JOYFull Horses: Cue Communication Continued: Part 6 – Just Tell me How You Feel

Listen to Your Horse
I’ve been describing a lesson I call “Capture the Saddle”.  It’s used to teach horses to line themselves up next to a mounting block.  In the previous section I talked about how you can turn this ordinary, everyday behavior into extraordinary “Grand Prix” level excellence.

Even before you have built the behavior to this point, you can use the mounting block as a measure of how your horse is feeling.  If your horse normally lines up well, but today he is swinging out or he’s walking off before you can get on, don’t assume that he’s “testing” you.  Instead ask him what’s wrong?  He knows standing at the mounting block leads to riding.  Why doesn’t he want to be ridden today?

Our horses work so hard to communicate with us.  We need to learn to be better listeners.  When we train them with play in our hearts, they will want to work with us.  If today they are saying “No” to riding, there’s a good reason.  It may not always be obvious, but we need to become good detectives and find the answer.

Detective Work
Ask most horse owners about the ancestral background of the horse, and they can tell you that horses are a prey species that evolved in open grasslands.  What they may not be as clear about are some of the consequences of that background.

Horses are herd animals because there is safety in numbers.  The flip side of this is there is danger in appearing to be vulnerable.  A lame or sick horse draws attention to itself and to the herd as a whole.  Show weakness, and you’ll be drawing in predators, so horses are very good at hiding their injuries.  They are protecting not just themselves, but their whole family.  It takes something acutely painful such as an abscess or a torn tendon to bring a horse hobbling to a stand still.  If they can hide an injury, they will.

So we have to be good detectives.  It may not be immediately obvious what is wrong, but if you keep looking, if you keep collecting data, you may be able to piece together enough clues to discover that the reason your horse fidgets at the mounting block has nothing to do with training and everything to do with the poorly fitting saddle that is hurting his back.

“Just Tell Me How You Feel”
Normally an angry or frightened horse gives lots of warning signals that he is about to explode.  If you punish those early warning signals in an attempt to stop a horse from biting, you can create that most dangerous of animals – a horse that gives no warning signals and goes straight to attacking when he has been pushed over threshold.

Just as horses can learn to withhold these signs of stress, they can learn the opposite.  Instead of punishing them for fidgeting and refusing to step up to the mounting block, if you show them instead that you will listen to them, they will become more comfortable about expressing how they feel.

Just as we can actively teach a process that leads to intelligent disobedience, we can teach our horses to express more openly how they are feeling.  When we listen to them in a context such as the mounting block, they begin to generalize the concept and offer us a truer picture of how they feel both physically and emotionally.

Peregrine for years bounced from one health crisis to another.  The  aftermath of a bout of Potomac Horse fever sent him on a downward health spiral that took several years to sort out.  During that time I was grateful for his grumpy faces.  I needed to know from one day to the next how he was feeling.

He was never punished for making faces.  The rule was he could make faces.  He just couldn’t act out on them.  Because I was listening, he never needed to.

Saying “No”
Sometimes the reason a horse says “No” to us, is not because there is something wrong with him, but because there is something that isn’t right with us.

This was driven home to me by a horse I met in a clinic many years ago.  The horse was on loan to one of the course participants.  She was a very clicker-experienced horse who was used to being handled by a skilled and very tactful owner.

Some horses are incredibly generous teachers.   They seem to enjoy working with beginners.  They are truly worth their weight in gold as they make up the heart of a good lesson string.  Round-bellied ponies who take care of their young riders are treasures.  Solid citizen campaigners who will take you over your first jump no matter how out of balance or how scared you are are the salt of the earth.

This mare was none of those things.  She was a finely-trained artist who expected a high level of expertise and delicate feel from all her human partners.  Unfortunately the woman who was working with her wasn’t able to live up to this mare’s exacting standards.

They started out well enough.  I had them walking around a “why would you leave me” circle of cones.  The mare started out by offering what she knew – beautifully balanced steps of shoulder-in on the circle.  The handler clicked, gave her a treat and then slid down the lead.  The mare wasn’t happy.  Something was wrong, but it wasn’t clear yet what it was.

They went through a couple more cycles.  The handler slid up the rope, and the mare walked off in shoulder-in, click and treat. Only now she was beginning to grab the lead before the handler could get more than a few inches down the rope.

“That’s as far as you’re going, little miss,” she was effectively saying.

We stopped, put the mare away and worked with the handler.  We had her slide down the lead while someone else held the snap end.  She felt soft enough to us.  There was nothing especially harsh or abrupt in the way she handled the lead.  We made a few adjustments to the details we did notice, and then we brought the mare back out.  Things were not much better.  Hmm.  We put her away again and went back to rope handling basics.

Our handler told us she had the same sort of issues with her own horse.  Clearly both horses were trying to tell her something.  This was a puzzle we needed to solve.

We brought the mare back out, but now we let her be the teacher.  The instructions were to wait until she showed her handler that she was ready to begin a new cycle.  Not until her horse cued her was she to slide down the lead.

They stood side by side.  The handler had her hands folded together about waist height.  That’s the cue for a behavior which I call “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. It is one of the very first lessons which I teach a horse.  The horse is clicked and reinforced when he keeps his nose pointing forward, away from the handler’s treat pouch.  Over time it evolves and branches off into many different behaviors.

 

Robin Runway return to mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.21.41 PM

Robin shows us a beautiful baseline for “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” behavior.

The grown-ups are talking:

  • is the formation of ground tying which means, among others things, you can groom a horse while he stands at ease.
  •  transforms from a simple at-ease posture into the pilates pose.  This is a “grand prix” behavior.  The horse engages the same muscles he uses under saddle to collect himself for advanced performance. Only instead of doing this in motion, he is collecting at the halt.  It is wonderfully good for a horse’s overall muscle tone and can help maintain a horse’s back strength for riding.

The Conversation
This mare had a beautiful pilates pose which she normally was perfectly happy to offer.  Now she just stood next to this handler in a flat, at-ease stance.

The handler was waiting in grown-ups for she wasn’t sure what.  She let out her breath, and the mare posed.

“Slide down the lead,” I quietly instructed her.  The handler did as she was told.  There was no biting at her hand. Instead the mare flowed into a beautifully balanced shoulder-in.  Click and treat.

The handler waited again.  Again, she let out her breath, and again the horse posed.  “She’s telling you she’s ready for you to go on,” I told her handler.  “Let the pose be the cue to you that she’s ready for you to slide down the lead.”

The mare had been trying her best to tell us what was wrong.  When this handler slid down the rope, she held her breath.  That made her feel tighter, heavier.  It made her feel as though she was shouting at this very light horse.

Either we humans weren’t as sensitive as this mare, or the handler hadn’t been holding her breath when she practiced the rope handling with us.  But at least with this horse she was definitely holding her breath. Without meaning to she was applying too much pressure.  This horse didn’t like it and neither, apparently, did her own horse.  When we gave the mare a way to signal to us when things were more to her liking, we could not only see what was going on, we could solve the problem.

Fixing the “Fixers”
As I watched this handler more closely throughout the weekend, I saw lots of little ways in which she was keeping the pressure on.  It was so subtle, it was easy to miss.  The pressure wasn’t coming from her hand on the lead, it was coming from her expectations and to be blunt – her neediness.  She was a rescuer.  She wanted to “fix” this mare. But this mare didn’t see herself as broken.

When we gave the mare permission to lead the dance, she was able to show us all that she wasn’t broken.  Her handler needed to breath, smile and set aside the “poor horse” energy that was clogging up the relationship she brought to all the horses she worked with.  She saw horses as sad little infants in need of rescuing and fixing.

If you don’t see yourself as either a baby or broken, you don’t want someone mother henning you and trying to “fix” you.  There are definitely times when my horses aren’t feeling well, and they want to be cuddled.  And there are horses who have fallen on hard times and really do need to be rescued.  But that’s not forever.  At some point that event sits in their distant past, and they are no longer “broken”.  When we surround them with “fix it” energy, some of these horses can begin to feel restricted and annoyed.

It’s very much like a toddler who squirms out of his mother’s protective arms.  “I can do it myself!”  He’s beginning to exert his own independence.  “I can tie my own shoes!”  At some point you have to let him try.

At some point we have to stop treating our horses like infants in need of our constant care and supervision.  They are our partners in the best and truest sense of that word, and sometimes our partners get to take the lead.

