On Target Training
This question was sent in by Alicia. Her horse Sox has some separation issues. They are really coming to light when she is out on the trail. While the situation seems more evident on the trail, I suspect that this a problem that Sox has in other situations as well but her reaction is much more subtle. The unknowns that she encounters on the trail probably ramp her insecurities up to a level that bring out the more dramatic reactions like bucking, bolting and rearing. So I suggest we start with smaller exercises around the barn before moving back to the trail.
This subject brings up what I consider to be a VERY important concept and I talk about quite often. It is the idea of determining thresholds. This has a lot to do with timing and observation, which is key to any good training program. This topic could use it’s own blog post. However, I want to cover it here too since it is such an important concept to embrace and it is a big part of sorting out the issue of separation anxiety.
When we bring our horse to a new situation or stimuli that might worry him, we want to start with him in his comfort zone. I consider his comfort zone to be when he doesn’t change or tense up one little bit in the presence of a new object or situation. Essentially, he shows no reaction what-so-ever. By incrementally taking very small steps closer to the situation that causes worry we will be able to determine at what point (threshold) his anxiety changes. By this I mean the SLIGHTEST raising of his head or change in alertness toward the object/situation. The place where his comfort level begins to change is his threshold.
For many people this slight change isn’t even considered a reaction or perhaps it is just overlooked. To me, I see this as communication, loud and clear . He has just told me he is beginning to enter potentially worrisome territory. My job is to listen and meet him at that place. I want to build up his confidence at this point, however we will move at his pace…not mine. By starting at his comfort zone I can get him to try a little bit more and say “yes” throughout the process.
I try not to get “greedy trainer syndrome” by asking for too much. It is far better to take very small steps and spread it out over a few days or sessions. Us humans tend to hurry, set our own agendas and push it too far. This will often backfire on us by compromising their confidence. If we can go in small steps, quitting on a good note, followed by a magnitude (jackpot) reinforcement, we will make a much bigger impact. We should also allow them time to process this new information before the next session. The more they rehearse ANY behavior the stronger it develops as part of their repertoire. So our goal is to get correct responses repeated without pushing them to rehearse incorrect responses. We don’t want them getting into the habit of performing the wrong behavior. That is why it is so important to work sub-threshold, using successive approximations to slowly stretch their comfort level and helping them to make the right choices. As they learn to face their fears, in their own time, their confidence level will increase exponentially. Okay, enough about that for now.
In the video answer I give an outline of some steps to take and exercises that will help to bolster Sox’s independence.
Another thing I repeat often throughout my teaching, is that we want to do all we can to help set our horses up for success. By starting around the barn and in the areas that may feel safer for Sox, we can start below threshold. This will set her up for success and give us a chance to build a good foundation and history with doing the correct thing. As our horses get better we will slowly, over time, move to the more challenging areas (like the trail) and be able to fade some of the tools we used to help set them up for success. Once on the trail, I encourage starting with the smallest space between the horses. If you go too far too soon you probably go over threshold and cause undue stress and even anxiety. You will have better success if you keep the steps on the conservative side.
It is also important to be aware that putting the horses back together can be a huge reinforcement for the horse with separation anxiety issues, especially in the beginning when he hasn’t developed a good reinforcement history with being apart from the others. So when Sox gets to be right next to the other horses on the trail, we are reinforcing her behavior, whatever that might be. Ideally it will happen when she is nice and calm. When you are ready to do a training session on the trail with another person, it is very important to have good communication with the other rider. It would be best to discuss your plans ahead of time. I also recommend that the goal for the first few sessions on the trail, is not about going on a long trail ride, but as an opportunity to teach your horse.
Okay, well that went a little longer than I thought it would!! I hope it helps to give you some fresh ideas. If you have any questions or comments…well, you know what to do!
In this video clip I give Melissa some suggestions to help her hose-phobic horse get past his anxiety. I have found positive reinforcement to be the very best way to overcome spookiness issues in horses, it really helps them to choose to face their fears….and fear of hoses are no exception. To watch them make a decision to relax and let go of their worry is hugely reinforcing for me. Also, a huge benefit of the training is the level of the confidence that your horse will gain through the process. Offering something that your horse finds valuable will really grab his attention and help him to enjoy the learning process.
Before you begin working directly with the hose desensitization, I suggest you be sure he is solid with the bridge signal (clicker) as well as with the target training. Sometimes I just make an assumption that people know this part, so I forget to mention it! By getting a good start, and NOT cutting corners, you will make quicker progress. I am often heard saying “slow down, you’ll go faster” but it is true!! If you need more info on this process you may go to my blog post “Get your horse off to the right start for clicker training”. For an even better explanation of the science behind the training you may want to get my DVD and/or book “You Can train Your Horse to Do Anything”. I also forget that not everyone knows that I have a book or DVDs, so I thought I should mention it here just in case.
Whenever we are dealing with fear in our horses it is very important to keep the training within their comfort range, giving them time to slowly acclimate as we go. As I mention in the video clip, we need to look for signs of worry as well as relaxation. If a horse is standing looking soft and neutral, then he lifts his head as if something got his attention…that, to me, is the threshold that I want to recognize. This small action is communication pure and simple. It tells me that he may have become slightly concerned. I will not move forward with the next step in training until he looks totally relaxed again. Progressing nice and slowly will allow him time to acclimate. If we move too fast we will likely lose ground, as well as trust.
Some of the signs of relaxation might be…exhaling, relaxed head position or casual stance, soft focus, soft eyes, ears, jowls, lips and muscles, etc. These are not the only indicators, however they are some of the more common signs. Seeing some tension in any of these areas doesn’t necessarily mean that their mind is worried. My horse, Bugs has busy lips, they rarely look soft but it doesn’t mean he is uptight…it is just part of his personality. The same goes for the signs of relaxation. For example, a head down doesn’t necessarily mean a horse is relaxed. Horses are individuals so you need to know your horse and what his body language is saying. If this is a new concept for you, than I suggest you get an experienced horse person to help you recognize your particular horse’s body language. Also, watching him when he is turned out or interacting with his environment will also tell you a lot about your horse and how he deals with new situations.
I recommend you build relaxation into the criteria of every behavior you teach. Your horse may not be perfectly calm at first but you can look for little improvements. Bridging (clicking) and reinforcing for the smallest approximations toward your goal. After a while, being attentive and settled will just be a habit for him. However, it is important to only work on one criteria at a time. I recommend you start by working on one a particular element of the target behavior. Relaxation will be an ongoing criteria. So I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you focus on it completely, but keep a vigilant eye out for the times when it is offered. When you get a good approximation that is also calm I would draw a lot of attention to it by rewarding handsomely.
As with every new behavior, we really want to consider what we can do to set them up for success. Is there a place where your horse is more composed? Maybe the wash stall already has an unpleasant association, so starting somewhere else may help to put him more at ease. Hopefully you will get better responses and more opportunities to reinforce. Maybe he will be better after some exercise to take the edge off. Using a little common sense always helps!!
If you follow your horses lead by not going over threshold, while also using a high rate of reinforcement and keeping the sessions brief, you should be able to move forward without a hitch. If you go too fast and lose some ground, don’t sweat (we all do it sometimes), just take a step back and work a little slower, allowing your horse time to process the lessons. The next thing you know your horse will see a hose and think “hose=reinforcement”…you will be dragging him away from the hose! The video will give you a lot more info. Just holler if you have questions or comments!
