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, 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!!
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…
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. “>
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.
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.
Hi everyone! Shawna is really busy getting ready for clinics, so I’ll be doing some guest blog posts. My name is Denise Bickel, and for the last six months Shawna has been helping me with my 5 yr old mustang gelding Brennir ( also known as the Brony), who was an orphan foal and has had a lot of behavior issues. I’ll be sharing his story in parts to show both how the insight Shawna brought to our troubles helped change things, and how we used positive reinforcement methods to help build Brennir’s confidence in himself and me. I hope you‘ll follow us on our journey! As I say when I we start our sessions, “It’s Brony Time!”
There are horses, and then there are horses. Every horse person knows what I mean. That one horse that looks in your eyes and sees straight into your heart, that you love like crazy, your heart horse. Except what happens when you find that horse, the horse of your dreams, and they turn troubled and angry and sometimes dangerous? It wasn’t the path I was looking for. It wasn’t even the horse I was looking for. Once I looked in his eyes for the first time though, I felt like I had already known him for a thousand lifetimes. He had my heart, from the very beginning.
I found my heart horse in a scraggly little mustang foal whose mother didn’t want him. He was about 40 lbs. at birth and looked like a bald, starving goat. His mother had been rounded up by the BLM not a few months prior. She had gone crazy, attacking another mare’s foal and killing it, and no one was sure how to handle her or what to do with the foal. That first day I saw him while attempting to give him a new foal exam, I offered to buy him, but the owners were convinced they would love and keep him forever.
Everyone knows orphan horses can have issues, and Brennir certainly did. In the intervening year between when I met this baby and he became mine, he had some experiences I wish I could erase. He was isolated from other horses. They chased him with the 4-wheeler as a “game” almost every day. I am sure now that he was lost in the world. When they decided to get rid of him, I only found out about it because I was there looking at another horse. I offered to take him that day. I borrowed a trailer, and he got in without any hesitation, never looking back once. Even then I loved him with my whole heart, and I promised him and myself I would do whatever he needed to help him overcome his rough start in life, and be the horse I knew he could be, the horse my heart saw.
As promises of that sort often do, my promise soon proved harder to keep than I had anticipated. Brennir had a lot of behavior issues, some of them dangerous. When I first got him, he would aggressively charge anything that threatened him: humans with lunge whips, humans with ropes, dogs, chickens, anything. He would knock you down at an all-out gallop in the field, bite, kick, rear and stomp if he was afraid. He was alternately aggressive with other horses or completely detached from them. I was already familiar with clicker training at that time, and since any type of pressure provoked an aggressive response from Brennir, I gravitated toward that for safety reasons. While it definitely worked better than anything else had, we struggled.
Four years together passed.. He learned to lead, to move his body, to tolerate scary objects, stand for grooming and hoof trimming, load on the trailer, all the things a horse needs to know. He could be difficult though. I could not lunge him because he would charge me. He could be fine under saddle and then suddenly explode. I was told he was spoiled, disrespectful, dominant, that I needed to put him in his place. However, when I tried to assert dominance his behavior just deteriorated. Eventually, he became a riding horse, although not without his issues. I loved him, and he was a good horse, but I felt like we lacked the connection I really wanted, and I never felt like I could completely trust him. Most painfully, I never quite felt that I had fulfilled my promise to him. Then, something happened that changed everything.
I was in a bad riding accident. The details are unimportant except to say it was NOT Brennir’s fault. We were attacked by a large crane who was guarding a nest and I doubt the most seasoned horse would have kept it together. I ended up with a dislocated collar bone that was broken into several pieces, 6 broken ribs, and a punctured lung. I spent a week in the hospital, had surgery and it was over a month before I could do anything with my horse at all.
