The first horses that most of us ride are already trained. When I managed the barn for seven years at my girl scout camp, the horses came to us already trained. Sure, we tuned them up after their winter off, but they came to us knowing all the behaviors we needed them to know. We didn’t even talk about training, or understand the process of learning very well. This phenomenon is pretty much true throughout the horse world, in part because horses live so long and can have multiple stages in their lives, one often being where the horse goes to a beginner or a recreational rider with their skill set already in place to offer the human while they learn the basics of horse care and riding. In effect, because our horses are so long lived, and often so forgiving about their handling and ways of being ridden, training can be something that we understand vaguely as having happened in the past, but don’t truly understand as a process. In addition, because so few people start out with a foal or an untrained youngster, many professionals included, the process isn’t immediately obvious like it is with dog owners who often start with a young puppy who knows nothing about living with humans.
Because of this phenomenon, I often see huge holes in my students’ skill set when they get their first horse that needs active training, rather than passive maintenance of already acquired skills. In particular, I observe that people struggle to understand what to teach when, so I’ve created a basic curriculum to help guide folks working at home. It’s the general progression I use with my own horses and all my students’ horses as well. It allows you to rate where your horse is in their progression of learning and to know where to go next in their education. (This progression assumes a tame horse that wears a halter and is unafraid of humans.)
- Teach your horse to be operant through introduction of target training. If your horse isn’t operant and doesn’t understand they can effect change through their behavior, then you must go back and introduce this step. Even if they seem to have many other behaviors already learned, go back and confirm they are operant and not just passively compliant.
- Go through the process of teaching your horse foundation lessons.
For me this means: Touch a target with your nose, walk forward from a cue on the lead, back up from a cue on the lead, stand quietly in with your head and neck in the center of your chest, aka, “neutral” position, stand on a mat, and offer head down from a cue on the lead.
All of these behaviors can be taught from target training and transferred to tactile cues on the lead to avoid learner frustration, but it is very important that the cues transfer from visual to tactile cues as your horse becomes more educated. If they aren’t transferred, you will be limited when you want to begin riding, especially because targets from the saddle throw the horse off balance and badly out of alignment.
Initial teaching of these foundation behaviors should occur in an environment where the horse is totally comfortable and learning is optimal.
- Establish that all of these responses are easy for your horse and can be put together in loops without “extra” behavior creeping in: walk forward – click – back up- click – head down – click, before you move on to rehearsing these behaviors in more challenging environments. (For more information on “loopy training”, check out Alexandra Kurland’s Loopy Training DVD.)
- Expand the context of your horse’s foundation behaviors. Use them in new and ever-widening environments: in the indoor arena, in the outdoor arena, on the road from the barn to the indoor, etc.
- Confirm that you can use the foundation behaviors you have taught your horse to help them balance out emotionally. In the beginning, horse training is essentially energy regulation. Each of the foundation behaviors is there to place your horse in space and offer them an alternative to increasing adrenaline or fear. Being able to help them back away, stand still, move to a mat or lower their head, suggest to them, “Do this for reinforcement rather than just react!”
Once you can use your foundation behaviors to help your horse balance out emotionally, they are safe and ready to move on in the process. This stage of training can take some time, so be patient.
- Choose a discipline.
What do you want to pursue? Now that you and your horse have built a system of communication and you both feel safe working in varied environments, it’s time to move on to new skills.
Whether you want to pursue art form dressage, trail riding, horse agility, or working equitation, there will be a whole new set of component skills to teach your horse. Luckily, your horse will now be comfortable in the arena, or the outdoor arena or at a clinic, so you will be able to get to work on teaching the building blocks of your new discipline. And, if your horse gets worried, you know you have the foundation to go back to to help them calm down.
Is your horse not even under saddle yet? Congrats! It’s time to start with the building blocks for ridden work!
Helping people identify where they are in this progression with their own horses and helping them acquire the skills to teach each individual piece forms the bulk of my work with my students. In my experience, it takes from 2-4 years to learn the entire skill set as a human, but is a much briefer process to teach to a horse once you understand it yourself, six months to two years, depending on the horse.
