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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A new venture!

A new venture!

Aesop Patreon

Aesop and I both practicing being spellbound. Magic works both ways.

When I started writing Spellbound years ago, it was more of a way to hold myself accountable to regular work and to have an online journal available to me of my horses’ training. But, somewhere along the way it grew into something far larger and more universal. Now, Spellbound is a place where I share positive reinforcement concepts, training progressions and mechanical skills with a community of progressive horse people. I deeply enjoy putting together material; I learn a lot through it and I’m delighted when I learn something I’ve written has helped others find their way with their own horse. I want to spend more time creating material, but to do that, I need to find a way to be paid.
Luckily, there’s an amazing site called Patreon that allows people who are creating content to be paid monthly by their supporters. It’s a fairly new concept, but it works off of the old model of a patron who supported an artist. Except, rather than only one very rich patron, Patreon works off of many regular people pledging small amounts that add up to really substantial support. I’ve created a page for myself  and I’m hoping you will join me on my journey by pledging! I’ve set some serious goals for myself and for what I want to create.
In addition to monthly blogs, I will be rolling out monthly “Try this at home” videos that offer direct instruction to readers who would like to teach behaviors and concepts to their horses at home. These videos will pull directly from my blogs so that you can work on exercises that lay the foundation for or are the same as what I am working on here.
Long term, I am at work on a deep, foundation-level horse course. The course will combine essential skills with a deeper look into emotional thresholds and basic biomechanics. Positive reinforcement, understanding horse behavior and teaching correct biomechanics are the golden ring of a happy AND sound horse and I want to put them together for you, the way I wish they had been for me. Becoming a patron supports me on this quest!
I am so excited to be at this new and deeply creative stage in my life. With everyone’s support, I will be able to pursue this work long-term, moving toward longer and more enduring forms as well as diving more thoroughly into Spellbound itself. Thank you for being a reader and I hope to see you on my Patreon page!



Do you know how to measure your horse’s overall balance?

Last year I went to an incredible, multiple day biomechanics lecture series with Jillian Kreinbring of JK Inspired. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Jillian is both an academic and a practiced horsewoman. While pursuing her masters degree in equine movement, posture and muscle development at The University of Wisconsin Madison, Jillian studied with Dr. Hillary Clayton, Dr. Sara Wyche, Dr. Nancy Nicholson, as well as Dr. Deb Bennett. In her life as a trainer and rider, Jillian has studied with Peggy Cummings, Mark Russell, Stephanie Millham and Manolo Mendez, among many others. While it is difficult to parse out one piece of information from her lecture that was the most valuable, what was the most empowering for me  and a powerful baseline to begin the study of biomechanics with, was the concept of overall balance.

Horse people are forever debating over the correctness or lack of correctness of horses in movement, debating the conformation of horses standing still and debating the correctness of movement of videos of horses in training at home or competition. Ask ten people what they see and you will get ten different answers. Often, what I see written out in discussion is a very fragmented knowledge of movement and a fidelity to small, peripheral details that can’t ever explain or acknowledge the whole. People “know” toe-flicking is bad, nose behind the vertical is bad or a dropped back is bad. Or matching angles in the trot is good, head in front of the vertical is good and a raised back is good. But, often, we are looking from the edges into the center, rather from the center out to the edges. Really looking at a whole horse, their body and balance together is a huge subject and it’s hard. So, for lots of us, there are small things we know are healthy or unhealthy for the  horse, but the larger picture eludes us. Ask us to break it down and we find we can’t speak about it as clearly as we’d like. And this isn’t for no reason. Solid information is difficult to find. Many riding instructors and trainers can’t even tell you why certain postures are good or bad, just that they are. I remember watching the summer Olympics in 2000  and being so moved by the dressage and then wondering, “Who is moving the best? Who would I pick to win?” and the truth was, I had no idea. I didn’t have the criteria to make an informed choice. (Now of course, I don’t look to sport dressage for healthy, beautiful movement, but it illustrates my point.)

The particular beauty of biomechanics is that they aren’t subject to opinion. Biomechanics give us consistent landmarks we can use to understand how our horses are moving. They help us draw our maps of balance and to inform our work with our own horses regardless of our goals or individual discipline.

So let’s begin.

For starters, every horse has two general balances: their static balance and their dynamic balance. Their static balance is their balance when they are standing still and their dynamic balance is their balance when their body organizes into movement. Add a rider and the horse’s dynamic balance is influenced significantly.
Whether you are measuring your horse’s static balance or dynamic balance, you measure it the exact same way, by the relationship between two points on their spine; this value is your horse’s overall balance.
To measure your horse’s overall balance:  draw a straight line from cervical vertebrae 5 (c5) to the core of the lumbar-sacral joint, essentially, where the spine transitions from the low back into the sacrum. The slope of this line tells you how your horse carries his weight.
Let’s look at these two points on a real horse:

Hocus overall balance

Hocus Pocus: Measuring overall balance. He is basically level with the ground.

For a horse to be adept at carrying weight (a rider), you want your line to be no more than four inches off the horizontal, up or down. More than that and helping them organize into healthy movement is going to be more difficult. As you can see from the photo above, Hocus Pocus is a fairly level horse.

Below is a picture of another horse, whose overall balance is more downhill:

Downhill horse blog

The overall balance of this horse is more downhill. It will be harder for him to organize his body and carry a rider in a way that is not damaging for him.

Once you’ve assessed your horse’s static balance, then it’s time to get out the video camera and assess your horse’s overall balance when ridden. If you find your horse is even more downhill when you ride, don’t panic! It’s very common and once you know what you are looking at and looking for, you can begin to change. Let’s look at how Hocus Pocus was ridden before he came to Idle Moon Farm:

Hocus compressed spine

When you compare this picture of him in movement, you can see that his overall balance under a rider is more downhill than his overall balance when standing. Over time, this will cause wear and tear on his joints, atrophy his back muscles (already happened), make him more susceptible to injury and actually tighten his whole chest leaving less room for his heart and lungs. Let’s compare to his static balance picture.

Hocus static:poor ridden

A comparison of overall balance. Top: static, bottom:ridden.

Because Hocus was bumping into the bridle, he self-protected by dropping his back and pushing the base of his neck down into his chest, compressing his spine to avoid discomfort as much as possible. While he is still a work in progress, below is a photo of Hocus learning to carry himself in a new posture.

Hocus new ridden posture phase one

Although the line from his lumbar-sacral core to his C5 is still downhill, it’s now only about an inch downhill, rather than 4. Small improvements are cause for celebration: small changes rehearsed daily lead to large changes over time. Let’s compare this picture to his other ridden picture:

Hocus riding horse blog

A comparison of overall ridden balance. Old life, top. At Idle Moon, bottom. Notice the difference in the angle of the line.

He’s definitely improving, and that’s wonderful. But, because his back is still weak, riding is hard. Ideally, when I train Hocus, I can influence his posture to be more uphill than his overall balance when standing still. For him, this is only possible in-hand right now. So, that means, I work him primarily in-hand and ride once or twice a week for very short rides, stopping before he gets tired and finishing in-hand.

Hocus Elementary Balance

Hocus Pocus in elementary balance in-hand.

In this last photo, you can see that the line between C5 and the core of the LS joint is completely level; this is considered elementary balance. So, the overall balance in this picture is an elementary balance. Helping your horse into elementary balance in movement is a huge accomplishment and the first touchstone on the road to collection. Collection is something that happens in phases; this is phase one. Being strong enough to maintain an elementary balance through all three gaits, with a rider, could take anywhere from 3 months to a year, depending on the horse and his fitness. Since Hocus’s back was so atrophied when he came to me, he will spend this year working in elementary balance through all his gaits, until he is strong enough to lift from the base of his neck and maintain a healthier posture consistently. Learning to engage the muscles that make elementary balance possible takes time and repetition.We will work often in-hand and add in lateral work for flexibility and straightness.

When we understand how to measure overall balance using actual points on the horse’s spine, we can begin to build criteria for understanding healthy, weight-bearing movement. Without bony landmarks we can get stuck using outlines, old ideas or other peripheral information that is not sufficient to understand the whole of our horse. Most damage to horses is done inadvertently, but it is damage just the same. Moving forward into the 21st century with our horses, an understanding of healthy biomechanics and alignment is necessary in order to be true advocates for the animals we love.
To learn more about Jillian Kreinbring or attend one of her biomechanics lecture series, check out www.jilliankreinbringinspired.com

Constructional or Pathological uses of energy?

One of the basic tenets in my work is: “Don’t steal from the horse’s flight response.” It means that even though it’s easy to get a horse to move off at a trot or a canter by shaking a whip or tossing a line, it routes through an emotional system created for survival and I don’t utilize those systems (at least on purpose) when training. So I am learning to be creative and figuring out how to ask the horse for trot and canter in this new paradigm. With Tarot, I had to be a thousandfold more careful, because of his past learning. He had only experienced trot and canter in his previous life during a training scenario in two ways:

  1. When he bolted away in escape from handlers, hoof care professionals and his few times under saddle.
  2. When the farrier came and he was round-penned (forced to trot and canter) until he was so exhausted they were able to work on a few feet because he was too tired to resist. In essence, sustained, effortful movement was used to punish avoidance behavior.

For the last six years,  we have worked in the walk to avoid increasing his arousal and to avoid triggering memories of how afraid he used to be. Motor patterns, specific co-ordinations and postures are often classically conditioned with the emotional states that accompany them. In his past, his energy was used pathologically, meaning, his energy was used against him to induce exhaustion to prevent him from offering any behavior at all. In a sense, his energy expression was weaponized against him. In that way, people could handle his body despite his lack of consent. A constructive use of energy is to use it to empower the animal to run away if scared, allow them to grow stronger and more balanced and to teach them to move to earn primary reinforcers, extrinsic or intrinsic. I was very worried that all expressions of increased energy over a walk had been poisoned by his history. But, I also knew that before we really began ridden work in earnest, it was important he develop a new relationship to his energy. Before it’s safe or wise to ride, I have to know Tarot can walk and trot during training sessions and stay calm, focused and engaged. There is no question 12512602_10208694618141799_2268299414118397881_n.jpgthat he already experiences movement for the joy of it  in the pasture. He trots, canters, rears, leaps and gallops up and down his lane, playing with the geldings in the adjacent lane.  But my job was to change the  old conditioning of movement around people from negative to positive. This was a completely discrete scenario.

This last fall, as we worked in the arena more and more and he became increasingly comfortable, he began to offer a really open and free walk with a lot of energy. I could feel that the trot was just below the surface, but I knew that the way I suggested trot to him would have to be with the utmost consideration..

I chose mirroring.

Horses mirror each other all the time, naturally. Just watch a herd of horses running and watch how they all turn at the exact same moment, no one so much as touching a hair on the other. Their sensitivity to each other’s movement is exquisite. Through our in-hand and liberty work, Tarot has been reinforced for mirroring movement with me over and over. It wasn’t out of line to assume he could make changes to his own gait based on changes I made in my body. The first time I tried, I brought my energy (and my knees) up way too high and he stopped short, threw his head in the air and snorted. Ok, too much. I re-established the energetic walk on a high rate of reinforcement and tried again. This time I rolled my shoulders forward, leaned my torso a bit out over my feet and “fell” foot to foot in a trot on my forehand. Presto! After a brief head shake, Tarot moved into a quiet, cadenced trot by my side. Click! He watched me with a touch of vigilance, but was able to

Tarot trot.jpg

Me falling on my forehand and Tarot offering trot.

offer trot four more times that session. After that, trot was definitely on the table. He took the step that many of my horses do which was to begin offering trot all the time, even uncued. Of course, I accepted and reinforced it. Movement is good for him and offered movement is a sure sign the behavior is under the control of positive reinforcement.

A few weeks later, after some time off, Tarot and I went hiking in the huge farm field behind our barn. I really had no expectations beside exploring in the snow and getting some healthy exercise together. But Tarot had learned trot was a behavior that paid off. Over and over, as long as the footing was good he offered trot. Loose, in a field with no equipment he chose to hike with me and to offer the behavior he had learned in the arena. In the video below, you can see us heading toward home, Tarot trotting next to me, confident and relaxed. Movement as a road to reinforcement, constructional. The switch had flipped, quite quickly.

I no longer imagine there are any real limits with Tarot. There is only the time I am able to put in, the thoughtfulness of my plan and observation, and the reinforcement history we have built together. We are doing things together today that four years ago were a clear impossibility. It’s the long game, changing old responses by layering in skill after skill. You have to look at every aspect of your horse’s behavior. Assess their comfort. If they aren’t comfortable, go back. Go back. Go back. Teach another behavior to deepen their comfort, then another. Encircle the horse’s tension with roads to relaxation.This deep, detailed work is, for me, both a daily apology for the way humans have failed to listen to horses and a dazzling meditation on subtle emotional thresholds. I can go to Tarot and say,”Is this real magic or just an an illusion?” And he will laugh and gallop away or stay and join in the conversation. Real magic always yields engagement.


