How to create a training session: part one

First ride of spring

Happy after our session.

I’ve had numerous conversations lately about how to structure a good training session. While the initial mechanical skills of training are fairly simple to learn or be coached through, the larger picture of structuring a session is more complex. In The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle, he discusses hard skills versus soft skills. Hard skills or “high precision skills are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time.” In horse training, hard skills would be: click/treat order, treat hand remaining still between dispensing rewards, skilled rope and rein handling, and consistent and intentional body language on the ground and in the saddle.  Hard skills can and should be  learned from a live coach, if possible. They are finite and very measurable; they form the foundation of your skill set as a trainer.

Aesop rein mechanics

Using the rein to ask the shoulders to move over.

But, as you master your hard skills and move from working your horse in lessons to teaching him by yourself, you will need to have more soft skills so you can create useful training sessions for your horse. Soft skills are about flexibility, recognizing and creating patterns, breaking patterns when necessary, reading situations and adjusting accordingly. Soft skills are both what guide you in making a training plan and help you change that training plan in the moment so your horse can be successful. Soft skills are harder to learn because they are very subjective to the individual horse and learning situation. Keeping notes about each training session, being aware and responsive to your horse’s body language during training and videotaping yourself while your train for review later are all practices that will help you develop your own soft skills. They take time. So where to begin if you are just getting started?

Aesop on his mat

Aesop standing on his mat offering bend.

Kay Laurence, a talented dog trainer who runs “learning about dogs” differentiates between a teaching session and a training session. A teaching session is a short session where the entire time is devoted to teaching the horse one new behavior.  You will still be shaping or using successive approximations, but your focus will be on teaching your learner just one behavior or motor pattern. Teaching sessions are necessary and, in the early stages of training, make up a majority of your sessions. Think of your teaching sessions as installing the foundation or component skills of your horse’s program. You will use these components in more complex sessions later.

Aesop- rftg, right

Maintaining our line (duration).

Training sessions are focused practice where you will work on multiple behaviors in one session, usually toward a larger unified goal. Initially,  you should work on  moving smoothly between repetitions of your component skills. Even very advanced  training  sessions are made up of component skills, they’ve just been layered skillfully together. If your horse knows two foundation behaviors, you could do five repetitions of the first behavior and then five repetitions of the second behavior, clicking and treating for each repetition. The larger goal is just to teach your horse emotional flexibility in moving between different skills and to teach yourself how to gracefully transition between multiple subjects in one lesson. Make sure you can do this simpler training exercise before biting off something more complex. If you aren’t sure what component skills your horse should have, a coach or trainer can help you identify and teach those individual pieces.

Below, I have  video of Aesop, my 2007 BLM mustang gelding in a more layered training session preparing him for riding. I’ve listed the component skills we utilized so  you can watch for them as they come up. All of these are behaviors I will click and reinforce:

  • bend to the inside from a balanced slide down the rein
  • go forward from slight touch on your side (my ribcage)
  • bring your shoulders toward me from an opening slide down the inside rein
  • move your shoulders over and away from me from a lift on the inside rein
  • maintain your line once started unless another cue is give (duration)
  • stand on a mat
  • offer bend when standing still
  • target poll to fingers when raised above head
  • trot on a verbal cue

Combined together, these component skills add up to a horse who understands the cues needed to be responsive under saddle. He knows how to respond in multiple ways to the rein, how to use my body as a target, how to stop and stand quietly and how to offer the beginnings of softness. He’s ready to be ridden. In part two, I will explain and detail how to set up a training session to transfer these cues to a novel situation – riding!

The Golden Bridle

Pegasus in the golden bridleIn Greek mythology the magical winged horse, Pegasus, can only be tamed with a golden bridle. Bellerophon needs Pegasus to slay the Chimera and he spends months trying to catch him but he is unsuccessful. Finally he prays to the gods for help and he is instructed to sleep in the Temple of Athena. While he sleeps he dreams Athena visits him and tells him how to find Pegasus at the well where he drinks and gives him golden bridle that will allow him to ride Pegasus. When Bellerophon wakes up there is a golden bridle by his side and he knows the dream was real. He finds the well Athena described and captures Pegasus when he kneels down to drink by pushing the bridle over his head. Once the bridle is on Pegasus is beholden to Bellerophon’s will.

