Hocus Pocus: a new body organization on the longe and in-hand

Earlier this summer, I welcomed Hocus Pocus, a horse I had known many years ago, back into my life. He was on his way to becoming unsound so I immediately set out to change his unhealthy, habitual postures. (To learn more about this process, read my previous post, Shape-shifting Into Healthy Movement.)

His initial training, which spanned about three months, focused exclusively on teaching Hocus Pocus to carry himself in a new posture. The habitual way a horse organizes their body is a combination of their comformation, their emotional state and what they have been taught, intentionally or unintentionally, in their previous training. Maintained day after day, a horse’s habitual posture will incrementally change the horse over time, either strengthening and improving a horse’s longevity or causing long term imbalances that will result in tension, larger energy requirements in general, joint stress/damage and, often, a shorter lifespan. In Hocus Pocus’s case, his habitual posture was very unhealthy. He tended to move with his head up high, his brachiocephalic (underside) neck muscle braced, his back in tension and his pelvis disengaged out behind him. This posture reduced his range of motion, stressed his joints and made carrying himself, much less a rider, very difficult. I wanted Hocus to work toward his athletic potential, not away from it, so I set out to teach him a new coordination.  I needed to teach him that lowering and extending his neck and letting his back relax would allow his hind end to step up and under toward his rib cage, making movement easier and allowing him to become stronger through his work. In addition, because he would be in a more powerful balance, he could begin to feel safe emotionally, rather than disconnected and vulnerable.

Initially, I taught Hocus this new posture in ground work. Ground work is when a human teaches the horse from the ground, often just in a halter and a lead rope. Ground work simplifies the process for the horse and reduces stress by keeping the lesson straightforward. It is a good starting place, but once the horse has mastered the lesson, it’s time to move on. (To read about the ground work process in detail, read my earlier post, “Shape-shifting into healthy movement”) From ground work, you can choose to move to longeing, in-hand work (work between two reins that educates the horse about how to use their body in relation to itself and in relation to a caveson or bridle),  or ridden work. For Hocus, I chose the longe.
The longe provides a few different benefits:

1)  Longeing offered me an opportunity to re-build Hocus Pocus’s longeing behavior in the positive reinforcement paradigm, confirming that he understood each aspect of longeing and was truly relaxed and active in the process.

2) I could allow Hocus to move out freely at a comfortable speed for him without me having to keep up. This builds fitness.

3) I could see Hocus’s entire body unlike working directly next to him in groundwork. (This is also called “seeing the panoramic”. It’s important to see fine details; it’s equally important to zoom out and be aware of the whole horse.)

4) Hocus could practice moving in relaxation for longer periods of time. This builds lovely emotional control for riding.

To appreciate the difference the ground work immediately created in Hocus’s posture on the longe, below is a photo of Hocus Pocus  before he came to live here:
DAE Hocus old life, no posture 2
His neck is shortened, his hind end is out behind him rather than stepping toward his center of mass and his underline is the same length as his topline. He’s just slouching along; exercise in this posture will have no real benefit.

Below is a photo of Hocus Pocus on the longe after a few months of solid ground work:
Hocus Pocus trot 10-6
This is a clickable moment! Here he is moving with a relaxed back and lengthened topline, which, in turn, allows him to have softer joints and a more expansive range of motion. His inside hind leg is stepping quite deeply for him up and under his rib cage which is the first touchstone on the road to collection. The entire picture gives the impression of roundness and elasticity. This is an “access posture”, meaning it’s not a long-term working posture, but an initial coordination where I can begin to influence Hocus’s hind foot flight arcs and general pelvic orientation. This is the posture where real conversations about balance and strength can begin.

This is the organization he chooses for his body now because of the solid reinforcement history we built over the last few months. He was clicked and fed for choosing this organization hundreds and hundreds of times. It’s a “default posture”, meaning, unless influenced otherwise, he chooses to move in this general shape.

So what does he look like in real time? Let’s take a look at Hocus Pocus in action on the longe line:

Watching the video, it’s easy to see that sometimes he drops his head too low and this makes him heavy on his front end and shoulders. He also still lacks any real power or engagement behind, but none of these things are anything to worry about at this stage of his training. All that matters right now is that he has the gross motor pattern of an open, lengthened spine and a relaxed back which allows his hind end to step up and under toward his rib cage. As he repeats this coordination in session after session, he will begin to step under more and more deeply and coil his loins to lift his back. Then, it will be easy for him to raise his head and neck; it will happen organically.
It’s also easy to see that longeing is being used to reinforce a specific skill, not just to blow off steam or to allow my horse to move in an over-stimulated or unhealthy way. Hocus has a clearly defined behavior to offer on the longe. This helps keep him focused on his own body rather than worrying about the environment.

