Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Throwing down the gauntlet on R+ training

When Leo first arrived, he was incredibly reactive and distrusting. The first time I got on him, he tried to bolt away from the mounting block. Heck, even getting him TO the mounting block was a challenge. Because I wanted to build a positive relationship (and didn't want to get hurt), I decided scale things way back and start from scratch.

So I started with R+ (aka clicker) training. It's not something I've ever really used with horses before except to play a little with Paddy, but look, they clicker trained a PUFFER FISH to identify shapes, and surely Haffies are smarter than puffer fish?

Puffer fish starts in at about 1:20.

R+ was originally developed to work with large marine mammals, because let's face it, you cannot force a killer whale to jump through a hoop if it doesn't want to. The concept is simple though - you create an association between a stimulus and a reward (click and treat).

One of the first things you can do with R+ training is to teach the horse to touch a target with their nose. The target can be anything, but I started with a glove because that's what I had handy. The first two or three times, I pointed to it and said "TOUCH!" When Leo went to sniff it, I kind of gently bonked his nose with it, said "YES!", and gave him a treat. I used "YES" instead of a click because I can use it anywhere, even say it under my breath when riding and he gives me a behavior I want.

After about the third bonk, the lightbulb went off, and he was like a glove-seeking missile. I put the glove high and low, even on the (scary) mounting block, wherever, and he'd touch it with his nose and get a YES! and a treat. This session literally lasted maybe 5 minutes - it took him no time at all to catch on to this new game. Take that, puffer fish!

We then started working on touching whatever I pointed at instead of just the glove... paper, the wall, a brush, a blanket, a towel... anything I could find. Leo though it was super fun and started touching anything he could, even when I didn't ask. I did not give affirmation for those tries, and eventually he learned that he only got a reward when I asked. This is a common problem, where they start offering a behavior because you *might* want it - simply don't acknowledge it, and they'll stop.

When we were out trail riding (solo) one day, Leo stopped to stare at this scary pile of leaf bags. I waited about .002 seconds before he took a deep breath and marched over to touch them so he could get a cookie. It was all his decision - no kicking, clucking or anything on my part. This stuff works, y'all.

Leo isn't a fan of loud noises, and since hubby sometimes rides Paddy and Griffy in armor, I wanted him to be more comfortable around that. So, we started touching a metal jousting gauntlet. At first I held it still and he touched that, but eventually I started clanking it a bit. Within one five-minute session, Leo went from extremely tense about the clanking to this:

Literally cannot wait for me to throw the gauntlet so he can touch it

We've also used R+ training when hubby is out swinging swords around. At first, we'd stand and watch, and Leo would get a cookie for being relaxed. Eventually, he'd get a cookie if he would come up close while hubby was actually swinging the sword. Then hubby started giving him cookies while swinging the sword and poking me with it (rude).

Here Leo (center) is taking a nap while hubby (right) and RH (left) are stabbing me with plastic swords. Way to save your rider, buddy. 

The only downside to all this is that Leo now expects anyone swinging a sword to give him cookies. Hubby was out doing sword work with Griffy the other night and Leo was literally chasing him around going "Hey Mister! Hey Mister!", absolutely convinced he was going to get a cookie if he could just get close enough.

Dangers of R+ training = attack haffies

Have you ever used R+ training and if so, what for?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Bay-bee horse! do doo do do de doo...

Has anyone noticed that "baby horse" has the same number of syllables as "baby shark"? Just saying. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, you definitely need to listen to this:

You're welcome.


Baby horse, aka Leo, has been getting dragged to lessons, since Taran's still on holiday. We've been working on baby horse stuff, like steering and not slamming on the brakes. The colt breaker definitely put a good stop on this horse - it's so good that there's real danger of going off over his ears every time we do a downward transition. Subtle with the body, super soft with the hand, and lots of leg so he doesn't get behind seems to be the ticket.

Keeping him in front of the leg while not running on his forehand is basically a full-time job.

Steering is definitely our biggest challenge. He loooves to throw his shoulder out, both going left and right, at specific points in the circle - we've, er, had a couple of near misses with the arena walls. We're addressing this with a fairly advanced (in my mind) exercise from Betsy Steiner - squares! We start at the walk and to a turn on the forehand in each corner. He's pretty good going left, but to the right there's one corner where he gets really sticky with his hind end, then often over-corrects and braces on the left side. It's a fine line between getting after him (yes you really DO have to move your butt) without escalating and scaring him/making him tense. We practice a lot of TOH/TOF in hand as well, and right is his more difficult direction, so this is just something we will be working on for a while. 

Working on a little walk leg yield in hand.

At the trot, we work a lot on pushing his shoulder in with my outside thigh while asking the inside hind to step under. My outside hand is low and very steady, even thinking a little counter-flexion. In reality I'm just keeping him straight and not allowing that shoulder to fall out. Inside hand asks for a little softness but is mostly just trying to stay out of the way. It feels a little like riding backwards, honestly, (aren't I supposed to be asking for inside bend???) but when we've got it all together, I can feel him straighten up under me and really step through. Also I can steer, which is nice lol. 

