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I started working with Fox in 2008, while focusing on several other horses as my main projects. He had not had any previous training besides being handled every day. We covered the basics of clicker training and played some games, like retrieving a hula hoop and doing leg lifts. Fox was super enthusiastic about everything, but had little awareness of people's personal space. He was like an oversized friendly puppy who could not understand it was not always play time and that people might feel quite overwhelmed by his displays of enthusiasm or frustration.

Fox playing with hula hoop leg lift relaxing at the mounting block

I saved games for later, and around 2009 we started with regular lessons covering all the bases for safety, ground manners, patience, self-control, and ground preparation for riding.

head lowering WWYLM Fox walking to mat Fox stands on mat head lowering in the stall

When I look at the dates in my training record, it is hard not to feel sheepish over the fact that it took me so long to finally get on his back. After all, I was used to starting horses in 30 to 60 days. But I knew very well that I was not getting on this horse's back until my gut feeling said yes. And my gut feeling was not going to say yes until I knew and felt that Fox was as reliable as a horse can be, until he was prepared to carry a rider without compromising his emotional and physical well-being, and, importantly, until he knew exactly what to do. An overachiever and an experimenter that he is, if he is not clicked after a few tries at something, he throws himself into a frenzy of trying everything he knows, and I did not want to be on his back during one of those moments.

So we set out slowly, often covering the same ground over and over again. I learned to appreciate discovering any "holes" I had left in my training as opportunities to do it "one more time, with feeling". I also learned to appreciate Fox's sensitivity. If a behavior falls apart or if he starts nuzzling or pawing compulsively, I know to step back and look for things I am asking that he finds unclear, difficult, or impossible. While I have to adjust to his idiosyncracies, he has to put up with mine, like my perpetual confusion about the bend. I tend to overbend the horses I work with, so I had to undo and redo our Why Would You Leave Me and shoulder-in several times, and still working on it.

We had covered a lot of ground. It was slow and gradual, sometimes rather imperceptible. It was difficult to find where the progress was at all when we had to revisit the same things over and over again, with seemingly little or no improvement. Picking up left hind foot. The abominable spray bottle. The endless puzzles as we chipped away at the quality of movement. I had worked on a few things that we got perfected and then set them aside. One of such projects was trotting over a series of ground poles at liberty away from me and stopping on a mat. I had not used it recently, but it is now in our tool box, and who knows when or how we might employ it as a component part of something else.

I was not quite sure what the first stages of riding would look like. I knew they would emerge out of the process of training, and they did. I had taught Fox to go away from me and stand on a mat, and I had been using standing on the mat as a reinforcer for his best shots at any current work we had been doing. I was pretty sure that when I start getting on him, I would like him to go to the mat. But I wanted to have going to the mat under a good stimulus control. I spent a long time getting our mounting block routine flowing smoothly. He learned to line up to it when I stood on it. As with everything that Fox learns, getting it was not a problem. Doing it with less excitement is what took a long time. It took patience and good timing of the clicks to turn it from a constant anxious shuffling and readjustments of position into a time to relax and quiet down both the body and the mind. Out of the teaching process emerged the cues that we could exchange to let each other know when it was OK to proceed to the next stage in the process. When I put my arm around his back, that, besides a click and a treat, let him know he was in a correct position. I then put one hand on his withers and the other on his croup, and he dropped his head. If he kept it down, I knew it was OK to put my leg over his back. Once I was on, I waited for him to drop his head, if it came up, before clicking him.

I kept a mat three steps away from the mounting block, so while we were focusing on the mounting routine, he was also learning to stay in the immediate vicinity of the mat without going to it. At the end of each mounting session, I asked him to go to the mat and reinforced him generously.

For a long time, riding Fox seemed aeons away, but all of a sudden a day came when I felt I could, and wanted to, get on him. Our first ride was as uneventful as I wanted it to be. It was just a small step forward in our overall progression. I had been sitting on him briefly and treating from his back, allowing him to find his balance and feel my weight as he shifted his. That time, I simply stayed on longer and kept reinforcing. At a certain point, he had to take a few steps sideways and back to balance up. It did not worry him at all, and I gained a crucial piece of information that could only be learned experientially: he was comfortable with me on his back as he moved. That was all I needed to know to progress. I made our rides short, only a few minutes at a time, and did two or three per training session. I wanted us both to experience a lot of short but successful rides. It was probably the fourth ride when I said to him: "Go stand on the mat", and he did. From there, we progressed to lining up some mats and going from one to the next. Since I wanted him to be very secure in knowing what his job was, we did a ground rehearsal, where I asked him to go from one mat to the next and reinforced him on each mat.

Fox has been doing beautifully, and I was very happy to discover that carrying me on his back was not at all a concern for him. But he was processing a lot of new information, and some known behaviors deteriorated temporarily. When he drops his head, he does not lower it all the way to the ground. He does not respond consistently to the rein by giving his jaw. He sometimes forgets where the next mat is (and creatively walks a circle and stands on the same mat). And sometimes he gets confused about my location and starts looking around, trying to see from which side his current treat is coming. I relaxed my criteria while he is figuring out this new big riding thing. The main things for me is that he is calm, happy, relaxed, he walks, and he stops.

 

The following pictures are from one of the recent sessions. This might be our sixth or seventh ride.

We started with some ground work.

shoulder-in in hand more shoulder-in

 

Here is a new and exciting stage of our "equine Pilates". Fox has been shifting his weight back, tucking his belly and lifting his back for quite a while now. A recent breakthrough is a pelvic tuck. On the second and third photo you can see just how much it changes the whole configuration of his back. I also see it as leading to flexing the joints of his hind legs and bearing even more weight on his hindquarters. The second and third photo also show the latest discovery: narrowing the stance. This is the second session of practicing it. I captured a step back with one front foot when he shifted his weight so far back that his front feet were left way in front of him. This quickly evolved into a narrower stance. You can see how much his front feet moved back from the first photo to the third by looking at the mat he is standing on.

Fox on the mat

some body-building with microshaping: belly tuck/pelvic tuck

belly tucks

 

Now he is at liberty standing on a mat. I am going to ask him to walk to the next mat. Off he goes. And I reinforce him on the mat with a few clicks. By sending him from one mat to the next, I let him learn the route of our ride.

Fox on mat Fox walking to mat Fox on mat

 

I am on his back and asking him to drop his head. He lowers it slightly, and for now, I accept it as the right answer.

getting on

 

treating mounted

After a click, he finds his treat offered from his back.

Not shown in the pictures, but he walked off before I asked him. He had a moment of looking for me on his back, which caused him to get unbalanced and take some steps back, sideways and forward.

 

click and treat once we got to the mat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After he stopped and relaxed, I asked him to walk to the first mat. He is turning his head to accept his treat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

relaxing on the mat

 

 

 

 

 

Standing and relaxing. His hanging penis is an interesting detail. He never drops when we do ground work, he is concentrating so hard. I rather like that he finds riding so relaxing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off we go to the next mat.

walking to the next mat

And the next.

Fox walking to the mat with me on board got to the next mat!

A bit of an awkward moment: after readjusting his balance too many times, Fox finds himself all parked out... We move on to the next mat.

click and treat on the mat and on to the next mat

 

Fox hurrying back to the mounting block

Since he walked off before I asked him, we will repeat the ride. This time, Fox is so enthused about going from mat to mat, that he walks right by the mounting block to the nearest mat. As soon as he steps on the mat, he realizes he had done a wrong thing! Twisting his head and swishing his tail, he rushes back to the mounting block and lines up in a hurry. It is rather comical how upset he gets when he doesn't get it right. This is a typical Fox moment, and this is why I take extra care to make it very clear for him what the job at hand is.

 

Fox at the mounting blockHe is still pretty excited and tries to walk to the mat when I am only half way on. We spend some extra time reviewing our mounting routine, until his excitement subsides.

putting my leg over Fox's back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When he is quiet and not in a hurry anymore, I get on.

sitting on Fox's back

 

Click and treat... And now we can walk off.

delivering treat from Fox's back walking from mat to mat

 

The following sequence is from a recent session. I am in the process of trying to figure out how to undo the overbending. Since it is Fox I am working with, I cannot just tell him that what we had created is all wrong without him getting very upset. I am experimenting. I think this sequence shows some nice moments and balance adjustments. After a few minutes of microshaping/Pilates, he looks even better.

 

shoulder-in sequence

Fox on the mat Fox narrowing his stance

shoulkder-in sequence 2

 

Thank you Violet Dawe, Fox's owner, for the excellent pictures documenting our progress!

 

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