Bugs’ Blog – A Resurrected Rescue Horse
There is nothing more annoying than a horse who walks off, or worse, acts up, while you are mounting. Bugs, being a bit of a fuss budget was not the worst, but he wasn’t the most accomodating horse to mount. He would turn to face me, refuse to give to the pressure of the reins and wouldn’t move up or would just be fidgety. I could always get on him but it wasn’t always pretty. Athletic? Yes. Pretty? Not so much!
Sometimes these issues need sessions devoted to improving the situation ASAP. But in his case, I simply addressed it a little bit every time I mounted. I started by clicking when he would follow me to the mounting block. I’d click once more when he would happen to be lined up nicely, and again when he would be still. I would really draw attention to reinforcing him once I was in the saddle. Pretty quickly they start to figure out that the sooner you are in the saddle the quicker they can get reinforced. I would proportionately feed more once I was in the saddle. Horses figure out pretty quickly how to accommodate and expedite the process. Next thing you know, they are bounding right up to the mounting block with hopes of you getting on!
This is so simple but very effective. It is actually a byproduct of offering reinforcement under saddle. Being a positive reinforcement based trainer, I feed from the saddle. Often horses demonstrate a favorite side. It may not be so much their favorite as the more limber side. They will turn to take the treat from the easier, more flexible side. I immediately start to balance out the two sides by feeding (usually) from the side we are bending towards. For example, if I am going to the right with a right bend that is the side I will feed from following the click or bridge signal. I often find that one side is noticeably more rigid than the other. This usually coincides with the them being more resistant to bending in that direction as well. After a couple weeks I will notice a huge difference in both the turning to take the treat as well as the softness in the bridle when asking to bend. They are actually stretching and improving their own range of motion. Super simple, super effective!!
In this video I address some of the nuances for training your horse the back up from the ground. This makes backing up undersaddle a breeze! There are some progressive training videos as Bug’s was learning to back up. Look under the category: Bug’s Blog.
Well, as you can tell from the title we have started a new and exciting phase of training! Flying lead chages are a pretty big mile marker. It seems like Bugs is ready to put on his “big boy pants”!! When we were at the show we were great but he didn’t know changes yet. I want to state loud and clear that I never want to over face a horse. I know that consistant success is built on a solid foundation. No two horses are the same. Recognizing when your horse is ready to move forward comes from a close relationship, one that is part instruction and part listening, a conversation if you will.
That being said, Marcy (my hunter/jumper trainer) and I feel that Bugs is ready. He routinely makes good decisions and doesn’t get flustered when he doesn’t understand a new lesson. He focuses and tries to solve the puzzle. The positive reinforcement really helps him to be involved and to perservere.
We had a flat lesson with Jan and her green horse, Annie. Marcy has been helping me to adjust my position and my seat is getting more solid with every lesson, well, nearly every lesson. Bugs was good, listening and soft. He had a bit of extra energy but he mostly keeps that to himself at this point. As Jan and I finished up, Marcy put a pole on the ground (across the diagnal) for Bugs and myself to work on a flying change. We discussed the next part of the lesson, the shifts in balance and positioning necessary to allow him and to support him through the change in his lead. My goal was to shift the balance as we crossed the pole. This can be a challenging proposition. You are channeling a lot of energy and horses can get excited, sometimes too excited. A flying change, when new, is a bold manuever and you need that energy, but it helps to know that you can bring your horse back to a soft, listening mindset.
Bugs seems to pick up the left lead easier than the right so we start off on the right lead. This way we can try to set him up for success when we are asking to change his lead. So, off we go! As we come across the diagnol I have got my ears pealed and a big smile on my face. It seems to me that Bugs likes to figure things out and finds comfort in being compliant. This moved him out of his comfort zone. He was not sure what was going on. He was trying to do something, but just wasn’t right. I think he feared that his actions might be taken as disobedience. The first couple of times he was a little wound up, maybe even a little worried. I just stayed very relaxed and focused on getting him back after the attempt. Then we started again, giving him time to settle into a nice calm, controlled canter. The next couple times he still didn’t get it but he seemed a little more settled. I knew that we were on the right path. His mind was more settled and processing as opposed to reactionary. On about the 5th time he got it right! I clicked, reinforced with a few handfuls of treats and lots of praise (he responds well to verbal praise too).
It is tempting to want to do it again right away but I recognize that the better thing to do is to let him rest in his success. I am very poud of Bugs and his good decisions. He really seems to enjoy the challenges that come with training. I am excited for this next week. We have trailer loading, backing up and flying lead changes to look forward to!!
