Behavior Chains

I need to get this written down while the epiphany is fresh. It’s amazing how sometimes you hear the same thing, again or in a different way and it becomes clear. Or seems clear. Sometimes what I think is an epiphany becomes as clear as mud when I try to put it into practice. This, though, I really think is quite clear and simple, I simply need to pay attention and do it.

Back chaining or building a behavior chain is something I hear and read about all the time with clicker training. Breaking an action down into its individual and very small pieces and concentrating on each one separately instead of lumping an action into one big, and confusing, movement.

We are working, loosely, on stops followed by a roll back. We aren’t drilling on it, but I try to do a couple every time I ride. I always feel like I’m all over the place so I have a few set things that we cover consistently. Right now it’s stopping, roll back, trot departure, turns on each quarter, trotting poles, and trotting circles. Other things get added and basic steering is built in, plus, when able I try to build up little trips out of our arena. Slowly building courage, for both of us 😉

The roll backs are coming pretty good. Sometimes the stop is sloppy. Sometimes the turns lack momentum or are around the middle. It’s what we are doing anyway but I need to put more thought into each piece. Instead of randomly treating I need to get one piece down and then add the next step. So I guess we need to perfect our stop. Make sure that each time he is offering the same response. I exhale, say whoa, and sit. In response he should drop his hindquarters and stop, fully and completely. If I then continue to sit and hold onto him with my legs he should go into a back. We have both of these for the most part. Sometimes his stop is slow, he wants to keep going. His back is often crooked, that can be fixed once I have more control of his hind quarters. I will keep clicking and rewarding after each one.

Once that is down and easy for him we can start again on the roll backs. Ask him to give his head around nearly to my knee on the side we are turning to. Open up that rein so he can “go through that door”, apply outside leg and rein asking him to go through the door. I suppose at this point I will reward him for and after the turn. Need to make sure he is turning on the hind quarters not around the middle. Once that is good we will move onto the next step.

The next step is to launch out of the turn with speed and power. Eventually I will want him to go straight into a canter, for now a walk then trot is good. By this point he will no longer be rewarded for the stop or the turn, unless we are going back and reinforcing them. His click will come after he has performed all the steps in the chain, stop turn, and go. In the beginning it will be a take off, click, slam on the breaks and get reward, but as he understands and get the maneuver down the treats will fade out and we can continue to lope, or trot 😉

In clicker training the act of setting a goal and writing down the goal and your plan on how to reach the goal is strongly emphasized. I don’t usually do it. This is my plan, my goal, it is nice to have it thought out and written down, it helps to clarify and think through the actions needed to accomplish said goal. Now to see if we can reach it.

Riding Rusty

Which ever Rusty happens to show up for the day.

He is such a conundrum. Flighty and reactive. Scared of nothing, a big puppy dog. Heavy on my aids, so light and responsive it scares me. That horse is going to drive me insane, sometimes from the shear joy of riding him. When he is good he’s so good. A shift of my weight send him off in what ever direction I think about going. An exhale causes him to slam on the brakes. I can feel him move beneath me more clearly than any other horse ever has. His gaits are spectacular and since I have finally learned to stop trying to get a horse on the bit and instead ride them forward working from behind, he carries himself so round and straight. Most of the time.

This time I recorded our ride. It didn’t cause total failure but our ride wasn’t as good as the ones before. I could tell from the ground that he wasn’t with me, I got on anyway. He didn’t do any of the very unpleasant things he had been doing for awhile there, he just wasn’t all there. He was fidgety with the bit, lots of mouthing and head movement. He wanted to fall into his circles. Mostly to the right, or we may never have made it to the left, he dropped his shoulder in and stuck his head out to the outside. I was working hard to get him straight, asking for a slight leg yield to the outside. It doesn’t look pretty, I was hoping to get his prettyness on video.

I did get a little bit of the thing that has been thrilling me the most lately. I laid out some ground poles for the girls and their “riding lessons” or for them to play on. That is mostly what they do. Who would have thought that jumping tiny cross rails would make for great riding lessons for girls who want to play at rodeo.

