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.

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.

Transformation

I’ve learned these spells one by one. Spells for calm, spells for stillness, spells for relaxation. Spells for patience and movement. Then come the spells for balance: how to move softly bending your body like a sapling in a windstorm. Spells for roundness, lightness and, finally, spells to defy gravity. One by one I learn these spells and one by one I teach them to my horses. It’s not a simple magic that joins a woman and a horse into a centaur. It takes the better part of a decade before the true transformation takes place. The enlightenment when the slightest shift of your weight is alphabet and music to your horse.

It takes the time it takes…

When I first re-started Dragon using the clicker all I was focused on was making sure he was relaxed and obedient. I had made some large mistakes in his early clicker training by not understanding what a good foundation was, not understanding proper food delivery and not understanding stimulus control. Once I realized I needed to cover all of those variables and went back in Dragon’s training to help him understand those concepts he became very calm, focused and rideable. I wasn’t concerned with his balance or carriage at that time. I just wanted a safe horse who would stand quietly at the mounting block, listen to the cues his rider offered and be emotionally calm under saddle. It’s a good place to start for any horse and rider, certainly. Here’s a short video of our first Why Would You Leave Me under saddle:

In the video you can see that although he is calm and relaxed, his balance leaves a lot to be desired. He is heavy on his forehand with his head nearly to his knees and his hocks strung way out behind him. On the other hand, he is doing a great job of learning to target my seatbones as a guide and staying between the channel of my legs. When he doesn’t, I slide down the rein and ask him to move back under my seatbones and click! when he stays there on his own. On the day that video was made, I was thrilled with my smart, relaxed horse. Looking at it today, I’m glad I didn’t know as much about balance as I know now. But he needed to learn about using my body for direction before we could talk more in-depth about the way he carries his body.

Over the last two years Dragon and I have moved from basic foundation exercises to more intermediate work. We’ve done a ton of ground work where he has learned to use my body as a target, tons of work on circles where he has learned to bend and take a bit more weight onto his hind end, and lots of jaw gives which allow him to go onto the bit and start to use his body more correctly. Two years sounds like a long time but learning to use your body in a completely new way and then strengthen those muscles is a process that can’t be rushed. Unlike “modern dressage” we are not doing this work on contact. That means I am asking Dragon for a certain bend or head elevation and I am asking him to hold that posture on his own. He doesn’t have reins to lean on so he has to build his own correct muscle and truly understand the process, not just passively allow himself to be molded. This way I know he is in true self-carriage. I’m learning the process as well, which makes it a touch slower.  Here’s a video of our ride today where we were working on jaw gives and bend while following my seatbones:

My whole life I wanted to learn dressage. I read myriad books, took infinite lessons and still I was left not understanding the whole picture or how to influence my horse so he could learn to carry himself more athletically. It is a difficult discipline even for a supremely talented rider, and often those who do it best are unable to articulate it to others. It is only through following the work in The Click That Teaches by Alexandra Kurland that I finally am learning how to help my horse balance and how to use my own body to teach him. We are finally moving toward the dream of a centaur, not on heavy restrictive contact, but lightly, together.

Starting a horse : clicker-style

This spring my partner Sara’s horse, Fig, turns seven. Fig was unstarted when Sara bought her two years ago and they’ve spent this time getting to know one another and building a solid foundation of clicker lessons. Fig is Sara’s first horse and they are taking their time. As they have progressed in their work from basic emotional control to more subtle work, Fig has become increasingly thoughtful, attentive and controlled. It feels like time to think about riding.

What does this mean?  It means that Fig is able to offer learned behaviors even when the environment changes or is scary. It means Fig is much more centered and calm than she was even a year ago, able to handle maneuvering her body in tight spaces, being asked to stop even when she would rather go and finds listening to Sara reinforcing. She has both learned the behaviors necessary for a safe riding horse and demonstrated she can follow guidance offered from a human partner in a tight situation.

Here’s a video of Sara and Fig’s latest lesson:

In this video, you see that Fig is working in her bridle. Sara first picks up the rein. If Fig stays attentive and doesn’t walk off, click/treat. Once she picks up the rein, she will slide her inside hand down and ask Fig to give at the jaw, click/treat. If she can do both of these things without walking off (receive information about how to move off without rushing or emotionally running away) then Sara breathes in deeply so her side touches Fig where Sara’s leg will once she is mounted. When Fig moves off on this cue, click/treat. If she moves off before this, you will see Sara slide her hand down the inside rein and pivot to face Fig, asking her to ‘re-set’ and back-up. It’s important for Fig and any riding horse to be able to make a mistake and not be upset if she is re-set or told to look for another answer. If Fig looks to the outside of the circle, Sara slides her hand down the rein and waits for Fig to give at the jaw again, asking her to remain on the circle without constant contact as a reminder, click/treat.

While they are walking together on the circle, Fig is using Sara’s body as a target. We literally want her “in front of the leg” just like a horse would be under saddle – not lagging behind and not rushing away without regard for where Sara is in relation to her. This way, Fig already understands the concept of Sara’s body being  a guide for her, as her seatbones and legs will be under saddle. So far it looks like a pretty nice ride!

But how about the mounting block? It’s important to make sure your horse understands how to stand still at the mounting block and is ok with pressure on their back and the sight of you up over their head. Here, Fig is bareback, but she shows she understands the concept of lining up to the mounting block and offering her back to Sara.

Notice that Fig is free to walk off but chooses to stay at the mounting block because of a solid reinforcement history. This allows the mounting block behavior to become a “barometer” of whether or not to get on your horse. Since it was introduced as a fun game and is something Fig enjoys, if she won’t line up or moves off we can guess she is sore, not feeling well or having a bad day. This is good information to have and information we want with all horses, but with a green horse, especially. This week Fig will practice the mounting block saddled, to get used to stirrups being pulled and weighted and the feel of a saddle shifting on her back.

So what’s left? Sara needs to confirm all her bridle cues at the trot and practice all her work saddled with stirrups flapping. Alexandra has a saying, “When your horse is ready, he will invite you onto his back.” I love that saying because I see so much early work that is more like, “If you think you can get away with it with only minor injury, do it.” Riding should be a partnership from the very start and it’s our responsibility to provide the good foundation. I think Sara has done a great job!