remedial learner

When I first started doing groundwork with Speedy, I noticed that he made a lot of mistakes with the direction the human was sending him. When it was me sending him, I assumed the mistakes were because of a lack of clarity in my newbish directions. When it was MIL and Sheryl, I figured it was Speedy’s inexperience. And one day after it persisted for months, I thought “it’s like he’s just guessing.” I never took data (curse past Nicole), but I’m sure if I had I would have seen that Speedy’s hit rate on which direction to travel when sent was no better than guessing.

“wait did you say left or right?”

That was probably the first inkling I had that Speedy wasn’t learning well from traditional pressure/release training. Looking back on it, I maybe should have seen pieces of it in his work with Sheryl, where he offered the same response (go forward — not forward? go up — not up? go forward — not forward????) over and over and over and over again, and didn’t seem to iterate based on previous releases. Even Murray, Hater of All Things and King of Evasions, responded quickly and precisely to the clarity of pressure/release training by Cowboy Dave. Or in our lesson with the local H/J trainer where Speedy pretty much never offered to soften into the connection or move sideways off my leg.

Once Speedy moved here, I immediately started clicker training with him and immediately thought “why isn’t this working better?” I started with basic manners training, but quickly moved to husbandry behaviors that needed brushing up. For example, Speedy had never really picked up his hind feet with ease when asked. I know several horses who have never been clicker trained and dutifully pick up each foot in order as you travel around their body. But I’d practically have to drag the hony’s back feet out from under him every time I wanted to clean them. And I knew he could pick up his feet. I’d seen him walk. And I knew he’d had his feet cleaned before and shoes put on. I’d seen it! I’d paid for it!

But lo and goddamn behold no matter how much clicking and treating I did for picking up his feet, he didn’t get better about picking them up when asked. He actually got worse about it the second day I tackled it. And he never offered the behavior just to get a cookie. That’s what (food motivated) conditioned animals do. They offer the rewarded behavior to get the cookie. The horse was food motivated, no doubt about it. He just…. hadn’t actually registered the conditioning?

accurate representation of Speedy’s thoughts on picking up feet

Then there was a moment when I realized Speedy didn’t really yield to pressure at all. At some point in this, Speedy put his head way up in the air — I was probably messing with his face — and I thought “great, what an opportunity to ask him to bring his head down for me”. After a while I was basically putting my entire weight onto the lead rope and he was just standing there with over a hundred pounds hanging off his poll in his rope halter looking at me with a slightly confused expression. I don’t actually remember how that one ended.

I also got a pretty healthy dose of hmmm dumped into my brain over our first three lessons with TrJ. During our flat lesson, we started to tackle leg yields. I could get a few solid steps off my right leg, but off the left leg Speedy was jackknifing through his withers. When I would half halt on the right to realign him, we lost the sideways movement, and when my left leg came back on he’d scoot forward instead of sideways. No amount of gentle tapping with the dressage whip got him to step over with his left hind. When I tackled this later on the ground it was the same story — there was a fair bit of whip boinging around on Speedy’s hock before he thought to step over and I had a chance to click and treat.

The next day we warmed up for a cavaletti lesson with more leg yields and they were actually worse than the day before. To utterly anthropomorphize it, it was like Speedy had spent the night thinking about how he could help me compensate for this bizarre leg thing I was doing and the best way to do that would be to double down on doing nothing when I put just one leg on him as a cue. And if the cue got really big, he could always just go forward. Faster.

you see, I know he knows how to learn because he has now repeatedly snuck out under his stall guard to go eat Bridget’s alfalfa when unattended

The metaphorical shit really hit the proverbial wall the next week, during Speedy’s fourth trainer ride/lesson in one week. After a good ride with TrJ on Monday and lessons on Tuesday and Wednesday with me where he was pretty much on board with the connection agreement, things unraveled quickly on Thursday. There were a couple of distractions (haul in horses) in the arena, and Speedy Just Could Not. He Could Not put his head down, he Could Not hold my hand in the connection, he Could Not canter around the short end of the arena, and he Most Certainly Could Not canter around the short end of the arena and hold the connection and put his head down. TrJ suggested that I exit and come back later, and I gladly left the arena, where I promptly discovered that Speedy also Absolutely Could Not stay out of my personal space. When I made a point of it he backed into the muck tub, scared himself, and ran over the top of me. The horse was clearly not okay. But I couldn’t really understand why.