Since  I want to help Hocus Pocus become much stronger than he is currently, I also need to be able to work him in-hand. In-hand work, or work between two reins, differs from groundwork in that it connects to both sides of a horse’s body, so is more precise. Through in-hand work, I can teach Hocus to be straight, aligned, and healthy in his movement. In-hand work allows me to communicate more specifically to him about individual body parts through the reins. These connections through the reins are learned: as Bent Branderup says,” The response to the rein is a pedagogical process.” Many horses don’t receive a very detailed set of lessons regarding the reins, so they learn to shorten above or behind the reins which is natural, but not healthy. Teaching a horse to stretch down to a point of contact, which is described in countless books,  in practice it is often not taught or well understood. Because Hocus Pocus had previously learned to shorten his neck and drop his back in response to rein contact, I needed to teach a new response in-hand. I wanted him to be able to stretch his neck out to reach for contact in my hand, the same posture we had confirmed on the longe. This is often described as “trusting the trainer’s hands”, which I suppose is true, but it is also a measurable behavior that I can click and reinforce. Here’s a photo of a particularly nice moment of Hocus stretching down to my point of contact in the walk in-hand:
Hocus Pocus in-hand

Here’s a similarly lovely moment in the trot:
Hocus Pocus trot in-hand
This is a beautiful starting point for our ridden work that will come later. Riding begins on the ground. From this biomechanically healthy place between two reins, I can start to teach stretching down into transitions and correct, balanced halts. These will help Hocus Pocus become more agile AND more confident about accepting suggestions from a human regarding his body. When we do begin riding for short periods, he will already know how to slow down and stop by stepping up and under with his hind feet, rather than slamming his weight onto his shoulders. It will just be one more cue transfer from in-hand to under saddle. Below is a short video of Hocus Pocus working in-hand, learning to stretch down into a downward transition, rather than shortening into disengagement.
You can see that he is largely able to stretch forward into the contact offered. When I ask him to walk by gently squeezing alternate reins, he has a few strides where he reverts to his old habit posture and raises his head and drops his back. That’s good information. He doesn’t get into trouble for this behavior, he’s not “wrong”, his old learning is just showing through. So we keep walking and I make contact with my outside rein and he is able to pick up that contact and stretch forward into it. A beautiful recovery and a clickable moment. Over time, he will regularly choose the new, lengthened posture over the old, stilted posture because of the reinforcement history, practice (repetition) and physical comfort it provides.

Before I can even consider sitting on Hocus’s back, I need to confirm that he can carry just his own body with strength and coordination. Adding weight, even with a small person like myself, makes maintaining these healthy postures much more difficult. Learning to carry weight is a gradual schooling process. Years and years ago, when Hocus Pocus was only three, I was the first person to “back” him, or sit on him just to introduce him to the idea that humans sit on horses (not to begin riding training, too early!). I remember that he dropped his back immediately and I decided he needed months more of work before I sat on him again. He was too weak. Now, I have a chance to re-start him, but with far more tools at my disposal than I had before. He is still the beautiful learner that he was, and now he is a mature horse coming eleven. With consistent work through this winter, he should be strong enough and educated enough to begin light riding in mid-spring.

Sistine and Faa

Kill pen photo 1The first time I saw Sistine and Faa, mare #9668 and foal #9669, I had a full three days of students scheduled, lots of chores to finish and a very tight schedule. I was taking a quick coffee break and scrolling through my Facebook feed when I saw a photo of a skeletal mustang mare and her foal in the Kaufman Kill Pen in Texas. Unfortunately, there are lots of starving horses these days. Between the drought out west and the economy still struggling to recover, the issue is on the rise. I wish hungry horses were uncommon, but they aren’t. Normally, I look, but scroll past. But something in this mare’s face, huge against her emaciated frame, had spoken to me. Even starving, she was beautiful. She had a foal at her side, still bright and new, and a quiet resignation in her eyes that humbled me. She was stoic. I saw in her face that she would go to her death without complaint. She was young too, only five, so she would go to her death prematurely, a book that had never even been opened. In her I saw beauty, grace and calm acceptance and I wanted to know how those things would look lit from within. If this was how she looked in utter neglect, left to die, how magnificent would she be fully empowered? She felt like one of our herd and I wanted her to come home.
Safe at Shelby'sWithin a whirlwind twenty-four hours I purchased the mare and foal or “bailed” them out, called on our local and phenomenal animal community who generously raised enough money to cover their transport from Texas to Wisconsin, and found a local farm in Texas willing both to pick them up from the pen and to provide them with a thirty day quarantine and weight gain program. Mare #9668 and foal #9669 would be coming home to Idle Moon.

