JOYFULL Horses: Cues Evolve Out of the Shaping Process – Pt. 2

Cues evolve out of the shaping process.
I chose head lowering to illustrate how this works.  In Part 1 I ended with a reminder that there is always more than one way to teach every behavior.  I teach head lowering in many different ways.  The first, easiest way is through targeting. That’s a good start, but just because you can get head lowering one way doesn’t mean your job is done.  The more different ways you can trigger the behavior, the better.

Backing in a Square
You may not see the connection at first, but one of my favorite ways to teach head lowering is via backing in a square.  The reason for using this teaching process is because it generates a shift of balance from the forehand onto the horse’s hindquarters.  That in turn leads straight to improved performance under saddle.  You may not see the connection at first, but this way of asking for head lowering creates a very different balance from the one a horse is normally in when he drops his head.  The most frequent form of head lowering occurs when he’s grazing.

Robin back in square

Head lowering is taught via backing in a square.

Grazing is a forward-moving exercise.  Horses graze by walking slowly forward.  They don’t normally graze by walking backwards and eating the grass that they have already stepped on.  Grazing forward means they encounter fresh grass that hasn’t yet been crushed underfoot.

Grazing is a forward-moving exercise.

Panda grazing 1

Grazing is forward movement.

Not A Forward-Moving Exercise
The expression for teaching head lowering is: head lowering is not a forward-moving exercise.

At first glance this seems like a very clumsy sentence.  What you are saying is your horse can stand still and drop his head.  He can also walk backwards and drop his head.  So you aren’t saying he can’t move his feet.  He just can’t move his feet forward.

You most need head lowering when a horse is nervous.  A nervous horse needs to move.  If you were to try to ask him to drop his head AND stand still, you would bottle him up way too much.  Under this kind of enforced restriction, he might end up exploding like an over-coiled spring.

So you don’t say to this still learning-to-be-calm horse – “Stand still”.  You say: “You can move your feet all you want, but I get to choose the direction.  If you need to move, you can back up.  And to be more precise, you can back in a square.”

It’s best to teach this lesson when your horse is calm.  If your horse already understands how to back up in a square, he won’t feel trapped.  If something does make him nervous, it will be easier to remind him that backing is a great option, and dropping his head is even better.

Moving the Hips
Backing in a square lets you manage where in your work space you are going to be.  If your horse becomes even more nervous the further into your arena he goes, backing in a square lets you stay in the part of the arena he can handle.  It also keeps him from backing into other horses, ditches, fences, or the clutter that many of us have around our barnyards.  Horses learn very quickly what works.  Backing is hard work.  It’s not something horses normally choose to do on their own.  So if backing straight towards a barbed wire fence gets you to stop asking for backing, guess what your horse will learn fast: point your rear end towards anything sharp, or dangerous, and your human will let you go forward.

You can very quickly teach your horse to back towards ditches, blackberry canes,  wild roses, barbed wire, tractors, traffic, the one horse in the group that kicks.  You name it and if it’s something you don’t want your horse to back into, that’s what he’ll do.

Backing in a square circumvents that.  To back through a turn your horse needs to learn two skills.  The first one is obvious.  Your horse needs to back up comfortably.  You want him to back promptly when you ask, every time you ask.  He shouldn’t feel as though he is pulling his feet out of cement. He needs to move back fluidly.

You also need to be able to ask him to bring his hips to the inside, towards you.  Most of us know how to send a horse’s hips away from us.  If you ask a horse to bring his nose towards you, that will send his hindquarters away from you.  This is one of the first things a beginner learns.

Think about the instructions you give to someone who is holding a horse for you while you examine a cut on his hind leg.  You tell this person to stay on the same side that you’re on.  If the horse gets anxious, even a beginner handler will react by bringing the horse’s head towards her.  This will send his hips away.  If you were standing on the opposite side of the horse, you’d be knocked over.  You might try to push his hips away from you, but the effect the handler has with the lead is much stronger that any push you could give at his hind end.

You can get the horse to send his hips away from you, but that’s not the only direction you can influence.  A horse can move his hips in six directions.

Up and down.  Think about when he lies down and gets up again.

Robin lying down shavings

Forward and back.

To the left and to the right.

You want to be able to ask for each of these six directions, especially the last four.  Forward and back are easy.  You do that every time you ask your horse to follow beside you on a lead, and to stop and back up.

You’ve already seen how you can send your horse’s hips away from you.  Bend his nose towards you as he steps forward.  That sends his hips away from you.

To bring his hips toward you, you’ll do the opposite.  You’ll bend his head away from you as you ask him to back up. I teach this by asking him to back in a square.

Backing in a Square
If the size is suitable, I like to teach this in a stall.  The walls will help your horse understand that you aren’t just asking for backing.  You want him to turn.  Solving this puzzle helps him become more hind end aware.

Some stalls are just too small or too crowded with feed bins, water buckets, and hay racks to be good work spaces.  And some horses just aren’t comfortable in stalls.  They may feel crowded by their neighbors or anxious because the rest of the herd is outside. Asking them to work in this kind of confinement isn’t fair or productive.

So the next option is a small paddock, but again there can be problems here.  If you are slogging through muddy footing, it may not be safe for you or fair to your horse to ask for backing when you’re both pulling your feet out of ankle deep mud.  And it’s certainly not fair to ask him to back towards electric fencing – even if that fencing is turned off.

So another option is to lay out ground poles or cones in a large square, and to use those as the boundary markers.  If possible use a fence line for one side of your square.

backing in a square of poka dots

You don’t have to have a stall or small paddock to teach your horse to back in a square.  Here the square is built out of cones.

If I’m using ground poles or cones, I’ll pretend that I’m in a stall. I’ll have a designated “entrance”.  I’ll begin by walking my horse into the “stall” and stopping so his nose ends up at the “entrance”.  This gives me a reference point to return to after each click.

Initially, I’ll ask my horse to back just a step or two, click!.

Robin backing in square 1

As I am reaching for the treat, I’ll step forward.

My horse will also step forward to get his treat so we’ll end up back where we started at the entrance to our “stall”.

“Walking and Chewing Gum”
Feeding so he walks forward to the “entrance” is very important.  I don’t want to keep asking my horse to back up without taking him forward again to the front of the stall.  We would find ourselves all too quickly confronted with the back wall of the square before we’re ready.  The closer I get to the wall that’s behind him, the more reluctant my horse is going to be to back up.  He’ll be thinking: “What a stupid human!  Can’t she see there’s a wall behind me!  I can’t back up any more than this.”

In these two photos I’ve brought Robin in too close to the wall.  I’ve left him nowhere to go.  When I ask for a turn, he ends up crammed against the wall.  This could easily make a less experienced horse feel very nervous.

I don’t want to make a nervous horse feel more nervous because I’m crowding him up against a wall.  And I definitely don’t want my horse thinking I’m incompetent and stupid!  So instead, before we get too close to the back wall, I’ll reset him forward using my food delivery.

This is one of those tricky handling skills people struggle with.  They can walk.  And they can reach into their pocket to get a treat.  But doing both at the same time is hard.  It’s so like the expression about walking and chewing gum.  This is clearly a skill that must be learned and practiced.

