I’ve been trying to be very conscious about correctness while bringing Murray back into work this year. Part of it is trying to maximize the relationship and learning mentality that we’re creating through clicker training, and part of it is an attempt to undo all of the bad habits and ingrained reactions that the two of us have developed to one another over the last few years. It’s been a lot of work at the walk, since we’re still building up fitness and hoof health, which has been the perfect opportunity to integrate the clicker into our sessions. It’s also been an excellent opportunity for us to work on Murray’s walk, which is inarguably his weakest gait.
A lot of what I’ve been focusing on is developing a positive relationship with contact, which has always been such a struggle for us. I seem to be as afraid of contact as Murray is — I seem to desperately fear having to hold up anything more than the weight of the reins, and will consciously and subconsciously wiggle, shake, or bump horses out of my hands. It’s no wonder that Murray wants to duck behind the bridle. So focusing on rewarding Murray for actually moving into the contact is doing a lot for me too.
I’ve also been working a lot on our walk-trot transitions. These have been a weak point for Murray and I since time immemorial (okay, so what isn’t a weak point for us?!), so rebuilding these from the ground up with the clicker has been priceless. I actually started these with in-hand work, clicking first for a long-and-low walk, then asking for the trot and clicking for a similarly long-and-low trot. I chained the two behavior by asking for the trot and clicking specifically when Murray made the transition without hurling his head in the air or leaning on his underneck. (It would probably be ideal if I clicked when he actually pushed from behind properly in a transition, but it’s all about the baby steps here.)
ugh I miss summer
On Monday we did a lot of walk-halt-walk, walk-trot, and trot-walk transitions under saddle. It’s a long way from perfect, but the frequency with which Murray trots forward in a quiet and reasonable way is steadily increasing, and the frequency of flailing-inverted-on-the-forehand transitions is steadily decreasing.
The problem with playing the walk-halt-walk-trot-walk-trot-walk-halt-walk game is that it is boring. So I thought I’d work on making my cues for the trot quieter, since Murray seems to prefer a quieter cue over one that involves actual leg pressure. I decreased the pressure I put on with my legs when I asked, and tried to “think trot” with my seat. A couple of times I caught myself pitching forward an lightening my seat as if to avoid getting left behind through the transition, and verbally scolded myself. Of course, pitching oneself forward and picking one’s seat up means the transition isn’t happening, soooo yeah.
When the lighter cues weren’t working, I went back to squeezing slightly harder, and then a little more and a little more until I got something resembling a transition out of Murray. And I realized I’d worked myself into a nag spiral. Instead of making Murray responsive to my lighter “aids” I’d somehow made it even easier for him to ignore my ever-increasing ones.
lalalala I can’t hear you
Which was nice. And totally my goal.
I went back to trot cue = trot forward no matter what, and clicked for that a few times in a row. Then we took a walk break. Megan later pointed out that as long as I kept pairing the quiet cue with a cue that Murray knows means “trot right meow!”, it would work. Which revealed to me my problem: I had just been turning the volume down on the old leg-based cues (already not Murray’s favourite thing to listen to), without including any kind of link to the behavior I actually wanted.
Learning theory suggests you present new cue – old cue – behavior – reward. But instead I was just going new cue – no behavior – wtf?! As if Murray would think “well, when Nicole does this with her legs only bigger, what she means is trot… so I should try trotting here”. Shockingly, my horse is not capable of such cognitive leaps.
Murray asked to stretch down at the walk during our break, so I obliged and we worked on stretchy walk for a few circles. While he was stretching down, I asked Murray to trot, and he gave me a pretty good stretchy transition that led into a nice long and low trot circle. So I stuffed his face with the remainder of our grain and called it good. Clearly, all is not lost on the learning front. I just need to remember which one of us actually has access to the texts on training and learning theory.