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.
We have two small terriers who ride around in the vet truck all day on calls. Anyone who runs errand with their dog will know that a number of places hand out biscuits to dogs in cars. The bank teller gives them biscuits. The lady at the pharmacy drive through gives them biscuits. Occassionally at a fast food window a stray French fry will come their way. The result is that any time we pull up to any drive-thru before we have even rolled down the truck window, they are both up and alert, wagging tails vigorously, waiting for the biscuit. What does this have to do with horses you ask? Well, it is in excellent example of an idea called “reinforcement history”. Previous experience has led my dogs to believe good things will happen when we pull up to a window in the car. The result of this experience is that they respond positively to every window we stop at. It now no longer matters if they do or do not get a biscuit. The history means they are excited and happy about the trip to the drive up window, even before the biscuit ever shows up. The very experience of approaching the drive up window is now a happy one, all by itself. We will see how our hero, the Brony, relied on reinforcement history to get his human through a difficult spot.
Reinforcement history is a key part of why clicker training works as well as it does, and its an idea Shawna has returned to repeatedly as we have attempted to build Brennir’s confidence. This time, though, we would need reinforcement history to help us with the one thing I really never thought we’d need help with. Brennir has been loading onto trailers since he was a yearling, usually with little to no difficulty. All I have to do is walk him up to the trailer , toss the rope at the manger and wait 20 seconds while he climbs on. However, I have always continued to click and treat him for loading, every time he does it. Although I would not have applied that specific term to it, what I was looking to do was to create that reinforcement history. I wanted Brennir walking up to the trailer like the dogs at the drive up window, eager for a good thing to happen. Just in case something ever, ever went wrong.
Last week we decided to take Brennir and my partner’s horse Hekili to a local rescue I volunteer for . The rescue has lots of land and trails, as well as a lake with a beach that is perfect for swimming horses. I have always wanted a horse who would swim, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to do a little riding and introduce Brennir to the water. And it was! With patience and the clicker, I had him in the water just to where his hooves came off the bottom. That scared him and he did not want to go deeper, but that was ok. He seemed to be having a great time. We went for a short ride, and I rode him out a short ways into the water under saddle. Coming from where we had, all this seemed like nothing less than a small miracle, and I was elated as we went to load the horses to go home. For the most part I do not think anything that happened next was anyone’s fault or due to any sort of error, with the exception of the fact that we had become so used to them loading flawlessly that I used all but one of my treats up playing in the lake. One treat, surely , was enough . He would walk right on without the treat. The treat was just to keep him thinking positive thoughts about the trailer.
I walked him up to the ramp, just like always. His front feet went up onto the ramp, and his head shot up. His eyes were terrified. He backed up rapidly and stood shaking a little. Perturbed, I led him back to the ramp and tried to coax him back up into the trailer. This time he reared up, pulling back wildly. When I ran backwards with him, he turned into old, wild Brennir. Spinning his shoulder into me, he tried to knock me down, then pulled back, snapping out to the end of the rope and then calming when we were 30 or so feet from the trailer. I led him back to the trailer. He put his feet on the ramp, and then, ignoring every effort of mine to calm him, shot backwards at warp speed. Once out in the open field he slammed me with his head, bruising my shoulder, then calmed some distance from the trailer. Over the next two hours, we would repeat this dance uncounted times. My nose and legs and arms would be bruised, my right foot bleeding from a well placed stomp, my muscles yanked to utter soreness. As anyone who has been in a similar situation will know, my partner and I snapped at each other. We tried his target, then his ball he plays fetch with, but he would not even look at them. We tried a trail of fresh corn greens. We tried tying him up and letting him cool off for 15 minute spans. It did not matter what we did. He was utterly terrified of the trailer, for reasons I could not figure out, and he could not explain to me. Katie tried wrapping the rope around the trailer divider so he could not back up, but a determined horse will get free and when he did, he was out of his mind, rearing and striking at me, pummeling me with his head. Finally, exhausted and overcome by his anger at me, I just fell to my knees, sobbing so hard I’d later realize I’d pulled all the muscles in my stomach. This , apparently , was finally something that scared him more than whatever he thought was in the trailer. My partner picked up the rope, and he walked on.
