Friday, May 7, 2010

The demand to calm down cue

In anticipation of next weekend's clicker training clinic (YAY) I've started working with Gwen on the "demand to calm down cue." Theoretically, once I teach her this cue I'll be able to get her to calm down quickly in stressful situations.

Fortunately I got to the barn today before the rush so I was able to work with her in relatively quiet conditions.  I took her just outside the barn door and kept to the concrete pad where there isn't any grass to pull her attention away from me and where she can still see her brother. I'm going to wait until she's got it down before I take her away from the barn (by then I shouldn't be gimping anymore either).

A little background on this lesson: The demand to calm down cue is a training tool from John Lyons.  It essentially teaches the horse to give to pressure, with the side benefit of helping the horse achieve a state of relaxation (from the endorphins released when the head drops).  You can read an in-depth explanation of how to train for it here. Alexandra Kurland takes that lesson and refines it through the use of the clicker.

It's pretty darn simple to do once you get the concept.  You ask the horse to back up as if they were inside a box (or a stall), by pushing their head to the right so they turn their hindquarters to the left and back in a circle.  Meanwhile you're holding the lead rope in a "tai-chi wall," your left hand is at the snap while your right hand pulls the slack out of the rope by the horse's shoulder.  This helps with bargy horses (like Gwen) that like to try to push through you with their shoulder, the wall keeps them off you.  Since backing up is hard work, the horse will eventually lower its head because it's easier that way.  As soon as the head drops you click and release. (Backing up is key for this exercise.)

Keep going like this until the horse learns that all they have to do is drop their head to get rewarded, they won't be backing up anymore.  Then you have to refine the cue.  Keep asking the horse to lower its head every time s/he goes to pick it up by putting tension on the rope.  After this you eventually ask the horse to lower their head all the way down until their muzzle is on the ground.  You can then ask them to move forward at the walk and trot with their head down.  After the horse has this lesson down pat you can start using the cue while you're in the saddle.

Sounds pretty good, eh?  You can use this to teach your horse to stand while tied, to lower their head for bridling, to stop freaking out when they're separated from their brother... Lots of things.

I worked on this with Gwen for about 5-10 minutes today.  Unfortunately I ran out of treats just as she was starting to get to the point where she was dropping her head almost as soon as I picked up the rope.  She's a little smarty though, it won't take long to get back to that point next time.

I'm hoping that Alexandra Kurland demonstrates this lesson at the clinic.  I watched the video (available through Giddyup Flix), but I'm sure she'll have more pointers in person.


  1. Gwen will appreciate your dedication to work through her anxieties. :-) The fact she was starting to drop her head as soon as you picked up the rope is impressive. You will have to post a review of the clinic.

  2. I'll probably do a few posts devoted to the clinic. I already have a journal all picked out for my notes. Keep an eye out for them!