This handler needed to play more.  She wanted to be a nurturer, and for some horses that is exactly what is needed.  But every good mother knows there is a place for play, as well.

When my horses wrap themselves around me in beautiful lateral work, they make me smile.  I laugh with them.  We are dancing together, and for both horses and humans there is no better of expression of Joy than that.

 

This article ends this section on “Cue Communication”. 

Coming Next in our list of “Ten Things You Should Know About Cues” is: Number 5: Cues Evolve. 

The way in which cues evolve as we teach new skills leads us straight to play.  That makes this a very important concept to explore.  

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFull Horses: Using Environmental Cues

In the previous post I shared many examples of using environmental cues.  For one example I wrote:

“When you have a training challenge, instead of tackling it head on with your normal “horse training” solutions, think instead about how you might use props.  If your horse has trouble turning to move out of your space, how could you use mats to help with this?”

One of the reasons I wanted to share the JOYFull Horses book on line was I knew I wanted to include video along with the text.  That’s what I’ll be doing in today’s post.  To illustrate just how useful environmental cues can be in training, I’m going to explain more fully how you can use mats to teach basic balance and leading skills.  I’ll be combining the draw of  the mats with the set up for a turn that can be created out of food delivery.

These videos were taken during the spring 2015 Arkansas clinic at Cindy Martin’s farm.  Cindy is one of the coaches for my on-line course.  The video features her beautiful draft cross mare, Scout.  Scout is a fairly new arrival in Cindy’s family.  When she first started riding her, Cindy discovered two things.  First, Scout’s idea of steering meant going where she wanted to go regardless of the rider’s wishes.  And second, if you asked for forward, you were just as likely to trigger rearing as any forward impulsion.  These riding issues meant it was time to go back to ground work and teach Scout the basics of leading.

By the time these videos were taken, Scout was well versed in the foundation skills of clicker training.  She had become a mannerly, very pleasant horse to be around, but her tank-like qualities were still in evidence.  This was in part due to a lack of balance.  During the spring 2015 clinic, I introduced Cindy to a simple lesson in which food delivery was combined with the use of multiple mats to teach better leading skills.

These videos take you step by step through the process.

Part 1 establishes a baseline.  Cindy is asking for Scout to turn away out of her space.  In this short video you’ll see Scout push forward through Cindy’s request.  In many traditional forms of horse training we would have dealt with this push-through by getting after Scout.  We would have punished the forward push, but punishment brings with it many unwanted consequences.  Obviously, we used a very different approach, one that used positive reinforcement to teach Scout what was wanted.

In Part 2 you’ll see how Cindy begins to use food delivery to set up the balance shifts she wants.  If you aren’t familiar with clicker training, this can look as though Cindy is simply feeding Scout out to the side.  That’s only part of what is happening.

In the video you’ll hear me refer many times to “grown-ups”.  This is a short hand expression for a lesson which I call: “The grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. This is one of the foundation lessons of clicker training, one of the very first things we teach the horses when we introduce them to clicker training.  It’s a long name for a simple lesson.  What it means is the handler is able to stand next to her horse with her pockets full of treats, and her horse will stand quietly beside her.  I gave it this very long name because I wanted to emphasize that at the core of clicker training sits good manners.

Having a horse who is mugging you for treats takes the fun out clicker training.  I don’t want the mugging behavior.  And I also don’t want the horses to be anxious about the treats, so early on we teach them this foundation behavior.  Moving away from the treat pouch is what earns clicks and treats.

So many people avoid using food in training because they see it as a distraction.  They want the horse working for them, not any goodies in their pockets.  I ask a lot of my horses, and I want to reinforce their good behavior generously with something they really enjoy.  Being able to offer something they will actively work for adds enormously to my training. Plus, I find it reinforcing for myself to be able to say thank you for a job well done.

How do you know what your horse will actively work for?  Ask yourself what will he mug you to get.  At the top of the list for most horses is food.  I’m going to take that information and transform food from a distraction into a powerful teaching aid.  I do this by teaching the “grown-ups are talking” lesson.  Once a horse understands that treats come when he shows me good emotional self-control, I can use food as a reinforcer to help teach other things.  That’s what you’re seeing in this series of videos.