Here, I will say to all you clicker trainers, who I know sometimes feel alone, that your riding buddies don’t necessarily have to be clicker trainers, but they do need to be people willing to respect your choices and your journey with your horse. Distraught, I called my best friend and riding buddy, who came over. After two hours of listening to me cry, and say my horse hated me, and I should give him to someone else who could help him, when I was finally a little calmer, my dear friend, who is NOT a clicker trainer said “ well, try loading him at home. Do your clicker thing. When he gets on the trailer give him his cookies and clicks and love. “ She was right , of course. I had to do something, since as raw as my heart was my head knew the Brony would be with me forever, and if I didn’t help him, no one would. Besides, although circumstances didn’t allow me to discuss this particular event with Shawna, I knew that the principle we always worked with was ‘ go back to what he does well”. And the Brony always loaded well at home.
A few days later, when I was less raw emotionally, I took him over to the trailer with lots of high value treats in hand. His first attempt looked very much like our failure a few days before. At the second attempt though, a softening moved through him. I believe this was the cumulative effect of ALL the clicks and cookies and love he has ever gotten for loading up. His reinforcement history, returned like a friendly ghost to help us. Here, I really saw the effect Shawna had spoken of , the effect of changing an horse’s perception of an event through repeated reinforcement.
He was soon halfway on the trailer, eyeing the manger with a nervous look. I wondered again what happened, although likely I will never know. With every click and treat , though, I saw the long history of positive experiences with the trailer pushing out that one memorable but horrid experience. After ten minutes of work, hewalked up and put his head in the manger. Click, lot of treats, lots of praise. I backed him off and brought him on again. And again. Each time he got a click and huge jackpot of treats. Soon, I saw the old relaxation come over him, his usual attitude toward loading “ This ain’t nothing. I’ve got this , mom!”
The next day we had planned to ride with my best friend and her husband at the rescue, back before the loading horror happened. I was hesitant, but I also knew that staying home forever was not going to help anything. Brennir walked up on the trailer as happy as could be, anxious for his click and his big treat jackpot. Before we left, my friend said “ it will be fine. Katie and I will be here. Just do what you always do with him. Just do your clicker thing”. Again, I cannot say enough how important it is to have riding partners who respect your journey. I knew I had the space to do whatever I needed to with Brennir, and that there would only be support, not criticism. I also knew we had returned to what he could do well, and rebuilt his confidence. We had the tools and support to succeed.
Arriving at the venue Brennir was anxious to unload and see my friend’s husband’s mare, whom he has a crush on. However, we had work to do first. After backing him off , I asked him to load back on. He did, and again got a click, a ton of treats, and praise. My friends were happy to wait and let him practice.
Despite an unexpected party at the lake, with quads, people and a blasting radio, he did great. We rode around on the trails for about an hour together, then untacked and took the horses swimming in the lake. For the first time I got to enjoy the experience of swimming in water over my head, while my pony strode out beside me. He got lots of treats for that too, the ones that did not float away. Picking the correct treats, I have since learned, is essential for swimming practice.
When it was time to leave, I was nervous, and everyone gave a little space for me to try putting Brennir on first. He walked right on with no urging, making a bee line for the manger as if asking “What is on today’s menu?”. Click, lots of treats, lots of praise, because I want to continue to build his reinforcement history.
I am not sure what the moral of this story is. I don’t know what made him so frightened of the trailer that day. I may never know. I DO know that what he did that day did not predict what he would continue to do. Part of the reason for that was the strong reinforcement history he had for trailer loading. That history had changed his very perception of the trailer, and that one bad experience just COULD NOT dilute the years of happy trailer loading experiences, with clicks and treats, we had behind us, enough to make a difference. I also know that we could not have succeeded without friends who believed in our journey, even if it is different from their own. Lastly, I know that every horse owner has that moment, when they think its time to give up. So maybe the moral of this story is “Don’t”. Just do your clicker thing.
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 imagine that this wash stall reminds him of something from his past. Maybe he had some medical procedure or wound tended to while in a similar wash stall and he associates this situation with an unpleasant experience. We will be working toward building a new reinforcement history with this wash stall, one that has a good association. Before you begin think of what you can do to help set him up for success. Anything that may help him out for now. For example, maybe turn him out before hand so he has a chance to burn off some extra energy. What ever you think may help him out. We will fade these things out later as he gets more comfortable but for now they may serve him well. There is also more than one reinforcer, or even two reinforcers at work here. One is the use of food as a positive reinforcement for relaxed behavior. The second is your presence (since he seems to get worried when he is left alone) and the third is taking him out of the wash stall. So be aware what he is doing when any of these reinforcers happen.