Where are you in the progression with your own horse? Do you know where you are going next?
Enjoy the journey.
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Earlier this summer, I welcomed Hocus Pocus, a horse I had known many years ago, back into my life. He was on his way to becoming unsound so I immediately set out to change his unhealthy, habitual postures. (To learn more about this process, read my previous post, Shape-shifting Into Healthy Movement.)
His initial training, which spanned about three months, focused exclusively on teaching Hocus Pocus to carry himself in a new posture. The habitual way a horse organizes their body is a combination of their comformation, their emotional state and what they have been taught, intentionally or unintentionally, in their previous training. Maintained day after day, a horse’s habitual posture will incrementally change the horse over time, either strengthening and improving a horse’s longevity or causing long term imbalances that will result in tension, larger energy requirements in general, joint stress/damage and, often, a shorter lifespan. In Hocus Pocus’s case, his habitual posture was very unhealthy. He tended to move with his head up high, his brachiocephalic (underside) neck muscle braced, his back in tension and his pelvis disengaged out behind him. This posture reduced his range of motion, stressed his joints and made carrying himself, much less a rider, very difficult. I wanted Hocus to work toward his athletic potential, not away from it, so I set out to teach him a new coordination. I needed to teach him that lowering and extending his neck and letting his back relax would allow his hind end to step up and under toward his rib cage, making movement easier and allowing him to become stronger through his work. In addition, because he would be in a more powerful balance, he could begin to feel safe emotionally, rather than disconnected and vulnerable.
Initially, I taught Hocus this new posture in ground work. Ground work is when a human teaches the horse from the ground, often just in a halter and a lead rope. Ground work simplifies the process for the horse and reduces stress by keeping the lesson straightforward. It is a good starting place, but once the horse has mastered the lesson, it’s time to move on. (To read about the ground work process in detail, read my earlier post, “Shape-shifting into healthy movement”) From ground work, you can choose to move to longeing, in-hand work (work between two reins that educates the horse about how to use their body in relation to itself and in relation to a caveson or bridle), or ridden work. For Hocus, I chose the longe.
The longe provides a few different benefits:
1) Longeing offered me an opportunity to re-build Hocus Pocus’s longeing behavior in the positive reinforcement paradigm, confirming that he understood each aspect of longeing and was truly relaxed and active in the process.
2) I could allow Hocus to move out freely at a comfortable speed for him without me having to keep up. This builds fitness.
3) I could see Hocus’s entire body unlike working directly next to him in groundwork. (This is also called “seeing the panoramic”. It’s important to see fine details; it’s equally important to zoom out and be aware of the whole horse.)
4) Hocus could practice moving in relaxation for longer periods of time. This builds lovely emotional control for riding.
To appreciate the difference the ground work immediately created in Hocus’s posture on the longe, below is a photo of Hocus Pocus before he came to live here:
His neck is shortened, his hind end is out behind him rather than stepping toward his center of mass and his underline is the same length as his topline. He’s just slouching along; exercise in this posture will have no real benefit.
Below is a photo of Hocus Pocus on the longe after a few months of solid ground work:
This is a clickable moment! Here he is moving with a relaxed back and lengthened topline, which, in turn, allows him to have softer joints and a more expansive range of motion. His inside hind leg is stepping quite deeply for him up and under his rib cage which is the first touchstone on the road to collection. The entire picture gives the impression of roundness and elasticity. This is an “access posture”, meaning it’s not a long-term working posture, but an initial coordination where I can begin to influence Hocus’s hind foot flight arcs and general pelvic orientation. This is the posture where real conversations about balance and strength can begin.
This is the organization he chooses for his body now because of the solid reinforcement history we built over the last few months. He was clicked and fed for choosing this organization hundreds and hundreds of times. It’s a “default posture”, meaning, unless influenced otherwise, he chooses to move in this general shape.
