Standing Still

One more boring video. So boring I sped it up to get through it faster 😉 We are a couple of days behind here and I want to get caught up. The problem with being behind is that I think we’ve done something really great and am all excited to share it! Then he does so much better the next day that what came before doesn’t seem so exciting anymore. I want to be able to share with the excitement of the day, not looking back and trying to recapture.
We are working on Spanish walk. With that come some issues that need an opposing action. Spanish walk is mostly pawing on command. We know it’s no fun to have a horse that paws all the time. The opposing cue is to stand quietly with all four feet on the ground.
Standing also helps settle my overly active somewhat anxious horse. It never hurts to have a horse that will stand still. This is him learning to do so. With me next to him and when I walk away. He’s doing very well at it.
Next time I promise something slightly more exciting at least.

Introducing The Pool Noodle

Harvey and I have been working on Spanish walk for a couple of days now. He’s been doing a spectacular job of picking it up using only capturing and his big brain. He’s such a smart boy. I thought it was time to work a little harder and add a new concept. The Pool Noodle!

This is the first time he’d ever seen one. It was interesting at first but never scary. Especially once it became attached to food!

With it he will learn to target with his knees. We work on and talk about targeting with noses all the time. Horses can target with any body part though.

It is pretty simple to teach. In this case holding the noodle in position and asking for a step forward so he bumps it and click! He very quickly picked up that the click happened when he touched the noodle with his knees and started putting two and two together. He was even offering a couple of steps at a time!

He has such slow controlled finesse, we ought to be able to accomplish some fun things that Rusty will never be able to because of his very different style. Do you know there;’s a name for holding one foot in the air and pivoting on the other? It’s a beautiful thing to watch and I can’t remember the name. Harvey is so doing it though!


Old School Horse Training

I was talking to a good friend of ours the other day. He’s cowboyed his whole life and loves horses like I do. It’s always nice to get to spend time talking to him. This time horses came up, they don’t always. HE talked about horses he’s had in the past, his father and his horses, and training. It was fascinating to hear the things we talk about now in scientific terms come up, referred to by different names but obviously the same things.

One of my favorite things was that he had rode so many Morgan crosses in his life. They’ve been around here forever and were very popular before styles changed and a more modern breed of stock horse became preferred. Of course talking to him I could see some of the reason for the change. He liked a Morgan quarter cross, they had the staying power and go that Morgans have plenty of but were quieted down by the quarter horse side. He thought the quarter added more cow sense too. I , of course, disagreed and thought that it was the Morgan blood that gave quarter horses their cow sense in the first place 😉

He talked about taking cattle cake or ears of corn out with him to catch the horses and how much easier they came when a little feed was offered. Positive reinforcement, just without any fancy names. He talked about the people who wouldn’t make pets of their horses because they wouldn’t work for you if you were nice to them and how silly that whole concept was. We agreed that when you’re nice to a horse and treat them well they will do anything for you. How his dad, an excellent horseman who could ride anything you could get a saddle on, didn’t have too. While he was able to buck them out he chose instead to take his time. To teach them everything they needed to know before he got on. Once he was ready to ride them they seldom bucked and instead just rode out nice.

He said his dad would break them proud. Instead of being shut down and dead inside, they held their heads high and had life to them. If that’s not a description of learned helplessness vs good training I don’t know what is. One of our friends favorite horses was a horse his dad started who was born the same year our friend was. The horse bucked with him for the last time when they were both eighteen. But the big black horse, half Morgan of course, was careful about it and would buck back underneath him if he was starting to fall off. Talk about a learned behavior and not bucking because of fear or because he was upset. He mentioned a semi load of hay shipped in from clear across the state basically thrown away because it was moldy and he wasn’t going to kill his horses feeding bad hay.

It was so interesting to hear about good horses and excellent horsemen who were using many of the same techniques we do without knowing the science behind them. We don’t always need proof coming from some test done in a lab to know what works. It’s easy to see, if we pay attention, that when told what a good job they’re doing a horse will want to do that job again. I would like to say that out here where we spend so many more hours on our horses doing jobs most people wouldn’t dream of, out here where we spend our lives in amongst the animals, caring for them and seeing to their needs, that we know better. That we have learned how to go about things in a way that is kind and effective. The unfortunate truth though is that farmers and ranchers are people, just like any other people, with good and bad. There are those who care for and love their livestock and there are those who pay no attention and think making a pet of your horse will ruin them. Just be sure not to forget all the good there is. Don’t be fooled by terrible propaganda into believing that those who care for the land and livestock don’t love them just as much as those who keep them simply as pets.