In Part 2 Cindy is using grown-ups.  First, she asks Scout to look straight ahead so her head is out of Cindy’s space. Click.  Normally, Cindy would feed Scout so her head continues to be centered between her shoulders.  But to teach her how to turn so she doesn’t crowd forward into Cindy’s space, Cindy is instead stepping into her and extending her arm out so Scout has to look to the right to get her treat.

Once she does, Cindy again asks for grown-ups.  Scout’s head is still bent to the side.  To earn a click and a treat, she needs to keep her head away from Cindy.  When she does – click! – she earns another treat.  Again, Cindy extends her arm out to the side so Scout has to bend her head even more.  As she does, she discovers that she can move her feet.  That simple realization lets her straighten out into a more comfortable position.

So, while it might look as though Cindy is simply feeding Scout treats, and that’s how she is getting her to turn, the treats are in fact reinforcers that come after Scout has been clicked for keeping her head away from Cindy in the “grown-ups are talking” lesson.

When she does, she not only gets clicked and given a treat, she also gets to walk forward to a mat.  In previous lessons Scout has been introduced to mats.  She’s not only comfortable standing on them, the mats have become conditioned reinforcers.

This means that there is such a deep history of reinforcement that’s been built up around the mats, Scout regards them as a great place to be.  They are a predictor of good things – easy requests and lost of treats.  So Scout likes going to mats.  We can use them to reinforce previous behavior. We’re going combine the strategic use of the food delivery with her eagerness to go to mats to help her find her own balance through these leading turns.

Part 3 continues to develop Scout’s balance.  Not only will this teach great leading manners, but it also opens the door to lateral work.  So many good things come out of lessons that are taught with positive reinforcement.

Part 4 begins to introduce the lead back into the equation.  We don’t want to have to rely forevermore on food delivery to get turns.  Now that Scout understands the pattern we want, Cindy can begin to ask for the turns from the lead.  She may encounter some old history when she slides down the lead.  Scout’s old pattern was to push through pressure, so Cindy goes back and forth between the food delivery and the lead to set up the turns and and change Scout’s expectations.

You’ll see some beautiful rope handling in these videos.  Cindy is very light and tactful on the lead.   She is familiar with the rope handling techniques which I teach in my books, DVDs and on-line course.  If you aren’t familiar with this type of rope handling, refer to my web sites: theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com.

The lessons I am presenting here are built around this style of rope handling.  The lead is taught as a clicker-compatible tool.  The horses trust the information it gives them.  It is not used as a correction tool.  I don’t want my horses to be afraid of the lead or to be worrying about what might happen if they make a mistake.  That would poison the cues the lead is giving.  If you are using a style of rope handling in which escalating pressure is at times used to enforce behavior, you will undermine the intent and the power of this lesson.

Part 5 takes us into the second day of the clinic and shows us steady progress in this lesson.  You might want to refer back to Part 1 as a reminder of the starting point.

Up to this point Cindy has just asked Scout to turn away from her.  In this lesson I have her ask her to turn in her direction, as well.  We’re following a basic principle of training: For every exercise you teach, there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.  These two turns are part of creating beautiful leading balance.

Part 6 continues the process of adding in the lead.  Again, I’ll refer you to my books, DVDs, clinics and on-line course for details on this rope handling technique.

Cindy and Scout are learning how to dance together.  Each small step is part of a larger flow that will let them move in balance one with the other.  This is the final video of this particular lesson.  Scout had been doing wonderfully well, but she was beginning to get a little slower in her responses.  That’s a good indicator that she might be getting tired.  So rather than push beyond what she could do, we noted this early sign of fatigue and brought the day’s lesson to a close.  Both Scout and Cindy had learned a lot.

This is a glimpse into the future.  This clip was taken during the fall 2015 clinic.  Scout and Cindy have made great progress in their dance together.  Lateral work is one of the many good results that comes out of teaching good balance.

The fun of teaching in this way is you always get so many good things popping out of simple lessons!

Have Fun!

Coming Next: Chapter 3: The Time Has Come the Walrus Said To Talk of Many Things: Premack, Asking Questions, Mats, Airplane Runways and Creativity

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 “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via kurlanda@crisny.org

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:

 theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com