When I was finally able to start working with him again, I found everything we had worked so hard to achieve was gone. He had reverted back to his earliest behavior issues, acting flighty and frightened, aggressive and difficult to control. Instead of a skinny yearling though, I now had a 900 lb. animal with the strength, will and agility of an adult, charging, striking, rearing and biting at me. Riding was out of the question. I was now struggling with fear issues I’d never had before my accident, and he was completely unpredictable. Soon, I could not even lead him safely. He would behave until it was time to return to his paddock, but then he would have a tantrum, rearing and striking. He would knock me down and break away from me, for reasons I didn’t understand. Every day I would find myself in tears. I tried nose chains, the round pen, various exercises trainers I knew suggested, and his behavior just got worse, and his heart more distant. Finally, on a very cold day right before Christmas, as I was trying to put him back in the field, he knocked me down and tore away, running so far and fast he went across the very busy road we live on. By some miracle he was unhurt, but I no longer knew what to do. Defeated, I sat down in the snow and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. I felt I had failed him completely. I knew if I sold him or gave him away he’d end up dead, but I didn’t know how to help him, and we were both miserable.
I knew I needed someone to help me, but every trainer I knew locally used some kind of pressure training, whether it was natural horsemanship of various flavors, or a more traditional approach. We had already tried so much of that with abysmal results. I knew I had to approach him with positive reinforcement but I was so defeated and confused, I no longer trusted myself or my horse. A desperate internet search on equine clicker training led me to Shawna. I saw she was a professional clicker trainer. However she was in California and we were in Michigan. Never mind, I was willing to try anything at all. I emailed her asking if there was any way she would do an internet consult. To my surprise, she said yes.
We set up a time to talk on the phone, and that conversation would change my relationship with my horse forever. I had already sent her information on his history and the problems we were having so she had had time to become familiar with his issues. We made some small talk, I made some comment about his bad behavior, and she replied “well, you have to understand. He’s afraid of everything”. For a moment it felt like my whole world was turning around those words. This horse, MY horse, who charged anything that looked at him cross eyed, who would rear up and strike at you like a wild stallion, was afraid? I had thought he was aggressive, dominant, willful…but not afraid, not that.
I paused, giving her a chance to expand on this. She explained that orphan horses have no solid foundation from which to navigate the world. They have no herd, no sense of security. For whatever reason, genetics, personality or some effect of his early experiences he expressed his fear as aggression, but he was afraid. “ And then you disappeared, and he didn’t know why. His herd, his one secure thing, disappeared. He’s terrified. You go to put him in the paddock, and he doesn’t know if you are ever coming back. Of course he doesn’t want to go”. My heart broke for my poor, lonesome horse, as every problem we had ever had suddenly made perfect sense. I was crying, but trying not to let it show. I am a veterinarian. I know lots of trainers. I had talked to so many people, read so many books and internet articles, tried so many approaches. Yet no one had ever seen into my horse’s heart before. Shawna did, and in those four words “ He’s afraid of everything” I found the key to opening up Brennir’s heart to me. Somehow, without even meeting him, she knew more about him than I did.
We made a plan for working with him. I would click and treat calm leading behavior within his comfort zone. I’d reward him lavishly for the return to the paddock in order to make the separation less painful. It was not so different from what we had done before, except that, because I understood now that he was afraid, when he started to lash out I was patient and reassuring, using the target to draw him back into his comfort zone, trying to calm his fear. In two days, he was leading like a docile puppy, returning to the paddock without any resistance. On the third day after my conversation with Shawna, when I was finally starting to be convinced the improvement wasn’t just a fluke, I stood in the pasture while snow came down and put my forehead on his. I scratched his neck, remembering how much I loved him, remembering that I was still keeping my promise. He nuzzled me, and I told him“It’ll be okay, pony boy. I understand now. I’ve got us some help. You don’t need to be scared anymore’. He sighed, leaning into me. The connection I felt at that moment was indescribable; his posture so soft, his heart turned toward me in a way it had never been before. He knew I heard him, finally knew how much I loved him, thanks to those words, that insight no one else had had. “He’s afraid of everything”. There was a lot more work to come, but we had the new beginning we needed.
