Seeing Steps

We’re Mid-way through May.  Time to send another thank you out into the world to all the people who have helped bring clicker training into the horse world.  2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of “Clicker Training for your Horse“.

1998 was very much pioneer days.  There was no trail ahead.  We were blazing it.  Everyone who went out to the barn with a pocket full of treats and a clicker in hand was truly a pioneer.  We were stepping out into unknown territory.  The first people who went on that journey with me were my clients.  These were people I saw on a regular basis, some of them I had been working with for years.  They were familiar with how I operated.  I’d read a book, I’d go to a clinic, I see some interesting training, and then I’d try it out.  My horses were always the first guinea pigs.  If they liked what I was testing, I’d share it with a few of my clients, and, if they liked it, I’d share it with everyone.

That’s how clicker training got started, first with Peregrine and then with a few of my client’s horses.  That’s all it took to get the snowball rolling down the hill.  The first few steps into clicker training were easy.  You taught basic targeting.  You cleaned up the horse’s manners around food, and then what?  That’s was what my clients were helping me to figure out.

So this month belongs to them, to all those willing pioneers who joined me in that first approximation in.  As usual, I am going to single one person out, but in doing that what I am really doing is saying a huge thank you to all of my many clients who followed me into this exploration of clicker training.  So this month I am going to introduce you to Sharon and her Arab Missfire.  They were the inspiration behind Chapter 5 in “Clicker Training for your Horse”.

The title of Chapter 5 is: All Aboard! Mounting Blocks and So Much More: The Power of Goal Setting. You could say Chapter 5 is about teaching your horse to stand still at a mounting block, or you could say that it is about breaking training down into small steps.  Both would be right.

Sharon was a first-time horse owner who kept her mare at home.  She had what was a very common situation.  She had a couple of small fenced-in fields with access to a run-in shed, but no separate designated training area.  All the work was done out in Missfire’s paddock.  Missfire didn’t come with too many warning labels attached.  She was comfortable being groomed, okay to lead, she was afraid out on trails and would rush for home, but in her home paddock she was safe to ride.  The problem was she frustrated Sharon.  It was all the little things that Missfire didn’t do well.  Yes, you could groom her, but she fidgeted.  Yes, you could put a saddle on, but she fussed.  Yes, you could get her to the mounting block, but getting her to stand still long enough to get on was a challenge.

Sharon was a special ed teacher.  She taught math to teenagers who had been removed from regular classrooms because of their disruptive behavior.  When I first introduced Sharon to clicker training, I thought – she’s going to love this!  This will be right down her alley.

I was right.  She did love clicker training, the parts of it she understood, but oh how she struggled to make it work.  She just couldn’t see the steps.  She understood the overall concept, but she needed me to guide her through each lesson.  In between my weekly visits she was still struggling with her horse and feeling frustrated.

Clicker training has brought me many great things.  I’ve been able to travel and meet people I would never have connected with if not for the adventure called clicker training.  One of the connections I very much treasure is that with canine trainer, Kay Laurence. Kay feels about dogs the way I feel about horses.  The species we are passionate about may be different, but our regard for the animals we love is the same.  It was Kay who highlighted for all of us in the clicker training community the difference between guided and self-directed learning.

There’s a time and a place for both.  Knowing which to use when is the skill.

In the horse world many traditional riding lessons are designed to create dependent students.  There is a very clear hierarchy.  The trainer is the expert.  The learning is very much directed.  In group lessons you’re told when to trot, when to canter.  You’re not taught to become an independent thinker.  When you buy your first horse, you are still very much dependent upon the trainer.  You need him/her to fix things when the training goes wrong.

Clicker training changes that.  The role I play is that of guide not guru.  My favorite definition of a teacher is “someone who started before you”.  When someone asks me to help them with a horse, that’s all that I am.  Someone who started before that individual.  My job is not to make that person dependent upon me.  It’s to help her realize that she can be a teacher for her horse.  She can be an active, effective problem solver.

Even someone who has limited handling skills can be a good teacher.  The first requirement is understanding how to apply basic principles.  It’s: safety always comes first.  It’s: train where you can – not where you can’t.  If you don’t have the riding skills yet to handle rough terrain, sudden surprises, and an excited horse who wants to bolt for home, then ride where you can be safe.  Ride in your home paddock.  Or ride from the ground first.  Remember – ground work is just riding where you get to stand up.

