Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Food rewards work, who woulda thunk?

Training: Food Rewards Are More Effective Than Physical Contact

Everybody loves a good back scratch, including your horse, right? Scratching of the withers has been scientifically proven to reduce a horse's heart rate, but a good scratch might not be enough to communicate to your horse that you're happy with what he's just learned and that you want him to do it again next time.
According to new research by French equitation scientists, presented at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala, Sweden, on Aug. 2, rewarding horses with food, rather than physical contact, is most effective.

"Overall, it appears that scratching the withers may not be considered a primary positive reinforcement for horses," said Carol Sankey, MSc, a PhD candidate in ethology (the study of animal behavior) at the University of Rennes in western France. "In fact, some horses don't seem to like it much it at all."
In previous studies also described at TheHorse.com, Sankey compared food rewards to negative reinforcement and food reward to no reinforcement at all; in both cases the horses' training programs were significantly improved when food reward was used. The food-rewarded horses also remembered the training longer and had friendlier contact with humans.

But now Sankey and her colleagues have addressed the question of which kind of positive reinforcement works better: physical contact—wither scratching—which is known to reduce heart rates (suggesting the horse enjoys it), or food (in this case, carrots). They put the question to the test by training 20 Konik horse yearlings to stand still on command. (This native Polish breed was chosen because the horses live in semi-natural family groups where they can benefit fully from social grooming and its implications within the herd.) "If grooming has any socially positive effect on horses, this would be the occasion to find out," Sankey said.

According to their results, grooming has very little positive effect. From the first day of training, the food-rewarded yearlings stood still longer, Sankey said. They also made faster progress over the six-day training period compared to the horses rewarded with wither scratching, whose progress eventually stagnated. The food-rewarded horses also were far more receptive to humans, standing closer to them and seeking physical contact, outside the training sessions.

"Scratching the withers could be perceived as positive by some horses, just not positive enough for training and bonding," said Sankey. In fact, social grooming might actually occur because of bonding and not the contrary, she added.

"It's better to consider scratching a secondary form of positive reinforcement, which must first be associated with a primary one, like food, to become rewarding," Sankey said.

copied from TheHorse.com

Monday, August 30, 2010

The horse you want vs. the horse you need

I remember when I was telling Alexandra Kurland about Gwen she said that I would learn more from this horse than I could ever imagine, but it wouldn't be easy. Boy is that ever true.

I fell in love with Gwen the first time I saw her. I saw her sweet little face with that kissable nose and fell head over heels. I just had to have her. Of course I had no idea that she would be the most sensitive, excitable, and difficult horse that I have ever handled. I also didn't know that she would be exactly the horse I needed.

Like most people I have issues. I rush through things and pay only lip service to details. I tend to get over-excited and anxious very quickly, often blowing situations out of proportion and making things worse than they would be if I'd just chilled out. I also have a nasty aggressive streak and use a lot more force than I should, especially if I get upset- which, as I just mentioned, happens often. I am also really hard on myself, regular readers may have picked up on that by now.

This is why Gwen is good for me: Every time I let go of my self control and get upset or angry, Gwen flips out. Every time. But if I approach her with a calm and stable demeanor she can be very soft and loving. She's the ultimate 1000 lbs. life coach. Working with her forced me to evaluate not only my training regimen, but also my state of being.

Now she's in a new environment, once again freaked out by the entire world, and I need to do some serious self-examination to figure out the best way to help her without alienating her. I've taken her all the way back to basics. We walk to just out of sight of the other horses and then graze, with some targeting thrown in when she gets nervous. I concentrate on staying calm, breathing, and over all keeping a soft connection through the lead rope. And it's working, she's relaxing and I think she's even starting to enjoy our little treks out of the pasture.

I'd like to throw it out to you now: Was there ever a horse (or other animal) that you felt was in your life to help you grow as a person? That wasn't the horse you wanted but ended up being the horse you needed?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

New experiences

Sorry I haven't posted in a while, being busy and under the weather have put me a little behind.

For the latest news: Coriander went on his first group trail ride Friday and was nearly perfect in every way! Really, I could not be more proud of that horse right now.

The stable next door where I've been taking my lessons does a group trail ride every Friday night and they invited me along. Last Friday I strapped on Coriander's Easyboot Gloves and off we went.