Okey dokey, here is the second video in the back up series. I discuss a bit about the targeting and how to strengthen this behavior. The stronger your horse gets at following the target the more willing he will be to follow it when it gets a little tougher. This goes back to the reinforcement history. In a nutshell, our horses make decisions constantly. They will opt for the things that have a good association. The more positive reinforcement associated with a task or behavior the quicker they will choose that behavior. So the better they know the target the harder they will try. Really pretty simple when you think about it.
I decided in this video to practice backing up with the target myself. Bugs association with me is stronger (more positive reinforcement) than his association with David. Therefore he does try harder for me than for David, at this point anyway. The target is the common thread so I want to help him understand what to do when the target moves towards his chest. They were both kind of hesitant and I want to minimize undo confusion.
Confusion can lead to frustration. I know it is a breakdown in communication and that it is my job to take smaller steps, to somehow figure out how to make it clearer. Training is never a recipe with precise measures but more a set of guidelines. Horses being individuals means things need to be adapted to the individuals’ personality. That is the best part of the new technology, we can work through things together and share insights.
Anyway, Enjoy this session with Bugs and the back up and let me know how it is going for you Mandy (and anyone else who is following along). And yes, our barn has an outdoor pizza oven!! As always, I love thoughts and comments.
Just the other day I was commenting that I want to teach Bugs the “fun” behaviors that Mint knows. I have been focused on his under saddle work and want to balance out our time together. Then Mandy sent me a question asking how I teach the “back up” that Mint demonstrates in his videos. What perfect timing!
When I take my horses for expos, demos or clinics the “back up” is a real crowd pleaser. I think it is fun because it highlights the horses involvement in the training and the enthusiastic mindset that comes with the use of positive reinforcement.
I have heard plenty of people comment on how special my horses are, but truth be told, they were not special on the outset of their training. They were just ordinary horses. Actually MInt was the worst horse I had ever worked. He quit at EVERYTHING in the early days and Bugs was a highly suspicious rescue, who routinly pulled back out of habit. But through On Target Training, they have both developed heart.
When horses learn how to make good choices, they continue with this habit in just about everything they do. I find that the more they learn, the quicker they are to embrace new things and the more confident they become. It creates a positive cycle. It also strenghtens our relationship. Since there is no time like the present, let’s get on with the “back up”.
In this session I ask Mint to demonstrate the finished behavior. We then move on to getting started with Bugs (we are getting David started as well) David is a good friend and my cameraman. He will increasingly be called to help with sessions because he is ever-present, and always willing. To call him a horseman at this point though, would be pushing it. Someday, maybe! David had some hesitancy and this seemed to contribute to Bugs hesitancy. By reinforcing Bugs movement I could build up his confidence. Remember, attitude and effort are the most important elements of every session. So okay, go ahead and watch the session and please let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and Mandy, when you start sessions I sure hope that you share updates and thoughts as you go along.
Just a quick little video (30 seconds) to show you Bugs targeting on his Stationary target in his stall. This helps when I point out the stationary target mounted in the trailer. This session was done right before we went to the trailer to serve as a fresh reminder for Bugs. I want to reiterate this is an easy behavior to train. If you have questions or want more info please don’t hesitate to ask.
This video is from my helmet cam and shows Bugs first exposure to the tarp. The positive reinforcement training has gone along way toward building his confidence with new objects. How is your horse with new objects?
This is Bugs first line free jumping at liberty). It is taught through positive reinforcement. Bugs is a green horse who is just learning to jump-both with and without a rider. Jan who is working with me is new to the process as well.
March 21, 2011
So, Bugs and I have been doing great with jumping together. Bugs has shown an extraordinary mix of willingness and relaxation when it comes to jumping. It has been so long since I had ridden that I am a green rider once again. This means I am not necessarily an asset to Bugs when we are jumping. We are learning together. Granted, I have taught him to free jump at liberty and this seems to have bolstered his confidence. He has learned how to jump without the distraction of a rider.
A couple of the ladies from the barn decided they wanted to go to the county show. It seemed like a good idea for Bugs to go too. Of course, we have not done something like this yet so I don’t know what to expect. Marcy and I agreed we had no idea how he would be once we were at the show but we might as well find out. We would play it by ear and work from his comfort zone and plan our activities accordingly. I was so excited. It was his first show and I hadn’t shown in 17 years!!
The plan was mostly for Bugs to get some exposure to new things and places. We were going in the lowest classes (if he seemed settled enough). We were leaving on Friday and coming home on Sunday. Nothing ventured nothing gained… right?
Everything was packed up and ready to go. Everything except Bugs. I had planned for everything but the trailer loading! I am going to elaborate on the trailer loading in my next post. For now I am going to focus on the show. So much to see in just one weekend!
