Say hello to Ronnie, the horse I have decided to follow for the next few months.
The idea is that I will film him every week and chart his progress. Rather than just doing normal uploads (sometimes with voice) I am going to try and break things down a little and do a combo of video and written. Sometimes it gets really hard to say everything while it is happening and it frustrates me… so I’m going to trial this design and see what happens. Hopefully I find it more beneficial (I get less frustrated with the process and its limitations) and you might also get more out of it.
A bit of back ground on Ronnie. He is a 7 yr old Diamond Hit gelding. Purchased by his current owner (who wishes to remain anonymous) June 2017. For various reasons he hadn’t done much prior to his owner purchasing him and he came with a few little behavioural issue’s. The most significant one landed his owner in hospital with a broken collar bone August 2017.
Unfortunately Ronnie shows aversion to being mounted and girth pressure, when his owner fell it was a normal day however for whatever reason when she lent down to tighten the girth, Ronnie startled, then pig rooted. As we all know considering the position you are in when doing the girth up it is not easy to stay on in such a situation.
The owner did comment that although in general she felt he had calmed down and his behaviour had improved since purchasing him this spooky, jumpy behaviour around being mounted etc was still an issue. She was unsure of how best to proceed and hence made contact with me.
So this footage was filmed on the first day I was working with Ronnie, the 8.12.17. Previously I had seen him lunged with the saddle. Since the owners fall no one has ridden Ronnie, he has just been kept in light work with some lunging, sometimes with the saddle, sometimes without, sometimes with side reins, sometimes without.
When I viewed him being lunged there were no significant issues that could be seen. The notable things that were present:
- The absence of a clear park
- The absence of clear gait, transitional or tempo/length control
- The absence of clear line control
- He showed a few minor startles on the lunge
- No aversion to the saddle was noted
Due to the history presented to me and his skill set on the lunge my plan of attack is this.
- We need to establish a clear park/stop response in order to counteract the running legs that come with the aversion to the saddle/being mounted
- I need to establish a much clearer language on the ground so I can lunge him more accurately and also work with him on the mounting procsses
- To do all this I also need to clicker train him. I want to add positive reinforcement in the form of food to increase the value of park.
So I did have a clear plan of attack on Day 1:
- I wanted to start clicker training him in the form of teaching him ”Head Away”
- I needed to add the responses of: Step back, step forward and park.
Step back and step forward I wanted to establish from the whip taps and ‘Park’ results when you can control the horses legs and put the ‘Go’ and ‘Stop/step back’ signals under stimulus control.
Said another way ‘Park’ results when the horse doesn’t randomly ‘Go’ anymore… when he stands quietly (ground tied for those familiar with that term) and is simply waiting for your command, and will wait forever… that is ‘Park’.
*** Important note – this is not an exact science or defining the exact steps you should always take with a horse. These are just the steps that I have taken with this horse, in this environment, with his unique history and pre-trained responses… I do have a general theme or progression I like to take, but it is not the same every time, every horse is different and as a trainer you must be experienced enough to be always reading the data feedback your horse is giving you and thereby modifying your approach as required***
Step 1: Check and retrain (if needed) the horses response to the whip
- As you will see I utilise the whip extensively in my training. The whip is a very multi-functional tool and should be seen as exactly that: a tool. It is a tool used in both negative reinforcement (-R) and positive punishment (+P), although ideally we never want to use +P there are some situations where it is unavoidable.
- The whip itself should actually be see as nothing. Hence why when I initially approach any horse with the whip I will always check what its reactions are to the whip by rubbing the whip all over the horses body and also in random ways around in the air. Some horses are very nonchalant about the whip and appear to have no perception of the whip to mean anything nor do they show any signs of fear or arousal in its presence (as Ronnie shows). This is ultimately the best place to start as it in essence means the horse is a blank canvas.
- If the horse shows fear to the presence of the whip and being rubbed by it I would perform counter-conditioning and overshadowing with the whip utilizing lots of positive reinforce (+R) rubbing and food (if the horse was clicker trained) until the horses showed repeatable non fear based behaviour.
- If the horse showed random movement of the feet in response to the presence or rubbing of the whip I would use overshadowing in the form of step back. Now this raises an important point, overshadowing like this will be ineffective if your step back is dull or delayed. So IF you have a horse that does this you will need to improve your step back (and therefore also your go response) BEFORE you can then return and perform overshadowing efficiently.
- Over the course of a horses life time I will then continue to perform systematic desensitization and when required counter-conditioning and/or overshadowing to the presence of the whip. Horses are context specific learners and will very quickly learn that the presence of the whip is a precursor to performing a desired response and perform the response BEFORE the pressure based signal is performed – it is very very important that you do not allow this to happen.
- The whip is a tool. A tool that can generate very specific pressure based responses – which is why when used by knowledgeable hands I believe it is invaluable and the most important and versatile tool’s a trainer can utilise. But it is very very important to note it is valuable due to the PRESSURE BASED SIGNALS it can illicit. Initially it is THOSE and ONLY THOSE that we want the horse to respond to. Otherwise you end up with a horse that shows aversion (fear) or random behaviours in the presence of the whip.