I am thinking that he gets pretty worried when he is left alone. So we want to work within his comfort zone. I would suggest working his time in the wash stall as a training session for now. This will usually help to keep you focused on his behavior and not distracted by doing other tasks. You may do a little grooming but it should not really be your objective for now. The small snippets of grooming tasks will actually serve to be building blocks for the end product of standing quietly while being groomed, tacked up or bathed but more importantly standing quietly when on his own.
Since it seems he is quiet when you are in very close proximately I would suggest grooming and then stepping back a bit. It may help at first to step away to the back and sides as opposed to walking away from the front which may cause more anxiety. This part will take a little testing to determine what is the most uncomfortable and then break that down to smaller steps or things that cause less worry. Okay, so let’s say, when you step away from him in the wash stall, he is good for 30 seconds and then he starts worrying. Click and reinforce (with food) at 28 seconds, while he is still relaxed. Your presence will also serve as a reinforcement. If that goes well, move to 30 seconds, if that goes well maybe go to 32 seconds. I would then take him out of the wash stall which is another reinforcement for his good performance. Keeping the sessions short and sweet helps him to succeed. He learns that if I am good this will all be over. Slowly build and build, more time and further away. Too slow is better than too fast for this kind of issue. Again, we are looking for him to practice the correct behavior, to form new habits. As you build more and more time I would also suggest approximations that are short in duration as well as the longer ones. This helps to keep you from being too predictable. It kind of keeps them guessing and on their toes. Also you may step back up to him and sometimes work on something he knows or is learning. However, keep it simple, successful and reinforcing.
Now let’s say, you unintentionally push it too far and he gets worried, I would not approach until he settles down, at least somewhat. If you constantly come to his rescue when he acts up he will think that this is how I get comfort (or relief) and his behavior will increase in frequency. That being said, you also don’t want him, or anyone else, to get hurt, so if he gets downright panicked you will need to keep safety in mind and step in, Then take some steps back to rebuild his confidence.
Another thing that can help is if at the end of these good sessions, have his dinner or breakfast ready and let him eat his dinner in the wash stall. I would put it in a tub on the ground so you are not holding it. We want to build up a bit of independence. Pretty soon he will look forward to his time in the wash stall since good things happen there. Well Leone, these are my suggestions for tonight. I may have more thoughts later…I usually do but I think this will get you going in the right direction. Please let me know how things are going and give me some updates! :0)
I try to address Vic’s question regarding positive reinforcement training and training “Whoa”. It is a basic question and it may be very helpful for those that are unfamiliar with how it all fits together.
QUESTION: What does your training do that teaching the command “whoa” does not?
RESPONSE: Hi Vic and thank you for the opportunity to address your question. The training, which is based in proven behavior principles, teaches a horse so much more than “Whoa” that it is hard to even know where to begin. I imagine you are talking about the sound of the clicker vs the entire training. Depending on how it is trained, generally “Whoa” asks them to stop. While the clicker does end a behavior, more importantly, it tells them they have done something correctly and have earned some sort of a reward. It is a “Yes” signal. The click also draws attention to a particular moment in time. They remember what earns them the click. So, if I like a canter depart or a flying lead change I can draw attention to that particular action. I may not be able to deliver a reward at that point in time but I can bookmark that moment in time. Technically speaking, the sound of the clicker is called a “bridge signal”. This is because it bridges the moments between the correct behavior and the and the moment when I can deliver a positive reinforcement. Another example of the clicker at work happened with a women who was teaching her filly to lift her legs. She had the idea to use carrots as a reinforcement when she was good. She did not use a bridge signal (the clicker). Instead she just fed when she was done holding her leg up. The women reported that her horse seemed to be pulling her leg out of her hand and placing it back on the ground. I asked what her horse was doing when she got her carrot. She told me that it was when her leg was back on the ground. The horse had made the association that her foot back on the ground equals reward. We fixed the problem by introducing the clicker into the equation. That way she could click when her foot was in her hand and communicate that this is the behavior that has earned the reward. I think it is important to note that she was still feeding the filly when her foot was on the ground but she now had a way to communicate which part of that equation she was rewarding. She quickly and easily changed the behavior. Better yet, she opened up a new way to communicate with her filly. I hope this answers your question an clears things up a bit. If you have more questions please let me know. This barely scratches the surface. If you would like to learn more about positive reinforcement training there is a lot more information and even some video sessions on this blog. A good place to start might be a clip that Rick Lamb did for his television show. If you are interested you may go to this link: http://shawnakarrasch.com/blog/2011/11/08/the-horse-show-with-rick-lamb-2/ or enter “Rick Lamb” on the blog’s search bar.
