In the previous section I described how I taught Peregrine to line himself up to a mounting block. He was already an experienced riding horse who was familiar with mounting blocks so this was an easy lesson. I used two targets to bring him into position. The first brought him to the mounting block and the second took him forward a couple of steps so he ended up positioned exactly where I needed him to be in order to get on.
Capture the Saddle
I teach the mounting block lesson very differently these days. The lesson is called: “Capture the Saddle”. (Refer to Lesson 11 in The Click That Teaches DVD Series: “Capture the Saddle”.) It begins with rope handling and directed learning and ends with targeting. I teach it in this way because I regard the mounting block lesson as a final safety check before a rider gets on. The lesson shows how well connected you and your horse are to one another. BEFORE you get on and need to rely on them for your safety, it confirms that you BOTH know how to communication via the reins and are comfortable with their use.
A horse that has been well prepared with good ground work will breeze through this lesson. The prerequisite is a lesson that I have named: The “Why Would You Leave Me?” game. I will refer you to the DVD of that name for the details on how to teach this lesson. (This is Lesson 5 in The Click That Teaches DVD Lesson Series)
The “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game
The overall description is this: the handler sets out a circle of cones and then leads her horse around the circle. The basic question is: can the handler let go of the lead/rein and have her horse stay with her like a dog heeling at her side? Or when she let’s go, does her horse wander off the circle, lag behind, rush ahead, or push into her to cut across her path? Where is his attention – with her or elsewhere outside of the circle?
It doesn’t matter if the horse can do this perfectly at liberty, wearing nothing on his head. Lots of things change when a horse is “dressed” for riding. The horse that walks beautifully by your side when he’s wearing nothing, may become an anxious freight train when he’s wearing a bridle.
Some people may jump to the conclusion that a horse who becomes anxious when he’s wearing a bridle dislikes having a bit in his mouth, but that may be a red herring. If we went back to that horse’s first encounter with a bit, we might discover that he was one of those youngsters who always seemed to have something in his mouth. His handlers were forever taking lead ropes, brushes, halters out of his reach. If you left anything close enough to grab, he would have it in his mouth. So when he was offered a bit, there was nothing unpleasant about it. It was something he could put in his mouth, and finally his people didn’t snatch it away from him!
But then the reality of riding set in. Riders bounced uncomfortably on his back. His saddle pinched his shoulders, and worst of all, when he guessed wrong or headed off in his own direction, his riders jerked on the rein so the bit hurt his mouth. It wasn’t long before someone approaching him with a bridle became a predictor of unpleasant things to come.
Of course, this isn’t the only outcome for riding. The sight of the bridle can mean a fun clicker game is about to begin. But for a horse who has been ridden with corrections, the bridle often triggers unpleasant associations.
You could decide to work exclusively at liberty, or you could help this horse out by explaining away his anxiety about halters, leads, bridles, and saddles. Every time you explain away a fear, you remove a potential source of stress for your horse. That’s a process that’s worth doing.
When I first get on a horse, I like to walk off from the mounting block on a loose rein. (And yes I do use mounting blocks. I feel very strongly that they are a courtesy to the horse. They save strain to his back. You save strain to yours, and you protect your saddle from becoming twisted.)
I want the horse to stand patiently at the mounting block until I signal to him that I am ready for him to walk off. I’ve watched too many horses who barely let the rider settle into the saddle before they take off. The rider is snatching up the reins and blocking the horse before they’ve even gone two steps. The horse protects himself by throwing his head up and tightening his jaw which then hollows his back. The ride has barely begun, and already they are in a training hole. It’s a long way from play for either horse or rider.
When I get on, I expect my horse to wait patiently while I get myself organized and settled into the saddle. I appreciate these good manners, so I always click and treat the horse for standing well. I’m sure there will be some who feel that the horse should not need to be be reinforced for behavior that he knows well, but I like to say “thank you” by marking good responses with a click and a treat. It costs so little to maintain this ritual. I ride with clicker treats at the ready. Offering one as a thank you takes no real effort, and it means that my horses can be trusted to stand quietly at the mounting block.
When we are ready, I cue the horse to walk off. I want him to walk off on a loose rein. On a green horse, this may not be possible. Two steps on from the mounting block I may be picking up the rein and sliding down asking for the hip, but the goal is to have a horse who leaves the mounting block in an energetic, but relaxed walk. The reins are long. I don’t want to be shortening them up and restricting the walk in any way.
This is important. It gives me time to evaluate how my horse is feeling on that day. Where is his back? Does everything feel as it should, or is there a stiffness or an uneven feeling that I need to be aware of? What is his energy level? How does everything compare to previous rides? Can I feel the effect of the previous lesson in the start-up? What is available to me? What do I need to work on? As Mia Segal (June 9, 2016 post) would say, if you know the questions, you have the lesson.
Walking Off Casually and the “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game
Walking off casually gives us time to come together as a riding pair. It gives me time to evaluate where my horse is on that particular day, both physically and emotionally. But walking off casually is not a given. It is something I have actively taught to my horses. It begins on the ground with the very first leading lesson and is further expanded upon in the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.
This lesson is best taught on a circle. Every time the horse takes his focus away from the handler and begins to leave the circle, the handler slides down the lead and brings the horse back onto the circle. The handler is essentially asking the question: why would you leave me?
This is such an important question to ask. Are you leaving because the environment is too distracting? In that case perhaps the best option is to move to a less distracting location. And note the distractions could be from things the horse is afraid of and wants to get away from, such as a tarp that’s come loose over the shavings pile. Or it could be things the horse wants to go towards, such as grass or his pasture buddies.
Are you leaving because you are so full of energy that you can’t walk at my pace? Are you leaving because you aren’t balanced enough to stay on a circle? Are you leaving because you’re afraid of me?
These are all questions I want to ask and have answered before I put my bones up on the horse. That’s the purpose of the “Why Would You Leave Me” game. The end result will be a horse who walks with you without needing to be held there with a lead.
We begin on a circle so the loop keeps repeating itself. If your horse tends to crowd into you as you pass by the gate, and you missed noticing until he was already pushing you off the circle, don’t worry. You’ll come around to that point again, and you will be better prepared to ask for what you WANT him to do. Eventually, you’ll be able to leave the set pattern of the circle and walk complex patterns.
In this video Panda shows off her “heeling” skills. She’s working with Sue Bennett, one of the coaches for my on-line course. Sue and Panda have just met, but that doesn’t matter to Panda. She’s happy to stay connected. Why would you leave me? For no reason at all.
My thanks to my coaches: Michaela Hempen and Asfaloth for the bridling pictures; Monty Gwynne and Icaro for the mounting block; Sue Bennett and Panda for the heeling video (and Ann Edie for letting Sue play with her guide horse); and Robin for the “Why Would You Leave Me?” photos.
Also please note: I am not attempting to provide complete instructions for any of the lessons I have described in this post. Nor have I detailed how to ride in a way that is clicker compatible. That’s not the function of these posts. You will find very thorough instructions in my books, DVDS, and on-line course. Visit: theclickercenter.com theclickercentercourse.com
Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 4: Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game
Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.
I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends. But please remember this is copyrighted material. All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra Kurland, via theclickercenter.com
Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: