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 His old predictors for danger and self-preservation were consistently superseded by his new, positive associations he had learned here.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.

 

Transformation

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.

How to create a training session: part one

First ride of spring

Happy after our session.

I’ve had numerous conversations lately about how to structure a good training session. While the initial mechanical skills of training are fairly simple to learn or be coached through, the larger picture of structuring a session is more complex. In The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle, he discusses hard skills versus soft skills. Hard skills or “high precision skills are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time.” In horse training, hard skills would be: click/treat order, treat hand remaining still between dispensing rewards, skilled rope and rein handling, and consistent and intentional body language on the ground and in the saddle.  Hard skills can and should be  learned from a live coach, if possible. They are finite and very measurable; they form the foundation of your skill set as a trainer.

Aesop rein mechanics

Using the rein to ask the shoulders to move over.

But, as you master your hard skills and move from working your horse in lessons to teaching him by yourself, you will need to have more soft skills so you can create useful training sessions for your horse. Soft skills are about flexibility, recognizing and creating patterns, breaking patterns when necessary, reading situations and adjusting accordingly. Soft skills are both what guide you in making a training plan and help you change that training plan in the moment so your horse can be successful. Soft skills are harder to learn because they are very subjective to the individual horse and learning situation. Keeping notes about each training session, being aware and responsive to your horse’s body language during training and videotaping yourself while your train for review later are all practices that will help you develop your own soft skills. They take time. So where to begin if you are just getting started?

Aesop on his mat

Aesop standing on his mat offering bend.

Kay Laurence, a talented dog trainer who runs “learning about dogs” differentiates between a teaching session and a training session. A teaching session is a short session where the entire time is devoted to teaching the horse one new behavior.  You will still be shaping or using successive approximations, but your focus will be on teaching your learner just one behavior or motor pattern. Teaching sessions are necessary and, in the early stages of training, make up a majority of your sessions. Think of your teaching sessions as installing the foundation or component skills of your horse’s program. You will use these components in more complex sessions later.

Aesop- rftg, right

Maintaining our line (duration).

Training sessions are focused practice where you will work on multiple behaviors in one session, usually toward a larger unified goal. Initially,  you should work on  moving smoothly between repetitions of your component skills. Even very advanced  training  sessions are made up of component skills, they’ve just been layered skillfully together. If your horse knows two foundation behaviors, you could do five repetitions of the first behavior and then five repetitions of the second behavior, clicking and treating for each repetition. The larger goal is just to teach your horse emotional flexibility in moving between different skills and to teach yourself how to gracefully transition between multiple subjects in one lesson. Make sure you can do this simpler training exercise before biting off something more complex. If you aren’t sure what component skills your horse should have, a coach or trainer can help you identify and teach those individual pieces.

Below, I have  video of Aesop, my 2007 BLM mustang gelding in a more layered training session preparing him for riding. I’ve listed the component skills we utilized so  you can watch for them as they come up. All of these are behaviors I will click and reinforce:

  • bend to the inside from a balanced slide down the rein
  • go forward from slight touch on your side (my ribcage)
  • bring your shoulders toward me from an opening slide down the inside rein
  • move your shoulders over and away from me from a lift on the inside rein
  • maintain your line once started unless another cue is give (duration)
  • stand on a mat
  • offer bend when standing still
  • target poll to fingers when raised above head
  • trot on a verbal cue

Combined together, these component skills add up to a horse who understands the cues needed to be responsive under saddle. He knows how to respond in multiple ways to the rein, how to use my body as a target, how to stop and stand quietly and how to offer the beginnings of softness. He’s ready to be ridden. In part two, I will explain and detail how to set up a training session to transfer these cues to a novel situation – riding!

Let your horse be right

smile like you mean it

Yesterday when I went out to train Aesop I had a clear idea in my head about what I wanted the training session to look like. I was going to practice his increasingly solid “riding from the ground” skills outside, in his saddle, and then play with a bit of balance work in trot as a reward for good RFTG. He really loves to trot now that he knows he gets “paid” for it in treats and wants to offer it any time the chance arises.