Here are some points to look out for: You don’t want to begin your food delivery before you click.  That undermines the meaning of the click.  And you don’t want to get the food out of your pocket and then put your feet into motion.  That interrupts the flow of the pattern.
You want to click, then begin reaching into your pocket AS you turn to walk back to the front of his stall. You want this to become so automatic that you can do both together without thinking. That frees you up to focus on your horse’s response.

Dynamic Food Delivery
Now you could ask “why bother?”  Why not just click, feed where you are and then ask your horse to step forward, click, then treat again?  That accomplishes the same reset forward. It’s just broken down into more steps.

This certainly works, but it doesn’t gain you some extra bonuses.  Most important, I want my horse to understand that sometimes he needs to move his feet to get to the treat.  This active form of food delivery does many good things. It lets me reposition him so I can set him up for the next cycle of the behavior I’m focusing on.

Earlier I described the “Why would you leave me?” game.  This lesson provides us with a great example where moving to get the treat really helps both you and your horse learn the “dance steps” of the pattern. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/07/27/) In this lesson you are walking your horse around a circle of cones.  At some point you’re going to want to change direction.  You can do this via the food delivery.

Food delivery gives you a sneaky way to execute a complex series of steps that some horses find quite challenging.

Mapping Out The Dance
It’s very much like trying to figure out the steps for a new dance.  Once you’ve learned them, they seem effortless.  How could you ever have struggled over something so easy?  But right now you can’t figure out where to put which foot.  What a mess.  Arthur Murray where are you when we need you!?

That’s how your horse feels in the “Why would you leave me?” game.  You’re asking him to stop, back up, swing his front end across, and walk off with you in the opposite direction.  What a tangle!  But if you make this dance sequence part of the food delivery, he won’t be thinking about which foot to put where.  He’ll be following your lead before he’s even aware that he’s changed direction.  You’re programing in the dance steps BEFORE you ask for them directly.

So it’s: click, you do your part of the dance as you reach for his treat.  Next he does his part as he moves into position to take it from you. He’ll find it’s easy to stay with you.  The dance is completed without his having to think about how he’s done it.  You’re mapping this movement out in his nervous system.  Once the map is in place, it will be that much easier to ask directly for the dance steps.

Why would you leave me change of direction sequence Robin

Using Food Delivery in the “Why would you leave me?” game to map out a change of direction.

You’re also getting a chance to watch how he moves BEFORE you ask directly for the steps.  Does he back easily?  Is he able to rock back into his hindquarters and step across into the new direction?  No.  Then he may have some arthritis in his hocks or some other condition that needs protecting.  This kind of information makes a huge difference both in what you ask for and how you teach it.

Reading Your Dance Partner
The “why would you leave me?” lesson provides a great example of using dynamic food delivery.  It’s such a useful strategy, but in clinics I often encounter horses who have only been fed in place.  The first time I click and flow into my half of the dance, they don’t follow me.  Just like everything else, this is a strategy that must be taught.  I can’t expect my horse to understand that he needs to track my movement and move his feet to get his treat unless I have gone through a teaching process to explain this to him.

That’s a specific example of the basic training principle: you can’t ask for and expect to get on a consistent basis something you have not gone through a teaching process to teach to your horse.  That and safety always comes first are twined together as the guiding principles that direct all my training.  Following these two principles can help you avoid many training pitfalls and keep your training very positively oriented.

Normally, I teach the food delivery lesson early on.   It’s part of his first introduction to targeting.  (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2015/11/20/2015-clinic-season-an-introduction-to-clicker-training-day-1/)  Once my horse figures out that he may need to track my movements to get to his treat, he’s going to pay even more attention to my body language.  What hints or clues am I telegraphing that will let him know where he needs to be?

As he learns to step forward and back in response to the positioning of the treat, he’ll also be learning how to read me.  When I rotate my shoulders towards him and extend my arm out towards the point of his shoulder, he’ll back up.

This lesson is introduced in the very first clicker lessons.  I generally begin by having a horse touch a target.  I’ll hold the target out in front of him.  When he touches it, click, he gets a treat.

Robin coming forward for target

Robin has come forward to touch a target.

At first, I’ll make things easy for him.  I want him to be successful, so I’ll deliver the treat about where the target was.  He won’t have to move his feet to get to his treat.  In the photo above this would keep his head on my side of the stall guard.

I would eventually like to be able to ask him to back up.  If I’m working with a horse I don’t know, I won’t know what his past history with backing is.  Has it been used as a punisher so he resents being asked to back?  Does he have joint problems so backing is uncomfortable?   I’d like to get a “read” on how he feels about backing, so I’ll introduce it first via the food delivery.  As this lesson progresses, I’ll begin to step towards him so he has to back up to get his treat.

Robin backing in stall for food delivery

I’ve turned into Robin and extended my arm out towards the point of his shoulder.  He backs up to get to his treat.

I think of the image of a swing door.  If I swing the door (my torso) towards the horse, I am effectively closing the door, and he’ll back up.  If I rotate in the opposite direction, I’m opening the door.  I’m no longer blocking the space in front of him.  Instead I’m opening that space to him and inviting him with the gesture of my leading hand to come forward.

Cues Evolve – Adding the Lead
Once my horse is consistently coming forward to touch a target and backing up to get his treat, I can clip a lead to his halter.  Now I can combine the opening and closing of the “swing door” with cues from the lead.  My horse will respond perfectly.  I won’t need to escalate the pressure to “make” him back up.  This is a very clear case of the cues evolving out of the shaping process.

Here’s the summary of this lesson:
Beginning with some of his very first clicker training lessons, my horse learned to back up or come forward to get his treats.  That was easy.  In the process he became aware of the clues my body orientation was giving him so he could get to the treats more efficiently.  If the treats are going to be presented forward, there’s no point in getting ready to back up.  You need to read your human to know which one it’s going to be.

These hints can then be transferred to a different part of the movement cycle.  The hints are no longer part of the food delivery.  Now they are the main event.   They come before the click.  I’ll use them to ask for the behavior I want.  This process lets me use the food delivery to help my horse learn how to respond to the lead.

By tracing these reaction patterns back through a series of lessons, you can see how your horse’s ability to read your body language cues has been evolving beginning with the very first clicker lesson.  You have been building the components you’ll need one small step at a time for the more complex lessons that are to come.

This points up how important the foundation lessons are.  Ideally, no matter how complex a lesson may seem to an outside observer, for my horse the correct answer should be only one small, very attainable step away.  If I jump into the middle of a teaching progression, that won’t be the case at all.  I won’t have the underlying components in place.  I’ll be teaching my horse three or four new things all at once, and I’m likely to end up in a muddle.

In the backing in a square exercise I’ll want him to back up and then come forward to get his treat.  If he’s never moved his feet to get to his treat, he won’t understand what has just happened.  I clicked, but then I marched off before he could get his treat.  It will feel like a broken click, a broken promise, and he may shut down on me.  But, if in an earlier lesson I have taught him to walk forward to get his treat, this component will be well understood.  He’ll follow me forward to get his treat, so we’ll be set up to repeat the movement cycle.  I’m only introducing one new element at a time, not three or four.  In this case my horse already knows how to back up when asked, and to come forward after the click to get his treat.  The new element is he’s backing within a confined space.