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!!
Barbara asks some questions that are hot buttons for a lot of people coming from the school of “clicker training”. She is inquiring about the use of the bridge signal(clicker) and not following every single bridge with food. In the marine mammal industry we don’t call it clicker training…in fact most people don’t use clickers. The term was derived and introduced into the dog world some years ago. With it came a set of rules that aren’t used in the marine mammal training industry. That has lead to some confusion as to what is “allowed” when using positive reinforcement. At Sea World we studied and utilized behavioral principles and applied learning theory. The marine mammal industry is on the cutting edge of positive reinforcement training. I know from a previous conversation that some of the rules of clicker training, as it applies to dogs, were created for the neophyte dog owner/trainer. I understand why they were implemented but I also realize that we have come a long way since then. People are now much further along in their education and understanding so they can easily handle some of the more “advanced” concepts of training. I address the questions and give more info in this video clip, but I wanted to touch on some of the points here in the post as well.
One is the concept of not feeding every bridge signal (clicker). The bridge signal/clicker is a conditioned reinforcer also known as a secondary reinforcer. This means we have given the clicker value through classic conditioning (think Pavlov’s dogs). Once that happens it then serves as a reinforcer, all by itself. Occasionally reinforcing with a scratch, game, toy, turn out, activity, another signal or any other conditioned/secondary reinforcer does not diminish the value of the clicker or any other bridge signal. If the ratio became out of balance then that would be a different story, but as long as the ratio is skewed toward most of the bridges being followed by food we keep the value quite high. There are plenty of benefits to using secondary reinforcers and it definitely enhances your relationship.
Next Barbara brings up cues. There is a “rule” that you can’t add a cue until the behavior is almost completely trained. That is not necessarily true. In fact in most cases we are instituting some sort of cue (discriminative stimulus) as we start to train a new behavior…otherwise how would they have a clue what to do? So you have a cue from the get go. Often times I will slightly modify the original cue or simply make it more and more subtle. I give the example of my spin cue in the video. At first it was a point to the target, pretty quickly I started adding two fingers pointing to the target. I kept the same signal that I used from day one but it got smaller and smaller so that it is subtle, this helps to keep them more watchful. If I need to take a step back to remind them, I am still using the same working signal that was a part of the initial lessons. It is easy to slowly get bigger to remind them. If I want a different signal altogether, I will start to pair it with the working cue as soon as they start getting successful approximations. With a target to guide them through it starts pretty darn quick. Free shaping and capturing will be a different process. Since there will likely be more guesswork on the horse’s part, I will add the cue later in these cases.
The third thing that Barbara asks about is the use of a magnitude reinforcement…AKA jackpot feed. She wanted to know if I use a jackpot on Mint’s back up (video: “Now that’s a backup!!” on my YouTube Channel) I definitely use jackpots during the training process, especially for the smallest improvements when working on a new behavior. This seems to keep them highly motivated to work through the rough spots. I actually use the magnitude feed quite a bit. I like to make a big impact and allow latent learning to take effect. I believe quite strongly in having short and sweet sessions and I end every session with a magnitude reinforcement. Well, let me clarify, I end every successful session with a magnitude reinforcement.
Okay, that may about cover it, the rest is in the video…If you have any questions or comments please let me know!
Sabrina has a horse and and pony that she is getting started with positive reinforcement training. The first portion of this training is the trickiest for a lot of horses…or ponies. Her horse responded quite nicely and sorted it out quickly. However, her persistent pony is a different story. She is being kind of tenacious, instead of patient. A pony tenacious…now there’s a surprise! This first portion takes some good timing and looking for the smallest approximations toward turning their head away. This is the most important lesson they need to learn since it sets the tone for future interactions. The good news is that it doesn’t take long for them to get this skill worked out. Take a look at my last blog post to see a horse learning this task for the first time.
Often times people choose to ignore this unwanted behavior and not bring food around their horses at all, except for at feeding time. That is one way to deal with it but certainly teaching them how to behave correctly makes for a more well rounded horse, whether you plan to use positive reinforcement or not. When I watch a horse who is pushy when food is around, I will usually observe this same demeanor at feeding time. This attitude gets reinforced everyday when they get fed, so they have a strong reinforcement history with this unpleasant behavior. These horses are slower to give up on what has worked so well, for so long. So remember, every time you feed your horse you are reinforcing them for SOMETHING! If they are standing quietly, then you will see more of this behavior, if they are pawing or diving at the food then you will see more of this behavior. By simply being aware of what is happening you will be able to change their habits. I can go on and on about manners at feeding time but for this post I want to focus on Sabrina and her pushy pony learning to be polite in the presence of food.
I gave Sabrina a number of suggestions for how to handle this situation. One is to feed her pony before her session. Ponies are often on restricted diets and this can make the value of food skyrocket. By feeding her before the session, this is one ways we can set her up for success. I failed to mention another way that we might be able to set her up for success, would be by doing a session after she has had some exercise. This can take the edge off of their energy level and minimize the frantic seeking of food. Anyway that is something you may try and see if it helps her focus. As she gets the lesson worked out and knows what is expected of her we can fade out these tools that we used in the beginning to help make the learning less frustrating.
Watch the video for more suggestions. Anyone who is new to this training may go to my last blog post for more info for getting your horse off to a good start. Sabrina, please keep me posted and let me know how things are going.
Let’s face it…hand feeding is one of the biggest concerns people have about using a positive reinforcement training program. In reality, it isn’t very difficult at all to teach your horse excellent manners when they are in the presence of food. It just takes some awareness of what behaviors are happening when you are offering food. Each time you give your horse a treat, you are actually telling him that the behavior he is performing at that moment is something that you want to see repeated. If you watch the average person feeding a horse a carrot, the horse usually has their head and neck stretched out toward the person. The horse has learned to pursue the food by reaching toward the person. By simply being aware of what is happening and feeding when a different response is occurring, we can teach a completely different behavior.
In my eyes, this is one of the most important lessons. It establishes good ground manners, patience, and if done correctly, relaxation. Too many people, as they get started with using positive reinforcement, don’t spend enough time here (making this lesson a strong one and teaching the horse to make a conscious choice to keep his head and mouth to himself)
I made this video as part of a short series about de-spooking your horse. This was to serve as a brief introduction to help show people how to get started. Since that time I have had LOTS of requests for this video clip. As I look back, I see things that aren’t explained as well as I do in my DVD You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything. I also see so much that I was processing in my head and some are judgement calls based on my decades of experience. Being that this was to be a short piece, I didn’t really have the time to share my thoughts about these decisions. Being my own best critic, this kind of makes me cringe. Yet I also want everyone to get off to a good start. I often see people who don’t understand how to approach the first and most crucial lesson. So I figure, while it is important for everyone to have a more thorough understanding, at least this little bit of knowledge will help give them a good “jump start”.
Lucky Jack is the horse in the clip and he starts off feeling more mouthy than most horses. He wasn’t as aggressive as some but I felt he needed more direction than some so I “shushed” him away. This is not a normal tactic I use, but in some cases it seems to help distract them slightly, thereby setting them up for success. I also pause longer between some of the clicks…again this was a call I made. I felt it would be best for him because I was able to recognize a familiar and probable behavior pattern. So, I am recommending that you don’t let too much time go between clicks in the beginning. As you are both new to the process, this will help to make it a little bit more black and white for the both of you.