I address a question about a young/green horse who isn’t so good at going straight yet. I have some ideas and suggestions how to utilize positive reinforcement to help her focus on the training. I’d love it it you would,” share”, “like”, +1 or comment. I enjoy your feedback and participation! QUESTION:
Hi Shawna! We bought a five year old appendix in June under the assumption she was green under saddle but not as green as we have found. Luckily she is super brave and confident and loves to jump but obviously we want her flat work to be just as good. Jazzy is in human terms ADD she gets distracted easily and seems to literally lose her train of thought. While flatting to the left there are two spots in the arena where she forgets to continue going straight. And if I circle her and take her right back she is normally fine. Any ideas? We were thinking of longing in side reins because she may not be as balanced as I think. I also need to get a better set of spurs. I was just wondering if there was a training technique to help a baby focus a little better.
I hope this helps, I would love to hear how things are going with her. :0)
I address Marjorie’s question about maintaining her Foxtrotter’s gait. However, this really applies to any horse having trouble with his gait. One of the things I enjoy most about my position is that I have the opportunity to work with horses and riders from all different disciplines and levels of training. While I may not have expertise in that particular discipline, as a behaviorist, I can still make a difference in the horse’s performance. It all boils down to some basics in behavioral principles. I think this might be a good time for a brief review for those of you who are new to the blog and a reminder for you old pros!
The key is to draw attention (via a reward) to the small steps that are taken to create the behavior. These building blocks are called successive approximations. By recreating this progression of steps we are reminding our horses of the training which led to the final product. Furthermore, by adding positive reinforcement (reward) to the equation, we build a new reinforcement history with the correct behavior. Everything our horses do is because of an association they have established with behavior. An important axiom to keep in mind is: If any behavior increases in frequency, then something in the environment is reinforcing the behavior. This means they are either seeking something they want or avoiding something they don’t want. That is the bottom line. Sounds pretty simple when you think of it that way, don’t you think?
By stepping into any training situation and ramping up the amount of positive reinforcement associated with a task or performance you can modify behavior. A lot of people believe they are using positive reinforcement but true positive reinforcement is something that the horse holds in high regard. Us humans tend to use something we hold in high regard. Primary reinforcers are the most effective. Particularly the things that are required for survival. These primary reinforcers are: food, air, water, sleep and procreation. The first 4 refer to the things needed for the horse to survive as an individual while the 5th, procreation, refers to survival of the species. Since our horses are hard-wired for these things, their power as a motivator is unrivaled by anything else we currently use in our training programs. Food is clearly the easiest to implement and hugely effective. Of course, as I have explained before, there are boundaries to establish and maintain when we utilize food as training tool. Alright, I think that is enough for now. I can go on and on. Heck, I have taught a week long college course so I can talk behavior for a week straight! Understanding these principles is the first step to becoming a better trainer. Let’s watch the video…
In this video I address Vicky’s question about her horse who has been bucking when transitioning from trot to canter. I posted this to You Tube back in November. Then the holidays and moving took over my life. So, now I am getting this posted here on my Blog. Often times I film these short clips and realize I have not addressed some important points. I then pair the video up with the written part of the post which will address some of these issue. But I think this one pretty much covers it. However, I did get a question posted on FB the other day that is addressing bucking with the flying lead change. They are slightly different scenarios but the underlying issues are the same, bucking during a transition. I am going to post the question and response so you can get another case scenario. After all, the more information you have the better equipped you will be to think on your feet when an issue arises.
Something to keep in mind…Bucking can also be a way your horse communicates that he is in pain or having discomfort so be sure to eliminate any possible physical causes for this behavior before you address it through training. Once he has a clean bill of health you are ready to proceed. However, let’s say your horse had a physical cause for his bucking. Maybe he had an injury or an ill fitting saddle. So, you do what it takes to remedy the situation. Just because the pain has gone away doesn’t necessarily mean the bucking will go away. He may still remember the pain and associate it with a particular activity and continue to avoid that activity. You will probably still have to address it from a behavioral stand point. That being said, let’s get to Shari and Vicky’s questions.
