The Art of Natural Dressage

Working with the Horse's Initiative
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PostPosted: Wed May 15, 2013 7:14 pm 

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So yesterday I managed to finally get a video of us working. Its long, I'm really sorry. ;_; And I didn't even manage to get us trotting, but this is a typical training session for us. He was actually more responsive yesterday than usual, but you can see on average how we interact.

I would REALLY love any critiques on my body language, or things I can do better/differently.

What is shown:
-following (sometimes lol)
-leg lifts, pawing, placing legs on objects
-back up in various ways
-step to the side with front legs
-what happens when other horses interrupt
-working on learning a turn on the forehand (moving hindquarters away)
-working on building duration of leg lifts for the first time (with surprisingly good results!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhdZDzODLoQ


Last edited by Alla on Wed May 15, 2013 8:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Wed May 15, 2013 7:24 pm 
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I just took a quick look - great to see you two at work! Unfortunately I am extremely busy right now and won't be able to watch the whole video and comment on it until the weekend. But then I will write a loooong reply, promised! :)


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PostPosted: Wed May 15, 2013 7:35 pm 

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Amazing. :D Can't wait!!! :) Thank you!!!


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PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 11:10 am 
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Great video, Alla! :applause: Sorry that it took this long for my feedback, but I had to find some time to view the whole video.

First of all, I think you're doing great! I definitely recognise that type of horse and I know it can get very frustrating to work with a horse who is not as easily motivated as it could be ;). But, the good thing is that he will teach you a great deal about what is really motivating and what's not. And about connection as well - when you have it and when you lose it. That's a very important lesson that I had to learn with Mucki (and still learn some times ;)).
Mucki was a lot like Outlaw in the beginning, and now I can freely canter with him :yes:.

I like your body language and see nothing fundamentally wrong with it :) - so I think I'll leave the body language finesse to Romy - I'm sure she has some good feedback for you.
I made a few notes while watching your video - bear in mind that I focused on things to improve, so while the following might sound like a lot of critique, it doesn't mean I didn't like what you did in total - not at all! :yes: :f:

In the first third or so of the video, Outlaw seems a bit unmotivated and sluggish in his responses. It's a common reaction to try out different things and suggest exercises to the horse, so he may catch on to something he likes.
Sometimes it helps, but I feel that often the horses can't switch that quickly between exercises, especially when they are rather new to them.
Around minute 5:00 I see you switch very quickly between exercises, sometimes only asking for one small step of one exercise, before going over to the next thing. For me, that's too fast - you need a very experienced horse to deal with that. For Outlaw it might be overwhelming and even frustrating. He might think, his response was not good enough, so that you go over to another exercise.
My suggestion would be to slow that down - as counter-intuitive as that may sound with a slow reacting horse. Rather than increasing the speed of switching between exercises, I'd go for reaction speed in one single exercise.

The leg lift is a good example. It seems to be a lesson which he likes and feels already quite comfortable with. Still, he's sometimes slow in reacting to your cues. I can imagine that a cross-over horse like Outlaw needs a lot of encouragement to show initiative, so you could try rewarding his very first reactions to your cue - even if it's a slight change of weight to free one foreleg before the leg lift. Look for faster reactions and reward them more or with better food than the average ones. Click and reward as soon as possible, even if it means that he breaks off the leg lift. Your reaction to his initiative must be as fast as you want his reaction to your cues to be ;).

Maybe it's even a bit too early to go for duration in the leg lifts? I would click more for the lift of the leg than for duration, as that is the first step of the exercise and will give you the chance to reward in a much higher frequency (which will get him motivated). And give him the chance to synchronise more with your cues and react faster (which will get you motivated :D). Otherwise Outlaw has to think about the whole exercise, from lifting to holding, or pawing. That could be counter-productive to his reaction time...

Another thought about the leg lift is, that you could try being a bit more consistent in your cue. If you give the cue always from his side (and always the same side in the beginning) it will be much easier for him to learn it and he will get more confident about it. I found with Mucki that cueing from in front of him is a very different thing...

About half way in the video, Outlaw opened up much more. :thumleft: I saw the first change when you walked ahead, but then took up his suggestion of playing with the block some more. That was great! :clap: He seemed to love that! Maybe you could use objects some more? Maybe it is easier for him to concentrate on that? It could help his initiative...