I like this myth because I think it plainly describes how much stock humans put in equipment. If we just have the right bridle, the right bit, the right caveson then our horse will be beholden to our will and our training issues will be solved. But the truth is equipment is only as good as the training that accompanies it. A bridle is a powerful tool, but horses learn how to respond to a bridle. You have to teach them. Golden bridles aren’t gifted by the gods, they are built by good training.

Since I will be riding Aesop in the spring again, I want to teach him how to work in a french riding caveson. This is work that can and should be taught from the ground. Here’s a video of Aesop’s first lesson learning how to be “ridden from the ground.”:

In the video you see Sara working with three different cues. Can you stand still while I lift my rein and wait for more information? Click/Reward. When I slide down the rein can you soften to me? Click/Reward. When I breathe in so my rib cage touches your side like my leg will once I am mounted can you walk off? Click/Reward.

It’s important to teach your horse rein cues before you get on so that you have a reliable language at your disposal. Horses have a blind spot directly behind them so they can’t see us once we are on their backs. We literally disappear from view. For many horses, that means they lose all of the visual training language they have built with their human once riding begins. Stressful, to say the least! I don’t want Aesop to be struggling to understand me once I am on his back. I want him to be confident about what is being asked of him and enjoying our training time. So I’m taking the time to teach him rein and tactile cues from the ground. Here’s our second session in the arena:

We are doing the same exercise you see in the first video. Can you stand still while I lift the reins? Click/Reward. Can you soften to me when I slide down the rein? Click/Reward. Can you walk off when you feel pressure on your side? Click/Reward. He’s overbending a bit when I slide down the rein but that is something that I can progressively shape to be smaller and smaller. He’s trying and that’s good. He is a bit confused about pressure on his side being a cue to walk off, especially because I have always walked off up by his head. I’m asking him to move off first AND from a new cue. That’s hard. But the video shows his best and lightest attempt. For his second session he’s doing a wonderful job.

Even if there was a magic golden bridle I could get by worshipping the right gods, I wouldn’t be interested. When Bellerophon removes the golden bridle, Pegasus flies away and Bellerophon spends the rest of his days searching for the horse. To me it’s a cautionary tale: Don’t let your equipment take the place of good communication with your horse. Take the time to teach your horse what he needs to know so you are bound by relationship and a common language.

Djinn’s hoof handling

snowflakeIt’s been a cold and snowy winter so I’ve been locked in the house doing far less horse training than I wish. Today alone the temperature might not climb above 0. I have to content myself with short sessions when it’s warm enough to train without freezing but I’m dreaming of green, long grass and daylight that stretches well into the evening hours. When it’s been warm enough I’ve continued to work on hoof handling with Djinn so we can get that skill set mastered this winter. Then, in spring we can move on to more exciting things like introducing her to the arena, walks on property and starting balance work.

Djinn isn’t a horse who has ever worried about her body being touched, which is a nice change of pace for me from my other mustangs. She has yet to be reactive to any touch, grooming or space. She likes touch and she feels generally safe around people. She came to me this way, likely because she was captured as a yearling, and spent so much time in close proximity to humans who fed her vast quantities of alfalfa and carrots. In fact, she was so trusting that she might push you right over on her way to do something else. So, we’ve done a lot of work around moving forward and back on the lead, keeping her head to herself and how to stand quietly. She has done beautifully with that work and it was time to move on to hoof care.

Most humans don’t properly understand how vulnerable a horse is when they offer their foot to you. As a prey animal flight is their safety. A held foot is a trap on a very basic level. As humans who think conceptually and big picture we instinctively scoff at this idea. We know that we are only picking up our horses feet to clean them out or teach them how to be relaxed for a trim. But how many of you have seen a horse with a leg trapped in a fence thrash and fight like their life depended on it? Relaxed foot handling is learned. It’s not natural but it can be taught fairly easily. The video below shows Djinn’s third session with her feet being held:

I had already taught Djinn to pick up her foot off a soft touch of the whip on her leg and to hold it up in the air with duration on her own. She could do this on a verbal cue “foot” so I felt confident changing to my hand cupping her foot instead of my whip against her fetlock. She didn’t seem too nervous about me holding her foot, but she did take her face off to the outside, which is a low level sign of discomfort. I hold the foot quietly, make sure I’m not adding tension to the situation by making sure I have a loose lead rope and I click her AND release her foot when she brings her face back to the center of her chest. There are two rewards here: the food – which is a bonus reward –  and giving her back her foot- which is a  functional reward. A good trainer is always aware of both. After several good repetitions I let her walk off and move her feet. Standing still is hard, especially for a young horse so I don’t want to take advantage of  her good behavior by asking for too many repetitions.
I stop her in the same place to work on her right side. She is less confident on her right and needs a gentle tactile cue of my sliding my hand down her leg to give her the idea of lifting her hoof. Since just getting her to lift the hoof was more difficult, I’m not going to be greedy and hold onto it too. Once her lift on the right is as immediate and easy as her lift on the left, I’ll raise my criteria and hold onto the hoof.

Djinn is a far cry from the emotional, barging, biting mare she was when she first arrived here from the BLM last summer. She came here unafraid of people but also unable to receive information from people. She didn’t know how to be directed. She was always frustrated and impatient and pushing for what she wanted. She has relaxed and become quite calm now that she understands how to look to her human training partner for cues. She’s starting to seem much more like the grown-up 4 year old she soon will be than the immature 3 year old she was when she arrived here.

New habits for an older mustang

Tarot's eyeWhen I decided to purchase my mustang stallion, Tarot, I knew I had a long road in front of me. He had been in one home for each year he was captive. That made for six different homes before he finally made it to our farm. I knew he was what most people call a project and I wanted what he had to teach me. He was eleven years old and had yet to meet a human who could teach him what they wanted him to learn.

Things like walking up to be haltered, being fly sprayed in the summer, accepting a saddle without exploding and being led without bolting. But Tarot’s biggest issue from his past is allowing foot handling. He has a long history of kicking people that picked up his back feet but also of pulling away and being very uncomfortable with any of his feet being picked up, cleaned or trimmed. Most people just gave up and let them grow because he was dangerous or unpredictable when his feet were handled. It was uncomfortable for everyone. One of his past homes had a trainer out to help him learn to be handled but he took the “cooperate or run” approach. If Tarot kicked he made him run. Eventually Tarot would give in out of sheer exhaustion and they would get a few feet done, not always all four on the same day. It worked as a method outwardly,  he did  surrender his foot, but  Tarot never learned to be more open to having his feet handled. Instead he learned when a human reaches for your hoof they are likely to turn unpredictable, demanding and obsessive. Hoof care for Tarot is deeply poisoned. It’s also our winter project.

It is infinitely easier to teach a behavior correctly from the beginning than to teach a new response in place of an undesirable one. Once a neural pathway has been mapped it can’t be erased. You can only build a new one and help the learner choose it over and over and over until that pathway becomes the habit. It sounds kind of simple but in practice it’s not so easy. That’s why I love my untouched mustangs so much, they are blank slates waiting for good information. Tarot has already been “programmed”, so to speak, and it is up to me to avoid the expression of those old responses while teaching something new. Learning can be bound up in a tactile sensation, which is unfortunate, because picking up feet can’t happen without some touch at least once you get down to cleaning out feet or actually trimming them. So how to approach the subject with him?

One of my favorite writers, Jeanette Winterson, writes, “Jung argued that a conflict can never be resolved on the level at which it arises – at that level there is only a winner and loser, not a reconciliation. The conflict must be got above – like seeing a storm from higher ground.”

I started out by teaching Tarot to target his knee to the end of a whip. Whips are something he isn’t afraid of – I guess there aren’t a lot of cowboys with whips – and more importantly, whips aren’t hands. I wanted to teach him to pick up his own foot and hold it up with a verbal cue. I wanted to split out the layers for him and just start with the subject, “Can you pick up your foot with a human near you?” instead of, “can you pick up your foot and surrender control of it to me?”  Staying outside the depth of the conflict and above the storm. Here’s a video of where we are starting from today:

I have already faded the whip to just a finger point, mostly because I am incredibly clumsy walking with it by my side in the slippery snow. So my cue for the foot lift is to say the word “foot”, switch my lead to my left hand and point to his knee. When he raises his foot I drop my hand and I click when he seems relaxed. I’m not working on teaching him to pick up his feet, he knows how to do that now. I’m working on building relaxation like bedrock into the skill. The foot lift is the motion but the relaxation within it is the goal.