The key to good training is this progressive, step-by-step building of components.  Lessons are only complex when they are not well prepared.  Build the underlying layers well, and you can turn the difficult into the achievable.

diagram of food delivery

This is one way in which cues evolve out of the shaping process.  Here’s another.

Cues Evolve: How Light Can Light Be?
Now that I have my horse backing easily when I rotate toward him as I slide down the lead, I’ll begin to notice that he is already backing before I can get very far down the lead.  Great!  My cues are getting lighter.  I’ve now opened up a whole new game to play.  The goal is to see how little I need to do to get a correct response from my horse. How little do I need to do to get him to back?  How far do I need to rotate? Look, I just move my shoulder slightly and he’s already backing.  Click!  Give him a treat with some laughter added on top.

Horses are superb masters at this game.  They have to be given the herds they live in. To keep from running into one another they need to be able to read and predict movement.

When Robin and I were sorting out one of the many leading patterns I’ve wrestled with, I’m sure he thought me the rudest, clumsiest dance partner ever! I was forever in his space, “stepping on his toes”.  How annoying!  When I finally figured out how to ask for the sequence I wanted without crowding into him, you could see from his expression the immense relief he felt.  Finally, he was getting somewhere teaching his very awkward pupil!

Who’s Not Showing Respect?
People are forever talking about respect – by which they usually mean the horse needs to mind his manners and stay out of their way.  But really this goes both ways.  We’re often the clumsy ones not understanding how to give our much larger dance partner the space he needs to maneuver.

Here’s something else to consider: when a horse is startled, he will often crowd in on top of us.  We humans often view this as very rude, disrespectful behavior.  But look at it from the horse’s point of view.  What should he be doing when his herd is threatened?  Bunch in closer together to make it harder for a predator to get at any one of them.  He isn’t being disrespectful at all. He’s trying to keep you both alive!  But that very generous act can get a human seriously hurt. That’s why we are teaching him some alternatives to crowding on top of us.

The food delivery has tuned you both into body language.  He now tracks you beautifully, and you’ve been able to transfer your cues to the front end of the process, ahead of the click.  You started out with a big obvious rotation of your body, but that’s now evolved into a whisper.  Tighten a shoulder muscle, and he rotates back.  What fun!

Now that he’s tuning into you, you’ll begin to notice even more ways in which your body language is giving him clues about what you want.  Before you can give your big deliberate cue, he’s already read what you want and responded to you.  You’ll need to decide if you want him to be this light, or do you want him to wait for a signal you’ve chosen.

This is often what people mean when they talk about attaching a cue to a behavior.  But as you can see the cues are already there.  It’s more a matter of deciding which of these signals are you going to highlight and make more definite.

You get to decide if you are going to make deliberate use of the small cues your horse is already using.  You can only do that if you understand the process so you can be on the lookout for these subtle cues.  Otherwise, if you block him when he starts to respond to these signals, you could end up confusing him.

One of the training mantras I repeat often in clinics is: don’t make your horse wrong for something you’ve taught him.

Being aware of the way in which cues evolve out of the shaping process is one of the ways you can help your horse to be right.

Coming Next: Starter Button and Constant-On Cues

Author’s note: Once again, I want to remind people that I am using these lessons to illustrate some important concepts.  These articles are not intended to give detailed, how-to instructions.  For those resources refer to my web sites, and to my books, DVDs, and on-line course.  In particular refer to my book, “The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures”, and the early DVDs in the DVD lesson series: Lesson 1: Getting Started with the Clicker, Lesson 2: Ground Manners, and Lesson 3: Head Lowering.  My on-line course will also provide you with very thorough how-to instructions.

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: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 5.) Cues Evolve – Part 1

Cues Evolve Out Of The Shaping Process

Review
It’s time again to add to our list of things I would want a beginner to know about cues.  So far we have:

1.) Cues and commands are not the same.
2.) Not all cues are verbal.
3.) Cues can come from inanimate objects.  You can have environmental cues.
4.) Our animals can cue us.

Here’s number 5: Cues evolve out of the shaping process.

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

A common question people ask when they are teaching a new behavior is: when do I get to add a cue?  This is really the wrong question.  At least when you are working with horses, the cues are already there.  In fact you really can’t NOT cue.

If you are reinforcing your horse for putting his ears forward, where are you looking?  At his ears, of course.  When you want him to take a step back, your eyes shift down to his feet.  Your horse is going to notice these difference.  For him these are clues that will morph into cues. Even if you aren’t aware of them, they are still functioning to let him know what to do next to earn reinforcement.  So it isn’t a question of when you do you get to introduce a cue, but how do you transfer from the cue that is currently working to a new cue?  But before we can get to that question, we need to look in more detail at how those cues evolve in the first place  That’s what we’ll be exploring in this section.

Bear with me.  I’m going to be traveling through several different lessons, connecting up the dots of evolving cues as we go.

Head Lowering

Robin head lowering 1
To understand how cues evolve, let’s begin with this example: suppose I want to teach my horse to drop his head.  There are a number of reasons why I might want this behavior.

The first begins with safety.  A horse cannot simultaneously rear and drop his nose to the dirt.  If I can ask for head lowering, I can interrupt a potentially dangerous behavior.

Head lowering is also practical.  Even a short horse can become very tall when you’re trying to get a bridle or a halter on.  Asking him first to lower his head makes the task easier for you and more comfortable for him.

Head lowering leads to calmness.  This is not automatic.  The first time you ask a horse to drop his head, he’s not going to magically and instantaneously calm down.  In fact, a nervous horse can actually be made more nervous by being asked to lower his head.  With his head up he can scan the horizon line for predators more effectively.  So when you ask this anxious, on-guard horse to lower his head, he’s going to want to pop it right back up again.

Should you quit and ask for something else?  No. The answer is to keep working on head lowering, but, if you can, change the environment so he feels more at ease. Ask for it again and again over many training sessions.  As you begin to build some duration into the behavior, you will begin to see a different emotional state linking up with it.

Horses living in the wild spend twelve plus hours every day grazing.  Even horses living in stalls spend several hours a day eating.  That means they are spending a huge amount of time every day feeling relaxed enough to drop their heads and eat. The classically conditioned link between head lowering while grazing and an emotional state of calm relaxation is huge.  If we can tap into that same state by asking for head lowering, we’ve just created a powerful link between clicker training and a calm emotional state. That will serve us well as we progress forward in training.

Linking head lowering to calmness is something most people are familiar with.  Something you might not think about as much is this: head lowering is the counter balance to collection.  This is perhaps one of the most important reasons to teach head lowering because it takes you into riding excellence.

Keeping Things in Balance
One of the training mantras you want to always keep in mind is:

For every exercise you teach, there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.

If you ask a horse to engage and collect, you also need to ask him to lengthen and stretch out.  If you focus too much attention on collection, you may not have a way to tell him he can just relax and lengthen.  As a rider is learning about collecting, if she ends up compressing her horse, she will need a way to lengthen him back out so she can try again.  Asking a horse to stretch out in head lowering provides a powerful, and very important counter-balance both physically and emotionally to collection.

Robin pose and head lowering

On the left Robin is offering beautiful collection.  On the right head lowering balances his pose.

There’s Always More Than One Way To Teach A Behavior
I teach head lowering in many different ways.  The first, easiest way is through targeting.  I will simply have the horse follow a target down to the ground.  Click and treat.

robin head lowering green cone down

The easiest way to teach head lowering is through targeting.

