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!

Let your horse be right

smile like you mean it

Yesterday when I went out to train Aesop I had a clear idea in my head about what I wanted the training session to look like. I was going to practice his increasingly solid “riding from the ground” skills outside, in his saddle, and then play with a bit of balance work in trot as a reward for good RFTG. He really loves to trot now that he knows he gets “paid” for it in treats and wants to offer it any time the chance arises.

When we got outside and into the training session, it was clear Aesop needed a different lesson than the one I had planned. I had planned on doing a training session where we would review what he had already learned and get in some nice repetitions of fairly stable behaviors. But his behaviors weren’t where I had left them. He had processed the go forward with someone at your side really well from our last lesson and was ready to offer it just when asked to bend or when I got near the side of the saddle. He was ready to show me what a good walk-off looks like and I had been so busy envisioning our fun trot work I was caught totally off-guard. Here’s a video of me caught by surprise and re-setting his walk off’s, which I had worked so hard for the last three training sessions:

To be clear, Aesop isn’t too conflicted about being re-set. He handles the information in stride and doesn’t get emotional or frustrated. It is an ok training choice that centers around getting stimulus control.But many other young horses would be frustrated or discouraged to be interrupted at this stage in their learning. To my small credit, I am clicking and treating these re-sets because I am at least aware they are new to him. But in my work, I am looking to let the horse be right. It’s not a natural way to look at things, and it takes practice. So how can I let him be right? I can let him walk off and click for either soft bend within the walk off or staying with me, both of which are criteria I will have in this exercise. That allows Aesop to have the right answer while I am still building skills we need for our future riding. Here’s a video of me with my changed criteria:

In this video you can see that Aesop leans down on his forehand and walks off when I ask him to bend. He’s not waiting for my breath cue against his side and he’s walking through my bend request. But instead of re-setting and blocking him, I just go with him, but I wait for him to raise his head a bit and bend more correctly before I release the rein and click/reward. He gets to be right and I get behavior that I want, too. I can go back in in a few sessions, once he’s really confident about walking off and work on stimulus control. It’s not important right now.

Aesop and IPart of what I love so much about training is the number of choices it presents at every moment. It’s both what is hard about training and what makes the training session such an infinite place to inhabit. It’s what confounds newer trainers and obsesses those who make it a life’s work. There are training mantras, though, that can help a trainer navigate their choices better. In this case, the mantra was: Let you horse be right.

How to watch a training session

Female animal trainer and leopard.

When people watch an animal trainer work it is normal for them to focus on the end result rather than the training process. We’re not taught animal training in school except on a very abstract level, maybe in psychology class, so most humans can watch an entire training session without understanding what they are really seeing. We get so caught up in the transformation from untouched to under saddle in the horse, or the calm of the trainer in the face of flying hooves that we don’t notice what the trainer is doing to get behavior change. We’re often impressed with a trainer’s bravery in the face of possible physical harm – so impressed that we value the trainer just for the spectacle and drama of their work. But when we identify just with the human component of the equation or the spectacle, we can forget to check in and see if the animal is happy and relaxed. We can forget the animal has valid feelings too and didn’t choose to be trained. The way a trainer achieves behavior change matters, especially if we put ourselves in the animal’s place. We now know animals experience emotion much the same as humans do. We are wholly responsible for the emotions we elicit in our horses through training. To me, a trainer’s oath  should be the same as a physician: First, do no harm: physically or emotionally.

There’s been a video circulating lately of some Argentinian trainers working with  unhandled horses. They’re using an unusual technique that we don’t see here in America and it’s causing all sorts of speculation about what might be going on between trainer and animal. If you look up the man, his son and the method online you can find a description of it here. To sum up:  The method is a unique approach to tame horses in the most natural manner with avoiding punishment and cruelty on these beautiful animals. It focuses on gaining the horse’s trust and loyalty. The basics of the training are to learn about the horse’s nature, behavior and psychology; the goal is to persuade the horse to do something in order for it to learn. In this type of breeding it’s not necessary to be strong, or have special skills; it is all about knowledge and patience. It sounds like a wonderful way to teach a horse, noble, even. Below is a video clip of the method in action. I want you to watch it and imagine you are a 1-2 year old horse learning about humans for the first time in your life: 

How would you feel? Would you feel like the humans in this video were trying to actively gain your trust? Your loyalty? Do you think this looks like a method that avoids punishment? Can fear or confusion be just as punishing as pain?

Here’s another video. Again, imagine yourself as the young horse involved in this training. I would recommend listening without sound as it’s hard for humans not to be influenced by verbal “explanations” of training even when they don’t match the reality presented observationally:

How would you feel as this young horse? Would this feel like a positive experience to you? Does the pen seem to offer freedom or restriction? How would you feel having a rope continually tossed at you? How would you feel being allowed to run off but made to run farther and faster for your caution as a flight animal?

One last video to review:

How would you feel as this young horse? Does he look trusting already? Does he look ready to be ridden? How stressed does he look once his owner/trainer gets on his back? Does this look like a positive experience?

If I had one gift I could give  horse owners, it would be to learn to watch training sessions with a good critical eye. If a trainer uses a method you aren’t familiar with, observe what they are doing to the animal and imagine how it would make you feel in their place. If that is hard for you, ask a friend to “train” you the same way you observed. That will clarify VERY fast how you feel about the method. It sounds funny but you’ll be amazed at the different emotions you feel as long as you take it seriously.

You don’t have to be an experienced trainer to know if certain training methods utilize discomfort, fear or threat to achieve results.  If we suspend our human-ness for a moment and imagine ourselves as the animals in these videos it’s easy to make decisions about how we would like to be treated. All animals, humans included, enjoy choice, rewards and low stress learning environments. The emotions an animal feels while being trained aren’t just fleeting things that disappear like smoke once the training session is over. They get attached to certain predictors like the sight of the trainer, the equipment used or the space used for training. This is Pavlovian conditioning and it happens whether we want it to or not. While you train your horse in what to do you are also training your horse how to feel. So learn to watch a training session not just for the results but for the emotion it brings up in the horse.

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.

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.

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.

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.