I was frustrated. Not because I couldn’t jump or because Speedy couldn’t turn the corner. There were lots of good reasons he might not have been able to turn left that day: being sore from a week of heavy work, the slightly bad setup for the turn with the jumps placed as they were, having a minor identity crisis as Derek Zoolander instead of Speedy Gonzales. I was frustrated because I kept having to say no, no, no to this horse and I had so few opportunities to say yes. And when he did get yesses, Speedy didn’t seem to care about getting them again.

throwback to sunshiney trail rides

I didn’t get it. Speedy likes people. He wants to be with people. He likes food. He wants to eat all the food. But he couldn’t seem to put it all together into doing things that got him more food or made things easier under saddle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he wasn’t hearing what we were saying. More that it was like every time he heard it was the first time he heard it, so he never had the chance to learn from it.

Because obviously the horse can learn things, right? He goes, he stops (mostly), he jumps, he goes faster (mostly), he wears tack, he leads politely, he he knows that “good boy” probably means a down transition is coming. He knows that if nobody is looking and Bridget’s stall is empty he can slither out under the stall guard and go snack on some alfalfa. He’s clearly capable of learning. I just hadn’t figured out how to tap into that.

highs in the 30s last week was the perfect excuse to fulfill my childhood dream of giving my horse lukewarm mash

Maybe there’s such a gulf between how Germans teach horses things and how I teach horses things that it really was Greek to him (doubt it). Or maybe, for whatever reason, Speedy never learned how to problem solve. A lot of his life was a greatest hits show of the things he did best — run fast (XC), jump big (Bundeschampionate), put it in his mouth (his reward cookies obvs) — and skipping over the things that he didn’t do so great (dressage).

Not a lot of time on the “hard things” means not a lot of time trying to figure out how to make those things easier on yourself. Not a lot of time building the learning and reward system in your brain that says “well, when I put my nose down everything got easier last time, so maybe I’ll try that again”. And if you’re perseverative — and cleverative — enough, just enough time being ridden by children helps you realize “when the small one rides, I can almost certainly outlast any attempts at doing the hard things”. This could definitely explain big pieces of it.

when in doubt (due to crane) just go fast and jump big, and don’t forget to put nose in air

Speedy was offering me what he knew how to do. It’s just that all he thought he knew was to go fast, jump big, and put his nose in the air (also put it in his mouth, but that was less of an under-saddle thing). And when those things didn’t work, he just tried, tried again — at those same three things.

My current and best theory is that the remedial learning is a combination a few related things: one, Speedy’s deep reliance on the 3 behaviors he is very comfortable with offering (pretty simple: go fast, jump big, put it in your mouth/put your nose in the air); two (related to one), some rather intense creative constipation preventing him from trialing any new behaviors; three, not understanding that his behavior controls the treat/reward delivery system.

So to get better learning? Break up the creative constipation and help Speedy learn that his behavior can control his treat-laden environment. Next, we break out the x-lax.

absurd toys and outfits required for mission x-lax

cowboy talk episodes 2-4

January 3rd I got back in my truck for my last drive to California specifically to see Speedy! I had lots lined up for this trip — working with Sheryl again on the 4th, farrier on the 5th, Saddle Club Camp the 7th-9th, and a vet appointment for the travel paperwork on the 9th. So I was pretty really not happy about getting a major stomach bug on New Years Day and puking all night long on the 1st and being unable to eat, drink, or do anything other than lie around under blankets on the 2nd. (Though I did appreciate the irony that the disease I caught after a family gathering in the age of covid was a fucking toddler stomach bug.)

I rallied though, and on the morning of the 3rd I filled a yeti with very thin congee, loaded up an audiobook (Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik), and made a run for the border. Being dehydrated and having not a scrap of food in your body has its benefits for long distance driving, and I made it in record-setting time.

first day home and being a v. good boy

This time around Speedy was not Sheryl’s demo horse, but we still got plenty of individual attention. She honed in pretty quick on the fact that I hadn’t been keeping up with my “my space is not for you to invade” homework. I am really bad at keeping that boundary with a horse, and since I have a suspicion that Speedy’s mouthy-Nicole-nibbling is one of the ways he deals with this anxiety, I’m not keen to press the issue with him right now.