QUESTION: How do you respond when your horse does something really good, you click, but before you reward him he does something really bad? For example: teaching a flying lead change. He does it perfect for the first time, you click, then he starts bucking. Would you still reward? Would you ignore it all together and try again? Or something else?
ANSWER: Hi Shari, That is a really good question. I would not recommend rewarding him for the behavior. Granted you clicked, which is drawing attention to the target behavior but you don’t want him to inadvertently associate the unwanted behavior with the reward. It could turn into what is called a “superstitious behavior” which means he may think it is part of the whole chain.
I would try to make a mental note of when the unwanted behavior happens. I would look for an opportunity to draw attention to that behavior in another circumstance. For example: go back to the simple change and click when he settles after the change to the new lead. I know he probably doesn’t have a problem with this behavior during the simple change, but it will help to build a reinforcement history with this part of the behavior. We want to teach him that relaxation is an important part of the criteria for reinforcement. This will help him to relax and settle as soon as the change is done since this is when the click/reinforcement happens.
Now, let’s say that he keeps being too excited after the flying change. In that case I would suggest not drawing attention to the actual change itself but instead once he settles after the change.
I hope this helps clear things up a bit. If you have more questions please don’t hesitate. I have some other tools to use under saddle that I will address in the next tele-seminar. It is just too much writing to discuss here! Please keep me posted on your progress.
This letter was forwarded to me by my friend Jane (Savoie) who is a big advocate of positive reinforcement/clicker training. We go way back and she knows how much I enjoy helping people to embrace clicker training.
I have listened to all of the audios on the Dressage Mentor site and they are fantastically helpful. In a couple of them, you mentioned clicker training and instances in which you used clicker training help horses get used to clippers, perform square halts, etc.
Hearing you talk about clicker training inspired me to try it with my horses. Thanks to clicker training, they now look away from a treat on command and can “talk” on command. I even am using clicker training in groundwork to help one of my horses learn how to perform a correct turn on the haunches.
I also have been getting my trainer to use the clicker to train me while we work on the timing of my aids, my position, etc. I think that it is helping me a lot!
I was wondering if you could share more advice about clicker training in general and if you had any advice or thoughts about how to use clicker training to help a horse learn how to do flying lead changes.
In the case of using clicker training for flying lead changes, do you think a horse could learn commands that instruct them to move their bodies in very specific ways (such as the command “left” to bring their left hind leg under them to switch to a new lead)? Or “switch” to switch leads?
Thanks so much for all the wonderful information that you share–every time I read your articles or listen to your audios I feel that you have given me a beautiful gift! I truly appreciate it so much.
I am so excited for you getting familiar with clicker training. A big thank you to Jane for introducing you! As it sounds like, you have discovered that it helps to change the relationship between horse and human. I also love that you have started taking it to other areas of training. Positive reinforcement training is something that I am passionate about. It can be used for teaching horses to do just about anything within their physical capacity. That in itself is pretty exciting and the possibilities seem to be endless. I am not sure what general questions you might have but if you let me know I will be glad to address them. If you want more info please feel free to go to my website. My Blog also covers a lot of areas. The Blog has a search bar which makes it easier to find particular topics or you can scroll through and see what strikes your fancy.