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…
Stephanie posted a question about her colt. When to start training and behaviors to work on to prepare him for adulthood. I, as usual, have a ton of ideas and I am know I am just scratching the surface!
I’ve just purchased your Despooking DVD’s & am excitedly pouring over them. As yet I have not used clicker training with any of my horses although I have fun playing with it with my rescue dog. My 2 questions are , at what age can a horse be introduced to clicker training as we have now have a7 day old colt & what are some examples of uses for a youngster?
Congratulations Stephanie! What an exciting time for you!
I am a big proponent of handling them from the moment they are born. There is a lot of conditioning that will help them to get comfortable with people. However, I start a positive reinforcement training plan as soon as they are weaned. After Bridge (clicker) conditioning and target training I teach them to lead. I tend to start with the target so they get the concept to stay with you. Stop when you stop, turn when you turn, etc. Then, I introduce the the halter and lead rope and teach them how to respond to the pressure. You can also incorporate the target at this point so it helps them to know what to do instead of the resistance/fear that most babies exhibit. I teach them anything they may need to do as an adult. Certainly teach him to accept being touched everywhere including the sheath, ears and mouth. You can teach him to accept oral syringes (wormers). Lifting his legs and letting you move his feet to and fro. Prep him for the things they farrier will eventually be doing. You can do de-spooking work with tarps, bridges…whatever you can think of to expose him to. Teach him to soak his foot in a bucket of water. You can teach him to put his head in the halter. This concept carries over to the bridle/ bit when the time comes. You can teach him to be clipped and trailer load. You can teach him to walk with a saddle pad secured with a surcingle. This helps with blanketing and certainly saddling later. The more consistent you can be the better. It would be good to teach him to be comfortable away from other horses and to be in a stall. I know there will be periods of time that his training will take a back burner while he is growing but if you can, set a bit of a schedule for him to have some training exercises on a consistant basis.
The best part of a baby is you can plan ahead and circumvent a lot of issues that tend to come up in adulthood. You may not have a need to do a lot of these tasks yet (clipping, soaking his foot, trailer loading etc). However, teaching him these things now will pave the way for him to progress seamlessly down the road. I also recommend keeping some sort of journal so you can keep track of what he has learned, how he responded. As time passes you may forget some of the details.
These things all serve a practical purpose but they also set him up for a lifetime of learning. You are going to find that he enjoys learning and he will learn much faster then the horses who were not trained with positive reinforcement. He will be more sensible mature(mentally) beyond his years.
I have found that the babies are not too spooky when they are young. They are just full of curiosity and they don’t seem to know enough to be fearful yet. This is a big bonus for the training process. They seem to go through a more reactive phase between one and two years of age. If you play your cards right he will sail right through this without letting spookiness get a foothold. Granted he will still startle at things but his reaction will be minimal.
Keep in mind babies have a lot of energy. Teaching him to be patient and still is harder for the rambunctious little horses. I incorporate some retrieving and targeting further away between the standing still type behaviors. This willl give him an outlet that you get to initiate. They can run after a ball a few times and expend some energy in a safe and controlled manner. It is a reinforcement for them and helps to set them up for success when you get back to standing still. Because you initiated the behavior it strengthens your relationship. This will help to keep his attention from wavering. Start with short sessions. Their attention span is short at first. You can build up the time in between and pretty soon he will be able to stand patiently for long periods of time.
Another thing to keep in mind is they learn quite a bit vicariously. This means he will learn socially, by watching the others around him. His biggest role model is going to be his mom. Things that mom does well, I would make a point of exposing him to on regular basis while he is young and soaking up mom’s reactions . If she is good with clipping expose him to her being clipped (or just the body of the clipper touching as if you were clipping). The more you can do the better. He will emulate her reactions to everything. Including how she reacts when people are around and when they approach her in the pasture. If there are things that she is not so good at, I suggest you try to minimize his exposure to those things.
This is important too! Don’t forget he will also need healthy boundaries as he grows. Babies (both equine and human!) like to test their world and everything in it. I have found if you give him lots of time to play and be a horse he will learn to keep that play for his social situations and not with you. Babies are cute. The ornery little things that they do when they are young are often overlooked or excused because they are such cute little guys. They are learning right away. Young horses are hard wired to play and learn the skills that they will need as adults. This means sparring with one another. It is reinforcing for them. At some point he may try to engage you in this game. Do not fall pray to this by reacting and sparring with him.