But I did practice keeping my personal space while we watched the other horses in the clinic and Speedy was perfectly capable of relaxing and hanging out with me without nibbling on me.

The first big lesson for Speedy in this clinic was yielding his shoulders. In the close-up work, Speedy couldn’t seem to get his feet out of his own way to step over and move his shoulder away from Sheryl, even in a pretty shallow ask for him to abduct. When she started working him in the round pen his lack of understanding really became clear. Speedy was happy to change directions by stepping in to Sheryl. But he just could not comprehend an inside turn where he did not try to take space from her. He really, really could not comprehend it.

overreacting

Sheryl was not asking in such a way that warranted the rearing, though obviously she was escalating the pressure to get some kind of reaction. Speedy, for his part, was not paying enough attention to Sheryl to notice the quieter asks. That crust of inattention was still there. MIL and I have done groundwork with Speedy before every ride for months, but it seems like we’ve not actually made progress on the “paying attention” front. Which is a bummer.

This scene played itself out again a few days later at Saddle Club Camp, where Kate worked with Speedy both nights. Admittedly, Speedy was in a more distracting environment at Kate’s, it being a new barn with other horses going around the arena and all. But again, Kate wasn’t asking for much. The asks weren’t hard or big, and they shouldn’t have been that challenging. But Speedy couldn’t bring himself to give enough of his attention to Kate to hear the subtle asks.

oh were you saying something? i wasn’t listening to you, i was staring at the driveway

Kate, to her credit, immediately started to pull from a different groundwork toolbox. I won’t pretend I really understood exactly what she was doing, but I later found out that part of her tactic was changing her position to see if that gave her better access to different parts of Speedy’s body, specifically his shoulders.

There was a fair bit of quiet crouching and watching, letting Speedy think it out and process. For his part, he did a fair bit of tongue chewing. The next night Speedy was already more tuned-in, but Kate also started with different asks, and the whole session moved much more slowly.

quietly shit talking me, I’m sure

Kate and I talked a bit after she worked with Speedy, and she agreed with me that there’s a pretty crusty crust there. There’s also a fair bit of underlying anxiety, which is potentially what Speedy’s crusty inattention is masking.

For my part, I’ve noticed that even though Speedy is a very prosocial and alert horse, he’s actually a pretty slow learner — on the ground, under saddle, and with clicker training (bizarre for such a food motivated creature). Which doesn’t really make sense. Prosocial, alert animals should be quick learners. Instead, it’s like he hasn’t quite figured out that he can work with humans to alleviate his discomfort or get something thing he wants, and the fact that I’m there making suggestions is a crazy coincidence.

I have this pet theory that horses who are easy and biddable from the beginning can get short shrift on the training front. They do a lot of the basic/early/easy things — like leading or lunging or standing tied — right, so repetitions get skipped because they don’t “need” them. But those early repetitions are what help horses (or dogs or cats or children or whatever) learn the learning paradigm. Some harder lessons may never happen. If the horse never really makes a big deal out of a spook, there’s no strong motivation to take the time to really de-spook-ify them to all kinds of other stimuli. If the horse is always paying just enough attention that they pretty much do what you ask, then it could be easy to skip over the lessons that remind them to tune in all of that attention. So then you end up with a horse who has reached the end of the easy things they just naturally knew how to do, but they’re not entirely sure how to process the give/take/pressure/release that enables them learn harder things. It’s just my own musings, but especially in a sales program, I could definitely see how that would happen.

So, because such is life, no clear lessons or answers in groundwork lessons 2-4, though I definitely got more data. Kate encouraged me to keep playing with and experimenting with the groundwork, even though I’m still developing my understanding and knowledge. I probably won’t screw it up too badly. There’s lots to work on here — developing Speedy’s attention span, drawing his attention more to me than to the outside, encouraging him to shed some of the crust and let us in a bit more. Hopefully the groundwork plus the clicker training will accelerate this process and help him learn a bit more about learning, and we can avoid that “oh shit” button in the future.

