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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Groundwork session - stay in your *&^^%$$%#$#@ box

Yesterday I didn't feel like riding or doing anything in the arena, but I didn't feel like actually exerting myself on a run either.  So instead I took the pony on a trail lead line walk. 

"A walk?????"  (you might say).  "How freakin' boring is taking your dead broke 15 year old horse on a WALK, and why is this a post???"

Tsk tsk tsk. 

Trust me when I say that you can ALWAYS find a way to work a horse's brain, no matter how little actual physical effort you feel like putting into it.  It's one of the advantages of working with an animal that is the brain slighlty smaller than my (relatively small) fist. 

(note I don't say walnut.  I've actually SEEN a horse's brain and walnut I think sells them short.  Apple? Orange? mmmm....)

Today's "groundwork" post is very simple (to make up for my last groundwork post that *may* have been a wee bit complicated). So simple that it's probably a lesson you have done a thousand times when you've started a new horse, or if you are working with a problem horse.  

It's called "stay in your ^&^&%^#$#@$#@$%$ box. 

You know - that box that exists at and slightly behind your shoulder that theoretically their nose should be in at all times during *normal circumstances.

*abnormal circumstances include tailing up hills where she is in front of me or going down steep single track where I prefer she's further back off my heels. 

Maybe you have a horse like mine. 

- She rarely/never invades your personal space.
- If you encountered an obstacle on the trail that you had to dismount lead over, and she LEAPED over it, she would NOT invade your space under any circumstances.
- If you were moving along a single track and a REALLY SCARY THING happened behind her, she would throw herself off the cliff before running you down. 
- She never yanks you to a stop to eat and then stand there chowing while you tug and cuss.

Even so..... very occasionally, mostly at RIDES, coming into a vet check she won't stay behind my shoulder.  She'll crowd me and bump me.  She'll try and get her shoulder past mine. 

It would be easy to say that she was just "excited", or point out that when it counts she stays out of my space, or lament the fact that I can't practice "training" this at home since she's always such a DEADHEAD at home. 

And then, there's the unspectacular trot outs where I'm trying to keep from bumping her with the lead rope as I pull her along (makes the horse look lame) and she's trying to figure out the minimum effort that will be acceptable in the trot out exercise. 

The root of both problems is the same.  THE HORSE IS TRYING TO GO SLOWER OR FASTER THAN THE BOX

The fix for both is the same.  Reinforce where the box is.  Just because the horse is calm and not in your space DOES NOT MAKE IT ACCEPTABLE THAT THEY ARE BUMPING THE END OF THE LEADROPE BEHIND YOU, just as it is not acceptable for the horse to rush ahead of the box. 

A horse that bumps the end of the lead rope behind you (common complaint is the the horse won't trot at your speed when you go for a lead line run, or trot outs that lack "impulsion") is a horse that has not learned the task of staying in the box - just like the horse that is running ahead. 

As always during these posts, a couple of reminders.
1. I am not training a baby
2. I am not teaching a behavior
3. I am reinforcing a behavior that has already been taught in the past

First off, decide where your box is. I have a box that extends quite a bit side to side - ie I can hold the end of the lead rope (12 feet) and she can be on the other side of the trail.  That way, we can both walk or run in a jeep track and have good footing. The box is narrow front to back.  Her ears can't go in front of my shoulder, and the box extends behind me about 2-3 horse head lengths. Deciding where the box exists is important because you will want to be very consistent when you show your horse where the borders of the box are (over and over and over....). This exercise is one of subtle correction and low stress (we will touch on the *other* variations later).

I grabbed my dressage whip (longer than a crop), my walking shoes and my dog and commenced to go for a WALK.  I picked a brisk pace for walking - a pace that isn't good for her to trot (obviously, since I'm WALKING), but slightly faster than her I'm-not-at-a-ride-therefore-I-amble-slowly walk.  She would have to pay attention to stay in the box.

Farley, predictably bored ("where's the ribbons....if there's not ribbons, what is the point?") lagged behind and when there was a bit of pressure on the leadrope, did NOT immediately jog up to my box.

So, WITHOUT LOOKING AT HER OR SAYING ANYTHING, I reached as far back as I could with my left hand with the dressage whip, while continuing to walk forward, and gave her a whack.  It landed somewhere on her barrel, where my leg would be if I was mounted. 