So what does he look like in real time? Let’s take a look at Hocus Pocus in action on the longe line:
Watching the video, it’s easy to see that sometimes he drops his head too low and this makes him heavy on his front end and shoulders. He also still lacks any real power or engagement behind, but none of these things are anything to worry about at this stage of his training. All that matters right now is that he has the gross motor pattern of an open, lengthened spine and a relaxed back which allows his hind end to step up and under toward his rib cage. As he repeats this coordination in session after session, he will begin to step under more and more deeply and coil his loins to lift his back. Then, it will be easy for him to raise his head and neck; it will happen organically.
It’s also easy to see that longeing is being used to reinforce a specific skill, not just to blow off steam or to allow my horse to move in an over-stimulated or unhealthy way. Hocus has a clearly defined behavior to offer on the longe. This helps keep him focused on his own body rather than worrying about the environment.
Since I want to help Hocus Pocus become much stronger than he is currently, I also need to be able to work him in-hand. In-hand work, or work between two reins, differs from groundwork in that it connects to both sides of a horse’s body, so is more precise. Through in-hand work, I can teach Hocus to be straight, aligned, and healthy in his movement. In-hand work allows me to communicate more specifically to him about individual body parts through the reins. These connections through the reins are learned: as Bent Branderup says,” The response to the rein is a pedagogical process.” Many horses don’t receive a very detailed set of lessons regarding the reins, so they learn to shorten above or behind the reins which is natural, but not healthy. Teaching a horse to stretch down to a point of contact, which is described in countless books, in practice it is often not taught or well understood. Because Hocus Pocus had previously learned to shorten his neck and drop his back in response to rein contact, I needed to teach a new response in-hand. I wanted him to be able to stretch his neck out to reach for contact in my hand, the same posture we had confirmed on the longe. This is often described as “trusting the trainer’s hands”, which I suppose is true, but it is also a measurable behavior that I can click and reinforce. Here’s a photo of a particularly nice moment of Hocus stretching down to my point of contact in the walk in-hand:
Here’s a similarly lovely moment in the trot:
This is a beautiful starting point for our ridden work that will come later. Riding begins on the ground. From this biomechanically healthy place between two reins, I can start to teach stretching down into transitions and correct, balanced halts. These will help Hocus Pocus become more agile AND more confident about accepting suggestions from a human regarding his body. When we do begin riding for short periods, he will already know how to slow down and stop by stepping up and under with his hind feet, rather than slamming his weight onto his shoulders. It will just be one more cue transfer from in-hand to under saddle. Below is a short video of Hocus Pocus working in-hand, learning to stretch down into a downward transition, rather than shortening into disengagement.
You can see that he is largely able to stretch forward into the contact offered. When I ask him to walk by gently squeezing alternate reins, he has a few strides where he reverts to his old habit posture and raises his head and drops his back. That’s good information. He doesn’t get into trouble for this behavior, he’s not “wrong”, his old learning is just showing through. So we keep walking and I make contact with my outside rein and he is able to pick up that contact and stretch forward into it. A beautiful recovery and a clickable moment. Over time, he will regularly choose the new, lengthened posture over the old, stilted posture because of the reinforcement history, practice (repetition) and physical comfort it provides.
Before I can even consider sitting on Hocus’s back, I need to confirm that he can carry just his own body with strength and coordination. Adding weight, even with a small person like myself, makes maintaining these healthy postures much more difficult. Learning to carry weight is a gradual schooling process. Years and years ago, when Hocus Pocus was only three, I was the first person to “back” him, or sit on him just to introduce him to the idea that humans sit on horses (not to begin riding training, too early!). I remember that he dropped his back immediately and I decided he needed months more of work before I sat on him again. He was too weak. Now, I have a chance to re-start him, but with far more tools at my disposal than I had before. He is still the beautiful learner that he was, and now he is a mature horse coming eleven. With consistent work through this winter, he should be strong enough and educated enough to begin light riding in mid-spring.
