Using Clicker Training to Teach Riding as a Road to Reinforcement to a Mustang Stallion

A few years ago I sat on Tarot for the first time (read about that here), but I still didn’t really feel that he was ready for riding. He was relaxed with me being up on his back in terms of trust, but I didn’t feel that he had enough of an education for him to be ready for the complexities of riding . On top of that, he was uneasy in the indoor arena and I didn’t feel safe riding him in his lane with the electric tape and other horses nearby. So, I tabled everything after that first session of sitting on him.
But by late summer and early fall this year, a few things happened which illustrated how very deeply he has changed. I began to think riding was a real possibility for the first time.
Tarot School Horse clinic

Tarot giving a lesson to a student during a clinic here at Idle Moon.

The first thing that happened was I held a clinic here on my farm, and he was able to participate, as a school horse, in an arena full of people. Just a few years earlier, if anyone but me was in the arena with him he would be tense, on edge and prone to big, cantering bolt-y spooks. Extra people were always a concern for him because they reminded him of situations where multiple people had worked together to control him. But this year he let go of that old conditioning.

As if that wasn’t enough, he was additionally comfortable working with someone other than me at length. His ability to absorb stress and novelty had hugely expanded. In effect, his world-view had changed. His old predictors for danger and self-preservation were consistently superseded by his new, positive associations he had learned here.

The second thing was more subtle, but just as important. When I got home from my “study abroad” trip from the Netherlands, I took out my horses one by one to say hello and introduce them to some of what I had learned. When I started to work with him on some of the balances, I had the immediate sense of time turning to water, of the world softening, opening, and I knew that if I did not travel with him as deeply as possible, there would be lovely things he offers I would never get to know. It was time to be serious now.

When I re-visited our work at the mounting block, I found he remembered everything exactly as if we had rehearsed it the day before. I could climb up the block, take up the reins, throw my leg over and sit, click, climb off and feed. He even threw in lovely posture to sweeten the deal.

Tarot re-start

Relaxed and focused at the mounting block.

He was comfortable with me getting on, but I had never taught him how to take food from my hand while I was up on his back. Real riding was going to require that he was comfortable taking food from me while I was up. In addition, because Tarot had bolted before under a rider, it was important that I paid attention to every detail as I rebuilt a reinforcement history for ridden games. Structuring each piece so he felt safe and successful would guide him toward feeling being a riding horse would be something he could enjoy and be confident about. I didn’t want any carelessness on my part in the beginning to sabotage what might be possible for us.

Initially, when I clicked and tried to feed from his back the first few times,  I had grain in my hand, and it was hard for him to get a hold of all the grain. A lot of it fell onto the ground and he stopped trying to turn his head to get it. Too hard! My friend gave me the idea of trying big, easy to grab apple treats, so we tried again with those.

 

My goals with these initial repetitions are modest. Click Tarot for standing still, feed him so he can be successful taking a reinforcer, let him chew, click him for straightening his head back in the center of his neck, click and repeat. In the video you can see him practicing food acquisition, as well as the little “tour” we take around the object circle after our mounting practice. The walk around the circle gives both of us a little break in between repetitions and sets us up geographically for where we will go when we do start moving.

I was happy with our progress, but I wanted to see if once I was on his back, I could ask him for an operant behavior. I chose his “rein” behavior, which cues him to lower his head a touch when I pick up the reins. We’ve practiced it over and over at the mounting block and it’s a high probability behavior for him. In the next video, you’ll see me get on Tarot, click him for allowing the sit, feed and then cue a slight head lowering through a verbal cue and slide down the rein. It transfers just beautifully! In addition, I add in a shoulder tap to cue him about the side the reinforcer will be delivered from. Let’s watch:

All these details can seem like overkill. You are on! Get riding! Except, what do you have to rely on if things go wrong? Right now, we are building a lovely loop where we can relax in the halt and use well established head lowering and a high rate of reinforcement to take a break or re-establish calm should we need it. These are the details that are the scaffolding of trust and relaxation.

