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.

New habits for an older mustang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Aesop’s third ride

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

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

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

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

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

Djinn: early winter update

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aesop becomes a riding horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tarot’s card

The eighth card in the Tarot deck is Strength. It’s a picture of a woman with a lion, closing his mouth with her bare hands. The card represents complete mindfulness. Being so aware, non-reactive and intentional that even a lion would do your bidding because of your clean, clear energy. Every action is thoughtful and peaceful with this card. It is one of the cards tacked above Tarot’s stall  as a directive, a reminder. Patience, gentleness, self-awareness.

It will be two years this December since Tarot came to live on our farm. When he first arrived he was so fearful that he didn’t even want me to touch him. He wanted the food I was offering during training but he preferred if I didn’t reach for him. Here’s a short video during our first month of training that shows how cautious he was:

You can see how he froze, raised his head and then backed up if I left my hand on him too long. The funny thing is, I clearly remember thinking after this particular session  “Wow! He did really well today!”

I have taken my time with him. I am fully aware that the things he needs to work on most, like foot handling, are the things he has had the most negative experiences with with every other human in his life. I knew he would need to find me different and our work interesting and enjoyable if we were ever going to trust one another. As of last summer I still did not feel like we had a real bond. I felt like he put up with me but that he did not trust or love me. I spent a lot of time hand grazing him and mulling over what true responsibility to him looked like.  And then, one day, there was a shift. I don’t even remember what it was that signaled our new agreement. I just know that now he whinnies to me when he sees me, chortles, even. He will canter from the end of his pasture to meet me. He will leave grass to come and play the “clicker game.”
On June 12th I wrote:  “Things are shaking loose in Tarot’s soul. Something has crossed over in him in just the past few days. He’s here. He’s actively engaged, interested in the process and starting to OPEN. Before there was only caution and varying degrees of fear. But now a whole horse is appearing. I begin to believe he will be happy, unconflicted and a true partner. The alchemy of the training is what I love most. Suddenly, this transformation. Joy.”
Here’s a video showing Tarot playing a mounting block game with me. He is at liberty and wearing no equipment. It’s all his choice:

I love this video because you can see how relaxed he’s become with touch. Moving past this horse’s jaw was something that took at least  4 months because he was so protective of his body. He would always back up so he could keep you directly in front of him. He did it so much that backing up became a punisher for me. But because I stayed patient, mindful and gentle – because I asked him to move forward a hundred thousand times and reinforced him each time, he has begun to trust me. Our work is far from over, I know, but we have entered a new realm. It is only now we are ready to start working on deeper issues like his back feet and strange smelling sprays that disturb him to his soul. There is a favorite quote of mine from Lilla Watson, an aboriginal woman, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” The mindfulness he teaches me, the wisdom of card number eight, is as healing for me as it is necessary for him. My liberation is bound with his, we are bound together.