We got to the show and his eyes were huge. I have not seen the whites of his eyes too often. I could see ‘em now! His suspicious streak was bubbling up a little bit. He was not sure what all of this was about. He settled a bit after we started walking to his stall. He resisted going into his stall at first . Everything seemed to be a trap to him at this point. The grooms got him ready for a lunge. It seemed like a good way to get him settled and take the edge off. I am not a big proponent of excessive lunging but at his point it seemed like it could help to set him up for success.
During the lunging process he was looking around and not very fluid or focused to start but ended up doing pretty well. Then we got him ready to be ridden. He seemed to find comfort as we settled into familiar exercises that we practice at home. As he would bend around my leg and soften throughout, I would click and reinforce his cooperation. He just became more focused on me and seemed to ignore the distractions around him. He was great! I felt an internal sigh of relief. You never know what is going to happen when you change your horses environment.
When we planned on coming to the show I knew to be ready for anything. Everything seems so different when you are looking at it from your green horse’s eyes (or ears). I had clicker and target on hand in case I needed to get him focused on something constructive, to channel his energy. I had previously worked with Bugs to desensitize unusual stimuli. This goes a long way towards teaching horses to handle situations like this well and to minimize spookiness. Our work was paying off as he was making great decisions!
The next day we were ready to show. He was lunged a little in the morning. We started with flat classes. Next we had our jumping classes. Just the lowest classes (yes, against ponies!) He was terrific. He rode just like he was at home. I think he was starting to enjoy all that there was to absorb. He is a curious and nosy horse. Once he decided it was safe he seemed to move on to thinking it was kinda fun in the curious way, not the celebratory way. He was just taking in the sights.
Bugs got better as he went. The show helps me to gage our progress. Not only where we are on our skill level under saddle but also where Bugs is psychologically. He was relaxed, focused, willing and confident. I have to admit I felt like a proud parent. The blue ribbons didn’t hurt either!
Listen in to Friday’s show and hear all about how Bugs did at his first show! Click here for the link to the show.
Here are some photos of Bugs that were taken last week.
March, 15, 2011
It has been about a year now since I first fell off of Bugs. That, of course, was the first time I met Bugs and decided I have the tools to rebuild his trust (see “Bugs: A Horse with Big Shoes to fill” for more about his beginnings). What an amazing journey it has been so far! It struck me how much one learns through the process of bringing a green horse along. I learn something everyday, Doesn’t that sound cliche? But it is true! It reminds me how much I take for granted dealing with an experienced horse. There are so many firsts. Watching him mature and learn to deal with new obstacles. This, to me, is the most joyous part of the training process
I realized that this journey is one that should be documented. I plan to keep a journal of our progress, along with my thoughts and observations so that I never forget our shared exprience. This will also provide an opportunity that others can learn more about using positive reinforcemen,t together with some traditional training, to accomplish these goals.. I want to share our triumphs as well as our challenges. I would love for you to come along! It would be great to hear comments, questions and suggestions as we grow together.
Here is a short recap with a little bit of new information. Bugs grew up in a pasture without much in the way of human interaction. At the ripe old age of 4, Bug’s owner pulled him from the pasture and gave him to his adult grandson as a roping horse prospect. Bugs didn’t take too well to his training and being ridden. He continued to buck until his rider’s fell off. Mind you his owner was not new to breaking horses but Bugs wasn’t responding well to training. The owner thought that Bugs needed to have a different career. He decided he should try him out as a bucking horse. The irony is that he wouldn’t buck out of the bucking chute! Bugs ended up with a pretty good scar on his face from an injury sustained in the bucking chute. This career wasn’t panning out either. The decision was made to take him to the auction. He was reedy, had a scar on his face and just seemed like he was not going to trust anyone enough to make any friends. I don’t think the auction would have ended well for Bugs. But, thank God, my friend Marcy intervened and gave him another chance. He was kind of a back burner project. The low key and consistent routine really seemed to help him settle.
It was just last December that we really began to get started together undersaddle. I am going to start the journal from that point and post on some of the major highlights to bring us up to date. I will journal about progress undersaddle and from the ground. Again, I would love to hear from you, questions, comments, thoughts, suggestions or share your own experiences. I hope that sharing this journey together helps to open a dialogue with each other and our horses!
March 2, 2011
Well, it is a new week. Tuesday morning and things were all pretty normal. Mint was back in business after throwing a shoe and Bugs was good as usual. When I was riding him and feeding from the saddle I noticed his lip had a lump in it. I thought he had a treat squirreled away under his upper lip. I kept trying to figure out what was going on. Finally I got off and looked at it. It was definitely a lump in his lip. It seemed kind of sore but not too bad. I knew that Steve, our vet, was coming the next day so I thought I would just keep an eye on it and suspected there would be nothing to report to him tomorrow.