Speedy learns to speak cowboy

Back in 2018 I had my first ever cowboy/horsemanship/ground work lesson, and it was pretty mindblowing. I wanted to do more, but then Murray retired, Cowboy Dave retired, and every time another awesome ground work clinician would come to our barn I would be out of town. It was le crap.

Luckily, MIL started working with a ground work trainer this year last year. It was a bit of a surprise to me, since MIL has not embraced the ways of cowboy training before. But she picked it up this year and has been really happy with how both her 3 year old and her I-2 mare have responded. Obviously when MIL let me know that Sheryl (Lynde), the clinician, would be coming while Speedy was at her house, I made a point of coming down for the clinic.

[Now we all get into the waybackmachine to November 2021 for the clinic!]

Since Speedy was newest to this type of work among the clinic horses, Sheryl used him as a demo horse so she could start teaching him the basics. She started by asking him to match her energy, specifically bringing his energy up. Speedy is super easy to get along with because he’s a low energy, go-along-to-get-along kinda guy…. who can be kinda tuned out to you at times. So when Sheryl asked him to start yielding his haunches to her, he responded very confidently with absolutely nothing. Sheryl had to really get the end of the lead rope swinging before Speedy started moving away from the pressure. And Speedy was…. offended.

actually a picture from our second Sheryl session, but representative of Speedy’s feelings nonetheless

Sheryl worked with Speedy alone for quite a while. She did an amazing job of narrating while she went. She told us exactly what she was looking for and rewarding, and the body language she was using to get it. Sheryl wanted to get to the point where she could reward Speedy for “thinking the right thing” when she asked lightly enough. Speedy, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to start actually thinking yet. Sheryl would ask lightly, Speedy would ignore, Sheryl would slowly increase her ask and then Speedy would LEAP AWAY FROM HER BECAUSE THIS IS AN INDIGNITY.

Really, there were moments when I was watching my expensive, imported, sensible horse leap through the air with just a leeeetle too much resemblance to a certain other horse we know.

you know who we are talking about, Murray

In the process of helping Speedy learn what she meant, Sheryl discovered that he’s actually quite a sensitive fellow (which MIL and I had been learning under saddle also). He just has a bit of a “crust” of zoned-out over the top of that sensitivity. A bit part of tapping in to the sensitivity is not letting him get crusty — keep his energy good (matching mine) and make the asks really clear. Sheryl emphasized several times that for any horse, but especially horses like Speedy, you have to have a really clear idea of what you’re asking for and clearly reward for that.

Then it was my turn to learn Sheryl’s dialect of Cowboy. This was hard for me because a) I’m super happy to let any horse take space from me, especially cute little honies and b) there was a lot of rope to handle. We focused on the basics for my part: ask him to yield his shoulder, ask him to yield his hind quarters, keep and establish your bubble of space. What really clicked for me was planning ahead and thinking of the small increment of behavior that I could reward when Speedy gave it to me.

thinking

After the other horse-owner pairs worked with Sheryl, she took Speedy into the round pen to begin his education in liberty work. I’ve watched a lot of Elisa Wallace’s videos on liberty and round pen work with her mustangs and I have always been fascinated. But I’ve never tried it, in part due to lack of access to a round pen, but also because I really have no idea what she is doing. I can see what she’s rewarding when she narrates over the videos, but I couldn’t see what she was doing to get it. And I had no intention of running any horses off their feet in an attempt to do the same. So once again, I was super excited to have Sheryl to get Speedy started so I could continue the work.