It’s easy to see that Tarot’s thick neck makes it hard for him to swing around and get the treat from my hand. There is a lot of sideways movement in that gesture. But, it’s also reassuring that he can come so far out of balance and go back into balance without panicking. I’m sure over a few more sessions we will refine this together and it will already look different than the video above. But first approximations are good to have on video so you can compare as things evolve.
This week we will practice a few more rounds of our loop at the mounting block, and after that, we will begin forward movement mat to mat.

Horse culture can be a throw away culture. If a horse is not following an owner’s timeline, or has more conflict behavior than they hoped for, they are often sold or thrown out to pasture or sent to auction. We have high hopes pinned to these beasts. Tarot and I are lucky, because I knew his issues before I brought him home. I wanted to live up close to a horse with serious fear and a lack of trust because I knew he would make me a better trainer and a better human. When I brought Tarot home, nearly seven years ago, I told myself that it would be at least five years before I ever knew if he would grow to be the sort of horse who might be able to be ridden. I knew there were no quick answers with him, I had to love the journey for it’s own sake. Only time and wading deep into process would reveal what was possible. Slow, patient magic.
Now, at this benchmark, I dream only of seven more years to explore this world we have mined, together.

Tarot liberty block

Playing at liberty after our session.

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What’s in a trail ride? Making use of  objects to cue learned behaviors and classically conditioned emotional states.

What’s in a trail ride? Making use of objects to cue learned behaviors and classically conditioned emotional states.

Aesop in field sbEarlier this winter, I did a lot of hiking out in the 100 or so acres behind our farm. There was plenty of soft snow and it wasn’t demanding on cold muscles like accurate arena work.  It was a good way to get the blood flowing and as a bonus, I could wear gloves when I fed my horses and while I hiked. I didn’t need extra dexterity on the reins like I do in-hand or under saddle. As we hiked, technically on a “trail ride” as the horses and I were off property, moving in a relative line, I started to think about what a trail ride really is, to the horse, how many owners struggle with taking their horse out alone and what we can take from our daily work to make riding-out possible, safe and fun.

I was very interested in observing the general change in my horses’ arousal levels as we left our property. All of my horses eagerly volunteer to come out and learn, and all of them are used to working alone, without any other horses. But leaving the home property adds a level of unfamiliarity and a much larger physical distance from the actual herd. Because I am not interested in suppression or force as a tool for controlling behavior, my horses were totally at liberty so I would have an honest read on whether or not they wanted to come along. (Our farm is very secluded, so even if my horses were to go back home on their own, there is really no traffic or road to cross. Other people might not have this set up and will need to make adjustments to ensure safety for their horses.)

Initially, I took my horses two at a time out hiking. I knew having two together would easily increase relaxation, and I wanted to take advantage of creating positive initial experiences. I had my wife or other training friends come along and each of us was responsible for one horse.

Out for a hike in a group SB

Dragon, Aesop and Sara out on an early winter hike.

With two horses, the hikes were easy and they both stayed quite relaxed, their thresholds nearly identical to when we trained on property. Awesome! But, as we neared home, maybe the last 50 yards or so, they would speed up and canter back into view of the other horses and our barn. It improved with every hike, until it was only the last ten feet as the trail switched from the field to our property, but it was still anxiety. Small things can always turn into big things, so better to address them early. The horses were letting me know where the holes were in their emotional confidence.

The next time I brought Dragon and Aesop into the field, I had a new plan based on what I had observed. Before I took them out, I set up the field with objects I use in training sessions in the indoor arena. I dragged out mounting blocks, some large buckets I use to mark off circles when we longe at liberty, as well as a large plastic spool I got at a dog training store.

Mounting block SB

My well-loved mounting block.

I set these things up at the entrance to the field, so they were some of the very first and very last things we encountered as we hiked. As we entered the field the first time with the object set up, the change in the horses was measurable. They had felt relaxed before, but now they eagerly walked up to the familiar objects, lining up with the mounting blocks, sometimes moving out ahead to reach an object first and then wait for me to catch up and reinforce. They were focused and thoughtful.

Aesop and Sam at the mounting block SB

Aesop lining up at the bucket for Sam.