When we got outside and into the training session, it was clear Aesop needed a different lesson than the one I had planned. I had planned on doing a training session where we would review what he had already learned and get in some nice repetitions of fairly stable behaviors. But his behaviors weren’t where I had left them. He had processed the go forward with someone at your side really well from our last lesson and was ready to offer it just when asked to bend or when I got near the side of the saddle. He was ready to show me what a good walk-off looks like and I had been so busy envisioning our fun trot work I was caught totally off-guard. Here’s a video of me caught by surprise and re-setting his walk off’s, which I had worked so hard for the last three training sessions:

To be clear, Aesop isn’t too conflicted about being re-set. He handles the information in stride and doesn’t get emotional or frustrated. It is an ok training choice that centers around getting stimulus control.But many other young horses would be frustrated or discouraged to be interrupted at this stage in their learning. To my small credit, I am clicking and treating these re-sets because I am at least aware they are new to him. But in my work, I am looking to let the horse be right. It’s not a natural way to look at things, and it takes practice. So how can I let him be right? I can let him walk off and click for either soft bend within the walk off or staying with me, both of which are criteria I will have in this exercise. That allows Aesop to have the right answer while I am still building skills we need for our future riding. Here’s a video of me with my changed criteria:

In this video you can see that Aesop leans down on his forehand and walks off when I ask him to bend. He’s not waiting for my breath cue against his side and he’s walking through my bend request. But instead of re-setting and blocking him, I just go with him, but I wait for him to raise his head a bit and bend more correctly before I release the rein and click/reward. He gets to be right and I get behavior that I want, too. I can go back in in a few sessions, once he’s really confident about walking off and work on stimulus control. It’s not important right now.

Aesop and IPart of what I love so much about training is the number of choices it presents at every moment. It’s both what is hard about training and what makes the training session such an infinite place to inhabit. It’s what confounds newer trainers and obsesses those who make it a life’s work. There are training mantras, though, that can help a trainer navigate their choices better. In this case, the mantra was: Let you horse be right.

The Golden Bridle

Pegasus in the golden bridleIn Greek mythology the magical winged horse, Pegasus, can only be tamed with a golden bridle. Bellerophon needs Pegasus to slay the Chimera and he spends months trying to catch him but he is unsuccessful. Finally he prays to the gods for help and he is instructed to sleep in the Temple of Athena. While he sleeps he dreams Athena visits him and tells him how to find Pegasus at the well where he drinks and gives him golden bridle that will allow him to ride Pegasus. When Bellerophon wakes up there is a golden bridle by his side and he knows the dream was real. He finds the well Athena described and captures Pegasus when he kneels down to drink by pushing the bridle over his head. Once the bridle is on Pegasus is beholden to Bellerophon’s will.

I like this myth because I think it plainly describes how much stock humans put in equipment. If we just have the right bridle, the right bit, the right caveson then our horse will be beholden to our will and our training issues will be solved. But the truth is equipment is only as good as the training that accompanies it. A bridle is a powerful tool, but horses learn how to respond to a bridle. You have to teach them. Golden bridles aren’t gifted by the gods, they are built by good training.

Since I will be riding Aesop in the spring again, I want to teach him how to work in a french riding caveson. This is work that can and should be taught from the ground. Here’s a video of Aesop’s first lesson learning how to be “ridden from the ground.”:

In the video you see Sara working with three different cues. Can you stand still while I lift my rein and wait for more information? Click/Reward. When I slide down the rein can you soften to me? Click/Reward. When I breathe in so my rib cage touches your side like my leg will once I am mounted can you walk off? Click/Reward.