How do you speak to a horse about relaxation? You need both a clear training language and good listening skills. Tarot has to have the freedom to refuse my requests and the safety to express his conflict or anger without punishment. I have to know how to stay safe and non-reactive myself when he is upset. I need to be able to read small expressions of conflict/tension so I can see how well he is handling the work and make adjustments accordingly. I also need not just a “yes” answer (the click), but a “that was spectacular” answer so he can more easily understand the work. Right now, any foot offer without any tail swish or head raise is clickable. But sometimes he kicks his foot backs when he goes to set it down because he is tense and frustrated. I have already clicked so I am going to feed him because I don’t want to seem unreliable. But, when he softly offers his foot and lowers his head and sets it down softly he gets a click and treat and a chance to do a few nose targets. The nose targets are an easy behavior where he is sure to earn reinforcers and they offer the functional reward of a break from focusing on his feet.

Here’s a video of his right side where he is significantly less comfortable:


Here you see he is unable to lift his foot without extreme tail swishing/tail wringing. This tail movement shows how conflicted he is about me being on his right side and asking for his feet. He also leans his head and neck off to the left which is another conflict behavior he offers when he is uncomfortable and thinking about leaving. In it’s extreme form Tarot would spin away and present his hindquarters to me in a kick threat. He also is hurriedly offering me feet over and over even though I haven’t even said the cue or changed my lead rope to my inside hand. I’ve found with my mustangs when they are still nervous about their feet they offer them quickly and often instead of waiting to be cued. I’m not going to fuss about stimulus control when I am working on relaxation. So what to do? My rule of thumb is if he can’t offer a quiet response I will feed him for any foot lifting response despite the conflict he is showing. If he can eat he will begin to relax. So even though he is full of angst I feed him for each and every time his foot is in the air regardless of his emotional state. I do make a few mistakes because I was surprised at the level of conflict he displayed and had to change my plan on the spot. I should have just reached in my pouch and began feeding him immediately, sans click, the moment his foot left the ground. This is called counter-conditioning. Once he is able to offer a more relaxed response, then I will click that response and ask him to target as a reward. That response will become my new criteria. He raises the bar on his own at his own pace. By the seventh(!) repetition he offers a relaxed foot lift with no tail swish. I click, reward him with an opportunity to target my hand, and go back to his left side to give him the ultimate functional reward of leaving his right side.

You can’t force relaxation, you have to draw it out like a shy animal. You create the conditions for it to exist.

Constellations and Dressage

centaur constellationSince I was sixteen years old I wanted to learn dressage. I dreamt of  seamless communication with my horse and “invisible aids” so light we would seem like one creature instead of two.  I collected shelves and shelves of dressage books with beautiful pictures of horses moving correctly, enviably, but none of them really explained how to begin the work. They were more like beautiful picture museums of correct movement. I took years of lessons from different trainers, some better than others, one who even had grand prix level horses. But learning to teach a horse about their own body and balance is a completely different skill set than learning the mechanics of riding an already trained horse. It’s endlessly complex work. And as Mary Wanless  points out, “The map is not the territory”. Reading about a skill, having an intellectual understanding of how to slide down the rein or ask for a give of the jaw is not the same thing as having the kinesthetic feel available and familiar to you in your body. Dressage is multiple skill sets that come together to form a whole.

I remember one day in particular taking a dressage lesson on my Friesian cross, Dragon, years ago. We were trying to make a 20 meter circle to the right at the trot and he kept falling in on his right shoulder. My instructor wanted me to lift my right rein to block his shoulder and apply my right leg to “hold him on the circle”. The more I lifted my rein and insisted with my leg the more we spiraled into the circle and the more frustrated both of us became. In his confusion he trotted faster and faster and swished his tail as I provided a heavy right rein to lean against. Recognizing complete disorganization, I asked him to halt. My instructor and I agreed I should get off as he was so upset and the entire situation felt volatile. Of course it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know how to balance his shoulders more upright from a suggestion on the rein. When he was falling on his inside shoulder he wasn’t actually capable of responding to my leg by altering his balance either. I didn’t even know then exactly what was wrong. I just knew my aids weren’t working and everything felt impossible.