I was wrong. First Mint had a nail get too close to his laminae and he was lame walking out of his stall and Bugs’ face and nose were swollen and lopsided. He would have rather thrown himself on the ground than have his nose or lip touched. It was clearly very sensitive. I must have first noticed the bite it when it had just happened. Of course at that time I had no idea what I was dealing with Luckily horses can handle these better than we can. I am happy to report that he got better in a few days and stayed in good spirits all the while. Mint took a little longer to get back on track but he is doing well too.
February 1, 2011,
I must say that I love all of our new adventures. I love that I get to see Bugs grow and become more confident, to be a part of that process. Even when it is at my expense.
A group of us decided that we were going to go on a group trail ride as opposed to riding in the ring today. We have had some rain this winter so there will be water to cross. I have taken Mint on this trail but I haven’t taken Bugs. I like facing new things with horses. I don’t avoid the things that horses are afraid of, but am drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Using positive reinforcement gives me a great tool for building their boldness around strange and “scary” situations.
I haven’t gone on the trail too often with Bugs yet. He is learning so much in the ring and around the farm that I tend to ride Mint when I go for a trail ride.
The trail ride starts out pretty normal. I have a clicker attached to my riding stick and a waist pack with treats for reinforcement. Bugs is alert, as he always is. He seems to be settling in as we go. The group environment definitely seems to add to his comfort. Horses are vicarious learners. This means that horses, especially in a new situation, will tend to learn from the other horses around them. Having an experienced group of horses certainly helps Bugs to relax. I click and reinforce as he moves along nice and soft. I can physically see him relaxing with each reinforcement.
About a half -hour in we come to our first water crossing. It was about 12 feet wide and about 10 inches deep with a little current running through it. The other horses were unfazed. I was hoping Bugs would just fall in line and follow the others. Yeah right! He was not going to go forward any longer, he instead decided hat reverse was the superior direction in which to head. I tried to keep him moving ahead but he was just getting more worried and was trying to spin away. I kept him facing the water as he tried to retreat. Marcy suggested that we pony him across with her horse. Knowing that there is a balance between traditional training and positive reinforcement training, I was thinking: “okay it might be a simple fix and I can still reinforce his decision to follow along”. Marcy takes ahold of Bugs’ reins and kind of pulled his head close to Brody’s hindquarters and proceeded. Bugs wasn’t falling for this maneuver. He resisted and pulled back. Jenn decided to lead him across and hops off and gets ahold of his reins. His suspicious nature was at full alert. He wouldn’t move forward. I realize that it is up to me. What I know that has worked for Bugs has been to allow him the freedom to make a choice.
So I get off and wade into the water in my paddock boots and half chaps. I could feel the water spilling over the top of my boots and invading the inner sanctum of my comfortable footwear. I was now committed to the process of getting Bugs across the water. I had the reins in my hand but they were loose. I resisted the urge to just tug on the reins and keep pulling until he relented. I gave him a gentle tug, to serve as a signal as opposed to an aversive. Then I presented him with an open hand target. He knows and recognizes that this is a signal to come touch my hand. He poked his head forward without moving his feet. I click and reinforce his effort but will expect more on the next attempt. On the next attempt I see him bend his knee. This tells me he is thinking of moving a foot. I click and reinforce. Next he takes a step forward. Click and reinforce. Next thing you know, we are walking through the water. When I get to the other side I think: “do I just get on and be thankful that we got to the other side? Or do I take him back through and make sure it wasn’t a one time thing?” The down side is, if he balks then I have started something that I need to finish. Hmmm, I decide the better choice is to ask him to go back and forth through the water a few times and hope he doesn’t resist. He was great! Phew! I reinforced Bugs as he would commit to entering the water and I stopped in the middle to reinforce in the midst of it all. See Bugs, water is good.
About an hour and a half later we came to another water crossing. Bugs and I were in the front and waited for the others before we crossed. I could see Bugs taking in the view ahead. His head raised for a moment. Uh Oh!! But then he lowered it. When the others were nearer we proceeded forward. He was relaxed and confident! I love that we made progress. That second water challenge was a real test and Bugs passed with flying colors!
January 25th, 2011
Bugs and I have been focusing on our flat work. I am working on his progress while also working on my own position and getting all my parts back under control. Riding horses is definitely not like riding a bike. My position and balance have improved drastically and Bugs is also coming along nicely. We seem to be having a great conversation. We listen to each other and work together well. Have I mentioned how well he is doing? Oh yes I have, about 87 times!!