Anyway. I’ve been trotting him over the ground rails. I never noticed anything spectacular with horses before. Or maybe I never did it before. This time I seem to have gotten the spacing correct, except for one, and he is doing everything that is hoped for when trotting poles. The lift to his back is breath taking. He rounds up, extends his stride, and reaches over the poles. I don’t always do the best job sitting it, in the video I flop around like a fish, but it is so incredibly fun to ride.

The point of the video is the first little bit of him trotting the poles. The rest is mostly just admiring how gorgeous he is. When did my ugly little duckling get so big, and beautiful, and Morgany? He used to look like a scrawny ugly little thing with a neck far more quarter horse than Morgan. He grew up!


Witness To A Runaway

She was showing off.

Her favorite, greatest in the whole world, cousin was there. With my daughter on her horse her cousin was riding Coyote. The favorite cousin had had a horrid naughty pony her very irresponsible father got her as a young child. One of those nasty little bucking things that give ponies a bad name and teach children not to like horses. Since then though she had ridden with us a few times, but not nearly enough, and wanted to start riding for real. I was thrilled to have her riding with us and we hope to haul her, and her brother, along with us if we take the kids to any rodeos or shows next summer.

Coyote was being an excellent lesson pony, giving me hope that he will work out as my sons first horse. He was plodding very slowly around our “arena” ears flicked back, paying close attention to everything his young rider was trying to ask of him. Princess Onna on the other hand was doing the opposite. Not that SHE was being bad. She to was doing everything her young rider asked of her. Which was zipping around the “arena”, cutting off slow, patient Coyote, and generally making a nuisance of herself. Finally Onna couldn’t handle it anymore. She zoomed towards me and the pickup, and safety.


This is where clicker training and habit pay off. She couldn’t have gone anywhere in the direction she was going anyway, it’s a closed lane that ends in a gate, but she didn’t try to anyway. She came to me and stopped. She wasn’t trying to do anything wrong. Her person wanted her to go but wasn’t offering clear signals. Onna went where she wanted. They rode around a little more that I got on.

She had been switched into go mode. I did my best to turn that switch off. She would take off and I would one rein stop, wash, rinse, repeat. Not the first time we’ve done this and wont be the last. The next day we tried again, but I’ll save that story for a different day 😉

That Other Rusty

I’ve been riding, just not writing.

Rusty has been, changeable. To say the least. After one beautiful ride, way back whenever that was, he went insane. The next time we went out there he tried to buck, tried to, in typical Morgan fashion he’s no good at it, tried to rear, and spooked at everything. I got off and lunged him, hard, then got back on. We made it home.

Back in the comfort of our arena we trotted some circles. I had not liked the complete lack of control the halter allowed when he pitched his fit. I got my bit out that I had chosen so carefully for him. The little leather snaffle, so soft and supple and some day able to be used without a headstall. I put it on him and let him wear it while we worked. He got close to his usual self and we stopped for the day.

The next time I got to ride him I put the bit on again. This time I ran reins to the bit and another set to the halter. In double reins I could use the halter he was used to while introducing him to the bit. He was awful. Running sideways when asked to turn, refusing everything. Where had my horse gone? He had been so willing, so light and responsive. Now he was terrible.

Nearly in tears I texted a friend and asked if she had a sidepull I could try. He didn’t like a bit and a halter offered nothing when I needed to pull him around in a one rein stop or try to keep his head up. She thought she could find one and offered to come ride with me bringing a couple of bits that she liked. I was willing to try and thrilled at the thought of someone to try riding out again with. In the end duty, and her many jobs, called and she wasn’t able to ride but she dropped of the bits and, not a sidepull but a hackmore.

I haven’t had hardly any time to ride since then but I have managed to make it out twice. Once for each bit. The first was a snaffle, they both were, this one had two bars connected by three links of chain. I was hesitant in part because I was afraid the chain would lay on his tongue making it hard to chew and swallow food. Part of why I theorize he doesn’t like my little leather bit. It was not a problem. I rode with the double rein again and didn’t need to pick up the rope to the halter once. He was light and responsive and obviously liked it better than the leather one.

The second bit was her great grandpa’s, I think, if not it was her grandpa’s, either way it’s really cool to have a bit handed down like that. It has the two bars connected by a figure eight piece in the middle. It was too wide for him, I don’t know if that really matters, but it stuck out a fair bit on each side and I worried that the center piece could possibly get on the bars of his mouth. He worked wonderfully in it. The same as the other one really. Before riding we went for a walk out to where he had so much difficulty earlier. He was a nervous wreck, hardly able to concentrate at all. If he can’t go for a walk out there he’s not going to be able to ride. We’ll have to keep taking our walks.

Back in our arena I got on. At one point my direction seemed laborious and excessive. I lowered my hands, shifted my weight and turned slightly in the direction I wanted him to go. He spun off that way. I clicked and rewarded. He started spinning randomly in that direction. I sat and waited. He finally stopped walked forward again. He is such a strange combination of responsive and idiotic. He can pick up new things so fast and yet still be unable to remember something we’ve been working on constantly for a year. His concentration is so intense it scares me but he is completely scatter brained. He is fearless and curious but terrified of everything. My husband thought perhaps bipolar and I don’t disagree but might instead call it a double whorl.

First Horses

Having the pleasure of introducing my children to horses gets me to thinking about my first horse and learning to ride with my mom, especially when I stumbled across these old pictures. I am so lucky to get to carry on the tradition. My mom got what I am pretty sure was her first horse as a teenager. There may have been a pony sometime before that? I should know this. Sass was a Morgan cross advertised in the paper as “not good for poles”. He was quite the horse. She would have to be the one to tell his stories, and hopefully I can get her to. Thinking about it now they were quite the stories. He was hot, proud cut, and maybe a little crazy. That could have been the combination of the two of them though 😉 He was a great cow horse, borrowed regularly to work cattle. A great jumper, they jumped home made jumps bareback. And he was hers, well loved until us children came along.

Then he was mine. Not many people are lucky enough to share a first horse with their parent. By then he had a fair bit of age on him, he had settled down, been sold, my brothers fault, and brought back home again. He was the perfect height for a child and the perfect age, safe and dependable.

My mom went on to get Tally. Tally, Brandy’s Tally Jack, was a registered Morgan, big, hot, green broke, and gorgeous. Sass suddenly wasn’t very exciting. I believe I was four to Tally’s five. All I wanted was to ride  him. Sass was old and boring. Strangely my mom let me ride Tally. She says I didn’t fall of every time I rode him and I’m sure that’s true. Eventually I did learn to ride him although he remembered me, and all my times of falling off, until the end. He carried us through horse shows and trail rides, faithfully and loyally, sometimes all three of us at once.

These two wonderful Morgans taught all three of us to ride while instilling a love of horses, Morgans in particular. We were so lucky to grow up with them.

Potty Training And A Variable Reward Schedule

So, I’m a member of a great horse training group, Horse Tricks Academy. The lady who teaches it, Jain Brand, has a wonderful class over there with a really fun and involved Facebook group. There are lots of discussions on training and lots of friends made, it’s one of my favorite things. I might spend a little too much time there.

The other day she offered some definitions of the terminology of this type of horse training, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and the like, no wonder we need definitions with that last one, and asked if anybody had examples of these from our daily lives. Of course the talk turned to children, if only they were as easy to train as horses. There was talk of using positive reinforcement to help with toilet training of youngsters. A treat for a “job” well done. But then they mentioned intermittent rewards, not getting a treat every single time they do something but randomly.

Wait I know about this! I’ve read a dozen articles, heard the reasoning and benefits and I’ve, I’ve never tried it.

I went to bed thinking about potty training, then, as always, my thought turned to horses. I laid there thinking that I’ve never tried this. Of course when I have no horse handy to start working with immediately is when the greatest epiphanies come. Not rewarding a behavior that usually results in a well loved treat causes great upset to the horse and they TRY HARDER. They offer more of the behavior and when they offer a larger Spanish walk, or run back with the rubber chicken instead of plod, then you click and reward. Sandra of Hippologic explains it better and more thoroughly than I can here.  She and Jain both were kind enough to offer pointers and advice, on child training as well as horse 😉

I can’t wait to get out there and try to put their advice to use. Not right this moment, it’s hot out, but soon and this time I will remember to do it and not forget like all the other times I read about it. Really I will. As to potty training….

