Djinn: week one

Last week Friday, Djinn, my new black mustang mare arrived from California. I had been in love with her since last October when I saw a picture of her in a BLM internet auction. She is solid black with no white markings. Something about her called to me and when I found myself still thinking of her this spring I decided to adopt her. This is the picture that I fell in love with:

  When I imagined working with her, I imagined an experience similar to  my other mustangs, Aesop and Tarot. Both were cautious horses who needed lots of time and incremental steps just to feel comfortable with approach and touch. I was looking forward to the exactness and subtlety of the work of taming. It’s work I really enjoy.

You can imagine my surprise when both my transporter, Rick, and the BLM contact who helped me through my adoption process called to let me know how friendly my mare was and that she approached and let both of them scratch her on the shoulder. I was a bit incredulous and double-checked with the BLM that no one works with the horses at the corrals and they assured me they do not. Regardless, Djinn is very social, actively interested in people and was obviously hand fed by someone.  She was also captured as a yearling so she was much younger than my other two when she left the wild. The work I have to do with her is completely different from what I pictured. She is open, curious, tactile, beautiful and intelligent. She is exactly the horse I needed at this moment in time.

Here’s a video showing her investigating our farm cats the first day she got here:

Djinn loves touch and lets you touch/scratch over her entire body while stretching out her neck and wiggling her lips around. It would be easy to assume because she feels so tame that she will also know how to cooperate and interpret human requests. But she is completely un-educated. It is up to me to teach her the skills she will need to be an extraordinary companion. I don’t want her just to get by. I want her to thrive.

I decided I would train her every day for the first hundred days in my own version of “Extreme Mustang Makeover”.  The mustang challenge or makeover is a contest where trainers receive an unhandled mustang and have 90 days to train the mustang for a competition to determine the best trained horse and win cash prizes. I’m not a fan of time limits in any training situation since the pressure often leads  goal-oriented humans to make bad choices for their animal. But I am interested to see exactly how far Djinn and I get together in a hundred days. A clicker trainer’s mustang challenge. I will update weekly on her progress with video.

I quickly realized I would need to be able to ask her to move back out of my space if I was going to go into her pen. She is curious and forward and I didn’t want to end up with a 900 lb untutored horse in my lap. So after teaching her to target on days 1 and 2, I taught her how to move forward and most importantly, back, on day three. Here’s a short video of Djinn learning to move forward and back using her target:

Smart girl! On day four Djinn started to get a little grabby and over-eager about the food so I decided to teach her a default leave-it when food was in my hand or on my body. This means if I am holding food she should take her head AWAY from the food and down to the ground and wait for me to dispense it to the ground. It’s one of her first lessons in impulse control and she does a really good job.

Djinn would be an easy horse to get in trouble with if you were just learning positive reinforcement as a method. She is motivated and brave and like all new learners is more easily frustrated. It’s really important that I go to her with a training plan that addresses all the behaviors that are likely to crop up. I need to anticipate what she needs to learn so she can offer clickable behaviors and feel like learning isn’t too stressful or hard. I don’t want either of us to feel confused or unsafe.

If you are wondering what on earth a Djinn is:

A Djinn is a supernatural being that, like humans, can be good, evil or benevolent. In myth, Djinn’s can take many forms, human or animal, and are created from smokeless fire. They are fabled to be the energy behind magic tricks and the spirit that gives information to the fortune teller. Djinns or Djinnis are also the spirits who were trapped in enchanted lamps or bottles by magicians and sorcerors. If you rubbed the lamp they would appear and grant you three wishes. If one of your wishes was to set them free, they would become yours alone.

I invite you to share my journey with this playful magical spirit, Djinn.

Teaching Aesop to love hoof care

I’ve had a few conversations lately with several different friends about the range of experiences their animals have had with animal professionals like veterinarians and hoof care specialists. Even as an animal professional myself it can feel scary to trust my horse or dog to someone else’s care who might not have the same ethics or awareness of body language that I do. Both the horse and dog world are still works in progress.  Empathetic handling is not always a consideration. Behavioral health often takes a back seat to “getting the job done.” This is a particular concern when it comes to mustangs. Aesop was wild until he was four years old. He’s only known a few humans, and the first few chased him around with flags and acted unpredictably. There wasn’t time for a relationship. Unlike many domestic horses, he is not automatically trusting of new humans. It is critical that he forms a positive opinion of as many new people as possible. It is critical that he views humans as safe, since he’s known so few. It’s my job to advocate for him.

