The Power of Practice

The last few weeks have been particularly busy  for me with workshops in different parts of Europe.  Always great to meet new people and share clicker training with them and their horses.

One of the things we do a lot is work with human ‘horses’.  For even the most basic of behaviours…asking your horse to touch a target, it helps if you have the processed the necessary skills well.  So one person is the trainer and another the ‘horse’.  The trainer has to present a target, click as the horse touches it, then hide the target while delivering a treat to the ‘horse’.  Sounds simple doesn’t it….What could possibly go wrong?…. well there’s presenting the target in just the right place with one hand while holding a clicker in the other.  Getting the timing of the click just right and then removing the target to say, behind your back, while reaching into the pouch or pocket to get some feed, then presenting the reward at arm’s length, without feeding the clicker to your eager horse!  A beginner can end up feeling like they simply don’t have enough hOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAands!

An eager horse can be intimidating for a beginner handler.  They can become enthusiastic, leaning forward towards the trainer, mugging them for treats.  A human partner can mimic all these behaviours and the handler can learn to modify their technique before they go to the four-legged variety of horse! …very useful indeed!

I love working with my horse at liberty….no physical ties between us, just an invisible connection based on trust and understanding.  But there are times when we need to have our horse on the end of a lead rope and we also want to communicate with them through reins.  So learning how to handle a lead rope in a clicker training compatible manner is important.

We can ask a lot of questions when we work with human ‘horses’.  How does it feel to be a horse on the end of a lead rope?  How does it feel when the ‘horse’ is tense? when he/she’s relaxed?  The beauty of a human horse is that they can use words to describe how they feel.  If the handler is a bit quick or grips strongly on the lead, then she is not met with pinned ears or nipping teeth.  This means that we have the opportunity to refine our movements so that our request is clear but polite on the lead rope.

In his book “The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about deep practice.  A method of slow deliberate practice to get the mechanics absolutely correct before increasing speed.  This is the approach that Alexandra Kurland (The Click That Teaches) has used for many years and which her coaches (including yours truly) also use.

That deep practice means  that when we want to communicate with our horses down a lead rope or reins, we will do so with skill and confidence  .

Andrea and Celine practice sliding down a lead rope.

Andrea and Celine practice sliding down a lead rope.

While our human ‘horse’ holds the snap on the lead rope, the handler can practise good technique while sliding down the lead rope.  The handler can ask her ‘horse’ how it feels…is my suggestion polite?, is it clear?, am I too quick?, am I present on the rope or too light and vague?

Every horse is different, so during our workshops we can swop partners to allow our ‘horses’ feel a variety of  handlers.  The feedback allows the handler to modify and improve their technique.

Leading the horse (Meike) with a loose rope.

Leading the horse (Meike) with a loose rope.

Sady and Sabine practise their skills

Sady and Sabine practise their skills

Group practise in Westerburg, Germany

Group practise in Westerburg, Germany

In Austria, we also took advantage of a “Pushmi-, Pullyu”* horse to practise single rein riding!

Carolin and Lisbeth practise some single rein riding

Carolin and Lisbeth practise some single rein riding

Because these horses were very stiff, we added a human to allow the rider to feel softening down the rein.

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Practice does indeed make perfect and by practising properly before we get to our four-legged horses, we can ensure that our handling makes the communication with our horses clear.

 

*The pushmi-pullyu (pronounced “push-me—pull-you”) is a “gazelle-unicorn cross” which has two heads at opposite ends of its body!

 

Clicker Training in Dorset : Release

Reflecting on another wonderful three day workshop at Oakfield Farm in Dorset:

As ever, Nick and Mo have been the most amazing hosts, housing and feeding all course participants, and providing constant tea (or cold drinks, we had glorious sunny weather) and great good humour!

The course participants this time had all been together here last April so we all now know each other and it was great to catch up on what everyone had been doing in the interim.  On that previous workshop, the key word that emerged was sloooowly.  This time our keyword was ‘release’.

What does release mean?  The dictionary says it’s a verb meaning:
To allow or enable to escape from confinement; set free
To allow (something) to move, act or flow freely.

