equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Happy New Year 2009

Looking Back, Looking Forward

 It’s been a while since I have written anything about some of my horses and I think the beginning of a new year is always a good time to reflect on progress made in the past year and also, to think about where the new year might take me, or where I want to go.  This is not a how-to training article, but more some personal rambling…. I started it because I was going through my training notes and I wanted to sit down and think about what had happened this year and what I should think about doing next. I find that I get caught up in the daily training, so it is helpful to step back and look at the big picture.  Then I decided that looking at all my horse projects together, they showed how much flexibility and possibilities there were for things to do with clicker training. I am lucky in that my barn is full of horses of all sizes, shapes, personalities and physical issues.  With that in mind,  I decided to share my progress report with anyone who was interested.

I think 2008 was a pretty good year for the Bartlett horses. We now have 8: Rosie, Willy, Drummer, Red, Finale, Stella, Molly and Buster.  I don’t get to spend as much time with each of them as I would like, but they seem ok with that.   This year I think I improved everyone’s life by learning more about equine nutrition through Dr. Kellon’s online course and by learning to do Equine Touch. I trim my own horses so I tried to improve in that area too.  I think there are a lot of good education opportunities out there made possible by the internet and the availability of videos and DVD’s and I am hoping to take advantage of more of them.

Molly, my daughter Kira’s pony, has been outgrown by her, but still lives with us. She is 22 now and teaching Natalie (age 10) and Geneva (age 4) to ride.   They are not very consistent students but we take her out every now and then and she does very well.  Despite being a bit quick by nature, clicker training has made her a good lesson pony. She understands about stopping for the click and I can set up all kinds of patterns with cones and poles and as soon as she knows the pattern, she will help the kids do it. I can change where and when I click so that they have to do more and more steering and riding as they get better at it. 

Buster, the mini, has gotten to go driving a few times, but he has had a boring year. I really need to take some time to do some liberty work or tricks with him. When I first learned clicker training, I spent a lot of time with him, teaching him new tricks and he has quite a repertoire, including fetching, sitting, bowing, kneeling, lying down, standing on the box with 2 and 4 feet, rearing, walking through a hula hoop, smiling, shaking hands and I am probably forgetting a few. He still loves to do tricks and every visitor gets to see him lie down on cue. If I walk by a raised object, he will try to climb on it. When my husband was redoing the stall flooring in our barn, he had a pile of stall mats by Buster’s door and Buster thought they were great fun to climb.

I wrote about Stella last spring and she has continued to make progress.  During the summer and fall, I worked on introducing her to tack, starting with a surcingle, then the bridle and finally the saddle and girth.  The surcingle was the biggest challenge as she seemed uncomfortable with something around her girth area but she seems ok with it now.   I was told she had been ridden a little before, but I started as if she knew nothing.  I wanted to make sure she was ok with the whole process.  She is learning how to bridle herself.  I spent last winter teaching her to pick up and hold a dog toy, and realized this skill came in handy when I wanted to teach her to take the bit. Everything really is everything else, as Alex would say.  It took her a while to figure out how to eat with the bit in her mouth but now she does very well.  I am considering riding her bitless, but I wanted her to know how to take a bit and be ok with it, in case I decide to use it or she ends up being someone else’s pony. I am not quite sure what to do with her. I have ridden her a few times bareback and she is ok with me sitting on her, but she is really too small for me (she is 13.2, I am 5’7″).

My plan at this time is to start riding her a little and also work more on her groundwork and some liberty work. She seems to enjoy our sessions and she is now very friendly and comes right over to the gate when I go to her field.  I have been doing some Equine Touch on her and she is doing some licking, chewing and sighing.  She still seems to get nervous and flustered easily, but I feel like she is finally starting to relax and really be ok with things. She has taught me the value of taking lots of time on each step. If I rush her, all her old emotional issues come back. She is turned out with Molly and Buster and they all get along very well.  She does scoot away if Molly asks, but she and Buster play and she is capable of some amazing airs above the ground.

My husband’s horse Finale has been on vacation. The good news is that the quarter cracks in his feet are finally starting to go away. He has had them since I started trimming him a few years ago when his feet were in such bad shape and I was not sure the cracks would ever grow out. But his feet are pretty good now, with less chipping, cracking and flaring.  He has also gotten very good about trimming. He is a shire and a bit of a klutz and used to lean and sway when I trimmed him.  Now he seems to have figured out how to stand on 3 feet without using me for support.

My daughter Kira’s horse Drummer has come a long way. When we got him in Jan 2007, he had not been ridden much in the ring and he had a tendency to invert and gait when he got upset. We were told he was a QH/Paint but he sure seems to have gaited horse in there somewhere.  We have used clicker training to do some freeshaping on the lunge and to teach him to soften, bend and carry himself in better balance when he is doing groundwork and under saddle.  His right lead, which was choppy and hard to pick up, is now easy to ride. Kira has worked on teaching him to jump and he is quite good at home.