It became very clear to me very quickly, that adding in objects that already had conditioned associations with them and deep reinforcement histories allowed the horses to access their best, most responsive selves immediately. Adding the objects onto our trail walks was like when we got to use our notes for tests in school: everything felt easy and suddenly test taking wasn’t nerve wracking in the least!

Dragon at mounting block SB best

Dragon at the mounting block, offering stillness and his back. Lovely!

The objects you use in your everyday training sessions: mounting blocks, traffic cones to mark off circles, and buckets to practice turning around are more than just mundane objects. They become a deep and integral piece of the learning process. What functions do they serve?

  1. They cue you to stop and ask for a certain behavior from your horse. These objects help order and pattern your training sessions. Trail walks and rides can be long and continuous. Once people start, they rarely stop, which can lead to both the horse or human becoming overfaced as they steadily move into uncharted territory. Using objects along your path can break up the pressure to go, go, go and provide better context for you and your horse.
  2. They become secondary reinforcers to your horse. Even though these objects are neutral initially, over time, their presence becomes reinforcing to your horse because they so often lead to actual reinforcement. This classical conditioning will help your horse to feel relaxed and eager because working around these objects always predicts good things!
  3. These objects also cue your horses for certain operant behaviors. If you have done a solid job using objects as targets and context cues in your foundation work with your horse (stand on a mat, line up at a mounting block, trot to the outside of cones, touch your nose to a jolly ball), you have a whole lexicon of visual cues you can take with you on the trail or in new environments. Rather than abandoning all of the familiar and well learned objects, bring them into your trail ride or new environments to help your horse be right!
    Dragon riding out SB

    A short trail ride alone, once we were comfortable thanks to our object work. Heading back toward a mounting block, not pictured.

    Aesop riding out SB

    Riding object to object with Aesop out in the fields.

    When we work in arenas, we never ask our horses to go any further from home than they are when they enter the arena. It’s a static space, controlled and safe. But when we head out onto the trail, not only is it an unpredictable environment in terms of wildlife, geographical variation and unfamiliarity; it also takes our horses continually further from home and their herd mates. That’s pretty challenging. Getting our horses used to learning and working in novel environments should be approached thoughtfully and with attention to detail. Intentionally harnessing the power of familiar objects with deep reinforcement histories allows our horses immediate relaxation and context in what can be a fear-inducing situation. It’s just good training.

 

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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.

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.

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.

 

How to Train Your Foal: birth to six weeks

Rune and JenRune is my first foal. She’s far from my first horse and I’ve been a professional animal trainer for almost fifteen years now, but a first is a first, no matter your other experience. So, after she was born and we had her settled into the world, comfortable, happy and healthy, I went looking for good books and good videos to see how other more foal-experienced humans handled their foals and what they chose to teach them. I was hoping to see some skilled, quiet handling, a discussion of developmental stages and age-appropriate skills to teach. These are things that are readily available if you are raising children or puppies, so I assumed there would be resources for foals too. I found one or two basic resources, a solid general set of guidelines from the ASPCA and some nice videos on youtube from a trainer named Ellen Ofstad, but aside from those it has been slim pickings and a plethora of misinformation and some very forceful handling. Rather depressing, actually.

There is a DreamWorks movie released in 2010 called:  How to Train Your Dragon. It’s a story about a Viking culture that kills dragons in order to protect their village and their food sources. Killing a dragon earns you status in the culture and young Vikings go to “dragon school” to learn how to fight them. But when one young Viking, Hiccup, injures a dragon so he can’t fly, he ends up building a relationship with him and learning from the dragon directly. By day he goes to “dragon school” taught by people and by evening he goes to his real dragon and learns what the dragon has to teach. What he learns from his dragon is very different from what humans are teaching him in “dragon school.” Eventually, he concludes, “Everything we know about them is wrong.” It reminds me exactly of a mantra of Alexandra Kurland’s, “Go to people for opinions and horses(dragons!) for answers.” I decided I would go directly to Rune for answers.