Here’s another core principle: find a step in the training where you can get a consistent yes answer.  If you are just learning how to handle a horse, what CAN you ask for?  It might be as simple as having a horse touch his nose to a target.  That may not seem like much, but it’s a beginning step.  Each step opens the door to learning new skills which you and your horse are learning together.

The stumbling block that many people encounter when they are first experimenting with training is they become very outcome oriented.  Instead of focusing on the process, they want to jump to the end result.  That means they tend to lump criteria, and they miss seeing all the places where the horses are asking for more information.  That’s where Sharon was.  When she brought Missfire up to a mounting block, she expected to be able to just get on.  She was missing all the small steps that could be inserted into this process.  She just didn’t see them.

This was over twenty years ago – long before any of us knew about Hogwarts and Harry Potter.  But thinking back on it, that’s the image that comes to mind.  When I stood on the mounting block next to Missfire, I could see all the steps, but it was as if there was an invisibility spell cast over her when Sharon stood in the same place.  She just couldn’t see all the little questions she could be asking Missfire.

Can I put my hands on the saddle?  Yes.  Click and treat.

Can I wiggle the saddle?  Yes.  Click and treat.

Can I touch the stirrup leather?  Yes.  Click and treat.

That’s great.  That was a nice unit.  Now I’m going to step off the mounting block, and we’ll walk off together in a big circle so we can go back to the mounting block and ask those same questions – and maybe one or two more – all over again.

Slowly the invisibility spell lifted.  Sharon saw the steps.  She got it.  She was able to take Missfire to the mounting block and ask these small questions.  She was understanding how these small asks accumulated into a solid owning of the behavior – for both of them.

The following week when I arrived Sharon showed me how she had taught Missfire to “self bridle”.  And the week after that she showed me another new skill they had worked on together.  She was owning the process!  She was becoming what clicker training allows us to be – our horse’s teacher.  She wasn’t dependent upon me.  We still enjoyed our visits together.  There were lots of new skills that I could help her to learn, but she didn’t need me.

In “Clicker Training for your Horse” I used specific lessons such as foot care or the mounting block lesson to teach broader principles.  Sharon’s struggle with the mounting block became the inspiration for a chapter in “Clicker Training for your Horse“.  The week after her lesson I wrote Chapter 5: All Aboard! Mounting Blocks and So Much More: The Power of Goal Setting.

Here is the opening section from that chapter:

“Some of you who are more experienced may glance at this and think: a whole chapter just on getting your horse to stand next to a mounting block!  You’ve got to be kidding.  When is she going to talk about some real training?

This book is intended for people of all experience levels.  In my own teaching I work with many highly trained riders and instructors, but I also work with beginners and first-time horse owners.  If you haven’t spent much time around horses, no exercise is ever too basic to be taught.  I’ve given lessons in how to lead a horse into a barn, turn it around, and close the door behind you.  Sound simple?  If you’ve been around horses for years, of course it does, but to a timid, first-time owner with a pushy horse it can seem like an impossible task.

You may know how to teach your horse how to stand quietly while you get on.  It’s no problem for you, but for someone who has never dealt with this issue, it can be extremely frustrating.  You may take bridling for granted.  Then you buy that green, three year old you’ve been dreaming of for years, and he throws his head up into the rafters whenever you come near him with a bridle.

I don’t know what issues you’re struggling with, or what you already know, and what you don’t.  I don’t want to skip over anyone, so I’ve chosen to talk about some very basic training issues here.  That way everyone can participate.  Embedded in the discussion are the principles and concepts that will help you with every step of your training.  If you’re an experienced rider, you’ll be able to generalize easily from these examples and apply the principles to your own training situation  .  .  .  .  Foundation is everything in horse training.  So even if you’re working with upper level horses, I think you’ll find a great deal in this chapter that will interest you.

Training is easy once you know where to begin.  Getting started is the hard part.  You want to ride.  You’ve got a picture of your dream horse in your head.  You can see yourself clearing every fence on the course; galloping along a winding trail; or executing the perfect canter pirouette.  That’s your dream, but right now you and your horse are just starting out together.  What are you going to work on today to get to all those wonderful tomorrows?  What are your immediate training goals that address the issues you are working on today?

