Can’t Catch Your Horse?

I was sitting on the bus headed to a friend of mine when I started thinking about her living situation. Every time she leaves her apartment, she has to walk down six flights of stairs – and then she has to walk all the way back up when she comes home. It got me thinking that if I were in her situation, I would sort of dread leaving the house – because I would know that in order to get home again, I would need to walk all. those. steps. Call me lazy, but I don’t think anyone enjoys the sensation of feeling their life leave their body one flight at a time!

And then I thought – what if I lived at the bottom of ten flights of stairs! And had to walk alllll the way to the top before leaving my apartment. Now that would be even worse. I would have to really WANT to leave the house in order to bother doing it. I would definitely not do it to go buy a pack of noodles – maybe not even for a chocolate. My motivation (or what I gain for doing it) would need to be bigger than the dread.

Imagine living in this apartment. What feelings would you associate with leaving the house? With going through the door? With opening the door? With moving towards the door? With thinking about the door? You’ll probably not feel all warm and fuzzy and joyous.

“What has this got to do with not being able to catch my horse?!” Humor me for a minute, please.

If I asked you to do something really boring, exhausting, pointless or painful, and by doing so you would have to leave a party with your friends, how would you feel about it?

A horse is programmed to associate stuff with other stuff. This is how horses survive. It wouldn’t be very practical if the horse from time to time “forgot” that a predator is dangerous for example.
So your horse will make connections between things that happen, and the consequences those things produce. This is why he gladly gets “caught” in the evening when the horses are brought in for the night (he most certainly doesn’t want to be left alone, and there’s often a bucket of food waiting for him inside), but runs away when you try to catch him at other times.

SO! Lets say that every time you get your horse, you do stuff that he doesn’t really like. Stuff that is boring, exhausting, pointless or painful. Stuff the horse would NOT choose to do if given the chance. Is it strange to you that he doesn’t come running?

A lot of people try to fix this “problem” with treats. They go to the paddock while shaking a bucket of food. It might work the first time. But pretty soon the horse will come to associate the bucket of food with leaving the paddock, which is already loaded with negative emotions. This is what happens when you try to cover up the symptom and not deal with the problem. He might snatch the food, and run away before you get the halter on. Or he might start running at the sound of the bucket shaking. No matter what, it does NOT change how he feels about the situation of coming out of the paddock.

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What is the problem? Motivation. The same problem as the many flights of stairs.
What if I told you you could remove the stairs? Would you feel better about leaving your apartment? I certainly would. So how do we remove the stairs from the horses perspective? By making it motivating and desirable to come with you out of the paddock!

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By associate yourself with only good stuff, you can change your horses emotions – and when you change his emotions, he will change his behavior. It’s really that simple.

This change does not come over night, however. You may change your training to positive reinforcement, only do stuff your horse thinks is rewarding, and never put your horse in uncomfortable situations. Your horse may still be hesitant to come to you. I have a little anecdote on that actually!

When I was little, my mother used to give me and my siblings crushed vitamin pills mixed in with raspberry jam. It tasted like hell! Every morning it was jam with vitamins. To this day I can’t eat raspberry jam without thinking about that horrible taste, and I still sometimes “taste” the vitamins.

Changing emotion and association takes time and determination. But it is SO worth it!

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Cones are a Girls Best Friend

Today we had 4 short empowerment sessions. We have added some duration, and I also started adding a smaaaaaall distraction while Frøya touched the cone. At this point, the movement I make should be so small that Frøya doesn’t react. She did react a little bit a few times, and her nose came off the cone. I stopped the movement, and waited until she touched the cone again. I think I’ll get duration solid first.

Here’s videos from all four sessions today!

The Magic Cone

We have now done 7 sessions of Empowerment Training, and it’s going great! During the last session yesterday, we were able to add a little duration to the targeting. I can count to 4 (very fast!) in my head, and Frøya will stay on/near the target. If you are interested in this lesson, don’t hesitate to contact someone from Horse Charming.
This lesson is perfect for desensitisation purposes; getting a “go ahead” signal when your horse wants you to start, and a “please stop” signal when your horse wants you to stop.

Here is our 7. session! I plan to upload the whole process on my YouTube channel.