I repeated as many times as necessary.  If she over-corrected and trotted in front of the box, I used the dressage whip in a "windshield wiper" fashion in the space in front of her until she was back in position.  Another option that I never had to do because my pony at home is LAZY and motivated to do LESS work so was NOT badly rushing past me....was to use the whip on her chest to reinforce her not moving past me, and aggressively back her back into position (since rushing past me is a safety issue.) However, each time she responded to the "wiper blade", responding to pressure by applying the brakes and falling in beside/behind me. 

Only use the amount of pressure needed to move the horse back into the box - the horse should not be over correcting and rushing way past or falling way back in response to the corrections . The goal of this exercise isn't to make sure they *never* do it again - the point is to firmly and consistently tell the horse where the box is and then reinforce it in a calm, low stress way. Some training exercises are about being intensely focused for a short amount of time.  This exercise is about going out for a 1 hour long trail walk and getting the desired behavior consistently over time.

During this exercise, I didn't look at her or talk to her to cue her.  She had to figure out/remember that there was a box, and then explore limits of the box -  I supported her by either increasing or removing pressure. In real life, I don't want to have to tell my horse "easy" every time it wants to rush past me, or "come on!" when it falls behind.  The point of the exercise is to have a horse that stays in that box whether you are looking at your GPS, talking on the phone, or just walking and enjoying your dog bounding down the trail in front of you. Staying in that box is her JOB and I don't want to micro manage it - ie I don't want to have to telegraph with my body and voice that she is suppose to stay in the %$%$#$#@^%& box.

Farley would have likely been better in the arena, since the arena is a "place of obedience" - that's where most of our groundwork and dressage takes place - and she sort of sighs and takes it in a stride. Arena exercises tend to be shorter since the sessions tend to be more focused and mentally draining AND there's no pretty scenery to look at. :). 

By going on the trail, we were entering territory where Farley knew she gets more of a say "because there are certain aspects of trail riding that are her JOB that I don't micromanage".  The session would be longer and less "intense" because while she was being good I could just walk along and enjoy the scenery and my dog.  And Farley would have more opportunities to get distracted and forget the principles of our basic lesson. 

Not to mention some miles and some sunshine are good for everyone's health, especially in December.

Sometimes just being creative and finding a way to change the setting is a enough to make an old basic lesson relevant again, and to turn a day that was threatening to be a non-run, non-pony day into something good.
Let's review some important details so far.

1. I used just enough pressure with my dressage whip to get a response (low stress, relaxation, calmness is the goal).  
2. I was nitpicky and small infractions were corrected. (being inconsistent can create "stubbornness" and confusion).
3. I kept my body language completely neutral - I was just walking forward at *my* pace and expecting her to adjust. 
4. I took the lesson out on the trail


The advantage of low stress sessions is that it allows animals to think through the lesson. Staying in the box becomes a "trick, not a "reaction".

There are some lessons that I do teach through stress, because I do want them to be an ingrained reaction.  This includes other variations of the box exercise, where you take a more active role in teaching the box. 

- When they get too close on your heels, you respond like an exploded cat hissing and growling, startling them backwards out of your space.
- When you ask them to trot your jogging speed and when they hang back on the lead rope..... immediately start lunging them in a trot circle around you and aggressively yielding hindquarters. 

I take advantage of stress "imprinting" the mind - early on I use the "exploded" cat variation described above to teach my horses that no transgression is worse than running me down from behind.  So, even when they are in a real life stressful situation and are faced with the easy way out (run me over) or the hard way (crash through the brush around me), they are likely to chose the hard way because *something* in that little brain remembers that it did not turn out well last time they tried to run me over.

However, especially for a horse that is "mostly good" and isn't regularly invading my space -  the low key, minimal pressure variation described in this post provides stability and predictability during a session that allows the horse to learn and reinforce the concept of the box in a meaningful way.

1 comment:

  1. great description, I do the exact same thing. I often have to do a retraining session, as I get lazy, Major starts creeping up, bad habits. I will say I tail a lot, not just up hills, and we have tons of singletrack. I usually tail most of the way home, we both seem to think it is fun.


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