Rune’s fourth birthday and our training season ahead!

Rune nearly four

Rune is nearly four.

Next week Rune turns four years old. (Read about her birth and early +R training by clicking here)
It’s an auspicious age for a horse, no longer a juvenile, not quite a mature adult. But, four IS an age where training can continue a bit more intensively. It’s an age where it’s safe to start sitting on your horse for short spells, first steps under a rider can be taken and an education on the finer points of body awareness and balance can begin in preparation for more frequent and nuanced riding year five and six. In short, it’s an exciting time.

When Rune first was born and I shared her with the world through my blog, there was one reader in particular who was very upset that I trained her so regularly through her foal-hood. She wrote a venomous paragraph to me in the comments of my blog letting me know I might has well have named Rune “Ruined” because of the ignorance of my ways. Although I knew she was simply threatened by something in my work, the play on words was particularly cruel. I love words and sounds and the similarity echoed a bit in my mind. It had so much anger and violence behind it and the word was meant to wound me personally.

Rune as fallen star still shining

Glowing Rune

So it is with particular relish that I am happy to report that Rune is anything but ruined. Rune remains open, curious, thoughtful, playful, vehement, athletic, passionate and whole. She has playful and complex relationships with multiple other horses. She remembers every single lesson from her early learning and is a very easy horse to handle for haltering, hoof trimming and husbandry. She leads well. She can be touched all over and remains relaxed. In short, she is ready to do more!

When I think back to preparing Dragon to be ridden, I feel both sorry for and grateful to him. Sorry because I didn’t have the skill set to actually layer in the skills he needed to really be confident, physically ready and successful. Grateful because he didn’t injure me despite his frustration and lack of preparation.

But I have shed my skin many times since then and Rune will have the benefit of an entirely new teacher. So what will I bring to the table now, to prepare a young horse to be relaxed, fascinated and physically able to carry a rider and play a new game?

Confirm relaxation in training environments. No matter how Rune felt when when we left off last year, I need to approach environments with new eyes this year. Regardless of my plans and how excited I may be to (figuratively) move forward into a new training space, I need to continually check in with the horse in front of me. Rehearsing well-installed foundation skills in the indoor arena and down below in the outdoor arena will take precedence over starting new lessons until I can observe total relaxation and engagement.

Teach “mounting block games” as targets and in different arrangements so they become a conditioned reinforcer in and of themselves. Attach default behaviors to the blocks to layer in meaning and complexity.

Introduce new equipment: a cavesson and bareback pad during familiar lessons.

Deepen mat work through rehearsal and fun ground-work games for later use the first few months under a rider, especially. Mats are our visual “go forward” cues for green horses whose trainer and support has just disappeared onto their back. These can be combined with mounting block games to “interleave” skills, an important concept I’ll revisit in later blogs.

Begin work in-hand: Initially, I will teach Rune about moving her shoulders and moving hips in relationship to one another and in relationship to a line of travel so that I can help her balance and re-balance under a rider
Trainers talk a lot about “balance” and body awareness but they often leave it there as a generalization. What do they mean? Good balance is understood as desirable but left unexplained.
One of the first things I will teach Rune in-hand is to move her shoulders left and right and to move her hips left and right. In that way, I can influence how she is carrying her weight and help her to carry in healthy ways that make her stronger, rather than moving in ways that break her down because of compensation. I will post extensive video on this piece of the process. To me, it’s not “body awareness” if balance just seems to magically improve. It’s body awareness if I say  “I am going to ask her to bring her shoulders in to the left one track” and she can and does. If it isn’t measurable it might not be conscious or repeatable. Both of those things matter down the road. They are building blocks. This work will be done though using my body as a target, initially. Once she understands my body as a target, these cues can be transferred to the reins.

Rein games through physical geography. The meaning of the reins is completely learned, not innate. Unless you use a rein to throw a horse so out of balance that they have no choice but to “fall” in their footfall and catch themselves, there are many actual possibilities for each rein suggestion. That means every horse needs to go through an active learning process to understand the intended meaning of the rein. Using cones, walls, buckets and barrels to suggest the intended motor pattern simplifies and breaks down the process for a horse and makes learning easy.