A Walk in the Field

We are allowed to walk in the field now, before the farmer ploughs it. So today we went for a little walk at liberty! Frøya stayed with me, and it felt like it did last summer when we went for hacks in the woods. The other horses were on the other side of the fence, and when they started running away from us, Frøya wanted to run with them. So she did! I would never be able to compete with this. And it isn’t a goal for me. When the whole herd runs away, of course Frøya will want to join them. She is fine with moving away from them, but if they run away from her like that, it’s too much. She did however return to me when they stopped running!

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We walked along the whole pasture, and ended up where the actual entrance to the pasture is (we snuck out of another gate at the end).

When she had eaten grass for a while, I went to get the big traffic cone we use for empowerment training. I put it down several meters from her, and waited to see if she wanted to come and do some training. And she came right away! ❤ The first time, she came over when she saw us. The second time, she needed another couple of minutes before coming; she had found a good spot of grass 😉 The cool thing is that she will be much more likely to hang out and train if she has a choice. If she felt like I was going to force her to come with me, she would stay well away from me, and avoid me. I certainly don't want that! Also, if she knows she can leave at any time, she will start thinking like this:

“hm, there’s my human and the magic cone. I want to eat grass, but I also want to participate in training. I might as well leave the grass and hang out with her, because I can leave whenever I want, and I’ll be able to eat more grass when we are done!” 

No matter what she does, she wins!
And I win too, because this makes it much more likely that our training is successful.
There are lots of times where it is a good idea to train in an environment without grass, especially in the beginning when one has just started clicker training. Also, if the horse is easily distracted. It is always a good idea to train with as little distractions as possible, to set you and your horse up for success. I started empowerment training in a stall, with no distractions. I wouldn’t have started out there on the grass.

Happy Birthday Frøya!

Today my girl turns 4 years old! We celebrated with some training (see last blog post) and lots of scratches ❤
I have been Frøyas friend for 3.5 years now, and she will be mine forever! She has really turned into a very sweet, curious and friendly horse, not at all what she was like when I first met her xD As I remember it, it was almost impossible to approach her, and she was scared of the halter. Our journey has definitely been a bumpy ride – we have tried every horse training method there is, and did so called Natural Horsemanship (which is in no way natural) for a long time. Finally, in july 2015, we found positive reinforcement. We didn’t switch right away, and I almost gave it up because Frøya had so much anxiety around food that she was dangerous to be around. Not until we sought help from Max Easey (founder of Horse Charming), did we get onto the right track. Since that day (some day in november/december 2015) we have done strictly positive reinforcement, and we both love it. I would never go back to using aversives.

On this glorious day, I think it’s only right that I post a bunch of pictures from our time together!

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It’s All About Empowerment

Since the clinic, we have practised targeting, bending and weight shift forwards and backwards. We have even taken a few steps on the circle, with me walking backwards in front of Frøya! I do this by first standing in front of her, then asking her to target my hand, then starting to walk backwards while cueing her to follow me. We got zero rushing, and she even listened when I asked her simultaneously to bend. On the left hand, she had a tendency to fall in on her inside shoulder. This was fixed when I asked her to bend by pointing behind her inside shoulder.

We’re not going to do this every day, I’m afraid her body will get sore and I’ll poison the exercises by asking her to perform them while being sore. But I’ll do som sessions every week.

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Today we also started a very cool lesson, called Empowerment training! This is written by Max Easey, founder of Horse Charming.
It’s all about giving the horse the power to give consent to having things done to or with them, like husbandry stuff, medical stuff or anything really.
By teaching Frøya a clear “stop” signal that she can use when she wants me to stop or needs a break or finds something uncomfortable, she will get a lot more confident.

The finished behavior will be something like this: we stand near a big traffic cone. She will know from experience that when we are standing near this cone, I want to do something to or with her. If she is willing to let me do “whatever”, she will place her nose on top of the cone. If not, she will simply not touch it. Let’s say she is in the mood for some brushing. She touches the cone, and I start brushing. I reward her every now and then. Suddenly I brush her somewhere she doesn’t like, and so she takes her nose away from the cone. I stop brushing. When she is ready for another go, she will put her nose on the cone again. Etc.

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This type of training ensures that she will never feel the need to do something drastic to make me stop what I’m doing. After all – horses who bite and kick and run off, are horses who have learned that nothing else works. From nature, horses are very good at giving plenty of warnings before actually doing something like that. But if people ignore those warnings time and time again, the horse will stop wiging warnings and go straight to biting, kicking or bolting.
A horse who has learned an easy way of making its human stop what (s)he’s doing, will be much more confident with letting the human do stuff. After all, it only takes a slight move of the head to stop the behavior.