Goal setting is an important part of training.  When I’m working with someone on a regular basis, I’ll ask them what they want to focus on today, in this lesson.  Very often they’ll say they don’t know.  They have an overall dream of what they want to do with their horse, but they don’t have a specific goal in mind for that day’s training.  That’s fine.  The horse will always tell us what he needs to learn.

We’ll take him out to the ring and he’ll refuse to walk up to the mounting block.  Great.  He’s just given us the lesson for the day.  Yes, we could get on somehow, but we’d be missing a wonderful opportunity to train.

We might have been planning to work on canter departs, but that’s not what the day’s lesson is going to be about.  We’re going to teach him to stand next to the mounting block.  In the process we’ll be working on leading; on ground tying; on lateral work; on loading into a trailer; and, oh yes, on canter departs, and even on flying lead changes.  How is that possible when all you’re doing is getting on?  The answer is, you can never teach just one thing.  You’ll see what I mean as we go through this lesson.”

It’s great fun reading this chapter so many years after it was written.  I feel as though I could be writing it today in response to someone’s email query.  The words wouldn’t be that different.  I may know a lot more ways to teach the lessons I was writing about, but the core, underlying principles are the same.  What Sharon showed me was the power of those principles.  When you learn how to use them, they set you free.

So this is my thank you to Sharon and to all my other clients who showed me how to transform these principles from words on a page into actual practice.  Those pioneering days were great fun!  I am glad we took the journey together.  Many of you have split off and gone off on your own.  That’s as it should be.  The best part of clicker training is it teaches you how to forge your own path.  We will be friends always, and I am sending you a thank you for the time we journeyed together and the discoveries we made.  Thank you for helping to bring clicker training into the horse community.

Have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

JOYFull Horses: Cue Communication Part 5: Grand Prix Behaviors

Pre-Ride Safety Check List
In the previous article I described in detail how to teach your horse to line himself up next to a mounting block using the “Capture the Saddle” lesson.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 44

I know there are many ways to get to this end behavior that do not use the reins, but remember this lesson is part of your “preflight safety check”.  Just as an airplane pilot inspects his plane before takeoff, the rider is “inspecting” her horse.  She’s making sure that the connection to the reins works.

At clinics I don’t always know the riding skills of the people I’m working with.  I want to see the handler teach the “capture the saddle” lesson in this way so I know she understands how to use the rein to connect to her horse’s hindquarters.  If something spooks him and he starts to jump forward, building this in as an automatic reaction can redirect him out of what might otherwise turn into a bolt or a buck.

“Grand Prix” Mounting Block Behavior
Getting on safely at the mounting block is only step one in this lesson.  In the next phase the handler leaves her horse a few steps away from the mounting block.  He is to wait there until she calls him over to line up next to the mounting block.  This is normally taught with backchaining.  Gradually the step or two turns into greater and greater distances.  The “Grand Prix” version of this behavior is the horse comes at a canter, ignoring all distractions, and lines himself up.

Grand Prix behaviors
Most of us have seen Grand Prix horses, perhaps not in person, but certainly on video.  We’ve watched them at the Olympics, in dressage and jumping competitions.  We can all admire those horses. Perhaps you even dream of being the rider on one of these magnificent horses.  Or maybe you think, I could never do that. “I’m just a recreational rider”.  You might not dream of having a Grand Prix dressage horse, but you can certainly have “Grand Prix” behaviors.  That’s a goal that is well worth pursuing, especially when it is done playfully.

A horse who stands beautifully for grooming, and then picks each foot up for cleaning when you just point to it is showing you beautiful “Grand Prix” behavior.  When he canters over from the center of the arena and lines himself up next to the mounting block, that’s most definitely “Grand Prix” behavior.

Robin target knee 2016-06-18 at 3.48.33 PM

Robin is showing beautiful, beyond-the-ordinary foot care manners. He is targeting his knee into my waiting hand.  This makes it so very easy for me to clean his foot.