We took him to a little event last summer and he was did very well for dressage, but got flustered over the jumping. I think he needs more work on basic jumping skills to build his confidence and he also has some emotional issues that need to be addressed so those are projects for this year.  He spent last summer at the barn where Kira was working and it was good for him. He got used to living in a barn with more activity (our farm is very quiet) and being ridden with other horses and in different settings. One of the downsides of keeping our horses at home is that it is harder to get them used to new things as not much changes around here. We did have some construction done this summer and that kept the horses entertained for a few weeks.

It has been interesting for me to work with Drummer. We don’t know all his history and when we bought him, it was because he was so quiet and seemed like a safe mount for a teenager, but with some ability too. I think that like a lot of horses, some of his “quietness” was being shut down and when he was given more choices, we started to see some of the holes in his training. But it is also clear to me that there are some conformational issues that make him challenging to ride.  He seems to get stiff and braced very easily and when I do Equine Touch on him, he is the horse who yawns, licks and chews the most. He seems to carry a lot of tension in his body, but he is a good teacher because if he is nervous or tense, he is horrible to ride. You absolutely have to go back and get him to a place where he can relax and use his body better. Lots of people ride tense horses, but don’t know it. On Drummer, if he is tense, he gaits or paces so there is no mistaking when you need to change what you are doing.

This leaves the three horses that I work with the most: Rosie, Willy and Red.  Red was bought for Kira as a weanling and he was her project for the first few years. He proved to be thoroughly frustrating for her and he also did not get very big. He is a PMU foal from North Dakota and we were originally told he was part Belgian.  After we got him, we learned he was 1/8th Belgian and the rest is Paint and QH. I think he might be 15 hh so I am not sure where the Belgian went, but he is quite wide.  Kira and I started him together and when she didn’t want to ride him anymore, I started riding him. That was in 2006 and he has since become my horse, although I am not sure what he will do long term.  My job was to get him past the green horse stage so we could sell him. 

I have found it is more fun to ride him than train him to sell.  And since Willy is in semi-retirement, having Red to ride has been nice for me. Once we worked past a few issues (no forward, bucking, and other green baby stuff), he has become a fun horse to ride.  Even though he is built a bit downhill and wants to drop his front end a bit if you let him, he has learned to carry himself in pretty good balance.  He is also smooth, a quick learner and seems to like being ridden.   This year (he is 6 now) he got really solid at the walk, trot and canter and learned to jump. I don’t have that much interest in jumping anymore, but I did teach him to do a little course and once he figured out how to judge the height of the jump, he seemed to enjoy doing it. 

I took him on his first trip to the indoor all by himself in the spring and Kira and I took him and Drummer to a pace event in the fall. He was great for both. I have been doing more trail riding with him and he enjoys it.  I usually ride out alone so it is a challenge to get green horses out and happy on the trail, but we have made a lot of progress.   He can now go over the scary bridges near our house and past various construction projects and we even started trotting and cantering on the trail.  I will admit I am a very cautious trail rider and I do a lot of walking until I know the horse is ok about being out there, but he seems ready to go a bit faster at times.

Willy is my older TB  gelding (24 this year) and he and Rosie were my first clicker projects. Over the years, I have used clicker training to teach him endless tricks, groundwork, liberty work and improve his ridden work.  He has had some soundness issues ever since I got him at age 11, but was serviceably sound until a few years ago when he injured his RH leg playing in my front field. Winter was coming and I was told to just turn him out and let him heal (or not, sigh…) so I pulled his shoes and let him have the winter off.  The next spring (2006?), I started doing some things with him, mostly because he seemed to miss the interaction with me and we have slowly built back up from there, with a few ups and downs.  I never put shoes back on him and while he took a long time to transition to barefoot and I still ride him in boots, his feet now look balanced and healthy and a lot of his mysterious hind end and back lameness is gone. 

For most of last year, I had him in light work which meant trail riding a few times a week, mostly at a walk or maybe 15-20 minutes of light ring work.  We played around with some lungeing and free lungeing exercises, long lining and liberty work.  He got very good at doing Alexandra Kurland’s Magic Hand exercise at walk and trot. If I didn’t have time to ride, or he wasn’t feeling well, we did some of Alexandra Kurland’s microshaping.  He enjoyed that and learned to rock back and flex his abs.   I know that keeping him in light work is important so my focus recently has been on getting him out and moving.  This winter and next spring, I want to make more time to do free-shaping or clicker train behaviors that provide more mental stimulation. I have to confess I sometimes find it hard to think of new things to teach him as he has already learned so much.  Right now I am doing a bit of body targeting and cleaning up some cues that have gotten sloppy.

