Looking to Dig Deeper?  Here are some ideas.

Prelude to a Scratch (Solving a Problem with Hoof Handling)

I bought Libby for my non-rider husband and she came to me as a 25 year old with some age-related issues:  arthritis, sore hocks, and lameness in her left spavin.  Yet she impressed me by making a ten hour trailer ride from northern Ohio and trusting me enough to follow a stranger (me) off that trailer (in the dark) and into her new stall.  In the glaring light of day I could see she needed the attention of a good farrier before I could even consider riding her, so all I asked of her in the beginning was to stand still for grooming.  She stood well enough for grooming, but resisted picking up her feet.  I persisted, and was twice bitten on the calf when I tried to pick up her right fore.  A more experienced horsewoman would have known that Libby was saying “OUCH!” but it took me a bit longer to figure it all out. Over our next four years together Libby grew to love grooming and scratching but was always, no matter what, difficult when it came to lifting her front feet.  We went through several farriers (the ones that bullied her and used a twitch were never called again) and by now I had figured out that she was in pain but even a dose or two of anti-inflammatory prior to the farrier visit wasn’t enough to allow her to easily hold those feet up for trimming. We also weren’t able to ride her because of her physical limitations so she became a companion horse.  One day she slipped and fell in a wet pasture and the ensuing...

Grass – The Carpet of Motivation

I wrote this article several years ago.  It had gotten lost in the shuffle of updating my website.  Unfortunately the video that had gone along with it is among the missing.  But, here is the article anyway.   –Sharon Here in New England one of the things I really miss in the winter is the ability to ride outside on grass.  Or, as we like to call it, the ‘Carpet of Motivation’.  The reason it has earned that name is because of all the food rewards we’ve offered—and we’ve used just about every possible treat under the sun—none have the reinforcing impact of grazing.  I started the practice a few years ago and have since introduced several horses to it with excellent results.  The rule is let the horses tell us what they find reinforcing.  The horses tell us grazing is good! Getting Started The first thing you have to do is explain to your horse how the Grazing Game works.  Before starting your horse should already be familiar with the clicker, targeting, head lowering, and backing. Begin on the ground with the horse in a halter and lead rope and let him lower his head to take a few bites of grass, then ask him to raise his head by following your feel.  Click for any response, even a momentary hesitation in chewing.  Then let him graze again.  Just a few bites, then ask him to lift his head.  Click for reply then let him graze. If your horse doesn’t respond to your request to lift his head don’t jerk it up.  There are there several ways to illicit...

Finding what motivates a change

This week I worked with Libby, a 30 year old Quarter Horse mare, for the first time. Libby and her owner, Kirsten, were referred to me by Libby’s massage therapist, Heather Davis. Libby suffers from some lameness due to injury and hard use (before Kirsten). Not surprisingly as a result she holds her body very tightly. The massage therapy has helped Libby but Heather believed that if Libby could become more mentally relaxed that it would help her body to relax as well. This is where I come in. Kirsten had started a little bit of target training with Libby before I arrived. I was curious to see how Libby responded to this. Did she ‘get’ it? Was she willing to work for food? How hard? With all of Libby’s prior history I had a feeling that this sort of free shaping work might be too big a leap for her. So I decided to go into the stall with her and work on some basic lessons in feel…. look at me, follow me, turn… on the lead rope. As always my first objective is to capture the horse’s interest and cooperation. With some experimentation I discovered that Libby loved…LOVED…scritchies. Particularly in the udder area. This was, for her, way better than food. So, I began to click and scritch rather than click and feed. Historically, Libby would only put up with any kind of handling (like for trimming) for only a short time. Then she would begin to fuss and struggle making the whole procedure unpleasant for everyone involved. I saw this happen when we opened the stall...

