Back to basics

Fig has been inconsistent in her emotional state while training lately, so Sara and I decided it would be best to take her back to basics and make sure her foundation skills are solid. I had been working with her outside a lot, in the lane where all the paddocks are, because she was uncomfortable in the arena. But she is also very crabby about other horses in her space, or even them watching her with interest from the other side of the fence and that anxiety manifested as just a general tension in her body, high headedness, and ears back consistently, although not quite pinned.

She has been making beautiful progress in the cross-ties though, with almost no pawing at all, and offering lots of relaxed body posture with a lowered head. She offers her feet completely relaxed and LOVES having her face brushed and touched.

Today we groomed her first and then took her into a stall to review targeting.

She remembered targeting effortlessly, so we moved on to  “backing in a square , an exercise that teaches the horse about maneuvering their bodies in a tight space and how to yield their shoulder, a particular problem for Fig. She did a beautiful job and was able to quickly learn how to yield backwards in a square, calmly and with precision. Success.

Fig is going to practice these lessons for a couple more days, and then we are going to add a walk into the arena for some “mat” training where she will learn to target a mat and stay there until released.  She is doing well with head lowering and can do a 30 second to 1 minute version of “the grown-ups are talking” lesson easily. Over the next three weeks we will refine these lessons and assess her learning and emotional control. Today, Fig felt lovely, like a calm, clicker-wise horse. A glimpse of things to come.

My new pony : Glasswing

Today my new pony arrived from Iowa. She is tiny and delicate and has spots on her body that remind me of the planet Jupiter. Beautiful and unusual. Although she is 5, coming 6, she feels like a younger horse. She seems new to the world and clearly doesn’t expect much from me in the way of information, reinforcement or comfort. Despite being  nervous today, she was very polite with her body and her space which is a lovely natural quality in any horse. She is very nervous about not having a “pasture buddy” yet, which is reasonable, as she has spent the past year hanging out with her equine friends in a field. I am so excited to chronicle her change from a polite but tuned out pony to a fully engaged, trusting partner. Magic;)

Fig’s shoulder

I was training Fig today, still working on her calmly walking TOWARD the pasture. She is interesting in that she is eager to come out and train, waits at the fence for “her turn”, and calmly lowers her head into her halter when I go in to get her. Once out of the pasture she walks slowly and calmly away from her paddock, but she is often inverted and slightly high headed. In the barn she is a bit antsy and eager to work for her treats, but does a good job in the cross ties and is improving each time with standing still with her head low. BUT… on her way back toward the paddock, whether she is 70 feet away from the gate or 2 feet away from the gate, she gets very tense and walks out ahead of you. If you put pressure on her face she pushes into the pressure, throws her shoulder in at you and barrels around until she is facing AWAY from the pasture. Once there she is calm, you can back her up, lower her head, walk her all the way back to the barn if you like with her complete compliance. Interesting…

Not that it matters a lot, but my guess is since she was seldom taken out of her pasture and not really in relationship to any human in her previous life; I imagine when she was taken out  she was eager to get back to her herd. Since she was more excited and anxious on the way back, and most people choose to jerk/yank when horses move just past the line of their body, I think she learned to “power through” the correction. That’s my best guess. And she just seems worried, a little angry, like she is expecting a fight. I don’t want any of my horses expecting a fight. That’s not safe for anybody.

Today I let her circle, let her steamroll her shoulder like a buzz-saw – but I kept my own elbow pressed into her shoulder, lightly, as a guide, until she opened up some space between us. I didn’t trap her with the halter, I didn’t push back and I didn’t escalate my behavior in any way. When she opened up some space, I clicked and treated her even farther away from me, to reinforce that position. I also fed her while still moving as it appears the stop right now is a punisher, even with the carrot reward. After two or three tries, she started to open up lots of space and, FASCINATINGLY, her head came down. Suddenly, she was able to walk next to me, but out a few feet to my side, head low and truly relaxed. We were able to walk toward the paddock on a loose  lead, unemotionally. Hmm… so I have a chicken or egg question, I suppose. Was  her yielding her shoulder to me something that reflexively caused her to relax? Or the fact that I took any pressure/escalation out of the situation and let her be at a distance as well?