Here’s the truth: I don’t know what happened in their lives to cause them to end up where they did, starving, in a kill pen waiting for a truck to Mexico. I only know they were owned by a man who breeds draft horses, who sold them as a pair to another buyer in August. After that, things obviously went downhill. But what I did know was this: I would assume nothing about their past. We would start over, fresh. They needed names. I named the mare Sistine for the Sistine Chapel. Something ancient, something holy, something neglected that was later restored. Something now considered a beautiful work of art.

The foal we named Faa, after the King of the Gypsies from The Golden Compass. He’s bright and golden and will be big enough to pull a gypsy wagon when he reaches maturity.

Once they arrived here, it was clear their new names fit the shape of their souls. Faa is social and brave and follows any human at all in order to solicit scratches. Sistine is quiet and observant and when I get close to her during feeding time, I can feel her disappear deep inside her body. In these observations are our beginnings. When humans adopt a brand new horse, or dog or child, even, it’s natural and healthy for us to have dreams about what the relationship will be like. Those dreams and stories we tell are part of how we commit to the process and they say much more about who we are, full of hope and able to imagine new beginnings, then they do about the animals we bring home, who do not imagine or dream of distant futures. Of course I dream of Sistine, completely healthy, full of muscle and using her body as elegantly and expressively under saddle as the ceiling of the chapel for which she is named was painted. But today she is just a very skinny mustang mare who doesn’t yet know what to expect of me. Today, in small moments, I will begin to shape her perception of me, her perception of herself toward my dream which I hope will become a common dream.

What is most important for her to learn?

1) I am a source of reinforcement
To be interested in me, to be motivated to learn from me, Sistine must perceive me as a source or reinforcement. I feed her numerous times daily, so this is given. Each time I appear with food, I become associated with the positive emotions the food elicits. This also begins to build our social relationship.

2) Sistine can control “bonus” reinforcers through her behavior
Consequences maintain behavior. In order for Sistine to feel motivated to offer behavior, she must feel like she can gain access to reinforcers as a consequence of her behavior, i.e., a handful of grass pellets for walking next to me.

Sistine's first schoolThat’s it. Those are the only two concepts that I need to present to Sistine in order for us to start forging our working relationship. The easiest way to begin her “training”, then, is to set up a very simple contingency where she is sure to succeed because the behaviors I am going to be looking to reinforce are behaviors I have already observed in her repertoire in relation to me, ie, she already does them while I’m there. It’s too grand for me to consider teaching her something novel. I want these first sessions to be easy for her, very low stress and to predict a very high rate of reinforcement. What have I observed that she can do reliably? She always follows me at a walk just behind my shoulder when I walk into paddock with food. Here’s a video of our first training session together:

In one sense, I’m not teaching her any new behavior at all. She already knows how to walk forward on her own, and it’s something she does four times a day when I walk into her area to give her her food. But I am teaching her a new consequence when it comes to humans. If you move forward when I do, bring your body into motion, I will reach into my treat pouch and offer you some grass pellets. Your behavior affects your environment.

Sistine learning food deliveryRight now, there is a lot Sistine needs to learn for her own well-being. She is afraid of being haltered so she can’t be led on a rope out of her paddock, yet. She has a bit of a clubbed foot on her left front leg and will need a few years of remedial hoof care plus shoulder stretches to help balance her out. She could use a good brushing. But those skills will come.  Without taking the time to introduce her to the idea that she can control reinforcers through her behavior, without letting her confirm that expectation day after day, she won’t be as persistent of a learner. She might shut down, or panic. So, first, I draw her out and allow her to feel successful through easy contingencies that she can fulfill. This is the fun, easy part, watching her begin to light up again. We are building the subtle underpainting that will allow everything later to glow.