The groundwork I have done with Dragon using Alexandra Kurland’s program has enhanced both my and Dragon’s body awareness immeasurably. To say he is a different horse might be an understatement.  I’m certain he would say I am a different handler. He has learned that he has shoulders and how to balance them upright through the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game. He learned the beginning of lateral work through the same exercise. I learned how to ask for jaw flexions on the ground and he learned how to soften throughout his body and be “on the bit”. He has learned to step under with his hip from a slight lift of my rein and he moves in a lovely, soft bend. All of these things transferred directly from our groundwork to ridden work.
He is quiet, concentrated and soft under saddle. Willing to accompany me into this deep study.
I feel that just now I am starting my journey of being a true rider. I’ve ridden since I was 9 years old but I was just an enamored passenger then. Now I am learning the same fine motor control I am asking of my horse so we can explore the foundation and outer edges of  balance, together. I was riding three to five times a week until the snow came and  during this time I had a major breakthrough in my own kinesthetic feel. Kinesthetic feels or physical skills are right brained and therefore implicitly wordless. But our right brain is visual so descriptions of  feel are possible through metaphor.

riding breakthrough dayI was riding in my tiny indoor arena ten days ago. I usually speak out loud about what I am asking for in each moment since it keeps me focused on actively riding and is a good way to see how well Dragon and I are really working together. There are so many body parts to remain aware of between human and horse and, as I suspect is true for most riders,  as my awareness of one body part grows I often lose track of the rest of my body. It fades away to the background. But this ride was different. As I said to Dragon, ” Soften your jaw to me and bend left” it was as if my hand that slid down the rein to request the bend lit up with awareness. Next I rotated my left thighbone and weighted my right seatbone to ask him to move to the wall and stay beneath me and each of them lit up too, softly glowing. He moved, perfectly bent, utterly soft moving off my thigh and coming under my seatbone to pick me up. Lastly, I organized my outside rein to receive his engagement and my right hand lit up. We moved together down the long side of the arena balanced over and under multiple points of contact and for the first time in my life I held an easy awareness of each point of contact simultaneously. No one point glared in the foreground. Nothing faded away. I was a constellation made of individual glowing stars but forming a whole. We were luminous, a living star chart that could change at any moment to describe a new movement, one seatbone dimming to black as I weighted the other to ask him onto the circle. For the first time in my life I consciously rode the whole horse at once. This is what I dreamed of when I was young. A  language delicate and nuanced as starlight.

Aesop’s third ride

Natalie and Aesop in the snowLast week Natalie was able to come out and help me with Aesop a few times, so he had his first two “walk-offs” under a rider. He had a bit of trouble at first bringing his hind legs along with the front of  him but he learned how to organize his body fairly quickly. He even had a training session in the snow last Sunday. It was a little slippery but very beautiful. He was relaxed, too, despite the drastic change in scenery and change in footing. Here’s a short clip of our ride in the snow:

You might notice that we spend just as much time standing still as we do walking. Whatever you reinforce over and over in a session becomes a “hot” behavior or a target behavior for the learner. It’s important  Aesop learns from the very beginning that both walking with a rider and standing quietly with a rider is clickable. To make this easy for him, Natalie asks Aesop for “the grown ups are talking” after each click and treat for quiet, balanced walk-offs. “Grown ups” is one of Alex’s six foundation exercises and something Aesop has known from very early on in his clicker education. This way his training remains balanced and he is not eagerly rushing off without checking in to see what his handler/rider wants. It makes for safe, relaxed horses.

Today we were able to have our third session and in good weather so we worked for longer and refined some of the pieces. Here’s the complete video of our second trial today. Our first one was good, this one is just a bit better:

In this video Aesop is doing a pattern that already familiar to him. He is working “Why would you leave me?” or WWYLM on a cone circle. In WWYLM you ask the horse to walk with you on a circle and to stay bent to you. In the beginning it’s basically loose lead walking for a horse. But it also teaches them about the beginning of bend and how to hold their shoulders upright and eventually, lateral work. Each time he is clicked for walking next to Natalie bent on the circle we stop and she folds her hands to cue him for “grown ups”. We stay in this pattern until the third click for being on the circle at which point Natalie uses her food delivery to turn him around. This way he gets to practice walking in both directions as well as turning under the weight of a rider. Aesop is relaxed and able to offer as good of work under a rider as without which means his training is going at an appropriate pace.

