After several short introductory rides, which I described in Fox's First Rides, we naturally progressed to longer ones. The photos on this page are from our second "real"  ride. I knew that Fox would walk, stop, and soften his jaw to the rein at the halt. Now we were about to take it further.

Even though I had started young horses before I became a clicker trainer, I felt that now I was in an uncharted territory. Horses started without clicker training are not bursting at the seams to figure out what it is you want from them NOW that you are on their back. At best, they are content flowing along the path of least resistance offered by the trainer. But here I am on the back of this clicker trained horse, and he is eager to know what this new game is all about. Out of the whole soup of behaviors he offers, most of them off-cue, which ones do I reinforce? Which ones do I ignore? How much do I ask for? The five rides we have had so far clarified a lot of my questions.

While clicking along, I realized that whatever questions Fox happens to be asking in the moment is the exact right thing to work on. It is not like we are unraveling a thread with only one possible starting point. What we are picking up is a net, and whichever node we start with, it is connected to all other nodes in the net. It is only a matter of staying with the process until we eventually embody the whole net. I thought of the part of Alexandra's book Riding With The Clicker*, where she describes how she started ground driving Robin. He did not have any forward. But he offered a step back. And that was enough for Alexandra to develop everything else. Having images of good clicker training in mind has been very helpful to me when I am moving through training puzzles.

An answer to my question about reinforcing offered behaviors emerged from these rides as well. Clicking an offered behavior gave me a chance to ask for it again, which in turn gave Fox a chance to do it on cue. On the other hand, if I did not click, Fox was less likely to repeat it. His understanding of the training process means that he is adept at selective elimination of behaviors that go without reinforcement, and in this new game of riding, he is asking a lot of questions and making a lot of conclusions. In our first mini-rides, I did not reinforce some of the offered head lowering, because I was intent on something else. As a result, he stopped offering it. Asking for it with the rein did not work as well as from the ground. Overloaded with new information, Fox was temporarily confused about the cues. It looked as if he had "forgotten" some of the things he knew so well on the ground. He simply needed time and practice to integrate the new developments. And in the meantime, I really wanted our head lowering to be working. A lightbulb went off for me when I realized that one head lowering offered off cue gave us an opportunity to practice it ten more times, on cue, helping Fox to recognize the old cue in the new circumstances. This way, we regained the head lowering.

But, beyond the technical details, the most uplifting lesson I am taking from these five rides is how much freedom I have as a clicker trainer. I was a little concerned by my lack of definite plan. I had some exercises and goals in mind, and I had a pattern of mats laid out to help us navigate, but I was not really sure which things should come first. What Fox helped me see was that I don't need a definite plan. I have the big picture and an extensive toolbox. Fox has his knowledge base from which he offer behaviors, and he has his questions. We are all set. The nature of our relationship made listening to him my major priority, and all else is flowing from there. Rather than having my training goals and a horse that is like a passive piece of clay to be molded into something I find pleasing, I have a partner who has already subscribed to our mutual goals and only needs my attention, participation, and feedback to help him do an excellent job that he wants to do. This really makes a world of difference in how I am starting to perceive our riding experience.

Realizing all this gave me a light heart. Instead of being a "trainer", I see myself more as a colleague. Fox and I both have to do our parts for the whole thing to work. I have my responsibilities, he has his, and we are actively collaborating on this riding project. I have a lot of respect for his knowledge, his experience, his opinions, his needs, and his desire to know what it is we are doing.

Playing the "Trainer Game" with human partners reveals how much we rely on verbal communication. Whether as a trainer or a trainee, you often feel at a loss, frustrated, and irritated, when verbal language is not available. Having seen human "trainees", myself including, doing irrational and illogical things that, if done by a horse, are often ascribed to his inferior intelligence, or, put simply, his "being stupid", made me re-evaluate my concept of what intelligent is. Even if Fox was a human in a horse body with an IQ of a genius, he would not have been asking better or different questions than the real-life Fox does. The real point is not how "well" Fox is doing but how well I am using my human intelligence to recognize, understand, and properly respond to all the intelligent questions he is asking.

Our mounting routine. Fox is a little tense as he approaches the mounting block: the remnant of his overachiever anxiety about doing it just right. As soon as he feels my hand on his back, he relaxes: he pulled into his parking spot successfully. I like our routine of him lowering his head as I mount: it keeps his back relaxed. This was a tip I took from attending a clinic with Mark Russell some years ago. I had made my horse Ogeechee very protective of his back with my habit of scrambling onto him bareback and pulling on his withers. Over time, the prospect of mounting made his head shoot up and his back hollow, making the matters worse. Mark suggested that if I taught him to lower his head as I mounted, it would help his back. I took this to heart, making head lowering part of the mounting routine.