Here I am not doing any of the aforementioned things I should be doing. This is how we end up crashing into the arena wall.

I've also discovered that while I thought I've been getting more even in the saddle, I have not. See, Taran covers up my mistakes and we sort of even each other out. Leo doesn't have the balance or education to do so, so everything I do wrong is amplified times a million. He may actually be the horse that teaches me to let go of the damn reins and to sit in my left seatbone, because he quite literally cannot do the thing if I'm blocking him. Taran knows what I want so even if I'm blocking him, he still tries to do the thing. He's definitely earned his Wonderpony title.

Steering is nice.

I've also finally been cantering Leo, since the footing is good and the arena is enclosed (ok and there's someone to dial 911). The first few times, we just asked for a bigger trot until he fell into a canter. Then I remembered that a lot of colt starters cluck for a trot and kiss for a canter, and wouldn't you know it, he steps into the canter pretty well with a little smooch noise. We need about a gazillion more transitions, and leads are definitely an issue, but there's no bolting or spooking or bucking or even head-tossing - he's got a really solid base.

Despite riding 3rd level I have clearly not yet learned to sit my ass in the saddle. Or turn. Or turn while sitting in the saddle.

On the bright side, the kid has thrown in two (unasked for) clean flying changes in two different lessons, so I guess he's ahead of his big brother Taran there.

Also is better than Taran at fishtailing around turns.

He also doesn't leap the hose (which, after 6 months of riding 5x/week over the hose, Taran does at least once EVERY SINGLE RIDE), so like... good job kiddo?

Calmly trotting over the hose while throwing our shoulder right. Total pro.

Of course, me reaching into my jacket pocket for a cookie is ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING OMG, so it's not like he's perfect or anything. My trainer may have laughed at him quite a lot for that one.

Being a grown-up horse is significantly more work than expected. Also this yak is gonna get a body clip in the near future because dripping sweat is just gross.

And just in case you're bored and want to see a video, this was at the end of our lesson where I had mostly organized the shoulders and got my legs in the right place doing the right thing at least some of the time.

Contemplating taking him to a local schooling show in February, just to get him going in that direction. I mean, how bad can Intro A and B be??? (Er, don't answer that..)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

WW: Big Bend National Park

All photos courtesy of R. Heard, because I suck at taking pics.

Moonrise over the mountains (we called these the Bacon Mountains lol)

There's a marsh in a bend of the Rio Grande where we saw this guy, some nutria, and a great blue heron.

This ammonite we found on a hike was about 18 inches in diameter 

Creek in the Chisos mountains. It had snowed the week before so the desert was blooming and there was actual running water!

Really pissed off 5 foot rattlesnake in the Chisos mountains

More Chisos mountains scenery

We even saw a mother black bear and her cub!

Really cool clouds

Desert panorama

Flowering yucca

St. Elena canyon. US is on the right, Mexico is on the left.

More desert panorama

XL grasshopper

Hiking into St. Elena canyon on the west side of the park

Sunset over the Rio Grande

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Re-starting a young horse with a "classical" cavesson instead of a bit

When Leo came to us last September, we knew he had decent gaits, 60 days at a colt starter, and he was very spooky and reactive. The first time I went to saddle him, he about had a meltdown over the saddle pad. He was terrified of the mounting block. He wouldn't move once you got on, and when you finally got his feet unstuck, he tended to scoot if you were the teeniest bit unbalanced. He also chewed the bit like it was his job. CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP.

Pre-haircut days. He's now sporting a mohawk because I just could not with that mane.

Never having had such a young horse before, we were at a bit of a loss of how to approach things. My husband was gone quite a lot last fall and I wouldn't get on Leo unless someone was there (important for dialing 911, you know), so I ended up doing a lot of in-hand work. Walking, stopping, backing in hand. Trotting in hand (that was mind-blowing, omg). Turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches. Hanging out by the mounting block. Leg-yielding in hand. Anything I could think of, we did it in hand.

Once he figured out I had an endless supply of cookies and scratches, he also "helped" with the chores.

Initially, I used a halter, but I quickly decided I wanted something a little more refined. Last year when we visited Sweden, I'd picked up a cavesson to play with. It's not at all like the longing cavessons we have in the US, although you can use it for longing. It's a bit more like a bosal that western riders often use to start their young horses. It has a bicycle chain over the nose, but it's extremely padded (I only figured out it has a chain in there because I squished it really hard to see if there was any metal in the middle - there are also cavessons made with a solid metal noseband, so this one is quite gentle). It's made to fit snugly, and it doesn't rotate like a halter can.
As a bit of an aside - apparently in the 16th century (and possibly earlier), horses were often started in a cavesson, which could have been anything from a rope nose to a two or three part serrated metal nose (modernly these are called serratas and seem to be used on bullfighting horses, google at your own risk). Trainers were supposed to teach the horse to stop, turn, steer, etc. with a cavesson before putting a bit on the horse, to save his mouth. The bit was gradually introduced, along with the cavesson, and then eventually the cavesson was removed entirely and the horse went solely in a bit.