In this video clip you see me walking with LJ as he moves around the stall. I will only do this if the horse is calm and confident. If the horse seems even the slightest bit nervous I tend to stay more still, since excessive moving may cause some horse’s nerves to escalate. I tried to move slowly and calmly with him so he didn’t perceive me as tense. They are very responsive to our moods. If we get more anxiety, they usually respond in kind. However, if we remain calm they tend to feed off of that as well. So being quieter and allowing them to sort it out on their own, combined with a high rate of reinforcement for even the slightest effort, is a good rule of thumb to follow.
When feeding our horses try to remember to feed them out in front where you would like their head to be. Step up to feed them where they are as much as you can. This will help to reinforce the position even more and it will help to prevent drawing more undue attention to the food source. So reach out, under, forward…whatever the situation requires to feed him.
One of the fundamental things to look for during this process is relaxation. I can not emphasize this one enough. Looking for relaxation in all that you do will help to keep them even, calm, deliberate and polite. A calm mind is much more lucid so it helps our horse to make better decisions….and it is all about teaching, and allowing them the chance to make decisions. At first they may be a little more excited but if we focus on the slightest improvement, and draw attention to calm, we will see more and more calm… It will just become part of the criteria. At this point you may have no idea, how important this will be down the road. But remember it is all about the smallest steps. These are called “successive approximations”.
On to the target…This is a little more straight forward. I try different positions to see how I can help him to make the best choices.
I must reiterate, that LJ does not have the bridge signal (clicker) part down yet so I normally would not have moved on to the target so quickly. Please do yourself and your horse a huge favor and complete 8 or 9 short sessions (5 minutes) of just the bridge conditioning and manners before moving on to the target. I see people who have troubles with their horse’s manners and it is usually because they have moved on too quickly without getting this foundation solid. When you have done those sessions, it is then time for the target. I recommend the same amount of time and repetitions.
Finally, If you feel uncomfortable with your horse’s assertiveness when starting him with the manners/bridge signal portion, you may work from the other side of a stall door or fence. This protected contact will keep you out of his reach while still being able to work his manners. Be certain that he’s good and solid on the outside of his enclosure before you work into closer contact. Once you can be right next to him and he is being calm, I recommend you start the same number of repetitions as above. Though it will be a little longer process, we should never be in a hurry or take short cuts. They set the pace of the training.
As I mentioned, this is part of a 3 part series in a brief de-spooking your horse exercise, using milk jugs. We will be working through some ground work with a spooky horse named William in part 2 and then in part 3 we move to the milk jugs under saddle. For more info about getting started and the behavior principles please check out my website or look for my DVD and book entitled You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything. For more info about de-spooking your horse there is a 6 DVD set full of exercises to help your horse become more brave and trustworthy. The set is called DeSpooking Your Horse: Building Boldness & Confidence. I think of them as team building exercises since they help to build the trust on both sides of the partnership.
Okey dokey…If you have questions or comments please don’t hesitate to ask. Enjoy!!
Not all biting is about food. There are many possible reasons why a horse may bite…there is always a reason. Though we may not know what the cause might be, we can change this behavior.
When starting a horse with positive reinforcement there is an easy way to create great manners and a relaxed demeanor when food is around. Clearly this is important since food is often present. The method used for creating good manners can also be implemented to address problematic biting. In fact, I have helped horses who are very mouthy and even aggressive, using food based training. Because most horses put a very high value on food, it is important to have some awareness of how to use it in a constructive way before getting started with a positive reinforcement training program.
Rachel’s horse, Trigger, seems to be making a habit of biting, though food doesn’t seem to be what is motivating his mouthiness. In the video answer I offer a possible cause and solution.
This is not a problem that we often encounter. I mean, how many horses have a trauma related to saddling? But the solution is applicable to all types of situations. Anything that has your horse reacting with fear and avoidance can be addressed using this basic de-sensitzation exercise. Not to get you too caught up in technical terms, but what we are doing is actually called counter conditioning. We are taking something that has an unpleasant association and turning it around by pairing it with positive reinforcement, thus creating a pleasant association.
Of course, and this is a standing order with me, always be certain that there aren’t any physical issues causing the strong reaction. But let’s say their behavior did have a physical origin, often times once the problem is remedied, they still retain the painful memory. We will need to build a new, better reinforcement history with the object or action that caused the worry.
It is very important that we start this process within their comfort zone, progressing only as they show complete comfort with the previous step. It is important to do this in very small increments (successive approximations).
Their fear is a very clear form of communication. Respecting their concerns and exercising patience as we help them to overcome these fears, does amazing things for their degree of trust. If you follow these steps, reinforcing relaxation and paying close attention to your horse’s comfort level you will help to build their boldness and confidence. Okay enough of Psychology 101, let’s watch the video…
Wow, this is a big broad topic! I address some of Holly’s specific issues that have caused her concern in the past. These issues have led to a lack of confidence when she is handling horses. Safety is always first and foremost but I want to help her have some tools that will help her stay safe while building a more trusting relationship with her new horse. Remember, the help of the professional is also another option as you learn how to get a feel for a new horse, or any time you feel unsure.
“Girthiness” is a fairly common issue, especially with mares. However, this behavior is often overlooked instead of being addressed. Their responses may vary; it may be anything from biting, kicking, fussiness or pinned ears. But in any case we can change our horses attitude about the girth or surcingle. And the good news is that it isn’t difficult to do! In this case, Willow’s horse is just learning about this new sensation so it is going to be a quicker fix than a horse who has been habitually grumpy when the girth is tightened. However, it will still be a similar process. One thing to remember, that isn’t addressed in the video answer, tightening the girth in small increments is going to be one of the ways that you can set your horse up for success, so remember to go slow. Also, as a standing rule…before getting started with training, always rule out any physical cause when your horse shows any change in behavior or has a cranky reaction.
This is for my South African friends…We are working on organizing a clinic (or two) in South Africa this March!! I have heard from several people in the past who have been interested in attending or hosting a clinic. I will be down that way so now is a great time to get something organized. I am very excited to have the opportunity to work with some of you…and your horses. If you would like more information please get ahold of Krizelda. Here is her FB page if you would like to send her a message. https://www.facebook.com/krizelda.carelse
In this video answer I address Debby’s question about her new horse. Debby’s horse doesn’t understand the usual leg cue for moving forward. She would like to use positive reinforcement to teach her horse to move forward rather than using pressure/release. For those of you who are familiar with positive reinforcement/clicker training, you already know what a difference it makes in the horses attitude when they are given a choice. You will see a marked improvement in attitude, performance, enthusiasm, retention and focus. By using positive reinforcement you are putting something in the training equation that your horse finds valuable. They become invested in the training process…and it’s outcome! It is amazing how willing, soft and responsive the horses become. This is why more and more professionals are incorporating positive reinforcement into their training protocols. With Debby’s horse we are starting with some basics. This takes a little thinking outside of the box. If you have any questions or want to learn more about the training please don’t hesitate to ask. “>
Want to go on a vacation somewhere warm? What about one with horses? Well, me too. These Southern California winters are brutal. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but it is all relative. Us Southern Californians get tired of our colder weather too. Maybe it is all those years I spent in the cold water and a wetsuit or maybe I am just a wimp…but I can’t wait for the warmer weather. This year I am going to do something about it….I am going to go to Central America!