Magic Aladdin's Genie lamp on black with smokeWhen I named Djinn, I had no idea how completely she would embody her name. I like to name my horses so that they can be represented by one simple symbol, a charm I can hold in my hand. For Djinn, that symbol is a little brass lamp, the same as you would see in a movie about a genie. When I met her, I knew she felt magical and I knew there was something in her that was a little dark. Not dangerous, not evil, but bound up. The name came to me: Djinn, and I knew it was her name. But it was only an intuition.


Djinn looking unsure in our early days.

I trained Djinn in protective contact longer than any other horse I’ve had. I spent four months teaching her skills and refining her understanding, but the first time I entered the pen with her all her thresholds changed and she felt largely untutored. She had two very established behaviors when she initially came to the farm: bite when confused or frustrated, and rush forward with physical force when excited. Those were the behaviors she was most likely to choose and would pop out throughout her training. She remembered the new lessons I had taught her and was able to do most of them, but in the pen with her, I was able to feel how very superficial those lessons really were. Such a thin coat of varnish over the whole of her rough nature.

I would train her intensively for two or three months and then I would give her a few months off. I had to be really vigilant in order to keep safe when I worked with her.  Leading her felt like having a lurching train on a string. I often felt a fizzing in the pit of my stomach while I worked with her, warning me to stay mindful. She didn’t mean any harm, really, she just had so much trouble controlling her emotions. She had been captured as yearling and lived in the mustang holding pens for two years before I adopted her. So her exposure to man-made environments was very limited. She had inhabited one large, flat pen with a huge herd of same-sex, same-age horses and they had stood around and ate for a few years straight. Her emotional flexibility was incredibly low and her capacity to absorb any motivational conflict was non-existent. She had not learned to handle complexity, fear, or excitement and had been only in peripheral relationship to humans. But, worse than all of these details was the feeling that she was absent emotionally. She would perform behaviors but she always felt flat and only partially available. After three years, I accepted her completely for who she was and stopped waiting for her to change. I was ok if she only wanted to be a pasture pet. I considered changing her name to something softer, Black Bear, powerful and connected to the earth.
But when I fed her, and spoke to her, I knew she was still Djinn. Every few months I would take her out and work her for a few weeks, and assess where she was. People even asked me if I still had her.
This spring, just shy of our fourth year together, something shifted. I brought her out to work and let her free to graze as I usually do, to allow her to get a little grass in her belly, a good buffer for the grain we use in training. But instead of grazing, she would take a bite or two, pull her head up and walk over to me, waiting quietly with her head near my chest. Not biting, not mugging, a learned quiet that she was offering as a bid to begin our training session. How surprising. How gentle. Every time I took her out she was the same. Calm. Engaged. Thoughtful. Each time I would marvel at how amazing she was that day and think to myself, “Well, this was unreal but I’m sure she’ll be back to herself tomorrow.”
Except, she only got better. More open. More present. More thoughtful in her responses. Safe. Relaxed. By the seventh or twelfth session of the same horse meeting me, I started to believe in this new version of Djinn. She had been a horse I would only take out when my working student, Erin, was around just in case something happened and I got hurt. One day, I realized she was the first horse I was thinking of in the morning and the first horse I got out, even when no one else was home on the farm.


Everything culminated with a training session that left me speechless. I took her out to the arena to work on her education in the cavesson, playing at the mounting block and general “arena games” in a relaxed preparation for riding. Previous to this she had been very safe, accurate in her responses, but she lacked a bit of “sparkle”. She offered me trot in that session and was deeply emotionally engaged, joyful and so present that I could barely keep up mentally with this being who had so much to offer. She trotted off in-hand in the cavesson, balancing between the reins with energy bubbling up from her feet. I felt a tidal wave of emotion in my chest. It was exactly as if you had lived with a roommate for years who was very quiet and non-communicative, flat, and came home to find them at the table with a fabulous dinner set out for you, candles lit, smiling and full of fascinating conversation. Djinn was unbound, larger than life, granting wishes faster than I could gather them in my hands.

14650139_10207421245144581_6456256727645004794_n.jpgI could speculate endlessly about reinforcement histories, repetition, maturity and all the myriad factors that came together for Djinn to be who she suddenly is today. The truth is all of my horses have become pretty spectacular partners at the four year mark, but none of them have made such a sudden and vast leap. Which, when you think about it, is exactly like Djinn all along, to leap wholeheartedly into our conversation, the same way she used to leap away.

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.