As long as I have had Tarot, I have had him sedated for hoof care. Between his deep fear of unfamiliar people and his past life history of tension and fighting over just having his feet lifted and cleaned, much less trimmed, it was easier and safer to get through the process with a drug that helped him be calm physically and mentally. Over time, though, I was becoming less and less of a fan of the frequent jugular sticks and the the expense of the drug every six to eight weeks. It would be more ideal to have Tarot collaborate in his care. I already had most all of the pieces in place for a successful “awake” hoof trim, but then the final piece fell into place: my wife, Sara, started to study with hoof professional Ida Hammer. Tarot now had a familiar and trusted person available to work on his feet. Still, this was not going to be a traditional hoof trimming session, I needed to create a structure that felt safe and empowering for everyone.
As my guiding principle, I used “LIMA” or “Least intrusive, minimally aversive“. This principle challenges the trainer to choose a strategy that allows the learner the most control and choice possible in a situation while using the least aversive methods to modify behavior, ideally utilizing positive reinforcement. The animal learner, not the human trainer, determines what is reinforcing. Fulfilling the “least intrusive” principle was simple; Tarot would be left completely loose. No halter or lead rope to hold him in position or suggest he remain in place. He needed the choice to leave, or to never come over in the first place in order for choice and control to be preserved for him. To fulfill the “minimally aversive” requirement, the entire skill set needed for a real trim had to be re-taught beforehand using positive reinforcement. Tarot had to know how to lift his foot on cue, allow his hoof to be held in multiple positions and allow it to be held while both a metal rasp and a “nippers” were used to shape his foot. Except, Tarot wasn’t learning these behaviors for the first time as a naive learner or a blank slate. He was re-learning a new association with the very same behaviors that had been poisoned for him in his past. All the traditional cues and prompts associated with foot handling triggered frustration and varying levels of defensive behavior. The process of un-poisoning these behaviors needed to be complete before I even thought about adding another handler to the picture. I had worked the last twenty-four months on building new emotional associations with foot handling and creating a new skill set. Now I needed to see if Tarot could transfer those skills to a less familiar human handler. Here’s a video of our session:
It looks simple enough, but there are strict contingencies operating here, both for the humans AND the horse. Let’s look closer at them.
Initially, I stand near Tarot’s head and wait for him to offer a hoof lift. This is very likely, because he has been reinforced for the behavior so many times in the past twenty-four months. I click and reinforce him for several repetitions so he knows this is the “hot” behavior. I then bring Sara in by my left shoulder, NOT in an active handler position. I wait to see if he will offer his hoof lift and I use this information as guidance about whether or not we will go deeper into the process. If Tarot can offer the foot lift with a second person standing by my shoulder, I know he is still relaxed enough to continue.
After reinforcing three or four hoof lifts with Sara at my left shoulder, I ask her to move to my right shoulder and into the more active handler position. This is much more vulnerable for Tarot. If he were to move away, back up or leave, we would go back a step in our process and end where he was comfortable. If he offers his hoof lift with Sara in a more active handler position, which he does, he is clicked and reinforced. He has given us permission to move forward in our process.
After three or four repetitions of the hoof lift, I give Sara the green light to take a hold of his hoof when he lifts it. If he pulls it away, it is given to him. It’s his foot and he is allowed to say no. If he allows her to support his hoof, I immediately begin a “continuous feed” to provide huge reinforcement for his choice. I continue to feed him as long as his foot is in Sara’s hands. When Sara sets the hoof down, the feeding stops, and Sara steps away.
At that point the session is over unless Tarot cues Sara to do more hoof care by offering his foot again. Which he does.
Tarot controls at what level he interacts with the hoof care professional and how long the session lasts. If my set up is ideal for my learner both individually and species-specifically and I have included all of the necessary component pieces, the session will go smoothly, the animal will remain calm and the humans will be able to accomplish their tasks easily. Per Tarot, the session contained all the components for him to collaborate in his hoof care. Success!
Here’s another short video of the same training session:
Teaching the animals in our care to be active participants in their husbandry procedures has a positive effect on the quality of their life and magnifies the bond between us. Preparing them for the procedures that are necessary for their health and well-being is humane, reduces stress and increases safety for owners, vets and professionals. These are facts. But for me, there’s something larger and more serious on the table. Trust. Charles Feltman defines trust as “Choosing to risk allowing something you value to be vulnerable to someone else’s actions.” With Tarot, there wasn’t a way to love him into trust. He was too mature and too wild and too skeptical for such a human conceit. But by setting him up for success in relation to myself and other humans, over and over, in small and measurable pieces, something generous and expansive and lovely has appeared out of only small, unassuming layers.
