Using Clicker Training to Teach Riding as a Road to Reinforcement to a Mustang Stallion

A few years ago I sat on Tarot for the first time (read about that here), but I still didn’t really feel that he was ready for riding. He was relaxed with me being up on his back in terms of trust, but I didn’t feel that he had enough of an education for him to be ready for the complexities of riding . On top of that, he was uneasy in the indoor arena and I didn’t feel safe riding him in his lane with the electric tape and other horses nearby. So, I tabled everything after that first session of sitting on him.
But by late summer and early fall this year, a few things happened which illustrated how very deeply he has changed. I began to think riding was a real possibility for the first time.
Tarot School Horse clinic

Tarot giving a lesson to a student during a clinic here at Idle Moon.

The first thing that happened was I held a clinic here on my farm, and he was able to participate, as a school horse, in an arena full of people. Just a few years earlier, if anyone but me was in the arena with him he would be tense, on edge and prone to big, cantering bolt-y spooks. Extra people were always a concern for him because they reminded him of situations where multiple people had worked together to control him. But this year he let go of that old conditioning.

As if that wasn’t enough, he was additionally comfortable working with someone other than me at length. His ability to absorb stress and novelty had hugely expanded. In effect, his world-view had changed. His old predictors for danger and self-preservation were consistently superseded by his new, positive associations he had learned here.

The second thing was more subtle, but just as important. When I got home from my “study abroad” trip from the Netherlands, I took out my horses one by one to say hello and introduce them to some of what I had learned. When I started to work with him on some of the balances, I had the immediate sense of time turning to water, of the world softening, opening, and I knew that if I did not travel with him as deeply as possible, there would be lovely things he offers I would never get to know. It was time to be serious now.

When I re-visited our work at the mounting block, I found he remembered everything exactly as if we had rehearsed it the day before. I could climb up the block, take up the reins, throw my leg over and sit, click, climb off and feed. He even threw in lovely posture to sweeten the deal.

Tarot re-start

Relaxed and focused at the mounting block.

He was comfortable with me getting on, but I had never taught him how to take food from my hand while I was up on his back. Real riding was going to require that he was comfortable taking food from me while I was up. In addition, because Tarot had bolted before under a rider, it was important that I paid attention to every detail as I rebuilt a reinforcement history for ridden games. Structuring each piece so he felt safe and successful would guide him toward feeling being a riding horse would be something he could enjoy and be confident about. I didn’t want any carelessness on my part in the beginning to sabotage what might be possible for us.

Initially, when I clicked and tried to feed from his back the first few times,  I had grain in my hand, and it was hard for him to get a hold of all the grain. A lot of it fell onto the ground and he stopped trying to turn his head to get it. Too hard! My friend gave me the idea of trying big, easy to grab apple treats, so we tried again with those.

 

My goals with these initial repetitions are modest. Click Tarot for standing still, feed him so he can be successful taking a reinforcer, let him chew, click him for straightening his head back in the center of his neck, click and repeat. In the video you can see him practicing food acquisition, as well as the little “tour” we take around the object circle after our mounting practice. The walk around the circle gives both of us a little break in between repetitions and sets us up geographically for where we will go when we do start moving.

I was happy with our progress, but I wanted to see if once I was on his back, I could ask him for an operant behavior. I chose his “rein” behavior, which cues him to lower his head a touch when I pick up the reins. We’ve practiced it over and over at the mounting block and it’s a high probability behavior for him. In the next video, you’ll see me get on Tarot, click him for allowing the sit, feed and then cue a slight head lowering through a verbal cue and slide down the rein. It transfers just beautifully! In addition, I add in a shoulder tap to cue him about the side the reinforcer will be delivered from. Let’s watch:

All these details can seem like overkill. You are on! Get riding! Except, what do you have to rely on if things go wrong? Right now, we are building a lovely loop where we can relax in the halt and use well established head lowering and a high rate of reinforcement to take a break or re-establish calm should we need it. These are the details that are the scaffolding of trust and relaxation.

It’s easy to see that Tarot’s thick neck makes it hard for him to swing around and get the treat from my hand. There is a lot of sideways movement in that gesture. But, it’s also reassuring that he can come so far out of balance and go back into balance without panicking. I’m sure over a few more sessions we will refine this together and it will already look different than the video above. But first approximations are good to have on video so you can compare as things evolve.
This week we will practice a few more rounds of our loop at the mounting block, and after that, we will begin forward movement mat to mat.

Horse culture can be a throw away culture. If a horse is not following an owner’s timeline, or has more conflict behavior than they hoped for, they are often sold or thrown out to pasture or sent to auction. We have high hopes pinned to these beasts. Tarot and I are lucky, because I knew his issues before I brought him home. I wanted to live up close to a horse with serious fear and a lack of trust because I knew he would make me a better trainer and a better human. When I brought Tarot home, nearly seven years ago, I told myself that it would be at least five years before I ever knew if he would grow to be the sort of horse who might be able to be ridden. I knew there were no quick answers with him, I had to love the journey for it’s own sake. Only time and wading deep into process would reveal what was possible. Slow, patient magic.
Now, at this benchmark, I dream only of seven more years to explore this world we have mined, together.