Step 2: Look at and teach step back from the whip two ways
- So firstly I like to have 3 different options on the ground for eliciting a step back response.
- From the head (nose pressure via halter/bit-less bridle or mouth pressure via bit)
- From the chest via taps
- From the front of the feet via taps
- Generally I find the responses to number 1 (the one that you would assume to be the most important) are broken in some way shape or form. To retrain any broken response you need to establish a clear aid via operant conditioning in order to elicit the response to obedience level. Once I have a clear step back aid established via -R (negative reinforcement) (done via the whip taps), I will then use this to start the repair process to number 1.
- Step back from chest taps can be utilised both in hand and under saddle, and when trained well in hand I think are the very best way to retrain dull step back responses when under saddle. And when you keep in mind step back under saddle is pretty much how you retrain all you failure’s of stop (slow, short, halt, park), a reliable reinforcer to maintaining a light response to the primary stop/step back button (bit or nose pressure) is vitally important so we aren’t hauling off our horses mouths.
- Step back from the feet taps seems to train the quality of the steps the best.
- When I am first working with a horse I am doing as much data collection as I am training. So with Ronnie you see I test his responses to the whip tap on the feet first and then test his response to the whip tap on the chest. Just from general handling I had already garnered that his response to nose pressure was pretty so so.
- If one of these responses is already at rhythm level I would use that one to retrain the others via classical conditioning.
- As neither the chest taps or the foot taps are better than the other I started with the foot taps as find they get the best quality of step and at the end of the day I am interested in efficient not just effective training.
First attempt at trialling park
- I would have to say that I think park is one of the strongest and most important responses you can have in your horse. Of course from a safety perspective it is huge, I’m not aware of any horse related accidents that occur when the horse is calmly standing with all 4 feet on the ground but also it can be used to combat fear based responses.
Step 3: Teach go from the whip tap
- So I teach go from the spot on the belly where the riders heel would be posited when they are riding. The reason for this is that if you teach that spot in hand you can than utilise the same spot and same response under saddle. It also had the advantage of sensitising that area to pressure which subsequently improves the horses response to the leg aid for go (without the need for spurs).
- Most horses already have some sort of semi-reliable go response. They may follow the humans feet, they may respond to the movement of the humans hand, they may respond to the pressure behind the ears of the halter.
- I would say that teaching the go to the whip taps on the side is one of the more harder lessons for horses to pick up initially. Especially if they have had some sort of previous ground work that involved yielding. So very often I will utilise their previous understanding of go to help them learn the correct response to the whip taps and this is a good example of classical conditioning.
- Often when you teach go you simultaneously need to teach stop, as again most people don’t consciously teach a stop response. Ronnie’s response to go is pretty tame and he already has a good enough stop response to me stopping moving hence I didn’t end up needed to go into teaching a stop with him at this moment. But later on when I accelerate the pace we delve into retraining the stop response.
Step 4: Introducing the clicker in order to use food as a reinforcer
- Firstly I have to say pretty much other than a very short intro to clicker training at my ESI prac week everything I have learnt is from Georgia Bruce’s free video tutorial. Once you understand the concept its not a hard thing to add to your training: Go here to subscribe to Georgia’s free video tutorials.
- I have never been an advocate for ‘treating’ horses or using food as a reward in any way, I had met way too many rude and bargy horses and dogs and owners who coo over the horses ‘cute’ snuffling in their pockets but then complain when their horse nips them or starts to push into their ‘space’… HOWEVER I am defiantly an advocate for the power of food WHEN used in the appropriate manner.
- I’m by no means sold on its use as the only primary method to train horses however, yes it has its benefits but I still think the training of correct -R based behavior should be the underlying tone in any good stable.
- I am so far using it to increase the value of behaviours horses find difficult to give me, regardless of why they find it difficult and also to keep park big and bold in the horses mind, especially while lunging.
- I am going to install it as a fundamental part of all my horses training, regardless of whether or not they have difficulties initally or not, because every horse at some point in its life struggles with something, so better to have it ready and waiting when that time comes.
- It seems to take between 1 day and 4 to install to the point where the horse hears the click and goes ‘FOOD’!
- Horses who have previously been randomly treated seem to take longer and find the whole deal more frustrating.
- Too me there are a few golden understandings to clicker training
- The clicker is only a bridge, not a reward
- Head away is a must
- No ‘random treating’ unless being given after a ‘click’…
- Clicks only come after a desired behavior
- I taped my clicker to my dressage whip as I found putting it on my wrist inconvenient… I’m going to try taping one to my lunge whip also…
Putting it all together!!!
- So this last section is where we start to put go, stop and step back together
- I think that it is really interesting to consider that the way most horses lead is a reflection of how they lunge. Leading your horse around is really just a close contact version of lunging.
- So what I am doing here on a small scale is just improving his ability to lead, but on a large scale these responses will be used all the way to GP (if he stays a dressage horse) in the long term and in the shorter term they build in the fundamental requirement’s he needs to lunge in a safe and constructive way.