A Clicker Clinic

I got to go play with some fellow clicker trainers today. We are lucky out here in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska to have such a large clicker community. Large is all relative 😉
Andrea gave an overview of clicker basics then everybody paired off and we got to work. Horses quickly picked up treat manners and figured out what the click meant. Then worked on targeting and what ever else the horses needed.
One of the horses got targeting down and they proceeded to put it to work sniffing out and touching all the scary things they could find. Bern brought his horse in and gave a demonstration on laying down. That inspired almost every other horse there to give it a try. With lots of clicking almost every horse in the barn laid down. It was very impressive.
It was a day spent shoveling food into the mouths of happy horses and hopefully an interest in clicker training into their owners. It will be fun to see what grows from this.

Finally A Real-ish Ride

The weather was/is still cold and windy. Everything we’ve been doing has been aimed at keeping calm. Settling own. Controlling our wilder impulses. It’s a difficult lesson.
Harvey chose once again to let me on from the right side. I don’t care which side we use and like that he changes it up. Once on he spent lots of time backing up. He’s mostly looking for treats I think. He can turn that long elegant neck of his nearly clear around and look me in the eye. It gets a little scary even though he doesn’t mean anything by it.
We’re working on giving to the rein each direction. That means some spinning in circles. It was better than backing up though. The ground wasn’t as slick but with the windy cold I was in no rush to add forward. We don’t need to do that until he’s calm about everything else.
It might be different if our “arena” was better suited. There are fence posts facing in to catch knees on, sharp corners, and a chunk of cement in one corner. With all the pens on this place there’s not one of them that doesn’t have at least one of these wonderful attributes or a water tank. Slow is better than hurt.

Halter Breaking Amarillo

I’m trying to break up the endless videos of me sitting on Harvey not doing anything interesting. Here, instead, is a story about Amarillo.
I had been letting him out in the yard to graze. He got to stay there, by himself or with another horse, for a few hours before going back into their pen. Not an entirely bad thing in its self. They have a few acres, unlimited hay, and other horses to hang out with. No grass though. he was good about following me back in or another horse. He has not let me catch him since he came though. I haven’t tried real hard. There hasn’t been a need.
The first day after the time change we spent the day cleaning up the garden. It was hard. dirty, tiring work. Coyote and Rusty had been out most of the afternoon while we worked. As I put them away Amarillo and Harvey begged so piteously that I gave in. It was only four after all. They would have plenty of time to graze before it got late. As I let them out it began to drizzle. Night was coming fast. I hadn’t taken the time change into account. Oh well they could sty out for a little while.
The only problem was that when I went to put them away Amarillo wasn’t ready to come in. I tried targeting. I tried putting Harvey away. He had gotten to stay out at first to be a good influence. I tried leaving the gate open and running him in. He stood in the gate and looked at me. I could see him thinking. Then he turned and came back out.
It was getting dark. It was raining. Amarillo was not letting me close. I snapped a picture to commemorate the day.
I am very often happy that this place is set up to run cattle. Lots of gates and lanes. He thought he was being all smart going down one of them. It dead ended in a gate. Unfortunately I had to get the gate open somehow. I thought maybe I could just catch him in the dead end. He nearly ran over me. I was able to move the horses on the other side of it and once open he came back and through it. He was in.
That whole thing made me not like him very much. he was NEVER going out again.
It was time to change my criteria. He has been getting clicked and treated for coming up and saying hi. Now I needed to ask for more. He gets one for coming up, but no more than that. Now he has to let me touch him. Pet his neck. Put a lead rope over his neck. Or even let me put a halter on.
I was able to sneak out the other day and have an actual session just with him. Almost. He had been standing at the gate. It was going to be easy. He wasn’t. It wasn’t. Oh well. Coyote can play too. I don’t care what I click him for. Coyote is perfect in every way. What ever he’s doing when I click is bound to be good 😉 It was a fun group session with horses, goats, and bulls.


Above Threshold

It turned cold. The wind has been blowing. The temps getting up into the thirties. Maybe forties. It had rained the night before leaving the ground muddy and slick and the horses chilly. Harvey has been energetic to say the least. The sum and total of our efforts has been trying to keep him calm.
While not purposely bringing a horse above threshold is a grand plan in horse training it is not always possible. Often we have nothing to do with making them nervous, they do it all on their own. Ether by feeling really good like Rusty has been lately, or just up, spooky, jumpy, and energetic, like Harvey for this go.
This is where all our work on being calm, head lowering and the like, comes in. Can I say it was completely successful? No, not entirely. He didn’t magically become a calm steady horse in these cold windy conditions. On the other hand nobody died! I always consider that to be a success. Really though it was a pretty good session. He left calmer than he started. It wasn’t a day to leave the safety of the fence, instead we worked on giving to the reins and making sure he was ok with me moving all around and touching his hindquarters.
I have been working on getting up the courage to dismount on his right side. There’s no reason to think it wont be just fine. On the other hand it has never been just right to do so. I’m not as young as I used to be, I no longer bounce as well, I would prefer to get conditions just right for all these things. From getting off on a new side to riding there’s no reason not to take your time and make sure everyone is perfectly comfortable. Today besides the slick mud and energetic spooky horse we were not positioned just right. He was too close to the fence with his left side. I want a horse to have somewhere away from me to go if they spook. Once again I chickened out and got off the usual way. It’s as good for us and our saddles as it is for the horse to keep it mixed up. Our legs and the stirrup leathers need to get stretched out equally.
Unfortunately the video is too long to fit here. You can find it here though:

Harvey, Riding, Almost, Again

I would call this Harvey’s first real ride. Almost. We are still taking it easy. Letting him hang out, enjoy having a person on his back. There is no rush. No time limit. No reason to do anything but make friends. The hard stuff will come.
The video is nearly impossible to see. I lightened it up the best I could. The phone was facing close enough to straight into the sun to drive it insane. It really wants to save me from bright videos and always does its best. Making most of my pictures or video during bright days almost this dark 🙄 Hopefully you are in a dark place to watch it.
The interesting thing about this session was our rate of reward, ROR. I started out with a very high ROR. I want him to know he’s doing good and to be excited about this riding thing. Once I got on the first time though it was a problem. He was to excited, looking too hard for his reward. It wasn’t possible to get food out and ready for him fast enough to keep him calm.
I got off and we worked on settling down and not expecting food so much. I asked him to drop his head and be calm, and hold it there awhile before I clicked/treated. Lowering our ROR greatly.
When I got back on he was calmer. I stroked his neck, he dropped his head and exhaled. He was actually calm this time. I let go of the fence and we took a few steps together staying calm. It was a very successful ride.
A high ROR is often recommended to keep horses calm and engaged. In theory this works. In reality, we are back to letting the horse decide. Every animal is different and we have to look to them to see what is going to work instead of going by what we think ought to.


Speaking of Harvey preferring his right side for things…
Here is the speedy version of saddling him. Please watch with the sound off! I forgot to remove that and with it sped up it sounds ridiculous. Harvey is loose for the whole thing and chooses to come stand for the saddle. He also chooses to have the saddle put on from the right. As soon as I got the big heavy thing switched around to be put on from the left. Dang horse.
He is also free to leave if he wants. Granted not very far. For the sake of all of us concerned smaller distances make life easier, and closed gates keep the other horses away. He can still leave though and although I could go get him it would be a sign to me that he wasn’t happy with what was going on. A sign that I need to do things differently.
I had a discussion recently with a horsewoman and trainer that I always enjoy and respect. She was discussing her ideas on choice. She felt that choice is the greatest motivator of all. By using +R we are giving the horse a choice. He can choose to do the trick / behavior and get the treat or not. At liberty he can choose to walk away if he doesn’t want to play with us. But … Doesn’t -R also give them a choice? The horse can choose to back away from the pressure or stay. The horse’s choice / behavior decides the outcome. As long as the pressure is released the instant he makes the decision to back then he has created a situation where the pressure is released. He has been given a choice. It is when the horse has ‘no choice’ – no way out of the situation – no relief eg with flooding, that creates a terrifying and confusing situation for the horse.
I would sure like to think that in my use of -R I am listening to what my horse has to say, without flooding and terrifying the horse. After all we are doing -R at liberty leaving him free to go any time he wants.
While I feel a horse should be given choices in training and in life I think we offer them the same choices we do small children. Both if free to make any choices they wanted would make terrible ones. A horse would happily eat alfalfa or corn until foundered. A child would stay up all night eating candy until foundered. They would be happy, in the short term, but life isn’t about being happy all the time. There is no fulfillment in that. True happiness, contentment, self satisfaction, comes from the hard things we accomplish, the difficult choices, practicing restraint. While I’m not sure horses are able to process things that deeply, that doesn’t mean immediate gratification is the answer to all their problems either.
It is up to us as the adults in the relationship to offer horses choices to make. The same way I offer a child a choice between broccoli or carrots, of going to bed now and getting a book read to them or staying up a little later and giving up the story, I offer a horse the choice of moving away from a stirrup touching his side and getting a cookie or standing there and not getting a cookie. As long as we don’t poison that deal by escalating pressure the horse is free to choose.
When we take away the choice we can poison the cue. When we force a child to sit at the table until they eat their cauliflower that child may never touch cauliflower again for their entire life, sorry mom 😉 If we force a horse to stand while we strap a saddle to their back they may never happily accept a rider.
Instead of concentrating on the method we use to teach a horse perhaps the important thing is in offering them a choice. Letting them take a roll in deciding if they are ready or willing to continue with the next step in training. Watching and listening for our cues from them. When a horse is working with you, ready and willing to take that next step it is possible to happily face challenges and take those difficult steps and even practice restraint. The hard things in life that make it all the better in the end.