Tarot liberty block

Playing at liberty after our session.

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Learning to read “tells” during training

Sistine lip to target

Sistine extends her upper lip to touch her jolly ball during a session. This is a confirmation of  relaxation and engagement.

Most trainers are deeply familiar with their chosen species’ body language. It’s a basic requirement for making training decisions and something that we take for granted as  part and parcel of our work. Many trainers use body language as a guide in their teaching progression, automatically, without even having to think about it. But being able to be conscious of what specific signals are guiding our work allows us to be even more deliberate and clean in our training choices.

horse poker blogI like to think of certain expressions of body language is as “tells”,  a term I borrowed from poker. In cards, hiding your emotions is a strength, so you can bluff without your opponents guessing at your hand. In reality, though, it’s really difficult to suppress expression, and it’s common for other players to learn what you look like when you know you are about to win and what you look like when you know you are going to lose. Emotions want expression and often our body language speaks regardless of our conscious intent. These consistent expressions are known as tells.

In horse training, being able to read your horse’s tells allows you to support them within the context of a training session. It lets you know whether they feel like they have a good hand or a bad hand at the moment in the training session, so you can adjust accordingly. In order to learn your horse’s tells, it’s helpful to video training sessions so you can go back and observe as many times as you need to. Let’s have a look at Sistine at her stationary target while being brushed:

When Sistine is comfortable and in seeking mode, not only does she continue chewing her grain and remain very mobile in her neck, but she is almost continuously active with her upper lip. When she is actively using her lip to move and manipulate the jolly ball, this is a tell for me that whatever activity I am working on : brushing, fly spray, etc is not or no longer a stressor for her.
Now let’s look at a decidedly different scenario:

In the above video, you will see me introducing a brand new spray to Sistine. She is actually quite comfortable with fly spray, but this is a skin spray and it has a really different scent from the fly spray. You will see her lips start to wiggle, or wiggle a little at first when she initiates touch on the ball, but then as I begin spraying her lips stop moving, she stops chewing and becomes generally very still. This is a classic freeze response and it means the horse is moving toward discomfort and into survival mode. Horse people miss and misinterpret freeze responses frequently as compliance, and it’s the reason many mustangs have a reputation for exploding “out of nowhere”. Freeze tends to be low on the ladder of conflict responses, so it is often what precedes a much larger flight or fight response. In addition, when we have taught our horses to “do nothing” or just stand still, it can be really hard to see the freeze response. But we need it! It’s predictive. So, in this case, the entire freeze response is her tell that she needs the spray split down into more manageable approximations.

Learning to be conscious of our individual learner’s tells is good homework for the human trainer and a way to keep our training learner-centric for the horse. All the stories people tell about their horses, “He exploded out of nowhere!” or “She was fine yesterday but today she is acting like she’s never been sprayed before!” are usually stories about failures of observation. Being a trainer is a journey of learning how to see. Its valuable to notice that Sistine stayed on her target without moving her feet, even while being sprayed with the new, unpleasant (to her) spray. If I wasn’t observant of smaller, more nuanced signals from her, I might believe she was “just fine” with being sprayed because she stayed still, near the ball. But I know her tells for true comfort, and they weren’t present.
The beautiful thing about tells to me, is if you follow them they will never lead you into conflict. They are always true. So, go find your horse’s tells and honor them. Let your horse lead you at their pace, with their nervous system, into the space they can inhabit without any concern. Then you will know how to see a horse.

 

The super power of reinforcement histories

R H Aesop SB

A few months ago, I read a blog that confidently stated, “Using feed to tease a horse into the trailer might work on a sunny day with no wind or challenge, but attraction to food fails when the stakes go up. When faced with multiple horses or injury or natural disaster, a relationship with treats will never save your horse. He needs a relationship with a leader for that.”

I felt the familiar sensation of frustration and exasperation rise together in my chest as once again I saw a chance for clear explanation of learning, stress and reinforcement histories traded in favor of a moral interpretation of horse behavior.

The laws and details of learning are a science. They are clean, spare little laws. Bare bones. They are always there, clear, unafraid and consistent.

I want to take apart the story about the horse and the trailer and the food and leadership, so we can see the actual laws at play within that situation rather than the story created around it. It’s only when we see clearly, that we can make informed choices for ourselves as trainers and for our horses as learners, so let’s begin.