Just because Aesop is doing so well with Natalie at his head and me on doesn’t mean he is ready to be ridden without her. What we are doing right now is essentially habituating him to the feel of a rider while he does familiar work with a ground person. Getting used to the feel of weight. Before we ride off without a header, I still need to transfer the visual cues I have on the ground to tactile cues to be used in the saddle. Most importantly: go forward and stop or whoa. I also need to make sure that Aesop knows how to stretch backward to get food from me when I am on his back. Once I have all of those pieces in place we will be able to ride off without a ground person. Transferring those cues will make up the bulk of our winter lessons and by spring he will have the component pieces of a real riding horse.
I am deeply pleased with how easy this transition has been for him and how operant he has remained throughout this whole process. He’s the kind of horse that feels like a gift from the horse gods – an animal who is calm and relaxed and engaged in all of the puzzles I set out for him.

Djinn: early winter update

Djinn and FIgSince Djinn has joined the other mares in their pasture I have been giving her time just to be a horse and  to enjoy getting to know her new equine friends. I was a little worried about how she would acclimate given the “discerning” temperaments of her pasture mates, but her social skills proved so charming that our head mare, Fig, actually grooms her.
Now that she has settled in I’m going back in to refine what we worked on over the summer and add in some new pieces.

Djinn is very claustrophobic in any indoor space and tends to panic and race around. Instead of forcing her over threshold and into a flight response, I’m working on the foundation leading skills she needs to stay calm outside so they are available to us once we go inside. It is a learned skill to be able to identify what skill set your horse needs to cope with a new situation. In this case, Djinn and I need a few skills available to us to help her calm down inside. Most crucial are: 1) back up, 2) the grown-ups are talking, 3) head-down and 4) giving her hip. All of these skills involve slowing down her energy and allowing me to direct her energy into a still, relaxed place. Once these skills feel fluid and 100% available to me outside we will start walking into the lean-to for short sessions and walking back out. Here’s a short video showing us moving between walking forward, asking for the hip, backing up and head down:

In the video you’ll see she is still not completely light and responsive about giving her hip and we both pull on each other a little as she tries to adjust to the request. Ideally my requests will be light as a feather before we go inside. She does a good job offering her hip, though, and I am able to release and click. I only ask for one step of her hip right now and then move on to other skills since it is hard for her. In a few weeks it will be more smooth and I will be able to ask for more steps. Even though I only need it as a last resort if she gets really excited, I still want her to have an active understanding of the behavior so I don’t scare her by changing her balance. People take the hip forcibly all the time. It’s not what I want to do with my horse and especially this horse.

In the rest of the video you see me moving between a few steps of back up and refining her head-down behavior. She’s a bit of a ‘yo-yo” on her head down but it’s almost stabilized to a true head lowering after just a few sessions. Overall, a nice start.

Another skill we are working on is ground-tieing when being groomed. When I first take my horses into the barn, I like for them to understand that they should stand totally still when grooming. It’s safer than using the cross-ties right away and once they are ready for the cross-ties they have already been standing still so long that it’s really not a big deal. Djinn’s cue for ground-tieing is her lead rope draped over her back. Below is a short video showing how relaxed and still she is now:

She does great but at the end of the video you get to see me make a huge mistake! What is it? I invite her to walk off without first removing her lead rope from her back. Oops.
Djinn is doing a good job learning her lessons and settling in. She’s a young horse so I don’t expect too much of her. We have time to establish her foundation and ages before I’m worried about riding her. What matters is that she is relaxed, content and properly educated. So far, so good!