That’s a good start, but just because you can get head lowering one way doesn’t mean your job is done.  The more different ways I can trigger the behavior, the better.

In the next installment I’ll look at one of the most powerful ways you can teach head lowering: via backing in a square.

Robin back in square

Head lowering is taught out of backing in a square.

 

Coming next: Backing in a square

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 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: 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: TRANSFORMING HORSE TRAINING INTO PLAY

In the previous sections I used the image of a runway to teach a horse to step on a mat.  The point of using this image 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.

Transforming Horse Training Into Play
We’ve all watched skilled trainers, whether in person or on video.  I’m sure you’ve taken in a variety of images of how things are done.  Now suppose you’re handed a horse who is pushy, or won’t stand still for saddling.  You’ve seen how professional horse trainers deal with this in what often seems like no time at all.

It’s so easy to put on their “hat” and fall into the same-old, same-old of traditional horse training solutions.  But remember – when you are watching one of those skilled trainers, you aren’t just watching fifteen minutes of training.  You are watching fifteen minutes plus fifteen years.  That’s a lot of experience – and a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned – to get to the point where things look easy.

Easy isn’t the only criterion we’re looking for.  I remember watching a video of a trainer who was working with what was described as a “lazy” horse.  The owner wanted to be able to lunge the horse, but her horse stayed in close to her and wouldn’t move out.  There are all kinds of reasons why a horse would lock in close to a handler.  One might be that the horse has learned that staying in close is the safest place to be.  If that was the case for this horse, the trainer took his safety away.  He charged into the horse with his lunge whip, sending the horse leaping away to the side.

The trainer was using negative reinforcement.  His timing was excellent.  As soon as the horse was in motion, he stopped cracking the whip.  But the instant the horse slowed down, he was on the attack again.  It took just a couple of turns around the circle to convince that horse that he needed to keep moving.  Easy.  The battle was over in just a few minutes.

The trainer stood in the middle of the lunge circle touting the virtues of his technique.  The horse continued to trot around him the whole time he was talking to the audience.  He no longer even needed to lift his whip.  It was an impressive result.

But I was thinking about the lesson from the horse’s perspective.  If one of us were trapped in a round pen with someone peppering bullets at our feet, wouldn’t we run?  And we’d keep on running until we dropped from exhaustion.  If we slowed down, the person in the middle would just need to gesture with the gun to get us running again.

It is the same thing.  So easy isn’t enough.  I can look at the behavior that emerges – a horse moving at a steady pace around me at liberty and think that’s a fun result.  The question becomes: how can I get to that behavior but in a more learner-friendly way?  How can I take this, or any other lesson, and turn it into true play for both myself and my horse?

One of the principles that is common to ALL good training methods is this:

There is ALWAYS more than one way to teach every behavior.

If you really believe that and know how to put this principle into practice then this leads you to the answer.

You’re going to break the task down into smaller components so your horse understands what is wanted in each step.  You want him to be more than just comfortable with what is being asked.  You want him to be eager to play.

Using Props
To teach horses to step on mats, I set out the V runway pattern.   The cones help handlers line their horses up with the mat so they have room to come to it on a straight line.  When I first taught mats, I didn’t put the cones out.  But then I saw that handlers would leave the mat and cut back around on such a tight turn that the horse had no chance to line himself up again straight to it.

They did the same thing at mounting blocks.  If the horse shifted away from the mounting block, they would walk off on a tight circle that gave the horse little opportunity to come in straight.  The missing step was the handler’s ability to visualize the path she needed to take to give her horse the most success.

So I set out the V shaped line of cones.  The length of the “runway” obliged the handler to go out far enough so that she had room to line her horse up to the mat.

I could have set the mats out in a parallel lines.  Then I would have had a different kind of runway, and I would have used different images to describe it.  It might have become the catwalk for a fashion show.  The horse would be a model sashaying her way down the runway – stopping periodically to show off her costume.

Instead I set them out in a V so the handler would have a wide funnel entrance and a better chance of getting the horse into the top of the runway.  It’s only experienced pilots and co-pilots who can successfully enter into the top of a narrow runway.  Novice teams need the wider opening.

Playing with Images
Playing with images takes you away from relying solely on the standard-issue horse training approaches you may already know.  It puts you into a creative place where you can come up with your own patterns, images, and techniques that work for your horse.

People often feel that they have to follow exactly the instructions given by a clinician or riding instructor.  I offer the runway as a starting point.  I suggest that you begin with my image.  Understand how this process works; learn the basics of good rope handling; see what it gives you when you have a horse who welcomes the information the lead provides; and then become creative.  Invent your own images to help teach the skills your horse needs to meet your personal training goals.

Creativity
For me, there’s no better indicator of success than hearing from someone that they have found a new way of teaching a familiar lesson.  They don’t go about it exactly the same way I do.  Their horse has shown them a different way, just as my horses often show me new ways to teach old things.

Creativity is at the core of our being.  When a handler clutters up her work space with cones, empty supplement containers, bags of shavings, and who knows what else, and sees in that clutter a better way to teach a lesson, I know she has understood the greater game.  She is becoming creative and inventive.  She is creating new games.  For both horse and handler it has become true play.

Robin with shavings 2016-06-22 at 5.54.53 PM

You might not want to put quite so many shavings bags into your “play ground”, but clutter can definitely contribute to creative ideas.

Coming Next: Unit 4: Cue Communication

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

JOYFULL Horses: Mat Manners

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.

Robin runway walk casually to it 2016-06-22 at 2.34.16 PM

Robin shows his great mat manners, walking with me to the mat.

Robin halt on mat 2016-06-22 at 2.34.39 PM

He lands on the mat in beautiful balance.  He’s going to continue to be our equine teacher for this lesson.  In the following photos you’ll see how to build great mat manners.

Mat Manners
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.

Robin mat back one step 2 2016-06-22 at 4.16.26 PM

Robin and I are practicing our “needlepoint”.  I’m asking for a single step back. (Refer to the previous post: https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/06/21)

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.

Robin walk one step to mat 2016-06-22 at 4.18.01 PM

In the “needlepoint” part of the runway lesson I’m asking Robin for one step forward.

Robin walk off to mat 2016-06-22 at 4.18.14 PM

After a click and a treat, I release him to the mat.

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!

Robin on mat grups 2016-06-22 at 2.56.18 PM

Again, he lands beautifully on the mat.

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.

Robin on mat grups at distance 2016-06-22 at 2.56.57 PM

The mat is a great tool for teaching ground tying.

101 Things
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.

Robin toss rope 2016-06-22 at 2.38.14 PM

I begin by “parking” Robin by tossing the lead over his neck.  Draping the lead over his neck quickly becomes a cue to stand.

Robin on mat play with mane 2016-06-22 at 2.57.44 PM

With Robin “parked” on the mat, I can begin the “101 things a handler can do while a horse stands on a mat” lesson. In this round of the game I am stroking his mane.  The lead rests over his neck in the “parked” position.  I’m not holding on to it, but I can easily pick it up should he walk off.

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.”

Robin on mat tie shoes 2016-06-22 at 3.00.36 PM

“Will you stand still while I tie my shoe?”  Yes, click then feed.

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.