I got a little horse who was weaned at four months. At less then five months old he went and did his first clinic with the big horses. He was too small to cross tie so we had to push tack trunks in front of standing stall. He just curled up on the floor and slept! He came right out of the trailer at the clinic with no halter, went right to the ring and stayed with me the whole time. He couldn’t have been cuter.
Okay those are some ideas and food for thought. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I hope this helps you out a bit. Please don’t forget I am here if you ever want some input. What an exciting journey that lies ahead of you! :0)
This video has great information for positive reinforcement/clicker training. The findings are really enlightening. These findings show that the release of dopamine comes at the time of the signal for a previously trained behavior instead of at the time of the reward. That is an important distinction. It also talks about how the dopamine level rises significantly when the reinforcement (reward) isn’t delivered for every performance of a behavior.
We used this all the time with the marine mammals. There is a bit of resistance to this concept in the dog/horse world. I have successfully used it to raise criteria and focus for 27 years now. This is where the secondary reinforcer (a clicker, another signal or patting) is great tool, which allows for offering the primary reinforcer (food reward) a little more selectively.
Dr. Sue McDonnell, the head of the Equine Behavior Program at University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center School of Veterinary Medicine, (that is a mouthful) told me that she has found that reinforcing (with food) one in ten times maintains behavior with the Icelandic herd she works with at the school. She adopted these methods quite a while ago. It must have been 2001. I tend to reinforce more often then this but I think that this is a good statistic to keep in mind. The various schedules of reinforcement are amazing tools.
I start teaching them about this pretty early on in training. If you have been quite predictable up to this point, it will take teaching your horse to accept the new routine. You will actually have to reinforce them for their good attitude when they don’t receive a reward following a click. I suggest you start with a simple and well established behavior. When they perform correctly click and then give them another signal for the same behavior. Reinforce well when they respond willingly, even if it is after a hesitation. I find that they can develop a sense of entitlement and can get frustrated with change if we are too routine. It is important to me that the horses be easy going, flexible and attentive. I want them to see change as a good thing.
Just as the video describes, the dopamine comes when the new signal is offered not when the food is offered. The signal itself (with a familiar behavior) is actually a “conditioned reinforcer” as there is a reinforcement history associated with the behavior. We used it ALL the time at Sea World. It was the norm, not the exception. I have found it to be equally as effective with horses. This is a principle not widely embraced during the early years of dolphin training but is now used universally, with marine mammals as well as other exotic animals. It is important to remember that conditioned or secondary reinforcers, such as the clicker, need to be maintained to hold their value.
This is an invaluable tool for raising criteria with an established behavior. For example, say you ask for a behavior such as having your horse lift his legs. He then does what he has been taught to do. He earns the click (secondary reinforcer) which is a reward, but then doesn’t get a food reward (primary reinforcer). He has a history with this task and knows he is doing the right thing. You offer another signal and ask him to lift his leg again. He gets a rush of dopamine from the signal itself and he tries even harder to earn the food reward. This is how simple it is to get them to raise their own criteria. It also helps in establishing a good work ethic.
By using less primary reinforcements you can raise the criteria of the behavior as well as sending the dopamine levels “through the roof”. You can see how useful this is in the training equation. This principle is also at work with something referred to as “Extinction Burst”. In a nutshell, this is when you ask for a behavior that is familiar and has an established reinforcement history, then you quit reinforcing them for their effort. They start performing the behavior with more and more enthusiasm before they quit trying altogether. You may use selective bridging (clicking) to establish this new, higher criteria. It is good to use a generous food reward (primary reinforcement) for this increased effort.
If you were to study schedules of reinforcement, you would see that it has been shown that reinforcing a behavior every time will actually cause the performance of the behavior to diminish somewhat. Conversely, variation in the schedule of reinforcement will raise criteria and effort.
Okay, I hope this didn’t get too technical for anyone. Apologies if this sounds too much like a textbook, but I think it is important to understand these principles. They are always in effect whether or not you are aware of them. By gaining a better understanding them, you can become a more effective teacher for your horse, dog or dolphin!
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!
Another video Ask Shawna answer. What a great behavior for clicker training! Ground tying (stay) is an easy thing to train and ever-so-useful. This video tip just scratches the surface though. It is a great behavior for any horse and it is unparallelled for teaching a young or fussy horse patience.
The use of positive reinforcement helps give them some real incentive to pay attention and stand quietly even when they may want to go play or just want to wander around being nosy.
You may start in their stall or someplace that is relatively quiet. Start with slow, limited movements. You can build up to more distracting locations and much more activity going on around them. Hmmmm…I think this would be a great subject for a full length DVD.
