Monday, May 9, 2011

Forward HO!

One of the cool things about where I board is that there's an orchard directly across the road that I'm allowed to ride in. It's mostly an apple orchard but they've got a bunch of different trees growing over there, peaches, cherries, pears...

I think this might be a peach tree

I wanted to try to get some good pictures but Coriander didn't really feel like stopping so most of what I got was taken on the fly or while he was eating.

Coriander: "If we're not moving, I'm eating"

He was feeling quite forward that day and was extraordinarily hot off my leg, itching to run. We came up to this line of trees with a nice grassy lane next to it and I let him go. Yeeha, that was fun! Apparently streaking across the field allowed him to catch up with his brain, because after that he calmed right down. It's amazing what a good gallop can do!

Galloping, HO!
Speaking of forward- we've been having quite an issue with that in the ring. As in we have none. Out on the trail he's electric and powers ahead with purpose, surround him with a fence and he shuts it right down. This is a problem, without forward you've got nothing.

 The fault is mine (obviously), I've never been a very active rider and I've been letting him lollygag around without any rhyme or reason, now that needs to change and I need to get his bum in gear. Naturally, my dressage trainer has been talking whips and crops.

But you know what? There's got to be a better way. So I reached out to the clicker training community and asked for advice. What I got back was so brilliant that I want to post it here for you to read:

I worked on this with one of my mules (Murry). She tended to offer only the
least amount of energy as needed while ridden in the arena. I tried clicking her
for responding to my leg, but I found that didn't really help. I tried carrying
a whip and I would click if she offered an adequate amount of forward energy
with a light touch of the leg, and if not then I would lightly tap with the
whip. That also didn't help that much, especially if I was not carrying the

What worked was clicking Murry for offering her own energy, **in the absence of
the cue**. I asked with leg for her to walk faster than at a crawl. She wasn't
allowed to mosey along. If she slowed down to a Quarter-Horse-Shuffle, I would
ask her to go a little more forward with my leg. Then I would leave her alone
with my leg, and follow passively with my seat (no pushing or swinging or
exaggerating the walk). I didn't click until she offered a little bit of her own
energy. There were glimpses of moments when she offered a little more tempo, a
longer stride, a lift at the base of her neck, or a lift in her shoulders.

It took three rides for her to start offering what I've called a "parade walk."
She lifts her neck and telescopes, her long ears knife back and forth through
the air, and she is moving along with great energy. She loves it because it is
her own idea. Alex says that every behavior you train should have an aspect of
free-shaping to it. Free-shaping is what makes the horse really "own" the
behavior. It has really changed the way she relates to leg cues. When she is
really "on" she will offer passage-y trot departs from a halt, with only a
breath of leg as the cue. It is such a dramatic difference!   

So I've been trying it. I started by clicking him for offering his awesome walk out on the trail, hoping that would help him make the association. Once we got in the ring, I messed up at first by trying to click for too many things. I'd click for good forward, then I'd click for bend, then I'd click for turning on the forehand. It was too much and Coriander was confused, "what exactly are you looking for, human?" So on Saturday I changed my tactics, I clicked for him choosing to go forward on his own and that was it. If he got super pluggy I asked him for a bunch of transitions until he livened up and then I'd find a time to click him for moving out on his own. It worked SO well! We even got a couple of canter strides on both leads for the first time ever!

I'm going to keep this up until he's consistently moving forward on his own inside the ring, then I'll choose specific rides to click for bend, or for contact, or anything else. I think the key will be to only reward for ONE behavior per ride to avoid confusion. I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. Shannon - What a beautiful place to ride! A few years ago, I had a dog behaviorist come in a evaluate our little rescue dog because of his aggressive behaviour. One of the things she mentioned has stuck with me. She said that we reward our pets with a "good boy" or treat during the training period for responding to our request, but we become lazy with saying thank you once the "training" is done. She also said that we tend not to show recognition when our dogs do something good without being asked; we tend to respond only when they have done something "bad". I think her approach is valid to humans or animals. What you are doing is thanking Coriander for doing something without being asked. I like it! :-)

  2. Hmmm - I think blogger ate my comment.

    Love the free shaping idea. That quality is what gives our horses their extra sparkle and facilitates willing participation. Doesn't everyone enjoy work more when it seems to be their idea?!

    Thanks for the link!

  3. Wow Wolfie, she sounds like a good trainer! I like the way you said it- rewarding him for doing something without being asked. That meshes very well with clicker training which could also be called training by saying yes instead of no.

    CFS- exactly! And isn't that supposed to be the foundation of dressage? A horse that happily does what you ask because he wants to?

  4. I know my horses get bored in the ring all the time too and move out better in the open. The clicker training free shaping idea is a great one. I might have to try it with Mr. Lazy (Blue) once he's more advanced in his clicker training. I think you've got a good handle on it though.

  5. I bet Blue would really respond to this.

    I've been clicker training for more than a year now and I'm still impressed by what a fabulous and flexible training tool it is.