Getting the hang of the liberty work was another slog for Speedy. In this case not because he was crusty, but because he was not bringing his attention to Sheryl and instead turned to the outside or focused to the outside of the round pen. Obviously, part of this struggle was that Speedy didn’t understand that this was a game where he had to pay attention to Sheryl. I think that was a big part of the value of the exercise — Speedy should understand that when we’re in the round pen together (or the arena, or the cross ties, or the trailer, or, or, or) that he should be paying attention to me. Not because I’m going to ask him to work all the time, or because I need him to be 100% laser focused on what we’re doing. But because I might need his attention, and I shouldn’t have to beg him to get it.

finally taking a minute to consider Sheryl

Sheryl worked mostly on getting Speedy to bring his attention to the inside of the round pen and towards her, when she invited him. What I really liked about her approach is that it was clear it wasn’t about running him off his feet or chasing him until he tired. She just made the parameters clear and gave him a lot of opportunities to give her the right answer. Don’t want to turn in? That’s fine, but then you do have to move off a little. If you choose to canter, that’s on you friend. Half a circle later — how about an inside turn? Still choosing the outside turn? That’s not what I asked for so let’s go back that original direction and try again. That was a huge turning point in my understanding of the liberty work. The beginning of the work was definitely ugly with Speedy. But just like any other good training method, Sheryl gave him lots of opportunities to give her the right answer. And she successively rewarded righter and righter answers so there was a clear path for him to move toward the behavior she wanted.

It was a super jam packed day for both me and hony, as we then tacked up for an under-saddle session with Sheryl as well. But the big learning moments for him were on the ground. Sheryl applied those under saddle, chipping away at the crust of nyeh to get Speedy to find a better shape and match her energy underneath her. For me, it was super educational to watch Sheryl work through the beginning of the training process with Speedy, helping him find the way to respond to her requests, and then learning how I could make those answers clear to him also. And also to get a deeper, more thorough understanding of the whys and hows of round pen work.

I didn’t get much of a chance to practice after Sheryl’s visit, since I had to go home and Speedy hadn’t moved up to me yet yet. But MIL continued to practice with him, and we got a chance to see Sheryl again on January 5th.

hand waving & flag flapping

After my meeting with Cowboy Dave I promptly zipped up to Seattle for a day and Switzerland/Germany for four. It was a quick work trip (my first! so exciting!), and gave me plenty of time to mull over my horsemanship lesson in between strolling through Zurich and cycling around Konstanz.

I got home on Monday and knew I wouldn’t be riding, what with the jet lag. But I headed out to see Murray and play with my new tools a little.

We don’t have the same type of whip at the barn that Dave does, but we do have a long dressage whip (maybe one of those ground whips that they use for piaffe?) with a small piece of caution tape tied to the end. This posed the perfect new problem for Murray. He had never seen the “flag” before, and I was pretty sure he would not be a fan. I was correct.

I worked on the basic-est of basics that Dave started with Murray. I waved the flag around behind me and tried to release every time Murray was standing still. I waved the flag over my head, and Murray was not the biggest fan of that. But he got over that too. Then I started bringing the flag over toward Murray’s side. He skipped to the side, and I got a bit lost. I needed him to stand still so I could remove the pressure, but I couldn’t get him to stand still with the flag anywhere near his side.

(At this point I’m like oh. you went too fast. So point taken, babier steps next time.)

please, no touching

Murray was very interested in looking at and touching the flag, and I let him. But ultimately, I wanted him to pay less attention to the flag and pay attention to me. I tried to remove the flag when he flicked his attention back toward me, but all of his body language said “I’m not comfortable with that flag near me.” His body was bent away from the flag, and his head and neck were craned around like he was physically going to shield his shoulders from the Evil Plastic.

On Tuesday I was struck down mightily by Evil Travel Sickness, and was literally bedridden for much of Tuesday and Wednesday. On Wednesday night, I was lamenting to friends about the bullshit schedule I have this fall that means I’m looking at a little more than 4 weeks available for riding between now and the end of the year. Megan told me to stop being dumb and ride my horse, because I can still make valuable progress in the connection over four weeks.

So on Thursday I went out to ride my horse. But first — flag games!

Thursday the game was a little more lackluster. Murray was not scared of the flag — hooray! — but he was also less interested in playing the game with me.


he did ground tie pretty successfully though. wow, he’s really not at his most magnificent right now.

When I went to walk backward and draw him toward me he planted and let his neck stretch out to ridiculous lengths. I stuck with what Dave said and gave him more time (not more pressure), but I’ve played that game with Murray and I do not have the patience that he has. So instead I asked another way (turned around and walked with him beside me), which worked better. (If you have experience with this type of thing, you should tell me about it. I have no fucking clue what broke there.)

I also played around with the pressure/release concept during tacking up. I did not abandon the treats, but I did add pressure (girth) and take it away a couple of times while we were standing in the aisle. I’m not sure it did anything, really, but I wanted to reinforce the idea that the pressure comes and goes away.

And then I rode, and he felt awesome!

first date with a cowboy

Murray and I had our first horsemanship lesson on Monday. It was incredible and emotional and horrifying and challenging and amazing. I’m going to do the best I can to cogently put what we worked on and learned down here, but four days later I’m still having magical realizations about what we did, so I’m guessing I’m going to miss large pieces. This is post is long and filled with verbal diarrhea. There’s no way I can sum up our 90 minutes to one, three, or even six main take-aways. I could probably do 10…. maybe.

I’ve never had or sought out horsemanship lessons before for…. reasons. Reasons that range from good to uninformed. To keep it short, I basically didn’t seek out or attend horsemanship lessons for three reasons.

First, there wasn’t a good/quality/reputable horsemanship person who was accessible to me. There was a guy who came to a dressage barn near us in California, but whenever he was in town I seemed to be gone. Plus, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the horses at the barn that he was supposedly working with, which didn’t encourage me to change my plans to be in town for one of his clinics. For what it’s worth, my thoughts on that trainer have since changed.

Second, I’ve seen a lot of people take the lessons they’ve learned at horsemanship clinics and then do really weird shit with them. Everything from unintentionally train their horses to ignore them to beating their horses over the head with flag sticks. I realize it’s not entirely fair to judge the teacher by the many idiot students that exist in this world once they leave the instructor’s supervision. But as someone who knows a little something about teaching humans, it’s hard not to look at people whapping a horse in the face with a knotted lead rope and expecting the horse to magically know that it means “back up” without wondering how good the teacher is.


i am just the best teacher
(this post will be speckled with hardly-relevant media because I didn’t get any of our actual session)

Third, I know how Murray does with pressure/release training and it’s not well. I also know that I suck at pressure/release training because I don’t understand the timing. I watched a lot of Elisa Wallace’s mustang training videos this year, and I was like “wow, she’s great at this, but I have no fucking clue how she’s doing it”. This made me think that pressure/release training with a stranger — a man, no less — would not necessarily be a great training avenue for us.

Despite all my trepidation, I was very interested to see how Murray would do with this cowboy. I know he could be better behaved, and while clicker training was very helpful for a while, we have definitely hit a plateau there (the fault is mine, as I’m terrible at training duration). So if there was another tool that I could use to install better behavior in my horse, I was wiling to go with it.

I got Murray in from the pasture and was just about to pick out his feet when Dave showed up in the barn aisle. It was a perfect storm of things, really: Murray was wearing his blanket for only the second time all year, the tractor and muck cart were right near the grooming area, and a strange man was hanging about. Murray, predictably, was not really interested in standing still. I had ditched the treat pouch to avoid unnecessarily distracting my horse.

Over the course of picking out his feet and taking off his blanket, Dave asked me a few questions about Murray. What was it that Julie was concerned about specifically? How would I describe the horse’s behavior?


ermmmm….. his behavior is hilarious?

Dave wanted to change Murray over to a knotted rope halter, and stepped over to him to do it. Murray threw his head up in the air and his little feet went jigging all over the place. Dave grabbed a hold of the lead rope so Murray couldn’t rip free, and did something — I didn’t really catch it — that resulted in Murray uneasily but quietly standing between Dave and the wall, still tied. A minute later, Dave changed the halter out just fine.

I put Murray’s boots on, and Dave made the rhetorical question, “This horse has problems with confinement, doesn’t he?” I agreed and elaborated — does better outside than inside, doesn’t do well with pressure, etc. We moved outside to do some work. He talked about Murray’s wide eye and upper eyelid, and commented that since Dave first showed up the upper eyelid had disappeared but Murray still wasn’t “relaxed”.