When you see magic portrayed in books and movies, it is often used as a short-cut around reality. You can clean up a room with a wave of a wand or turn a man into a goat to pull your cart. This sort of magic is superficial: a trick, a deceit. Over time or under certain conditions, it usually degrades to reveal the true nature of reality underneath. It turns out it was only a thin veneer. An illusion. There’s lots of training like this, too. My friend Shirley is neighbors with a man who competed in the last “mustang makeover”. He used lots of short-cuts to get his horse ready to compete in ninety days and even placed well in the competition. Superficially, the horse looked “trained”. The only trouble now is that the man can’t even catch the horse from the pasture. The reality underneath was the horse was never comfortable, just trapped between hard choices. In my world, I think of these techniques as dark magic, illusions. Spells that seek to control without any regard for the horse.
Real magic, or transformation, requires quiet, incremental work in deep agreement with reality. It allows no short-cuts and if you work skillfully, the changes made are quite real. With Tarot, I wanted to help him transform his emotional landscape from fearful and trapped to trusting, engaged and joyful. I wanted to offer him healing and the vast space that healing can bring. Lastly, I wanted to stretch my own soul. I knew that real magic always works both ways; I couldn’t transform Tarot without transforming myself. I needed a clean, white magic, clear and fluid as water. Clicker training.
If you had a magic wand what spell would you cast?
I wasn’t naive enough to think I could go directly at a spell for riding with Tarot. I knew that underneath everything good, everything healthy between humans and horses lived relaxation and engagement. Without that as a foundation, everything else would be compromised. This summer, Tarot started to be outgoing, silly. He started to canter up from the bottom of his pasture, shaking his head and demanding attention. He put on new pieces of equipment like he had always worn them, without worry. The smell of leather used to send him snorting into the distance, now he arched his neck and stood quietly to put on a saddle. He began to feel, well, like all my other horses. Relaxed. Happy. Engaged. A few weeks ago, I woke up and thought, “Today I will sit on Tarot.” I’m used to following my intuition, so after I finished my horse chores, I took the mounting block out to Tarot to see what he thought of it. I used something I call an “asking loop” to assess his comfort and make sure I didn’t skip any important steps in the process. An asking loop splits a larger process into all it’s component pieces and checks in with the learner at each step to assess their comfort. Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day two:
At twenty-one seconds, you can hear Tarot blow through his nostrils as he lowers his head while my leg is over his back. This is a low level sign of fear and something he used to do all the time when I was even near him. He’s saying this is hard for him! This is a stop sign for me and means I shouldn’t progress further until Tarot shows he is relaxed. The other detail to notice to compare with my day four video (below) is that Tarot’s head stays relatively high during this session and he really has to work hard to offer a bit of head lowering until the end.This is tension and also registers as tension in his back. These are small details, but they are crucial. People and horses lose confidence in one another when these small behaviors are ignored and the horse is forced to show discomfort through larger behaviors like spinning away, bolting or bucking. I want him to know I can hear him when he is mildly uncomfortable and he never needs to escalate to get my attention.
The most charming detail, however, is that Tarot doesn’t leave the mounting block even when I do. He’s obviously decided by the end of this session that the mounting block predicts a fun game. Why leave when that lady keeps coming back to feed him just for standing still?
Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day four, the day Tarot invited me onto his back:
In this video you can see that Tarot starts out very relaxed, with a low head and no blowing. His eyes are soft and blinking throughout and his ears are floppy, listening for my click. He looks so relaxed it’s hard to imagine him fearful or afraid. You can also see that he keeps on chewing the grain from his last reward while I sit on him the next time. If he was tense there would be a momentary freeze response which would stop his chewing. He is calm and present. What is fascinating to me is that there was no point in the process where I consciously decided to get on. I just proceeded through my asking loop and as I felt his body relax and felt his solid connection to the ground through his back, my body made the decision for me. And then, there we were, me sitting on my horse, he with a person on his back, completely relaxed and on the edge of a brand new world, together.
