Constellations and Dressage

centaur constellationSince I was sixteen years old I wanted to learn dressage. I dreamt of  seamless communication with my horse and “invisible aids” so light we would seem like one creature instead of two.  I collected shelves and shelves of dressage books with beautiful pictures of horses moving correctly, enviably, but none of them really explained how to begin the work. They were more like beautiful picture museums of correct movement. I took years of lessons from different trainers, some better than others, one who even had grand prix level horses. But learning to teach a horse about their own body and balance is a completely different skill set than learning the mechanics of riding an already trained horse. It’s endlessly complex work. And as Mary Wanless  points out, “The map is not the territory”. Reading about a skill, having an intellectual understanding of how to slide down the rein or ask for a give of the jaw is not the same thing as having the kinesthetic feel available and familiar to you in your body. Dressage is multiple skill sets that come together to form a whole.

I remember one day in particular taking a dressage lesson on my Friesian cross, Dragon, years ago. We were trying to make a 20 meter circle to the right at the trot and he kept falling in on his right shoulder. My instructor wanted me to lift my right rein to block his shoulder and apply my right leg to “hold him on the circle”. The more I lifted my rein and insisted with my leg the more we spiraled into the circle and the more frustrated both of us became. In his confusion he trotted faster and faster and swished his tail as I provided a heavy right rein to lean against. Recognizing complete disorganization, I asked him to halt. My instructor and I agreed I should get off as he was so upset and the entire situation felt volatile. Of course it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know how to balance his shoulders more upright from a suggestion on the rein. When he was falling on his inside shoulder he wasn’t actually capable of responding to my leg by altering his balance either. I didn’t even know then exactly what was wrong. I just knew my aids weren’t working and everything felt impossible.

The groundwork I have done with Dragon using Alexandra Kurland’s program has enhanced both my and Dragon’s body awareness immeasurably. To say he is a different horse might be an understatement.  I’m certain he would say I am a different handler. He has learned that he has shoulders and how to balance them upright through the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game. He learned the beginning of lateral work through the same exercise. I learned how to ask for jaw flexions on the ground and he learned how to soften throughout his body and be “on the bit”. He has learned to step under with his hip from a slight lift of my rein and he moves in a lovely, soft bend. All of these things transferred directly from our groundwork to ridden work.
He is quiet, concentrated and soft under saddle. Willing to accompany me into this deep study.
I feel that just now I am starting my journey of being a true rider. I’ve ridden since I was 9 years old but I was just an enamored passenger then. Now I am learning the same fine motor control I am asking of my horse so we can explore the foundation and outer edges of  balance, together. I was riding three to five times a week until the snow came and  during this time I had a major breakthrough in my own kinesthetic feel. Kinesthetic feels or physical skills are right brained and therefore implicitly wordless. But our right brain is visual so descriptions of  feel are possible through metaphor.

riding breakthrough dayI was riding in my tiny indoor arena ten days ago. I usually speak out loud about what I am asking for in each moment since it keeps me focused on actively riding and is a good way to see how well Dragon and I are really working together. There are so many body parts to remain aware of between human and horse and, as I suspect is true for most riders,  as my awareness of one body part grows I often lose track of the rest of my body. It fades away to the background. But this ride was different. As I said to Dragon, ” Soften your jaw to me and bend left” it was as if my hand that slid down the rein to request the bend lit up with awareness. Next I rotated my left thighbone and weighted my right seatbone to ask him to move to the wall and stay beneath me and each of them lit up too, softly glowing. He moved, perfectly bent, utterly soft moving off my thigh and coming under my seatbone to pick me up. Lastly, I organized my outside rein to receive his engagement and my right hand lit up. We moved together down the long side of the arena balanced over and under multiple points of contact and for the first time in my life I held an easy awareness of each point of contact simultaneously. No one point glared in the foreground. Nothing faded away. I was a constellation made of individual glowing stars but forming a whole. We were luminous, a living star chart that could change at any moment to describe a new movement, one seatbone dimming to black as I weighted the other to ask him onto the circle. For the first time in my life I consciously rode the whole horse at once. This is what I dreamed of when I was young. A  language delicate and nuanced as starlight.

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.