Anyway, Louise, I hope this helps and as always, I am available if you have more questions about ground tying or any other horse behavior! Remember, enjoy getting your horse on target!
This question was sent in by Jean: I would like to have some exercises I could do in preparation to help my horses dentist check his teeth without a struggle. He is older and doesn’t necessarily need any mouth work, but does need to be checked. Thanks so much.
This can be tricky business but with a little effort your horse will happily oblige. With the use of positive reinforcement you can build up a positive association with the dentist and your veterinarian. These procedures are often viewed as invasive to our horses and they let us know this. The more that we insist, the more resisitant our horses become. This pattern often escalates into a mess of a situation. The horse can come away with fear that carries over to the next dentist/vet visit. Worse case scenario, someone can even get hurt. With a little preparation you can teach your horse to cooperate and actually look forward to these examinations. Your dentist, vet or farrier will look forward to working with your horse.
I have showed a little sample of some of the work you may start with to prepare for a dental check. You may move to the front of the horse and graduate up to opening his mouth. Continue along with small steps toward your end goal. Only move forward when your horse is comfortable with the current step. Also, short and reinforcing sessions are more effective than long drawn out sessions. Remember to always start your clicker training program with the first and most important step of teaching your horse to wait for the reinforcement without invading your space. You never want a mouthy, nippy or pushy horse and this is established in the very early stages. Finally, as with all training,be sure to keep safety in mind for you and your horse. Don’t force or corner your horse and don’t forget to watch your fingers. When you have them in their mouth they may bite down without intending to bite you. I hope this helps you out and gives you some good ideas. Please keep me posted with your horse and his progress and enjoy getting him on target!!
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!!
Stretching is a great tool for helping our horse to loosen up and prevent injuries. However, if done incorrectly we can do more harm than good. It is important that the horse relaxes during the stretching process. Pulling on a stiff or tense horse can injure them as well as you! With the use of positive reinforcement/clicker training you can communicate what it is that you are looking for and you will usually start to see your horse actually stretch on his own once you initiate the process. I have just started this training with Mint. In this session Mint “drops”. This is not something that Mint has done in previous sessions. I don’t worry about it as long as he is minding his manners, paying attention and not getting distracted. In fact dropping shows a great deal of relaxation and this is an important factor when teaching your horse to stretch. When I film these type of sessions for the blog I just film it and let you see things as they happen. I want to keep the reality in there since these are things that you may or may not encounter as you move through the training process. I hope this gives you some ideas. Please post any questions or comments. I would love to hear from you.
In this video answer I address the horse who avoids being caught or who panics once caught. It is a quick and easy process to rebalance the scales and have your horse coming to you!!
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.
This is an old video but definitely a good one. It is a quick video of Nick Skelton jumping a puissance wall (7’6″). I cannot imagine riding up to this jump with the intention of jumping. I hope you enjoy the clip.
This question was posted by Marjorie at Askshawna.com. I address how to teach your horse to stand quietly for clipping. Even if they are terrible with clipping, with these methods you can change their minds without resistance. Next thing you know they are voluntarily participating in the clipping process. Thank you Marjorie for the question and allowing me to be part of your success. Enjoy getting your horse On Target! If anyone has questions about horse training or horse behavior please don’t hesitate to ask.
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!
This question was posted on my Facebook page by Lydia. In this video I am addressing how to teach your horse to continue on with a good attitude following the click. I focus on teaching this under saddle but the same techniques work from the ground. Simply ask for a behavior that has a well established reinforcement history. In other words, a behavior that your horse readily offers and seems to enjoy doing. Anyway, Lydia, I hope that this helps you to move to the next level. Thank you for the question and the opportunity to help you progress! Enjoy getting your horse On Target.
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!!
More “Horses in the Morning”!! I was a guest on the show on Wednesday and discussed some ways to keep your horse paying attention and interested in the training process. This is a fun show and good info to boot!! Click here for the link to the show!
Listen in on my interview with Speaking of Horses host, Wayne Williams. We talk about the origin and the latest updates to On Target Training! Click here for the link to the show!
Just the other day I was commenting that I want to teach Bugs the “fun” behaviors that Mint knows. I have been focused on his under saddle work and want to balance out our time together. Then Mandy sent me a question asking how I teach the “back up” that Mint demonstrates in his videos. What perfect timing!
