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!

 

Sitting and Chilling

Can your horse stand quietly beside you while you do other things? 

mary phone2It’s great to have a horse that is patient and will wait happily beside you while you say, open a gate, answer the phone, chat to a neighbour, but many horses are not patient by nature and so you need to train this as a behaviour.

Aoife sit chill

Here Aoife is sitting in the arena and Rua is learning to stand quietly beside her. 

Aoife sit chill CT

When he’s relaxed,  happy and keeping his distance from her, she clicks and treats to tell him that’s the behaviour she wants.  As Rua learns patience, the time between clicks becomes ever longer.

Starting to teach this behaviour is done in small increments…Basically you can think of it as asking a series of questions:  For every YES answer you click and treat, but it’s up to the trainer to set it up so that it’s easy for the horse to say YES.

  • Can you stand quietly beside me with your head forward?
  • Can you remain standing quietly for 1 second?
  • Can you stand beside me quietly for longer times (initially, increase the times slowly and vary them….1 sec, 2 sec, 4 sec, 2 sec, 3 sec, 6 sec etc)?
  • Can I stand a bit further away from you?
  • Can I stand further still?
  • Can you stand at a distance for longer times (increase the times slowly and vary them….1 sec, 2 sec, 4 sec, 2 sec, 3 sec, 6 sec etc)?
  • Can I sit beside you? ……..

One more tip….It can be very challenging for some horses to learn this at the early stages, they want to move.  So it’s essential to allow them.  Click and treat a couple of times for the standing behaviour but then go for a walk around before asking for the next trial.

Some trailer loading stories! – Shadow

When we moved to Kerry we were a completely horse-free family……not for long.  Our eldest daughter, Ruth, discovered the local trekking centre and it quickly became her second home.  I followed on then daughter number two and the rest is history.

I took part in my first hunt by accident (a story for another day) but then Fran, the owner of the trekking centre offered me one of her ponies, a 14 hand 2″ Connemara to go hunting (on the grounds that he was “pure useless at jumping”).  Shadow LOVED hunting.  He also proved to be very capable of jumping as I discovered one day when we came around a corner on a grassy track at speed to be faced with a five-bar gate…we sailed over it!

Subsequently, Ruth took him to her first hunt.  Her father borrowed a horse box and set off with daughter and pony to the meet. A great day was had and Ruth and Shadow returned hours later, both still in a state of huge excitement.  In fact Shadow was nowhere near ready to go home…..he wanted to go round again.

At this point in the family’s equine career, my husband knew that a horse had an end that kicked and an end that bit and very little else.  He was not in any way prepared for a pony that wouldn’t load.  Ruth, at about 12 years of age and with a year of pony club experience knew not a lot more.  She made several attempts at loading Shadow without success, when, as they do, the “experts” all arrived.

Hubby, knowing no better, left them at it.  There were whips, brushes and lunge lines applied to his rear.  He was pulled and tugged.  Feed was produced in an attempt to bribe him….all to no avail.  One by one the “experts” drifted away leaving child and pony at the base of the ramp.  Finally four strong lads strolled over.  “Having a problem?”  “fraid so”.
horse in boxWithout breaking stride, they divided up and each one dropped down beside a leg, got their shoulders in and bodily lifted Shadow onto the ramp.  Like a flash they picked up the ramp and lifted….higher and higher, as Shadow contracted his body to keep himself back as far as he could until, finally, gravity took over and he shot into the box…..clunk, click and a “There you go Boss.”  and the lads went on their way!!!!!
 

The Dreaded Trailer Loading

trailer rope on bum trailer rear trailer refuseTime and time again, trailer loading a horse comes up as a major problem. We’ve all seen the pictures of horses being pushed, beaten or shoved into a horsebox.  We often see the reactions of frightened horses.  A quick look on YouTube will bring up dozens of videos produced by horse trainers showing how to get a difficult loader into a trailer.  The vast, vast majority of the methods used involve getting a horse to ‘move his feet’ when he’s outside the box and only allowing him to stand when he looks at, then puts a foot on the ramp, two feet on, etc.

Why is loading such a problem?  It is after all, just another behaviour amongst all the many behaviours we teach our horses.  In most cases the problems arise because of the way the horse has been taught to load or, more commonly, how he has been loaded from the start without any training.  Many people assume that loading is simply something the horse should ‘do’ and don’t see any need for training.