Collaborative hoof care

Awake Tarot feetAs long as I have had Tarot, I have had him sedated for hoof care. Between his deep fear of unfamiliar people and his past life history of tension and fighting over just having his feet lifted and cleaned, much less trimmed, it was easier and safer to get through the process with a drug that helped him be calm physically and mentally. Over time, though, I was becoming less and less of a fan of the frequent jugular sticks and the the expense of the drug every six to eight weeks. It would be more ideal to have Tarot collaborate in his care. I already had most all of the pieces in place for a successful “awake” hoof trim, but then the final piece fell into place: my wife, Sara, started to study with hoof professional Ida Hammer. Tarot now had a familiar and trusted person available to work on his feet. Still, this was not going to be a traditional hoof trimming session, I needed to create a structure that felt safe and empowering for everyone.

As my guiding principle, I used “LIMA” or “Least intrusive, minimally aversive“.  This principle challenges the trainer to choose a strategy that allows the learner the most control and choice possible in a situation while using the least aversive methods to modify behavior, ideally utilizing positive reinforcement. The animal learner, not the human trainer, determines what is reinforcing. Fulfilling the “least intrusive” principle was simple; Tarot would be left completely loose. No halter or lead rope to hold him in position or suggest he remain in place. He needed the choice to leave, or to never come over in the first place in order for choice and control to be preserved for him. To fulfill the “minimally aversive” requirement, the entire skill set needed for a real trim had to be re-taught beforehand using positive reinforcement. Tarot had to know how to lift his foot on cue, allow his hoof to be held in multiple positions and allow it to be held while both a metal rasp and a “nippers” were used to shape his foot. Except, Tarot wasn’t learning these behaviors for the first time as a naive learner or a blank slate. He was re-learning a new association with the very same behaviors that had been poisoned for him in his past. All the traditional cues and prompts associated with foot handling triggered frustration and varying levels of defensive behavior. The process of un-poisoning these behaviors needed to be complete before I even thought about adding another handler to the picture. I had worked the last twenty-four months on building new emotional associations with foot handling and creating a new skill set. Now I needed to see if Tarot could transfer those skills to a less familiar human handler. Here’s a video of our session:

It looks simple enough, but there are strict contingencies operating here, both for the humans AND the horse. Let’s look closer at them.

Initially, I stand near Tarot’s head and wait for him to offer a hoof lift. This is very likely, because he has been reinforced for the behavior so many times in the past twenty-four months. I click and reinforce him for several repetitions so he knows this is the “hot” behavior. I then bring Sara in by my left shoulder, NOT in an active handler position. I wait to see if he will offer his hoof lift and I use this information as guidance about whether or not we will go deeper into the process. If Tarot can offer the foot lift with a second person standing by my shoulder, I know he is still relaxed enough to continue.

After reinforcing three or four hoof lifts with Sara at my left shoulder, I ask her to move to my right shoulder and into the more active handler position. This is much more vulnerable for Tarot.  If he were to move away, back up or leave, we would go back a step in our process and end where he was comfortable. If he offers his hoof lift with Sara in a more active handler position, which he does, he is clicked and reinforced. He has given us permission to move forward in our process.

After three or four repetitions of the hoof lift, I give Sara the green light to take a hold of his hoof when he lifts it. If he pulls it away, it is given to him. It’s his foot and he is allowed to say no. If he allows her to support his hoof, I immediately begin a “continuous feed” to provide huge reinforcement for his choice. I continue to feed him as long as his foot is in Sara’s hands. When Sara sets the hoof down, the feeding stops, and Sara steps away.

At that point the session is over unless Tarot cues Sara to do more hoof care by offering his foot again. Which he does.

Tarot controls at what level he interacts with the hoof care professional and how long the session lasts. If my set up is ideal for my learner both individually and species-specifically and I have included all of the necessary component pieces, the session will go smoothly, the animal will remain calm and the humans will be able to accomplish their tasks easily. Per Tarot, the session contained all the components for him to collaborate in his hoof care. Success!

Here’s another short video of the same training session:

Teaching the animals in our care to be active participants in their husbandry procedures has a positive effect on the quality of their life and magnifies the bond between us. Preparing them for the procedures that are necessary for their health and well-being is humane, reduces stress and increases safety for owners, vets and professionals. These are facts. But for me, there’s something larger and more serious on the table. Trust. Charles Feltman defines trust as “Choosing to risk allowing something you value to be vulnerable to someone else’s actions.” With Tarot, there wasn’t a way to love him into trust. He was too mature and too wild and too skeptical for such a human conceit. But by setting him up for success in relation to myself and other humans, over and over, in small and measurable pieces, something generous and expansive and lovely has appeared out of only small, unassuming layers.

