have gone wrong to make him feel this way. This may sound nutty to the "horse should do what I want him to do crowd" (which used to include me), but when I see how willing these youngsters are, I see that they can enjoy and look forward to rides.

The video shows that Percy has a halter but no lead on. I am freeshaping him at this point- not giving him direction as to where to stand or how but letting him experiment and simply clicking when he takes a step in the right direction. More recently, I used another exercise to practice his responsiveness to a rein cue for stopping and hip gives before I actually get on. I think both methods together provide a good balance.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Winning Battles

We hear this phrase all the time when it comes to horses. But recently it's made me think about the wording. If we have "won", doesn't that mean the horse has "lost"? I prefer to think of training as win-win. If my horse finds himself in a new situation, I don't want him to automatically become fearful because he associates new or scary situations with an impending Fight. Then he's worried about the new thing AND worried about a fight.

A friend recently began a thread on the forum at The Chronicle of the Horse magazine about Clicker Training (see the "Off Course" section). I was really excited to see all the responses which appeared in short order. Clicker Training is more mainstream than I realized! More than one person responded about using CT to get a horse through a spooky situation and how easy it made it as well as how it changed the horse's attitude toward things in the future. Horses who have played "Touch the Goblins" see new and scary things as an opportunity to approach and conquer! One does have to be careful because when they like to approach scary things, sometimes we have to be the ones to warn them to go my young ones who want to touch the electric net the first time they see it!

Even if we ignore what "losing" does to the horse's frame of mind (and it would be pretty silly not to consider that in a training situation), what does it do to my frame of mind? I might approach something new like a bridge to cross and if my horse hesitates, I immediately put the "Make it Happen" into my approach. I wrote about this in . I prefer to approach challenging situations like puzzles. Hm, what is going to be the best way to deal with this problem in a way that both my horse and I "win"?

The great thing about Clicker Training is that having the horse win is a critical piece of the whole method! If he does what I want, he wins a prize- a treat, an opportunity to do something he wants to do, permission to retreat to a safer feeling place, etc. So we both win. Yesterday I took Ande out to the arena, successfully passing the usual scary parts of the barnyard without a bobble. However, I knew that our two little pigs had escaped their pen in the barn and were out rooting in the paddock next to the barn. I find pigs hysterical- horses don't seem to agree with me. I was prepared for Ande to be alarmed at their funny little noises, headless appearance (heads rooting in the mud) and unexpected cavorting just like any young animal. I stopped when we came around the corner of the barn so he could have a look. He looked, but at that point they were pretty quiet and he was unconcerned after a moment's glance. Good boy.

We continued on to the arena and had a slightly better view of them. He stopped and looked again. Curious, but still not concerned. Good boy. (no clicks and treats needed here) I continued on to longe him- circles, walk, trot, canter, over trot poles and a small jump. At one point, he was standing motionless after a treat (he's using himself very nicely over trot poles these days!) when a neighbor fired off a gun. I jumped, but he didn't. About two seconds later, however, the piggies came screaming out of the barn where they'd gone for a siesta. That startled him and he shot forward in alarm. He didn't run me over and he stopped himself before hitting the end of the longe line. His head was high and eyes were popping. I raised my hand to his poll and he dropped his nose to the ground. Click and Treat! Head came back up but not as high- the exercise was doing it's job. Practiced and practiced and practiced in relaxing situations, he was responsive and happy to cooperate because he knew it meant good things for him- he got treats AND it helped him calm down. Horses don't like to be alarmed- they really do prefer being relaxed. They might enjoy playing, but I don't believe they really enjoy being frightened. I do believe that "getting after" a horse who is spooking will only increase their anxiety level. And trying to soothe a horse who is nervous can reward the horse for spooking! But asking (not demanding) for something specific from a worried horse, and having him respond by calming down can then be rewarded so that they actually learn to calm themselves.