I really like the image of letting our horses free to flow.

So when did we need to release?  Every time we activate a lead rope or reins to ask for a behaviour and feel the slightest try or first movement (the lean to go forward, or even the chest muscle twitch for back) that’s our moment to release.

The release says ‘yes!  You got that right now just keep going until you hear a click or I ask for another behaviour.  In that way the release is also encouragement to continue.

Release does not mean simply drop the lead rope or reins, rather it means give it back tactfully. Our human horse work gave participants the opportunity to feel the difference between simply dropping the reins (rude and abrupt) and giving back the reins smoothly (gentle and reassuring).

The release should be complete.  In some situations walking alongside their horses, handlers were happy to release their front hand but were still holding up the other hand.  We likened this to driving with the handbrake on!  When we let go completely we can move off smoothly. However it can be hard and so initially we had handbrakes left slightly or half or even fully on.  What’s important to remember is that, having released fully, you can always pick up that rein or rope again when and as necessary.

Release does mean you are trusting your horse, whether it’s just for that fraction of a second before a click or for the time it takes to walk half a circle together….. We all, including our horses, appreciate being trusted.

Oakfield Icelandics chilling on a sunny day

Oakfield Icelandics chilling on a sunny day

Clicker Training in Dorset : Venya

The morning after a workshop in Oakfield Farm Dorset,  I was sitting in the conservatory looking out over several fields of gorgeous Icelandic horses grazing and snoozing contentedly in the early morning sun.  It’s a great way to relax after three full days of clicker training with a great bunch of people and horses!

We had people and horses with different levels of experience and so had great variety over the three days with some lovely improvements over the course.  We also had Alexandra Kurland ‘drop in’ for a cuppa and a chat on the Saturday via Skype

One was Venja, an Icelandic mare imported directly from Iceland several months ago.  Her new owner has been very busy and couldn’t give her the time she needed so she has been staying with Nick Foot at Oakfield Icelandics Farm.

In Iceland horses live out, essentially in the wild, until they are old enough to be started under saddle.  They are then herded en masse into a pen and the chosen horse is picked out.  A head collar is put on and the horse is taken out to be bridled, saddled and ridden for 20 min before being returned to the pen.  At the end of the day the horses are turned out and the process is repeated again the next day.

In Venja’s case, this left a horse who was quite fearful of humans and could not be caught in a field.  Prior to the clinic, Nick and Alison had done quite a bit of work with Venja, including sitting in her field with a book and feeding her treats from a bucket, when she approached.  She would not come close enough to touch or be caught and had to be herded down to the yard (gently) and into a pen as she also had an issue with her pelvis and needed some chiropractic work.

Nick wanted to be able to catch her in the field and lead her down to the yard, so this was our objective!

Her initial sessions were in a pen.  We started with just the polite manners game (Grown Ups Are Talking) where the horse stands politely alongside you with their head in front of their body and is clicked and treated for keeping it there.  In Venja’s case we were particularly looking for relaxation.  In the confines of the pen, she was able to take treats from Nicks hand.  Slowly we introduced scratching around the withers and neck.

In her next session we took her head collar off.  We wanted to make sure that she could still take treats from a hand when she wasn’t “trapped” by the head collar.  Same format with polite manners, scrithes, and targeting Nicks hand.  A big improvement was that she moved to touch his hand.  We had another short session (all sessions were kept quite short!) later that day where Nick started to move around her, all the time clicking and treating for softness and relaxation.

We then moved to the field.  She followed her companion to the gate and allowed Nick to stand close, so CT.  After an initial hesitation, she took her treat and stayed for more.  She then relaxed and was happy to target, be scratched and allow Nick to move around her.  When Nick moved a couple of steps away and invited her to follow, she did so willingly.

In her next session I introduced myself to Venya and we had some scratches and rubs.  Nick produced the head collar and had her target it several times before slowly putting it on her in easy stages.  He then added the lead rope and they went for a very short walk.

You can watch our evening session at the end of day 2.

A huge improvement …… objective achieved and we still had a day to consolidate, take her for short walks and move on to grooming and meeting a saddle again in the yard.

