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.

Component skills for trailer loading

Last week my friend Natalie came over to train her horse, Harrison, in our arena. He loaded up into the trailer easily on the way over, but once he was done training he just wasn’t confident he wanted to get back in. He would walk up to the opening but once he got close enough to load his feet were frozen. Any pressure on the lead, even very light, was too much pressure. He would tense up and back away to a “safe zone”.  Like many many horses the world over, Harrison was likely pressured or tricked onto a trailer other times in his life. While strong pressure might work in the moment, it poisons the lead rope in the future. It’s no longer available as a tool.
Forty five patient minutes later, Natalie got Harrison on the trailer through patience and clicking for leans forward and back. Trailer loading was definitely on her training list for the week. We want to have her over at least every Sunday to train and it will be much more fun for all involved if her horse loads calmly and easily. Luckily, Natalie had already taught Harrison an exercise that contained the component parts needed for trailer loading. So once she got home, she planned out a new exercise to combine the skills he already had with the presence of the trailer to create great trailer loading.
Last year Natalie had worked with Harrison so that she could move any foot she chose forward or back just with a small cue on her lead. Harrison was having trouble standing square and to teach him how to stand in balance she needed to be able to influence his feet. We call this skill “needle-pointing”.
She also taught him to stand on a mat. The mat has a myriad of uses, but in this case the mat is used to reward Harrison for doing a particularly accurate or light job moving his feet. It is doubly rewarding as Natalie has the mat placed away from the trailer. For a horse who is still nervous about the trailer, getting to move away from it is a functional reward.

In the video you will see Natalie is walking on a cone circle with her trailer parked on the edge. This video is the second day she’s worked on this so we join her a bit further into the process. Originally, she worked on moving Harrison’s feet forward and back, or needle-pointing, out on the edge of the circle and then would go to the mat as a reward. When they would get to the point on the the circle where Harrison was facing the trailer and in the orientation to load, but further away, she would click him and then just feed him over and over for being near the trailer. It wasn’t dependent on Harrison’s behavior because it was counter-conditioning, or:  if you are near the scary trailer you get lots of good food! It’s an easy way to get relaxation in a situation that was previously worrisome. When we join her in this video she is further in her process and beginning to ask Harrison for his needle-pointing when he is approaching the trailer. She alternates those reps with needle-pointing out on the circle to keep the session light. She doesn’t fall into the normal trap of most humans, which involves making the situation to difficult too quickly and then being angry that she failed. She listens to her horse and progresses when he feels as light and engaged near the trailer as he does when he is working out on the circle.

Once Harrison is relaxed and responsive with mobilized feet near the trailer, Natalie decides to request that those feet move forward onto the trailer. Watch their fancy footwork here:

You can see that he is ready to get in the trailer because he puts his foot up right as he reaches the trailer. She immediately asks for another foot and gets it with no hesitation. If you turn up the volume you can hear her calling out what foot she is asking for next so you can watch for it. Basically she continues needle-pointing Harrison but this time he is on the trailer. She wants to make sure her forward and back still work despite the “change of scenery”. If they don’t she will know her horse is tense and to go back to the last step in the exercise where he was relaxed and able to offer all feet in all directions. From time to time she backs him out to give him a break and on his best attempt she surprises him with sliced apples in the trailer. Because of the two small pull backs he offers despite an otherwise lovely session, Natalie decided not to ask for back feet in the trailer in this session. She understood he had some small reservations left, and understands the fastest way to fix trailer loading issues is slowly.

The last video is of Harrison loading fluently into the trailer because of his mastery of smaller component skills.

Here you see Natalie halter Harrison in his pasture and walk him directly onto the trailer, no warm-up required. Once in he stands calmly and quietly and then is able to move one foot at a time when asked. This a good indicator of relaxation. You will hear Natalie say “drop” when he is at the edge of the trailer and about to take a step down. This way he isn’t surprised by the drop-off. Once he is out she releases him to go trot to his mat as a reward. Fun and easy for horse and human!

The component skills for trailer loading are just foundation lessons. Natalie has taken time building a gorgeous foundation for this horse and it shows.
The foundation lessons involved here are: go forward, back up, and stand on a mat. She combined those into the more refined skill of needle-pointing each individual foot and then added in classical counter-conditioning near the trailer for emotional relaxation. Harrison knows exactly what she wants from him and is happy to offer it. It is such elegant training I wanted to share it with you!