 

Think about your own horses.  What “Grand Prix” behaviors could you teach them?  Excellence comes in many forms.  It doesn’t have to be a competition-oriented behavior to be impressive training.  In my barn a favorite summertime activity is our nightly watermelon party.   It may not seem like much of a “Grand Prix” behavior, but waiting patiently while a favorite treat is passed out shows impressive self-control.  Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary is the fun of clicker training!

Have Fun!

Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 6: Just Tell Me How you Feel

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: Cue Communication continued: Part 4 – Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game

Constructional Training

When I shared the runway lesson with you in the June 2016 posts, I talked about constructional training.  That’s where you teach the skills you’ll need for a particular task BEFORE you need to use them.  Before you build a house – or even a birdhouse – you must first learn how to use a hammer.

That’s what we’re doing with the mounting block lesson.  I’m going to use the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game to teach my horse the skills he’ll need to line himself up to the mounting block BEFORE I take him anywhere near the mounting block. (Refer to the previous installment of JOYFull Horses: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/07/27/ and Lesson 5 in the Click That Teaches DVD Lesson Series: “The Why Would You Leave Me?” Game)

In training we talk about breaking each lesson down into smaller steps so it becomes easier for your learner to understand what is wanted.  Constructional training is another way of looking at this basic teaching strategy.  What are the skills you need for the task at hand?  Do you have those skills?  Yes, then the task will be within your reach.  No, then build the skills first.

When you build skills first, you find that each new thing you ask for is really just an easy step beyond what you already have.  So before I play what I refer to as the “capture the saddle” game, I first build the skills I’ll need for this lesson via the “why would you leave me?” lesson.

Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game

Robin wwylm facing very connected good at 12.06.42 PM

Photo 1.) Why would you leave me? At this point in the lesson, Robin’s answer would be: I can’t think of a single reason. I’m happy to stay right here by your side.

Why would you leave me?  Answer: I can’t think of a single reason.  I’m happy to stay right here by your side.

When that’s the answer, you have a horse who is ready to walk with you to the mounting block.

I’ve pulled some photos from a video of the “capture the saddle” lesson.  The resolution isn’t the greatest since they come from a video, but they illustrate well how the lesson works.  The horse I am working with is a young haflinger who didn’t know how to stand well for mounting.

Capture the saddle with owner -baseline

Photo 2.) Getting a Baseline.

His owner didn’t use mounting blocks so this was a new concept for him.  When she asked him to stop with her beside the mounting block, he kept going.  He ended up facing in the opposite direction.  Previous experience had taught him that it was a good idea to keep the saddle well away from her.  This is a very common scenario, one many riders have to deal with.

capture the saddle overswings with owner 2

Photo 3.) This is a horse who doesn’t understand mounting blocks.

We can’t expect this horse to understand instantly what is wanted.  Instead we went through the steps that would teach him how to line up next to a mounting block so his rider could easily get on.

capture saddle baseline b

Photo 4.) We want to go from this . . .

capture saddle baseline c good

Photo  5.) . . . to this.

We weren’t just teaching him to line up next to a mounting block.  That could easily have been done with targeting.  He was also learning how to soften and respond to rein cues.  That’s an important extra that this lesson gives us.  His owner reported that he was an incredibly wiggly horse who was very difficult to ride.  BEFORE she gets back on, the mounting block lesson will help him to be better balanced and more connected to her.

Photos 6-8

Photos 6-8.) The three photos above show how I begin with the “Why would you leave me?” lesson.  He’s learning to walk with me.  Note, as I approach the mounting block, I am not holding onto the reins.  I want him to stop with me as I step up onto the mounting block.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block baseline 4

Photo 9

Photo 9.) He doesn’t know this part of the lesson.  He’s not expecting to stop at the mounting block, so he over shoots the mark.  That’s okay.

I could teach this part of the  lesson in many different ways.  I could use targets and mats to help him out, but remember, I want to prepare this horse for riding.  Riding includes not just all those times when things are going great.  It also includes the sudden scares that can send even the most solid of riding horses jumping to the side.

The mounting block lesson confirms that your horse understands how to respond to your rein cues.  It provides an essential safety net for those times when things are going wrong, and it is also a core building block for creating the great performance we all dream of having when things are very right.