It was great to see the transformation of this little mare from high headed and tense near humans to trusting and relaxed.

Clinic with Alexandra Kurland: Misty

Misty is now a mature 20 years old.  She has been in our family since she was a 2 year-old and has taught several people to ride  (including me and my three, now grown-up, children, as well as Marte’s daughter and son).  She’s spent the last few years mostly in Marte’s, having a pretty easy life!

Michaela hugs Misty with a 'move away' feel

Michaela hugs Misty with a ‘move away’ feel

Misty does know about mats and standing (being a cob/irish draft) is one of the things she does best!  So mats can be used to build patience but also to build enthusiasm and movement.  Michaela worked with Misty and multiple mats.  These mats were scattered pretty randomly around the top half of the arena.  Misty was perfectly happy to go and stand on any mat!  Alex wanted her to move off with a proper bend and flexibility in her body so to get this MIchaela hugged her! This was a hug with a feel of movement in a direction away from Michaela.  When Misty adjusted her balance..Click and Treat (CT).

Michaela moves into the space to treat

Michaela moves into the space to treat

Michaela then moved into the space that was opened up by Misty’s change of balance as she reached to give her a treat.  The hugs were repeated until Misty was bent in the direction of the next mat, when Michaela picked up the lead and moved off with her.  The amount of bend needed depended on the location of the next mat and can be made more or less by the choice of mat to move to.  Initially they chose mats that were easy to reach with a little bend but as Misty softened and became more flexible, Michaela (and the audience) could pick mats that required more bend to reach.

A hug towards Michaela!

A hug towards Michaela!

As well as moving away from hugs, Michaela also asked Misty to move towards her with a hug.  As Misty shifted her balance, Michaela moved back to allow Misty to bend more towards her.

 

In this case feeding is back further as Michael encourages Misty to keep the bend..

Misty gets her CT

Misty gets her CT

In all of the pictures where Misty is on the mat, the lead rope has been thrown casually over her back.  This then becomes a cue to stand and wait.

In the next sequence of pictures, Michaela sets up the turn towards her with a couple of hugs and then lifts the rope off Misty’s back as they are ready to move onto the next mat.

Setting up the bend

Setting up the bend

Improving the bend

Improving the bend

Ready to move off

Ready to move off

Starting leg flexions

Starting leg flexions

To make the mat an even better place to be, we can add in other requests and put them on a high rate of reinforcement.  During this clinic we used leg flexions in order to achieve this…. starting with the front feet.

Here Misty is barely lifting a front foot but as the session progressed she lifted it higher. As ever, successive approximations were used so for the initial try, CT, but with each ask, a little more is required.  As she lifted higher Michaela could then support her foot by just holding the tip of her toe and hold her other hand up as a target for Misty’s knee.

Misty targets Michaela's hand with her knee

Misty targets Michaela’s hand with her knee

Over the course of the clinic this improved hugely.  Initially there was a lot of wiggling of her leg, but Misty learned to find the target and hold her knee there. Gradually Michaela changed her cue so that she could ask for the lift from touching the shoulder…This is needed to be able to transfer to asking under saddle.

 

 

The gallery below shows hind foot lifts….Click on a picture to enlarge it.

And so on to some ridden work:

A huge benefit of this clinic for Misty was that she learned to move very smartly from one mat to the next with huge enthusiasm.  As she has been ridden primarily for the past three years by Marte’s now 5 year-old daughter, she has really only been pottering!!  Her nature is that shes a quiet slow-moving cob….ideal for giving confidence to young children.  In her earlier years she was an excellent show-jumper and so it was great to see her move quickly again and clearly loving it..

Another advantage is that at 20 years of age she now has a level of arthritis, so the leg lifts and flexions are a great way for Misty to build strength and keep her active.

As ever, when watching the clinic, I’m not very focused on taking photos so they’re not always the best or even very good moments that are shown here.

And finally…..I just love this picture of Michaela and Misty…even from this angle you can see that they are both focused on each other.

 

Michaela and Misty focus on each other!

Michaela and Misty focus on each other!