Okay let’s get down to flying lead changes. Positive reinforcement can be used with any behavior we want to teach our horses and this of course includes flying lead changes. You may follow traditional methods simply adding in the positive reinforcement or you can think completely outside the box or you may utilize a combination of the two. That is really your choice. My expertise is not in the steps to take to achieve the lead change but in breaking down the process and adding in the positive reinforcement. You have some great ideas and you are on the right track. One place I tend to start is with the simple change (I ride with a waist pack and a clicker attached to a riding stick). I click and reinforce (C/R) at the point when he has switched to the new lead. This helps to draw attention to this behavior as well as to build up a good reinforcement history associated with the change. One caveat, I would C/R once he feels relaxed with the new change. If he feels too revved up, I wait for him to settle into the canter. Since many horses get a little wound up when they are learning changes I want to teach relaxation with the behavior. I also suggest clicking and reinforcing all of the behaviors that prepare them for changes. Counter canter, counter bend, haunches in, haunches out and collection would all help to get him responsive to switching his balance and preparing for changes. Balancing out the reinforcement between all elements of the change helps them to stay focused and on track. This is a huge help. It takes some of the arbitrariness out of the equation. Sometimes when they are getting started it takes a big effort for them to shift their weight. Once they gain their confidence their changes usually get much smoother. I will C/R the first few changes as soon as the change is complete (no cross cantering). Then I shift to clicking once when they are settled after the change. This helps them to realize that the quicker I settle the sooner I may get feed. This helps the changes to get smoother faster. Once your horse is solid with his changes it is time to build the duration.
You can definitely work with verbal cues to accompany your aids or just on their own. Something to keep in mind as you start to use verbal signals, you want to choose words that don’t sound alike. For instance, sit down and lie down may sound very similar to a dog and this makes it hard for them to distinguish between the two. Since he is already under saddle with traditional aids you might want to use the language that he understands (aids), paired with his new signals (verbal) to get started. It is a great tool for helping things to be clear, thereby, helping to set him up for success. I would begin to teach him some verbal cues with something like lungeing. I assume he knows how to lunge and that it was taught through traditional training (if not, that will be a different conversation and may also be taught through positive reinforcement). I like to teach “walk”, “trot”, “canter”, “whoa” and “back up” on the lunge line or in a round pen. You are certainly not limited to these signals as this is just an example. This gets him used to the practice of listening to verbal signals related to the gaits and helps to set him up for success when you move to under saddle. I would ask him to walk saying the verbal signal just a moment before you ask him to move forward to the walk using the signal he already knows. C/R his correct responses. He will begin to put it together pretty quickly. By putting something in it that he values, he becomes invested in the training process and it’s outcome. Next, move to the other gaits. Change it up a bit to be certain that he is listening to your words. Also, don’t overlook the value of standing quietly. There is a tendency to focus on action and forget to balance out the behaviors with being quiet and relaxed between activities. When all is good and solid at this level it is time to go under saddle. Once under saddle I suggest you start introducing the verbal cue just before you use your aids. This will help him to begin to pair the verbal with the appropriate action. You should feel when he starts to respond to the verbal cues and this allows you to start fading the use of the traditional aids. You could add the intermediate step of having a rider getting on and having him respond to the verbals given by you and being able to support him from the ground since this is most familiar at this point. Then you switch the control/focus to the rider. However, I have found it usually translates pretty seamlessly and the extra step isn’t necessary.
To answer your question, yes, you can teach him to move a particular foot underneath himself. If you want to go this direction, I encourage you to start this on the ground and remember to C/R through out the process, break it down to small steps, do “short and sweet” sessions and do what you can to set him up for success. First at the stand still, to isolate the movement you are looking for, then I would begin to work it at the walk. When the behavior is where you would like it to be and he is consistently responding correctly I would get someone to be in the saddle and you on the ground. You will be offering support form the ground by being able to take a step back in the training be applying the steps that helped him to learn it in the first place. This will help make it clear for him and to his minimize his potential for frustration. He may be a little confused at first since he may not be sure who to listen to. First it should be you, ask him to perform the behavior as he normally does, basically ignoring the rider to start. When he has that worked out, I recommend you begin to introduce the under saddle signal whether it is verbal, physical or both. You should do this by using the new under saddle signal, promptly followed by the established signal from the ground. When he responds correctly I would suggest you reinforce from the ground the first couple of times. When you feel like he is listening to the rider consistently then it is time to fade the ground person out of the equation and have the rider do the reinforcing from horseback. When he is clearly understanding this at the walk, it is time to introduce higher gaits, starting slow and only moving up as he understands the concept at the previous gait.