That’s right. I am really excited to let you know that we just finalized the dates for my clinic in Costa Rica. Well, actually it is more than a clinic…I will be there all week. From May 1st – 7th. It will be so much fun!! Discovery Horseback Tours, run by Andrea and Chris Wady, is a top notch operation. There are some great reviews from people who have had the time of their life. If you want to learn more here is a link to their website. Wait till you read about all of the things you can do. I hope you will join me, Andrea and Chris in Costa Rica! http://www.horseridecostarica.com/vacationpkgs.php
Jen asks a question about creating a bond with her off track Thoroughbred. She is just getting to know her new horse and wants to get started using positive reinforcement training. Using the click/reward techniques will help to build trust incredibly fast. The trust and respect will grow stronger each and every day.
In addition to what I said in the video, I always recommend reinforcing for relaxation. Building it into your criteria from the start will be a big help. Typically, a horse right off the track has a tendency toward being full of energy and not very quick to settle. So as you start the basics (bridge, and target training) watch his eyes, ears, mouth, jaw, head position and body for signs of softness. At first he may not be very relaxed but look for small improvements…tiny little approximation toward settling. By clicking and reinforcing for these increments you will see him becoming more and more relaxed. With relaxation comes focus, manners, sensibility, and a good attitude.
I am really excited for the two of you because I know the amazing journey that lies ahead. Jenn, please keep me posted of your progress and congratulations on your new horse!
Stephanie asks a question about stiffness in her horse’s neck. As always you want to rule out any physical causes by having your vet give your horse a good once over. Also, it is prudent to re-check the fit of your saddle. Okay once we have that sorted out it is time to see what we can do to encourage our horses to bend. Relaxation is the key. From what I hear, Stephanie’s horse seems to be beyond the usual rigidness. In any case I share my initial thoughts on the video. Remember to never use force or coercion to create softness. Using positive reinforcement we can teach our horse to bring it from the inside out. Stephanie, please keep me posted. Let me know how these suggestions work out. If you have questions or want to try something different I have more ideas up my sleeve.
People just don’t seem to talk about that awkward subject of sheath cleaning! I have learned that most people don’t know how to do this or how often it should be done. Well, I think that should change so I have made a DVD on the subject. It is like sheath cleaning 101.
You will learn not only the anatomical side of sheath cleaning but the behavioral side as well. I have found that most people haven’t learned how to do this basic husbandry task because they don’t know how to get their horse to stand quietly for the procedure. All of that is about to change.
Your horse will learn to stand quiet and relaxed while you get to the business of sheath cleaning. In the process you will develop a great rapport with your horse and you will find that the training principles will reach beyond just sheath cleaning.
I have had a great amount of interest in this DVD…matter of fact it kind of surpassed me. I am happy to finally have it available. If you would like to learn more visit the link below:
Heroes and Gurus: How The Guru Syndrome© Stops you Getting True Confidence by Effective Horsemanship
I think this is a great post from Confidence Blog by Effective Horsemanship (see link below). It is full of food for thought. My goal has always been to help people learn the principles of behavior so that they may continue on their own with confidence. At Sea World I felt like I had done my job when I could sit back and watch a sea lion that I trained, successfully do a show (over 100 trained behaviors) with another trainer. Then I knew I had succeeded. The goal is to fade myself out of the equation. The same is true for people. I feel like I have made good progress when people truly understand the principles and can think through them on their own. I want them to take the concepts and run with them. Applying positive reinforcement to the training equation takes a shift in thinking since it is very different then traditional horse protocols. So there is a learning curve. However, I didn’t create positive reinforcement training. It is based in solid science and research done over decades. I am just helping to facilitate the understanding of how our horses learn and how to apply it to everyday situations. I continue to learn with every horse and every person. Anyway, I wanted to share it with you. I would love to hear your thoughts. Enjoy…
I want to formally say a big thank to everyone for your support regarding our westward migration. It was touching to read all of the well wishing thoughts and comments.
Update on our migration: We headed out for the final stretch and then we got a flat tire (and one compromised tire) on one of the trailers. We found a spot along the road to wait for some new tires. It was several hours before they got there. The temperature was nice and cool as we waited. The horses were calm and restful.
Then here comes the tire guys! All of a sudden it was loud and hectic. They had hydraulic wrenches, air hoses, sledge hammers(to get the tires off of the rims), there are lights and trucks running and if that wasn’t enough a tanker truck pulled up along side the trailer with the young ones. Since they are in a slant load it ended up being right behind them. The truck blew it’s brakes. It seemed like real mayhem yet the horses were phenomenal!
Keep in mind that these horse couldn’t even be safely handled a couple years ago and here they are dealing with things that even a seasoned traveler would find difficult. The were calm and sensible!! If they did get startled they settled right back down on their own volition.
They have developed such trust and seem to realize that all is not as fearful as it once seemed to them. I was SOOO proud watching those 6 little horses keeping them selves so composed.
We ended up turning back to the layover barn since it was late at this point. We are giving them a well deserved day to rest and will finish the journey tomorrow. I will keep you posted. Thank you all for your good wishes and warm words. I will pass them on to their humans who have done most of the work! :0)
BTW the picture above is the 3 younger horses. They just loaded and are watching a horse playing in the turn out. We are heading out for their new home…or so we thought!
I think it is funny that I am releasing my trailer loading DVD while in the middle of a HUGE trip for 6 rescue horses…well, it is a big trip for their humans too!
So much planning and care has gone into preparing these horses for this expedition. 1200 miles from Colorado to California…we are almost there!!
Just in case some of you don’t know, these horses have had been through some tough times. Most of them have had some sort of abuse or neglect. There is one horse who is an experienced trailer gal. But the others, have had very little experience trailering and the small amount they did have was not good. So, for months now their loving humans have devoted their time to help these horses get acclimated to trailering and all that goes with it.
Given their past, the project was a big one for everyone. I have come in every now and then to help give guidance along the way but the credit goes to the humans that worked with them all. Well, that and the training!
Using positive reinforcement they were able to get the horses to open up, to trust people and to enjoy being in the trailer. However, 4 days on the road is another issue for any horse, let alone this posse of horses.
Well, today is the home stretch!! We broke the days down into small increments, averaging 300 miles a day. Did I mention one of these horses is 26 and another is 29!!! That meant we really wanted to give them short days with plenty of rest in between.
We weren’t sure how they would respond to all of the new sights and sounds or how they would do getting on and off at new places after their big ships. So much uncertainty! We did all we could to prepare them for these unforeseeable challenges.
I am so happy to report that they have been amazing!! I am so proud of all that are involved. These gals did a great job getting these horses with a great foundation. The horses have seen/heard, semi tractor trailers, air brakes, trains, freeways, tunnels, stop lights, traffic and skateboarders doing tricks right next to their trailer.
They are so solid and seem to be enjoying the whole process. I see this as such a big testament to the power of positive reinforcement training. As I always say, I didn’t create the training. It is applied learning theory, I just help to facilitate it, to put it to work in the real world with real horses in real situations.
Just a reminder, I am running a special on my new trailer loading DVD if you would like to learn more about the training. The special will be running through Wednesday and then it is going up in price. So, if are wanting to get your horse trailering like a pro, please visit the link below:
Will your horse load in the trailer anytime, anywhere?
I recognize that this is a problem for a lot of horse owners. Well, guess what? I decided to make a DVD that will show you how to teach your horse to become the best loader in town!
You will learn how to use the proven behavior principles behind positive reinforcement training. It is simple and easy with no resistance, no balking and no long drawn out sessions. The best part is your horse will enjoy the whole training process…he will love being the trailer!