One of my goals is to get back to jumping. Since Bugs is green and done so little, it is kind of a hope as well as a goal. Let’s be honest, Mint didn’t turn out to be a good jumper for me. He likes to hang his legs and crack his back and that makes him difficult to stay with. Therefore, I focused on jumping with my other horses as Mint shined in his role as the star of On Target Training.
It is uncertain how Bugs will handle all the challenges that jumping brings, let alone with someone who hasn’t jumped in quite a while. I am learning too. Im sure you’d agree its not always the best combination.
Marcy, who rescued Bugs and is also my Hunter/Jumper trainer, is a great trainer, she is well educated and very experienced. She is good at minimizing risks and making sure that we don’t move ahead too fast. This is good for me since I have a tendency to be a little too game. I make a point of trying not to set goals as jumping goes, but simply put my progress in Marcy’s capable hands. I try my best to be a true student, listening and learning. This is a funny mix since on one hand I am a teacher/ trainer in my own right. However, my expertise is from the behaviorist perspective, utilizing positive reinforcement. Marcy embraces what I am doing and we work together well to blend the two methods.
During my lesson today, Marcy asked me to jump the little “x” in the ring. Uh Oh!! My eyes got pretty big, but I have to confess so did my smile! That “x” seemed kind of big, but of course, it was barely bigger than a rail on the ground.
Bugs had jumped a little bit with Jenn, who works for Marcy. We knew he was relaxed, game and capable. This also gave him some good rides since… well… at this point he wouldn’t be getting them from me. I had also taught him to free jump. This is with positive reinforcement which means no chute or whip, just him jumping an obstacle in the middle of the ring completely loose. This goes a long way toward building a horses confidence over fences. I will tell you more about that process on another day.
It can be a little daunting to jump for the first time on a horse. Especially one who isn’t well versed in this area, not to mention when you add a new rider to the equation. He went boldly to the jumps (well, it was barely a jump) and I didn’t feel any hesitation or apprehension on his part. He seemed to be responsive to every adjustment all the way through. We had a great time together as he handled it really well! He didn’t get flustered or nervous. He was totally listening and would return immediately back to our flat work between the cross rails. He built up my confidence today. It was a huge step for us both and the beginning of the next chapter. I can’t seem to wipe the smile off of my face.
January 5, 2011
I must say Mint is a joy to ride. He is soft and responsive and this makes me feel incredibly effective as a rider. It is a bit of an illusion but I am okay with that. For that bit of time I get to forget that I am struggling to recall how to ride correctly again.
I came to know Mint when was at John and Beezie Madden’s Farm In Cazenovia, New York. He was very green broke. He didn’t know how to go in a straight line or to maintain a pace. Since he had just turned 3 and he was always home, he was available for training, which allowed me the opportunity to bring Mint along. This terrified and elated me all at the same time. I had only been riding for about a year. Well, I had ridden Killer Whale’s but this was different. Riding Mint at that point made me feel useless.
I was at John and Beezie’s to further explore the possibility of positive reinforcement (clicker training) with horses. It was unheard of at this point! As Mint goes, I had some pretty good tools in my tool box, Positive reinforcement and great instruction for traditional training. I was learning how the two could fit together.
One time I had the opportunity to ride one of Beezie’s Grand Prix horses and I remember thinking that this is the nicest horse I have ever ridden. He did whatever you asked, without a fight and he maintained it until you asked him to do something different. He did this for ME, a novice adult rider! It was amazing!
Mint and I were both improving, as the positive reinforcement helped him to progress at a extrordinary rate. He seemed mature beyond his years. One day I realized he was like that Grand Prix horse (okay, not as jumping goes) but as far as riding is concerned, he was a delight and a willing student. I eventually bought Mint from John and Beezie.
Enter Bugs… Here I was with a relatively green horse again. He didn’t feel like Mint at all. He kept his head kind of high and seemed rather stiff. Keep in mind that I had just started riding again after 8 years, so I’m sure my flopping about in the saddle had nothing to do with his defensiveness. (Yes, that was slightly sarcastic!)
It was a little discouraging and I found myself enjoying my time on Mint much more than my time in the saddle with Bugs. I needed to remind myself that there was a day when I didn’t exactly look forward to climbing in the saddle on Mint. That being said, it had been a great journey and look how far we had come! I tried to keep my current discouragement at bay by saying to myself “enjoy the journey, enjoy the journey, enjoy the journey” like a mantra.