When I take my horses for expos, demos or clinics the “back up” is a real crowd pleaser. I think it is fun because it highlights the horses involvement in the training and the enthusiastic mindset that comes with the use of positive reinforcement.
I have heard plenty of people comment on how special my horses are, but truth be told, they were not special on the outset of their training. They were just ordinary horses. Actually MInt was the worst horse I had ever worked. He quit at EVERYTHING in the early days and Bugs was a highly suspicious rescue, who routinly pulled back out of habit. But through On Target Training, they have both developed heart.
When horses learn how to make good choices, they continue with this habit in just about everything they do. I find that the more they learn, the quicker they are to embrace new things and the more confident they become. It creates a positive cycle. It also strenghtens our relationship. Since there is no time like the present, let’s get on with the “back up”.
In this session I ask Mint to demonstrate the finished behavior. We then move on to getting started with Bugs (we are getting David started as well) David is a good friend and my cameraman. He will increasingly be called to help with sessions because he is ever-present, and always willing. To call him a horseman at this point though, would be pushing it. Someday, maybe! David had some hesitancy and this seemed to contribute to Bugs hesitancy. By reinforcing Bugs movement I could build up his confidence. Remember, attitude and effort are the most important elements of every session. So okay, go ahead and watch the session and please let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and Mandy, when you start sessions I sure hope that you share updates and thoughts as you go along.
Great show! I talked with Glenn and Jamie about how to desensitize and de-spook your horse. Click here for the link to the show!
This video is from my helmet cam and shows Bugs first exposure to the tarp. The positive reinforcement training has gone along way toward building his confidence with new objects. How is your horse with new objects?
This is Bugs first line free jumping at liberty). It is taught through positive reinforcement. Bugs is a green horse who is just learning to jump-both with and without a rider. Jan who is working with me is new to the process as well.
March 21, 2011
So, Bugs and I have been doing great with jumping together. Bugs has shown an extraordinary mix of willingness and relaxation when it comes to jumping. It has been so long since I had ridden that I am a green rider once again. This means I am not necessarily an asset to Bugs when we are jumping. We are learning together. Granted, I have taught him to free jump at liberty and this seems to have bolstered his confidence. He has learned how to jump without the distraction of a rider.
A couple of the ladies from the barn decided they wanted to go to the county show. It seemed like a good idea for Bugs to go too. Of course, we have not done something like this yet so I don’t know what to expect. Marcy and I agreed we had no idea how he would be once we were at the show but we might as well find out. We would play it by ear and work from his comfort zone and plan our activities accordingly. I was so excited. It was his first show and I hadn’t shown in 17 years!!
The plan was mostly for Bugs to get some exposure to new things and places. We were going in the lowest classes (if he seemed settled enough). We were leaving on Friday and coming home on Sunday. Nothing ventured nothing gained… right?
Everything was packed up and ready to go. Everything except Bugs. I had planned for everything but the trailer loading! I am going to elaborate on the trailer loading in my next post. For now I am going to focus on the show. So much to see in just one weekend!
We got to the show and his eyes were huge. I have not seen the whites of his eyes too often. I could see ‘em now! His suspicious streak was bubbling up a little bit. He was not sure what all of this was about. He settled a bit after we started walking to his stall. He resisted going into his stall at first . Everything seemed to be a trap to him at this point. The grooms got him ready for a lunge. It seemed like a good way to get him settled and take the edge off. I am not a big proponent of excessive lunging but at his point it seemed like it could help to set him up for success.
During the lunging process he was looking around and not very fluid or focused to start but ended up doing pretty well. Then we got him ready to be ridden. He seemed to find comfort as we settled into familiar exercises that we practice at home. As he would bend around my leg and soften throughout, I would click and reinforce his cooperation. He just became more focused on me and seemed to ignore the distractions around him. He was great! I felt an internal sigh of relief. You never know what is going to happen when you change your horses environment.
When we planned on coming to the show I knew to be ready for anything. Everything seems so different when you are looking at it from your green horse’s eyes (or ears). I had clicker and target on hand in case I needed to get him focused on something constructive, to channel his energy. I had previously worked with Bugs to desensitize unusual stimuli. This goes a long way towards teaching horses to handle situations like this well and to minimize spookiness. Our work was paying off as he was making great decisions!
The next day we were ready to show. He was lunged a little in the morning. We started with flat classes. Next we had our jumping classes. Just the lowest classes (yes, against ponies!) He was terrific. He rode just like he was at home. I think he was starting to enjoy all that there was to absorb. He is a curious and nosy horse. Once he decided it was safe he seemed to move on to thinking it was kinda fun in the curious way, not the celebratory way. He was just taking in the sights.