There were seven other horses that went on the ride, I was really worried that my boy would be upset with so many strange horses around, but I buddied him up to a steady-eddy draft mare first thing and her calmness seemed to wear off on him, he didn't spook once on the whole ride. He did pull some nasty faces when the horse behind him ran up on his bum a little, but I can't blame him for that. I'd pull a nasty face for that too.

We went up and down more hills than he's seen in his whole life up to this point and he took them like a champ. I told him at the beginning of the ride that I wanted him to walk the hills and for the most part he kept himself at that pace. Even when the horses around him were trotting or cantering up the hills he walked, good boy!

He even had his first water crossing, the only rough point on the ride. It was just a little stream, only about two feet wide, but he didn't want to do it. After I had walked him up to it a couple times and gently asked him to cross with no progress, I was just getting ready to dismount and lead him across when I found out that Beth (my new trainer) had already beaten me to it. She took hold of his bridle, and with her help he very calmly walked through the water and got tons of praise. He then went over the next stream no problem, there wasn't as much water in that one but I'm still pretty proud. (How great is my new trainer?)

This is a little random, but I always ate the most fantastic peach during the ride. Straight off the tree, perfectly ripe and full of juice- it melted in my mouth. Yum! Poor Coriander got peach juice all over his shoulder but it was worth it.

The only part of the ride where he acted like a greenie was at the very end when the stable came back into view. Then he started jigging and calling and acting a little silly. But I forgive him for that since he was so fantastic for the rest of the ride. Now I can't wait for next Friday to come along so we can do it again.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Too much, too soon

So first the good. Coriander and I went on our first bareback ride today since the move and he was great! He spooked a couple times but nothing big, on the whole he was very relaxed and it was a fun ride.

After that I decided to take Gwen on trail walk #2. It started off well, she walked past the horse-eating canoe again with nary a glance and it didn't take many one rein stops at all to get her to walk next to me instead of ahead of me.

All was going well until I decided to have a "bright idea." Like a lot of so-called bright ideas, this one was less than bright. My bright idea was to take her around the property next door, where the big boarding/lesson barn is. To get there we have to walk through a section of woods, a first for Gwen. So, of course, we spooked a deer in the woods- prompting Gwen to do her best giraffe impression. She was very upset by it but was keeping herself pretty well under control despite her fear. Even though she was already worked up, I decided to press on anyway.

As you've all probably guessed already it didn't go very well. I was expecting her to be a little spooky anyway, but the nutty horse running around the round pen screaming his head off certainly didn't help. Poor Gwen just couldn't calm down; she ran circles galore around me. I finally wrangled her back over to her pasture but she refused to stand still to let me unfasten the gate. Worse she clocked me in the head with her jaw more than once. Once I got her in the pasture she finally stopped moving long enough for me to get the halter off and then tore across the field to get back to her herd.

Ugh, why do I always have to learn lessons the hard way? Too much, too soon, silly human! After I got over my anger about being nearly brained, I did some hard thinking about what had just happened. Was it her fault that her fear blinders came out? No, I put her in that situation, the fault was mine. Knowing that, what am I going to do about it? Dial it down! We need to stay much closer to her pasture for a while and do a lot more grazing than marching. When she's calm and relaxed enough to graze in the back field furthest from the herd it will be time to visit next door again, but not sooner.

Maybe she just felt I needed to have some sense knocked into me!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The one rein stop/ disengaging the hindquarters

Friday's clicker training lesson was all about preparing my horses for lateral work. I had originally planned to use Coriander for the lesson, but when I arrived he was hobbling around pathetically on three legs. I picked up his sore foot and found a twig sticking out of his frog, poor boy! (He's fine now, time and some bute took the soreness away.) Instead, Gwen got her introduction to the one rein stop/ disengaging the hindquarters.

I'm pretty sure most of you have heard of this, in case you haven't here's a link. Some people refer to the one rein stop without mentioning disengaging the hips or vice versa, but in my mind you can't have one without the other. Just pulling your horse's head to your boot does not a one rein stop make, I've seen videos of horses that learned how to run right through that, to make it effective the horse has to move their hindquarters sideways along with their nose.