So after a couple moments of head down and rewards, Ande and I continued on with our longeing. We had both won- I had a responsive and manageable young horse; he had calmed down and the opportunity to go back to work which he likes because he gets rewarded regularly for accomplishing new things.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Percy Day 2

Yesterday I groomed Percy and practiced with the bit. Today, we ventured Out. Our farm can be a scary place because of all the non-horse activity that goes on. While the horses become accustomed to things they see daily, the horse corner is at the back of the farm and the adventure begins when you leave that area. The barn, the run-in sheds, the paddocks and the round pen are all close together and are surrounded by pastures and fields in which they see the livestock and machinery. But to get to the larger arena, we have to travel around the livestock barn, through the barnyard (not visible from the horse barn) and out into the front field. This requires passing many a frightening sight.

First on the right is the sheep "race"...a cluster of blue panels that hold a group of sheep and funnel them into a chute where they can be vaccinated or even into a contraption that flips them so their feet can be trimmed. The horses almost like it better when there is activity going on here- when it's quiet they are suspicious! Then we proceed to where farm machinery is parked on the left and at the same time on the right is the livestock barn with some loose metal roofing that flaps noisily in the wind. If you make it past that, the real excitement begins: the barnyard. You just never know what you will find. Immediately on the right is the barn door, immediately on the left is the shop. The wild card in all this melee is my husband. He does not have 1st or 2nd gear. He gets out of bed in 3rd gear in the morning and shifts up from there. He is likely to pop out of one of these buildings at any moment- if you don't know him, you would assume by the way he comes out that the building is on fire. Add to that, he doesn't believe in going anywhere empty handed, so he may be preceded by a huge roll of black plastic pipe. Or one of our favorites- he carries 50 gallon black water tanks on his head, thereby becoming a large water tank with legs (always a favorite with the horses). There may be a livestock trailer with various forms of livestock parked there as well, vocalizing loudly or banging the sides.

So you get the idea that venturing out with the babies is, well, an adventure. So recently I have tried to come up with a plan that uses more tools than just head down to keep things calm and under control. First, I took one of the larger mats and put it in the drive right next to the sheep race. Beyond that, I put the large orange traffic cone in the middle of the drive at the top of the rise going down to where the machinery is parked. Mother Nature provided some deep luscious grass right next to the truck and livestock trailer (empty today). Back closer to the barn, I put the mounting block.

Percy walks happily to the paddock gate with me but then begins to LOOK. He has been out here before, has practiced getting on the trailer out here, but his body language said, "you just never know....". I like to them to look around but also like them to remember that I am on the other end of the rope. I pulled up my lesson with Ande and Alex of "hyper-clicking" to keep their attention. I clicked for every tentative step forward. Every one. After a few steps we'd practice head down. He was very good about leaving his nose in the dirt until I clicked.

Next Alex lesson that I pulled up was rewarding them for difficult behavior with something they like and so I had planted the mat right there for him to go to. The mat is a secure and safe place, so he marched right onto it and stood like a statue (well, a statue that wiggled from flies). If he had not been so fond of the mat, I would have been risking "poisoning" the mat by putting it in a scary place. But I felt I had enough good experiences under his belt that it would work the other way, and the mat would calm him in a scary place. After being clicked several times for standing, I asked him to put his head to the ground while still on the mat- more calming behaviors. Then we walked off again.

I did this last week as well and last week, I turned around and we went back to safer zones after our first trip to the mat. But today, I thought he was staying cool so we continued on. Clicks for stepping bravely forward with me, stopping now and then to put the nose in the dirt. And that brought us to the cone! So he got to touch the cone a bunch of times for clicks and treats- another thing he loves to do and is rewarding for him. Here too, last week, I had let him turn around and go back to the mat after this but today we continued on down the little hill toward the stock trailer and the grass. Once we got to the grass, I let him put his head down and graze- a calming and rewarding behavior all by itself.