Bugs got better as he went. The show helps me to gage our progress. Not only where we are on our skill level under saddle but also where Bugs is psychologically. He was relaxed, focused, willing and confident. I have to admit I felt like a proud parent. The blue ribbons didn’t hurt either!
Everyone does such different things with their horses. What is it you do with your horse? I would like to know if you have goals set for you and your horse. Are you working on anything in particular? Please share your thoughts comments.
Susan posted a questions via Askshawna.com about her horse who flips over with her in the saddle. Also wondering about the foal. Wills he pick up this habit as well? Please leave your thoughts, ideas, comments or share your experiences.
Listen in and learn how to take advantage of the daily lessons we learn from our horses. We are always learning from each other and thats something that should always be reinforced. Click here for a link to the tip!
March, 15, 2011
It has been about a year now since I first fell off of Bugs. That, of course, was the first time I met Bugs and decided I have the tools to rebuild his trust (see “Bugs: A Horse with Big Shoes to fill” for more about his beginnings). What an amazing journey it has been so far! It struck me how much one learns through the process of bringing a green horse along. I learn something everyday, Doesn’t that sound cliche? But it is true! It reminds me how much I take for granted dealing with an experienced horse. There are so many firsts. Watching him mature and learn to deal with new obstacles. This, to me, is the most joyous part of the training process
I realized that this journey is one that should be documented. I plan to keep a journal of our progress, along with my thoughts and observations so that I never forget our shared exprience. This will also provide an opportunity that others can learn more about using positive reinforcemen,t together with some traditional training, to accomplish these goals.. I want to share our triumphs as well as our challenges. I would love for you to come along! It would be great to hear comments, questions and suggestions as we grow together.
Here is a short recap with a little bit of new information. Bugs grew up in a pasture without much in the way of human interaction. At the ripe old age of 4, Bug’s owner pulled him from the pasture and gave him to his adult grandson as a roping horse prospect. Bugs didn’t take too well to his training and being ridden. He continued to buck until his rider’s fell off. Mind you his owner was not new to breaking horses but Bugs wasn’t responding well to training. The owner thought that Bugs needed to have a different career. He decided he should try him out as a bucking horse. The irony is that he wouldn’t buck out of the bucking chute! Bugs ended up with a pretty good scar on his face from an injury sustained in the bucking chute. This career wasn’t panning out either. The decision was made to take him to the auction. He was reedy, had a scar on his face and just seemed like he was not going to trust anyone enough to make any friends. I don’t think the auction would have ended well for Bugs. But, thank God, my friend Marcy intervened and gave him another chance. He was kind of a back burner project. The low key and consistent routine really seemed to help him settle.
It was just last December that we really began to get started together undersaddle. I am going to start the journal from that point and post on some of the major highlights to bring us up to date. I will journal about progress undersaddle and from the ground. Again, I would love to hear from you, questions, comments, thoughts, suggestions or share your own experiences. I hope that sharing this journey together helps to open a dialogue with each other and our horses!
You may control a horse with gimmicks; those however, will not change him mentally. It is not a good idea to distance yourself from the horse by domination.
March 2, 2011
Well, it is a new week. Tuesday morning and things were all pretty normal. Mint was back in business after throwing a shoe and Bugs was good as usual. When I was riding him and feeding from the saddle I noticed his lip had a lump in it. I thought he had a treat squirreled away under his upper lip. I kept trying to figure out what was going on. Finally I got off and looked at it. It was definitely a lump in his lip. It seemed kind of sore but not too bad. I knew that Steve, our vet, was coming the next day so I thought I would just keep an eye on it and suspected there would be nothing to report to him tomorrow.
I was wrong. First Mint had a nail get too close to his laminae and he was lame walking out of his stall and Bugs’ face and nose were swollen and lopsided. He would have rather thrown himself on the ground than have his nose or lip touched. It was clearly very sensitive. I must have first noticed the bite it when it had just happened. Of course at that time I had no idea what I was dealing with Luckily horses can handle these better than we can. I am happy to report that he got better in a few days and stayed in good spirits all the while. Mint took a little longer to get back on track but he is doing well too.
In a question from AskShawna.com, Candace asks about her horse that gets overly excited after positive reinforcement training sessions or after completing an activity that the horse really enjoys.
View the video answer here:
You should make your horse responsive to fewer aids, not more. Above all, free the horse from the paralyzing effect of resistance.