“We cannot expect to get a behaviour on a consistent basis unless we have gone through a process of teaching it”  is an Alexandra Kurland mantra that is very important to keep in mind.  So how do we teach trailer loading?   By using all the principles of any good training.

Firstly decide what the final behaviour will look like:  I recommend writing this out.

  • Do you want to lead your horse in?
  • Do you want to send your horse in?
  • Does your horse have to step up onto a ramp?
  • Does your horse have to rearrange himself in the trailer, e.g. move sideways?.
  • Does your horse have to stand while you rearrange partitions?
  • Does your horse have to stand while you close a butt bar?
  • Will your horse be tied up?
  • Will he walk forward to unload?
  • Will he back off the trailer?
  • How will you ask him to come out?
  • Will he have to back down that step?
  • And so on….look at all the options and see exactly what you want.

Now look at your list.  Each step in the loading/unloading process is a behaviour in itself. Before you go near a trailer, it is important that your horse is happy doing each component behaviour.  If there are any gaps in his repertoire, then they need to be addressed before a trailer comes into the picture.  If you have a horse who barges when being lead or panics when tied up, then he is nowhere near ready for the trailer.

One particular step that I find people fail to address adequately is getting the horse off the trailer.  Yes, he has to go in in order to come out but he can certainly learn to back in the field or arena.

For many horses that step down off the ramp backwards is a huge issue.  They cannot see the edge or judge how big the drop is.  They often stumble and panic.  Teach your horse to step onto a timber mat firstly.  Ask for just one foot, then build up to all four feet.  When this is easy, then ask him to step up onto a platform.  Start with one front foot up, then that foot down, repeating until the horse is completely comfortable with this.  Then other front foot up and down before asking your horse to bring up a hind foot.

When a horse is happy putting a hind foot up and down, I usually add a vocal cue to tell him the step down is coming.  This can be a huge help when the horse is trying to locate that step off the ramp or box.

trailer grassReward each step!!  We want our horses to load happily and for the whole training process to be a pleasant experience.  Make sure that being in the trailer is very enjoyable.  As with all clicker training we start rewarding the slightest try with a high rate of reinforcement and gradually build up to more and more complex chains of behaviour.

 

Misty and Marte demonstrate good loading:

And unloading….

 

 

 

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.

Wonderful information

ORCAOver the past couple of months, there have been several international conferences with outstanding speakers.  Sadly I have not been to any of these but I am fortunate enough to know some wonderful people who have attended some of these conferences and taken great notes which they are happy to make available to a wider audience.

The first was ORCA 2014, The Art and Science of Annimal Training conference, held in Texas.  Mary Hunter whose blog is stalecheerios, has written several excellent reports on presentations by Bob Bailey, Ken Ramirez, Kay Laurence and Steve White.  (Clicking on the name will take you to each speaker notes)

kay-laurence-and-mabel-300

Kay Laurence

steve white

Steve White

bob bailey

Bob Bailey

Ken R

Ken Ramirez

None of these are ‘horse people’ but the general philosophies and training that they use can by and large transfer across different species.  Steve White  and Kay Laurence are trainers of dogs (and their humans) while Bob Bailey and Ken Ramirez work with multiple species of animals

One thing in particular caught my eye….in Bob Bailey’s talk he suggested the following:

Ask yourself these questions for whatever you are doing:

  1. Are you having fun? Are you enjoying what you are doing?
  2. Do you want to have more fun? Do you want to keep doing this?
  3. Are you willing to pay the price for more fun?  That is, what are the consequences for what you are doing?
  4. Are you better off today than you were yesterday?  Meaning, are you moving in the direction you want to be moving in?

Having fun is such an important element for both motivation and learning.  Make sure that you and your horse keep enjoying what you do!!

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

Some NZ horses!

It’s hard to take photos during a workshop, so I rarely have nice pics, but here’s a few from New Zealand:

Peanut waits patiently for her treat

Peanut, who is just 2 year old, waits patiently for her treat

And here it comes!

And here it comes!

Buster shows his good manners

Buster shows his good manners

Clayton poses with some of the group.  At just 3 and 1/2 years old, he's already a very big boy!

Clayton poses with some of the group. At just 3 and 1/2 years old, he’s already a very big boy!

Lucy takes a treat polirely

Lucy takes a treat politely

Angel is a Kaimanawa, a feral horse from the central desert region of the North Island

Angel is a Kaimanawa, a feral horse from the central desert region of the North Island

Clayton learns to back up nicely

Clayton learns to back up nicely