Rope cavesson from de Pluvinel (c. 1623)

Modern serrata. I've seen Iberian horses (in Europe) with scars from these, so they are definitely still used. :(

I figured there was not only historical precedence for this arrangement, but I also know several folks who have started their "classical" horses in a soft cavesson and then transitioned to a bit. Clearly, Leo was not super happy about a bit, for whatever reason, so we took the bit out of the equation and worked with the cavesson alone. That actually went really well - he was able to relax, and we worked on the basics of How to Horse (stopping and turning on request is important, yo).

Cavesson and bit in action

About a month ago, we decided to go ahead and start riding him with a bit as well. Of course his favorite bit is the French link Neu Scheule off Taran's double (couldn't go with the cheap option, could you Leo?) I just stuck the bradoon hanger under the cavesson, and volia! Fancy baby horse transition bridle.

Just the bradoon

Cavesson over bradoon

Here's what the whole thing looks like. I'm actually getting used to handling the double reins!

I'm very glad I had a chance to play with this option, because it's working great for Leo. At the beginning of the ride, I use the cavesson exclusively, and I pick up a little more feel on the snaffle as the ride progresses. He's able to get used to carrying the bit without actually having it do anything, which seems to be helping with his acceptance of it. 

Sometimes he even looks quite fancy and grown-up!

Have you ever used a cavesson before, either to start a young horse or as a bitless option? Curious to hear about your experiences!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Things horses do when on vacation

Taran's got a couple of weeks off with some light work while we wait for his second ProStride injection, this one in his RF coffin joint, to take full effect. I opted to bring him home to hang with his Haffies, because let's be real, boarding is $$$$$.

T has been living life to the fullest. Daily activities include:

Sharing hay with Leo (he's only stalled at feeding time and at night so he can eat all his alfalfa, but he likes to share hay over the stall door so he can visit)

Hanging with Paddy.

Looking snuggly AF in his Canadian winter wardrobe while nomming hay.

Licking the manhole cover in his pasture. Weird horse is weird, y'all.

I don't even know where he found this mud puddle but I washed this blanket THE DAY BEFORE. 

Testing out the heated water trough. He definitely approves and I've notice overall water intake has gone WAY up for everyone, so if you can heat your trough in the winter, DO IT (1)

And of course, grooming with Paddy at every opportunity! I love watching herd dynamics and these two make my heart melt. So cute!

I know lots of the US has had really bad weather this last weekend... if your horses are on vacay, what are they up to? 

1) No seriously, heating water works. http://extension.udel.edu/equine/2012/12/05/winter-water-for-horses/

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

WW: Unattended cookies

I don't think I ever introduced Logan, but he's our Craigslist Husky that we adopted after Elias passed away last Christmas. He's everything you'd ever want in a Husky - adorable and annoying, but oddly not very talkative (unless tacos are involved).

Actually a rare Siberian Taco Hound, who knew?

He's always on the lookout for a sucker person to pet him. My mom is a good target.

Does this count as interspecies snorgling?


Dashing Christmas Doggo

And my personal favorite:

Excuse me but have you noticed these unattended cookies next to you on the couch? 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Theraplate: cures everything or not so much?

My trainer has one of those fancy Theraplate thingies at her barn. If you believe what the company says, using it will cure everything from a headache to cancer (1). If you're a skeptic... well, to be fair, there's a LOT to be skeptical about (2).

We've been putting T on it now and then in hopes of increasing the blood flow to his feet, which in theory should help improve his sole depth (note that getting lots of movement and having a heel-first landing will do the same thing). The thing is, he's had some weird experiences on the Theraplate that makes me a little skeptical about it.

How about we just have alfalfa and skip the theraplate?

At first, he'd hop on and hang out, but then he fell off it a few times partway through the session. Eventually he broke his halter, so we decided he needed adult supervision while on the Theraplate ride.


We added a tub of alfalfa in front of him (which he didn't eat), and a little side railing to keep him from leaving. I watched him a couple of times, and as soon as I turned it off, he sort of staggered right off to the side. He didn't seem to be particularly enjoying it, but he's a stoic guy and puts up with a lot.

I decided to try it for myself, and after three minutes I felt a little dizzy. When I got off, my legs from the knee down were sort of "buzzing," and my feet felt kind of like they weren't quite attached. If it has the same effect on horses, I completely understand why Taran did what he did.

Not the face of happiness and joy.

So, no more Theraplate for the Wonderpony. Maybe it works for some horses and people (there are a couple of folks at the barn that LOVE it for themselves), but I think we're going to stay away from it.

Have you tried a Theraplate? Have you used it for your horse? What were your experiences?

(1) https://www.theraplate.com/
(2) https://www.doctorramey.com/shake-rattle-roll/