A Day Of Firsts

We’ve been doing this for awhile now, it doesn’t seem like there should be too many things left to do for the first time. We keep finding them though!

After our nice little morning work out yesterday I managed to sneak back out in the afternoon and bring him in again. Any time I want to do anything with the horses they seem to be clear out on the far side of there pen. I can’t call them up the the front from the gate but if I walk out to the end of the lane Rusty will come and  meet me in the middle.


I threw his saddle on and hopped on without any warm up or ground work. We had done plenty that morning and I reached a point this summer where I got tired of treating him like a green horse. He’s been under saddle for over a year now. He has only been ridden sparingly in that time but hasn’t ever done anything really bad, so I’m done. He’s a horse. He can go for rides. Little rides, close to the house, but still we’re going.

After a quick circle around the arena I pointed him towards the chicken coup. It’s always a scary place, there are tree branches scraping the roof, an old pickup, calves in their pen, and, scariest for me, a drop off on one side. It took some encouragement and lots of reassurance but we made the scary loop! Check one first off.

On the back side of the chicken coup instead of going around and back to the arena we turned the other way and went behind the shop building and another old barn. There’s an extension cord strung out across the ground, tractors parked, and the tree row. There aren’t as many rocks to hurt a poor little horsey’s feet going that way though and variety is nice. Check another first off.

We went down the driveway a little ways, like last time. Unlike last time it was terrifying this time. Still made it and back into the yard. Nobody died. He wanted to go past our turn and down towards the stack yard. I was happy to comply. He wanted to trot, out of nervousness I think. I encouraged it for a few strides then asked for a whoa. After lots of work on it from the ground he now automatically backs a few steps after stopping. Very nice. Did that a few times as we rode between the towering stacks of round bales. The ones he hasn’t been able to gather the courage to ride between on previous rides. Check another first off.

Heading back to the pickup we met my husband on a four wheeler. I didn’t immediately leap off to meet them from the safety of the ground. Rusty was unconcerned as we stopped next to each other for a brief conversation. Mostly he wanted to see if a four wheeler would taste good. The air puffing from the exhaust was not a worry. It zooming off behind him was not a worry. Check another first off.

Back in our arena I thought we would work on some finer points before I got off. We made one circle, practiced one turn on the hindquarters and looked up to see my husband coming in the semi he had been off on the four wheeler to start. He gestured to let me know that he was coming our way. This time I did jump off. The four wheeler is one thing. For our first time meeting a semi I did want the safety of the ground. We stood quietly and watched it come through our arena. He watched with pricked ears but was unafraid. It came right past his nose and he reached to sniff it. As it passed we gave chase. Following, sniffing, clicking and rewarding his lack of fear, until it parked. And our final first of the day.

The ride may not have been calm and uneventful, he spooked and tried to turn back, but we did it anyway. We are getting away from that green horse, babying, stage and I am reaching a point where I am able to treat him like a normal horse. Life is good.

And Back To Rusty

We’ve been doing some other stuff but, good old Rusty, nothing has changed there. Except his coat color. It’s the normal fall darkening but, WOW. He is very nearly liver chestnut, with a lighter red main and tail. Gorgeous.

I’ve managed a couple of rides on him and should be out getting another one now instead of doing this. He is thrilled to be back to work. When I bring in a horse besides him he paws the gate and screams. Last time I rode him we went off down the driveway by ourselves! He was perfectly happy to be going down the road, because we have spent so much time taking walks down it? As soon as I asked him to turn off into the corner of the pivot he had a small melt down but I was able to reassure him and we circled back that way and home for a nice, short ride.