Throughout this process, Rune and I will document each and every step. Starting a horse under saddle, rather than “breaking” them, is a layered and multi-faceted process. And it should be fun and fascinating for the trainer AND the learner. There are three broad categories involved in starting a horse:

  1. “Backing” the horse. Backing means you have sat on the horse’s back. Sitting on the horse’s back is not the same as having created a riding horse. In behavioral terms, backing confirms that your horse is relaxed and operant with all the postures and equipment you need when riding or getting ready for riding. It’s a fun and usually simple step, but many people really get into trouble when moving from backing to actually riding.
  2. Installing basic motor patterns. Horses need to know how to go forward, stop, back up, turn left and turn right before a rider gets on. These are often gross motor skills at first that lack the precision or finesse that we want the horse to have later. Teaching these skills once ON is not recommended. Having them well-rehearsed, and on both a verbal, visual(cones, mats, buckets) and tactile cue is the best way to ensure that your horse will be able to easily find the road to reinforcement with you up on their back.
  3. Teaching nuances within the larger motor patterns. Teaching horses how to align their shoulders and hips in different orientations, teaching them to lengthen their neck out to the rein as a target and to do those things in different gaits and on different lines of travel allows them to gain body awareness and strength. This is the larger, eventual goal of riding, but teaching your horse these behaviors on the ground first so that they are aware of them from the first time you are on allows a deeper and more productive ridden conversation. If riding is something you think of as point A to point B, then there is a lot of dead space in that conversation! These nuances are what fills up that riding conversation to a fascinating and engaging discussion.

I hope you will join us for every step of this journey. I plan on enjoying every moment.
I plan on taking our time, listening deeply and loving it for what it is, a discovery. There is all the time in the world.

If you are starting your own horse under saddle OR re-starting a cross over horse in the positive paradigm there will be much for you to take out to your horse and practice. Even if you are just getting started after a long winter, there will be tons of material and applicable concepts. So, join us on what I’m sure will be a magnificent journey we can explore together.

Rune faceyellow

Rune Trillium

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Scratching: a primer

Itchy RuneMy last post about Rune outlined the details of our relationship and training in our first six weeks together. I assumed most people know foals are  born “itchy” and love to be scratched more than anything in the world. It’s a natural reinforcer and relationship builder that is pre-wired in all young horses. But how to scratch? Not everything is equal, and details matter.

Find the right spot: Every foal has a unique favored itchy spot. Some like the underside of their neck scratched, some prefer the top of their tail and some really prefer the top of their neck along their mane. Sara’s foal, Isolde, loved mane scratches when she was small but Rune found them totally overstimulating. Even a scratch in a favorite place can become uncomfortable if it goes on for too long (think of a back rub that goes over the same location endlessy, eventually it becomes annoying. ) When you have scratched in one place too long, or your foal is no longer enjoying the scratch, their tail will start to flip up and down rapidly.                       To add to the complexity, favored itchy spots change. When Rune was three weeks old, she would do anything for a top of the tail and a butt scratch, but now she really loves to be scratched in her armpits where she can’t reach with her nose.

Why does this matter? It matters because when horses are young, under six weeks old, food doesn’t function as a reinforcer. Their only real nutrition is mare’s milk at this time, though they will nibble on hay and grass in imitation. If you want to train in a positive reinforcement paradigm, you need to be able to offer something your foal values. In this case, a good scratch! So, now we have something our foal wants, but how to use it constructively within a training session?

Make It Contingent: One of the  first things you can and should do with a foal is to link scratching with a simple, likely- to-be-offered behavior. In Rune’s case, I just made sure that as she approached me, my outstretched, flat palm was available and near her nose. Once she would touch it, I would click and then immediately begin scratching her. This way, through repetition, she understood she could “control the situation” with a polite nose touch, rather than crowding into my space or shoving me with her face. Many people start out scratching and massaging their foals while they are little and cute, but quickly get frustrated or start to use physical punishment, because they have inadvertently taught their foals to nip, push into them with their shoulders or cut in front of them to demand a scratch. What is cute at five days old is already starting to be intimidating at four weeks. You have to be aware when you hand out your scratches! Making scratching contingent on a polite behavior not only sets rules around your interaction with your foal, it also begins the game of learning, “If you do this, then I will do that.” Easy, safe and fun.