The next turning point was when you introduced grass as reward - he switched two gears up after that :funny:.
Have you tried to use grass from the beginning, or using grass and other food variably? With Mucki I usually use three different kinds of food with different values and it really helps us to differentiate between average responses and very good responses - or jackpots ;).

And finally one thing I experimented with only recently: when you walk with Outlaw and reward him for following you, you could try not to click and reward, but just reward (if possible while walking).
Using a marker is usually a sign for the horse that the behaviour you asked for has ended and they most horses stop to wait for the reward. That's normal and how it's supposed to be, but when walking with a lower energy horse, it can be hard to get the horse moving again afterwards ;).

All in all, you did a wonderful job with Outlaw! He looks beautiful and fun to work with. And from what I read in your diary, you've already come a good way with him! :applause:

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PostPosted: Fri May 17, 2013 8:05 am 
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First, I think you are doing great and there is nothing that really needs to be changed. :) I think that even if you continue in the exact same way, lots of things will get solved all by themselves, just with time passing and Outlaw getting more confident. However, I think there are also some things you can do to help with that. The main focus of what I will write will be the following things: to get more initiative from him, to get him more tuned to your actions, and for you to get more tuned to him in your own reactions.

As for initiative, I think it’s great that you already go with his suggestions, for example by rewarding him when he decides to step on the wood thing, and then asking for it again. I would go with his initiative even more, and not only for specific exercises but with a focus on his movements. For example, when he is looking at you at 13:00, I would immediately use this: By drawing your body away in exactly that direction, you could use (and simply increase) the movement he is already offering by himself, turning it into a joint activity.

Another aspect of getting more initiative is the way you set up your interaction. At the moment it looks like he was half-asleep most of the time, and he can do that because he can be sure that you will take the initiative and make sure he understands everything you want him to understand (for example with the leg lifting that you repeat until he does it). There isn’t much of a need for him to get faster or more proactive. To change that, I see two ways which may seem contradictory but I do not think they are mutually exclusive. The first is to train in a way that makes it necessary for him to make an effort if he wants to play along (e.g. by switching more, being faster) and the second is to leave the temporal initiative to him completely: doing nothing at all until he initiates a movement, but then being very fast in reacting to it and making him see that this is exactly what you wanted.

With regard to the first point, I have to say that I switch even more often. That is, I suggest something, and if there is no immediate reaction, I don’t wait or cue it again until there is a reaction. Perhaps I repeat it once more, just to make sure the horse has really seen it, but that’s it. If I switch, I preferably switch to something easy that is certain to elicit a reaction, so that it is guaranteed that I can reward at once. In Hannah’s words, I try to make the wrong thing impossible and the right thing inevitable.

However, in order to keep some fluency in my training and avoid that “You have not done the right thing, so let’s try something else” component, I actually try not to switch but rather to change gradually and fluently, depending on the horse’s reactions. Therefore, I am not a big fan of exercises like leg lifts, at least not at this stage, because they have a “correct answer” which is a complete action and therefore they don’t allow me to flexibly adjust my cue according to the horse’s reaction (whatever tiny move that might be). This would be different for example when working on more body language centered activities like turning towards you while you step away. Here you can simply make sure to be in tune with the horse.

One component of this “staying in tune” is that you could try not to lose the connection with him in the first place, by adjusting to him some more. When walking away and he stays behind, for example at 4:07, I would try not to lose him and then only act when he is gone already but to get his attention focused on me first. It’s like the glass grasping analogy I had described in Summy’s diary last week, to first get a good grip of the horse’s attention and only then start trying to move it around. Therefore, as long as the horse is still trying to communicate but is just slow, I guess I would not even walk away but do that on the level of single steps, doing them very slowly and only at the speed at which he is following me (with his focus and weight), and then constantly adjust.

I know this sounds contradictory to what I have said in an earlier post, that when the horse is not playing along, I simply walk away a few steps and then he can come if he is still interested. I guess that for me what decides over which of both strategies I use is whether with that particular horse at that moment I am focused more on eliciting his own initiative (with the message being “You are welcome to do something with me, but it has to come from your side”) or whether I am trying to take him by the hand a little more, doing it together right from the start and explaining to him how we can do it better. I cannot pinpoint exactly when I use the one of the other, though. I just do what feels right at that particular moment. But in any case, I try to differentiate between them rather clearly, either doing the one or the other but not both. In your video it sometimes looks as if you were walking away, but then still somehow hoping that he might follow, still waiting for him a little bit. I would try not to do this but IF you decide to walk away, then really do that with a clear intention, and remain inviting but not drawing.

By the way, getting immediate “walk with me” reactions is easier when not walking forwards but a bit more to the side and with your body turned more towards the horse, like pulling him towards you (a bit like what you do here, something like a turn on the hindquarters combined with walking). Actually I would do lots and lots of this at the moment, because it’s a very easy way for the horse to follow your moves, it allows a constant adjustment and it is the safest way to get that binding between your moves and that of the horse. You can not only do it as a singular exercises but combined with other moves as well, for example when he is backing up here. You could, after two or three steps, move more sideways away from him so that he follows you in a turn. Or the same thing goes for combinations of these turns and forwards movement. I think that in this way horses also learn not to think in terms of singular movements that have a certain cue but in terms of “moving together”.

Something I have already tackled in the previous paragraphs is adjusting to him by changing your moves together with his. To do this, I think it would be helpful to add some flexibility to your moves. In general, I would try to get the body language to a smaller scale that is not just cueing whole actions (e.g. walking with you or moving a certain body part away) but the tiny movement components within those actions. More specifically, you could play around more with tension and its variation. At the moment, your tension seems to be rather constant. Instead, it might help to use a marked increase in your tension whenever you are asking something (e.g. to move with you) and a sudden drop of it as soon as he responds. In that way, he gets a precise and immediate feedback on each of his actions. So the trick actually is to get quicker in your reactions to him, more precise and more temporally coupled to him.

Besides the reactions of your body, you can also tune the timing of your reward to his reactions in a slightly different way. That is, I would try to reward more immediately and specifically whenever he is starting to do something together with you. For example when he is starting to walk towards/with you, I would reward right at that moment. Not for the complete activity of walking together, but specifically for the initiation of the joint movement. If he is supposed to learn that quick reactions are good, then I think he needs to be shown this more clearly. At the moment it doesn’t really make a difference for him how much he is tuned to your moves, because your reaction to his reaction looks similar, regardless of the immediacy of his reaction and the degree to which it mirrors yours.

Oh, and then there is one more tiny thing: I don’t intuitively understand your musketeer-like cue that you give here for example. If you want the hindquarters to move, you could try to move your hips and shoulders more towards them, because with the musketeer cue they are even taken away from the body parts you want to move. So I’d try to keep the upper body more upright and just push the hips a tad more forwards than the rest of my body.

Well, this was a very long post, but again, I do like your video a lot and I think you are doing really, really great! Lucky Outlaw, and lucky you to have such a good teacher. :) :f:


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PostPosted: Fri May 17, 2013 9:59 am 
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Excellent Romy! :yes:
I just printed out your posting to take it with me over the weekend. There's so much great input in there for me and Mucki that I know in the back of my head, but so often neglect in my interaction with him.

My previous feedback was very much aimed at the specific exercises like the leg lift, but I totally agree with Romy that perhaps at this stage and with this particular horse, laying too much focus on exercises may not be beneficial to his initiative.
With Mucki I started our interaction via exercises like jambette and the bow and it worked fine to get his curiosity. But it also made him very much look out for a specific cue from me. Rather than just tuning in on my movements. I have to revisit that part of our interaction now once more.