Photos 10-12

So in photos 10-12, I have taken the left rein, and I am asking this horse to soften and bend his nose towards me.   That causes his hips to  swing out away from me.  Essentially his front end is stopping before his hind end.  The extra momentum from his hind end causes him to swing around to the front side of the mounting block. In horse training language he is yielding his hips.

He has ended up facing in the opposite direction from the one in which we started.   (Photo 13)  That’s more than okay.  I’ll first ask him to take a step or two back so I can easily reach the right rein.

Photos 13-16

Next I’ll have him soften and come around me on his right rein.  (Photo 14)  As he swings back to the opposite side of the mounting block, I’ll again ask him to take a step back.  (Photo 15)  This does two things.  It helps him to rebalance, and it gives me access to the left rein. (Photo 16)

By the time I get on, I will know that he will soften and yield his hips to both reins.  Many people get in a hurry with this lesson.  They become too goal oriented.  They are thinking only about getting on.  I am thinking about the ride ahead.  I want it to be safe.  That’s first and foremost.  And then I want it to be fun – for both the horse and the rider.  That’s not going to happen if the horse is out of balance and disconnected from his rider.  So the “capture the saddle” lesson is really one that should be process not goal driven.  Yes, I want my horse to line up next to the mounting block, but it’s not a race to see who can teach this the fastest.  Each time this horse swings wide, he’s giving me another opportunity to explain rein cues to him.

As he comes past me again on his left side, I let go of the rein and reach out towards the saddle.  (Photo 17)  He’s not ready to let me get to the saddle.  In the photos below you see that he swings wide again.  (Photos 18-19)  That just gives me another opportunity to ask him to soften to the right rein. (Photo 20)

At no point in this do I want the horse to feel as though I am punishing any of his responses.  This is about teaching him WHAT TO DO. It is not about blocking or stopping unwanted reactions.

Photos 17-20.)

As he swings past the mounting block, I can again ask him to take a step or two back. (Photo 21)  This helps him to rebalance, and it also gives me access to the left rein.  I’ll ask him to step forward to line up along side the mounting block. (Photo 22)

Photos 21-22

As he comes past me again on his left side, I LET GO OF THE REIN.  (Photo 23)

capture the saddle 17 close up

Photo 23.)

This is very important.  I don’t want to block him to make him stand still.  Remember always – you want energy. You want your horse to move his feet.  This lesson redirects his energy.  It doesn’t block it.  You are releasing him into a halt, not stopping him from moving.  There is a huge difference.  (I’ll refer you again to my books and DVDs for a more in depth discussion of this very important concept. Visit theclickercenter.com)

As I release the rein, I am reaching up to touch the saddle.  (Photo 23)  Click and treat.  (Photo 24.) The clickable moment for this phase of the lesson occurs as my hand makes contact with the saddle.  So this lesson begins with rope handling and ends with targeting.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 18

Photo 24.)

I’d like him to come forward half a step so he is in a better position for me to get on.  I use the left rein to ask for this step. (Photo 25.)  As he begins to respond, I again release the rein and touch the saddle.  (Photo 26.) Click and treat.  (Photo 27.)  We’re making progress.  This time he doesn’t swing away.

Photo 25-27.)

Photos 28-30.) I ask him for another small step forward.  (28.) This time when I reach out for the saddle, he’s in perfect position.  (29.) Click and treat. (30.)

Photos 28-30.)

Remember though, it isn’t so much about the goal of lining up next to the mounting block as it is about his response to the reins.

So far I have clicked and reinforced him just for letting me make contact with the saddle.  Now I am making it harder.  I have stepped all the way up onto the mounting block so I can lean down onto the saddle and add some weight.  I’m really seeing if I can “capture it”. (Photo 31.)

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 26

(Photo 31.)

(Photo 32.) The answer is – not yet.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 27

(Photo 32.)

He swings wide out from under my hands.  Again, this is okay.  It gives me another opportunity to ask him to soften and yield his hips.  All of this bending and connecting to the rein helps him to become more supple and better balanced.  That’s going to help him be more connected to his rider.

So as he swings around past me on the left rein, I’ll again ask him to rebalance by taking a step or two back, and then I’ll bring him back in front of me first on the right rein, and then on the left.  (Photos 33-36.)