That leaves Rosie (my Dutch mare, 11 in 2009). Rosie is always my challenge for many reasons, but I think this year was a turning point for us. We started off a bit on the wrong foot and I was frustrated with her because she had some issues under saddle that I could not quite resolve.  I have often thought her name should be “loophole” because if there are any openings for her to adjust my training strategy or program to suit her needs, she will do it. I don’t mean this in a disobedient way, but she often finds ways to do what I am asking while still getting to do what she wants to do.  Sometimes I think she is better at training me than I am at training her.  

The main issue I was dealing with was how inconsistent she was under saddle.  She had moments of brilliance but they were interspersed with too much other stuff and I felt like we were not making consistent progress.  But somehow over the course of the summer and fall, we worked them out. I got some new strategies for applying clicker training from Clicker Expo and that was helpful.  I also tacked some issues of my own, such as learning to ride a horse with big gaits.  This year I definitely learned that on some horses, position really matters. I can’t be sloppy on her or it makes her unbalanced and disorganized. I also started paying a lot more attention to what I was asking for, how I was asking, and how I was setting her up. All these together meant I was more consistent, which made her more consistent.

There were a lot of things that I changed about my training and riding that helped get us past this sticky point.  I think I got to be a better rider and I learned to be a smarter trainer. But I think there is another factor too. I do some reading about clicker training dogs and lurk on some clicker lists that are not horse specific.  There was a thread on one in the beginning of the year about the importance of accepting your dog for who he was and recognizing that some dogs are never going to be suitable for some things, some dogs are always going to be more challenging and our job as clicker trainers is to work with what we have got.  I think what I got from that was acceptance that Rosie has always been a difficult horse, will probably always be a difficult horse and I should not feel frustrated if I was having trouble training her to be the perfect riding horse for me.   I suppose some people might find this depressing, but for me, this was a huge letting go of any feeling of failure on my part.  Rosie is the horse who got me into clicker training and she is the one who continues to teach me the most. I guess that is her job. 

I think that mental shift on my part made a big change in how I rode her and worked with her in general.  In addition to getting her to be more consistent under saddle, I think our biggest accomplishments in the ring this year were improvements in her canter and lateral work.  The canter had been a struggle for us because she has a huge stride and a lot of suspension and if we got unorganized, this translated into speed.  Not exactly what I wanted. But this year we learned to organize it a bit.   On the trail, she has become more settled and we have been able to do more things and go more places.  I am not sure she will ever be a great trail horse as she loves to stop and look at everything, but she now looks and then moves on.  I took her on a few field trips to clicker clinics and to ride in other places. She has gotten great about trailering and being in new places although she still is a bit high-energy under saddle at them.  I find that head lowering and doing simple exercises settles her down and then we can play with other stuff.

As for other accomplishments, this year she learned to put her hind feet up on the end of the box (2 feet by 4 feet).  It took her a while as he has to close up some to do this. I taught her to close up on the ground first and then added the low box.  It did take her a while to learn to step up gracefully and know where her hind feet were, but I think it was a good hind end awareness exercise for her.  We have done a lot of Magic Hand and she is now cueing off my body for turns and amounts of flexion, forward and back.   She seems to like Magic Hand and while she started off being very distracted, she is now pretty focused.   I keep adding bits and pieces to her groundwork so she now does haunches-in in hand and shoulder-in in hand at the trot.  Recently she has been offering canter in-hand for a stride or two which I never expected, but one day it just popped out.  Her walk has improved too. Alex helped us with it at several clinics and she now walks forward with energy and swing, instead of her previous slouch.

So all in all, there has been a lot of progress. She is feeling much more rideable and we are able to string more and more behaviors together without losing focus and keeping the same nice balance. I have learned a lot about balancing how much information and structure I give her with how much freedom I give her.  I feel like she has matured a lot mentally this year as well as gotten better at learning how to carry her own body in balance.  I am looking forward to what next year brings. I would like to get her off the farm more and see how she does in new locations. I would also like to do more liberty work with her and do some object discrimination.

 I feel fortunate that I have been able to continue improving my clicker training skills and learning more about other areas of horsemanship.  I think the internet has really changed how accessible things are to horse people and I have benefitted from the discussions on various groups and from web sites and videos.  I look forward to continuing my education this year and getting new ideas for what to do with my horses. One thing I do miss is taking time to just hang out with my horses or play silly games with them.  Sometimes it is hard to think of fun things to do, but I find if I just set aside some time, go out and start doing things, ideas come to me.  

So, if have a new year’s resolution, it is to take time to do little things with the horses, to keep their lives more interesting, and to keep the creative juices flowing.  I would like to take some time to explore new ways to shape traditional behaviors and use more +R without combining it with negative reinforcement.   I did this a lot when they were younger but as the focus changed to more under saddle work, I find I end up doing things more traditionally.  So it is time to explore other ways a bit. Oh, and to take more pictures. We should all take more pictures, and share them, of course.