Aesop becomes a riding horse

Aesop after the first time I sat on himLast week I sat on Aesop for the first time. He has been calm and relaxed in his work and it felt like time to start adding in more of the component pieces for  riding. There’s a whole lot of pieces that contribute to a great riding horse, that’s why it’s so easy for horses to end up with holes or gaps in their training. To say your foundation is everything would be an understatement. Right now I am working on several different pieces with the goal of him being a relaxed, basic riding horse by spring.
One of the pieces is teaching him to stand quietly at the mounting block. Another is to be comfortable with “fiddling” with  both equipment and my body near and on his. Most people make sure to de-sensitize their horse to flapping equipment and legs thrown over their rumps and backs – you see a ton of that work in competitions like Road to the Horse where the trainer basically only has time to desensitize the horse to everything possible in order to make them safe.
A third piece is to teach Aesop how to move in balance so he can carry me well once I get on him. Horses have to learn how to carry the extra weight of a human. We unbalance them when we get on, so it’s our responsibility to teach them how to organize their body in order to move well and stay sound. In this video I work with all three pieces:

In the video you see Aesop standing comfortably at the mounting block. He understands the blue block is a cue to stand still and he also understands to bring his lower back to my hand. I reach my hand up to his wither as he comes forward and click when he targets his back to my hand. Just last week he was swishing his tail here and there when I touched his back, so I knew there was still some conflict in the behavior. This week there was no tail swishing. Hooray for increased relaxation! Once he is at the block I play around with leaning on him, throwing my leg over him and in general just being busy over his body. All the while I am watching him so I can click for relaxed behavior. One of his “yes answers” is just a small give of the jaw on the side I am working on. He offers this all the time when grooming and now he offers it when I am on the mounting block as well. I know he is relaxed and thinking when he offers that behavior so I was very excited to see him offering it in a new context.

In the video below you’ll see me sit on Aesop. I’ve sat on him once before and he was very unsure about my weight. The whole of him wobbled like a toy. Unfortunately I didn’t have a third person to video on that day.  The clip you’ll see here is the first time I sat on him in this session and he was already much more confident and balanced.

The first few times when I sit on a horse I have my header person feed continually. I’m not concerned about looking for operant behavior and I’m not assuming the horse will be able to offer anything. I want the horse to have a very favorable first impression of that strange weight on his back and to be too busy eating to do anything but stand quietly. If he is unable to eat or shows no interest in the food I also know I am in trouble and need to get off and do more prep work. So the food has multiple functions and serves as a barometer of the horse’s emotional state. Aesop has no trouble eating in this clip and he feels MUCH more balanced and stable beneath me.

Here’s mount up trial #2 in the same training session:

In this trial he is obviously so relaxed that I ask my header to stop feeding continuously and wait to see if he offers one of his default behaviors. He easily offers a give of his poll so I click those. It’s hard to see because of the camera angle but at 1:22 you can pretty clearly see him offer a give. So when do we introduce walking off? For me, he will be ready to walk off when I get on and he immediately offers a default give of the jaw or poll. That will show me he is relaxed and operant and his flight system is not engaged in the slightest.

Next week I plan to walk off with him on a circle asking him for the same balance I ask for on the ground in-hand. I will have my header, Natalie, to support us and set us up for success. It’s exciting to realize this level of trust and education with a formerly wild horse and it’s also bittersweet. I remember when he was totally naive, fresh off the trailer, and how my only dream was just to be allowed to touch him. My boy is growing up.

Component skills for trailer loading

Last week my friend Natalie came over to train her horse, Harrison, in our arena. He loaded up into the trailer easily on the way over, but once he was done training he just wasn’t confident he wanted to get back in. He would walk up to the opening but once he got close enough to load his feet were frozen. Any pressure on the lead, even very light, was too much pressure. He would tense up and back away to a “safe zone”.  Like many many horses the world over, Harrison was likely pressured or tricked onto a trailer other times in his life. While strong pressure might work in the moment, it poisons the lead rope in the future. It’s no longer available as a tool.
Forty five patient minutes later, Natalie got Harrison on the trailer through patience and clicking for leans forward and back. Trailer loading was definitely on her training list for the week. We want to have her over at least every Sunday to train and it will be much more fun for all involved if her horse loads calmly and easily. Luckily, Natalie had already taught Harrison an exercise that contained the component parts needed for trailer loading. So once she got home, she planned out a new exercise to combine the skills he already had with the presence of the trailer to create great trailer loading.
Last year Natalie had worked with Harrison so that she could move any foot she chose forward or back just with a small cue on her lead. Harrison was having trouble standing square and to teach him how to stand in balance she needed to be able to influence his feet. We call this skill “needle-pointing”.
She also taught him to stand on a mat. The mat has a myriad of uses, but in this case the mat is used to reward Harrison for doing a particularly accurate or light job moving his feet. It is doubly rewarding as Natalie has the mat placed away from the trailer. For a horse who is still nervous about the trailer, getting to move away from it is a functional reward.

