In my efforts to do ‘some’ thing.’ rather than ‘no’ thing this week I have been playing the touch game again with Chapiro. The touch game came about when he was very young and nervous of just about everything including being touched anywhere around the head or face. I love the TTouch exercises as they are non-evasive and both Fidge and Moo had enjoyed them; not Chaps- so it was back to the drawing board.
At that time I was delving more and more into clicker training and reflecting on the boundaries of what was acceptable. Is it acceptable to clicker train something that is stressful for the horse? Do we risk making a stressful situation worse or can we actually change their opinion of something and turn stress into relaxation? Those who know me well will be aware of my love of the science behind things – the why and wherefore of behaviour is fascinating but does it always offer the answers we seek?
With the touch game I was winging it, hoping that I wasn’t messing up but truly not knowing. So how does the game work? Starting in the stable, no physical attachment to each other by way of rope or headcollar just Chaps, me, the clicker and plenty of food or a scratcher (hoof pick, curry comb). I don’t have to approach him as he is always intrigued, as are most equines – smelling of carrot probably helps! He already had a basic ‘touch’ well on cue so I just put out my hand and let him touch it…click!! It wasn’t too difficult to shape this to the point that he would place the front of his face on my hand and then gradually accepted my hand anywhere on his face; a heavy reinforcement rate helps, really full on fast at the start. This helped with teaching him to bridle himself, lowering into the noseband when offered, and generally seemed to ease his head shyness. Winging it definitely paid off in this case and I overcame the moral dilemma of using food to conquer stress because of the outcome.
I never progressed the touch game because I didn’t seem to need to take it further at the time but with my intention of trying to be more alive with my daily training (in small steps) I am looking for simple ways of being with the horses that will build confidence and partnership further. I have now reached the point of him coming to find my hand, often with his poll, and often staying for more than a few seconds. It feels great that he trusts me in offering this, not a big deal for many horses but for him a huge step and for me just another of my small steps in positivity!
ps anyone reminded of The Tubes track can reminisce here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyQnIUq5xzQ
Winter is a time when I often revisit areas of training. I should probably be more methodical in this approach but more often than not it is something that goes wrong that leads me to the first job in hand.
One of the biggest jobs, and one I am revisiting for the umpteenth time right now, is the stop and start cue. Stop and start underpin everything we ever do, they are the basic cues for everything from regular handling around the yard through to riding; they need to be solid.
I noticed my stop cue had got a little fuzzy when riding exercises to help the canter come through from behind and have that bit extra energy and verve. To be certain that I had no unintended control via the sidepull I took up the cordeo and rode from that alone. A few canter departs later and he was starting to get the hang of offering a little more jump in the transition but he was less keen to hear my stop cue.
Usually a light lift of the cordeo timed with a breathing off with the legs and he is waiting for the close of the seat and STOP. What I was getting was a slowing of the canter, more containment but no stop (until I used the voice which is why it is so handy to have depth in terms of cues). My first question was ‘what has changed?’. Well that’s easy, we have moved on! More depth in terms of transitions, some being directly between paces, some being more like half halts and so many shades within those as well.
Second question ‘How do I put it right?’. As always it’s back to basics and then re-build. Next session I took my clicker and underlined the stop/start in-hand – of course you don’t need a clicker if that’s not your thing but Chapiro is a dedicated clicker fan. Then we took it to the ridden work in very simple terms and just broke everything down into simple yes/no choices. Halt to walk, walk to halt. Then on to walk to trot and trot to walk all with major rewarding and ending on a good note.
This is just the beginning of reinforcing the stop/go cues in all their forms and it is so hard it sometimes makes my brain ache because I am trying to be so clear and make each nuance count.Trust me there are many nuances and the further you train the more there are;
I am still at the beginning but there are already so many. Your horse maybe expected to decipher a walk cue from a trot cue, a slowing of the trot but not to the point of walk cue from a trot/walk cue, a natural trot cue from a working trot cue…the list is endless.
None of the nuances can be sensed by horse or rider if the hand is tight on the rein and the horse is tight into the rein; let go and test your cues, you might be surprised!
As regular readers will know I am no fan of gadgets but a tool that I do use frequently in my work is the good old pole. Walk, trot and canter poles can help improve the lift of the legs. Poles placed in a mini-maze/labrynth format are great for working on flexibility and testing your stop/go/yield cues. My favourite is using parallel poles for reinback improvements.
I prefer a good solid pole that doesn’t move too easily or flick back when the horse treads on it. I start with the poles a good distance apart (at least 3m) so that the horse doesn’t panic by touching one in the first few attempts. It is essential that the reinback is absolutely on cue without any poles or frustration and confusion will spoil any goodwill and harmony.
Walk through the poles a couple of times in each direction before halting with the shoulders just inside the poles and reining back before walking on through the poles. Gradually build up to walking right through the poles and halting just as the shoulders are about to exit them and then reining back. Over time narrow the gap between the poles so that the horse is stepping back perfectly straight to stay within their confines. Don’t labour the sessions with poles, a few minutes is plenty and remember that the idea is to encourage both hind legs to flex and take weight in the same way. Take it very slowly and quietly, rushing the reinback is never good…the hind legs need to flex, the pelvis tilt and the reinback commence, not the fore feet pushing back and hollowing the topline.
So if you think you have a straight halt or reinback take the test…how straight are you?
It is a sad truth that some folks still feel that you can lunge the energy out of a horse but does lunging have any place in gymnastic training? The answer, as so often, is that it depends on how it is done.
There are very few days when I just get on and ride away, probably only when I am off out on a hack, but not because I want to lose energy rather that I want to warm up the body.
In warming up the muscles we also start to release the tension in the mind and in return this allows the body to release more tension and so it continues.
All horses are not the same, some rush when tense and others are almost turned off when tense; don’t assume your horse is ‘lazy’ because he doesn’t come into the school with a ‘let’s get on with it’ attitude! Like us there is a whole spectrum of attitude- our job as trainer is to work out a strategy to suit.
Chapiro can be brick-like in terms of flexibility when he is tense but using neck softening, in-hand work and lunging I can focus his mind and warm up his muscles. With him it is a slow build up, he doesn’t catch fire easily but once warm he is delightfully responsive and flexible.
Here is just a brief glimpse (and very poor video quality apologies) of Chapiro getting warm before riding. Next time I’ll describe the process in more detail.
Chapiro warm up