These are some ideas and guidelines but by no means the only way or the only answer. There are so many options it can make my head spin! Also with individual personalities, sometimes the training process moves a little differently than you anticipated, be flexible. I hope this gave you some ideas and answered some of your questions. If you have more questions or want some help as you move along, please do not hesitate to ask. I love your creative thinking and look forward to hearing from you as you progress.
This is a question about using clicker training/positive reinforcement under saddle to help horses become more relaxed.
Shawna, can I ask- can you use clicker training to promote relaxation under saddle??
ANSWER-Ask Shawna-On Target Training:
Yes, it is great for relaxation. The positive reinforcement training helps build their confidence and trust so the relaxation really starts within them.
First I always recommend thinking what you can do to set him up for success, when is he most likely to be the most relaxed. Maybe after a turn out or longe? maybe it is a particular time of day or a certain ring? Whatever may help him to be his calmest. Later you we can fade these tools out of the picture but for now they can be useful. Once clicker and target training/conditioning is done you are ready take it under saddle.
I ride with a waist pack for grain or treats and I attach a stick clicker to my riding stick so it is easy to get to. As you are in the saddle look for the slightest relaxation. It is usually easily felt by the rider. As you feel the slightest softening of the muscles, lowering of the head or even an exhale, click and feed (C/R). Sometimes horses will soften more after a warm up, if that is the case warm him up a bit and then focus on those moments of relaxation. Some horses will be better before their adrenaline gets going, if that is the case I recommend starting right off looking for softening. Well, you should be watching/feeling for it all along, but try to identify what you can do to help him get to that place. So anytime you feel relaxation draw attention to it with the C/R.
The more you get a chance to reinforce him for softening the more often you will see it. He will most likely get the idea pretty quickly. Working downward transitions should also help. Starting with the slower gaits is usually the most successful with the nervous horse. Start with the walk to the halt. Look for the slightest softening or even the slowing. You may also teach him to lower his head as a behavior from the ground first. As he builds up a reinforcement history with this behavior he will be more apt to do it at other times too.
It is an amazing tool for helping the horses to relax yet be able to transition between work and relaxation. Let me know if you want more guidance as you get started or if you have more questions. :0)
Here is a question sent in by Peggy, but I have heard from a couple other people with very similar issues so I thought it was a good time to address this potentially dangerous issue.
QUESTION: I have a spanish (?) mustang mare who is 7 years old who I rescued from the slaughter house last year. She definitely has had some past traumas. She has come so far in terms of trust and settling since I’ve had her but the one thing I really want to “fix” is her tendency to bolt or buck when mounting….she is quiet and relaxed up to that point when you swing your leg over (the point of no return!) I have worked extensively with her on the ground, desentisizing her even to a dummy that I throw over her back (stuffed jeans with boots attached). I have begun the target training with her and she is VERY food motivated so I’m hoping I can somehow use this to solve this problem. The question I have though is How? Thanks so much! you have already been a great help.
This is was an update as Peggy got a start on things: At this point I can stand in the stirrup with her for quite a while without any worries from her. I praise her and rub her all over and then when I get down I give her small little bits of carrot. This is how she learned to pick her feet up for trimming and now she is a pro at it…with just little bits of carrot!
ANSWER: First of all I want to say kudos to you for rescuing this mare and for taking the time to discover the horse that is under all of the trauma. I have found, over and over, that the horses who have been abused or have suffered under harsh training, respond VERY well to positive reinforcement. They usually end up being the most loyal and committed horses. They have found a safe harbor and they never want to let it go. The rehabilitated horse can be a real diamond in the rough.