It’s important to teach your horse rein cues before you get on so that you have a reliable language at your disposal. Horses have a blind spot directly behind them so they can’t see us once we are on their backs. We literally disappear from view. For many horses, that means they lose all of the visual training language they have built with their human once riding begins. Stressful, to say the least! I don’t want Aesop to be struggling to understand me once I am on his back. I want him to be confident about what is being asked of him and enjoying our training time. So I’m taking the time to teach him rein and tactile cues from the ground. Here’s our second session in the arena:

We are doing the same exercise you see in the first video. Can you stand still while I lift the reins? Click/Reward. Can you soften to me when I slide down the rein? Click/Reward. Can you walk off when you feel pressure on your side? Click/Reward. He’s overbending a bit when I slide down the rein but that is something that I can progressively shape to be smaller and smaller. He’s trying and that’s good. He is a bit confused about pressure on his side being a cue to walk off, especially because I have always walked off up by his head. I’m asking him to move off first AND from a new cue. That’s hard. But the video shows his best and lightest attempt. For his second session he’s doing a wonderful job.

Even if there was a magic golden bridle I could get by worshipping the right gods, I wouldn’t be interested. When Bellerophon removes the golden bridle, Pegasus flies away and Bellerophon spends the rest of his days searching for the horse. To me it’s a cautionary tale: Don’t let your equipment take the place of good communication with your horse. Take the time to teach your horse what he needs to know so you are bound by relationship and a common language.

Djinn’s hoof handling

snowflakeIt’s been a cold and snowy winter so I’ve been locked in the house doing far less horse training than I wish. Today alone the temperature might not climb above 0. I have to content myself with short sessions when it’s warm enough to train without freezing but I’m dreaming of green, long grass and daylight that stretches well into the evening hours. When it’s been warm enough I’ve continued to work on hoof handling with Djinn so we can get that skill set mastered this winter. Then, in spring we can move on to more exciting things like introducing her to the arena, walks on property and starting balance work.

Djinn isn’t a horse who has ever worried about her body being touched, which is a nice change of pace for me from my other mustangs. She has yet to be reactive to any touch, grooming or space. She likes touch and she feels generally safe around people. She came to me this way, likely because she was captured as a yearling, and spent so much time in close proximity to humans who fed her vast quantities of alfalfa and carrots. In fact, she was so trusting that she might push you right over on her way to do something else. So, we’ve done a lot of work around moving forward and back on the lead, keeping her head to herself and how to stand quietly. She has done beautifully with that work and it was time to move on to hoof care.

Most humans don’t properly understand how vulnerable a horse is when they offer their foot to you. As a prey animal flight is their safety. A held foot is a trap on a very basic level. As humans who think conceptually and big picture we instinctively scoff at this idea. We know that we are only picking up our horses feet to clean them out or teach them how to be relaxed for a trim. But how many of you have seen a horse with a leg trapped in a fence thrash and fight like their life depended on it? Relaxed foot handling is learned. It’s not natural but it can be taught fairly easily. The video below shows Djinn’s third session with her feet being held:

I had already taught Djinn to pick up her foot off a soft touch of the whip on her leg and to hold it up in the air with duration on her own. She could do this on a verbal cue “foot” so I felt confident changing to my hand cupping her foot instead of my whip against her fetlock. She didn’t seem too nervous about me holding her foot, but she did take her face off to the outside, which is a low level sign of discomfort. I hold the foot quietly, make sure I’m not adding tension to the situation by making sure I have a loose lead rope and I click her AND release her foot when she brings her face back to the center of her chest. There are two rewards here: the food – which is a bonus reward –  and giving her back her foot- which is a  functional reward. A good trainer is always aware of both. After several good repetitions I let her walk off and move her feet. Standing still is hard, especially for a young horse so I don’t want to take advantage of  her good behavior by asking for too many repetitions.
I stop her in the same place to work on her right side. She is less confident on her right and needs a gentle tactile cue of my sliding my hand down her leg to give her the idea of lifting her hoof. Since just getting her to lift the hoof was more difficult, I’m not going to be greedy and hold onto it too. Once her lift on the right is as immediate and easy as her lift on the left, I’ll raise my criteria and hold onto the hoof.

Djinn is a far cry from the emotional, barging, biting mare she was when she first arrived here from the BLM last summer. She came here unafraid of people but also unable to receive information from people. She didn’t know how to be directed. She was always frustrated and impatient and pushing for what she wanted. She has relaxed and become quite calm now that she understands how to look to her human training partner for cues. She’s starting to seem much more like the grown-up 4 year old she soon will be than the immature 3 year old she was when she arrived here.