This morning I brought him out with no intention of riding, and I didn’t a small child was following me around riding stayed out of the question. We did work a bit on painting, then asking him to put his foot forward. when we started clicker training we did a simple bow, one foot forward and head down. I asked for it the other day and he seems to have forgotten. We are relearning. I found that if I watch for which foot is about to step forward I can click as it hits the ground and before the next one picks up. I take a step forward with my corresponding leg, I put my left leg forward I want him to place his left fore forwards, my body position is asking for the walk, he starts to walk by moving his left leg forward. Wala! He has given me what I asked for. I need to be careful to ask for the leg that he has taken the weight off of and is planning to start walking with. It’s all about asking at the right time and making it easy. I think. It seems to be working.

I have watched him concentrate on this, more yesterday before I figured out the walking thing. He puts his head down next to mine and I swear I can feel him thinking. He is not an easy horse. Not that he’s bad in any way but he is so intense. He thinks so hard and pays so much attention that he can be a bit overwhelming. I’m sure it’s also that I haven’t taught grown ups well enough (standing quietly while the adults are talking 😉 ) I am trying to pay more attention to him while I’m distracted and reward him for standing still for a second and not touching me. It’s an amazingly hard thing to work on.

There is a piece of railroad tie laying near our “arena” I originally wanted to use it as a pedestal but was having trouble getting him to stand on it instead of pawing and rolling it so it has sat there for children to play with. Today we walked over to it. I asked for foot forward when we were close to it. Clicked, rewarded. I placed my foot on it. He looked at me, I could feel him thinking again. He looked at the tie, my foot, me again, then he picked his foot up and placed it on the tie next to mine!!!

After big rewards and lots of loving I tried the other foot. He did the same with his other foot! He is awesome. The whole moving his foot along with mine thing has turned out better than I ever guessed. He already does Spanish walk when I raise my foot. Now we are slowly adding move foot back with mine and maybe cross over? Rusty never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

The Full Story Of The Rodeo

I heard about another kiddie rodeo so I called to get the kids signed up. Turns out it was not so much kiddie rodeo but a fun/play day. When I called about it I was assured that it was usually over by four, we would have no problem making our previously scheduled engagement. Then my good friend Paula called and asked if we wanted to enter and ride with her. I happily told her we were already entered but would love to ride with her. Did I mention her new living quarters trailer?

I resumed loading practice with Onna, (she had not been interested in going home after our last adventure) got our barrels back out and made my daughter go around them and got as much as I could ready. When Paula showed up that day we loaded everything, including Onna who hopped right in and were off. The children stayed behind with their much beleaguered father, who would feed them lunch and bring them later so they didn’t have to sit out in the hot sun any longer than necessary.

We got there early but the grounds were packed. Paula drove her big, long rig right in and found a spot anyway. The spot might have been the point at which we could no longer go forward but hey, it worked! And we were right behind the rest of the family who were there competing or watching. It was perfect.

Once saddled we went in to warm up. I debated hard which horse to ride. Paula had very kindly offered to let me ride one of hers because Coyote is off a little. I was going to take him to ride anyway, he isn’t limping  I just worry too much about my boy, I thought it would be an easy day for him. This was much better, but now I had a young horse that I had never ridden and would like to get used to. Paula assured me that he had ponied a horse, once or twice and had been “OK” with it. I am a chicken rider, not one who rides chickens 😉 but a rider who is chicken, thought I should clarify that, and the “OK” part didn’t reassure me. I also had Onna who did great last time but last time was not near the mad house this time was and I was going to put my small children on her. I chose Onna to warm up.

In the arena it was crowded. By crowded I mean I could almost see the ground occasionally as people walked trotted and loped endlessly to the left with the occasional stop and back thrown in. I’ve shown horses for years but I had never seen a warm up like this.  I tried to discern some sort of pattern, was the outside track for walking? No. Maybe the inside and loping to the fence? No. Everywhere for everything, cutting back and forth and through then slamming on the brakes and backing into the rest of the horses doing the same thing. I guess more people can fit in to a rode, each run last a few seconds as opposed to a cowhorse event where each rider gets approx. four min. There were lots of people. I don’t think the pictures can show just how crowded the parking was, maybe that made it seem worse.

