Polishing (and maintaining) your horses upward transitions.

In this video, I answer Karen’s question about upward transitions. This seems to be a recurring theme that is difficult for us humans to grasp…as far as positive reinforcement goes. Historically, we have used pressure/release to teach horses to do just about everything. I want you to consider something in regard to traditional training and “going forward”. What is in it for your horse? Why should he want to put in the extra effort to go forward?  What does he get out of it? There isn’t much incentive for the horse outside of us using our aids to create pressure. Then we leave them alone when they respond correctly.  On the other side of the coin,  with positive reinforcement  we can bring something that our horse values and this dramatically changes the horse’s enthusiasm. Because there is something in it for them, they become invested in the training program and enjoy the learning process. They are as interested in the outcome as we are….how’s that for a partnership? It sure does make for a happier horse and it makes our job a heck of a lot easier too.

Once we get started with the positive reinforcement training basics (bridge conditioning and target training) we are ready to advance in our training. While we can move right into under saddle work following that initial phase, I recommend that you train a behavior on the ground first. Let me explain….the better their experience with the learning, the stronger their effort will be when things begin to get a little more difficult. So I like them to get hooked, to really enjoy the training. The best way to do this is to be certain that they experience a lot of success and very little frustration. By teaching them one simple behavior, and getting it solid, we have helped them to get all they way on board with the training. Something simple, like going to a stationary target or picking up their feet on their own. Additionally, teach the behavior of leading at liberty incorporating upward and downward transitions. Since we are discussing upward transitions, I recommend most reinforcements come for upward transitions….just something to keep in mind.

Usually, under saddle work has a long history with traditional training. If our horse doesn’t fully comprehend how good the new training can be, then he won’t know that good things lie ahead for him. He may check out before we have a chance to get his attention. In this post we are addressing a bit of an issue with upward transitions…that means we have probably gone through the pressure release route without much success. This let’s us know that we are dealing with a particular mind set and  he has probably developed a habit of resistance to going forward.  It doesn’t mean that he is trying to be bad, it just means he doesn’t find it reinforcing enough to do what we are asking. It is more reinforcing to plod along or ignore our aids. In any case the reluctance usually has a pretty well developed history. We need to get him out of his old mindset and ready to play the new “game”, that he finds so reinforcing, under saddle.  I suggest you keep your first under saddle sessions particularly short and sweet…. this means maintaining a high rate of reinforcement! This will help to grab your horses attention. Getting him engaged and keeping his focus is the first goal. To ensure that he is putting two and two together, I encourage you to only work on one behavior under saddle at first. You want to see him making the connection and having success with this behavior. Pretty soon you will feel him offering the new behavior just like when we were teaching the behaviors on the ground.

Somethings to keep in mind… We are exercising their minds, not their bodies. For a lazy, balky horse, we can offer a huge reinforcement by just getting off and calling it a day when they give us a good effort. For this first stage of training, if they still need additional exercise I will turn out, lunge, etc, AFTER we do our under saddle training session.

This brings me to the next point. We ALWAYS want to set them up for success. What can you do to create more energy, a better response or a better attitude? Often it is better to ride them before they have had too much exercise so we utilize their extra energy and enthusiasm. Of course you have to evaluate your particular horse to determine what will work best for the two of you.

Be sure you don’t skimp on the time you put into the bridge conditioning (clicker) and target training. This is often something that gets overlooked. It may seem a little repetitive, but it is supposed to be! For one thing, we are conditioning the clicker, thereby giving it value. This is classic conditioning and it takes repetition. The clicker needs to have a very strong association before we move on to more difficult behaviors, like your under saddle work. We want to be sure that they recognize the clicker as the reinforcer. That is why the stopping to reinforce doesn’t matter…. they are working for the sound of the clicker. The stopping is an incidental that we initiated by our clicking. When properly conditioned, they will remember what earned them the click. It is called abridge signal because it bridges the gap between the moment of behavior (that earned the bridge signal) and the time when we can deliver the reinforcement. It bookmarks that moment in time.

This bridge conditioning process helps to get them really solid on relaxing and also respecting our space. We want this to become their default behavior…down the road you will be glad you did. When I see a horse who has resorted back to being pushy it is often a result of too little time with the basic manners or not maintaining this behavior.