Today, I realize Bugs is a lot like Mint! He is soft and responsive. He is a great student who seems to love his job. This seemed to happen so fast. I feel at home on Bugs. I have the same tools: great ground training and of course, positive reinforcement. This short little journey (so far anyway) Has been such a joy it brings tears to my eyes! I know we have a lot of bridges to cross but we are off to a great start. Bringing Bugs along makes me feel that I am right where I am supposed to be. I feel Blessed to have him in my life.
December, 17, 2010
Bugs’ behavior gave me a great deal to think about. He is not generally a spooky horse so what was up with all of his antics the past couple days? I realized that Bugs is also extremely into the positive reinforcement (clicker) training. He always expresses his excitement when he sees or hears me. It isn’t the soft, low knicker that Mint emits but an excited higher pitched whinny/knicker. He keeps an eye on me constantly and if someone gets in his way he promptly repositions to keep eye contact. If I am in the clubhouse he will just stare at the last door that I entered through. He is kind of like a dog. He also seems to look forward to our time in the saddle. This is when we spend the most time together. A thought came to me and it made a lot of sense. I started to think maybe Bugs wasn’t so much spooked but actually excited. Granted too excited, kind of like a kid who is going to Disneyland. Running around and bouncing off of the walls. All the pieces seemed to fit together.
Still, this left me with a predicament, how to channel his excessive energy into something constructive and manageable. My new thought is to put him to work the second we get into the arena. Again, I don’t see this as something that I want to rely on for the rest of his days but a way to set him up for success (I think of this in everything I do with the horses) at this juncture in his development. My plan is to ask him to bend around my leg with his head lowered. This is something that we have been working on but he hasn’t embraced 100 percent yet. Bugs is a good student so I feel somewhat confident about my new plan.
Things went quite nicely. I started asking him to lower his head as soon as we went into the ring. I rode in a small circle, at the walk, in the center of the arena. As soon as I felt his head start to come up I would remind him to stay bent with his head lowered. When he would make the correct decision I would click and reinforce him from the saddle. We worked the circle bigger and bigger until we were encompassing the whole ring. We schooled both directions and all gaits. We both got softer and softer as we went and he was sensible even on a loose rein. It worked like a charm! It was then that I realized how much he wants to please me.
This was a big breakthrough for us. I learned a lot about bugs and actually grew more confident in my riding skills. Keep in mind I hadn’t ridden in about 8 years. I had still worked with horses as a behaviorist but this doesn’t mean riding. So, I am green (again) and Bugs is green. We are learning together.
December 16, 2010
After yesterday’s episode I decided to use a tactic that has worked with lots of horses before Bugs. My plan was to go into the ring on a loose rein, then click and reward his calm demeanor. This has commonly worked to reinforce horses for being relaxed and the result is a head that drops lower and lower. I love having a plan!
I am also teaching Bugs to hold still for mounting. Actually, I am not just teaching him to hold still but to walk out of the cross ties without me touching the reins. He is learning to line up next to the mounting block and hold still while I get in the saddle. He is coming along, yet still has a tendency to turn and face me once I am at the mounting block. This, of course, doesn’t work well for mounting so I realign him and he is usually better on the second try. His other issue is to get distracted on the way to the mounting block then stop to smell and investigate things. This little goal is just something I like my horses to do and despite his occasional lapses, Bugs is now coming along nicely.
Okay, so mounting and walking to the ring were pretty normal. We get to the ring and I promptly give him a loose rein, only to realize that he is not really responding like most horses. Instead of being relaxed he is getting increasingly wound up as I notice that his head and ears are scanning for trouble. I realize this a little too late, as he gets too revved up again. This time I get off of Bugs and Marcy (my Hunter/Jumper trainer and good friend) advises a lunge and some ear plugs, so off he goes.
As you might guess, I am feeling the need to express my thoughts on these two tools. Let’s start with lunging. I am not a big proponent of lunging for quietness as a matter of course. I think it is a good tool for teaching green horses, to work on verbal cues, to teach new riders, as well as prepping for being ridden for the first time. I also think it is a good tool for eliminating all that excess energy when turnout is limited. I’m just not that comfortable with excessive lunging. It’s just my take on it and of course, this is just one gal’s opinion. Anyway, in this situation I see that Bugs does indeed seem to have too much energy. I need to help get him to a better mind-set so I can set him up for success, so as to get him to do something worth reinforcing. At this point, my goal is anything with four feet on the ground! I see lunging as a tool that I want to not use on a daily basis. For now though, it may help me work towards my end-goal of having a horse that not only knows how, but also chooses to harness that energy into something constructive. ThoughI keep chanting to myself ”enjoy the journey, enjoy the journey, enjoy the journey,” it is sometimes not quite as enjoyable as I might hope.