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 and the veterinarian

One of the most stressful aspects of being a guardian for a horse like Tarot is his fear of anyone who isn’t me. Discomfort with new people isn’t unusual with mustangs in their first six months to a year as a newly tame horse, but most of them become comfortable as they meet more people and have positive experiences with them. Unfortunately for Tarot, many of the unfamiliar farriers, vets and trainers he met in his old life mistook his fear for “bad behavior” and punished him when he panicked. His old owner even told me that she had to dismiss more than a few professionals when they became angry that they couldn’t control him. He experienced a lot of unpredictable and punishing behavior from people. A large part of my responsibility to him is to teach him the skills he needs to be a domestic horse and to help him trust new people. I also need to make sure the new people I expose him to act in a way that he finds trustworthy. No pressure!
For now Tarot needs to be sedated to have his feet trimmed since that is a process that has been deeply poisoned for him. But he has also been extremely nervous about the brief but intimidating contact needed to inject a sedative into his jugular vein. He was terrified of the vet getting in close and touching his body. Once, as she moved in close to touch him, he even leapt up and out of the situation in a near-perfect and alarming capriole. Most of the time we were able to get him sedated but I was unhappy with how stressful it was for him. I was afraid we would hit a wall if we kept going without changing something significant in our approach. Then I wouldn’t be able to take care of his feet at all.

Last week I had our vet, Dr. Hanrahan, come out for a “socialization” visit. When she pulled up I realized how tense I normally am, knowing we “have” to hit the vein and that we need to be discrete and fast. What a relief this would just be a training visit and Tarot could set the bar for what he was comfortable with. Surprisingly, once we presented Dr. Mary to Tarot within the context of his clicker training game he was relaxed with her. Pretty much immediately. Here’s a video of part of the 20 minute session he had with Dr. Mary on Monday:

We started out having Dr. Mary ask Tarot to target her hand. It’s more frontal, which he is comfortable with, and it sets up Dr. Mary’s hands to be a way to get a reward. The quality of his target was solid. When he is afraid he either does not target or will target very softly like he is absent. Once he was comfortable with targeting I had Dr. Mary move on to neck touches just behind the jaw using the back of her hand. The back of her hand is less threatening. When Tarot is relaxed he offers soft head lowering for any touch and I was surprised to see him offering head lowering on her first touch. From there we moved to slides down the neck and then mock-ups of the actual motion required to inject the sedative. During the session he offers lots of head-lowering and soft body language and Dr. Mary was sure she could have sedated him six times over with how quietly he was standing. Success!
Ken Ramirez, the executive vice president of animal care and training at the Shedd Aquarium, has a rule: for every one time you stick an animal (needle) you need to have one hundred reps where you don’t. We got in quite a few on Monday, at least 30, so I made sure to bring him in the barn each day and practice the motion to “stick” him. I had other people practice and he did well with all of us! On Thursday Dr. Hanrahan came back for the real deal. It went without a hitch! Here’s the video:

The video starts with Dr. Mary practicing her mock needle sticks and Tarot’s head is nice and low and relaxed. After 4 or 5 she walks away to give him a break and opens her needle before she walks back. When she comes back we both felt he was slightly nervous, so did a few more mock-ups and then the stick. Unfortunately, for the first time ever, she missed. Since he kept eating and was still interested in the food she did try one more time and successfully sedated him. We did break a cardinal rule – you have one try to stick your animal, if you miss, you need to do 100 more reps before you try again. To make it up to him I will get 200 reps in before his next appointment with Dr. Mary. And if we miss I will have her back another day.
As an interesting side note, Dr. Mary has ALWAYS brought food with her when she comes to work with Tarot. She uses a brand called “nicker makers” and all of my horses love them. However, usually Tarot is so nervous when she is near him that he is unable to eat past her initial offering. Not until we added in the clicker to the process and gave him a more active role was he able to eat around Dr. Mary and stay actively engaged in his care. A few times during the process one of her nicker makers, which were mixed in with the grain I gave her, got offered to Tarot as a reward. When he smelled them he stopped eating and actually became tense for a few repetitions. The smell of the treats Dr. Mary always had with her elicited a conditioned fear response! We both amazed at how clear an association had been made. It does matter that you use food correctly. (Just ask Pavlov!)

Aesop gives a clicker lesson

When I first saw Aesop last year, I was looking for a kind, relaxed horse who might make a good teacher for people wanting to learn how to work with horses and the clicker. I already had Dragon, my huge athletic Friesian cross and Tarot, my gorgeous but fearful mustang stallion. Both are incredible horses, but not suitable for beginners. I chose Aesop based on his soft almond eye, relaxed mouth, and lack of muscular tension in all his photos. (I “won” him in an internet auction and would have loved him regardless of his suitability for newbies.) He came to our farm last summer and is one of the kindest, easiest horses I have ever had the pleasure of teaching and working with. His foundation training was finished this spring so this fall he started to work with his first two students.

