Dragon offering his “hug” behavior

Obviously horses don’t hug one another like primates;)  However, I like to hug my horse and thought it would be nice if he knew how to hug back, so I decided to teach him using the clicker. I started with him putting his head over the fence and allowing me to hold his nose in place, c/r. Once he had that he naturally arched his neck a bit more and I slid my arm over his nose, c/r. Then I built duration by extending the time a few seconds or so that he left his head in the loop of my arm, c/r. And voila! I have a solid hug behavior that I now use everytime I leave the farm. I used to just throw a few treats in his bucket as I left, but now I can ask for a mutually reinforcing behavior and pay him for it.

Conversations under saddle

Dragon and I have been working on the ridden WWYLM game for the past three weeks, and the exercise has really opened up our “discussion” while riding as well as pointing out to me the flaws in my riding. The exercise is simple enough: ride your horse forward on the buckle while steering him only with your weight and your core. If  he deviates from the frame/guide provided from your body, pick up the rein with your buckle hand, slide your rein hand down the rein so it is taut between the two hands and anchor your hand to the saddle. When your horse offers a smooth turn, picking up your seatbones, click/reward and release.

Before this exercise, let’s just say Dragon wasn’t the most intuitive or sensitive horse when it came to my core/weight. But to be fair, I  de-sensitized him A LOT by not being precise enough in my riding in the last 4 months before I re-started him using the clicker. However, I can confidently say, he is now more tuned in under saddle then he has ever been in the past. He expects a constant conversation and is consistently relaxed with soft muscles and a long topline. For the first time he feels like the same thinking horse under saddle that he is on the ground.

As for me, this exercise has allowed me to practice engaging my core every time I treat my horse. I click, lean down to treat him, and think about “kneeling” – a great image from Mary Wanless to help riders sit correctly and open up their hip joints. As I sit back up I make sure to engage my core and “bear down”. Consequently I feel much much stronger in my seat and very connected to my horse. The repetition of the clicking and treating gives me a chance to check my physical sensation of whether or not my core is engaged over and over in a session, and at the walk where I have time to think about it. I love how this lesson serves both the horse and rider so completely. It also makes me completely aware of the moment he chooses to push through one of my legs with his barrel or loses track of my seatbones or , the opposite, when he is perfectly in tune with me. Click/reward.

Below is a short video of our progress:

Longe line, cantering and emotional control

I had a fabulous training session today with Dragon, the kind of session that is addictive and leaves you feeling like the world has offered you the best of itself. Moments like this:

Dragon has always been very excitable on the longe line – he gets emotional when he is asked to move quickly, as many horses do, is very large, so sometimes becomes “tangled up” in his body, which, historically has created a fair amount of frustration for him. I would say both of us felt we would have rather avoided the canter on the longe if we had the chance. We have been working intensively on emotional control lately, shaping for physical balance, relaxed muscles, and even tempo. I have been ignoring extreme flight reactions or overstimulation, asking quietly for a transition downward. No marking wild airborne behaviors or loss of emotional control with yelling or yanking. It is the opposite of what a lot of traditional trainers recommend, mainly, immediately stopping the horse when they “misbehave” to “delete” the flight response so the behavior is not practiced. I did try this for awhile, but stopping a 1300lb horse is not  very safe for the animal’s neck and spine, since it usually takes quite a bit of force. The other problem with this is the main reason for the “misbehavior” was usually tension or fear, and a forceful, physical stop only served to up that tension and cause worse departs than before. So I tried ignoring the emotional behavior, shaping for calm, relaxed movement and took two weeks off of cantering while we built up a calm history on the longe. And today was our second day back at cantering, and he was able to offer his first immediate departs (cantering immediately on cue) and the most emotional control he has had to date in that gait. Lovely.