I don’t recall exactly what Dave did first, but he started by explaining to me that he was going to “do a lot of things” to get Murray to move his feet a lot. In my mind I was like “but I want him to move his feet LESS not more”. But Dave continued to explain that it was about teaching Murray to keep his feet and body within a rectangle that we prescribe. For Murray the rectangle is pretty big, but it still needs to be there. When Murray got out of the rectangle, Dave just “got in his way a bit” to put him back in the rectangle. Getting in his way meant waving the lead rope at him or flagging the whip in the area Dave didn’t want Murray in. One time, when Murray insisted on coming forward even though he hadn’t been asked, Dave waved the lead rope hard enough to get the knots moving on the halter on Murray’s face. Murray took a step back, and Dave immediately stopped.


reward: grain on the bobcat floor

We talked while he did everything. A major thing that I don’t get about horsemanship of this style is what the “reward” is. You wave your whip at your horse, and if he does a thing you stop waving it. But what if he doesn’t do the thing? Then you start punishing him for not doing the thing?

The reward, Dave said, is being left alone/ignored. It still doesn’t make sense to me. But there my horse was, standing quietly and still, perfectly happy to be near us but being left alone. Dave said it was just like clicker training, but there’s no click. And you have to pick your criteria and set the learner up for success. Dave went back to the example of when he’d touched Murray earlier. A lot happened when he walked up to Murray — his feet got skittery, he tried to run away, and he put his head up in the air. All of those were contrary to the goal of getting the halter on. What was Dave’s first priority there? I guessed getting Murray’s feet to be still. Dave said no, just touching the horse was his priority. As long as Murray showed some sign of accepting the touching without fighting it (in this case, I think he put his head down just the tiniest bit? or maybe strained less?), then Dave backed off and stopped trying to touch him.

The learning paradigm is the same as it always is (ABCs). You do a thing — wave a whip, kick with your heel, give a cue — that’s the antecedent. That’s followed by a behavior. If it’s the right behavior, you stop doing the thing. There’s the consequence. If it’s not the right behavior, you keep doing the thing until you get an effort close to the right behavior. Dave just put it together in this pressure-release system in such a way that the horse had a lot of success because he rewarded tiny efforts at first, and had a good concept of how those efforts should add up to a behavior. He also emphasized that when this horse doesn’t do the behavior he doesn’t need more pressure, he needs more time.


needs more time is an idea I’m familiar with….

We also talked about general horse behavior. Who’s the boss? The horse leading the group. Great, so what if someone else tries to get in front of the boss? She/he gets in their way. Right, so all you have to do is get in his way a little bit. And sometimes you have to follow through, but if you’re consistent, that isn’t often.

Dave waved his whip at Murray in different ways to get Murray to move away from it. He could move Murray’s hind end and shoulders independently, which was pretty impressive. And then he put the whip against Murray’s body, which Murray was pretty uncomfortable with at first. But it was a great demonstration of the principle.

First, when Dave approached Murray’s body with the tail of the whip, Murray stepped away. Dave kept the whip moving toward Murray’s body in a parallel type of way until Murray stood still and let Dave touch his body with the whip. Dave took the whip off. Next, Dave did it again. This time, Murray immediately let Dave touch him with the whip but also leaned into the whip a little bit. Dave didn’t take the whip off until Murray was standing upright and not leaning on the whip. Dave rubbed the whip around on Murray’s withers a bit. Then Dave did the same thing on the other side.

Murray’s leaning into the whip was so subtle. I didn’t even see it. And Dave was like “The whites of his eyes are gone, but he still hasn’t sighed yet, has he?” At one point, Dave moved each of Murray’s hind feet just by looking at them. That’s the kind of stuff that makes this seem like black magic.


I trained my horse to wait at the mounting block, which is almost like magic

Eventually, it was my turn to lead my horse again. We started with Murray and I standing with about 5 feet of rope between us, and Dave told me to walk him up the path a little ways. I stepped backward and started walking (backward, so I could see Murray). Murray’s head jerked up and his got all upside down as he started walking. Dave paused me and asked me what had happened, and what I did to ask Murray to “go”. He had me hold my end of the rope and demonstrated my version of “let’s go” and his version of “let’s go”. His version was quiet and smooth. He told me to use my whole arm to smooth out the transition, and to lift my hand a little to indicate to Murray “pay attention, something is happening, let’s go.” The same thing with “stop” — lift the hand to let Murray know that he needs to come back to planet Nicole because I’m about to stop.