Component skills for trailer loading

Last week my friend Natalie came over to train her horse, Harrison, in our arena. He loaded up into the trailer easily on the way over, but once he was done training he just wasn’t confident he wanted to get back in. He would walk up to the opening but once he got close enough to load his feet were frozen. Any pressure on the lead, even very light, was too much pressure. He would tense up and back away to a “safe zone”.  Like many many horses the world over, Harrison was likely pressured or tricked onto a trailer other times in his life. While strong pressure might work in the moment, it poisons the lead rope in the future. It’s no longer available as a tool.
Forty five patient minutes later, Natalie got Harrison on the trailer through patience and clicking for leans forward and back. Trailer loading was definitely on her training list for the week. We want to have her over at least every Sunday to train and it will be much more fun for all involved if her horse loads calmly and easily. Luckily, Natalie had already taught Harrison an exercise that contained the component parts needed for trailer loading. So once she got home, she planned out a new exercise to combine the skills he already had with the presence of the trailer to create great trailer loading.
Last year Natalie had worked with Harrison so that she could move any foot she chose forward or back just with a small cue on her lead. Harrison was having trouble standing square and to teach him how to stand in balance she needed to be able to influence his feet. We call this skill “needle-pointing”.
She also taught him to stand on a mat. The mat has a myriad of uses, but in this case the mat is used to reward Harrison for doing a particularly accurate or light job moving his feet. It is doubly rewarding as Natalie has the mat placed away from the trailer. For a horse who is still nervous about the trailer, getting to move away from it is a functional reward.

In the video you will see Natalie is walking on a cone circle with her trailer parked on the edge. This video is the second day she’s worked on this so we join her a bit further into the process. Originally, she worked on moving Harrison’s feet forward and back, or needle-pointing, out on the edge of the circle and then would go to the mat as a reward. When they would get to the point on the the circle where Harrison was facing the trailer and in the orientation to load, but further away, she would click him and then just feed him over and over for being near the trailer. It wasn’t dependent on Harrison’s behavior because it was counter-conditioning, or:  if you are near the scary trailer you get lots of good food! It’s an easy way to get relaxation in a situation that was previously worrisome. When we join her in this video she is further in her process and beginning to ask Harrison for his needle-pointing when he is approaching the trailer. She alternates those reps with needle-pointing out on the circle to keep the session light. She doesn’t fall into the normal trap of most humans, which involves making the situation to difficult too quickly and then being angry that she failed. She listens to her horse and progresses when he feels as light and engaged near the trailer as he does when he is working out on the circle.

Once Harrison is relaxed and responsive with mobilized feet near the trailer, Natalie decides to request that those feet move forward onto the trailer. Watch their fancy footwork here:

You can see that he is ready to get in the trailer because he puts his foot up right as he reaches the trailer. She immediately asks for another foot and gets it with no hesitation. If you turn up the volume you can hear her calling out what foot she is asking for next so you can watch for it. Basically she continues needle-pointing Harrison but this time he is on the trailer. She wants to make sure her forward and back still work despite the “change of scenery”. If they don’t she will know her horse is tense and to go back to the last step in the exercise where he was relaxed and able to offer all feet in all directions. From time to time she backs him out to give him a break and on his best attempt she surprises him with sliced apples in the trailer. Because of the two small pull backs he offers despite an otherwise lovely session, Natalie decided not to ask for back feet in the trailer in this session. She understood he had some small reservations left, and understands the fastest way to fix trailer loading issues is slowly.

The last video is of Harrison loading fluently into the trailer because of his mastery of smaller component skills.

Here you see Natalie halter Harrison in his pasture and walk him directly onto the trailer, no warm-up required. Once in he stands calmly and quietly and then is able to move one foot at a time when asked. This a good indicator of relaxation. You will hear Natalie say “drop” when he is at the edge of the trailer and about to take a step down. This way he isn’t surprised by the drop-off. Once he is out she releases him to go trot to his mat as a reward. Fun and easy for horse and human!

The component skills for trailer loading are just foundation lessons. Natalie has taken time building a gorgeous foundation for this horse and it shows.
The foundation lessons involved here are: go forward, back up, and stand on a mat. She combined those into the more refined skill of needle-pointing each individual foot and then added in classical counter-conditioning near the trailer for emotional relaxation. Harrison knows exactly what she wants from him and is happy to offer it. It is such elegant training I wanted to share it with you!

Djinn: week seven

Day 46-52

This week I felt Djinn and I had built up enough of a repertoire to start working without protective contact. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. As an experienced trainer I know when you change your criteria you should expect some behavior to deteriorate. I knew no matter how well I laid out my training plan,  some of Djinn’s behaviors would be harder for her to access than others. The only problem was I wouldn’t know which behaviors would fall apart until I was in the moment with her.  I also wanted to guard against making all of her behaviors too finished and perfect outside the pen and then disappointing myself when I finally went in and lost some ground, so I decided this week would be the week. Since I have never trained a horse largely through protective contact this process is as new to me as to her.

I am pleased to report that she was lovely and almost all of her learned behaviors transferred almost immediately. Success!

To begin I had her station at her target for something to focus on while I entered the pen, and hopefully, to stay focused on for a high rate of reinforcement. The target was not interesting compared to the fun new lady (me!) who was suddenly in the pen with her so it briefly left her radar. Luckily I had put back up off of soft lead pressure on cue so I was able to ask for for backing which she offered easily. We basically have been working within three loops, back up, walk and target, as we get to know each other up close and personal.

