Consistency and Constancy

The last time I worked with Noella, she made no progress. In fact, by the end of the night it seemed like we had made negative progress; that is, her stop response had actually gotten heavier. Several times while riding I almost had to employ an emergency stop because she started speeding up and nothing would induce her to slow down. I wasn’t happy with what I’d had to do, and no doubt she wasn’t happy either.

I thought a good deal about that failed training session over the next week. What I decided was fairly simple. It was my fault. All of it—her poor responses that got worse, her obvious lack of understanding of what I wanted. I think I knew that before, but I also came up with the reason why it wasn’t getting through to her.

When I came up against her slowing/stopping/backing problem, I dug out Academic Horse Training again, from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre. In years past I found I couldn’t understand their methods, but with careful re-reading (I honestly read each page about 10 times) I understood it. For each manoeuvre there are six stages through which the training progresses. The first is simply a try and the remaining five shape that first attempt. They are:

  • Basic Attempt
  • Obedience
  • Rhythm
  • Straightness
  • Contact
  • Proof

During the first session, I had managed to elicit a consistent Basic Attempt response. During the second, we had progressed far in Obedience. In the third, the failed one described above, I had attempted to move on to Rhythm. The problem was that when I did not receive a response that followed the criteria of the Rhythm stage, I switched my aids back to Obedience level. For practically the whole session I kept switching back and forth, getting frustrated at her lack of response when she was actually simply confused by my shifting requirements.

In the first two successful sessions, I had stuck to the level she was at until she showed signs of moving on without me; I had been consistent in my aids and their delivery. The constancy of my aids, or their dependability, had given her confidence to improve. In the third session, my consistency was lost and so was her confidence. She became confused, and as a result her responses grew heavier and heavier, and as a result my aids became less and less constant.

In the next session with her, I went back to Obedience level and stayed there. By the end, she was showing signs of moving on ahead of me into Rhythm level by consistently stepping back two steps from one light aid. Now she is ready; now we can go on.

Unlike a horse trainer in training, our God knows exactly what we can handle, how much we can take, and what lessons we need. After all, He made us and knows how many hairs are on our heads! His wisdom is far superior to ours, and I am humbled to have such a masterful Trainer working tirelessly on me with gentle lessons that will never go over my head. I have a lot to learn!

The Horsegentler

Break it Down

This week I learned the importance of breaking the steps of a maneuver down for a horse. I’ve been told that it makes it easier for a horse to see what is going on by taking each section of a maneuver apart and teaching it that way, then putting all of the steps together. But I never really understood what that looked like or how to do it.

Well, in this situation, it looked like letting the horse do something ‘wrong’ in order to get another part of the process ‘right.’ Then I did the part that he had done ‘wrong’ separately, after.

The only reason I looked at breaking steps down a second time was because Joker is a horse I only see once a week for about 20 minutes. Our sessions are therefore very limited, and the only thing he has a problem with is bridling, which we only work on for less than 5 minutes each week. In between, lots of other people work with him, reinforcing his bad habit. With such limited resources for this horse, I have been forced to be creative.

Joker has a severe aversion to the bridle. He has figured out that, being a tall horse, he can lift his head up and point his nose to the sky to avoid the bit, and his nose literally touches the ceiling of the barn. Through repeated negative* reinforcement—the bit leaving—this behaviour has been reinforced so strongly that when he sees the bridle coming, he begins to look away, which in itself is a form of negative reinforcement. With horses, ‘out of sight out of mind,’ actually is true.

Usually I put one hand on his poll and one hand on his nose and ask him to bend around to the left and put his head down. Usually he resists strongly and starts backing up. So this time I took the steps apart and essentially performed them backwards. While I still insisted that his head remain at a tolerable level for bridling, I moved with him around to his right, where he wanted to have his head. This way he could not swing his head violently all the way from the left to the right, gaining momentum the whole way and losing the bit each time. Also, he was unable to raise his nose as far.

The bit was in in a much shorter time than it was before.

Then I began working on politeness.

I brought his head where I wanted it, curved to the left (but I still did not ask for his head to come down). Here I did up the throatlatch and noseband, insisting on the head position that I wanted. When I was finished messing with his face, I began training the head down. Without all of the distractions of the bridle being in my hand, he understood my request with only three repetitions within about 20 seconds and dropped his head immediately to a position lower than I have ever seen him go from light pressure on his poll and nose.

I will continue to break these steps down for my obstinate friend and see how we fare. I expect that this very smart horse will make great progress from here on in.

The Horsegentler

*please note that negative reinforcement means ‘taking something away’ such as pressure or an object, not punishment or something with a negative connotation.

“He just isn’t getting it.”

“He refuses to stop.”

“She won’t back up.”

“He hates the bridle.”

“She doesn’t like me. She is always doing her own thing.”

These and more are comments I hear on a daily basis at the barn. They can be summed up with the frustration-packed sentence: “He just isn’t getting it.”

These statements are how I know when it is time to take a step back and approach from a different angle. What is it about that horse’s personality and thought process that is creating this conflict with the owner’s personality and thought process? Often these owners have tried everything they can think of. Where am I going to go?

I’m going to go right back to the beginning. When a behaviour problem shows up in a horse, 99% of the time it didn’t happen over night. There has been a slow buildup of behaviours and thoughts in that horse that the owner or trainer has not noticed and left uncorrected. Finally, after exhausting all his other methods of saying, “I’m not comfortable,” “I don’t like this,” or “you aren’t making any sense,” the horse resorts to the behaviours that get him real relief. He tosses his head and avoids the bridle. He pushes through the bit and doesn’t stop.

And 99% of the time, these problems come up because the horse didn’t get something early on. They did not understand one of the key, foundational lessons that enables them to stop from rein pressure or drop their head for the bridle. Somehow the trainer’s message got corrupted. Now we need to go back and fix it.

I have mentioned Noëlla before. I mentioned that she had no ground manners and was just clueless about how to act around me when I was on the ground. Her biggest issue was backing up, and the lack of understanding on the ground translated to almost no backup in the saddle. Pulling harder did nothing, and by the middle of a frustrating session not only was she not backing up, but she also wasn’t stopping, and when she slowed down for a moment she would immediately speed up again, even though my pressure had not ceased. She was confused.

After that session I didn’t get back on her until I had done some major ground work addressing the real problem. Two sessions later her stop and her back up on the ground are immensely improved and in the saddle great progress has been made.

What did I do?

I went back to the very beginning and explained to her what pressure on her halter means. First was ‘go’ pressure. She knew that. Then was stop pressure. Very lightly at first I applied the stop signal. A finished response will enable the horse to stop in 1.5 strides, so after 1.5 strides I increased my pressure to achieve one light step of stopping. The remaining half step remained heavy and she barged through my pressure, but I rewarded her anyway. That is called Basic Attempt in the Learning Theory setup.

Continuing this process exactly the same, increasing pressure for the steps over the 1.5 steps I wanted, she was stopping smartly. By the end of the session her legs were no longer scattered all over the place, but were occasionally landing in a square position. In the next session we passed Obedience stage, and are moving on now to Straightness.

The books Academic Horse Training and The Truth About Horses where these methods are found in detail are both invaluable and come highly recommended from me.

So take your problem, consider it well, find the root, and attack it patiently from there.

The Horsegentler

When Enough is Enough

I learned a really important lesson the last time I was working with a horse.

She is a new mare. I had only worked her once before, and this was the second time I had ridden her. She is a petite Quarab with a very willing personality. Her only really issue (and it’s a big one) is that she really has no idea what ground manners are. She is nice enough. But no one has ever explained to her that it is impolite to keep on walking when her handler stops right in front of her.

Noella is only 5. She has had maybe two years under saddle, and a bit of preparation before that (though not as much as I would have liked her to have). She is level headed and calm, but zippy and still has a good deal of ‘try,’ though some of it has been lost through the sometimes harsh corrections she has received for not respecting her handler’s space when she had never been taught how to.

Based on that, what she needed help with was recognizing a command and carrying it out. She has no problem carrying out what she is told to do; recognizing when something is a request or an order is more difficult for her. So to practice, I was doing simple transitions. Halt to walk. Walk to halt, back up. Halt to trot. Trot to walk to halt smoothly, back up.

We were doing all right.

She didn’t want to stop, and started bracing her nose into the pressure on the bit, and when we finally did get stopped she had great difficulty backing up, though I knew she could do it with decent skill when I was not riding her.

I couldn’t just keep on pulling on her nose, telling her to stop. I had first made sure that I was following the correct protocol for asking for a halt: lowing my energy, sitting down, heels down, head up, and then and only then using my hands.