This is a very handy skill for your horse to have before you climb into the saddle for the first time. Check out this demonstration and note how the hind legs cross when the horse swings sideways:

Gwen and I worked with the halter and lead rope and really focused on getting those hind legs to step in front of each other. Every time she did that, click and treat. She was really getting it by the end of the lesson and we quit before she got too tired.

Saturday morning I got to the barn bright and early to check on Coriander's foot, he was doing much better but still a little ouchy. Since I couldn't ride him I decided to do the next best thing- take Gwen for her first trail walk!

After applying some fly spray and the western saddle, we departed on Gwen's first excursion. Almost right off the bat she found something to spook at. A horse-eating canoe right next to the driveway set her off. She didn't spin or jump or try to bolt, it was basically just a plant and stare. I moved so I was between her and the canoe, providing a buffer, and with gentle pressure on the lead and inviting body language I asked her to step forward. At first she really didn't want to until, all on her own, she put her head down to the ground, took a deep breath, and was totally fine. Frankly I was a little flabbergasted, it seems that she really understands what I'm asking her for when we practice head lowering, maybe even better than I do!

After that there was no more spooking but she was VERY forward. Do you know what that meant? Time to practice the one rein stop! Every time she surged ahead of me provided a chance to practice. I would slide my hand up the rope, turn towards her shoulder, and click to her every time I saw those hind legs cross. Worked like a charm, ten minutes into the walk she was thoroughly tired of it and just started to stop as soon as I slid my hand up the rope. Good girl!

I also would like to note that she took no notice of the saddle and the flapping stirrups on her back through all of this. Operation Make Gwen a Riding Horse is progressing!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

They call the thing a rodeo!

Pretty little appaloosa mare
You go cowgirl!
Isn't he a handsome devil?
He forgot to hold on
This guy oozes charisma
Sticking like glue
See ya later!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A lazy day

I was going to hop on Coriander bareback today and work on bending, but when I got out to the pasture it was just too hot and muggy. I decided to do a bit of liberty work with Gwen instead.

Isn't she cute? I think  I actually managed to get the saddle in the right spot this time. See how the cantle sits up in the air though? That bothers me, this tree might be too wide for her. Can you get a saddle fitter out for horses that haven't even been started yet?

She's gotten quite used to wearing the English saddle around since I pop it on her back nearly every time I ride her brother. She's there, the saddle is already out, so why not? But since I'm planning on using the western saddle for the next mounting attempt, she really needs to get used to wearing that one too. She's not quite as comfortable when I tighten the girth on this saddle, I think it's because you can tighten the girth so much faster on a western saddle than an English one. I really need to concentrate on pulling the girth up very slowly for now. The good news is after I got it on, she was more than willing to walk and even trot next to me around the pasture. Those flapping stirrups didn't bother her one bit. I'll make a riding horse out of her yet.

Just because Coriander and I started exploring the wild outdoors doesn't mean that I've been ignoring my baby girl. Along with putting the saddle on her back 3-4 times a week, we've still been working on head lowering and standing next to the mounting block. I've also added standing on a mat to her repertoire. There are a couple short boards hanging around the barn that are just perfect for that purpose. I'm hoping that standing on wood and hearing that hollow sound will help when I work on trailer loading again. Right now she's more interested in pawing the board than standing on it, but I guess that's a phase a lot of horses go through.

Kate's coming out tomorrow for another clicker lesson. Maybe we'll do a bit of lateral work with my boy. In the meantime, here's a lesson I learned today: don't try to trim a horse's mane while they're grazing. It comes out all wonky.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gems from Alois

"Indeed, the proof of the correctness of training will be shown best by the increased beauty of the horse through the development of his muscles and the improvement in his carriage and movements. Over 2000 years ago Xenophon perceived that horses by correct training will become more beautiful but never less so. I would like to add that if a horse does not become better looking in the course of his training, it would be a sign that the training was incorrect."

-Alois Podhajsky
"The Complete Training of Horse and Rider"

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The dirty spook

If you're going to ride a horse you're going to experience a spook. Every horse, no matter how bomb proof it is, has something that freaks it out. It's just in their nature. In my experience there are three kinds of spook: 1) the plant and stare, 2) the jump sideways and bolt, and 3) the spin. I call the third type a "dirty spook" because it's the one most likely to deposit me in the dirt.

