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

Constructional Training

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

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

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

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

Capture the Saddle – A Targeting Game

Robin wwylm facing very connected good at 12.06.42 PM

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

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

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

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

Capture the saddle with owner -baseline

Photo 2.) Getting a Baseline.

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

capture the saddle overswings with owner 2

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

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

capture saddle baseline b

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

capture saddle baseline c good

Photo  5.) . . . to this.

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

Photos 6-8

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

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block baseline 4

Photo 9

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

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

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

Photos 10-12

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

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

Photos 13-16

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

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

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

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

Photos 17-20.)

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

Photos 21-22

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

capture the saddle 17 close up

Photo 23.)

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

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

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 18

Photo 24.)

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

Photo 25-27.)

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

Photos 28-30.)

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

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

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 26

(Photo 31.)

(Photo 32.) The answer is – not yet.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 27

(Photo 32.)

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

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

Photos 33-36)

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

Photos 37-38.)

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

Photos 39-40

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

Photos 41-44

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

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

Photos 45-47

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

Photo 48-49

It’s time for a break.

Capture the Saddle approach mounting block 45

Photo 50

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

Photos 51-54

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

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

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

Icky mounting block - hands up

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

Photo 55

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Coming Next: Cue Communication Part 5: Grand Prix Behaviors

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “JOY Full Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com