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!