Before the rain hit (yes, it is indeed raining again!), I got some time to play with horses yesterday.
After months of working with ZZ with leading exercises, clicker training and lots of getting-to-know-each-other and what-I-allow-and-what-I-don’t, I thought we would start playing in the roundpen. Anyone who has followed my roundpen series knows that I think it’s about as dangerous as a loaded gun, so I wondered how this would work out…
As Pooh would say, yesterday was a kinda blustery day. so ZZ had a bit of the wind up her tail. There was a lot of running around, bucking and farting, and dashing off to tell me that she was a wild-and-free-horse (that was until the clicker clicked and then she needed a snack).
With a horse with a history of having kicked someone in the face while she ran off, you do need to keep yourself fully present during this work, know the distance between yourself and the horse at all times, and be aware of keeping out of harm’s way. Playing racquetball with the kids has helped in my response time of dodging bullets.
It only took one session before she got that head down cue. The danger with that is a smart cookie will then just run around the RP with the head down thinking that is what you want, when in reality this is just the first step in what you want.
At this point, ZZ is running around, with her head down, rushing, and heavy on the forehand, starting to zone out – so that needs to have a stop put to it. Another thing that is developing is this running about, heavy on the inside foreleg, and pushing the nose to the outside of the circle. This promotes crookedness and definitely needs to be nipped in the bud.
What I played around with (keeping the session short) was that she needed to give me more then nose down, before the click. For example, head down with rushing didn’t get a click, neither did a hollow back. This is part of the process of shaping movement – you continue to refine the rough shape she gives (i.e. hollow back, trailing hindlegs, stiff neck, nose pointed out of the circle) you into the proper, more athletic method of moving (i.e. rounded back, weight on hindquarters, lifted back, proper curve and bend to the body).
Shaping movement is one of the most important ways that I use my clicker training – and because the clicker leaves no doubt as to what is being reinforced you can refine it down to a hair.
Part of shaping movement is teaching her a game that I had played with Big Guy the months before he got injured. I call it Slow-Whoa-Go. This is how it works:
1.) Get the horse trotting in the roundpen in response to your body language and supported by your voice. I lift my knees higher and do a little high step in place for the trot body language command.
At this Go stage you are most likely behind the horses’ hip and in this photo (below) I’m using the whip aid.
2.) Move backward and distance yourself from the horse, this may cause the horse to slow (which is what you want) and wait for the horse to stop. It works best if you hold your body very still and relieve all pressure from the horse (i.e. whip is down, your eyes are perhaps looking down, your shoulder may be turned to the horse – whatever cues you use just make sure you use the SAME cues for the SAME request).
Another cue for whoa is to step up to the front of the horses’ shoulder and use your voice saying WHOOOAAAA. I generally use my whip and put it out in front of the horse as a barrier. I also drag one leg behind and slowly stop. Or with Hempfling he jumps into the stop, with butt low and hips open and belly button thrusted upwards in a pelvic tilt.
3.) Then get the horse to GO again from the WHOA. Repeat steps 1-2 until your horse is responding to the slightest request to WHOA. Be sure to add in the body language as this makes it even easier for you to get what you want from your horse as you fade out the voice commands.
4.) Add in the SLOW. In order to slow the horse starts to put more weight in the hindquarters; then when asked to GO, has to push off from those some hindquarters.
With SLOW, you are looking for the pace to start slowing down, but BEFORE the horse has come to a stop. It’s important that once the horse does a stride or two slower, that you immediately ask for GO again before the horse can come to a full stop.
BG got so good at this, that all I had to do was step up to the shoulder and he would start to slow – then I quickly moved back to the hip – and asked for go again.
The SLOW and GO combination is the beginning of the half-halt. This slowing-going improves the horses’ balance, body outline, and helps them to correct crookedness and improper use of the body (i.e. hollow back, trailing hindlegs, stiff shoulders, ewe neck etc…)