Robin on mat ask for foot 2 2016-06-22 at 2.39.13 PM

While Robin stands on a mat, I can ask for horsey things. In this case I am touching him at his elbow as a cue for him to lift his foot.

Robin on mat knee target 2016-06-22 at 2.39.27 PM

As Robin lifts his foot, I have him target his knee to my hand.

Robin on mat take foot 2016-06-22 at 2.41.41 PM

From here it is easy to ask him to target his foot to my hand.  (This is an easy way to teach a horse to pick up his feet.)

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.

Robin on mat airplane 1 2016-06-22 at 3.03.26 PM

When you run out of “horse training” games, you can play silly ones.  In this case I’m pretending to be an airplane.  I even include the sound effects of a buzzing  engine.

Robin on mat hug 1 2016-06-22 at 3.04.16 PM

My favorite kind of “crash landing”.

I love watching the horses watch the people.  This is the best entertainment they’ve had in years!  What will their human do next!?

Robin on mat airplane rgt side 2016-06-22 at 3.03.56 PM

Robin isn’t sure what to make of my behavior.  What a very strange human!

 

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.

airplane landing.png

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.

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

JOYFULL Horses: The Runway Lesson

I ended the previous section by saying the lead tells a story.  I want my lead rope to be a welcome tool, one my clicker-trained horse is completely comfortable with.  That’s the goal, but it’s often not where we begin.  Often when I first attach a lead to a horse, what I encounter is resistance and concern.  Lead ropes have been used for correction and punishment – so the horse is defensive.  He’s telling me about is history, and I need to listen.  I also need to respond in a way that doesn’t prove to him that he was right to be guarded.

I want to show him that the defenses he’s thrown up aren’t necessary.  The castle walls, the moat with the sharks, the draw bridge, the boiling oil, the iron portcullis, and all the armored men lined up behind can all vanish, whisked away not through force, but through play. Mats are going to be the training tool I use.

To introduce a horse and handler to clicker training I focus on six foundation lessons.  Teaching a horse to stand on a mat is one of those lessons. The mat is what the word implies.  Think door mat, and you’ll have the right sort of size.  You can use plywood, carpet squares, rubber mats.  They all work as long as they contrast well with the surface they are on.

They are lots of different ways that you can teach a horse to step on a mat.  Over the years I have used a variety of approaches, tailoring the choice to the needs of the team.  But my favorite way, and the way I generally choose first is to imagine that the mat sits at the end of a runway of cones.   I am trying to line up straight to my runway so I can bring my horse to a safe landing on the mat in the same way a plane would line up to a real runway. Here’s the lesson:

The Runway
Instead of castle walls with the mat as a drawbridge, I imagine an airplane runway.  The sides of the runway are lined with cones that form an open V, funneling us down towards the mat at the end.

Robin waiting for me in runway 2016-06-18 at 6.05.54 PM

My horse, Robin is going to be our equine teacher for this lesson.  He’s going to show you what the lesson looks like with an experienced “copilot”.  I’ll also be describing what the lesson is like when you’re working with an inexperienced horse.  I’ll be taking you from the first wobbly “flights” down the runway to the finessed balance that evolves over time. For now Robin is waiting expectantly for the game to begin.

If Robin is one of our equine teachers, let’s suppose the other is a pushy, somewhat nervous horse who has gotten into the habit over several years of dragging his person pretty much wherever he wants to go. In this lesson the pilot (me) is approaching in her single engine little plane (the horse).  I’m being buffeted by strong winds.  The plane (my horse) is rocking from side to side, trying to drag me off course.  Can I even make the top of the runway?  No!  I abort to try again.  I circle around, and this time I manage to get the nose of the plane, i.e. this horse, pointing into the open V of the runway.  Click and treat.  The wide end of the funnel helps me to be successful.  I want to find ways to say ‘yes” to this horse, so I make the lesson as easy as possible by making the opening of the funnel extra wide.  I’m setting up the environment to help ensure success.  A narrow funnel would be much harder to get to with my determinedly pushy horse.

I had originally wanted to show a video of an inexperienced horse using the runway lesson, but computers being computers my editing program isn’t cooperating with that intent.  So instead I enlisted Robin’s help.  He’s my “dance partner”, or to stick with my metaphor of the runway, my copilot.  I filmed him going through the pattern, and I’ve pulled still photos from the video to describe some of the key elements of this lesson.

It’s been a very long time since I have worked Robin through this foundation lesson.  As always, I found it was worth revisiting the basics with him.  No matter how skilled a horse becomes, the basics always reveal details that need polishing.  So whether you and your horse are a novice team or one that is very experienced, the runway is a great lesson to explore.

Please note: This is not a stand alone lesson, nor is this JOYFULL Horses book intended as a clicker training how-to instruction manual.  The prerequisites and a description of the handling skills needed for this lesson are presented in my DVD lesson series and in the on-line course. I am describing this lesson in detail here not not so much to teach you how to use it, but to illustrate some important concepts that are relevant to all good clicker lessons.

I’ll start with a short video which will give you a quick overview of the lesson.

 

There are a lot of important details in this 3 minute clip.  I’m going to take the lesson apart literally frame by frame.  I’ll be using stills pulled from the video to point out the key elements of this lesson.  Enjoy!

Robin Runway reenter runway 2016-06-18 at 6.11.50 PM

The runway is part of a larger loop.  There’s no beginning, middle, and end.  A horse that is familiar with mats might begin, as Robin did, on the mat.  The pushy horse I am starting with has never stepped on a mat and is worried by them. I would begin with that horse where we are picking up the pattern here, with Robin turning with me into the top of the runway.  Note the slack in the lead.  I probably would not be giving this much freedom to my pushy horse.  he wouldn’t yet know how to read and respond to the subtle signals from my lead and body language.  I would need to slide up the lead to signal my intent to turn.  I would click and reinforce the horse as he responded to my request.  This would bring him to a halt, ready for the next phase of the lesson.

Robin Runway turn to a stop 2016-06-18 at 6.12.10 PM

Note how I have brought Robin into the runway.  I’ve been mindful of the placement of the V. I’ve given us enough room to turn so Robin ends up in line with the mat.  This exercise is about straightness.  It is a wonderful lesson for helping crooked, pushy, unbalanced, nervous, or just plain wiggly horses.

Robin Runway lined up for approach 2016-06-18 at 6.12.22 PM

Here Robin is beautifully lined up to the mat as he completes his turn into the runway.

 

Robin runway off sides 2016-06-19 at 9.36.47 AM

In contrast here I’ve made my turn too early so there isn’t time to line Robin up straight to the runway.  I originally taught the mat lesson without any cones for markers.  People would walk their horses off from the mat and then come back around in too tight of a turn.   There was no way their horses could line up to the mat and approach it on a straight path.  These handlers were setting their horses up for a wiggly, crooked approach.  The mat is about lining up straight to a mounting block, approaching the center of a jump on a straight path, crossing streams and other obstacles, stopping square at X in a dressage test, and performing any other task where precision and accuracy in the approach are needed.  A novice horse needs the extra help that a long runway approach gives him.  I set the cones out as guides for the handlers.  They have to take their horses back to the mat by walking all the way out and around the line of cones.  Targets aren’t just for our horses.  Sometimes they are for us, as well.

