How to Deal with Relapse

Progress is made, but progress is also lost. It can be hard to remain committed to the training job and push through without getting discouraged. Here is what you need to know about training through relapse so that both you and your horse come out the other side encouraged and with the trained response you were trying to achieve.

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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.