The first step in advocating for your horse (dog, bird, newt) is teaching them the skill set they will need for their procedure ahead of time. You don’t want the first time the equine podiatrist comes out to be the first time your horse has their feet picked up and held for longer periods of time. Alexandra Kurland has a saying: ” If you haven’t gone through an active teaching process to teach your animal a behavior, don’t expect to get it on a consistent basis. ” Basically, don’t leave it up to luck;) Making sure your horse is comfortable in the cross ties, can lift all four feet and hold them in different positions, is comfortable with a rasp and is comfortable with a “new” person handling him is the bare minimum for a hoof trim. Standing still and balancing on three legs are skills too, passive though they might seem.

When my  new trimmer, Autumn, came out the first time I completely underestimated how afraid Aesop would be of someone new. He and I work together a lot but  since we aren’t at a boarding barn there’s not many new people to get to know. Aesop was terrified of being touched by anyone at all, including me,  with the new strange people in his barn. Oops! Autumn was kind enough to set up appointments with me every Monday so she could come out and handle Aesop and he could get used to her at his own pace. She’s been out three times now and he is getting really comfortable with her. It helps immensely that Autumn is relaxed and open to new ideas and has learned the “clicker game” very quickly. Here’s a (long) video of Autumn and Aesop working together today:

The video is a little bit like watching paint dry and that’s the point. If we go slowly, listen to our horses and progress only when their body language indicates comfort, the whole process of introducing new people and procedures can be relatively stress free. Once or twice in the video you will see Aesop raise his head, stiffen or just turn away toward the windows. Those are micro-expressions of stress/fear in him. When he expresses those signals, Autumn moves back to the last point in the procedure where he was comfortable. Once his muscles are soft again and his head is straight and low, we know we have the green light to move on to the next step. He even starts to offer his foot once he is sure of what we want.

It’s a new concept for animals to participate in their own care. In the past, the definition of success was “nothing happened”. But I don’t want horses who don’t move a muscle because they are terrified of the consequences. I want horses who show me through a drop of their head, offering of their foot or nice deep sigh how complicit they are in their handling. Aesop didn’t ask to be rounded up and brought into my world; it’s my responsibility to make his experience comfortable, safe and fun.

It takes the time it takes…

When I first re-started Dragon using the clicker all I was focused on was making sure he was relaxed and obedient. I had made some large mistakes in his early clicker training by not understanding what a good foundation was, not understanding proper food delivery and not understanding stimulus control. Once I realized I needed to cover all of those variables and went back in Dragon’s training to help him understand those concepts he became very calm, focused and rideable. I wasn’t concerned with his balance or carriage at that time. I just wanted a safe horse who would stand quietly at the mounting block, listen to the cues his rider offered and be emotionally calm under saddle. It’s a good place to start for any horse and rider, certainly. Here’s a short video of our first Why Would You Leave Me under saddle:

In the video you can see that although he is calm and relaxed, his balance leaves a lot to be desired. He is heavy on his forehand with his head nearly to his knees and his hocks strung way out behind him. On the other hand, he is doing a great job of learning to target my seatbones as a guide and staying between the channel of my legs. When he doesn’t, I slide down the rein and ask him to move back under my seatbones and click! when he stays there on his own. On the day that video was made, I was thrilled with my smart, relaxed horse. Looking at it today, I’m glad I didn’t know as much about balance as I know now. But he needed to learn about using my body for direction before we could talk more in-depth about the way he carries his body.