 

You’re in the runway.  Now what? This lesson is like a dream where you drift from one scene to another – never questioning the odd juxtaposition of images.  In this part of the lesson I am doing “needlepoint” with this horse.  That’s the image.

needle point pillow

Needlepoint may not seem relevant to horse training, but the individual balance shifts we teach in the runway always make me think of the intricate stitches in a needlepoint tapestry.

Each stitch is an individual action.  Each stitch must be carefully thought through before beginning the next. I may have to change colour often.  I may only want one or two stitches of green before I switch to red. That’s how this part of the lesson feels to me.  I will be asking for tiny shifts of weight.  Each balance shift forms one stitch in this larger tapestry.

When I ask my horse for one tiny step forward, that’s one green stitch.  If I’m working with a poorly balanced or pushy horse, I don’t want to take a step and then follow it with many more.  Instead, just as this horse begins to lift his leg, I’m going to click.  The click interrupts one thought – move forward – and replaces it with another – get your reinforcer.  Before he has even really begun to move, he’s at a standstill again waiting for his treat  He was thinking of barging past me, but that would have crashed our little “plane”.  Instead disaster has been averted.  He has taken a half step forward, and now he’s shifted his weight back slightly to get his treat.

He’s beautifully set up for the next stitch in our tapestry.  I ask for another forward step.  Click!  Again, the power of the click interrupts him before he can charge forward.  He is learning patience.  He is learning self-control.  He is learning to control his movements.  He began with a throttle that was either at full power or completely turned off.  Now we are gaining some adjustability.  I can ask for a tiny amount of energy, and he can give me a soft, half step forward.  Click and treat.

He is doing so well, it is time to land “the plane”.  I put aside one image – the needle point – and we walk casually forward down the rest of the runway.  As we approach the mat, I realize my co-pilot isn’t ready to stop.  I walk over the mat myself and keep going, letting my co-pilot walk beside me.

We circle around back to the top of the runway.  My co-pilot learns fast.  The little plane is steadier now as we bank around the turn and face into the top of the V.  Click and treat.  This time I put red thread into my needle. I ask for backing.  Again, I click on that single stitch.  The plane wobbles a bit and goes off course.  We are no longer pointing straight down the runway.  It doesn’t matter.  The pattern allows for many stitches of red.

Click by click we lay down a line of red stitches.  The backing is smoother now, less hesitant, less wobbly.  We have backed ourselves in a squarish turn that takes us out of the top part of the runway.  I am using skills learned in previous lessons.  My “copilot” may not be able to back straight yet, but I can still keep us in the vicinity of the runway by having him back in a square pattern.  Straight will emerge as he learns how to handle these larger course corrections.

When you put enough of these fine needlepoint stitches together, you get a picture that looks like the one Robin is illustrating for us in this series of photos:

Robin Runway backing in runway 2 2016-06-18 at 6.12.54 PM

Robin’s adjustability and good balance has allowed him to come in straight to the mat.  I’ve turned toward him to ask for one step back with his right front foot.

Robin Runway backing con't  2016-06-18 at 6.13.17 PM

Robin has initiated a step back. As he does, I click and prepare to release the lead.

Robin Runway backing done 2016-06-18 at 6.13.29 PM

Robin has completed the single step back.  You can’t see it, but my hand is opening on the lead even before his foot lands.  What goes up must come down.  It’s important to let go as I click and not to wait for the foot to land.  If I stay on the line, I would be holding on way too long, giving my horse something annoying that he would need to push against.  The timing needed to release a horse into the action you want takes deep practice focus.  If you aren’t sure what I mean by deep practice, read my blog on this subject. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16/)

Robin Runway feed after backing 2016-06-18 at 6.13.44 PM

I’ve already clicked.  Now it’s time to reinforce Robin with some hay stretcher pellets.

Robin Runway 2nd back 2016-06-18 at 6.14.13 PM

My “needlepoint tapestry” is made up of many stitches.  I’ll ask Robin for another, single step back.

Robin Runway 2nd back con't 2 2016-06-18 at 6.14.22 PM

It may not look as though anything has changed, but Robin has unweighted his right front in preparation for backing.  That’s my cue to be ready to click.

Robin Runway backing step good 2016-06-18 at 6.15.31 PM

Robin has begun to take a step back – Click! Remember it’s important to click as he initiates movement.  I’m not waiting to see the outcome of the weight shift (meaning the completed step back.)  If I click as he initiates a movement, I am saying “yes” to that movement.  This lesson is not about blocking or shutting down energy.  I want energy.  I want behavior.  I want to say “yes” to moving even if the moving is being done by a pushy, inexperienced horse.  When I click as he begins to take a step, I am saying “yes” to movement that in the past someone else may have punished.  An inexperienced horse is expecting a “no”.  Part of his pushiness comes from trying to rush past the obstacles he’s expecting me to throw in his path.  Instead he hears a click!  Surprise, surprise!  He brings himself to a stop to get his treat.  Self control and good balance will emerge out of saying “yes” when what his history tells him to expect is a “no”.    

Robin Runway feed after back 3 2016-06-18 at 6.15.47 PM

I’ve clicked Robin as he began to take a step back.  The click is a cue to me to begin my reinforcement cycle.  I’m reaching into my pocket to get a treat.  But note also what my right hand is doing.  I have moved it forward so the snap hangs straight down.  I am giving Robin the full freedom of the lead.  This is an important part of this lesson and one many people struggle with so I’ll be pointing it out again in other photos.  The snap on my lead is going to become a tactile target for my horse to orient to.  Moving my right hand towards Robin as I get the treat with my left is part of the teaching process that helps Robin tune in to the significance of the snap and it’s orientation.

 

Robin runway tai chi wall 1 2016-06-18 at 9.37.29 PM

Here’s the contrast.  As I ask Robin to take a step, I’m using my right hand more actively on the lead.  If he were a more inexperienced horse, I might need my hand here to help him maintain his balance as he takes a step forward.  Otherwise, he might be falling into me with his left shoulder. (Note: if I were on Robin’s right side, things would be reversed.  I would be feeding with my right hand and releasing the lead fully with my left.)

Robin runway tai chi wall 2 2016-06-18 at 9.37.39 PM

Here’s a common mistake.  I’ve released with my left hand, but I’ve kept my right hand in place on his neck.

Robin runway tai chi wall 3 2016-06-18 at 9.37.48 PM

Even while I am reaching for the food, I am keeping my right hand in place.  I refer to this as driving down a motorway with your emergency brake on.  When a horse is unbalanced and pushing through you, it can feel as though you can’t let go completely.  It takes focus to remember to release the lead completely with your right as well as your left hand.  This is where you learn to truly let go. This is the beginning of floating on a point of contact – a heavenly feel for both horse and handler.

Robin runway tai chi wall feed 2016-06-19 at 11.48.13 AM

After all, you’ve got treats in your hand.  Where is your horse going to go?  This is the perfect time to experience letting go of him.

Robin Runway prepared for next step 2016-06-18 at 6.16.03 PM

The runway lesson teaches the handler to be an agile thinker.  Depending upon what happens with my horse’s balance, I may need to change in an instant the direction I want him to go.  So while I am giving him his treat, I am already thinking about what I am going to do next.  I don’t wait for him to fill in the “dance card” through my indecision.  My body language is signaling the next clear intent.  Can you tell what I’m going to ask him to do next? Answer: walk forward with me to the mat.