The natural horsemanship camp would have said  space and yielding space is what matters. They also might have said: “That horse is disrespectful”  or “That horse CAN’T be allowed to do that” or “That horse is telling you what she thinks of you”. Believe me, I know the standard fix for this sort of thing and I am in no way willing to use that amount of force to stop a horse’s shoulder. And I also know you can get a horse’s body to yield without  ever touching their mind or their heart. A good trainer yields all three.

Longe line, cantering and emotional control

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

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

A new learner: Fig

the new learner

Aside from working with my own horse, Dragon, I am also helping my partner, Sara, start her new horse, Fig. Fig is a 4 or so year old Grulla Quarter horse mare. She has spent the bulk of her life in a pasture with other mares, and likely has gone years without handling except to have her feet done or to be pulled out once in a while when her (previous) owner made it out to the barn. Although she is friendly and social, I would not quite call her tame. She is definitely a new learner. What does this mean?

A new learner is an animal who isn’t experienced with any sort of training, and has no expectations that they can control their environment in a positive way through their behavior. Typically, they are more emotional than an experienced learner, because things are novel and they have not yet learned how to deal with frustration. New learners need simple but faster paced lessons that keep them busy earning reinforcement. Shorter lessons that leave them feeling successful.

Fig is especially food motivated: our barn owner Kathy told us she is going to video the pre-morning feed because of Fig’s “airs above the ground” as she anticipates her hay. Because of this, I am particularly impressed with how quickly Fig is figuring out the rules that surround earning a treat. She is perhaps on her 7th training session  and is not grabby at all.

She does have some worries, which I assume come from her previous life, and lack of exposure. She is anxious about being in buildings, anxious about gates and doors, particularly waiting outside closed gates or doors, and somewhat anxious about handling. The gate anxiety is the most pronounced and I assume she had a negative experience near or with a gate. But despite these (minor) worries, she is eager to learn and already waiting at the fence when she sees us.

Fig is working on her foundation lessons, which are: targeting, backing up, staying in your own space (the grown-ups are talking lesson), happy faces, head-lowering and stand on a mat. These are the lessons we use to introduce horses to the clicker and ensure they have good emotional control of themselves. For more information on the six foundation lessons of horse clicker training, visit:

Your horse is your mirror

Earlier last week it was pouring down rain when I went to train the horses. Dragon was in his lean-to when I got there; I wouldn’t have blamed any horse or human for staying in out of the elements. When I got to his pasture gate, he looked behind him, (anthropomorhic, I know, but it looked like he was weighing the pros and cons of giving up the security and warmth of his shed.), looked out at me, looked over his shoulder one more time and walked out into rain and mud to meet me at the gate.

This morning when I got to the barn, the horses had just been fed and Dragon was nose deep in 3 flakes of good hay. He left the hay to come in and train.

Almost failessly, he whinnies when he sees me.

While its tempting to think this is all about me, (and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I love it when I hear him call out to me the moment I appear), the truth of the matter is your training methods, in large part, define who you are to your horse. It’s not about me, but it is about the way I choose to introduce new concepts, the amount of stress/force I consider acceptable in a training situation and my ability to break down lessons  small enough so Dragon can be successful the first time. Horses don’t separate who we are when we are “training” from who we are when we are just hanging out with them in the pasture or going on a relaxed trail ride. All of our behavior when working with our horses informs their composite picture of who we are. Are you predictable? Calm?  Patient?

Since animals think in pictures, and are very good at predictive relationships, your appearance at the barn predicts the start of training. Their reaction, or lack of it, tells you how they feel about “school”.  If my horses aren’t meeting me at the gate, I need to look at my behavior. Remember, your horse is your mirror.