Sistine and Faa

Kill pen photo 1The first time I saw Sistine and Faa, mare #9668 and foal #9669, I had a full three days of students scheduled, lots of chores to finish and a very tight schedule. I was taking a quick coffee break and scrolling through my Facebook feed when I saw a photo of a skeletal mustang mare and her foal in the Kaufman Kill Pen in Texas. Unfortunately, there are lots of starving horses these days. Between the drought out west and the economy still struggling to recover, the issue is on the rise. I wish hungry horses were uncommon, but they aren’t. Normally, I look, but scroll past. But something in this mare’s face, huge against her emaciated frame, had spoken to me. Even starving, she was beautiful. She had a foal at her side, still bright and new, and a quiet resignation in her eyes that humbled me. She was stoic. I saw in her face that she would go to her death without complaint. She was young too, only five, so she would go to her death prematurely, a book that had never even been opened. In her I saw beauty, grace and calm acceptance and I wanted to know how those things would look lit from within. If this was how she looked in utter neglect, left to die, how magnificent would she be fully empowered? She felt like one of our herd and I wanted her to come home.
Safe at Shelby'sWithin a whirlwind twenty-four hours I purchased the mare and foal or “bailed” them out, called on our local and phenomenal animal community who generously raised enough money to cover their transport from Texas to Wisconsin, and found a local farm in Texas willing both to pick them up from the pen and to provide them with a thirty day quarantine and weight gain program. Mare #9668 and foal #9669 would be coming home to Idle Moon.

Here’s the truth: I don’t know what happened in their lives to cause them to end up where they did, starving, in a kill pen waiting for a truck to Mexico. I only know they were owned by a man who breeds draft horses, who sold them as a pair to another buyer in August. After that, things obviously went downhill. But what I did know was this: I would assume nothing about their past. We would start over, fresh. They needed names. I named the mare Sistine for the Sistine Chapel. Something ancient, something holy, something neglected that was later restored. Something now considered a beautiful work of art.

The foal we named Faa, after the King of the Gypsies from The Golden Compass. He’s bright and golden and will be big enough to pull a gypsy wagon when he reaches maturity.

Once they arrived here, it was clear their new names fit the shape of their souls. Faa is social and brave and follows any human at all in order to solicit scratches. Sistine is quiet and observant and when I get close to her during feeding time, I can feel her disappear deep inside her body. In these observations are our beginnings. When humans adopt a brand new horse, or dog or child, even, it’s natural and healthy for us to have dreams about what the relationship will be like. Those dreams and stories we tell are part of how we commit to the process and they say much more about who we are, full of hope and able to imagine new beginnings, then they do about the animals we bring home, who do not imagine or dream of distant futures. Of course I dream of Sistine, completely healthy, full of muscle and using her body as elegantly and expressively under saddle as the ceiling of the chapel for which she is named was painted. But today she is just a very skinny mustang mare who doesn’t yet know what to expect of me. Today, in small moments, I will begin to shape her perception of me, her perception of herself toward my dream which I hope will become a common dream.

What is most important for her to learn?

1) I am a source of reinforcement
To be interested in me, to be motivated to learn from me, Sistine must perceive me as a source or reinforcement. I feed her numerous times daily, so this is given. Each time I appear with food, I become associated with the positive emotions the food elicits. This also begins to build our social relationship.

2) Sistine can control “bonus” reinforcers through her behavior
Consequences maintain behavior. In order for Sistine to feel motivated to offer behavior, she must feel like she can gain access to reinforcers as a consequence of her behavior, i.e., a handful of grass pellets for walking next to me.

Sistine's first schoolThat’s it. Those are the only two concepts that I need to present to Sistine in order for us to start forging our working relationship. The easiest way to begin her “training”, then, is to set up a very simple contingency where she is sure to succeed because the behaviors I am going to be looking to reinforce are behaviors I have already observed in her repertoire in relation to me, ie, she already does them while I’m there. It’s too grand for me to consider teaching her something novel. I want these first sessions to be easy for her, very low stress and to predict a very high rate of reinforcement. What have I observed that she can do reliably? She always follows me at a walk just behind my shoulder when I walk into paddock with food. Here’s a video of our first training session together:

In one sense, I’m not teaching her any new behavior at all. She already knows how to walk forward on her own, and it’s something she does four times a day when I walk into her area to give her her food. But I am teaching her a new consequence when it comes to humans. If you move forward when I do, bring your body into motion, I will reach into my treat pouch and offer you some grass pellets. Your behavior affects your environment.