Thoughts on Softness and Breathing on the Trail

Editor’s Note: Laurie Grann is a dear friend and a most excellent horse woman.  She recently participated in a week long clinic with Mark Rashid.  She wrote up her thoughts about how she is working his ideas into her every day riding.  The result is what follows.  Perhaps if we are all very nice to her she will contribute again! Today, my sister and I went on a 14 mile ride–2 loops of about 7 miles each.  The first loop was mostly flat and good footing and took us 1 hour and 20 minutes.  The second loop was climbing and lots of rock and ledge.  Quite challenging so there was lots of walking.  That loop took 2 hours. So plenty of saddle time to think about all the concepts and doors Mark Rashid showed me. I guess I can sum it up to 2 major areas:   Starting with softness and Breathing. On starting with softness, I need to start with a thought and offer that as my first cue and remain soft inside and outside.   Mark would say, from your inside to the horse’s inside.   I just never thought to start that far down the scale.  I could get work on just a thought before but always with a lot of preparation that involved aiding and sometimes quite strongly. My mare, Dulcie, had a real strong desire to go forward on this ride so I had to monitor my thoughts carefully!   If I said to myself, “well maybe we should trot now,”  hup, there we were trotting along.   Very neat.   Also getting into the canter  was...

Does your horse have the right to say No?

Much of my appreciation for classical dressage training comes from my lessons with Karl Mikolka. One of the (many) things I remember him saying (probably while my horse was having a fit) was, “the horse is allowed to say NO!” I’m not saying that fits are desirable! Of course, what we’d prefer is a resounding YES. But if you want to be more than ‘just’ a rider you need to be willing to listen to the horse and if he says No then you need to accept responsibility for that feedback. Then you need to ask yourself, What’s it gonna take to get a Yes? What got me thinking about this topic today was reading Mary Hunter’s blog post about her encounter with Steve Martin (the bird trainer!) at the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. I love hearing about how people are successfully using positive reinforcement with all manner of species. Especially species that can just fly away so you’d better be right on the money with your training philosophy. It is a real inspiration to learn that good training practices are Universal. So it wasn’t much of a surprise (more of a validation) to read that Steve had made the very same point as Karl did: “A good trainer is able to give the animal power over their environment. This builds confidence and trust. We can do this by taking responsibility for what the animal does and giving the animal the right to say no. When things go wrong, it can be really, really easy to blame it on the animal. The animal is being...

Are you training with a jackhammer?

In my Secret Weapon post I talked about how important it is to remain focused on what we want and rewarding that and only that.  Read it here if you want to be reminded about it or missed it the first time. In her article in Psychology Today titled, Trainers with Jackhammers Need Not Apply, Susan Friedman, Ph.D. talks about this very issue from a slightly different point of view.  And, hearing the same thing said differently is always a useful learning strategy.  She brings up two key points to consider when training (any animal, horses included): Identify what you want the horse to DO and reward THAT. Consider what is motivating behaviors that occur. The first point is pretty straight forward and I’ve talked about it a gazillion times before.  The second one is important too but maybe doesn’t get as much play as it could. Behaviors don’t just happen.  They happen for a reason… the Behavior somehow works for the “Behave-EE”.  By works I mean on some level the behavior is getting reinforced.  And the reinforcement may not have anything to do with YOU.  Horses (as we all do) are driven by needs that need to be fulfilled.  Safety, food, water, sex…  Safety is always high on the list and if often the source of problem behaviors with horses.  If they believe that their safety is at risk horses will do what they believe they must to feel safe again.  This is just one example but when ever stuff is happening, and it keeps happening, you have to accept that something is reinforcing it.  If it weren’t...

My secret weapon

Lots of rain and mud means I’ve only managed to say hello to my girls at feeding time. On nicer days I’ll visit, groom and massage. Actual riding is a distant memory. Ha! So posts have been thin at best as I await the inspiration of spring and more riding exploits! Something interesting did come up recently in conversation, though, that I thought I would share. The topic was what I call my “secret weapon”. Do you want to know the secret to getting along with pretty much every horse? It isn’t a very secret secret since it is available to anyone for the asking. But, still, few horsefolk seem to know about it. Now, while I did come upon this secret weapon by way of clicker training it isn’t about ‘clicker training’ per se. There are non-clicker trainers out there who apparently know the secret. People like Harry Whitney and Mark Rashid come to mind. But these are, it would appear, rare souls who somehow just get it. The rest of us, mortal folk, need more help. Enter clicker training to open the door to the secret weapon. It sounds a little ‘new agey’ to say it. But, it is true that you get more of what you focus on. So, here’s Part A of the secret: Always, always, always reward the behavior you want. Part B is to reward the teeniest, tiniest particle of that behavior the instant it occurs and then nurture it from there. Part C is, while all that is going on you Ignore what you don’t want. Perhaps you are thinking, what? Should...

