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!

 

Some trailer loading stories! – Misty

Like some other new horse owners, we bought a two year old filly with little or no practical knowledge or experience of horses.  Misty was our family cob.  I ‘started’ her with a traditional training book in one hand and a lunge whip in the other.  And yes, many, mistakes were made.  We were very lucky to have chosen a patient and good-natured horse.

misty in tideMy children had recently joined the local pony club and one thing I did know was that loading ponies into a horse box/trailer/float was frequently a huge problem.  (See Shadow’s story) This, I decided, would not be a problem for us.  So I borrowed a horse box and parked it in the field.  Initially we fed Misty close to the ramp, then moved the bucket onto the ramp and gradually further and further into the box.  She quickly learned that it was a great place to go….very rewarding.  During the hotter days, she discovered that it offered a great escape from flies.

We never lead her or asked her to go in.  She simply made her own arrangements.  There was a front ramp so she could walk out and with no partition in a two-horse box, she could also turn around to come out herself.

So with a completely confident pony, we decided to formalise the training.  The partition went back in and we lead Misty into the box.  There was always a treat to be had inside and by now the sight of a horsebox was sufficient to have her attempt to tow her handler up the ramp!  The one thing we did not train well was the backing off to unload.  We had a front unload for years and it was never an issue.

Some years later, we had to ask her to back off.  She happily obliged but then fell off the final step and gave herself a fright.  At that point clicker training had come into my life and so it was easy to teach her to back out one step at a time with a click and treat after each step.  We then warned her when she reached that step down with a verbal cue “step”.

Now she will happily back to close to the edge of the ramp and wait for her cue to tell her to step down.

 

 

Playing on the beach

Years ago my husband made a comment that struck a chord with me.  He said that dogs can enjoy an outing much more than horses.  When I tried to argue this he said,dogs get to run around, sniff and pooch at things but horses only get out when they’re ridden and they never get a choice about where they go!  He was so right.

I now love working at liberty and giving my horse the choice to stop and pooch.  Newbie and I have a great relationship which allows us to do a lot of work at liberty…on the beach.  I live on the shores of Tralee Bay, a shallow bay, several miles across, which pretty much empties on low Spring tides.  In addition, Tralee Bay opens to the Atlantic Ocean and the next parish west is  in the U.S.of A!  So we have a wide and wonderful playground, swept clean daily with lots of (seaweed) mats randomly arranged just for us.

We can lunge, trot, walk together, go from mat to mat at liberty and add in the leg flexions he loves.  We can be walking casually along when he decides to collect up and offer shoulder-in at walk….magic.  Yesterday we were out together just strolling along when he suddenly stopped.  When he stops to look at something like that, I usually just keep walking and he joins me soon after or I call him to come. And he trots over to me.  Yesterday that did not happen.

The local primary school is close-by with a small sheep field between the school and the beach.  Obviously taking advantage of a fine spring day, there were the sounds of a game being played in the yard, complete with sharp referee’s whistle.  In a classroom there was a tin-whistle lesson taking place.  (For anyone unfamiliar with the Irish tin whistle being played by a group of young learners, it can be a tad piercing and excruciating)  Brave teacher!

The unusual noises alerted Newbie who stopped to look, but then the sheep decided they had had enough and took off across the field.  Newbie turned to look at me when I called, his head high in alarm, but then clearly felt that home with his herd would be the better option.  He headed off in that direction, happily only at a walk, so I walked back, not towards him but parallel to him until we were past the sheep field.  I called him again.  This time thankfully, he came to me but he was not happy…head high, looking towards the field and foot moving.  He lowered his head for me to pop on a headcollar and attach rope reins but clearly he was not happy to have his head down when all those sheep thought the best option was running around!

So it was one of those ‘what to do?’ moments.  Insist on head lowering?  Head smartly for home? or put him to work?  We were in an area where there were some of my beach ’mats’ available and Newbie loves his mat-to-mat work so this is what I decided to do….put him to work with something that he loves and feels comfortable with.  We went from mat to mat at walk.  I used the reins to ask for collection prior to moving off and to give him a direction to the next mat but then released him to step on it.  We did this for some time and the familiarity and rhythm of the work quickly settled him down.  When I felt he was relaxed, we then walked away to a different area (away from the sheep), where he was happy to stay with me at liberty once again…although I did leave his headcollar on!  A few minutes of just walk, halt, back-up games and we headed home.