I don't want to give anyone the impression that Coriander's introduction to trail riding has been completely calm and spook free, because it hasn't. He spent most of his life on 5 acres in southern Florida, now he's in NY surrounded by flora and fauna that he's never seen before and it freaks him out. This week, for instance, he planted and stared at a raccoon in a tree and a baby bunny, he also prompted me to dismount due to his body trembling fear of paint horses (Interestingly, the first time he spooked under saddle was at a gray horse. Poor boy had never seen one before.). This kind of spooking doesn't bother me at all. It's mostly harmless and exactly what I'd expect from a horse that hasn't been anywhere or done anything before.

Today, though, he pulled out a dirty spook. We were about to turn off into a trail when we flushed a fawn and it took off into the woods. Coriander freaked and spun right, fast. Somehow I got my torso to the right even though my seat went left and I managed to stay on top. It was pretty close though. Good thing I didn't get dumped because he would have run off and learned a bad lesson. As it was I was able to get him to go past that spot and continue our ride, proving that spinning away from something he was afraid of wasn't the right answer.

The last time I rode a dirty spook I was still in high school. We had an off-track standardbred who had a nasty habit of spinning every time he spooked, and he spooked a lot. I decided to take him out one day to give him some exercise, since his usual rider had been too busy with work to get on him. I had taken him a couple miles down the road without a single spook until right before we got to the spot where I had previously decided to turn around I noticed a leaf skittering across the road. BAM! All of the sudden I was hanging in the air to the left of the saddle while he was booking it to the right. I tried valiantly to stay on but with my right foot hanging over the pommel it just wasn't going to happen. I then got a much closer look at that leaf in the road. Fortunately my Mom was home and came out looking for me when the horse arrived sans rider. Of course when I got back he was happily grazing on the lawn. I grabbed him up, got back on and we TROTTED back up the road. I have no idea whether that got the right message to him or not, but I was a teenager and I was pissed.

Anyway, I'm not going to pretend to be the world expert on spooking but I do know one thing- don't punish your horse for being afraid. Stay calm and patient when your horse gets upset and he will learn that the world isn't out to eat him.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Get back to work!

That's what I told myself before my ride yesterday.  I didn't quite get the nice downwards transitions I normally get from Coriander on our last three rides and after thinking about it I realized why. I wasn't asking him for them the way I trained him. It's amazing how you forget everything you know when you ride in a new environment.

I originally trained him to halt when I would exhale a large breath, then stop my seat, and finally squeeze the reins. I got out on the trail and completely bypassed the exhale. In fact I was holding my breath! That didn't work, instead of  melting into the saddle and stopping his flow I was bouncing around on top of it wondering why it was taking so much rein to get him to come down. Silly human! Coriander was probably wondering what the heck was wrong with me.

With that in mind, yesterday I worked on walk/trot transitions. Mainly so I would remember to use the cue I trained him to respond to. After a couple transitions he was giving me a lovely balanced trot and was coming down to the walk very softly with very little rein pressure.  I also added in a canter cue: I thought canter, scooped my hips forward and he stepped right up. I'll have to add the leg cue later before I start looking for leads but I'm super psyched that the seat aid worked so well. Amazing what happens when you ride the way you should!

After I put him back in the pasture Gwen got to wear the saddle around for a while. I even got up on my stepladder/mounting block so I could slap the top of the saddle and wiggle it around a bit. Interestingly she didn't step away from me on that, all her anxiety about standing next to the mounting block must have all been directed to the two-step green block at the old barn (I'm still ticked at that thing for tipping on me and freaking her out). Good to know.

I'm trying to brainstorm different things I can put in the saddle to get her better prepared for having me sit up there. So far I've thought about putting bags of cat litter on her back or tying balloons to the horn of the western saddle. Any suggestions?

I'm still not sure what caused her to shoot away from me when I broke my ankle. I had sat on her bareback twice before and stood with all my weight in one of the stirrups more than once without her being upset. All I can think of is surprise at me swinging over or pain when my weight hit the saddle.  I haven't put that saddle back on her since the accident and I think I need to. I'll try to get a video of how it sits on her so I can post it here for opinions.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


But first a little back story. Yesterday I took Coriander out for his second trail walk. He did much better that time, he was very relaxed and kept trying to graze. I figured a horse that wanted to eat was not a horse that was freaked out. So after checking in with the land owner (Mark) to make sure someone would be around (just in case), I saddled him up and off we went.