Yesterday morning as I watched Rumi cantering through the snow, totally relaxed with an even cadence, I thought how lovely it would be to ride him. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about riding him lately, his pasture gaits are really very balanced and full of impulsion and more than once I’ve just stood holding the hay in my arms while I watch him trot or canter with lovely control and variation within his gait. He’s a very athletic horse. He’s also a nervous horse who bucked a lot of people off when he was started too quickly under saddle. Before I get on him, he needs to have mastered many skills he doesn’t yet have. To do it well, I need a plan, both for individual sessions and a larger outline that helps lead the way to where we are going. Since it’s New Year’s Day, its a fitting time to lay out broad goals for all of my horses and release solid intention into the universe.
Rumi : I would like to work toward riding Rumi. This means teaching him the six foundation lessons: target, happy ears, back up, head-down, the grown-ups are talking (stand quietly), and stand on a mat. These lessons can be taught first in the barn where he is comfortable, then out on the big driveway circle and then finally in the indoor and outdoor arena. Once he is comfortable with these lessons and relaxed in either arena with all the foundation lessons, we can move to WWYLM (Why would you leave me?) on a cone circle. I’m excited to get to work on his physical balance because I think he’s going to enjoy the work. I suspect it will change him emotionally and I am eager to reach that phase. I will set a loose goal of sitting on him by this fall while he works in-hand on a cone circle with a header. Then he could have a few winter months off and we can pick up in spring and begin riding on our own in the summer of 2015. An eight year old Arabian certainly has a good 20 more years of riding.
Dragon: Dragon is the most educated of my horses and a very fast learner, so mapping out an entire year seems too large. He changes and progresses so quickly and has so much to teach me that I really can’t claim to know where we will be in six months. It’s a conversation based on what comes up during our rides. Currently, we have been working on and have achieved a very open, engaged walk that “has the trot available” within it. He’s using his back beautifully and becoming quite strong. His muscles have evened out and we no longer need our right side shim which balanced out his weaker muscles on that side. I’m learning how to keep him in balance in that walk and my goal is to be able to request that walk and have him be able to maintain it joyfully on the circle, across the diagonal, in half-turns in reverse and throughout all the “training turns” without losing a particle of impulsion. (Nuno Oliveira) We are working on brief trots when his balance in the walk is divine and clicking before there is any loss of balance.
In-hand we are working on haunches-in and shoulder-in, so we both have the feel of it in our bodies before we ride it. We are working on duration for haunches in and still fiddling with an ideal balance for shoulder-in. We are also doing much more trot work in hand, releasing Dragon into his own balance when he finds a good equilibrium and clicking him for maintaining that on his own.
For my part, I am working on my seat and own riding both in dismounted and mounted exercises as well as deep body awareness. I need to be as balanced, strong and aware as I am asking Dragon to be.
Djinn: Djinn will be five this summer, so it’s not too early to think about riding her. I already bought her a beautiful blue swallow tail saddle pad, so I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have been thinking about it. Djinn has already has learned five of the six foundation exercises; I still need to introduce “stand on a mat” to her, but everything else she learned last year.
Even though she already has a reasonable foundation, I am going to review each exercise with special attention to how light she is and how *connected* she is within her body. She is a horse that can get “stuck” in her body and I want to feel like my lead/rein is literally just an extension of her body, even in higher arousal situations. So we will be going back through our foundation work to add in layers of refinement. From there we will move to WWYLM on the circle and then all the same work with the saddle on, as well as “mounting block games”, teaching her to line up with the block. I really adore this little mare and I think she is going to look spectacular moving in balance. It will be interesting to compare the differences between her and Rumi as we look toward riding – how they both need to learn the same things, but likely need totally different aspects of the work emphasized.
Tarot: Tarot is the horse that pushes me to explore the outer edges of possibility and to use intuition first, guided by the good science of learning. This year I want to explore his feet handling issues more intensively so he can learn to be comfortable for trimming without sedation. I’ve put together a new protocol that I’m excited to get started on once it’s warm enough. We’ve also began de-sensitizing to the fly spray, which he’s shown continuous improvement with, until it became to cold to spray a liquid into the air.
