Tuesday, September 18

Click, Treat, Repeat

I've been experimenting with some clicker training with one of my horses. I stayed away from this method for a long time because I want my horses to be obedient because I asked them to, not because they know I have a treat in my pocket. I still feel that way, but decided to give it a try with Wilson. He's a sweet boy, but he isn't great at connecting the dots to figure out what I want. In addition, he gets a little flustered and frustrated when he doesn't understand what is expected of him. I thought this would be an effective way to provide him with better feedback to help him learn.

So far, we've done two sessions, and we both like it! We started our first session introducing the concept. When his head was straight ahead, he got a click and a treat. He doesn't get treats very often so was offering his Flehmen response "smile" frequently. I went ahead and gave it a cue... and... Viola!! He had learned his first trick. It was almost too easy. Next we worked on targeting (touching with his nose) a tennis ball stuck on the end of my whip. It was interesting watching his learning process. He had a few good touch, click, treat repetitions, but then he had to check the limits. He touched the stick, the handle, my hand, my pocket, and then he just stopped and looked at me for a minute.... And then he bit the ball. He had made the connection. Ball= good. Everything else= no cookie.

Our second session was much the same, and I was able to add the "touch" cue to the target work. We worked on touching a cone and targeting the ball in different places.

I'm excited to add a new method to my bag of tricks. I hope to use the clicker to train showmanship maneuvers and some stretching and strengthening exercises like belly lifts.

Thursday, September 13

Are You Feelin' It?

I recently stumbled across this article entitled, "The Timing and Coordination of the Aides", by Thomas Ritter. One of my pitfalls as a rider is poor feel. I have worked diligently to improve this area, but my riding is still more intellectual and instinct based than feel based. While this has worked for me at the level which I currently ride, if I want to continue to improve, I need to seriously work on this area. I particularly liked the way he explained what the rider feels at each stage of the movement of the horse's leg. Here are some nuggets:

"The rider’s pelvis is connected to the horse’s pelvis. The movement of the horse’s hips communicates itself to the rider’s seatbones. When the hind leg touches down and carries the load, the rider’s pelvis gets pulled back a little toward the cantle. This is most clearly noticeable at the walk. At the same time, the rider feels a little bump under his seat bone on the same side, because the horse’s hip rises as the hind leg touches down. The rider also feels a pulse in the rein of the same side at the same time. There is also a little impact in the stirrup that the rider can feel in his toes."

"When the rider’s seat is pulled forward in the saddle, the hind leg that had just touched down has passed the vertical and is now pushing the load forward. The hip and hock are extending, while the stifle is flexing. This is most noticeable to the rider in the walk and the second beat of the canter, when the inside hind leg and outside front leg are on the ground together. This is the moment in which the driving seat aid can be applied with success, in order to ask the horse to push more and lengthen his stride. "

While this has all been explained to me previously (over and over and over), for some reason I wasn't able to put the pieces together into anything useful. Ritter's descriptions helped me bridge the gap between what I understand intellectually, and what I will actually be feeling as the horse moves. This allows me to put much more of the theory I understand into action.

Now it was time to practice. I was focusing on feeling the different motions in my seat as my horse used his hind legs and adjusting "air time" and "ground time" of these legs. I tried this out on two of my horses, Wilson and Jasper.

Wilson is often labeled as a "western horse". This is horse people code for he doesn't like to pick up his feet. As we rode I was working to keep him straight with his shoulders in front of my hips and using my seat to accentuate the sliding forward part of the stride to help him take longer strides. We were seeking more air time in his stride, and it was hard work for both of us. Eventually he put the pieces together, and this led to a much more balanced trot without as many tries to go up to the "easier" canter.

Jasper is naturally a forward mover, but he has a traction problem. When his hind end gets out of control, he wants to buck to get it back underneath him. During our ride, I was focused on the backwards feeling in my seat to help him keep his feet on the ground just a little bit longer. This helped reduce the number of times he lost traction. At times he would get bogged down, but by wrapping my legs around his belly and lifting with my calf, I was able to bring him back together.

At all times during both rides, I was very conscious of how I was influencing my horses. When my seat was not balanced and even, they would inevitably follow me into crooked oblivion. That's when we would start all over again. Working with the mechanics of the horse in order to most effectively affect their way of going takes a lot of concentration on my part, but ultimately leads to a horse and rider team who appear seamless.