Photos 33-36)

As he passes the mounting block, I again let go of the rein and reach for the saddle. (Photo 36.) He’s better balanced than he was in the first couple of passes, and he’s in a much better position.  It’s easy for me to touch the saddle.  This time I can really grab the saddle.  (Photo 37.) Click and treat. (Photo 38.)

Photos 37-38.)

I use the word grab because I don’t want to be delicate in this.  I want this horse to really feel me taking the saddle in my hands.  This is the target position.  As soon as I have both hands on the saddle – Click!

Photos 39-40

I’ve asked him to go forward another step (Photo 39.) and this time he swings a little too wide so I can’t reach the saddle.  (Photo 40.) The pattern should be familiar by now.  I ask him to swing back around via the right rein, (Photo 41.) then I bring him forward past me on the left rein. (Photo 42.)

Photos 41-44

He comes in really close to the mounting block.  It’s easy to capture the saddle.  (Photo 43.)  Click and treat.  (Photo 44.) This isn’t an ideal orientation for getting on, but we’re making good progress.

I ask him to come forward one small step.  This adjustment puts him into a great position for me to get on.  Click and treat. (Photos 45-47.)

Photos 45-47

He’s made great progress.  We’ve gone from the photo on the left (48) to the one on the right (49) in just a couple of passes.

Photo 48-49

It’s time for a break.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 45

Photo 50

I’ve gotten down from the mounting block.  (Photo 50.) We’re going to walk a large “why would you leave me?” circle back to the mounting block.  Remember that means I’ll be asking him to walk beside me without my needing to take the reins to keep him with me. (Photo 51.)

Photos 51-54

I approach the mounting block hands free.  (Photo 51.)  As I step up onto the mounting block, he stops on his own.  (Photo 52.)  He’s brought the saddle into perfect position.   I can really grab hold of the it and truly capture it.  (Photo 53.)  Click and treat.  (Photo 54.) This is a horse who is telling me he’s ready for me to get on.

As the horses figure out that they get clicked for bringing the saddle to our waiting hands, they become increasingly clever about lining themselves up to whatever we are using for a mounting block.

It’s great fun having your horse bring the saddle to your waiting hands. (Photo 55.)

Icky mounting block - hands up

55.) This horse is bringing the saddle to his rider’s waiting hands.

Photo 55

Sometimes a horse will misjudge the approach and ended up slightly angled out to the side.  You know he has truly understood the lesson when,  without any prompting from you, he steps sideways so he can bring the saddle to your waiting hands.  That’s a horse who really understands the game.  Click and treat.

 

As this video shows, sometimes a mounting block is a tree stump, or in this case a metal gate.  When a horse understands the capture the saddle lesson, he will line himself up to anything you treat as a mounting block.

If you have a horse who dances around a mounting block, this lesson will definitely help you.  But please note: this article began with a discussion of constructional training.  The more preparation you bring to it, the easier the lesson will be.

The preparation goes beyond the “Why Would You Leave Me?” Game.  It’s a matter of looking at what comes before what comes before the lesson you want to work on.

What comes before the “Why would you leave me?” Game?  Lots of preparation.  That’s prep for your horse AND prep for you.  Anytime you use a lead or reins, you want to practice first without your horse so your handling skills are horse-friendly and clicker compatible.  The how-to instructions for using reins and leads is beyond the scope of this single article.  For that please visit: theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com

 

Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 5: Grand Prix Behaviors

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: Cue Communication Continued – Part 3: The Mounting Block Lesson

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?

Robin wwylm far end collecting 1 at 11.59.50 AM

Robin has his attention on me as we walk around the “Why Would You Leave Me?” 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.

Bridling 2

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.

Expectations
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.)

Icky at mouting block 2 photos at 11.18.23 AM

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?

wwylm collage

Robin begins by being momentarily distracted by something out the back door, and ends with some lateral work and a beautifully balanced, connected trot.

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:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

JOYFull Horses: Cue Communication continued

Behaviors Become Cues
In the previous section I wrote about Panda and the guide work she performs.  Just as guide work made the perfect example for understanding environmental cues, it also shows so clearly how this back and forth cue communication works.