I started training this today, did 3 very short sessions á 2 minutes with a little break in between each session. Being a very clicker savvy horse (means she knows very well what the click means and that she grasps behavior very fast), she understood that she was supposed to touch the cone right away. We spent two sessions only rewarding touching the cone, and then we tried to increase duration by one second. I have to be really quick, because she has a tendency to start exploring the cone if I’m not fast enough. I don’t think I’ll ever get her to keep her head perfectly still, nose on the cone; but as long as she has her nose right next to it and looks calm and relaxed, that will be fine. If I was to shape her to stand totally still, I’m afraid she won’t be able to relax and might even stop chewing or hold her breath. I certainly don’t want that. I want her to be engaged, but not at the expense of relaxation.

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The plan is to film every session and put all of them up on youtube, I hope I’ll be able to start tomorrow!

Clinic with Margrete Lie 2.0

The past weekend, me and Frøya have been to a clinic in Knapstad. The instructor was none other than the amazing Margrete Lie (Hesteglede), the best in Norway when it comes to body language and horse behavior! She’s a real gem, and we learned a lot.

Lately (since last clinic with her in may) we have started some academic work. I wrote a blog post about the last clinic, it’s HERE. We started shoulder in and haunches in, and have been working on it since then. Turns out, we have made some errors (not correct bending in haunches in), so this clinic we went back to basics.

Lesson 1)
First, we tried to get a correct bending in haunches in by: asking for bending  —> asking for haunches in —> asking for bending —> click!
It worked to some degree, and it was amazing to see that Frøya was able to take direction and try several things before getting the click and reward.

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Margrete then suggested we try and catch her head by using targeting. The goal will be for her to target my hand with her nasal bridge, approximately where the cavesson would potentially be. I don’t want to use a cavesson (not yet anyway), because it would be faaar too easy to resort to pressure. I don’t want to give myself the opportunity. We started targeting, and after she figured out that it was the nasal bridge and not the nose that was supposed to touch my hand, she progressed nicely.
After doing several repetitions where my hand was right in front of her, I tried putting it a bit to the side and up and down. I also asked her to move with my hand, by applying a tactile cue (a slight pressure on the opposite side of her face), and lure her head in the right direction using my other hand.

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THEN we tried to combine the targeting with the cue for haunches in. This didn’t work at all. Frøya was not able to both bend correctly AND move her haunches. She either just stood there, or moved her head away and did the haunches in like before (with incorrect bending).

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Lesson 2)
This lesson was all about helping Frøya understand that she could still move her body while her head was bent to the inside (so that her body had a bend).
Margrete told me to ask Frøya to bend, and then to ask her to shift her weight backwards towards her outside hind leg. And she did it! It was SO cool to see.
She also told me to try to draw Frøyas outside front leg towards me by asking for bend to the inside and ask for weight shift forwards towards her inside front leg. This was much harder! I almost lay on the ground from shifting my own weight backwards away from her to prompt her to follow. She did it once or twice, but otherwise just kinda looked at me like I was a mad person. XD This would be the start of a shoulder in.

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Lesson 3)
After greeting a gelding over the fence, Frøya instantly got in heat. It literally took under 5 minutes. Of course the riding arena was just next to a field with lots of handsome geldings -.-” We didn’t get much done, to put it mildly! I managed to get her attention a few times, and just rewarded her heavily for sticking with me. If I asked for anything difficult, she just walked away to flirt with the boys. GIRLS!!!

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Lesson 4)
Since the previous lesson was so short, we got another chance. We went into a barn, and did a short session there. I really got a feel for how to move her weight backwards! Once we even did it with her staying in shape! The clue is not to over bend, and to send my energy towards her in a bending motion (along her bend if that makes sense).

 

All in all it was a brilliant clinic!
We really have our work cut out for us, and we are going to (for the time being) focus on shifting her weight in the direction I want, and to continue teaching her to follow my hand with her head. We are also going to work on lunging, the key thing being to build duration and distance from me. I am going to reward her by tossing chunks of carrot to her, so that I won’t have to go to her to reward her. That way we can really work on her staying out on the circle.

Thanks to Anne-Lise for driving us to and from the clinic, to Karine for hosting it and making it a great weekend, to Margrete for being the awesome instructor that she is, to Marie for letting Frøya and her horse stay in the same paddock for the weekend, and to everyone who took pictures of us! 😀