Plus, when all is said and done, you will realize that the training is great for so much more than just trailer loading. You will find about a million situations with your horse where the principles will come in handy.
I am really excited to finally be releasing this new DVD set that I decided to celebrate by offering you an amazing deal. But only for the next week, then the price will go up, so don’t dawdle!! Get more info and checking out the link below.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of horses out there who are not as happy as they could be or who, even worse, resent the training process. We must always rule out physical causes but once we have done all we can physically we may find the problem is with their mental attitude. The great news is we can change this by adding something to the equation that the horses finds valuable. Something that he perceives as valuable, not something that we assign value to for them. By using positive reinforcement in their training program you can bring about big changes in your horse. You will get a relaxed but eager partner.
Here is a link for the early stages of getting started. Once you get the foundational work in place you will start to see a change in your horse’s attitude, even without taking it to under saddle work. But taking it to your riding you will be addressing his demeanor directly and you will start to feel and see a happier horse. http://on-target-training.com/freetraining/ If you have more questions or would like more information please don’t hesitate to comment or get ahold of me.
As a side note, I recommend Gerd Heuschmann’s work for some great insights into physical relaxation through bio mechanics. This also brings about mental relaxation which of course, is what we want.
Part 5: The emotional component
The most impressive and elaborate behavior is worthless to me if it is done with a poor attitude. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to focus on the activity being performed rather than the demeanor they have while doing the behavior. We also tend to reinforce these behaviors at a higher ratio than we do for standing quietly. When I say quietly, I am referring to internal as well as an external calm and relaxation. One of the best ways to teach our horses patience and emotional/impulse control is to focus on this steady, even keeled attitude and reinforce it accordingly. It should be the foundation behind any behavior, even the most active. Doing a piaffe, sliding stop, jumping or any behavior that requires a high level of activity is still best done with relaxation. Therefore, I strongly recommend paying a tremendous amount of attention to shaping a calm and relaxed demeanor throughout your training. Yet, keep in mind we can also teach them to be flat, dull and barely trying if we reinforce behaviors that are done with this attitude. It is all about the balance.
Getting back to the original question…when they are calm and relaxed, they cannot be wound up and cranky. These two things are opposites and incompatible. Technically, we should use something called a DRI or Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior. We should reinforce the response we would like to see more often. They can’t do both of these behaviors at once so they will have to make a choice…do I scowl, act snarky and tense or do I choose to soften and relax? If we have done our jobs correctly they will choose settling since this is the behavior that has the better reinforcement history and association…pretty soon it is a habit. It becomes the attitude they associate with training.
Well, those are some of my thoughts about creating a horse with a happy attitude. The options are endless but if we pay attention to these things it will help us to recognize the subtle changes in our horses behavior. Only then can we create a happy balanced partner.
Part four: The Holy Grail of training
As I mentioned, in the very earliest sessions I find it is necessary to establish some healthy boundaries when it comes to food. It is up to us to help them learn the correct way to behave when food is in their presence. This can be a real trouble spot if not done correctly and thoroughly established. Fortunately it is simple but needs some repetition. While they are they learning to turn/ keep their head away during the first stages, I begin to work on the behavior I consider the holy grail of training…drum roll please…Standing calm, relaxed, yet attentive.
Standing quietly and relaxed is imperative for training a good attitude. So this is one of the first things I begin to shape while conditioning the clicker. If they learn to be relaxed with a calm focus, most everything will take care of itself. You are beginning to establish a good work ethic and it will carry over to most everything they do. Let us not forget that turning their head away or putting their head down or even standing quietly, does not necessarily equate to relaxed. They can do these behaviors with all sorts of tension and it can easily escalate to a cranky or even a dulled demeanor if it goes unchecked.
We are responsible for recognizing and encouraging a settled, attentive demeanor and emotional control with all that they do. Standing quietly can play a big part in training this healthy attitude. Something to keep in mind is that standing calmly may be very hard for some horses to do at first. Particularly young horses or those horses who are busy bodies and tend to constantly be in motion. It will work best to shape standing quietly and getting to a relaxed state of mind in small steps…just like with any behavior.
This brings me to another aspect that I touched on briefly, yet I also find very important for developing a great attitude, that being Setting them up for success. I strive to create as few errors as possible while learning. I know there is no way to minimize all of the errors and in fact the mistakes are part of the process. They allow the horse a chance to rule something out as an option. However, I try to make the approximations as clear as possible. The target is an invaluable tool for helping to make the steps clearly defined and simple to understand for the horses. As I have previously stated, I find liberty work to be the best way to go so, I think of the target as a replacement for the halter and lead rope. The target effectively eliminates the guess work for the horses while still allowing them to make their own decisions. It helps them have success while training and helps them to enjoy the learning process. To be continued….
Part three: Manners and getting started
Training has some inherent, built in stress. That is just the nature of learning. We are moving out of our comfort zone and into an unknown. It is not clear what is expected, what will work or how to do it. In addition, the first part of the clicker training starts out with free shaping which can be the most stressful type of positive reinforcement training. We are looking for them to turn their head away from us so they are not bowling us over for the food. This is a very important skill for them to learn right off the bat, yet there is not an easy way to help them understand what we are looking for. Well, there are some things we can do to help them out but by and large they are on their own. We are building a new form of communication(bridge signal)but those pieces aren’t in place yet so we have to be quick with our timing and taking advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to the new behavior. It would be much easier if they knew about the target and the clicker but of course that is not the case yet
By being consistent, setting them up for success, establishing a high rate of reinforcement, and more importantly…taking the smallest steps, these steps can all help to minimize the frustration associated with the early steps of training with the clicker. This time is critical as we are wanting to grab their attention but we still need to establish some healthy boundaries and proper manners. We need to do all we can to make this a pleasant and successful experience. This is what will help them build a good attitude toward learning…and a good work ethic…To be continued….
Part two: Combining traditional training with “clicker “ training…
I talked about the different ways that people apply clicker training with their horses. Ideally, I like to teach behaviors using positive reinforcement, yet most of the horses I encounter are cross-over horses. This means the horse has already been trained through pressure/release training and is now being introduced to the use of positive reinforcement in his training protocol. A large number of the people I meet are not interested in letting go of their pressure/release training. That is okay, so long as the horse isn’t showing any worry about the traditional training. As people have the chance to understand the training and see it put to use, they often start shifting to using more and more of the clicker training in their day to day work with their horses.
It is harder for some people to recognize when their horse is not content with certain aspects of his pressure/release training until the tell-tale signs are pointed out to them. People, often times, think their horse is doing well because he is quiet, however, sometimes their horse is actually shut down. It takes a bit of awareness to see that they have checked out. If that is the case I suggest going way back and essentially starting over. Using positive reinforcement and rebuilding a new, better reinforcement history with the behaviors they know, will help them to become more invested in the training process. They will be down right enthusiastic!
One the other hand, if things seem to be on a pretty good level with their horse and his training we can simply add clicker training to increase the horses motivation, performance, capacity for learning and especially their relationship with the owner. You can do this by adding positive reinforcement to what he already knows or by training new behaviors. All of this dramatically improves their attitude across the board. Often times when I am called in there is a problem with some facet of training and they seem to be stuck. The first thing I like to do is go to liberty work for their particular issue, if possible. If it is not an option, I will work the horse in a halter and lead rope, being careful to not apply any pressure via halter, lead rope or body position. This equipment is simply to keep them from wandering too far astray. They may wander to the end of the lead rope, yet I still won’t correct their actions by applying pressure or pulling. I prefer a long lead rope so they feel they have some liberty to move away. This freedom (preferably at total liberty)really gives the horse a chance to show us where they are comfortable and where they are having troubles. Often times to the owners surprise it is a much different picture than what they anticipate. Usually as the owner sees the dramatic improvement, they begin to use clicker training in other facets of their training program.