 

Panda environmental cues

This is a particularly challenging form of curb for a guide because there is no clear difference between the end of the sidewalk and the start of the driveway, but Panda was always consistent at stopping where she should.  Even when the surface was repaved, changing many of the familiar environmental cues, she was rock solid in her guide work.  The driveway is the entrance to the parking lot for the district school buses so there was always a lot of traffic in and out.  Stopping accurately at this crossing was essential.

 

When Panda gets to a curb, she stops.  If it’s the up curb on the far side of a street crossing, she’ll put one foot up on the curb.  This tells Ann not only that there is some sort of obstacle in front of them, but where to look for it.

Ann finds the obstacle by searching for it with her foot.  She then cues Panda to go forward.  Panda walks on.  Ann may then tell her to trot on with a “hup, hup” verbal cue.  Panda will increase her speed by breaking into a brisk trot.  But she may then stop and pull to the side.  Perhaps a pedestrian is coming in the opposite direction pushing a baby carriage and walking a dog.  There isn’t room to pass, so Panda alerts Ann that there is “a situation” ahead by stopping and moving them over to the edge.

Traffic checks are another great example of cue communication.  It’s up to Panda to alert Ann and either to refuse to go forward, or to back them up out of harm’s way.

In all of these examples Panda is using the behaviors we have taught her in their appropriate context to provide Ann with the information she needs.

Mounting Blocks as Cue Communication
Cue communication can take other more subtle forms.  One of the early behaviors I taught to Peregrine via the clicker was to line himself up to the mounting block.  He was already very good about walking with me to the mounting block and standing quietly while I got on, but I wanted to add a bit of clicker flourish to the behavior.  So I used two targets.  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.

The targets quickly faded to hand signals. I was able to leave him in the center of the arena, walk the ten to twenty feet over to the mounting block, and call him to me. He would come and line himself up without my having to make any adjustments via the reins.

It became a favorite behavior.  In fact, if I forgot and started to lead him to the mounting block, he would hang back.  How silly of me!  I’d let go of the reins and head by myself to the mounting block.  He’d wait until I signaled to him, and then he’d come directly over and line himself up.

This behavior could always be counted on night after night even in a busy arena.  Peregrine would wait in the middle of the arena while all the other horses went past.  When the coast was clear, I’d cue him to come.  He never wandered off to visit with the other horses or to look for the scraps of hay which could always be found in the arena.  Coming when cued was a consistent, sure-fire behavior – except . . . every now and then he would stall out in the center of the arena.  I’d cue him to come, and he’d just hang back.

I never forced him over to the mounting block.  Instead I checked his feet, I listened for gut sounds, I took his temperature.  Hanging back from the mounting block was his way of telling me that something was wrong.  It was my early warning sign that he wasn’t feeling well.

Trust Your Horse, Trust the Process
I can just hear the harrumphers now.  What nonsense!  All you’re doing is teaching your horse that he doesn’t have to listen to you.  You’re letting him get away with not coming.  You’re rewarding him for hanging back.  You’re just going to get a horse who never goes to the mounting block.

Except that’s not what happened.  I trusted Peregrine, and I trusted the work we were doing together.  I truly believed that riding was fun for him.  He wanted to be ridden.

He showed me this in so many ways.  We’d be working on shoulder-in, adding our clicker bells and whistles to the basic movement.  He’d give me an extra lift through his shoulders, and I’d click and pull a peppermint – his favorite treat – out of my pocket.

He could hear the crinkle of the wrapper as I was undoing it.  Through the saddle I could feel his excitement.  If the paper was very stuck to the peppermint so he had to wait a bit longer than usual, he’d give a soft nicker of anticipation.  Finally!  I’d reach down, and he’d take the treat gently from my fingers.  I’d hear the quick crunch of the candy, and then he’d be ready to move on.  I’d touch the reins and without missing a beat he would pick up into another stride of even more glorious shoulder-in.  How could I not click that!

Of course he loved to ride!  Riding was the ticket to laughter, to lots of praise, to scritches on the neck, and best of all to peppermints!

So on the nights when he hung back, I knew he wasn’t feeling well, and I always listened.  He’d had a long series of serious health issues following a bout of Potomac Horse fever.  I needed this early warning system to be up and functioning so I could monitor his health.

Capture the Saddle
I teach the mounting block lesson very differently these days.  The lesson is called “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 I give the okay for a rider to get on.