Sistine learning food deliveryRight now, there is a lot Sistine needs to learn for her own well-being. She is afraid of being haltered so she can’t be led on a rope out of her paddock, yet. She has a bit of a clubbed foot on her left front leg and will need a few years of remedial hoof care plus shoulder stretches to help balance her out. She could use a good brushing. But those skills will come.  Without taking the time to introduce her to the idea that she can control reinforcers through her behavior, without letting her confirm that expectation day after day, she won’t be as persistent of a learner. She might shut down, or panic. So, first, I draw her out and allow her to feel successful through easy contingencies that she can fulfill. This is the fun, easy part, watching her begin to light up again. We are building the subtle underpainting that will allow everything later to glow.

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.

Allow your horse to be a masterpiece

When I adopted Aesop, I was looking for a horse who could be a good teacher. He appeared open, calm and, just as  important, he had rather flat movement. I didn’t want a horse who was terribly athletic if I was considering teaching more novice riders on his back. He was safe, kind and limited in his scope.  Dragon, my big, flashy Friesian cross, embodied athleticism, sparkle and presence in my mind. Without knowing it, I had assigned Aesop to an “understudy’ position.
Late this fall, Dragon injured his sacroiliac joint in the pasture. It’s a deep injury, and a re-injury from an incident that happened to him when he was only three. Suddenly, I was faced with a year long rehabilitation program and Aesop being my principal riding horse. But I didn’t want to ride an understudy. I wanted to ride a star.

Unintentionally, I had set Aesop up for less than spectacular performance because I had different expectations of him than Dragon. Once those expectations became conscious, they were easy to alter. Every day when I got him out of the pasture, I would say, “This might be the most talented horse I will ever work with in my life.” It set the stage and it gave my subconscious a goal: to look for excellence. It’s a fun thing to say, too. There’s some good research on how powerfully expectations influence our learners. It is commonly known as the “Pygmalion effect”, or, the greater the expectation placed upon a learner, the better they tend to perform. I had always assumed Dragon would be nothing less than larger than life, but I didn’t know that that expectation sucked space to grow from all my other horses. Robert Rosenthal, a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, says,“Expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students, they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes, they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect a certain response from their research subjects, they tend to get it.”  My high school art teacher told me once that I should treat every new drawing I start with the care I would afford a masterpiece. It was good advice then, and it’s the expectation I take to Aesop now. This horse might be the most talented, brilliant horse I ever teach. I approach him like a masterpiece. Not a lesson horse, but a schoolmaster-to-be.

This is Aesop when he first started to trot in hand, about two years ago:

To say he was an energy conserver would be an understatement. I still remember trying to get him to move from a walk to a trot in hand. I would open my hips, lengthen my own stride, march, dance. Nope, nothing. But why would you want to add energy? I work in a positive paradigm, so I don’t use whips or any traditional sort of ways to goose or startle my horse forward. Finally, I figured out that if we walked toward the green grass I could get two or three flat but willing trot strides. I would click and reinforce by allowing a short graze time. Any time at all he decided to trot, I clicked and reinforced him. His self-containment was safe and made for easy handling, but definitely was not the material from which masterpieces are made. Look at him:  he had school horse written all over him. Quiet, calm, on the forehand. It was hard to imagine a future Aesop as elegant, strong and athletic. Subconsciously, I let that shape me.

Nuno Oliveira said, “Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.” People write a lot about being content with little and rewarding greatly, but all three describe one contingency. Know what you want and ask for it frequently, be content with a reasonable approximation for where your horse is in the work, and click and reinforce! As I moved into this new territory, I became more thoughtful about what I wanted from Aesop. I began to ask for more energy very consistently. I began to ask for one or two strides of better and better balance, using his whole body more correctly. I paid deep attention to whether or not he leaned on my hand even a few ounces and made sure to re-set him so he could know my criteria exactly. I released him completely into his own balance and clicked him for maintaining engagement. Guess what? He could do all of it. It wasn’t that my expectations had been horribly low, I had been teaching him fairly intensively all along. I just hadn’t asked for the pieces that really help a horse sparkle. A real lift from the base of the neck, coming promptly onto a point of contact and balancing above it with real precision. Our conversations had not been detailed enough. Here is what Aesop looks like now that I treat him like he is made of moons and stars and the shining rings of Saturn:

To be clear, he had a very solid foundation and most of the component pieces for this in place. But it wasn’t until I started to envision him as a star instead of an understudy that he really began to change. When a horse lifts up next to you, voluntarily, and trots beside you in balance while you walk, a horse who used to fall heavily from step to step and lean on the rein, you feel gravity disappear. They seem less clear, the laws that bind us. Because really, it’s all in our imagination.