Hocus Pocus: shape-shifting into healthy movement

This spring I was lucky enough to purchase a horse who I loved many years ago but thought I would never own. Hocus Pocus is a tall, black and white, Saddlebred/Friesian cross who was mine to train from the ages of two to three. Even as a Hocus Pocustwo-year-old, he was the sort of horse who was thoughtful and kind. He was such a good learner, and so easy to train, that I called him my “yes” horse. I wanted very badly to buy him for myself but he had been purchased to prepare for sale, and I knew I could never afford him. This year, seven years from the last time I saw him, his owner now with both a young child and a business to run, decided she just couldn’t offer him the time she felt he deserved. When she contacted me to say he was for sale, I arranged to go see him with a check and a trailer. I wanted to welcome him here at Idle Moon Farm to join the rest of my family.

The horse I saw when I went to pick up Hocus was obedient but rather checked-out. Instead of looking like a mature ten-year-old in his prime, he looked more like an aged horse. His back was dropped and his topline was completely wasted away. I hesitated when I saw him, but was set on bringing him home. We would address whatever physical issues were going on; I had decided there were no deal breakers when it came to him, though I wondered if my “yes” horse was still in there.  Here’s a picture of his back the first week I brought him home:
Eastwick Day One- 5-29-15You can see that the top of the individual vertebrae are visible, as well as the top of his sacro-iliac joint and a very prominent point of hip. He was going to need some serious conditioning to put muscle back in the right places and make sure he became stronger instead of stiffening into this muscular imbalance. People often believe, as I used to, that turning a horse out to pasture for six months or a year helps them to loosen up and  heal. But the truth is horses turned out to pasture tend to reinforce the same muscular patterns they had going into the time off. Six months or a year out to pasture often yields a horse who has the same crookedness or weakness, sometimes more pronounced, in addition to them then being out of shape. I wanted to start changing the muscles Hocus Pocus used in movement, preferably with a good head start before winter. I wanted him to have some mass to take him through the cold and over the slippery spots.

The first order of business was to get Hocus moving throughout the day, so he could do lots of walking and start to build up some muscle through easy, low-impact exercise. Once he was worked onto grass, we let him out onto our track system so he could walk and graze alongside the other horses. Having his head down kept him released over his back and allowed his tight, weak muscles to move through their range of motion and build up some strength. Having a paddock set up that allowed him to move as continuously as possible all day long provided much more movement than one human trying to exercise him ever could.

The second order of business was to teach Hocus Pocus a new way to carry himself posturally. He tends to be nervous in the arena, his head flies up, his back inverts and he braces his big brachiocephalic muscle on the underside of his neck. This tension limits his range of motion, stresses his joints and continues to atrophy the back muscles he needs for healthy Spellbound Hocus head downlocomotion. To begin to change his habits, I taught him to lower his head in the halt from the ground. The head-down behavior serves a dual purpose: it allows Hocus to self-calm by giving him a measurable behavior to concentrate on in the arena and it is the new gross motor pattern I want him to generalize and offer. There are other bells and whistles to add on, but the main pieces are there: lengthen your neck and release over your back. Before adding bend or asking for any other nuances in the way he moves, I want him to know one thing for sure: a lengthened topline is the right answer. When in doubt, start there. Click. Treat.