Because he was wild not that long ago, I still go through a protocol to introduce Aesop to brand new people before they handle him. It’s likely he doesn’t really need the whole protocol anymore, but it’s a good introduction for new horse handlers and it helps them build their awareness of their horse’s comfort level. Here’s a short video of the “getting to know you” protocol:

Basically it begins with three nose targets and then moves on to placing your hand on his neck and waiting for him to arch his neck or do a small jaw give to the side you are working on. When he is able to offer one of those operant behaviors you can slide your hand to the next body part (side of poll, neck, shoulder blade, shoulder muscle, wither, etc) until you at his hind fetlock. It is easy to see that Aesop is relaxed and happy to offer his arched neck to show he is complicit in the game. It is fun for the handler and gets them used to checking in on the horse’s body language so they can remember to do it once they are busier doing two tasks like currying or hard brushing.

Once Aesop was all groomed up it was time for some basic leading lessons. Since all of the clicker ground-work carries over into ridden work, good mechanics are important from the very beginning. These are the basics that will lead to good single rein riding later. Brand new students work a loop of two behaviors: 1) A casual walk-off (click point being the horse walking with you bent slightly on the circle)  2) The grown-ups are talking (click point being still feet and slight bend in on circle if offered). This loop allows students to get comfortable moving next to the horse and gives them a way to ask questions or process information without ignoring/frustrating the horse through “grown-ups”.  Here’s Aesop in his leading lesson with his new friend and student, Carly:

The loop allows Aesop to relax and offer familiar behaviors that he already knows. The loop allows Carly to always have something to focus on and click for while learning about this large new species. As she masters this loop and they become more comfortable together we will add more behaviors to the loop and they will begin to move more fluidly between different behaviors as needed. For now, though, they both look calm, happy and relaxed. I am so proud of my new “school horse” Aesop!

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.

Djinn: week seven

Day 46-52

This week I felt Djinn and I had built up enough of a repertoire to start working without protective contact. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. As an experienced trainer I know when you change your criteria you should expect some behavior to deteriorate. I knew no matter how well I laid out my training plan,  some of Djinn’s behaviors would be harder for her to access than others. The only problem was I wouldn’t know which behaviors would fall apart until I was in the moment with her.  I also wanted to guard against making all of her behaviors too finished and perfect outside the pen and then disappointing myself when I finally went in and lost some ground, so I decided this week would be the week. Since I have never trained a horse largely through protective contact this process is as new to me as to her.

I am pleased to report that she was lovely and almost all of her learned behaviors transferred almost immediately. Success!

To begin I had her station at her target for something to focus on while I entered the pen, and hopefully, to stay focused on for a high rate of reinforcement. The target was not interesting compared to the fun new lady (me!) who was suddenly in the pen with her so it briefly left her radar. Luckily I had put back up off of soft lead pressure on cue so I was able to ask for for backing which she offered easily. We basically have been working within three loops, back up, walk and target, as we get to know each other up close and personal.

Loops are important because they allow the training to flow so that the learner doesn’t get frustrated . In addition, once your behavior loop is clean (meaning no unwanted  or extraneous behavior is included in the loop) you know it’s time to move on or raise your criteria. For more information about “Loopy Training” as Alexandra Kurland calls it, click here. In the video below you will see we are working within three behaviors. Djinn is either standing and touching her target, actively backing up off a light pressure cue (installed with a target originally, not pressure), or walking forward off of my body language or very light pressure ( taught through hand target).

The video shows our fourth session working together in the pen. We are nearly at 60 days of work and our list of skills is: will self-halter, can stand quietly for fly-spray over entire body, can stand quietly at target for curry comb, hard brush and all over body handling, will stand while I enter pen, allows rope to be clipped on halter willingly, can back up off of light lead rope pressure, can move forward off of light lead rope pressure, can stand quietly at target while being touched all over body, can back off of a chest touch or nose touch, can target an open hand or physical target. All of these things were taught through the panels – it’s just this week that I will be making bigger loops for back up (asking for more steps) and refining her leading so she can start to go out and play in the pasture with our other mares. To me, the most beautiful part of all of these skills is that Djinn is a willing participant. Instead of learning how to let things be done to her, she has learned how to place her head into her halter, to touch her target with her nose while being groomed, to back up off of a light suggestion. She collaborates with me in the process and demonstrates her understanding with measurable behaviors.

I can’t believe we are only at sixty days. One hundred days is  much deeper than I initially imagined when I started out on this journey. I am so deeply in love with this horse already, her bright eye and eagerness and coat like the night sky. I like to think of training as a series of individual spells: charms that I work on with my horses and through them both of us are transformed. The end goal, the final spell, is complete, effortless and joyful communication with your horse. The dream of a common language.