I like to balance out working on fear issues with more emotionally easy and enjoyable work for him.
Tarot has learned all of his foundation skills to fluency, so we will be starting more work in-hand. We will start by reviewing his skills in the indoor arena and then move to WWYLM, which he had 3 or 4 sessions on last year. I am excited to explore balance work with him, to see him grow stronger and for him to feel powerful in his body in concert with a human. Humans have taken so much power from him and restricted him so frequently. I am interested to see what he has to say about this piece of the work in particular.
I am also interested to explore shaping on a point of contact and the deep tactile listening it develops. There’s something that opens up down the lead or rein when you and the horse are concentrating on that same point of contact, it’s like your nervous systems become one circuit and the feeling is indescribable. I want to know if that is possible with him. If it happens, I will know someday I can ride him.
Aesop: Aesop will be seven this year. He’s already safe and started under saddle and he’s a lovely, easy horse to teach. He is very light and responsive in-hand and actually has much more energy and impulsion in-hand than under saddle. It only makes sense – he’s been working with me on the ground for over two years and the level of refinement and solid reinforcement history shows. Riding is newer and he looks like a less advanced horse with a rider. He has a more common balance and still some questions to be worked out. My initial focus for him this year is to help him transfer all those wonderful qualities he has in-hand to ridden work.
I am going to teach this through a few different “conversations.”
We will continue our work in-hand, focusing on “Three-Flip-Three” or connecting his hip to the rein. This will allow him to really step under with his inside hind and carry himself in a way that is correct and will help make him stronger and more “through”, meaning, his energy will move cleanly and easily from the push of his back hoof all the way up through his back in a cycle of energy. Once he is understanding that equilibrium better, I will add in trot work in hand with that understanding, so he can be reinforced for working in a gait with more energy, but correctly. He likes to trot in-hand, but he lacks power, so that needs to be added so he can carry himself and me.
I will continue riding but with a person at our head to work him in-hand while I ride. Aesop needs some help with accessing the same balance in the saddle as he has on the ground. A person at his head can help him with familiar cues so that he can find the same balance and impulsion and start to offer it when ridden. Like Dragon, Aesop is more advanced, so planning out an entire year would be too big. This work will take us about six to eight weeks, so will keep us busy during later winter and early spring. By summer we should have some lovely videos to share.
Those are my basic big picture plans for my horses. Teaching emotional control through foundation lessons. Teaching physical balance. Combining the two to create a reliable riding partner. Refining physical balance and tactile communication in an ongoing effort toward the centaur. Re-visiting foundation lessons to focus on and reinforce lightness before starting under saddle. Setting up new, functional behaviors for feet handling and basic husbandry in place of old, fear and anger based behaviors through unconventional teaching. Using good physical balance to build confidence, strength and emotional engagement. Using in-hand work to inform balance and learning with a rider through utilizing a ground person.
When you look at the list, in the end, everything is about balance. Clinicians talk a lot about being centered and working on yourself and then working on your horse. But what does that mean? It just means: learn to be self-aware enough to see what you are doing and know what you are feeling. Learn to understand the horse’s emotional states and how to help them shift easily between them. Learn to understand the horse’s horizontal balance so you can help them find strength and fluidity when they are having trouble. Everything I have as a goal for my horses takes them more toward “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” Horses are a shifting puzzle of behaviors, motor patterns and behavioral tendencies that can teach us exquisite observational skills and body awareness if we accept the challenge of learning what they need to be in true equilibrium.
How many times have you heard the phrase, “You better make him stand still!”?
It reflects a common belief system in the horse world; if your horse is afraid of something, the clippers, fly spray, a new blanket, he can only get used to it by being held in position, until he realizes it won’t hurt him, or that he cannot get away. Common equipment like stud chains and twitches are used to inflict severe localized pain in order to deter horses from moving when the stakes are high. It’s part and parcel of the way things have always been done.