Still no response.

Then I tried something my riding instructor had suggested. Instead of pulling straight back, after I had asked correctly I pulled her nose around and had her circle until she stopped.

That helped a little, but it didn’t work so well.

I modified it a little, so that I had her circle once and then I would ask her to stop again. Progress was made—she would stop after three circles, then two, then one. But after stopping for one second, she would forge ahead again, faster than before. And she would start going faster and faster within the gait, too, which she had not done before. She was getting frustrated.

I took her into the middle of the arena and stopped. I had not yet figured out why, but I knew I needed to start again with small  movements, go back to square one and actively help her out. I had essentially forgotten that this was a young horse that needed help with manners and understanding commands and had instead been focusing on the transitions.

The problem was that I had been eternally correcting her. No, you aren’t allowed to speed up. No, you didn’t stop. No, I didn’t ask you to canter, I asked you to move over into the corner. No, no no!

Noella had started to believe she couldn’t do anything right. All I had said to her since I got on was no. What she needed was yes! She has been told no so many times in her life before I started working with her, often when she didn’t even understand why. She didn’t need me to tell her the same things over and over again. She needed me to help her see why.

So in the middle there together, I managed to get her to stop. That was the last time I said no with my hands. I began by asking her to side pass, because on the rail I couldn’t get her to move over without speeding up. She tried to go forward, but I tried not to hold the reins tight. Instead I shifted my weight more dramatically and kept asking. She took one step. I dropped all aids and praised her.

Turn on the forehand. An easy one for her—one step, praise. Another step. What a good girl! At this point she stopped trying to go forwards.

Turn on the haunches. This was a little harder, and she had to move around to figure it out. But one step and a lot of praise, rubs, and encouraging words, and she had it.

As she got each thing by itself, I combined it into a manoeuvre, asking her to complete a box of four turns on the haunches and four straight lines. I had her make a nice balanced circle and make it smaller or bigger with a leg yield. I could feel her changing beneath me.

About twenty minutes later, I took her back out to the rail. I asked for a trot and I got one. Good girl. I asked for a halt. On a dime. Good girl. Back up? Yes ma’am! Sidepass into the ring, and back out. Well done! She didn’t even try to speed up.

Enough was enough on the rail. She had been trying her hardest to do what I wanted, and all I told her was that she was doing it wrong. When I shifted my focus to making her look good, not making me and what I could make her do look good, she started floating through what I asked.

I had a different horse.

I wonder now how many times I have missed the more subtle messages of a more experience horse saying, ‘I don’t get it.’ It took this young mare screaming at me for me to understand that she didn’t and to get creative about how to meet her needs.

Your horse has needs, too. What is he telling you?

The Horsegentler

Liberty, Part 3

Liberty Parts 1 and 2 detailed how to prepare a horse to work at liberty and how to ask the horse to start and stop. We will move on now to turning the horse.

We will remain on a long line; neither the horse nor you are yet confident enough to go off line! There should be a good deal of slack held in your right hand between you and your horse, as in the previous two lessons.

Are you remembering to lean when you ask your horse to walk forward and to stop? Great! You will be using the same principle here. Instead of leaning, though, you will be turning your shoulders to provide the cue before you begin to turn. Please do not drop your shoulders into the turn; your riding instructor will get mad at me! Plus, you never want the horse to drop his shoulder in a turn, so don’t get in the habit yourself.

Start the horse walking forward (refer to Liberty Part 2 for help if you need it). Plan ahead; are you going to turn right or left? Is there enough room for both you and the horse? Let’s start with a right turn, because it is easier. Move your left shoulder forward and your right shoulder back, and turn your head in the direction you want to go. Exaggerate all this at first. Your cues will get more subtle with time. Hold this for only a second or two before you begin to turn. If your horse is really in tune with body language, he might even turn without some help from you just from this cue. If he does, praise him! If not, add a gentle tug on the lead rope as you are turning to get him on the same page. If he doesn’t respond appropriately to this cue, you may need to review teaching a horse to lead, which can be found in this post.

Practice turning right, no more than 90 degrees at a time. Less is preferable, until your horse always keeps his jaw bone at your shoulder.

The next post will involve turning left. Turning right is enough to think about for now; it is easier, and it is safer for you as the handler. You’ve probably been taught since you first started riding that you don’t turn a horse left!

Happy turning,

The Horsegentler