Loops are important because they allow the training to flow so that the learner doesn’t get frustrated . In addition, once your behavior loop is clean (meaning no unwanted  or extraneous behavior is included in the loop) you know it’s time to move on or raise your criteria. For more information about “Loopy Training” as Alexandra Kurland calls it, click here. In the video below you will see we are working within three behaviors. Djinn is either standing and touching her target, actively backing up off a light pressure cue (installed with a target originally, not pressure), or walking forward off of my body language or very light pressure ( taught through hand target).

The video shows our fourth session working together in the pen. We are nearly at 60 days of work and our list of skills is: will self-halter, can stand quietly for fly-spray over entire body, can stand quietly at target for curry comb, hard brush and all over body handling, will stand while I enter pen, allows rope to be clipped on halter willingly, can back up off of light lead rope pressure, can move forward off of light lead rope pressure, can stand quietly at target while being touched all over body, can back off of a chest touch or nose touch, can target an open hand or physical target. All of these things were taught through the panels – it’s just this week that I will be making bigger loops for back up (asking for more steps) and refining her leading so she can start to go out and play in the pasture with our other mares. To me, the most beautiful part of all of these skills is that Djinn is a willing participant. Instead of learning how to let things be done to her, she has learned how to place her head into her halter, to touch her target with her nose while being groomed, to back up off of a light suggestion. She collaborates with me in the process and demonstrates her understanding with measurable behaviors.

I can’t believe we are only at sixty days. One hundred days is  much deeper than I initially imagined when I started out on this journey. I am so deeply in love with this horse already, her bright eye and eagerness and coat like the night sky. I like to think of training as a series of individual spells: charms that I work on with my horses and through them both of us are transformed. The end goal, the final spell, is complete, effortless and joyful communication with your horse. The dream of a common language.

Djinn: week three

 

Day 16-22

This week I didn’t get as much done as I hoped between the searing heat outside and injuring my foot. My Friesian cross gelding, Dragon, “spooked in place” and just onto my foot while leading him from his pasture to the barn in the dark. In sandals. I know it is a cardinal rule to always wear boots around horses. I got lazy:  it was late at night and the toe protectors on my sandals lulled me into a false sense of security. Lesson learned.

Djinn and I had some wonderful training sessions and then a few harder ones. Towards the beginning of the week I had a man come out to pull some sand out of our arena so the footing would be a bit firmer. Djinn worked on targeting while he drove the equipment and she had beautiful concentration  and great duration. I was amazed at how easily she focused and how well she handled the noise which has upset her in her past. Her emotional control was seeming of a different order and I felt sure we had moved into new territory. A new place where I could ask more of her and she could handle more environmental stress without it affecting her response.

Then, on Saturday when we trained it was starting to get dark and people’s voices were carrying through the fields as well as some unfamiliar barking dogs. Someone was shooting a loud gun in the distance and overall the farm felt rather unsafe. Normally it’s perfectly quiet here.

I worked with Djinn anyway despite the stressful environment because I thought her behaviors would hold up and I had committed to working with her daily. I thought working on her target behavior would give her something to focus on and settle her down. While she was able to touch her target, she was stressed and ended up biting the target a lot. I lowered my criteria to just nose touches and ended on a good note.

When I went out to train her on Monday, I got this:

You can see in the video how Djinn is a bit frantic about getting to her target and opens her mouth wide to bite it as her first behavior. Yikes! This is not the emotional state I am looking to get out of this behavior. Instead of settling in and focusing on touching her target, she gets more and more frustrated, biting and finally cantering off . It’s up to me as the trainer to help Djinn calm down. I decided to go back to the first thing I taught her, head down, and reinforce her heavily for maintaining the position. There’s not a lot of research behind it, but theoretically, since horses have their head on the ground when grazing and grazing is relaxing, putting their head down helps them access a more relaxed, calm emotional state. Here’s Djinn doing her head down:

This video starts when we’ve been doing head down already for about a minute. It’s boring, so I edited that part out. (If you really want to see it, I have the footage in my computer.) The reason I included this clip is at about  :17 seconds you see Djinn raise her head to look off to her right. She is concerned, but lowers her head uncued and then and :23 gives a blow through her nose which indicates relaxation. From there I take here through walking forward and back so she can practice moving in a controlled way. She blows again at :31 and is more relaxed from then on. This is a good thing! I want a horse who understands how to self-calm when nervous. Lowering your head is much better than rushing off or biting.

In traditional horse training, we seek to make the horse obey regardless of internal states. In progressive horse training, we use internal states as a guide in our training. I don’t want my horses to suppress their fear because what is suppressed tends to reappear at the most inopportune times. I want my horses to express their emotions so I can teach them a million roads out of their fear and frustration. Roads we can walk together.