As we begin combining the two systems I usually don’t see any bad attitudes or grumpiness as a norm. However, some horses will start out a little possessive of food and this can cause some stress and uncertainty at first that can be carried over to the whole training process. Then there are also some horses who just seem to have a sour attitude toward training, being ridden and people in general. Even though they may be compliant, that attitude is a pretty big indicator that something is up that needs to be addressed. First, be sure that there is not a physical cause behind their disgruntled attitude or a sudden change in behavior. I always recommend having your vet, dentist, farrier check to be sure all is well with the horse physically. Let’s say there is a physical problem and you correct the situation, they may still keep the association with the pain and the undesirable attitude may continue.
With a little awareness and good timing it is not so hard to reshape these grumpy attitudes into a consistently soft, happy demeanor. Yet, if they are not addressed right away they can become a normal part of the training equation, even when we are using positive reinforcement. If we reinforce them with this attitude we may be unintentionally telling them that this is part of the criteria. By recognizing it and addressing it we can correct this behavior. To be continued….
Snapdragon is a happy 3 year old mustang who has learned to load in the trailer. She learned how to load nice and slow first and to keep impulse control. However, given her druthers, she would rather canter! Notice how she settles back down once she is in the trailer. She is a horse who has learned that training is fun and she looks forward to working with her humans.
Lately, I’ve had a number of questions related to the attitude of clicker trained horses. People were asking why do my horses look happy while theirs or others clicker trained horses seem cranky? I was gobsmacked!(I learned that term when I was in the UK with Helen) I didn’t know how to answer this question. I have spent some time processing this idea and trying to figure out the things that I may do differently than some of the other people who are training with a clicker. I might add that I have seen lots of happy clicker horses. However, I have also seen (or been contacted about) some disgruntled horses. Enough so that I realize there is something amiss out there for some folks and I want to help turn this around if I can. I have tried to identify some factor that may make a difference. I don’t have a definitive answer for this so here are some of my thoughts:
Part one: Let’s look at the method…
As a trainer who uses a clicker(as Dr. Helen Spence so aptly puts it), I have to admit there are some good “clicker” trainers out there and some not so good. There are also different approaches to using the clicker during training. There are some who drop every ounce of pressure/release training and will go to great lengths to use their creativity to remain as clean as possible. To train solely through positive reinforcement, we need to remove all of the tools that are associated with pressure/release and work at liberty. This means halters, as well as other equipment, and even displacement (through body language) are not used during the training phase.
Liberty work has a number of advantages. First, it removes all of the need for volatile behavior in horses. Whether feral, aggressive or scared, they tend to feel safer since they can flee a worrisome situation. They will choose to walk, instead of run if they feel the need to get away. It builds trust much faster than when using pressure/release tactics. And secondly it allows them the freedom to come and go as they like which tells us a lot about their comfort level.
There are also some who choose to train and teach using more traditional training tools like halters, ropes, reins or physical displacement as part of the clicker training equation. These people will cause the action to happen through pressure of these aids and then click/release/feed once they have elicited the correct response. It is still the pressure that created the behavior so it is traditional (negative reinforcement) followed by the clicker, instead of teaching the behavior at liberty and only adding the halter, or other training aids, later, after the behavior is consistently being performed correctly. Bear in mind that even the halter can be insinuated pressure due to the reinforcement history associated with the halter and how it has been used in the past.
I am sure you can see how different these methods may seem to the horse. There are definitely some variables in how different people apply clicker training to their horses. This variable certainly makes a difference in the horse’s attitude toward the training. This was one of the possible differences that came to mind when I tried to evaluate the factors that may be responsible for generating a not so happy attitude while clicker training. To be continued…
Here is another Ask Shawna video answer. This is one of my favorite issues to deal with…jumping! The use of clicker training to help horses overcome jumping fears is amazingly effective. It helps the horse (and rider) to develop or restore boldness and confidence.
I have been a bit busy but I am getting back to my blog. First, I want to give a shout out to Denise Bickel DVM for stepping in to be my guest blogger. She did an outstanding job. She is quite a writer!! I heard comments from many of you so I know everyone thoroughly enjoyed reading about her journey with Brennir. I would love to incorporate more real stories or experiences on my blog. So, if you have a story (or stories) about using clicker/positive reinforcement that you would like to share, I would love to get them out there. I think it is a huge help for everyone to hear stories of how “real” people put the training to use with their horse in their situation. There are millions of ways to use the training and I LOVE hearing about them. Let’s get some of those stories out there so we can spread the word. You don’t need to be a great writer, in other words, don’t compare yourself to Denise and her writing…if we did I wouldn’t be writing on my blog either…and if you have pictures to include that would be great too. If you are interested please let me know. Come on guys…don’t let me down, I know there are some great stories lurking out there!
Okay, on a more somber note. Denise and her horse Brennir are having a very difficult time. This past week has been touch and go for Brennir. They suspect he ate a toxic plant. He almost passed a couple times this week. He has had exceptional care between Denise and MSU’s equine clinic but his prognosis is uncertain right now. Please take a moment and say a prayer for them both. We can all relate to the pain and worry that she is feeling right now. Brennir is a very dear part of her family. The blog posts gave us a glimpse into her heart and she clearly has a very special bond with him. It breaks my heart just thinking about their situation. Thanks guys for being such a compassionate and caring group of horse people.
This is an Ask Shawna video answer to a question, sent in by Lucy, about a horse who has had some trauma related to the trailer. I discuss some ideas about how to get back on target. BTW, I have a trailer loading video coming out some time in the next week or two so keep your eyes peeled if this is something you want to learn more about.
The Brony is not an arena horse, and I am not an arena girl. We both crave the outdoors, open spaces. We had been circling around the arena for several weeks in late February of this year, and I almost felt like myself on him. I had healed a great deal, and had almost full use of my injured arm by then. We were walking, trotting and cantering on both leads calmly indoors. We were also, even with the challenge of working on our fears, both bored.
This past winter was an unusual one in Michigan, and most of February and March were absolutely balmy, with temperatures in the 60s and bright sunny skies. Although everyone waited for winter to come crashing back down on us, it never did. The ice-blue sky and spring –scented breezes held a siren song for me. I was terrified, but I wanted to ride outside again. Shawna and I discussed it. She felt as long as I kept him within his comfort zone, maintained a high rate of reinforcement, and worked in very small steps, we’d be fine. No problem. I could do that. I always under-estimate the irrational force of my own ambition.
At my neighbor’s farm where I keep the Brony, there are limited facilities for outdoor riding. I have my choice of the back pasture, or the barn drive, and beyond it, the open fields and woods that made up my neighbor’s 90 acres. The drive seemed full of peril, but the back pasture was unrideable. Warm days and nights below freezing meant that is was a muddy, rough, rutted mess that was hard to walk across. The horses had been avoiding it, picking their way carefully through the humps and ditches when they got too tired of the front pasture and needed a change. The drive was our only option, and I put off trying. Every time I thought about riding Brennir out there, I grew uncomfortably aware of the plate and screws just under the skin that held my collar bone together, and the stiffness where a few of my ribs were still broken. Still, one bright day when the sky was like an unblemished sapphire, my desire overcame my fear. It was time.