The target work allows them to become more engaged in the training. It helps them develop better problem solving skills. It also continues to improve our relationship and trust.

And one last thought for you before you watch the video…Doing upward transitions from the ground while liberty leading can be very helpful under saddle as well. The goal is for them to mimic my movements. The signal is my speed and movement, so when I trot they trot, when I walk they walk, when I turn right, they turn right, when I stop they stop, etc. I also start pairing a verbal signal in here as well. This way we can utilize the signal from the saddle as well. In this situation I bridge (click) upward transitions. So as soon as the spring into the next gait or even increase within their gait. What is happening in this process is that we are building a good reinforcement history with upward transitions. Even though it is seems out of context, they often times will generalize. What has happened when we work on it from the ground, they begin to realize that when I am asked to go forward, I may get a reinforcement. They recognize the cue as an opportunity for reinforcement…after some repetition it actually becomes a conditioned reinforcer (that classic conditioning is always at work!)

One final reminder…they remember what earns them the click…don’t worry about the stopping!! The duration is easy once they understand the concept and are offering the behavior. If you can find it, there is an old, and helpful article that was featured in Practical Horseman in June of 1999, It chronicles one of my students progress with teaching her horse to move forward. Pretty soon she called to tell me she had to slow him down!!


5 Responses to “Polishing (and maintaining) your horses upward transitions.”
  1. WSmart says:

    Great video. Do you think if can help too with safety? As in the horse learning to stop when he hears the click-could this be used in a safety situation, say, on a hack?

  2. Lydia Pinkham says:

    Thanks yet again Shawna, very timely advice. I had stopped doing the early bridging, since my lad has most of the basics solid, but now that I am working on transitions from working gaits to mediums and lengthenings, I am searching for that markable transition. This reminds me to use the things you have already taught me. Bet my boy thanks you too !

  3. Lydia, I love it when I can help, so that is music to my ears.

    Willow, I know where you are coming from and it is a good question. It may work in a pinch (and safety is always first!)but you would also be reinforcing the behavior and telling him what he just did is good. Let’s say he was about to bolt and then you bridge (click), you may get the desired behavior of stopping since you clicked but you also drew positive attention to an unwanted behavior, bolting (or the precursors). It will help you in the situation but you would have to be aware that you have just increased the likelihood of seeing that behavior repeated. You may have eliminated the immediate danger but you would definitely want to address this behavior and perhaps come up with a new plan.

    Now, let’s say he was about to bolt but he made a decision to settle and relax, even just a little, if you clicked at this point in time you will be drawing attention to the settling. It is all about their intention or action at the time of the click. Another thing that may work is if you can redirect their focus. Let’s say your horse gets a too focused on something and you recognize his precursors for bolting, so you ask him to do something else to redirect his attention. The moment he responds to your cu and takes his mind off of whatever it was that had him worried, that would be a constructive place to click. I hope that helps.

    I guess that would be a good blog post too! I have a whole list of topics to get to!

  4. Linda Lukens says:

    This was a great post for me at this time. I know this, but needed the reminder.

    Recently my horse had a shoulder lameness which came on slowly with the first symptom being a reluctance to canter to the right. He then progressed to not wanting to get on the rail to the right, because of my habit of asking him on the rail in the corners so he would pick up the correct lead. To make a long story short, when he actually became lame, I called in my chiropractor who diagnosed him with pain along his whole left side due to his right hip being lower, and him compensating on his front left side. So after instructions to shim my saddle pads to even out myself, and a few weeks on muscle relaxers, I am bringing him back from his injury.

    He now does not want to do any upward transitions, and does not want to be on the rail. He is no longer lame, in fact I am having to lunge him before riding as he is feeling a little TOO good, and he is looking great. But he has developed this bad habit during his time of being sore, and I did not know that he was sore until it hit critical mass and resulted in a lameness that could be seen.

    So thanks a lot, I will heed your advice to get him back on track now that he is feeling well. I will mark and reward the smallest try toward the rail, and also the first few steps of trot. I always find all of your advice so helpful, I am a big fan.

  5. Linda, Thank you for your kind words! It sounds like you have a great plan….you two will be back ON TARGET in no time. Yeah, I know that was cheesy but I couldn’t help myself!

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