Here, the Jack Russells made it interesting. I forgot to mention that there is a stack of giant straw bales behind the shop, covered with black plastic. It can be scary in the wind but today was still. Straw stacks mean mice and rats, however. And Jack Russells love to hunt mice and rats. So under the black plastic they went. I stood with Percy for about 15 minutes while he grazed and the Russells rustled and popped out of the plastic here and there, and then were quiet and then sneezed, and then got in a fierce was not dull. Percy spooked several times and once did a very good imitation of his mummy. I'm not sure how they do it but at one second they are next to you and the next second they are 10 feet away. They don't hit the end of the line. They just kind of levitate to the side. I couldn't blame him. The darn dogs were startling. But it was good for him to go back to grazing each time and get less and less concerned with the rustling.

Finally the dogs scared all the vermin deep into the pile and came out, panting happily and I decided we'd all head back to the barn before my husband came home and started anything new..... Oh, but when we got back to the paddock, we did a quick mounting block lesson. Alexandra Kurland has a whole session on teaching a horse to stand for mounting and that is another piece of preparing Percy to be ridden. As well as self bridling- clicker trained horses bring themselves to the mounting block to be ridden. So I climbed up on the block and worked a bit with Percy positioning himself just exactly where I wanted him. I patted and rubbed all over his back and reached over and patted his far side for several clicks and treats. Last week I actually jumped up on him- just lay over him like a sack a couple times. He was very, very good and I was very, very happy.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What do you do with a 2 year old?

I was recently admiring someone else's monthly goals for their horses and pondering doing that myself. It seems I have nebulous yearly goals but as she said, putting goals into months makes them more pressing and increases her chances of getting them done. I'm not sure if I'm just wishy-washy but when I thought about making monthly goals, I couldn't figure out how to combine that with being flexible and dealing with things that come up (opportunities) and adjusting my goals to suit the training needs as opposed to getting it done...(which somehow sounds like "make it happen" :)!

So I guess instead I have "projects" with each horse- what I am working on at any given time. Take Percy, for instance. A very long term goal is to get on him! I don't expect to do that until he is three, but it is a project I am working on now, even though he's only just turned two on July 1. One of the steps in this big goal is to get him used to a bit. I could stuff it in his mouth and let him wear it for a few hours and he'd get used to it. But I choose another route. I like Alex's "self bridling" technique and used it to introduce the bit to both Rumer and Percy last winter, when Percy was only 18 months. So, if my goal was to get the bit in his mouth, you could say I've already done that. But as I've worked with Ande and Rumer, I see more and more ways to break that lesson down, even though both Ande and Rumer self bridle.

Another piece of the "getting on Percy" goal is getting him used to me all over him, getting used to touch, to weight, etc. I honestly see grooming as part of this goal. Especially with a youngster with Thoroughbred blood as they can be so sensitive to both touch and fears.

Today, while Percy was eating his breakfast, I took my grooming box into his stall and thankfully, he chose to eat his lovely second cut hay rather than take everything out of the grooming box and dismantle it. I like to be able to groom him on cross ties or loose- I think there is value in both situations. As I groomed him, I was happy that I could use the grooming mitt and brush from head to toe without any concern or squirminess from him: around his ears, under his tummy, all the way down each leg, the inside of the opposite leg I was near, between his hind legs, etc. I was not worried about being kicked or startling him at all- he was completely relaxed. This tells me both that he is comfortable with me doing these things AND I know how much pressure to use without pushing him over any threshold. The ponies are happy with a rubber curry comb and pretty stiff brushes. But with him I use the mitt and a soft dandy brush. I can scrub enough to get the dirt up, but not so hard to make him dislike it. I did not click or treat at all- we are beyond that. He did listen and look for a CT when I picked out his feet because I do still occasionally click for foot manners, but I'm weaning him off it.