Even as I walked over to the barn, I could feel the anxiety crawling in my stomach. I tried to will myself to relax, but anyone who has tried to do that knows that it rarely works. Brennir did not help the situation. I had tied him up to the hitching post to brush him. Walking around behind him to move from his left side to his right, he spooked, as far as I could tell at me. “Okay” I told myself “Just reward what you want”. When he settled I clicked and treated for him. I started reinforcing him for standing calmly as I brushed and tacked him, and he relaxed, nickering softly. Before long, he was tacked up and ready to go.
I ride with only a suede bareback pad. Initially, I had trouble finding a saddle that fit Brennir. Once I got used to the pad, I no longer wanted one. It does make mounting from the ground much harder, though. I walked a relatively calm Brennir up to the bucket I usually used as a mounting block and set him up. He stood quietly for a moment. I should have remembered, at that moment, to reward small things, but like many humans, I had set my eye on a goal, and I intended to achieve it. I moved to mount, and my shadow on the ground sent him spinning, wide eyed and snorting. Calming him, I walked him back to the mounting block. “Small steps” I thought. I clicked and treated him for several minutes straight just for standing at the mounting block. Finally, when he was relaxed, I mounted him, my adrenaline pumping.
Anyone who has come back from a significant riding injury will understand what a victory it was to me just to be sitting on my horse under an open sky, and I felt a momentary flash of joy. Now, my human ego took over. I was back on my horse, outside. I needed to ride. Considering for a moment, I decided anything less than a ride all the way to the end of the barn drive would be a failure. I resolved not to fail.
Asking him to move forward, I let ambition override the caution in my gut. Forget small steps. Already in my mind I was heightening the criteria. I expected him to go at least part way down the barn drive to get a click. After all, before the accident, we had done that many times, I reasoned. Then the crow showed up, one of the birds that could still terrify him. At first, I grew stern, hard, telling him to ignore his fear, just as I told myself to ignore my own. More honest than me, the Brony could not do that. When pushed past his limits, Brennir would dissociate from everything. His eyes would glaze over and go distant, and nothing that I did, not calling his name, not using the reins, not thumping his neck with my hand, nothing could draw his attention back to me. Sometimes he would bolt, as if he was fleeing an unseen predator.
Now, I sat on his back, painfully aware of my still-healing body, and watched his eyes start to look somewhere far away. “Brennir!” He seemed to shake his head as if awakening from a day dream, and tilted his head toward me. Click and treat. He took a shuddering breath, and rolled his eye back toward the crow. A slight pull on the rein, and the moment he looked back at me, I clicked and treated him. My heart softened. He needed me to praise his smallest efforts. He was giving me everything he had to give. I could feel a turning of energy, as his focus shifted back to me. I asked him to take a step. Click, treat. The crow flapped its wings, and his body braced underneath me, ready to run. “Brennir!” He snorted, and turned his head toward me again. Click, treat. He sighed, and I did too. As he understood that his was all I would ask of him, his muscles loosened. He took a few steps forward on his own. I rewarded them, but he had done enough. He had faced his fear.
This then, would be our starting place. That first day, under that clear sky, we hardly moved a few feet. But every time some terrible beast caught his eye, I called him back to me, and he came. The whole world frightened him, full of a thousand enemies. I would love him as he was. I would stand beside him patiently while he faced his fears. I would give him my heart, and he, in turn, would give me his.
After all the ground work and individual steps, in February it was finally time to think about riding the Brony again. The safest place I could think of to do that was my friend’s dressage arena. Should I come off, the sand would be more forgiving than the frozen ground outside. Plus, an indoor arena has fewer distractions, and he should be less likely to be spooked or overwhelmed there. In theory, at least.
The reality was rather different. Now, faithful readers will remember from the first post that our accident involved a sand hill crane that flew at us, screaming. The incident had left Brennir with a fear of all birds. A group of Canada geese flying overhead would send him spooking and snorting. If a sparrow came too close, he would turn and run. So, riding inside, where no birds should be, was a great idea. In theory. In reality, a family of pigeons had taken refuge from the cold in the arena rafters. I had no sooner led him quietly into the arena than a pigeon flew overhead with their distinctive, drumming sound. Brennir startled, going up on his hind legs and running out as far as the lead would let him. “Brennir! Calm down!” I reeled him in, but I could see he was still terrified. He yanked me toward the other end of the arena. I yanked him back. Stamping his foot, Brennir dropped his head and spun toward the other end of the arena so hard I almost lost my footing and fell. Our much prepared for, clicker-centered return to riding was off to an awesome start.
I got him calmed down and took him over to the mounting block, where we practiced standing quietly for a few minutes. I got on and off him repeatedly, rewarding him for his good behavior. Then, I mounted up. I was unprepared for what happened next.
Before the accident, I had always been a fearless rider. Now, though, as we moved off from the mounting block, my body felt awkward and stiff, my thighs too tight on his flanks, my hips locked up. I could not find his rhythm even at an easy walk. Fear, for me, has always been an emotion I considered unacceptable, a weakness I despised in myself. Disturbed by the crawling apprehension in my body, I tried to tell myself I was not afraid, that nothing had changed. My horse, however, knew differently. His head started to come up high, his nostrils flaring. He jigged under me, and when a pigeon fluttered overhead, he bolted suddenly sideways and though I stayed with him without a problem, I had what I can only describe as a flash back. Over and over in my head I heard the sound my body had made when it hit the ground, like firewood being split, the sound of my bones breaking. All my muscles clamped down on him and his reaction was to get more upset, lunging sideways again. I spun him around, hard, digging a heel into his flank. Suddenly I was angry, at my horse, but even more at myself, for being afraid. I halted us along the wall, breathing unevenly, trying to will the fear from both of us, but I couldn’t. A sense of failure overwhelmed me. I didn’t know what to do, and the self-hatred surging in me was doing neither of us any good. I choked back a few sobs, grateful for the empty arena.
There is a central idea in clicker training “Reward what you want.”. It sounds simple, and it is. Except that we as humans tend to be really, really focused on getting rid of the things we DON’T want. At least, I often am. We often hear from our horse friends “My horse won’t load”. “My horse won’t take the correct lead” “My horse won’t stand well for the farrier”. We as horse people tend to spend a lot of time focusing on what our horses can’t, won’t, or don’t do. I realized, as I sat there, rubbing Brennir’s neck and trying to calm him, that all I was seeing was what we were doing wrong. He wasn’t staying calm, I wasn’t staying calm, and nothing was going right. I was unhappy with my fear, with his fear, with my memory of getting hurt. There had to be one thing, one positive thing, we could focus on, and build on. Surely, I thought, we were doing at least ONE thing right.
As I thought that, Brennir turned around, biting the toe of my boot and tugging gently on my leg with his eyes soft and wide. This is my pony asking “are you mad at me? Because I tried. I really did.” I wiped away my tears. Of course I wasn’t mad at him. I loved him more than anything, and what I could not do for myself, I could do for him. “I know, pony boy. I tried too. Let’s do this, together’
Just as it can on the ground, every behavior in the saddle can be broken down into tiny, achievable steps, and that was what we needed now. We both needed to be reminded of what we could do, of what a great team we were together. Breathing deep, I relaxed my body, and then asked him to take one step forward at a walk. For one step, he could stay calm, and so could I. Click, treat. Then two steps. Then three. I kept clicking and treating, and he started to become less afraid, and more engaged. So did I. By the time we had made a slow circuit of the arena this way, I was relaxed, moving easily with Brennir’s stride. A pigeon flew over again, and he jumped.