Part of this impulse to make a horse stand still reflects a reasonable safety concern. Horses are large animals and when they are scared and unaware they can be dangerous. Teaching them to stand still makes them safer to be around. Wanting to hold them in position is often just a natural human response to control a volatile situation and make it feel safer.
Another part of the impulse to make a horse stand still is lack of empathy. Humans just aren’t flight animals. A horse’s many fears can seem unreasonable to us brave humans, so we dismiss their legitimate concerns and over-power them with force. They learn that whatever they are scared of is less worrisome than the human with a chain over their nose. They choose between two evils, so to speak.
There is a horse training book by Andrew McLean, The Truth About Horses, that clearly states that any “hyper-reactive flight response” (ie moving away, spooking or bolting) should be immediately “disallowed” by demanding a downward transition through the rein or lead with “as much force as necessary.” The theory is, if the horse is allowed to express his flight response, he will become increasingly conflicted and difficult to handle. When talking about getting a horse used to clippers or other scary stimuli, he states,” When dealing with nervous horses, care must be taken not to allow the horse to increase the distance between itself and it’s handler.” The horse must be made to stand still.
But is this really the sole truth? Could there be other ways to teach a horse to relax without inhibiting his flight response?
My stallion, Tarot, as many of you know, is an extremely cautious horse. He’s grown to accept many things – shavings bags flapping near his feet, ropes dangling, and me in my raincoat. But fly spray is something I’ve avoided. He allows me to wipe him down with a washcloth, so I’ve chosen to do that and get the job done rather than go through the process of getting him used to the sound, tactile sensation and smell of the spray. But, the other day, I thought I would see if I could create a training session for him that would allow him to offer standing still near fly spray by his own choice. I knew I had to set up the structure of the session so he could understand what I wanted, and offer him enough choice to foster relaxation. I knew he had to be loose, because I didn’t want to be holding on to the spray and his lead rope. He can bolt when he is afraid AND trapped; he runs off when he hears fly spray even outside his paddock, when I am dousing the wash cloth, for instance.
I decided to have Tarot loose and go in with my fly spray and my treat pouch. I would raise the bottle of spray up and say the word “spray” then begin spraying continuously, parallel to but not on his body. That way he would know when the spray was coming and not be surprised. He would be free to express as much flight distance as he needed to, he could gallop 300 feet to the other end of his pasture. He could also choose not to return and play the game if he didn’t want to. My clickable moment, if offered, would be when he either stopped moving away or chose to turn and move toward the actively spraying fly spray. Here’s what happened:
To be honest, this video begins at repetition number six. The first five went so well that I stopped training and went into the house to get my little video camera. That means I missed the really dramatic spin and canter away that happened on the real first lift and spray. The dramatic flight response also never reappeared, despite it being allowed and fully expressed. Once he returns to me, he gets a click and a chance to play a targeting game with my free hand, both as a bonus reward and a way for me to gauge him mentally. (Tarot “checks out” and does very weak targets when nervous.)
After three or four targets, I raise the bottle, announce, “spray”, and begin to spray again. From the video you can see that Tarot very quickly decides he can stay near the spray on his own.
So what gives? Why, when I let Tarot put distance between himself and me with the scary stimulus, does he not get more reactive and, instead, becomes more relaxed and quiet around the fly spray? The truth about horses is that allowing your horse to put distance between himself and you with a scary bottle of spray only causes problems if you train with negative reinforcement. It’s not a truth about horses at all. It’s a truth about a training method. Horses working in the negative reinforcement paradigm experience release of pressure or gaining some distance as relief. It’s the currency of that paradigm. Because Tarot is working for a click and a treat, something he actively wants, instead of to avoid something he doesn’t, he is willing to approach and look for what I want once he’s moved far enough away to relieve his fear. Using a positive reinforcement paradigm, the rules change. He can express his flight response and still learn how to stand still.
We have to be willing to look for new answers and revise our long accepted beliefs about these magnificent creatures. When we think outside the box, horses like Tarot, who panic in traditional training scenarios, are able to succeed beautifully. The truth about horses is they are brilliant learners if only we know how to set up the lesson.