A horse that has been well prepared with good ground work, will breeze through this lesson.  The prerequisite is a lesson that I refer to as the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game.  In the next section I’ll describe both these lessons and the reasons for them.

Coming Next: Unit 4: Cue Communication continued: The Mounting Block Lesson

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

Using Environmental Cues

Spring is clinic season which means a lot of traveling for me.  I haven’t been able to post anything since the beginning of April which also means some of you may have lost track of where we are in the book.  At the end of Part One I asked the question: what are ten things you would want a novice trainer to know about cues?  In Part Two I began to answer that question.  So far my list includes:

1.) Cues are not Commands.

2.) Cues can be non-verbal.

3.) The environment can be a cue. 

In the first chapter of this section on environmental cues I shared some stories about Panda, the miniature horse I trained to be a guide.  Her work illustrates well the many ways in which the environment can cue behavior.  

IMG_1994_1 Panda Ann great walk

Now in this post I’ll be looking at ways we can all use environmental cues in our training.

Every Day Environmental Cues
Panda’s training shows how much inanimate objects can cue behavior.  You may never ask your horse for the kind of work that is expected of a guide, but you can still make effective use of environmental cues.  They can help turn a frustrating or even dangerous situation into play.

Here are a few examples:

For a horse who rushes out to turnout – even to the point of rearing if you try to slow him down – teach him to stand on a mat.  Then put out a series of mats on his way out to turnout.  Now instead of trying to keep things calm over the long stretch to turnout, all he has to do is walk a couple steps to the next mat – click and treat!  Turn each mat into a station where he can engage in some favorite game.  That takes the focus off the turnout.  In fact when you do finally get to the paddock, you may find your horse doesn’t want you to leave.

“Must I go eat grass?  This is so much more fun!”

Shannon mat series

For the barn-sour, herd-bound horse who doesn’t want to leave the comfort zone of his friends, hang targets at strategic points around the barnyard and along the driveway.  Click and reinforce him for walking to the target.

For the horse who worries out on trails, take his toys out with him so he can play familiar games.

Magic with ball
Combine mats with a circle of cones to teach a horse how to trot around a circle.  Lay out a small circle made up of cones and one mat.  Your horse will begin on the mat and end up back at the mat – click and treat.  As you gradually expand the circle, he’ll understand that his job is to stay out around the the outside of the cones.

 

For the horse who fidgets and fusses to be groomed, hang a stationary target or give him a mat to stand on.

Mounting blocks become wonderful environmental cues.  Teach your horse to bring himself over to your mounting block and line himself up so it is easy to get on.  It’s not only a fun behavior to “show off”, it’s also a great way to measure how ready – or not – he is to ride.

(Note: This video features Michaela Hempen, one of my coaches for the on-line course.  I almost didn’t use this video because she wasn’t wearing a hard hat. When I mentioned it to her, she said she normally wears a hard hat.  She just couldn’t resist getting on.  I decided to use the clip after all because it is a great example of the joy this training brings to both horses and handlers.  And it also gives me an opportunity to say safety always comes first.  Certainly good preparation contributes to safety, but hard hats are still important.)

These are just a few training suggestions.   The more creative you are, the more playful you can be with your horse.

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?

Maybe you have large cones or temporary fence posts that can be used like gates on a slalom course.  How could you use them to explain the patterns you want to your horse?

If forward is an issue, teach him to retrieve, and then toss a cone out in front of his path.

If stopping is the problem, set out lots of mats.  Give him a positive reason to stop.  That’s a lot better than the “horse training” solutions of harsher bits and running horses into fences.

If you want your horse to get more exercise, but for some reason you can’t ride, use targets to teach your horse to go from person to person.  This can easily be turned into a game Panda would say she invented and which we named after her: “Panda catch”.  She “taught” us this game when she was a yearling.  At thirteen she plays it with every bit as much gusto as she did then.

 

As you can see from this article, teaching your horse to stand quietly on a mat has many uses.  What I haven’t included here are the how-to instructions for introducing your horse to mats.  You can find detailed instructions for teaching this lesson in my books and DVDs and in my on-line course.  Visit my web sites to learn more:

 theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

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 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