First, we have to look at the nervous system.
I like to describe the nervous system to my clients as the scales of justice, a scale on each side hung from a central point. When one side of the nervous system gets heavier (or activated!), it hangs down a bit lower and the other is lifted a bit higher. The two sides counter-balance one another.
Essentially, one side is for threat preparedness, and the other is for return to homeostasis and relaxation. To make it easier to remember, think of your horse having a “survive” side of his nervous system and a “thrive” side of his nervous system.
Officially, the “survive” side is called the sympathetic nervous system or SNS and the “thrive” side is called the parasympathetic or PNS. We all have both and we need both to be alive.
Based on your horse’s behavior, you can observe which side of their nervous system they are operating out of. It’s good to know, and it matters a lot when you are trying to work on re-training something previously stressful like trailer loading.

On the thrive side we have: rest, digest, feed/eat, and breed.

On the survive side we have: fight, flight, fidget, faint, and freeze.

When we are truly worried about our survival, we don’t: lay down to sleep, stop for a bite to eat or to check out a love interest as we run for our lives.

When we feel safe and unthreatened, we do not: fight, run away from others, pace around, faint or remain frozen or immobile (like standing in front of a trailer.)

So, in the story about the horse who loses interest in food when asked to get on a trailer, what that detail really tells us is the horse was worried enough about being asked to step onto a trailer to be pushed into the sympathetic side of his nervous system.
His survival instinct just got triggered and when that happens, eating goes offline.

But does that mean food is useless when it comes to teaching and maintaining the skill of trailer loading? Oh my gosh, NO! It means you have to know how to use it. And to really understand the power of food, you need to understand reinforcement histories.

So, imagine this: Each time you ask your horse for a behavior, they perform the behavior and you feed them (ABC). Each time, they experience a little jolt of pleasure in relation to the behavior you asked for. Over time, your horse will grow to have a general impression, or “classically conditioned emotional response” to being asked to perform this behavior.
This emotional response is the composite of every time he performed the behavior and the consequence that followed. So, if each time you asked your horse to walk forward on a lead and they complied, you stopped and reinforced them with some grain, they would have a very positive emotional affect when asked to walk forward. Walking forward predicts good things. So, they feel good when you ask them to walk forward. This is their reinforcement history for going forward on lead. It contains the depth of multiple repetitions, rather than the shallowness of one bucket of food in the present moment.

So, cool! It would seem you were all set to walk your horse forward, which they LOVE, and into the brand new trailer you just bought!
But here is where folks go wrong. Walking forward near the trailer or into the trailer, ALSO needs to predict good things. This is a separate reinforcement history. (This is compound now. Walking forward+trailer = ?) If every time I walk into the trailer, my person closes me in and takes me on a long bumpy ride and then I’m away from home and my friends for days, then my reinforcement history for walking forward and onto the trailer is going to be poor. Getting on the trailer will predict unpleasant things.
To fix this, just breaking the ratio of loading to actual trips helps tremendously. If I load up ten times for every one time that I actually go somewhere, then I won’t worry so much about getting on the trailer. I’ll probably get on quite easily as it usually will predict a nice big flake of alfalfa and then unloading to go back to my paddock. And I’ll eat the whole time, because I’ll be lounging around in the “thrive” side of my nervous system.

So what of the horse who refused to get on the trailer and ignored the nice bucket of food? He wasn’t lacking for a leader and he, contrary to the post, DOES find the trailer to be a the problem. Trailers are small, often dark and when a horse steps in they don’t know how long the ride will be and where they will end up. Unpredictability is, by nature, punishing. Think of blindfolding an adult human and telling them you are taking them in the car for a “birthday surprise.”Lots of people panic, pull off the blindfold or get really angry about the situation. Honestly, it’s no different for the horse.
They see the trailer, their survival mechanism gets invoked and they go into (often) an extended freeze response to avoid loading up.

Their reinforcement history is insufficient to the task being asked.

So what do horses need?
Horses just need an observant, educated human to assess what part of their learning history needs to be re-worked if they are not loading into the trailer. The time to train trailer loading is not at the horse show or clinic or vet hospital. Yes, there are emergencies and natural disasters and other situations that come up and require urgent loading. And in those moments you do the best you can with multiple tools: chutes, panels, etc, because those are “oh crap!” situations, not training scenarios. But most days aren’t emergencies. Most days are calm and open and perfect for getting to work building deep reinforcement histories. Build yours carefully and deeply enough, and that reinforcement history will always lead right into the trailer.

 

 

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Understanding a basic progression in the education of a horse

Spryte at CBH horses SB

Me, at Camp Black Hawk in 1992, happy, but uneducated about learning.

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.)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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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Hocus Pocus: a new body organization on the longe and in-hand

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:
DAE Hocus old life, no posture 2
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:
Hocus Pocus trot 10-6
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:
Hocus Pocus in-hand

Here’s a similarly lovely moment in the trot:
Hocus Pocus trot in-hand
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.

Collaborative hoof care

Awake Tarot feetAs 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.