You can see when we go back to targeting she is less frantic and more focused. Still not as good as the days before, but much improved. For my part, I lowered the target so that she can keep her head lower when touching the ball. It will keep her back from inverting and tensing up. I also kept the target closer to her so she wouldn’t feel any frustration about the target “getting away” which could also lead to the biting behavior. With these two changes, plus the break for head lowering Djinn does much better!

I love that this whole sequence is on video. So many trainers just show finished behaviors and it can feel so frustrating when your horse isn’t “textbook”. Here you can see that Djinn is having an emotional day and I am getting all sorts of behavior I don’t think is useful for a relaxed horse/human relationship. We just go back to basics, make her job easier, and find a way to allow her to be right. As my mentor Alexandra Kurland says,” You don’t know what the horse has learned, we only know what we’ve presented.” I think I did a good job taking Djinn back to basics. She’ll tell me this week through her behavior. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Djinn: week two

Day 8-15:

I had suspected from the beginning that Djinn had been frequently hand -fed without any rules. My hauler, Rick, warned me she uses her mouth a lot. She hadn’t bit him, but she was grabby.  In the beginning, she reminded me of a petting zoo goat. Constantly craning her neck through the bars of her pen with a active mouth and even grabbing unsuspecting people’s pants who were within reach. I was annoyed that she had been allowed to learn these habits and a little perplexed too. Who had hand-fed her? I called my adoption contact at the BLM this week to let her know Djinn was doing well and to hunt down some more information. It turns out when the public comes to tour the BLM facility in California they keep carrots on hand for people to feed the horses. From their point of view it helps make the horses more tame and it’s fun for the humans too. Djinn, however, learned to grab at people to make them dispense food quickly.  Multiply that by the two years Djinn spent there and that’s a whole lot of practice! Luckily, I know how to teach her new rules around food, but a different owner likely wouldn’t.

For this reason, all of our lessons are centered around what to do with your muzzle when a human is interacting with you. I need multiple ways to request Djinn keeps her lips and teeth to herself, by asking her to perform learned behaviors she enjoys and understands. It’s easy right now while I’m on the outside of the pen. If she goes to grab me I can just back away. But I need to be thinking about when I am inside the pen beside her. If I am going to be safe then I need to be sure Djinn understands exactly what I want from her. The easiest way to give Djinn something to do was to teach her a nose target to an object I can hang in her pen. She will receive reinforcers for stationing quietly with her nose touching her target. In this case I chose a jolly ball since it is large and mostly indestructible. When I am grooming her, instead of her being bored and thinking about nibbling me, she can concentrate on keeping her head straight and touching her ball. But before she can station quietly she needs to understand how to touch a target with her nose. Here’s a video of one of her first sessions:

You can see in the beginning what a good job she’s done learning the default leave-it. Everytime she reaches me she offers her head down, barely noticing the giant blue ball in my hand. I am sliding it along the fence so she has to walk forward to follow me. The forward motion makes her much more likely to to bump the ball with her nose, even by mistake. It takes a few tries but she starts to get it in about a minute or so. It’s a wonderful first attempt. It’s a good thing I introduced a new behavior, too, because she was starting to think head down would be the right answer to my every request and I have bigger plans for us! She is a new learner but not too new to learn that the right answer changes. Here’s a video of her four days later showing how much more she understands about keeping her nose on the blue ball:

Good horse!

In a few days I’ll put the ball touch/station on a verbal cue and then introduce touching her neck while she remains at her station. She already allows me to touch her whole body through the fence, so the neck touch won’t be new, just new while she’s touching a target. From there I’ll build to handling her whole body while she stations.

Since we also have back up on cue I can use that to move her cleanly away from the target without having to fuss near her face or mouth in the beginning. I can ask for head-down after she backs as a balancer and a moment of quiet and then I can send her back to her target for some more stationing. Station, back-up and head-down will form the foundation of our very early work together. With those behaviors I will be able to introduce grooming, giving to pressure, leading and staying quietly out of my space. I want to teach her these things both so I can be safe and so she feels like she is right in her choices. I don’t want training to be poisoned with frustration or conflict.

Djinn has pushed me to be more creative and thoughtful in my training. She has changed already from a grabby, frustrated horse to a more thoughtful mare that understands certain behaviors earn rewards at certain times. I am seeing glimpses of the educated horse she will become: engaged, intelligent and responsive.

 

Aesop’s first hose bath

My mustang gelding, Aesop, had his first bath on Tuesday. This time last year he had just come home to the farm and was as yet untouched. You can see from the video that he is now trusting and relaxed even when completely new stimulus are introduced. The only time he has ever seen a hose before this is in his water trough, submerged. I was going to title this post: Here is the reason clicker trainers don’t have tv shows. The video is completely boring because he has no conflict whatsoever, which is, of course, the goal.