In the previous installment I introduced you to constructional training. I used the runway lesson to teach your horse to step on a mat. Instead of going directly to the mat, you first taught your horse the skills he’d need to make this an easy lesson.
So now you have a horse who is eager to get to his mat. He isn’t just gingerly stepping a toe onto the edge of the mat, he’s rushing ahead to get to it. Hurray! You’re part way through this lesson.
For every exercise you teach there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.
The mat lesson helps you understand the importance of this statement. You’ve got a horse who is eager to get to the mat. Now you need to explain that you’d like him to walk with you to the mat.
You’re now ready for the next level in this “runway” game.
You want a horse who is eager to get to the mat, who regards it as a fun place to be, a place where lots of good things happen, but you also want a horse who walks with you to the mat. You don’t want your co-pilot taking over complete control. You still want to make some of the decisions. So now if he starts to grab the throttle stick from you, you can use your “needle point” skills to ask him to stop and back up.
I know that’s mixing a lot of metaphors. Let’s see how this works.
Rushing doesn’t lead to the mat. It leads to needle point. But needle point is not a bad thing. Your co-pilot understands what is wanted. I tend not to click for course corrections. So that first backing step won’t be rewarded with a click and a treat. But when we’re back on pattern, and I ask for the next step, perhaps asking now for one green stitch forward – that I’ll click and treat.
We’re back in sync with one another, still a few steps away from our landing pad. I’ll release the controls to my co-pilot, and we’ll walk together with slack in the lead. I won’t need to help him get to the mat. He knows how to land our little craft. He stops, perhaps not perfectly square yet, but with both feet on the mat. Click and treat!
And now the game changes yet again. I want the mat to be a versatile tool. I want my horse to remain on the mat while I move around him, or even away from him. The mat provides the foundation for what is referred to in the horse world as ground tying – the horse stays on the spot where you left him as though he was tied.
So the new game becomes “101 things a handler can do while a horse stays on a mat.”
This is a variation on the theme of a game which many canine clicker trainers play with their dogs. It’s called “101 Things a Dog Can Do With A Box”. The handler presents a dog with a box. Each novel behavior the dog offers gets clicked. So if the dog sniffs the box, he gets clicked. If he sniffs it again, he doesn’t get reinforced. But if he paws the box with his right front foot, he does. Now if he sniffs the box or paws it with his right front – nothing. But if he changes and paws with his left front, click and treat.
This was a popular game early on amongst canine clicker trainers, but for a lot of reasons I never played an equine version of it. One of the more fuddy-duddy reasons was I really didn’t want my horses learning all the creative things they can do either with their bodies or with things. I didn’t want them thinking they can do fancy leaps into the air with me on their backs or open their stall door latches whenever it pleased them. If they discovered these talents on their own, so be it, but I didn’t need to be an accomplice in this kind of cleverness. (That’s especially true when it comes to stall latches!)
So 101 things was out for my horses, but it is very much in for the handlers. I need them to be creative. So the game becomes – every time your horse lands back on the mat, you have to come up with a new behavior a handler can do while a horse stands on a mat.
At first this is easy. Your horse lands on the mat, and you might ask him questions about handling his mane. Will he continue to stand on the mat while you run your fingers through his mane? Yes. Click and treat. Repeat this several times and then walk off casually back around to the top of the runway.
Next time you get back to the mat, you have to think of something else to do. It could be you simply expand running your fingers through his mane to stroking down his neck and along his shoulder. Or you could decide to play the game more like “101 things you can do with a box”. You stroked his mane in the last round, so now you’re going to think up a completely different sort of behavior. “Will you stand on the mat while I bend down to tie my shoe? Oh, I don’t have shoe laces! Never mind my shoe still needs to be checked.”
Most people can easily play a couple rounds of this game but then they begin to get stuck for ideas. They are too much in their “horse-training” head. They’ve already stroked their horse from head to tail and picked up all four feet. What else can they do? They are running out of ideas.
The Opposite of Flooding
Time to channel their inner child or their inner kindergarten teacher. You can ask your horse for horsey things like dropping his head, or putting his ears forward, or letting you walk behind him and groom his tail.
You can play silly games with your horse. Can he stand still while you run around pretending to be an airplane? Bzzzz, Bzzz – coming in for a crash landing into the mountain (horse). Click and treat.
I love watching the horses watch the people. This is the best entertainment they’ve had in years! What will their human do next!?
This type of training is done routinely when you are prepping a youngster for riding. The handler waves things around and jumps up and down. The goal is to desensitize the horse so he doesn’t spook at unexpected movement. But instead of creating an entertaining game for the horse, it is often done with flooding.
Here’s an example of how flooding works. Suppose a horse is afraid of flapping saddle blankets. He scoots away. The blanket pursues him, matching him move for move until finally he gives up and stands still. Next comes another scare, this time it might be an umbrella opening and closing in his face. The horse learns he can’t escape. The best he can do is stop. That makes the umbrella go away – for the moment, but it is back again in the next instant. He learns finally that no matter what happens, no matter how afraid he is, he can’t get away. He gives up and stands still while the handler flaps tarps around his body, and up over his head, covering his eyes so he cannot see to run even if he wanted to. He’s given up flight because he has given up.
The handler isn’t playing, except maybe at being a “horse trainer”. And this most certainly is not a game for the horse.
I want to create something very different for the horses I interact with. It needs to be play for both of us. I want my horse to know that he does have a choice. His voice most certainly counts.
Teaching the skills you need before you use them; building success and confidence through patterned exercises; and – most important – really listening to your horse helps transform these lessons into true play for both of you.
Playing with Language
I’ve written about mats many times. I’ve described in detail the rope handling techniques that are used. I’ve referred to the runway image. (I definitely spend too much time in airports. I can rarely teach a weekend clinic without making some reference to airplane travel.) I’ve also referenced the needle point image because to me this section of the lesson always makes me think of the fine, detailed work that needle point represents.
What I haven’t done before is used quite so much of this type of imagery in describing the lesson. My point is not to force you into a mold where you have to be thinking – okay what colour thread am I supposed to be picking up and why? If you’ve never done needle point or other fine detailed handiwork, this image will feel foreign and forced. If you haven’t traveled on as many airplanes as I have over the last few years, the runway image may not jump out at you as you set your cones out in a V.
My point is not to get you using these images. My point is to get you thinking creatively, with imagination. That’s what takes you far, far away from the mind set of do-it-or-else training.
Coming Next: Transforming Horse Training Into Play
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.
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