After that, I got out the little headstall thing my niece gave me for bitting. It's like a bridle but no noseband or reins and has little snaps to clip the bit on rather than complicated leather and studs. When I worked with him last winter, he had learned to take the bit into his teeth happily. The further steps I have found are:
  • front teeth
  • incisors
  • bars of mouth
  • holding it in the proper place, rather than immediately spitting it back out
  • being comfortable with the bit coming back out
  • the headstall approaching his eyes
  • headstall approaching his ears
  • headstall going over his ears
  • the feel of wearing the entire contraption for any duration
Today, Percy willingly took the bit to the bars of his mouth and held it there for a couple seconds. The best part of the whole experience was I started thinking about the ideal of a dressage horse seeking out the bit- ideally reaching for the bit and the contact. That's exactly what Percy was doing. I had gone through the process with the others of teaching myself to anchor my elbows to my sides and not raise my hands at all when they are taking the bit. That is me putting it in the mouth. I want Percy to put it in his mouth, not me. I loved the image of him reaching out to grab it and pull it up in.

So those were today's little lessons- didn't take long. But baby steps on the way to being a riding horse! Tomorrow we'll do something different.

One Last (?) Clinic Post

Here are some more photos from the clinic with Alexandra Kurland. One of the other participants sent them to me (thanks Mundi!). In the first two photos, above and directly below, you can see a little of the cone formation which Alex set up for us to use. If you look between the two red cones, you'll see the mat. Ande and I are beginning to turn down the "runway" toward the mat. The runway is formed by the funnel of purple, then yellow, then blue cones, ending at the mat. In the photo above, I am asking Ande for some lateral flexion...not just in his neck but asking him to step up and over as well, although because of the moment this photo was taken, you can't see that bit. The rope is over his neck- I ask and release for this bend; I don't hold it- that's Ande's job.

Then we ask the horse to straighten as we go down the runway (we need to be able to ask for straight as well as bend) toward the mat. In the runway, we practiced asking the horses to take just as many steps as asked for. A horse which has done any significant mat work has learned to love it but we don't want them charging for it without attention to us. So we practiced one step forward, one step back or more, just as long as the horses were attentive to what we were asking. When they showed they were listening and responding carefully, we "released" them to the mat (providing they were mat savvy) and let them go to it. The release was more of a symbolic one, not a physical one. The rope is only over the neck so at no point was the horse physically held back, but emotional control is one of the first things we, as Clicker Trainers, work on. So even though Ande wanted to go to the mat, he kept himself under control and stayed with me. Once I released him to the mat- he went and stood on it, happy and relaxed as in the photo below.
And, may I point out, a nice square halt! That sentence should be underlined, in red and with flashing lights. The base of all of Alex's work is a well balanced horse. I did not have to fuss with him to get this halt- it simply happens as a result of the balancing work built in to her exercises. (oh, and the dog in above photo lived at the farm and was doing his job keeping things tidy by cleaning up any dropped hay stretcher pellets!)

The last photo is a fun one. This was Saturday morning (I think?) as we practiced rope handling skills. Alex built a horse out of four of us: each of us functioning as one horse corner. First she led us around the way many horses are led, with no concern for the horse. She went left and right, stopping suddenly and then just as suddenly taking off forward again. We certainly got to feel what horses feel! As I was the right hind, I frequently felt the whiplash effect of the outside hind!
You can see by the rather evil grin on Alex's face and the way she is pulling on the rope, this was early on in her demo as she was saying "c'mon horse, get moving, what's the matter with you?!" We are not in step here and I am lagging behind as the caboose of the train!

After letting us experience that, Alex switched to more tactful rope handling and leading skills. It was quite a relief. She led us forward and back, through turns and stops and we became more and more in sync....the balanced horse. In order not to anticipate, but rather just feel, I stopped looking ahead and just looked down and followed the feel of the drill team of the horse. That was when I noticed that all of our feet were in lock step! We had not intentionally done it, but through the calm and smooth movements, we had coordinated ourselves, the way the horse learns to coordinate his own body.