Over the last two years Dragon and I have moved from basic foundation exercises to more intermediate work. We’ve done a ton of ground work where he has learned to use my body as a target, tons of work on circles where he has learned to bend and take a bit more weight onto his hind end, and lots of jaw gives which allow him to go onto the bit and start to use his body more correctly. Two years sounds like a long time but learning to use your body in a completely new way and then strengthen those muscles is a process that can’t be rushed. Unlike “modern dressage” we are not doing this work on contact. That means I am asking Dragon for a certain bend or head elevation and I am asking him to hold that posture on his own. He doesn’t have reins to lean on so he has to build his own correct muscle and truly understand the process, not just passively allow himself to be molded. This way I know he is in true self-carriage. I’m learning the process as well, which makes it a touch slower.  Here’s a video of our ride today where we were working on jaw gives and bend while following my seatbones:

My whole life I wanted to learn dressage. I read myriad books, took infinite lessons and still I was left not understanding the whole picture or how to influence my horse so he could learn to carry himself more athletically. It is a difficult discipline even for a supremely talented rider, and often those who do it best are unable to articulate it to others. It is only through following the work in The Click That Teaches by Alexandra Kurland that I finally am learning how to help my horse balance and how to use my own body to teach him. We are finally moving toward the dream of a centaur, not on heavy restrictive contact, but lightly, together.

Starting a horse : clicker-style

This spring my partner Sara’s horse, Fig, turns seven. Fig was unstarted when Sara bought her two years ago and they’ve spent this time getting to know one another and building a solid foundation of clicker lessons. Fig is Sara’s first horse and they are taking their time. As they have progressed in their work from basic emotional control to more subtle work, Fig has become increasingly thoughtful, attentive and controlled. It feels like time to think about riding.

What does this mean?  It means that Fig is able to offer learned behaviors even when the environment changes or is scary. It means Fig is much more centered and calm than she was even a year ago, able to handle maneuvering her body in tight spaces, being asked to stop even when she would rather go and finds listening to Sara reinforcing. She has both learned the behaviors necessary for a safe riding horse and demonstrated she can follow guidance offered from a human partner in a tight situation.

Here’s a video of Sara and Fig’s latest lesson:

In this video, you see that Fig is working in her bridle. Sara first picks up the rein. If Fig stays attentive and doesn’t walk off, click/treat. Once she picks up the rein, she will slide her inside hand down and ask Fig to give at the jaw, click/treat. If she can do both of these things without walking off (receive information about how to move off without rushing or emotionally running away) then Sara breathes in deeply so her side touches Fig where Sara’s leg will once she is mounted. When Fig moves off on this cue, click/treat. If she moves off before this, you will see Sara slide her hand down the inside rein and pivot to face Fig, asking her to ‘re-set’ and back-up. It’s important for Fig and any riding horse to be able to make a mistake and not be upset if she is re-set or told to look for another answer. If Fig looks to the outside of the circle, Sara slides her hand down the rein and waits for Fig to give at the jaw again, asking her to remain on the circle without constant contact as a reminder, click/treat.

While they are walking together on the circle, Fig is using Sara’s body as a target. We literally want her “in front of the leg” just like a horse would be under saddle – not lagging behind and not rushing away without regard for where Sara is in relation to her. This way, Fig already understands the concept of Sara’s body being  a guide for her, as her seatbones and legs will be under saddle. So far it looks like a pretty nice ride!

But how about the mounting block? It’s important to make sure your horse understands how to stand still at the mounting block and is ok with pressure on their back and the sight of you up over their head. Here, Fig is bareback, but she shows she understands the concept of lining up to the mounting block and offering her back to Sara.

Notice that Fig is free to walk off but chooses to stay at the mounting block because of a solid reinforcement history. This allows the mounting block behavior to become a “barometer” of whether or not to get on your horse. Since it was introduced as a fun game and is something Fig enjoys, if she won’t line up or moves off we can guess she is sore, not feeling well or having a bad day. This is good information to have and information we want with all horses, but with a green horse, especially. This week Fig will practice the mounting block saddled, to get used to stirrups being pulled and weighted and the feel of a saddle shifting on her back.

So what’s left? Sara needs to confirm all her bridle cues at the trot and practice all her work saddled with stirrups flapping. Alexandra has a saying, “When your horse is ready, he will invite you onto his back.” I love that saying because I see so much early work that is more like, “If you think you can get away with it with only minor injury, do it.” Riding should be a partnership from the very start and it’s our responsibility to provide the good foundation. I think Sara has done a great job!