The next day we came onto the beach with Newbie ‘dressed’ in headcollar and reins.  We strolled casually to in front of the sheep field.  It’s spring and there are now lots of lambs bleating, so his head was up listening to all this relatively new noise, coming from what had been a scary place just a day ago.  We started mat work and very quickly his focus returned so that we could play with reverse arc circles and even trot (which would have been unthinkable the previous day).  After a few minutes (time unknown….I often think we’ve been out for 5-10 min and check my watch to find it’s been closer to 30min!,  we headed off up the beach, both of us with enough confidence for me to take off the reins and enjoy some casual liberty time.

Splashing along

Splashing along

New Zealand Workshops

The Click That Teaches instructor, Mary Concannon will be giving at least two workshops in New Zealand early next year.  The first two workshops are for complete beginners.  No previous knowledge is required for either horse or handler.

The first is on 11th and 12th January in Waimauku, Auckland hosted by Monique Masoe.  For bookings or further information contact: Monique at (64) 21 150 9513 or email: moniquemasoe@gmail.com

The following week, 18/19th January, the workshop will be in Whatawhata, Hamilton.  Karen Drummond of Learning About Dogs is the organiser here.  You can contact Karen for more details at (64) 21 655054 or email karen@learningaboutdogs.co.nz

Keep an eye out for details of other workshops in NZ in February.

Liberty clicker training

Liberty clicker training

Looking forward to meeting new clicker trainers from this part of the world!

Amazing Misty

Last weekend, we took advantage of the continuing good weather, popped Misty and Newbie into the horsebox and headed to Fermoyle Beach.  While there wasn’t glorious sun, it was warm and calm and we virtually had the beach to ourselves.

Fermoyle Beach, Co Kerry, Ireland.

Fermoyle Beach, Co Kerry, Ireland.

Now I know you’re looking at the photo and thinking, there’s an awful lot of footprints for an almost deserted beach, but it is also the main thoroughfare for the local cattle to transfer from one field to another!

At one point there is a promontory dividing Fermoyle beach from the inlet to Cloghane and the rocks come all the way up to a low cliff.   You can see it here shown at high tide on a google maps image.

Fermoyle and Cloghane

Fermoyle and Cloghane

Newbie and I headed off in front and picked out a very circuitous route that avoided most of the rocks and boulders.  Ger and Misty followed on (Ger tends to be more of a passenger than a rider but he and Misty get along very well!).

Fermoyle Beach, Co Kerry

Fermoyle Beach, Co Kerry….last of the rocky bit!

We continued down the beach (the tide was waaay out) for a bit before turning for home.

Now Misty and Ger were in the lead and here’s my puzzle.  Ger had dropped the reins completely and was letting Misty find the way.  She followed our original hoof prints in reverse and took the exact circuitous route, almost hoofprint for hoofprint, back to Fermoyle beach…..How did she do that?.  Was it visual?  Did she smell the hoofprints?   Or was it from memory?  Whichever it was, we were both pretty amazed.

Ger and Misty

Ger and Misty

 

An Icey Experience

In mid September I had the pleasure of visiting Oakfield Farm in Dorset, England, to give a clicker training workshop.  Nick Foot has been producing Icelandic horses here for a number of years and they are truly a wonderful breed.

photo 3 (2)For those of you who are not familiar with “Iceys” they are really pony sized, being anywhere from 12 to over 14 hands high (122-148cm) and originate in Iceland (as the name suggests!)  Their size belies their strength! They come in an array of colours. Icelandics are the only horse found in Iceland which allows no importation of horses, and if they leave the country (even for competition), they are not permitted to return.

riding trackAs well as the usual three gaits that ‘normal’ horses have i.e.,walk, trot and canter/gallop, they have two additional gaits.  The ‘tolt’ is a fast, ground-covering four beat gait and the ‘pace’ is a very rapid smooth gait.

When I saw Brynja, who was a sturdy little mare but only something over 13 hands…I did ask…Are you sure?.  My own thoroughbred is 16.2hh approx and I looked at this little creature with a degree of wariness.  I need not have worried!!!!

Riding an Icey in tolt was described to me as being akin to a fast spin in a small sports-car and how true that is.  Its a wonderful sensation, fast, smooth and low to the ground.  We had a lovely ride from the farm through lanes and tracks over the gorgeous Dorset countryside and I came back with a grin from ear to ear!!