In their first two weeks on earth, a foal goes through an intensive sensory development period. What this means is when they are born, their perceptions are only rough versions of the more refined faculties they will have just a few weeks later.
New foals are very reflexive creatures. Most of their responses feel fairly automatic and are linked to their early survival. Stand up. If you fall, get up again. Suckle on anything near your mouth. If something touches the top of your butt, kick. Stay close to the large, warm animal you first saw when you were born. Follow her if she moves.
When you think about how much a foal has to make sense of when they are first born, it is truly staggering. With Rune, I really only worried about making sure she was comfortable with humans nearby and knew we offered her a clean stall, food for her mother, scratches and comfort. She had enough to make sense of without worrying about “training.”

But right at two weeks old she felt different. More aware of her surroundings. More flexible in her responses. So we began very short, more focused sessions. She was already very comfortable with me because I was there at her birth and in her stall daily, feeding, cleaning and just hanging out. I was part of the wallpaper and nothing to worry about. And I gave great scratches. So really, our early handling sessions were  just sharing space, responding when Rune approached by offering companionship and scratches and stopping before she became too overstimulated and leapt around like a wild energetic deer. I wanted to condition relaxation and seeking touch. Daily time together to build a pressure free relationship is key.

The first  behavior I taught Rune was targeting her nose to my hand. Here’s a short video of her at just under three weeks old following my hand target. It’s a very easy behavior to introduce when your foal already has a relationship with you. Rune tended to follow me out of curiosity and loved to touch anything near her nose. So I simply formalized the process.


She’s practicing lovely informal leading here, a skill she’ll need later when I introduce the halter and lead rope. She’s practicing enjoying touch from her human friend, which will come in handy when she needs to be groomed and handled later. These are age appropriate skills for a three week old foal, skills she can easily learn and feel successful with. Notice that I am working with her completely at liberty and she is free to leave at any time. At this age, training is mostly about setting up the environment so that you are interesting to the foal and working around their shorter attention spans and sensitive nervous systems.

Here’s another short video of Rune practicing the same skill set outside. Initially this was harder for her because her increased freedom made me and my game less interesting. But very shortly her curiosity and desire to interact won out.

Targeting is also a very safe way to start introducing space management to a foal. You can suggest to them, “Why don’t you walk along here, beside me?” and keep them calm and focused on you. Foals can become overstimulated easily and they truly have no concept of personal space, so targeting is very handly. They also have an intense opposition reflex and lean heavily into pressure, sometimes leaping into pressure. They can hurt you or themselves if you don’t explain personal space to them gradually and thoughtfully. For me, targeting was the perfect introduction to organizing your energy and motor patterns around the fragile human!
Here’s a short video of how very dynamic foals are at this age, to compare with her calm during her targeting session.

More structured body handling is appropriate and important for young foals as well. In this next video, Sara appears with her new foal, Isolde, demonstrating how to introduce body handling. Isolde is four days older than Rune and lives at Idle Moon Farm now. As you can see, Isolde is also at liberty and able to leave at any time.

Sara is helping Isolde become comfortable with being touched anywhere on her body, even a bit of a “hug” around her ribs that simulates a girthed up saddle later. If she wants to leave or the touch becomes uncomfortable, Isolde is free to express herself. We want horses that choose to interact with us because the lessons are enjoyable and interesting. Working at liberty ensures these foals can vote on their daily lesson. It’s information. If one of our foals votes no, it’s up to us as trainers to present the lesson in a new way. The learner is always right. At the end you notice Sara leaves while the lesson has been a great success and before Isolde becomes overstimulated by a too long work session.

New foals are open and curious. They expect the world to be interesting, safe and worth exploring. There are many natural tendencies they have, like touching with their noses, following human friends, and really valuing a good scratch that allow us to teach them so that lessons are easy and enjoyable. Training Rune so far has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. She is beautiful, curious, brave, intelligent and innocent. These are qualities to  protect and develop, things that should be enhanced through training, not dulled away. Approaching everything in small, split steps, teaching systematically and according to the individual foal’s comfort level allows these babies to prepare for their life ahead while enjoying every moment. It’s an approach that’s ethical, effective and gives you moments of feeling like Alec in The Black Stallion or Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon. The animal chooses you. There’s no greater honor.