Your mare seems to have a trauma of some sort related to the rider getting on her back. It is important to first rule out any physical cause. Be certain that there is not an injury or soreness in her back, that the saddle isn’t causing her any pain. These things can certainly cause pain and a drastic reaction. Often times the rider getting in the saddle can exaserbate the pain. The association is made with the mounting process. Even when the problem has been resolved the horse is now anticipating the pain. Horses make these associations all the time. This is part of the learning process.
In your horse’s case there is certainly some unpleasant association with mounting. Whether the origin is physical pain or emotional trauma does not really matter as we will address it the same way. We will rebuild a new, better association with the mounting process. You are on the right track with the dummy. I love that you put boots on it!! You are also on the right track with introducing the carrots. We are just going to tweek this a little bit. The best thing to do is to break it down to little steps and to create the mounting as closely as possible. It helps that you have recognized a specific action that seems to set her off. It makes it easier to pinpoint this particular issue. Sometimes it isn’t so clear and you need to break down all the little steps along the way. We want to establish a good reinforcement history with not only the leg swinging over but the actions that happen before and after as well. We don’t want her to just stand there and tolerate the mounting, although for a little bit she will be in this phase, we want her to look forward to mounting. By using the positive reinforcement, we have a great motivator to re-balance the scales and her association.
So here is what I recommend:
Start doing her target work at the mounting block. This gets her attention out of defensive mode and onto something that she has had success with and enjoys doing. This means she has a good association with target training. This will start to change her view of the mounting block. She may not be showing anxiety with being at the mounting block but that doesn’t matter. The stronger we get the association with the whole process the better. Next, do the dummy thing again, this time with positive reinforcement being a part of the equation. So click and reinforce each time the dummy swings that leg over. Here is a crucial factor. Renforce while the dummy is still on her not when it has been removed. You want the association when the pressure or weight is on her. If you reinforce when it is removed she may make the association that as soon as the weight is off it will get reinforced.
At ths point I would recommend, if possible get someone else to help you for 2 or 3 sessions. You choose who would be better mounting and who would be better on the ground. It is easy to direct from above if you feel you are the better choice for mounting. I would have the person on the ground asking her to target. Clicking and feeding correct responses. You want to see her attention on the target and not paying attention to the rider. The rider’s actions seemed to have caused her bucking and bolting in the first place so we want to help her focus on something besides the rider. Start with the weight in the stirrup. If she is quiet and solid bounce around a bit shifting weight without swinging a leg over. If she is good for this I would suggest feeding her well and leaving it here for the day. You have given her food reinforcement but also quit trying to mount which will be reinforcing to her as well.
Next day you might try leaning your body accross the saddle. It is more weight but isn’t the leg yet and it isn’t such a vulnerable position. Always keep safety in mind as you progress. Keep her focusing on target training. Feeding her well for her good choices. Never move to the next step until she is solid with the previous step. I think at this point she will be focused on the trainer with the target.
As you progress, look for her to be relaxed always reinforcing her for soft eyes, soft lips, low head carriage. Try to reinforce as ears and eyes are on the ground trainer vs. the rider. Since the issue stems from the riders’s activity we want the focus off of the rider at this point. Progress slowly. It is always better to go to slow then too fast.
This next part has to be your call as it is a feeling as opposed to something I can lay out in steps. When you feel she is ready to try the leg over, do it slow and low while the ground person is asking her to target. This is a behvioral tool with a long technical name but in a nutshell you are giving something to do that has a strong reinforcement history. She has a decision to make, touch the target or go off bucking. She can’t do both. At this point in time she is loving the target and will most likely stay completely focused on the target. When she lets you in the saddle have the ground person reinforce her a LOT. You want to build a strong association,i.e. “Rider in the saddle is GOOD!!” The first couple of times I would have the ground person reinforce. Even lead her around a bit, click and reinforce her, have her touch the target. When she has been good you will begin to shift the focus to the rider. Have her target as the rider gets on (this will help to set her up for success) and now the rider reinforces from the saddle. I ride with a waist/fanny pack and a clicker on a riding stick or in your hand. Lean forward and reinforce her. If that goes well the next time have the ground person there with the target but not asking her to target when the rider mounts. The rider will click and feed once in the saddle. Then ask her to walk off, click and reinforce her again for responding well.