He was great! He wasn't nervous at all and seemed very happy to be out exploring. I had planned to just walk but he asked to trot and it was the most forward, impulsive trot I've ever gotten from him. It was so much fun!

After that I was rarin' to go today and so was he. I think he genuinely has a good time on the trail, it seems that endlessly riding around in a ring was boring him to tears too. We were trotting along nicely when he asked to canter and next thing I knew we were having our first canter together! It's a good thing I got off his back because he's got a BIG canter, those hindquarters can really push. Technically I didn't ask him to canter, I just allowed it so I still have to teach him the cue, but I'm still really happy about it. He gave me a very smooth transition, he didn't buck, he didn't get strong, and it was quite easy to bring him back to a trot. What a good boy!

Friday, August 6, 2010

An interesting turn of events

When I pulled up to the barn today and saw Gwen and Rocky doing some mutual grooming I decided it was time to take Coriander out for a walk. Since breaking my ankle I've developed this new thing called caution, because of that I decided I'd rather walk him out on the trail first than ride. I took him out and let him graze outside of the fence for a bit to make sure Gwen would be okay. She paced the face once or twice but as soon as Rocky wandered back up to the barn, Gwen went right behind her. Phew!

I had previously gone out and found a nice short loop to introduce Coriander to trails and woods. It takes about 10 minutes to walk around it and arrive back at the pasture so I figured no one would have enough time to get really upset. He was very nervous, he didn't spook or try to bolt but he was on edge enough that I was glad I wasn't riding. We'll go for another walk tonight in a different direction and see how that goes.

When I brought him back I took Gwen out. Here's where it got interesting. Apparently Gwen has bonded to the other horses enough not to be too bothered about her brother leaving but Coriander definitely doesn't feel the same way (Did my horses swap personalities? Coriander has never before been known for having a high level of separation anxiety). Gwen was very relaxed outside of the pasture but he was very upset about her leaving. I was worried about him going through the fence if I took her out of his sight so my plan to take her for a walk was aborted. But that's okay for now, I've been walking her around the pasture with both the western and english saddle on her back this week. She's still a little anxious about taking that first forward step after the saddle has been cinched up so I'm just fine with continuing work on that. He'll merge into the herd eventually.
Sleepy quarters are sleepy, look at those lower lips!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

So far so good...

It's been almost a week and I think the horses are finally starting to gel into one, single herd. It's been very interesting watching the dynamics. Coriander is the dominant horse in my herd of two, when presented with food he will definitely be the first to eat it, but in this case Gwen has been the spearhead. I've watched her slowly make her way to the barn where the other two are standing in the shade, warily checking them for signs of attack, while Coriander grazes away at the other end of the field. When she gets into the barn, he'll suddenly head for it and then stand behind her, using her as a shield against the other two. Poor Gwen, she's the most friendly, outgoing horse ever, she'll keep trying over and over to make friends even when the horse she's trying to make friends with would rather kick the crap out of her. She's gotten yet another war wound from trying to befriend Rocky.

I think they're at the end of it now. Yesterday we had a lovely moment while I was waiting for the vet and their vaccinations. Rocky and Butch were standing in the back of the barn and my quarters were standing in the front of the barn next to me. The temperature was perfect and there was a nice breeze blowing the bugs away. It was so nice and relaxing I think we all fell asleep for a while.

I'm waiting for the cohesion to be complete before I take either one of my horses out of the pasture. I'm dying to take Coriander out for a trail ride but I need to know that Gwen will be content with the other horses while we're gone. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for this weekend or sooner.

I've also found a new trainer. The wife of the guy next door who was so fantastic about moving my horses gives huntseat lessons (This is their place). I wandered over last night to watch a preview and ask her about her teaching philosophy. She is a strong believer in students being able to ride the trot without stirrups before cantering, and cantering without stirrups before jumping. Awesome! She's exactly what I'm looking for, but boy howdy, am I going to be SORE. My first lesson with her is Saturday, I think I might buy some liniment to have handy for the aftermath. Any suggestions?