I want to keep mounting time a chill-out time. In this session, Fox volunteered to walk to the mat before I asked him to. This was all right. In the following sessions, I made him busy asking for jaw gives before going to the mat.


Walking to the mat, asking for a give of the jaw while standing, walking to the next mat, and head lowering. Initially Fox thought that giving at the jaw also meant moving his feet. On our latest ride I was delighted to feel some of the gives of the jaw softening his whole spine, without his feet moving first. When they did move, he was much lighter and freer in his body.

I can see why Fox might have been hesitant to drop his head: my reins are too short. On the photo, his head is not all the way down yet, and I already have to lean forward. Longer reins are in order!

I found out that head lowering was accessible when things got a little uncertain. One time, Fox had a "moment". Whether it was a fly buzzing his head or he was indignant about me asking for a give of the jaw when he had other ideas, but he swung his head around wildly, bouncing up and down. In this manner, he made it to the rail, my hand still on the rein, and then he just stopped and dropped his head. Another time, a deer in the woods caught his attention. Before he had more time to consider it, I asked him to drop his head, he did, and we moved on to other things, the deer forgotten.

Fox is becoming more adept at taking his treats from me on his back. On the photo below, left, he is turning his head to receive a treat in happy anticipation. He still has moments of confusion, looking all around and almost knocking himself off balance. Sometimes his momentum sets his feet in motion, and his entire barrel rotates so much that I find myself suddenly tilted to one side or the other. The flexibility of his structure is quite amazing.

There were some moments when Fox was stuck. He was pretty happy on a mat and did not have any desire to walk forward. I had put some mats leading from the mounting block to our cone circle and later added some more on the circle. We practiced stopping on the mats on the ground. Yet, with me on his back, Fox decided that the new mats around the circle were somehow less legitimate than the more familiar series of mats that we had used for a while. This was an opportunity to ask for his jaw until his feet became unglued.

Once we got to the circle, Fox had a Eureka moment (evident by his happy face on the photos below). He realized he could go between the mats, one of which was the top prize: the mat in the center of the circle, where All Good Things Happen (such as microshaping). He cruised between the mats for a while, allowing me to install a forward cue: lifting of the rein. I lifted the rein off his withers when he was about to start walking to the next mat and clicked after a stride or two of forward walk. By our fifth ride, he is even more confident responding to the lifting of the rein, and I added a gentle contact with the legs as a new cue.

Despite of all the work we had done on the ground, when I asked for a give of the jaw at a walk, Fox initially stiffened up. In the course of our three subsequent rides, he went through quite a few questions and doubts about the gives of the jaw. If he thought that going to a particular mat was the best idea and I asked for a give in the opposite direction, he took it rather personally, as if I was setting him up to lose his click. Once he realized that his response led to more clicks and other good things, like standing on another mat, he seemed relieved. I am starting to see that when I slide my hand down the rein, instead of a guarded look and tense ears, there is a moment of thinking and then a give, and he has his happy face on when taking his treat.

Below, Fox is offering a bend walking around the circle of cones. The bend became so deep that eventually he overrotated. I realized how in the past my thinking would have been: "We got the bend, but now he is overbending and we lost the impulsion. No good". As of now, I am excited. Here we have the deep bend that is lifting his back, and, as he overrotates, we have a pattern for hip-shoulder-shoulder set up and ready to go. And I don't have to tell Fox: "Yeah, but... you are doing it all wrong". We have something that we can develop into a training loop. I already see that doing this several times and getting reinforced is a substantial happiness factor for Fox.

I like the two pictures below. They show a complete transformation within a few strides. On the left, I am beginning to ask for a give of the jaw. He is listening, but his neck is braced. Actually, we both look a little awkward, as I am slouching. On the right, Fox is in beautiful carriage so unlike what I would have expected from a green horse.

The ride ends when I am nearly out of treats. I ask Fox to go to a mat of his choice and dismount. After each ride, he is so pleased with himself. He gets what I call "heaven eyes". I coined the term to describe the facial expression of our late German Shepherd, Hilda, when she was getting a good belly rub. It is an expression of utter bliss, a most primeval smile that radiates out of the animal's eyes. Human babies have it too until they learn to smile with their mouth, and then we seem to forget altogether that unclouded state of carefree authentic happiness in the moment. I need no better reward than seeing that our rides put Fox in the state of "heaven eyes".

After the ride, we do a few belly lifts/pelvic tucks for the benefit of his spine. All done, until the next ride!

June 2011

Alexandra Kurland, Riding With The Clicker, pp. 83-84


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