Well there is a pretty detailed plan for you. Of course horse are individuals and you may choose to modify as you move along. I know you will have success. I wish I was there to see her attitude turn around, that is the best part!! It is such a great feeling. I can’t wait to hear how it all goes!
YAY!!! The last FREE video on de-spooking your horse is up! Today William goes under saddle with the cluster of milk jugs. He is getting bolder with every session.
This next video will really help you tie it all together. You are well on your way to having the bold horse you always wanted. I love that so many of you have jumped right in with this exercise. Thank you for sharing the stories of the success you have had already!!
Enjoy getting your horse On Target!!
P.S. If you know of someone that could use some help de-spooking their horse or building boldness and confidence, please feel free to pass this link onto them too!
I will be answering Peter’s question. I will be addressing a school horse who will throw herself to the ground rather than let a specific rider put a saddle on her! Okay, this is not your usual issue.
The mare is displaying an avoidance behavior. She has learned that she can avoid something that she doesn’t like by dropping to the ground. She finds it more reinforcing to lay down rather than to stand quietly for being tacked up. Avoidance behaviors are actually quite common in horses. Think of the horse who does not let you touch his ears. He avoids the touch by lifting his head out of our reach. Or the horse who gets behind the bit to avoid contact with the rider. There are lot’s of examples. They just aren’t usually as drastic as this situation. The solution is a rather simple, straight forward approach using clicker training to rebalance the scales.
Of course, we always need to check for physical causes. Is her back sore, does the saddle fit correctly? etc. Once we rule these out we can begin to move forward. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that although we may fix a physical problem it doesn’t mean the behavioral issue will go away. Horses have good memories and will probably still associate the pain with the activity that caused it in the first place. They may still anticipate that the pain is still going to come. It all boils down to the reinforcement history. The association has been made with this behavior resulting in pain. With positive reinforcement/clicker training we can rebuild the correct reinforcement history. This will result in them finding the desired behavior (standing still) more reinforcing than the undesired behavior (laying down). If you think about it, what is in it for her to stand quietly? By adding a reward that your horse finds valuable(food) you will get your horse to want to be involved in the training process.
The key is small steps, which help to break it down and set her up for success. If you can identify at what point she falls to the ground, reinforce her just before this point, while she is still standing and still seems willing and accepting. This is the attitude you want to see more of. I can think of about a hundred little, simple exercises that will help correct this situation. I mentioned some in the video but a progress report will help me to guide you through this process and give other ideas. When I read these questions I always wish I could just be there to walk through it with you guys!! Okay Peter, please keep me updated and let me know if you have any questions.
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!!
This question is from Ann. She asks about her Thoroughbred who shakes his head when he feels pressure. Through positive reinforcement you can change this from resistance to seeking the contact.
Another Ask Shawna Answer… This question was posted by Sharon. I address barn sour/buddy sour/herd bound behavior in horses. Of course there are many factors involved but positive reinforcement has worked wonders in each of these areas. Please post your questions to askshawna.com!!
What a great show! Listen to this week’s show where I address a hot topic in how to teach your horse to give into pressure through positive reinforcement. Click here for the link to the show!
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!!
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!
Here’s the introduction to my new video on Mounting – using positive reinforcement to help with horses that are young and new to mounting, or horses that have issues with mounting.
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There are different ways to reward your horse for a job well done. In this clip Shawna explains the importance of reward reinforcement in order to achieve consistent training success.