Now, let’s talk earplugs… It is not an uncommon practice to use earplugs to muffle the auditory stimuli that may cause a horse to startle. It is simply a practice I am not accustomed to. Marcy is really good at keeping her Adult Amateur women out of harm’s way. This is one of the tools that she has had success with. I try to be a good student, so I do say “okay” when Marcy gives me advice and instruction. Of course, from the instant we put them in I’m thinking of how I’m going to wean Bugs off of these new pacifiers. Again, I view them as an initial tool to set him up for success, but just for now. Frankly, I wasn’t sure they would be that effective anyway. Further down the road I will re-address the earplugs.
So finally, after the adjustments Bugs is much, much better!! We are still very new together and Bugs doesn’t have a strong foundation yet. I was very thankful for the tools of traditional training which allowed me to get my horse good enough to reward with positive reinforcement.
December 15th(ish) 2010
Okay, so my first post was referring to how good Bugs was about all of the commotion, from guys hanging lights in trees to a new course being built in the ring, jump rails tumbling. Well, the very next day Bugs went into the ring and was spooky and wild!! He wanted and to whirl and hop and bolt away. There was no reasoning with him at this point. I always try to remind myself to not rely on emotion at this point but to go to my head and to recall the best way to deal with the erratic behavior. I immediately thought about sinking my weight down in to my heels to assure a nice low center of gravity. I reminded myself to keep my head and shoulders up and to look ahead and finally to keep him moving forward on a circle. Fortunately, I stayed in the saddle. It made me think of a quote from Hans Senn(I love his quotes) it goes something like this: When your horse is at his worst you need to be at your best. Don’t panic together. Good advice if you ask me.
I couldn’t really tell what had caused Bugs behavior. It seemed to be a culmination of a little of this and a little of that. Fortunately, we happened to have a visiting rider who is very experienced and is good with horses who are too wound up. He got on and rode through his issues.
This was a side of Bugs that I hadn’t seen. We had some rain and the horses were on the walker as opposed to being ridden so he may have been a little fresher than usual. But still, that is no excuse but rather a reminder of what I need to work on with him. I want Bugs to have all of that energy but learn to use it constructive ways, like moving forward in a big bold trot, or jumping (soon, we’ll get to that in a few entries). Well, it is definitely something to work on.
December, 14, 2010
Bugs is like a big kid. Bugs has been with me since early last spring. He is a 7 year old, 16.3 Chestnut appendix quarter horse. Both his dam and sire were appendix so he has his fair share of thoroughbred in him. I love this about him, since I have a real affinity for thoroughbreds. Mint is a thoroughbred you know. And you know I love my Mint! Mint has been my shining example of positive reinforcement. He has a huge repertoire of behaviors both from the ground and undersaddle. He embodies On Target Training with his huge heart and great disposition. He is a pleasure for anyone to be around and I hear it from people all the time. He is light and responsive in the saddle, making me feel like a highly effective rider even on my worst day. This is what I wanted, another Mint! Of course, this is not how Mint started out.
Let’s start with Bugs beginnings… He was in a pasture with very little interaction until he was 4 years old. That is a long time. There is a window when young horses are very trainable and then there is a time when they are more set in their ways. Bugs kinda missed that window. At 4 he was taken from the pasture and it was decided he was going to be a roping horse. Talk about a square peg in a round hole. Needless to say this didn’t go so well for Bugs. I don’t know all of the details but he came away with a scar on his face and a suspicious disposition.
My friend Marcy had been around Bugs and saw that he wasn’t going down a good path. He was off to the horse auction. She stepped in and took him to her barn, which is a hunter/jumper barn. This is not something that Marcy had done before. She was not sure how this would end or where he was going to go, she just felt it in her heart to give him a chance. For the next couple of years he was in a low pressure program and taught the basics. It was clear to her that he really wanted to please but he still needed a gentle touch. She had invested too much to just let anyone have him and felt somewhat protective of her charge.
This is when I enter the picture. Due to personal reasons Mint had been turned out for 7 years and I had barely ridden. Mint was newly out of retirement but he is getting older and I thought it was time to have a new addition, not only for riding but for the positive reinforcement training. I asked her about buying a horse. Marcy saw a potentially good fit with me and Bugs. I dusted off my chaps and showed up at Marcy’s barn to try Bugs. I wasn’t on him for a minute when he spooked and wheeled. Poof, I’m on the ground. Me being newly back in the saddle, my seat wasn’t real solid. He ended up by the rail, as I went to go get him he was visibly trembling with fear, afraid of the repercussions.
At that instant, I knew he was meant for me. It broke my heart to see him so worried. I knew I had the tools to help him. Now, this is not how one should choose their horses. Bugs had been doing great with Jenn, who rides for Marcy. He felt safe with Jenn and his routine. This, clearly, did not carry over to me.