At first we spent most of our time in the arena in the halt in the head-down behavior. Every time I asked him to walk off his head would fly up and he would take short tense steps. After three or four steps, I would click him just for staying with me regardless of the quality of the movement and we would go back into our deep meditation within the head-down behavior. I would ask him to do three to five repetitions of the behavior, clicking and treating each one, until he felt calm and centered and ready to walk off again. Hocus Pocus had been caught in a vicious cycle. He was naturally a bit “startle-y”, which caused him to tense and tighten. The tightening and tensing up made his body uncomfortable, which caused him to spook and startle even more. Left to his own natural inclinations with no support or new learned response, he was only going to reinforce his old, habitual patterns of fear and unhealthy movement. Head-down offered him room to begin to change shape emotionally and physically. In this deceptively simple behavior there was space for a new horse to emerge. Since the behavior was taught and maintained with clicker training, there was the added relaxation of food and fun woven into the training sessions. Lightbulbs went off. Soon, Hocus Pocus was able to start lowering his head in the walk from a gentle slide on the lead. Soon after that, he was able to offer more and more steps in walk with a lowered head and his back Hocus Pocus- ST, week one, FD 2muscles working in relaxation. Soon after that, he began to breathe normally again in the arena space and he stopped spooking at noises and counter-bending to swivel his head around to look in every corner for danger. Very soon, I had a true partner who was motivated, relaxed and an absolute pro at stretching over his topline and keeping step with me. The entire process took roughly four weeks.
Some people fear repetition, but to really build a reinforcement history on a behavior, to make it a place where you and your horse can check-in, discuss how tight or relaxed they are, to use it as an anchor in a storm, takes repetition. Thoughtful repetition is necessary for robust learning and really cementing new neural pathways. Improved Hocus in arenaPractice makes permanent. The reinforcement history we have built around head-down has made it an absolute favorite of Hocus Pocus and he even offers it when walking at liberty from his side paddock back to where he sleeps at night. It’s not just a motor pattern, it’s a request to be paid some grain, a way to self-soothe, physical therapy and a easy conversation we have with tiny nuances being added all the time. Head-down is familiar now. It’s valuable to Hocus. It’s useful to me. It feels good to both of us. It has changed the shape, nuance and energy of all of our work together. And most importantly, it’s already begun to change the shape of his back. Here’s a comparison photo from our first week together, (left) and almost four months later, (right.) Hocus Back Comparison Photo

Hocus and I have only just begun this new leg of our journey together. It’s so rare to get anything back that you have lost; he is the first second-chance I have  had in my life. I want to honor him by keeping him healthy, helping him to be strong and teaching him how to relax and truly love his work.

Allow your horse to be a masterpiece

When I adopted Aesop, I was looking for a horse who could be a good teacher. He appeared open, calm and, just as  important, he had rather flat movement. I didn’t want a horse who was terribly athletic if I was considering teaching more novice riders on his back. He was safe, kind and limited in his scope.  Dragon, my big, flashy Friesian cross, embodied athleticism, sparkle and presence in my mind. Without knowing it, I had assigned Aesop to an “understudy’ position.
Late this fall, Dragon injured his sacroiliac joint in the pasture. It’s a deep injury, and a re-injury from an incident that happened to him when he was only three. Suddenly, I was faced with a year long rehabilitation program and Aesop being my principal riding horse. But I didn’t want to ride an understudy. I wanted to ride a star.

Unintentionally, I had set Aesop up for less than spectacular performance because I had different expectations of him than Dragon. Once those expectations became conscious, they were easy to alter. Every day when I got him out of the pasture, I would say, “This might be the most talented horse I will ever work with in my life.” It set the stage and it gave my subconscious a goal: to look for excellence. It’s a fun thing to say, too. There’s some good research on how powerfully expectations influence our learners. It is commonly known as the “Pygmalion effect”, or, the greater the expectation placed upon a learner, the better they tend to perform. I had always assumed Dragon would be nothing less than larger than life, but I didn’t know that that expectation sucked space to grow from all my other horses. Robert Rosenthal, a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, says,“Expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students, they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes, they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect a certain response from their research subjects, they tend to get it.”  My high school art teacher told me once that I should treat every new drawing I start with the care I would afford a masterpiece. It was good advice then, and it’s the expectation I take to Aesop now. This horse might be the most talented, brilliant horse I ever teach. I approach him like a masterpiece. Not a lesson horse, but a schoolmaster-to-be.

This is Aesop when he first started to trot in hand, about two years ago:

To say he was an energy conserver would be an understatement. I still remember trying to get him to move from a walk to a trot in hand. I would open my hips, lengthen my own stride, march, dance. Nope, nothing. But why would you want to add energy? I work in a positive paradigm, so I don’t use whips or any traditional sort of ways to goose or startle my horse forward. Finally, I figured out that if we walked toward the green grass I could get two or three flat but willing trot strides. I would click and reinforce by allowing a short graze time. Any time at all he decided to trot, I clicked and reinforced him. His self-containment was safe and made for easy handling, but definitely was not the material from which masterpieces are made. Look at him:  he had school horse written all over him. Quiet, calm, on the forehand. It was hard to imagine a future Aesop as elegant, strong and athletic. Subconsciously, I let that shape me.