Robin Runway release to mat 2016-06-18 at 6.16.14 PM

Robin has done a nice unit of “needlepoint stitches”. Now it’s time to let him move.  I am releasing him to the mat.

In the photos it was time to release Robin to the mat.  It is time to do the same for my less experienced horse.  Once again, I’ll set the needle work image aside.  I have asked this horse to stay focused with me through several steps.  We have put down enough concentrated stitches.  Now it’s time to move.  We’ll walk casually towards the tip of the V and the mat.  This time instead of walking over the mat, I may choose to stop on it.  My co-pilot misses the stop and over swings past me.  No problem.  It’s a sloppy landing, but it won’t bring out the fire brigade, at least not this time.  I am standing on the mat, clicking and treating my horse for standing quietly beside me.  He can see that the mat did not swallow me up. Instead standing next to it produces lots of clicks and treats.

In contrast to a green horse Robin shows us a beautifully on-the-spot landing on the mat.

Robin Runway walk to mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.07.24 PM

Robin is showing perfect mat manners.  Even though he is eager to get to the mat because it represents an opportunity for reinforcement, he is walking with me on a slack lead.  Mats are a great tool for teaching horses the emotional control they need to walk politely out to turnout and other exciting places.  If your horse pulls or dances around you when you lead him, working with mats is a great lesson to teach.

Robin Runway one foot landing on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.07.43 PM

Robin knows how to land on a mat.  First, one foot . . .

Robin Runway 2nd foot landing on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.07.53 PM

Then a second foot . . .

Robin Runway both feet on mat 2016-06-18 at 6.08.11 PM

Both front feet on the mat.  Click! and . . .

 

Robin Runway release hand as feed 2016-06-18 at 6.08.21 PM

. . . and initiate the reinforcement process.  Note how I release the lead fully to Robin WHILE I reach into my pocket with my left hand to get the treat.  Coordinating these two actions takes deep practice concentration. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)

Robin Runway feed 1 2016-06-18 at 6.06.59 PM

. . .  Feed. Note how balanced we both are.  I am encouraging good balance in Robin, AND I am also building a feel for good riding balance for myself.  The mantra is: feed where the perfect horse would be.  In this case that means Robin’s head is in line with his shoulders – not pulled off to the side towards me.  I feed at a height that encourages him to lift up from the base of his neck.  I want to feel him lifting up, supporting his own weight as I feed him.  As he takes his treat, if I feel him leaning down onto my hand, that should signal to me that I need to change what I’m doing to encourage better balance in both of us.

Robin runway on mat grown ups 2016-06-18 at 6.08.50 PM

I want to turn the mat into a conditioned reinforcer.  If it becomes a predictor of good things, my horse will want to go to the mat.  He’ll enjoy being on the mat.  That means I’ll be able to reinforce other activities with an opportunity to return to the mat.  So before we head back to the top of the runway, I cue Robin to give me a very familiar behavior, one I call: “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”.  Than means Robin is standing in his own space.  My pockets are full of treats, but I am not being mugged.  Robin adds the extra flourish of his beautifully calm focus and good balance to this important base behavior.

 

Robin Runway feed 2016-06-18 at 6.08.37 PM

It’s click then feed for beautiful grown-ups, and then . . .

Robin Runway invite walk off 2016-06-18 at 6.09.44 PM

I invite Robin to leave the mat and walk off casually with me back to the top of the runway.

My green horse has also been standing beside me practicing good grown-ups.  It’s time to walk off again and head back to the top of the runway.  This time our entry into the V comes out perfectly.  Click!  That brings him to a halt so he can get his treat.  I don’t have to actively stop him, cues he may not yet understand.  That’s what the runway is going to teach him – whoa and go.   As I give him his treat, I am deciding which colour thread to pick up, meaning should I ask him to go forward or back?  I may decide to ask for a couple of green stitches, and then I’ll switch to red.  It all depends upon the response I get from my “co-pilot” and where we are in the runway.

As my co-pilot becomes steadier and better balanced, we can work on an intricate pattern – one stitch forward, one stitch back, each one separated by a click and a treat.  We are building control – not the force-based control of do-it-or-else, but the self-control of good balance.  He is gaining the ability to change his balance – forward or back within a single stride.  He doesn’t have to barge past me any more because he can regulate both his emotions and his balance.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.57.51 PM

So far I’ve asked Robin for a lot of backing.  I need to balance that with requests to go forward – but remember, in the “needlepoint” phase of this pattern I am asking for only one step at a time.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.15 PM

As soon as he begins to initiate a step, it’s click . . .

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.31 PM

. . . release the lead and begin the reinforcement process.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.41 PM

Again note how my right hand moves towards Robin releasing the lead fully to him.  I have pointed this out before because it is a detail many find very difficult to coordinate.  Their focus is on getting the food.  It takes focused practice to coordinate the separate tasks both hands are doing. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2014/11/16)

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.58.59 PM

Many people push against the use of food during training, but clicker trainers have such an advantage because we feed treats.  In this photo series you’ve seen how I can use the food delivery to help my horse become better balanced.  Here I’ve drawn Robin slightly forward with my food delivery.  This sets me up well to be able to turn into him to ask for my next request – backing.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.18 PM

As he begins to lift his left front foot, I am ready to click and release the lead.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.44 PM

Again, my right hand moves towards Robin to release the lead AS my left hand gets the food.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.59.58 PM

Even as he is taking the food from my hand, I am setting up my next request.  Can you tell which direction we’ll be heading?  Forward or back?

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 7.00.19 PM

As soon as I’ve given him his treat, I release him to the mat.  Note: this release to the mat is an important element.  I don’t ask him to keep doing “needlepoint” all the way to the mat.  I want to reinforce the concentrated work with an opportunity to move forward freely.  The mat gives us a destination that offers even more reinforcement opportunities.

Give Them What They Want
For the horse who prefers nothing better than to nap under a tree, all this slow, step by step work is easy-peasy.  It’s all that walking forward stuff to get to the top of the runway that this horse finds wearisome.  So what this game sets up is a bargain.  I’ll let him get all these easy clicks and treats for walking one step at a time provided he will walk with me when I ask him to head back to the top of the runway.

Remember the Premack principle from the previous article? (https://theclickercenterblog/2016/06/09) I’m reinforcing a lower valued behavior – marching on around the outside of my pattern – with a higher valued behavior – getting loads of clicks and treats for taking one small, low energy step after another followed by a chance to stand still at the mat.  What could be better!

For the high-energy, foot moving, impatient horse Premack also works.  I’m saying to this horse: if you will indulge me by giving me a couple of needlepoint stitches, I will not only make it worth your while by clicking and treating each one (thereby upping their value), I will also let you march forward down the rest of the runway.  And if you will further indulge me by standing still on the mat where again I pay really well, I will let you march on, uninterrupted back to the top of the mat.

In both cases the Premack principle is at work.  And in both cases I am turning all the segments of the loop into activities that gain value.  Pretty soon, my slow-moving horse will be looking forward to the march back to the top of the runway, and my impatient horse will be showing me how softly and with such delicate control he can creep down the runway.