As we stood and talked about that a bit, Murray came in a little closer to me than Dave wanted. And then he started yawning. Like huge, ridiculous, clown-horse yawns that I have seen this horse do maybe a handful of times ever. Dave was like “he’s much more comfortable with you than me. He can understand me, but he prefers you.” Which was a tiny bit of salve on my wounded horse-owner-ego at that point.


this one time he yawned during a massage….

During this chat, Murray reached down and started eating grass. I popped his head up, and Dave pointed out another mistake I was making. Sometimes you need to punish a horse. But in this case, Murray was doing what he wanted because I hadn’t told him what to do — walk with me, or stand with me. I’d stopped getting his attention. So the next time he put his head down to graze I asked him to walk a few steps with me and stand in his box again.

At the end of our session, Dave ground tied Murray and talked about how Murray should respect the lead rope on the ground as much as he does the cross ties (haha, joke’s on him, he respects them the same!) or a straight tie. Murray stood right there, totally still. Then Dave instructed me to walk parallel to Murray and take his front boots off, and Dave would do the same on the other side. Of course, Murray immediately backed up like “woah what the hell are you people doing to me”. Dave didn’t get angry or big or harsh or annoyed. He just took the lead rope back up in his hand and invited Murray to walk back forward into the rectangle, then dropped the lead rope again. Then we approached to take the boots off, and my horse stood like a ground tied rock.

Dave walked us back to the pasture and helped me “teach” Murray to turn around at the gate for me so I don’t have to go into a muddy pasture. It wasn’t perfect and it took 3 tries. Dave then told me that while Murray was standing there at the gate, I should leave first. It was a good sign that Murray wanted to be with us, but we needed to be the ones to end the game.


byeeee, felicia….

There was so much to digest here. So many things I skipped over — I didn’t even get to the leg yielding and side passing stuff we worked on, or changing sides and speeds while walking. It was all to teach Murray about respect of space, and teach me how to “get in his way” correctly while showing Murray the right thing to do.

Two huge standouts were pressure and punishment. It’s like since Dave talked to me about those things, I can see all the ways that my use of those two tools left Murray confused in the past.

Murray doesn’t know how to handle pressure. I know that, I’ve known that for a long time. Trainer J identified that at our first vet visit. Dave figured it out within a few minutes of watching my horse. I thought that because Murray had never been taught how to handle pressure that this type of pressure-release training wouldn’t work for him. But in a way it’s perfect for him (if done perfectly), because it shows him that there’s an escape from pressure (one that does not involve running the fuck away).

All of those times I was going around and around and around in circles in the barn aisle trying to get my horse to let me do his girth up? He was trying to escape pressure (that part I knew already, I’m not totally incompetent as a behaviorist!). And in response I either added pressure (jam the girth up quickly), added punishment, or both. Until we started clicker training, I never taught him that there was an “out” from that pressure. The “out” was standing still. Because once he stood still, I never took the pressure — the girth — back away from him. I usually just did the girth up. Absolutely, some of the pressure in this system was coming from Murray internally. But that was still pressure he didn’t know how to deal with.


lol who is punishing who here?

Punishment is intrinsically linked with pressure, because punishment is a pressure. I figured out a while back that punishing horses while riding was pointless (and mostly seemed to reflect me having a temper tantrum). But on the ground, I would still punish him for things he did without guiding him to a better behavior. When he walked too close to me, I would smack him back: just “DON’T walk on top of me”, but no guidance as to where he should walk. When he wouldn’t back up when I asked him to with a light halter pressure, I’d go straight to jerking on his halter. Sure, they are both cues for backing up, but one is much bigger and more punishing.

And these are both things that I already knew, but didn’t do consistently, for some reason. Like, sometimes I did them. And sometimes I didn’t.

Dave told me to watch a lot of horses and riders for my homework. Watch people handling horses and see what’s working and what’s not working. Some of what I do works, and he doesn’t want me to throw that stuff away. But he does want all of the stuff I do to become more effective, and more consistent.