Nuno Oliveira said, “Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.” People write a lot about being content with little and rewarding greatly, but all three describe one contingency. Know what you want and ask for it frequently, be content with a reasonable approximation for where your horse is in the work, and click and reinforce! As I moved into this new territory, I became more thoughtful about what I wanted from Aesop. I began to ask for more energy very consistently. I began to ask for one or two strides of better and better balance, using his whole body more correctly. I paid deep attention to whether or not he leaned on my hand even a few ounces and made sure to re-set him so he could know my criteria exactly. I released him completely into his own balance and clicked him for maintaining engagement. Guess what? He could do all of it. It wasn’t that my expectations had been horribly low, I had been teaching him fairly intensively all along. I just hadn’t asked for the pieces that really help a horse sparkle. A real lift from the base of the neck, coming promptly onto a point of contact and balancing above it with real precision. Our conversations had not been detailed enough. Here is what Aesop looks like now that I treat him like he is made of moons and stars and the shining rings of Saturn:

To be clear, he had a very solid foundation and most of the component pieces for this in place. But it wasn’t until I started to envision him as a star instead of an understudy that he really began to change. When a horse lifts up next to you, voluntarily, and trots beside you in balance while you walk, a horse who used to fall heavily from step to step and lean on the rein, you feel gravity disappear. They seem less clear, the laws that bind us. Because really, it’s all in our imagination.


When you see magic portrayed in books and movies, it is often used as a short-cut around reality. You can clean up a room with a wave of a wand or turn a man into a goat to pull your cart. This sort of magic is superficial: a trick, a deceit. Over time or under certain conditions, it usually degrades to reveal the true nature of reality underneath. It turns out it was only a thin veneer. An illusion. There’s lots of training like this, too. My friend Shirley is neighbors with a man who competed in the last “mustang makeover”. He used lots of short-cuts to get his horse ready to compete in ninety days and even placed well in the competition. Superficially, the horse looked “trained”. The only trouble now is that the man can’t even catch the horse from the pasture. The reality underneath was the horse was never comfortable, just trapped between hard choices. In my world, I think of these techniques as dark magic, illusions. Spells that seek to control without any regard for the horse.

Real magic, or transformation, requires quiet, incremental work in deep agreement with reality. It allows no short-cuts and if you work skillfully, the changes made are quite real. With Tarot, I wanted to help him transform his emotional landscape from fearful and trapped to trusting, engaged and joyful. I wanted to offer him healing and the vast space that healing can bring. Lastly, I wanted to stretch my own soul. I knew that real magic always works both ways; I couldn’t transform Tarot without transforming myself. I needed a clean, white magic, clear and fluid as water. Clicker training.

If you had a magic wand what spell would you cast?

I wasn’t naive enough to think I could go directly at a spell for riding with Tarot. I knew that underneath everything good, everything healthy between humans and horses lived relaxation and engagement. Without that as a foundation, everything else would be compromised. This summer, Tarot started to be outgoing, silly. He started to canter up from the bottom of his pasture, shaking his head and demanding attention. He put on new pieces of equipment like he had always worn them, without worry. The smell of leather used to send him snorting into the distance, now he arched his neck and stood quietly to put on a saddle. He began to feel, well, like all my other horses. Relaxed. Happy. Engaged. A few weeks ago, I woke up and thought, “Today I will sit on Tarot.” I’m used to following my intuition, so after I finished my horse chores, I took the mounting block out to Tarot to see what he thought of it. I used something I call an “asking loop” to assess his comfort and make sure I didn’t skip any important steps in the process. An asking loop splits a larger process into all it’s component pieces and checks in with the learner at each step to assess their comfort. Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day two:

At twenty-one seconds, you can hear Tarot blow through his nostrils as he lowers his head while my leg is over his back. This is a low level sign of fear and something he used to do all the time when I was even near him. He’s saying this is hard for him! This is a stop sign for me and means I shouldn’t progress further until Tarot shows he is relaxed. The other detail to notice to compare with my day four video (below) is that Tarot’s head stays relatively high during this session and he really has to work hard to offer a bit of head lowering until the end.This is tension and also registers as tension in his back. These are small details, but they are crucial. People and horses lose confidence in one another when these small behaviors are ignored and the horse is forced to show discomfort through larger behaviors like spinning away, bolting or bucking. I want him to know I can hear him when he is mildly uncomfortable and he never needs to escalate to get my attention.
The most charming detail, however, is that Tarot doesn’t leave the mounting block even when I do. He’s obviously decided by the end of this session that the mounting block predicts a fun game. Why leave when that lady keeps coming back to feed him just for standing still?

Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day four, the day Tarot invited me onto his back:

In this video you can see that Tarot starts out very relaxed, with a low head and no blowing. His eyes are soft and blinking throughout and his ears are floppy, listening for my click. He looks so relaxed it’s hard to imagine him fearful or afraid. You can also see that he keeps on chewing the grain from his last reward while I sit on him the next time. If he was tense there would be a momentary freeze response which would stop his chewing. He is calm and present. What is fascinating to me is that there was no point in the process where I consciously decided to get on. I just proceeded through my asking loop and as I felt his body relax and felt his solid connection to the ground through his back, my body made the decision for me. And then, there we were, me sitting on my horse, he with a person on his back, completely relaxed and on the edge of a brand new world, together.

Scratching: a primer

Itchy RuneMy last post about Rune outlined the details of our relationship and training in our first six weeks together. I assumed most people know foals are  born “itchy” and love to be scratched more than anything in the world. It’s a natural reinforcer and relationship builder that is pre-wired in all young horses. But how to scratch? Not everything is equal, and details matter.

Find the right spot: Every foal has a unique favored itchy spot. Some like the underside of their neck scratched, some prefer the top of their tail and some really prefer the top of their neck along their mane. Sara’s foal, Isolde, loved mane scratches when she was small but Rune found them totally overstimulating. Even a scratch in a favorite place can become uncomfortable if it goes on for too long (think of a back rub that goes over the same location endlessy, eventually it becomes annoying. ) When you have scratched in one place too long, or your foal is no longer enjoying the scratch, their tail will start to flip up and down rapidly.                       To add to the complexity, favored itchy spots change. When Rune was three weeks old, she would do anything for a top of the tail and a butt scratch, but now she really loves to be scratched in her armpits where she can’t reach with her nose.

Why does this matter? It matters because when horses are young, under six weeks old, food doesn’t function as a reinforcer. Their only real nutrition is mare’s milk at this time, though they will nibble on hay and grass in imitation. If you want to train in a positive reinforcement paradigm, you need to be able to offer something your foal values. In this case, a good scratch! So, now we have something our foal wants, but how to use it constructively within a training session?

Make It Contingent: One of the  first things you can and should do with a foal is to link scratching with a simple, likely- to-be-offered behavior. In Rune’s case, I just made sure that as she approached me, my outstretched, flat palm was available and near her nose. Once she would touch it, I would click and then immediately begin scratching her. This way, through repetition, she understood she could “control the situation” with a polite nose touch, rather than crowding into my space or shoving me with her face. Many people start out scratching and massaging their foals while they are little and cute, but quickly get frustrated or start to use physical punishment, because they have inadvertently taught their foals to nip, push into them with their shoulders or cut in front of them to demand a scratch. What is cute at five days old is already starting to be intimidating at four weeks. You have to be aware when you hand out your scratches! Making scratching contingent on a polite behavior not only sets rules around your interaction with your foal, it also begins the game of learning, “If you do this, then I will do that.” Easy, safe and fun.

Scratch so their head turns away from you: When you scratch a foal, it’s natural for them to want to wiggle their lips, turn their head and nibble or bite you. Horses are social groomers, and in foals this response is strong and immediate. I didn’t want to start out offering Rune a reinforcer and then end up punishing her or scaring her physically because she had bit or nipped me. I found that if you scratch the side of their body that is opposite to the side you are on, your foal will turn their head that way, toward the pleasurable sensation and end up nibbling and lipping themselves. That way you don’t have to suppress their natural social response and you can avoid teaching your foal to use their mouth or teeth on you. Here’s a very short video of Rune at about sixteen days old learning how to turn on the “scratch machine” and me learning how to direct her nose just with the location I choose to scratch on her body. This is more important in the first four weeks when foals are more free with their mouth and less discerning about how they use them.

Even though foals are tiny and absolutely enchanting, it’s important to remain aware of the habits we are building when we interact. Safe and sophisticated handling comes from a thoughtful set up and attention to detail. With young foals, knowing where they like to be scratched, paying attention to their enjoyment or overstimulation, making the scratch contingent on a simple, polite behavior, and scratching so that you don’t encourage your foal to bite you are details that will set you up for success! Happy scratching.