January 2006

January 17 , 2006

There are two things going on that I hope will motivate me to get out and work with the horses -- in the barn, if nothing else -- for a few minutes a day. First, I really would like to put together an Equiliberty routine. Second, Alex Kurland started a by-invitation-only list for people to discuss her books. I want to take my horses through her progression, start to finish, so this is a great opportunity.

I spent an hour with the horses today. Right now I have just one stall that can be closed off. So I put Guin in there and left Blue loose in the aisle.

I worked first with Guin on head down. We've done that in the past but it's not on cue. She figured out with in a click or two what I wanted, so we got right to business. I was able to get a couple of seconds of duration, and I began putting it on a verbal cue, "Down.

I switched to Blue then. I can't remember if we've done any head down with him, but he caught on quickly. However, we've been working on targeting with his front right foot, and I made the mistake of clicking for a nose touch to the ground when he was also pawing. He decided in that one click that the foot pawing was part of the behavior, and so I spent the rest of that session trying to get rid of it! Oy. I had flashbacks to chicken camp where Bob repeatedly admonished us to NEVER click the chickens if they were scratching.

Since I freeshaped head down, I next wanted to work on something completely different, so I pulled out their familiar target. I want to use targeting to teach "give to the bit." It's also very, very helpful for keeping the neck and back vertebrae in line. I noticed that she is a little stiff, so this is something I want to do regularly to help limber her up. I remember John Lyons saying people should do 100 baby gives every day.

I planned to repeat the targeting with Blue, but I got distracted. Guin has that lovely thick, long mane, and it had developed a horrible knot during this icky weather. So I stopped training and started detangling. I worried that I might have to cut it, but ultimately I got most of it out without too much damage.

I need to get Jay to fix the other stall, so I can easily switch the horses out in the aisle. There's more room there. Also it gives a different "picture" if I want to work on two shaped behaviors in the same session.

January 18 , 2006

I popped out and spent another hour with the horses today. This time I put Blue in the stall and left Guin loose in the aisle.

First, I worked with Guin on backing up. I'm shaping, so I positioned myself behind a barrier and let the clicker tell her what I wanted. I haven't really worked with her on this, so she wasn't sure what I wanted. It was a lot of fun to see her make the connection between her backwards shuffles and the click. She was awesome.

I worked Blue in the stall. The first problem we had was Guin. I had no way to keep her away from me, and I didn't want to work inside the stall with him on this particular behavior. So Blue was distracted by the perceived competition. During the moments where she was focused on something else, he focused much better.

I had worked with Blue on this behavior in the aisle quite a bit. In the aisle he will walk quite far, and I was putting the behavior on cue. But in the stall, since he was distracted, instead of adding a cue to an imperfect behavior, I concentrated on shaping him to back around corners. It was cool to see him figure out that he needed to swing his hips and keep going.

Next, I pulled out the target and worked with Guin some more. She was a bit less stiff than she was yesterday. This is really a good behavior to end with each day because they are so familiar with it. I suppose it would be good to start with for the same reason!

I worked in the stall with Blue. Man, he was worked up. He was going after the target open-mouthed. On days it doesn't rain, I think I need to work him away from Guin. He's less stiff than Guin, but he's so wild that the quality of the movements wasn't very high. I need to find a way to calm and focus him, even when Guin is around.

January 19 , 2006

We had a break in the weather today, so I took Mr. Blue into the little outdoor arena. It was night and day to working in the barn. Even though he hadn't been out there in months and there was tempting green grass, he was eager to play with me. (Completely at liberty, of course.)

He was originally taught to lead with his head at my shoulder. I want to retrain him to walk shoulder to shoulder so I can do Alex's "Why Would You Leave Me?" exercise and so we can do the heeling in Equiliberty. I started the session with some simple targeting and stretching with our usual target. Unfortunately that target doesn't have a handle, so I can't place it way out in front to reposition him for leading. So I got a dressage whip.