He could not walk past the pigeon without startling, but we were not focusing on what he couldn’t do anymore. What could he do? Stand quietly under the pigeons in the rafters while they cooed and flapped their wings? Yes. That he could do. Click, treat. Accentuate the positive. After a few minutes of practicing standing quietly he felt more confident. We began to slowly follow the pigeons as they flew around above us. Every time he stepped calmly, I would click and treat. Soon, I was enjoying the transformation of my horse so much that I forgot my own fear. His confidence returning brought me such joy, and he knew it. His old pony self started to show through.
As our ride drew to a close, I asked him to trot a few feet several times, clicking and treating for his calm controlled movement, trying to forgive myself for the rush of adrenaline I felt when he sped up. Just as I was about to halt him for the day, a pigeon fluttered down onto the sand in the middle of the arena, strutting and pecking. Without thinking I immediately clicked for Brennir, who was quietly standing and watching. He took his treat, and when I asked him to walk toward the pigeon he did. Click, treat. Then, the pigeon took a few steps. Brennir sped up to follow it, and soon my bird phobic horse was stalking the pigeon all around the arena, until it had had enough and flew back up into the rafters. I got off, and he stepped up behind me, locking his head over my shoulder in a Brony hug.
I had seen what he had done right, and he loved me for it. In finding mercy for his fear, I started to find mercy for my own. We’d both been hurt, and now, together, we were healing.
Over the past few weeks I have gotten wonderful feedback from people who were very moved by The Brony’s story. However, I have also gotten a number of messages from people with difficult horses who are struggling. Since I really, truly believe that positive reinforcement training with the clicker is the absolute best way to train, I thought we would use today’s blog as a flash-forward to the present, rather than a flash-back. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in only six months, and I would like today’s post to serve as encouragement to those who are struggling. The basic clicker principles: small steps reward what you want not what you don’t, find the tiny tries the horse gives you, along with patience and love, can solve any problem.
This morning was a bright July day, a bit hot, but with a gentle breeze and a blue sky, and I headed out to the barn to spend my morning time with The Brony. When I started working with Shawna, I realized having a troubled horse was a big commitment, and if I was going to keep him, I had to give him my all. After making the decision I was going to work with him every single day no matter what, I was surprised how easy it became to find the training time I didn’t think I had. Now it is just our routine. I get up extra early and schedule my appointments to carve out an hour or so each morning. He can see me as I let the dogs out, and feed the ducks, and he calls for me joyfully. My once fearful horse can’t wait to work.
When I get there he is waiting, standing at the gate. I hold out his halter and he drops his head and slips into it for me, then lifts his head up so I can fasten it. He follows me at liberty to the post where I usually tie him for grooming and tacking. We are going to ride, so I tack him up. I throw the reins over his head and go to stand at the mounting block for him to come to me. However, we went for a long ride the day before, and the bugs were bad. He ignores me, cropping grass near the mounting block. “Brennir, step up!” I tell him, but he doesn’t. I could grab the reins and lead him over, but we have been in a process of using less and less pressure, with better and better results, so instead I take him, fully tacked , and turn him out in the pasture with his morning hay and his brother. At one time I would have thought this the absolute wrong thing to do, rewarding the horse for being disobedient by setting him free. Now, though, the Brony and I have a completely different relationship, one based on mutual respect and enjoyment of the learning process and being together. He stands at the gate, perturbed. He does not want hay or to go and graze with his brother. He wants to play the clicker game. After a moment I let him out and walk back to the mounting block. He follows, lining his body up so I can mount.
I want to go for a ride in the woods today, but a short one. The deer flies are bad, and he worked hard the day before. In order to preserve some challenge, I decide to ride a small loop I do not usually ride, with several steep downhills. He happily moves out, heading down the first slope without a hitch even though a large branch has fallen in the path at the bottom of the hill, sticking up like a scary monster. He is alert as we pass through an area of trail thickly walled with tall brambles. He snorts a little, lifting his head up, but I feel no fear as his muscles start to tighten under me. I have abandoned all use of force with him as I’ve moved forward with the clicker, even little kicks and squeezes, and his response has been to relax utterly and give me more confident, forward enthusiasm than ever. Although once a frightening bucker and bolter under saddle, he has now learned that we speak the same language. All of those behaviors came from a horse who’s every reaction to the world was based on an overwhelming fear he did not know how to communicate. He doesn’t need to scream with his body by bucking, bolting and rearing now. He knows I hear him, so he can speak with a softer voice.
Up ahead the trail goes down a steep but short incline into a narrow wash-out and then back up again, and he navigates this without difficulty. We ride a ways along the hill top, thick brambles on either side again. Then we come to the second downhill. It’s a steep slope, descending from the sunny hill top to the shadowy woods in a straight line, brambles rising to above horse height on either side of the trail. Here, he balks, snorting as he looks down the hill, which has overgrown a bit since we were last here. Once upon a time, a situation like this would have been scary for me. Asked to do anything that frightened him, Brennir was apt to meltdown and try to bolt. Now he can tell me of his fear more softly, because I am listening. He knows I will not force him to give me anything he is not ready and able to give me. Neither one of us needs to be afraid. We are a team, supporting each other. He turns his head away from the hill, and drops it low in a head down stance. Much work with the clicker and patience on both our parts has taught him that his is an ok way to say “I’m scared to do this. I need a little time” I sit quietly for a minute, asking nothing of him, just letting him feel me with him. He takes a breath and relaxes.
We have eliminated all pressure cues for forward movement, as it has become clear over the past month that Brennir finds them aversive. Instead, I use the verbal cue we conditioned while shaping the forward behaviors. “You can do it!” He turns his head to face downhill again. He is not convinced he can do it, though. I can see the fear in his eyes. Just like when the four wheeler would run him down as a colt, here was something scary he must escape from, as fast as possible. Once, at this point, he would have bucked me off and ran. Instead, he takes a few slow steps backwards, another movement we have established to mean ‘I’m scared’. I stop the verbal urging and wait again. Finally he takes a step forward. He gets a click and a lot of treats. He has made as excellent choice, the choice to calmly move forward. He takes another step. Click, treat. Then he sighs, and his whole posture changes, his ears perking forward. I can feel his hind end engage under me. It is Brennir saying “I CAN do it”. He sets off down the slope with no more hesitation and no drama. Without my ever having applied the slightest pressure, he has, of his own accord, faced the thing that scared him, and moved past it. At the bottom of the hill, in the shadows of the trees, I click and give him treat after treat, scratching his neck and telling him what a brave pony he is. This is one of my greatest joys in life now, when he has given me his very best, and i know he has done it with a whole and willing heart.
For Brennir and me, I have learned that the most important thing the clicker does is give us a mutually understood language. He never bucked or bolted because he was a bad horse, or a mean horse, or even a horse who lacked that elusive “try” people speak of. He did it because he was afraid, and I had given him no other way to tell me that. Now every ride is a conversation and the more we talk, the closer we move to the place I want to be, where the many barriers between our separate species fall away, and we are just two friends who need each other, on a journey together.