Romy wrote:
However, in order to keep some fluency in my training and avoid that “You have not done the right thing, so let’s try something else” component, I actually try not to switch but rather to change gradually and fluently, depending on the horse’s reactions. Therefore, I am not a big fan of exercises like leg lifts, at least not at this stage, because they have a “correct answer” which is a complete action and therefore they don’t allow me to flexibly adjust my cue according to the horse’s reaction (whatever tiny move that might be). This would be different for example when working on more body language centered activities like turning towards you while you step away. Here you can simply make sure to be in tune with the horse.
That's for me a very important point. When I said in my feedback that I wouldn't switch too much between exercises, because it might frustrate Outlaw, I meant it specifically in regard to exercises like leg lift, backing up, yielding hindquarters. But there's a big difference to 'moving in sync together'. Thank you Romy for bringing that up so clearly!
I don't see 'moving in sync' as an exercise per se, but rather a mode of interaction that needs to be established. It's tuning in on each other, like Romy said. In that, it is not so much a matter of cue-answer-reward, where the answer can be either right or wrong, but rather a mutual process of understanding each other. Learning a mutual language so to speak.

When something like that is roughly established, I totally agree with Romy, that you can soon increase the speed of switching between things, because it won't feel like being bombarded with commands to the horse, but it will tease him to engage in a heated conversation in body language and that is something that I think every horse is very good at :yes:.

Thanks again Romy - really great incentive for me to go back to basics with Mucki again! :)

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PostPosted: Thu May 23, 2013 2:41 pm 

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You guys are absolutely amazing. <33333333 :D :love: :love: :love: :love: :love: :green:

I pondered for some days on everything both of you said, and took out these key points to take with me to the barn last week (haven't had a chance to go this week, thunderstorms every day!):

-beginning to walk by drawing sideways and then moving forward (had an interesting experience with this with some of my friend's horses, but I'll write about that in my diary)
-don't hold cues forever, and have smaller cues
-reward for the beginning of a move, not always for the entire thing

Here is a video (sorry it is long again x_x I will edit it eventually to have a "highlight reel" of what we know, because the entire barn is getting very curious, including Outlaw's owner).
I think it went very well, and the improvement is very immediate! :) But I would love to know what you think, and if I'm going in the right direction.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNrVJa8QxpA


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PostPosted: Fri May 24, 2013 12:19 pm 
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Hi Alla,

I watched both of your videos, nice to see! You are such a good team! To me you two do a great job, really! :applause:

In the second vid I mean you have improved your setting short cues instead of long-awaiting for reactions from Outlaw (like in the first vid). Sometimes it's a challenge for me, so short and precisely cues as possible, especially with horses who tend to fall asleep, like Pan f. e. In my case, it's often depending on my form on the day. If I am miles away, then he will show me that in no uncertain manner. This is something, that I also constantly have to keep it up and to learn in our training. Mostly I have the tendency to move myself too slowly or "wishy-washy" and give so too indistinct signals to Pan. This is why at present I try to get a bit more snappy in my movements. I note, if I train like a rubber and not like a elastic spring, I lose his attention and he do his own thing, like grazing or completely ignoring me. So it's always on me. :smile:

I am looking forward to see more about your training-sessions, and I am curious about your progress which you will make. :f:


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PostPosted: Sun May 26, 2013 4:30 pm 
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Great, Alla! :) Just like Lena, I think there is a lot of improvement already, and I also see some potential for further improvement in being "schnipsig" (perhaps I should explain this self-made word in the AND Encyclopedia and then we can use it as a normal word here in the forum 8)).

In my opinion, this is not just a matter of moving more abruptly and less like rubber but it also concerns the joint aspects of the conversation, or specifically the human's reactions to the horse's actions. You already reward much earlier and that is great. Now in order to bind Outlaw to your moves, you could become even more precise in that. For example here when he starts following you - that very first step is exactly what I would want to reward. You often do that already, and in these cases perhaps you can add some extra differentiation to your body language between the moments when you are still asking and the momemts when you register his response. A verbal marker is good, but I think a feedback that comes directly from your body language might make it even more clear for him, and perhaps also for yourself. :smile:

On another note, if you want him to be more active and more reactive to you, you could try doing more variations of your joint movements, so that it becomes more like a spontaneous, improvised dance and less like a sequence of small blocks of discrete exercises (e.g. 3 x leg lift, then 2 x backing up, then 3 x moving the hindquarters etc.). In that way, it would also become less predictable for Outlaw and therefore make it necessary for him to watch you. And if you decide to do that, I’d still suggest reacting to his movements with a complementary move more often, like moving away when he moves towards you, walking with him when he moves forwards or just mimicking him when he makes some other move. That's what makes it really interactive and fun. :)


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