Scratch so their head turns away from you: When you scratch a foal, it’s natural for them to want to wiggle their lips, turn their head and nibble or bite you. Horses are social groomers, and in foals this response is strong and immediate. I didn’t want to start out offering Rune a reinforcer and then end up punishing her or scaring her physically because she had bit or nipped me. I found that if you scratch the side of their body that is opposite to the side you are on, your foal will turn their head that way, toward the pleasurable sensation and end up nibbling and lipping themselves. That way you don’t have to suppress their natural social response and you can avoid teaching your foal to use their mouth or teeth on you. Here’s a very short video of Rune at about sixteen days old learning how to turn on the “scratch machine” and me learning how to direct her nose just with the location I choose to scratch on her body. This is more important in the first four weeks when foals are more free with their mouth and less discerning about how they use them.

Even though foals are tiny and absolutely enchanting, it’s important to remain aware of the habits we are building when we interact. Safe and sophisticated handling comes from a thoughtful set up and attention to detail. With young foals, knowing where they like to be scratched, paying attention to their enjoyment or overstimulation, making the scratch contingent on a simple, polite behavior, and scratching so that you don’t encourage your foal to bite you are details that will set you up for success! Happy scratching.


How to Train Your Foal: birth to six weeks

Rune and JenRune is my first foal. She’s far from my first horse and I’ve been a professional animal trainer for almost fifteen years now, but a first is a first, no matter your other experience. So, after she was born and we had her settled into the world, comfortable, happy and healthy, I went looking for good books and good videos to see how other more foal-experienced humans handled their foals and what they chose to teach them. I was hoping to see some skilled, quiet handling, a discussion of developmental stages and age-appropriate skills to teach. These are things that are readily available if you are raising children or puppies, so I assumed there would be resources for foals too. I found one or two basic resources, a solid general set of guidelines from the ASPCA and some nice videos on youtube from a trainer named Ellen Ofstad, but aside from those it has been slim pickings and a plethora of misinformation and some very forceful handling. Rather depressing, actually.

There is a DreamWorks movie released in 2010 called:  How to Train Your Dragon. It’s a story about a Viking culture that kills dragons in order to protect their village and their food sources. Killing a dragon earns you status in the culture and young Vikings go to “dragon school” to learn how to fight them. But when one young Viking, Hiccup, injures a dragon so he can’t fly, he ends up building a relationship with him and learning from the dragon directly. By day he goes to “dragon school” taught by people and by evening he goes to his real dragon and learns what the dragon has to teach. What he learns from his dragon is very different from what humans are teaching him in “dragon school.” Eventually, he concludes, “Everything we know about them is wrong.” It reminds me exactly of a mantra of Alexandra Kurland’s, “Go to people for opinions and horses(dragons!) for answers.” I decided I would go directly to Rune for answers.

In their first two weeks on earth, a foal goes through an intensive sensory development period. What this means is when they are born, their perceptions are only rough versions of the more refined faculties they will have just a few weeks later.
New foals are very reflexive creatures. Most of their responses feel fairly automatic and are linked to their early survival. Stand up. If you fall, get up again. Suckle on anything near your mouth. If something touches the top of your butt, kick. Stay close to the large, warm animal you first saw when you were born. Follow her if she moves.
When you think about how much a foal has to make sense of when they are first born, it is truly staggering. With Rune, I really only worried about making sure she was comfortable with humans nearby and knew we offered her a clean stall, food for her mother, scratches and comfort. She had enough to make sense of without worrying about “training.”

But right at two weeks old she felt different. More aware of her surroundings. More flexible in her responses. So we began very short, more focused sessions. She was already very comfortable with me because I was there at her birth and in her stall daily, feeding, cleaning and just hanging out. I was part of the wallpaper and nothing to worry about. And I gave great scratches. So really, our early handling sessions were  just sharing space, responding when Rune approached by offering companionship and scratches and stopping before she became too overstimulated and leapt around like a wild energetic deer. I wanted to condition relaxation and seeking touch. Daily time together to build a pressure free relationship is key.