Marcy, being the voice of reason, wouldn’t let me make a decision until I spent more time with Bugs. He came to the barn where I was boarding. He showed me how suspicious he seemed to feel in the new situation. He broke through two leather halters in two days by pulling back in the cross ties. I never became disheartened and he began to trust me and even more, to look forward to time with me. When I would pull up in my truck both of my horses would start whinnying. I got some riding in but not on a consistent basis. I knew we were moving to a new barn in October, a really nice barn I might add. Marcy is the trainer at the new barn and we were getting into a riding/training program together and utilizing the positive reinforcement. We are both doing great and making great strides. Bugs is growing up!!
Patty, who owns the barn was hosting an elaborate Christmas party the other day at the barn. This meant trucks and workmen were everywhere. They were decorating, hanging plastic to tent the barn areas, putting in a dance floor, bar, hanging lights and bringing in a mechanical bull. This was seemed to be sheer terror for some horses(and rider’s). But Bugs was totally sensible and calm. He made me feel really proud. I think Bugs is a great edition to On Target Training. We have a lot to learn together but he, like Mint, is showing that love of learning and growing a big heart. There is a part of me that wanted him to be all done, just like Mint is now, and then I realized what a great journey it is and wondered why it is I always want to hurry. Bugs will never be just like Mint, but that is fine with me, he is going to be just like Bugs and that is shaping up to be great news. He is a Blessing and I am ever thankful that he is in my life. Bugs has a shining future and I look forward to the journey that lies ahead of us.
I am technically challenged and yet I am choosing to tackle all kinds of new technology. I love how connected I feel to so many people with all of the options available these days. However it is tricky to balance out my time at the barn and working horses with my time at the computer. But here I go… First I want to give you a run down of the horses I am working and the issues I am addressing with each of them. I, personally, have two horses who are constantly being trained.
There is Mint, who is a 19-year-old thoroughbred. He seems as young as ever. He was at John and Beezie Maddens when I started really doing the On Target Training in a professional sense back in 1994. He has been there from the beginning. He was turned out for 7 years while I went through some of life’s tougher times. As I came out on the other side of life I brought Mint back and he is as good as ever. With him I am focusing on fun behaviors. He is past his performance prime but a great example of positive reinforcement training. I must say he was the worst horse I ever worked way back when. He was such a quitter. You don’t see that anymore but I keep that tendency in my mind as I work on new behaviors with him. I always encourage his efforts and try.
My other horse is Bugs. He is a 6-year-old appendix quarter horse. He has a lot of Thoroughbred in him and is at least 16.3 hands. He spent the first 4 years of his life turned out. When it was time to find him a job it didn’t go so well at first. He was too big for the typical quarter horses activities and bucked pretty good. He seemed to be a square peg who didn’t really fit with his owners. My friend Marcy took him to her barn and focused on getting him started under saddle. He was rather suspicious, willful and sensitive all at the same time. I came along and it has been a great fit. He presents some challenges but I feel well equipped to help him grow. Positive reinforcement has made a big difference in his attitude and he continues to make good progress. He has a lot to learn and I will continue to keep you updated through video and blog as we move forward.
There is also Haley. She is my dog, she is a Rottweiler and about a year and a half. She is pretty much a clown. She is also a bit of a chicken and totally sweet. She goes with me everywhere.
As for me… You probably already know about my history from my website but here it is in a nut shell… I worked at Sea World in San Diego for 10 years. I trained whales, dolphins, sea lions, walruses and otters. I trained them and did the shows with them. All of the training is based in positive reinforcement training. I recognized that these techniques were not being used with horses. I saw such a gap in the training equation. Horses had had great success without the use of positive reinforcement and I knew that incorporating what I had learned at Sea World would really improve things. I focused on learning how it was done through traditional training and then in 1994 John and Beezie Madden invited me (and my ex husband, Vinton) to move to their farm and work with them and their horses. That is where it started. The term clicker training came to horses from the dog training world and seems to have stuck.
I will use my blog for the sole purpose of being able to educate and share progress through on going training. I work other horses besides my own with various training issues. I will tell you about them next time. I also will share progress and I often film these with helmet cam so you can learn as we go. I also have a tele-training seminar/webinar each month. I get a lot of great questions and I will address some of these questions in the blog and some in the webinars. I really see this being a great resource for learning more about positive reinforcement/clicker training. I hope that you find this engaging and helpful. I will love to hear some questions and feedback from you. I feel like we are starting an exciting journey together and I am glad that you are here. Now let’s go get On Target!!