How to get a horse OK with clippers

Here’s the thing about using clicker training for stuff that the horse is afraid of (demonstrated by some escape behavior), like using electric clippers on whiskers, if you try to click ‘for’ letting you approach with the buzzing thing you are invariably going to get the timing wrong.  They are already thinking of leaving long before you click and if you click when they are thinking of leaving then you will only make matters worse. So, what I would do, is pretty much the same as what I said last time about mounting.  🙂  It isn’t about the mounting (or trimming) per se it is ‘can you continue to follow my feel in this uncomfortable situation?’ Prior to attempting to work near the horse with the trimmers on, I would do a lot of heavily reinforced ‘rope work’.  Meaning, following a feel on the line to look at me, follow me, turn, and so forth.  Make all that stuff something the horse feels good about.  Then what I’d do is find out how far away the clippers need to be before the horse becomes concerned about the buzzing noise.  Let’s say it 20 feet away.  Turn on the clippers and set them down 20 feet away.  Then proceed with basic ropework. I like to use a simple change of hand (figure eight) done in front of me.  That requires that the horse be able to follow the feel forward and through turns in both directions.  A handy test of the horse’s attention, lightness and softness. The presence of the clipper noise will cause a WEE bit of distraction.  You’ll...

If I Knew What I Wanted

Those who have hung around me for some time will know that I’m very fond of saying, “If the horse knew what I wanted and believed he was able to do it, he’d BE doing it.”   I used to say “…and was able to do it…” but people would just say that they knew a horse who knew very well thank you very much what they wanted and simply didn’t WANT to comply.  So, I adjusted the phrase to include the word “believe” because it is my opinion that those horses who “don’t want to” usually have something else on their mind, something that is preventing them from going along with our ideas.  In that state of distraction they really don’t believe that they are able to do …whatever. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter how we word it, if we approach each horse assuming “they would if they could” (rather than looking for ways to make excuses) well, things have a way of working out for the better. Recently, on the Classical Dressage group on Yahoo, someone posted this quote by Colonel Carde–Ecuyer en Chef (Chief Rider), National Equitation School, Saumur, France: “If I knew where I wanted to go,and was clear and precise in my requests, with my aids, that I would achieve everything I wanted.” This, to me, is basically the same sentiment as mine only expressed from the rider’s point of view.  It is our clear and precise requests that convinces the horse to believe he can do what we...

It is Not About the Food

I thought I would follow up with my own observations of the experience with Danke and the massage therapist. As you may recall (and if you missed it you can read about it here) Danke was not OK with having Heather standing on the hay bale while she worked on her croup area. This was the first time she had attempted to work with her like this. In the past if Danke needed to move Heather would just stay with her till she settled. But, since Danke is so tall (17+hands) it was necessary for Heather to stand on the hay bale to get a better look and feel of this particular area. As such it was necessary that Danke stand still. HA! Initially I simply blocked Danke’s efforts to leave. However, when Heather invited me to join her on the hay bale to look at/feel a particular knotty area the problem escalated when there was no one up front to keep Danke still! So the first problem we solved with clicker training was just getting Danke to stand still long enough so that I could see what Heather wanted me to see. Then it was time for Heather to get to work. It was quickly becoming clear that just telling Danke not to leave was not helping her feel good about the process. That’s when I said, “Well, you know, we could click her for standing here while you work. Do you think that would be too distracting?” As you know Heather believed it would be. But, I felt that it was worth a try because we weren’t...