The first  behavior I taught Rune was targeting her nose to my hand. Here’s a short video of her at just under three weeks old following my hand target. It’s a very easy behavior to introduce when your foal already has a relationship with you. Rune tended to follow me out of curiosity and loved to touch anything near her nose. So I simply formalized the process.

She’s practicing lovely informal leading here, a skill she’ll need later when I introduce the halter and lead rope. She’s practicing enjoying touch from her human friend, which will come in handy when she needs to be groomed and handled later. These are age appropriate skills for a three week old foal, skills she can easily learn and feel successful with. Notice that I am working with her completely at liberty and she is free to leave at any time. At this age, training is mostly about setting up the environment so that you are interesting to the foal and working around their shorter attention spans and sensitive nervous systems.

Here’s another short video of Rune practicing the same skill set outside. Initially this was harder for her because her increased freedom made me and my game less interesting. But very shortly her curiosity and desire to interact won out.

Targeting is also a very safe way to start introducing space management to a foal. You can suggest to them, “Why don’t you walk along here, beside me?” and keep them calm and focused on you. Foals can become overstimulated easily and they truly have no concept of personal space, so targeting is very handly. They also have an intense opposition reflex and lean heavily into pressure, sometimes leaping into pressure. They can hurt you or themselves if you don’t explain personal space to them gradually and thoughtfully. For me, targeting was the perfect introduction to organizing your energy and motor patterns around the fragile human!
Here’s a short video of how very dynamic foals are at this age, to compare with her calm during her targeting session.

More structured body handling is appropriate and important for young foals as well. In this next video, Sara appears with her new foal, Isolde, demonstrating how to introduce body handling. Isolde is four days older than Rune and lives at Idle Moon Farm now. As you can see, Isolde is also at liberty and able to leave at any time.

Sara is helping Isolde become comfortable with being touched anywhere on her body, even a bit of a “hug” around her ribs that simulates a girthed up saddle later. If she wants to leave or the touch becomes uncomfortable, Isolde is free to express herself. We want horses that choose to interact with us because the lessons are enjoyable and interesting. Working at liberty ensures these foals can vote on their daily lesson. It’s information. If one of our foals votes no, it’s up to us as trainers to present the lesson in a new way. The learner is always right. At the end you notice Sara leaves while the lesson has been a great success and before Isolde becomes overstimulated by a too long work session.

New foals are open and curious. They expect the world to be interesting, safe and worth exploring. There are many natural tendencies they have, like touching with their noses, following human friends, and really valuing a good scratch that allow us to teach them so that lessons are easy and enjoyable. Training Rune so far has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. She is beautiful, curious, brave, intelligent and innocent. These are qualities to  protect and develop, things that should be enhanced through training, not dulled away. Approaching everything in small, split steps, teaching systematically and according to the individual foal’s comfort level allows these babies to prepare for their life ahead while enjoying every moment. It’s an approach that’s ethical, effective and gives you moments of feeling like Alec in The Black Stallion or Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon. The animal chooses you. There’s no greater honor.

Rune, a new foal at Idle Moon, imprinting and the future….

Glasswing and RuneFive weeks ago,  Glasswing’s foal, Rune, was born. Sara and I were there at her birth to towel and dry her off, dip her umbilical stump in iodine and make sure she found Glasswing’s udder for her crucial first colostrum. It was a brutally cold evening, -18 by midnight,  and we wanted to give her every chance to thrive. She was long-awaited and much wanted.

Before Rune, I always imagined that  my mustangs were as pure of a slate as you could find in a learner. They grow up free and only have limited experiences with humans when gathered and then adopted out. Otherwise, their opinions of humanity and learning are ours to shape.

But seeing Rune, meeting her hoof by hoof as she entered this world, I realized she is even more of a blank slate than my mustangs. She will grow up immersed in relationship to humans. Every day, every interaction, she will be learning.

Rune face

As my favorite writer, Jeanette Winterson, writes, “This was the edge of time, between chaos and shape. This was the little bit of evolution that endlessly repeats itself in the young and new-born thing. In this moment there are no cars or aeroplanes. The Sistine Chapel is unpainted, no book has been written. The moment between chaos and shape and I say her name and she hears me.” Everything is yet to be decided. Everything is possibility. A foal is a chance to begin again, tabula rasa.