I didn’t want to do anything but walk Onna in the warm up. She needed to learn that it was a calm place with nothing to be worried about. It wasn’t but it would be nice if she could think it was. That done we went back to the trailer where I switched horses. Luckily Paula showed up about then and I was able to get on with her there and her horses buddy that she was calling for so desperately. Tee Bird is a she so if I refer to her as a he anywhere forgive me I seem to keep doing that. Once on she was fine, with her buddy. I was a bit nervous on a new horse in that madhouse of a parking lot. She wanted to be with her buddy pretty bad but once we got that settled she was great. She never spooked as children on foot and children on horses galloped about, she wasn’t bothered by ponying Onna, she didn’t even get upset about the idiots that thought this was a great time to play football, throwing the ball over the heads of horses walking down the narrow isle between parked pickups and trailers and the tents set up all around the arena full of people and more vehicles.

My daughter did the goat snatching (deribboning? something), where you run up, dismount, and grab the ribbon off a goats tail. I let her go on her own and they were both great. She can’t quite get all the way off on her own but she’s so close. She did the poles, they’ve been doing great practicing at home so I let her off the lead. It was a mistake, I thought she was going to die. There was some over steering and I was sure Onna was going to leave, Onna is a patient forgiving little mare and kindly didn’t run off. My daughter got a little far off the side of the saddle once but managed to pull herself back on. All in all it was a good run. And she did barrels, that was their best event of the day I think. I ponied but was able to let them go around the barrels by themselves after the first.

My son only ended up getting to do poles. I had been going to ride Onna like last time but Tee Bird was doing really good and I felt safe just riding her with him in front of me. We didn’t quite fit in the saddle but it worked and I hear he looked happy, pointing at the crowd and smiling. He left with his exhausted father to make our previous engagement before he got to do barrels. there was no way this show was going to be over by four as previously predicted. It was after five already with many classes left to go.

It was a fun day, hot and dusty, long for the kids but their cousins were there watching which helped a lot to keep them entertained. They seemed to enjoy this one that I thought had everything conspiring to make it slightly miserable and I think we will try to hit a few more next year. My daughter is just starting to ride off of a lead line and with a winter to work on it she should be doing good by next summer. My son is difficult. Maybe he will develop a lick of sense and make an effort not to fall off, maybe he will grow enough to reach the stirrups or maybe he will keep going in front of me. Princess Onna is great, we are using clicker training to help her learn how to do these things. She handles the crowds and all the scary things involved like a pro I couldn’t have asked for a better horse for the kids to learn on. As for me? I’m learning about this whole rodeo thing. It’s still not my thing, I’m discovering that I am a dressage queen at heart but, I am slightly competitive. Maybe I’ll have to show Rusty how to run a round a pole 😉 I can see why people think a horse that’s been rodeo-ed on should be so broke they have to put up with a lot. If nothing after hauling Rusty to these things a good old normal horse show will seem like a vacation!




Follow The Leader

Tanna came to see us! She’s off to college now and we were thrilled when she came to see us on her limited time home. Coyote has been off since he came up lame, but he’s not limping. We grabbed Rusty and Onna and rode around the yard.

Then I decided to try Coyote. It would just be a short ride, my daughter wanted to ride her horse and I’m not willing to put anyone else on Rusty yet. It was perfect. Tanna has a great seat and had no problem riding Coyote bareback. Onna’s little girl was happy to have her horse back and to ride with Tanna. I got to put more time on Rusty. I wish we could do this all the time.

The “barrels”, empty lick tubs, were set up in the driveway still and we decided to play with them. An enthusiastic game of follow the leader was begun. First it was my daughter and Tanna, and the goat, Baa, and Rusty. After I got done videoing I got back on Rusty and joined in. We took turns being the leader and were declared disqualified by little miss queen of the world if we didn’t trot to the finish. Aside from helping her to remember the pattern and practice steering it was a great way to work on Rusty. We also practiced steering. We worked on being in front, in the middle and behind. And trotting to the finish was the perfect time to work on whoa.

We were so glad to see Tanna and had fun training all of us while she was here.