In the video you will see Natalie is walking on a cone circle with her trailer parked on the edge. This video is the second day she’s worked on this so we join her a bit further into the process. Originally, she worked on moving Harrison’s feet forward and back, or needle-pointing, out on the edge of the circle and then would go to the mat as a reward. When they would get to the point on the the circle where Harrison was facing the trailer and in the orientation to load, but further away, she would click him and then just feed him over and over for being near the trailer. It wasn’t dependent on Harrison’s behavior because it was counter-conditioning, or:  if you are near the scary trailer you get lots of good food! It’s an easy way to get relaxation in a situation that was previously worrisome. When we join her in this video she is further in her process and beginning to ask Harrison for his needle-pointing when he is approaching the trailer. She alternates those reps with needle-pointing out on the circle to keep the session light. She doesn’t fall into the normal trap of most humans, which involves making the situation to difficult too quickly and then being angry that she failed. She listens to her horse and progresses when he feels as light and engaged near the trailer as he does when he is working out on the circle.

Once Harrison is relaxed and responsive with mobilized feet near the trailer, Natalie decides to request that those feet move forward onto the trailer. Watch their fancy footwork here:

You can see that he is ready to get in the trailer because he puts his foot up right as he reaches the trailer. She immediately asks for another foot and gets it with no hesitation. If you turn up the volume you can hear her calling out what foot she is asking for next so you can watch for it. Basically she continues needle-pointing Harrison but this time he is on the trailer. She wants to make sure her forward and back still work despite the “change of scenery”. If they don’t she will know her horse is tense and to go back to the last step in the exercise where he was relaxed and able to offer all feet in all directions. From time to time she backs him out to give him a break and on his best attempt she surprises him with sliced apples in the trailer. Because of the two small pull backs he offers despite an otherwise lovely session, Natalie decided not to ask for back feet in the trailer in this session. She understood he had some small reservations left, and understands the fastest way to fix trailer loading issues is slowly.

The last video is of Harrison loading fluently into the trailer because of his mastery of smaller component skills.

Here you see Natalie halter Harrison in his pasture and walk him directly onto the trailer, no warm-up required. Once in he stands calmly and quietly and then is able to move one foot at a time when asked. This a good indicator of relaxation. You will hear Natalie say “drop” when he is at the edge of the trailer and about to take a step down. This way he isn’t surprised by the drop-off. Once he is out she releases him to go trot to his mat as a reward. Fun and easy for horse and human!

The component skills for trailer loading are just foundation lessons. Natalie has taken time building a gorgeous foundation for this horse and it shows.
The foundation lessons involved here are: go forward, back up, and stand on a mat. She combined those into the more refined skill of needle-pointing each individual foot and then added in classical counter-conditioning near the trailer for emotional relaxation. Harrison knows exactly what she wants from him and is happy to offer it. It is such elegant training I wanted to share it with you!

Aesop starts to grow up

Since Aesop has been coming along so well in his foundation lessons, it’s time to start thinking about riding. While I’m never in a hurry to ride my horses, I love preparing them for under saddle work and developing them as confident, willing and balanced partners. It’s especially satisfying to see my mustangs progress from unhandled wild horses to educated tame horses.
I’m certainly not the first person to successfully blanket and saddle a horse but seeing them in their tack for the first time is always such a thrill. I made videos of Aesop’s first time seeing and wearing a saddle blanket. It’s not exciting at all as he accepts it with his typical lack of concern and full consent. But his relaxation is lovely as is his ability to remain operant in a new situation. He offers his typical neck arch or slight inside bend or head lowering to show his relaxation and earn his click. This isn’t cued or prompted, he just offers and I accept.

Here’s the video showing his first time with his saddle blanket:

And to be equal, here’s his right side:

It would be easy with a horse like him to move very quickly through the progression without really confirming what he knows. I don’t want to rush because “Aesop is always relaxed” and then find I’ve failed to build a solid foundation in a distracting or stressful situation.  He deserves thorough preparation, the same as I would offer any other horse.