What should we teach? What is important in the beginning?

Often, a foal’s relationship with humans begin moments after birth through a process called “imprinting” developed and promoted by Dr. Robert Miller, DVM.

“Miller begins the imprinting process by kneeling in the straw, or on the ground, with the foal’s back against his knees and the head flexed so that the foal is unable to get to its feet. He controls the head by grasping the youngster’s muzzle, careful not to obstruct breathing in either nostril, and tipping the nose back toward the withers. It is important to keep the foal’s back to you, says Miller, in order to prevent being kicked if the youngster should lash out with front or rear feet.

With the foal in that position, Miller towels it dry, all the while allowing the mare to sniff and lick her offspring. Once that is done, he begins the desensitization process.

However, even before desensitizing begins, the foal is learning something that it will carry with it all through life–submission to a human handler. By not allowing the foal to get to its feet, Miller explains, the handler is establishing himself or herself as the dominant force in the foal’s life.” (The Horse, January 1, 1998)

From there, Miller begins a process of flooding the foal with tactile sensations (fingers in the ears, mouth, nostrils, mouth, etc) systematically all over it’s body until it shows no reaction/stops struggling and then moves to rubbing down with plastic bags, a blow dryer, a vibrating clippers and other novel stimuli. All of this happens before the foal is allowed to stand, suckle or spend time alone bonding with it’s mother. Over the next few days, the process is repeated once or twice.

The theory is that foals are in a limited critical learning period in the first few hours after birth. The premise maintains whatever stimuli is presented to them within that window will be accepted as routine and non-threatning throughout the duration of their life. The technique is essentially presented as a shortcut to a relaxed, easy to handle adult horse.
Here is a video of a foal being “imprinted”:


We did not imprint Rune. The entire process interrupts bonding time between mare and foal, and puts undue stress on both. Every animal deserves social, private time with it’s own baby at birth. It is a human conceit, I think, to consider another species’ baby our own and to begin training it before it has even gained it’s feet in this world. New born foals have powerful survival instincts that cause them to struggle against restraint and to pull away from novel stimuli.

Eliciting these survival instincts in the name of training and then overpowering these foals with brute strength teaches them powerlessness as their first lesson in relation to a human and powerlessness in relation to their own new body. We need to ask ourselves why this lesson seems attractive or necessary. To me, it is troubling and reflects a lack of imagination.

As for Rune, we made sure she was born safely and was dry and warm. When she had trouble standing, we supported her a bit at her shoulder, so she could lean and get some traction to stand. When she had trouble finding the udder, we guided her gently so she didn’t waste too much energy on that very cold night looking for food. We acted as friends and guides, the same role we will play for her in the future. Once she was dry, able to stand, able to eat, and had pooped (important with foals to know digestion is working), we left her alone to bond with Glasswing. To be a young filly learning about being a horse from her mother, another horse.

Yes, there are a million things to learn about being a horse in a human world, but those things can wait. As many great horse people have said, “Things take the time they take.” There are years before Rune can be ridden, years to be filled with learning about brushing, clipping, coordinating motor responses with a human request, leading, and learning to be still. But right now she needs to how to buck, how to canter, how to rear and express joy and power through her own body. Nothing is more enchanting than a young animal learning to move, learning to balance, learning the limits and outer edge of gravity. I want her to feel infinitely powerful, so later, she can share that power with me through riding. I want her to know she has choices, because control over your environment is crucial for security. I want her to be free to be a baby animal with all the emotionally impulsive wild disorganized movement that goes along with being young. And I want her to learn, over time and through daily interactions with me, that humans are safe, enjoyable, consistent and wonderful teachers.

I am reaching toward a world where instead of holding foals down and teaching them not to struggle, we help them stand for the first time and celebrate their arrival, because we know there are kinder and more ethical ways to build cooperation. A world where we both respect the species specific relationships animals are born into and take the responsibility of truly creating our own individual relationships and behavioral agreements with them based on systematic positive reinforcement. I am embarking on this amazing journey with Rune and I can’t wait to share it with you.

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