Stopping on Mats
For my inexperienced horse it’s time for the game to change again.  I’m going to start using the skills he’s been learning in the runway.
When we get to the mat, instead of stopping so my feet are on the mat, now I’ll change course slightly in the runway so the mat is in line with my horse.  If he steps over it the first time or two so his feet never touch it, that’s all right.  We aren’t yet ready to land.  But eventually, on one of the passes, I’ll do a test run.  As we approach the mat, I’ll rotate slightly towards him as I slide up the lead.  I’m indicating that we will be stopping.  Our needle point has taught him how to listen to these signals.  He’ll stop with his front feet just shy of the mat.  Click and treat.

Here is Robin again showing us how much control and refinement the runway can help us build into leading:

 

Robin Runway walk to runway 2016-06-18 at 6.16.26 PM

I’ve released Robin to the mat.  Note the slack in the lead.  There’s no pulling to the mat, no forging ahead of me.  We are walking together towards the mat.  Exactly right.

Robin Runway stop before mat 2016-06-18 at 6.16.40 PM

I’ve brought Robin up to the mat, but I am deliberately asking him to stop just shy of it.

Robin Runway stop before mat 2 2016-06-18 at 6.16.50 PM

Frame 1: His front end stops beautifully, but . . .

Robin Runway stop before mat hind leg out2016-06-18 at 6.17.20 PM

Frame 2: Robin wasn’t expecting to stop before the mat.  His front end stopped in response to my request, but his hind end took an extra moment to catch up to the change in the pattern.  It’s a bit like a rear end collision at a traffic light.  The first car stopped, but the second one didn’t.  The result: Robin has stepped out to the side with his right hind.  He could have plowed past me to continue on to the mat, but instead he has managed to stop his front end in response to my request.  It’s only his back end that couldn’t quite stop in time.

Robin Runway stop before mat click2016-06-18 at 6.17.32 PM

He may have landed slightly out of balance, but he still responded perfectly to my request to stop his right front and then his left front foot, so he gets clicked.  That’s my cue to begin the reinforcement process. I surprised him with a sudden change in pattern.  That resulted in less than perfect balance in the stop, but he still gets reinforced for a correct response to my cues.

Robin Runway stop before mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.17.47 PM

Feed so his head stays lined up with the rest of his body.

Robin runway ask to step on mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.18.09 PM

Now I’ll use his “needlepoint” skills to bring him the rest of the way onto the mat. That was the point of my abrupt halt.  I wanted  to create an opportunity to show you how these skills work.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 2 2016-06-18 at 6.18.26 PM

Robin responds to very light cues on the lead.  A very small change in my hand position is  all that is needed to request a single, forward step with the right front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 3 2016-06-18 at 6.18.33 PM

Job done with the right front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 4 2016-06-18 at 6.18.43 PM

Now I ask for one step forward with the left front.

Robin Runway ask to step on mat 52016-06-18 at 6.18.54 PM

Job done again. With a very inexperienced horse I would have clicked and reinforced each footfall.  With Robin I can connect these requests together via cues.  Cues act as both prompts and reinforcers.  I am only clicking after he has both feet on the mat, but I am still giving him plenty of “yes” information via the cues from the lead.  Those cues contain an additional “yes” every time I release the lead. 

Robin Runway ask to step on mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.19.10 PM

I’ve clicked so now it’s time to feed.

 

Robin Runway ask to step on mat grups 2016-06-18 at 6.19.26 PM

I’ll further reinforce his good efforts to get on the mat by asking for “grown-ups”, a well known and highly reinforced behavior.  Note how beautifully he maintains his balance, and his very calm, focused demeanor even though he is just inches away from the treats in my pockets.

Robin Runway back off mat 1 2016-06-18 at 6.20.14 PM

I continue to use his “needlepoint skills” to ask him to take one step back off the mat.

Robin Runway back off mat 2  2016-06-18 at 6.20.29 PM

Once he’s stepped back off the mat, I can ask him to come forward again. An inexperienced horse might become frustrated by all this toing and froing.  He might be wanting me to make up my mind and decide which way I want him to go.  But the “needlepoint” lesson in the runway has familiarized Robin with this type of request.  They are just a series of changing dance steps.  They were never taught as corrections.  I want him to see them as a path towards reinforcement – never as a way to avoid punishment.

Robin Runway return to mat 1 mat  2016-06-18 at 6.20.53 PM

His front feet are back on the mat.  Now I’m asking him to step up with his left hind. Click as the leg begins to lift.

Robin Runway return to mat release hand 2016-06-18 at 6.21.09 PM

Again the reminder to release with right hand as well as the left.

Robin Runway return to mat feed 2016-06-18 at 6.21.26 PM

Feed for a job well done.

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

Ask for grown-ups to create added value for landing on the mat.  Why go through all of this? Compare this photo with the one taken just moments before I asked Robin to step off the mat. 

Robin grups comaprison 2016-06-19 at 3.26.11 PM

In both photos Robin is in grown-ups.  He’s showing the calm focus and good balance that has been consistent throughout this session.  But in the photo on the right Robin shows slightly more lift from the base of his neck.  The difference is subtle, but it is there.  It was created out of the rebalancing steps he took to back off and then, weight shift by weight shift, return to the mat.  The control he has over his footfalls leads to the consistency we see throughout this lesson in his balance.

These photos were all pulled from a video.  Now that we’ve gone through the details of this lesson, let’s have you watch the video again.  How many of the photos you’ve been studying can you spot?  They are just still frames taken from the video.  How much more detail are you seeing now than you did when you  watched this video the first time through at the beginning of the article?  How many of the points that I covered are you spotting?  I’ll bet you’re seeing the very deliberate release of my right hand and the use of the food delivery to help build good balance.  What else pops out at you now that I’ve been pointing out the details of this lesson?

Constructional Training
For the inexperienced horse, as well as for Robin, the work in the runway builds the skills that are needed for the mat.  That’s the strength of this approach.  I haven’t started with the mat where a horse’s concern over stepping on an unknown surface might create problems.  The focus of this lesson is to teach the horse to step on the mat, but that isn’t my end goal.  The mat is a tool. Stepping on the mat is a way to get that energetic walk and those “needle point” skills that I’ll be using elsewhere in his training.  And once my horse is comfortable with the mat, I can use it throughout his training as a reinforcer.

When I first introduced my horse to the overall game which we call clicker training, I had to deal with the food.  It started out as a distraction.  I held a target up for my horse to touch –  which he did, eagerly enough.  His curiosity served me well.  Click and treat.  Treat!  You have food in your pockets.  Never mind the target, I’ll have more of those!

The initial stages of clicker training are really a teaching process that transforms the food from a distraction into a useful tool.  Once my horse understands that he gets the treats by taking his focus off my pockets and offering instead other behaviors that I like, then the game can really expand.  It truly does become a game, a treasure hunt where solving the puzzle becomes even more reinforcing than the treat itself.

The mat works in a similar way.  At first it is something to be avoided – stepped over or around, but never actually on.  Then it becomes something to put a tentative, testing toe on.  Clicks and treats!  This isn’t so bad.  What was all the fuss about!

Pretty soon you’ll have a horse who isn’t just stepping gingerly onto the mat, he’s rushing down the runway to get to it.  Hurray!

Coming Next: Mat Manners. 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.  The runway lesson has helped create 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.

 

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