When Blue first saw the whip, his response was predictable. He immediately got tense and trotted away, ready to be "driven" around. I told him I wasn't going to use the whip like that (ever!) and offered him the end to touch. He was suspicious, but he sniffed it. Click/treat. It didn't take many reps for him to relax and eagerly reach for the end of the whip.

We played this game for a few minutes, and then I walked out a few steps and held out the target. He came to me before I really even got the target ready. I ran out a few more steps, and again he followed me. One more time, and this time he trotted. Oh, this was going to be fun. I took off trotting around the arena, and Blue trotted after me. I clicked when he drew parallel to me.

Blue thought this was wonderful and surprising. He snorted and bucked and cantered and galloped and did the most lovely suspended trot, neck arched and tail flagged. Fast changes of direction, sliding stops. Too lovely and too much fun. I clicked him any time he matched step with me, shoulder to shoulder. By the end we were doing some kind of fun stuff in sync. If I had had a bit more stamina, I bet I could have gotten him to trot in place with me.

<snort> More stamina? How about any stamina. I was wheezing like an asthmatic. It was horrible! I think Blue was worried I was going to keel over.

No work with Guin today. She was standing at the far end of their paddock staring at something in the field. They do that sometimes, always looking at the same place. I've looked, but I can't see what they're looking at. Anyway, she didn't come in while I was out there, so I just worked with Blue.

January 21 , 2006

Poor Guin got skipped again today. I think I'm going to have to work with her first (which will drive Blue crazy).

I took Blue into the outdoor arena again. Today I wanted to work on some behaviors we haven't worked on outside of the barn -- head down and backing. Since he was at liberty, I wasn't sure how well he was going to do.

We started with head down. This is, I think, just our second session with this behavior, so I had to capture it. He figured it out quickly though. He was very distracted at first... listening, looking, sniffing toward the neighbors' house. I could tell his mind wasn't really on what we were doing, because he wasn't chewing his treat. He just held it in his mouth. When he would chew, I knew he was "back," and sure enough, he would offer head down again right away.

After a few minutes, the neighbors brought their truck and trailer to the front of the property and started working in the front yard. I chatted with Pam for a couple of minutes, and she mentioned that hey had been in the barn in back working with one of her horses. Ah, that's what Blue had been distracted by. They worked in front the rest of the time I was out, but Blue lost interest once he got a good look at them.

After that, his head down improved dramatically. I not only got the behavior in rapid succession, but I began getting a couple of seconds of duration. I didn't start adding the cue though -- maybe next time.

Next we worked on targeting. Lots of gives to each side. He's more limber on one side than the other, but overall he's much more limber than Guin. Then I did some stretches up and down. I switched to the dressage whip and had him target the end. Then I did some reps, using that to move him around a bit. He wasn't as energetic as he was a couple of days ago, but he was happy enough to target when asked.

Then I switched to backing. I was really unsure how well this would work. I had already been shaping a different behavior that session, and I didn't want to confuse him. So I changed the picture and stepped outside the arena, working from the other side of the rail. That worried me a bit, however, because there's tons of green grass at the rail to tempt him.

I had started putting backing on cue when we were working in the barn aisle, so I took a chance and cued it. He was slow to respond, but he took a step back. Click! Ultimately, we didn't do more than ten reps or so, but I got four or five steps backwards each time, on cue (more or less -- it needs a lot of work). The reps didn't come fast and furious though, and then he wandered off. Whoops. This may be one I need to get stronger in the barn before I take it outside.

I went back in the ring and just petted and played with him for a couple of minutes, and then called it a day. Miss Guin was sad that I didn't play with her. Maybe I'll go out later. Unfortunately, my time today is limited, because I'm going over to a friend's barn for a riding lesson.

Later in the afternoon...

As a thank you gift for some pet sitting over Christmas, my former riding instructor gave me a riding lesson with her new dressage instructor. I was excited because I love to take lessons, but I was also apprehensive because I don't know this person, she doesn't know me, and I haven't ridden in months and months (and not much before that!). Plus Smokey, the horse I was going to ride, had bolted with my former-instructor the week before, and she's now sporting a broken tailbone. Brandy, that is, not Smokey.

Smokey is a lovely quarter horse mare... about 18 years old. She's trained to third level dressage and for western pleasure. She is very sensitive... and very unsure. Pam (the dressage instructor) said she has had both some great training and some lousy riding and treatment along the way, and now she's afraid.

Brandy called me after the incident last week and asked if I would do some clicker work with her to help deal with some of her issues because Brandy wants to sell her soon. So I brought a clicker over today, and before the lesson I introduced her to targeting. I swear she got it on the first click. Literally. After that I took a short break, then put the target away, came back, and on a lark started clicking for head down. She got that too! This is a smart horse.

We tacked her up and went into the ring for the lesson. I told Pam this was a beginner lesson, and she stopped cold. "This isn't a beginner horse," she said. She wanted to put me on her school horse, but Brandy assured her I had ridden Smokey before. Pam reluctantly agreed finally, but said if Smokey gave me any trouble, I would have to switch.

I think it was the best lesson I've ever had! Smokey and I get along very well, and Pam really helped me understand how to use my outside rein effectively. (Seriously, I really am a beginner at all this.) Smokey had a couple of little spooks in the very beginning and rushed forward a time or two at the end when I was getting tired, but she was easy to regroup. We stuck to the walk and posting trot and divided our time between work in the full arena and on a 20-meter circle, but it felt good and smooth.

Pam was very complimentary throughout the lesson, which surprised me. Brandy and Leslie, who both take lessons from her, prepped me before the lesson, warning that Pam is exacting and temperamental. (Maybe she was having an off day, or maybe she's extra nice to first-time lesson people to suck them in. By the way, Brandy and Leslie think she's an awesome instructor, just not the most personable person.)

Pam said I have a nice quiet body when I ride, which is what Smokey needs. At the end of the lesson, she surprised me by encouraging me to buy Smokey. She said we suit each other well. Smokey is a lovely mare, and she needs someone familiar with her issues who also rides quietly -- she's too sensitive for a rough rider. I think the timing is wrong for her to become my horse which is too bad. I think we could teach each other a lot!

January 30 , 2006

Grrrr. Today was frustrating. My friend Brandy told me that on March 4 there's a mounted orienteering fun day at Bridle Trails, and we decided it would be great fun to do it. I really would like to ride my Blue horse, but I'm not sure, even I were able to ride him regularly in (rainy) February, that he would be up to such a long day under so much weight.

That said, we had a short break in the rain today -- we've had nearly 12 inches of rain this month --and I decided I would saddle up Blue and just ride him around our property for a few minutes. That wouldn't be too taxing for either of us, and it would give me a chance to judge how he's handling the situation. (I've been on him only twice, and never out of the little riding ring.) I really wasn't anticipating much of a problem.

He handled the saddling just fine, but he wasn't thrilled with the bridle. He constantly plays with the bit, trying to get his tongue over it. Active playing, not just gentle chewing. I wish I knew whether that was due to the bit being wrong for his mouth or whether he's just not used to it. It affected our mounting block session, because when he would move, I would walk him in a circle and reset him, but he didn't want to lead in the bridle, at least not by one rein.

The session started well. Though we haven't done any work at the mounting block since early fall, he walked right up and stood solid. That was, unfortunately, the best part of the session. I didn't want to hop right on without doing a little proofing... easing into it. Unfortunately, the more I did, the less settled he got. And the more restless he got, the less confident I got. Trust me -- that's a vicious cycle, guaranteed to set you up to fail.

In the end, I didn't even put a leg over him. Afterwards I e-mailed Brandy and asked her for help. She's going to come over next Monday and give me hand.


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