The Art of Natural Dressage

Working with the Horse's Initiative
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 17, 2010 3:49 pm 
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Again and again when I hear people talking about dealing with pushy or impolite behavior from horses, their preferred solution for this often seems to be showing the horse that he can't do that. There are several not so nice ways to do it (e.g. hitting the horse), ways that carry no emotional value per se (e.g. waving your arms or rope around you without directing this at the horse, so that he "hits himself" when he comes too close), but also very well-planned and friendly ways (e.g. the slow windmilling that Miriam described so nicely in the Dealing with a pushy horse sticky).

For the last few months or year I have been wondering though if showing the horse that a certain behavior won't work really is the preferred option for me. What do I do in interpersonal relationships with humans? Of course I would set boundaries if my friends treated me rudely, but what seems much more relevant in developing our way of interacting seems to be that I try to treat them like I want to be treated and in that way shape our interaction by giving an example (for related thoughts see Josepha's Human Manners article, scroll down to 'Articles' and then select 'Human manners'). Every social species tends to align their behavior with that of their partners, so it's just very hard to not go along with the other one's ways and you can use that in shaping your interaction with other people. But how to do that when interacting with horses?

One way is by keeping your contact really soft and careful. In Summy's diary I recently described a way to do that by using your fingertips (see 4th and 8th post on that page), but of course the same thing works with body language, too. What I will describe in the following part is my approach to working on mutual awareness. In other activities, like just fooling around and doing funny tricks, I do use some of this, but not all, so this is not exactly meant to be an instruction for walking on tiptoes in whatever you do together with your horse. ;)

When interacting with a pushy horse, I become very soft and careful in my movements, while maintaining a rather high level of body tension. If I approach the horse at all (which usually I don't do but wait for him to come to me and come with me, both on the macro level of crossing the pasture and on the micro level of single steps), I move very slowly.

I try to reply to each movement of the horse, each step, each turn and other movements, by responding in some way. This does not mean that I am always mimicking him. Neither do I reward every single step. But I acknowledge whatever he does by giving some sort of response, even if this is just a tiny change in my own body posture or tension. It's like in a conversation with someone you are really listening to: most likely you will look at him and nod, smile or change your expression either in synchrony with him or complementary. But whereas many humans are good at doing this in conversations which each other, they often forget it when they are interacting with their horses.

Horses usually become very curious when they notice that someone is really paying attention to the micro changes in their behavior, and in turn they will start reacting to your behavior, too. You can encourage this by setting up situations where this is easy for the horse, like when you are standing in front of him (facing him) and move to one side. If the horse is already paying attention, he will most likely make a step in the same direction. If you reward at just that moment, he will see that reacting to you is a good thing for him and he will try to do it more often. When I do this, I always move very, very slowly so that I can clearly see at what point of my movement the horse starts to react. It also gives the horse time and does not break the connection, like for example stepping away quickly would do.

When in that way the horse has learned that it is a good idea to react to your movements, things like asking him to back up by simply moving your hips towards him become very easy. The principle is the same there: first build up your body tension. A good way to do this is by breathing in slowly. There are horses who already back up at this stage, but that is rare. In the next step you can focus on your hips (not look at them though but keep your eyes on the horse) and slowly move them towards the body part that you want your horse to move away. In my experience it's easiest to do it with backing up while facing the horse, but it also works for asking to move the frontquarters over in a pirouette-like way or move the ribcage out. Moving the hindquarters like that seems harder, but also works with some practice. If the horse does not react, you can make a (slow!) step towards him, but usually that is not necessary when you have followed all the preceding steps to build up awareness for each other's movements. Oh, and of course drop all your tension and reward big time as soon as the horse moves.

With time you can refine that mutual awareness by making your body signals smaller and smaller and specifically rewarding for reacting to the smallest. Not only do you get a lot of focus and very close attention from the horse in that way (because seeing the almost invisible pays off for him), it also makes it much easier to later ask him to move his body or certain body parts away from you or towards you during your regular work, so that you won't need specific cues for that but can simply include that into your movement.

Here is a video of working on mutual awareness with Summy, and this is a video of doing this for the first time with Lotte, who is used to groundwork and playing with humans in general but has not done this type of body language communication before.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 17, 2010 4:48 pm 

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Thanks for writing this down. Really interesting.
:yes:


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 17, 2010 4:50 pm 
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Guys, as I was so lucky ( :applause: ) as to have Romy for a whole weekend all to myself and watch her play what a numerous amount of horses I can say that this works tremendously!
It's wonderful in ways I can not describe and it makes my profession much more easy and fun now!

And here was I thinking I was giving tiny cues and being polite... still wasn't enough though.

It even worked on the most moody and easily irrated (arabian) mare in the world of one of my pupils... wow! The 'I am a happy and sweet and ever so attentive mare' effect of one simple session lasted for days! She was the sweetest horse while nornally she is always pushy, snappy, not interested and always angry or irritated no matter what I do :roll: .

Thanks again Romy!

Say, is this a sticky, if not it should be and maybe we should ad videos :)

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 17, 2010 4:57 pm 

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Josepha wrote:

we should ad videos :)


please please do!!! :applause:


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 17, 2010 5:00 pm 
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Josepha wrote:
Say, is this a sticky, if not it should be and maybe we should ad videos :)


I made it a sticky now, just wasn't sure before if this was interesting or relevant enough for a sticky.

About the videos: either you have to do that when you work with other horses (for example Zilke?) or we have to make some when I visit you next time. I can also make one with Summy, but there you would not see the development, only a horse who is used to that already. But I will try it this weekend! :)


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 17, 2010 5:12 pm 
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Romy, I think it's both compelling and relevant.

Because I think it's something that we all are wrestling with with horses who are invited to have opinions and freely express them,

and also because coming up with congruent, positive ways to encourage this kind of politeness rather than demand it is SUCH a better approach (and one I have huge amounts of learning to do about -- I've only skimmed your initial post and am looking forward to going back and really studying it, as this is an ongoing thing with "She Who Lives at the Center of the Universe" ;) )

and also (and while i don't think this is as important at the core, it's I think relevant) having a way to encourage this and learning fluency with our equine pals around this is a really helpful tool when faced with outsiders -- be they vets or trimmers or body workers -- or even people who are uncertain about an approach like AND.

One of the strongest reasons I see people articulate as a justification for getting harsh with horses is that 'you have to teach them who is boss or they will walk all over you' -- how beautiful to have a thought-out, effective, emotionally and pedagogical congruent way to ask for politeness -- and to be able to respond to folks who can't believe its possible by just showing it.

So, thank you!!
:f:
:kiss:
Leigh

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 19, 2010 8:54 pm 
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Thanks, Leigh! :smile: Great that you think it's useful, and I totally agree with you that the 'other horse people' point you made is an important one. I think there are so many people who would like to work with their horses in a more friendly way but honestly believe that this is not possible because you need all that dominance stuff to prevent the horse from running all over you.

Today we managed to make a video of Summy being polite (and me too, hopefully). I edited it into the first post of this topic. Don't worry about the situation where he reared and came way too close, that was all my fault and could have been prevented easily. But that's what he was like when we started working with free choice and positive reinforcement, only that back then I had no way of asking him to move out of my space. Basically I owe it all to him: I had to learn those things, otherwise he would have killed me. :funny:

I am very happy that we made that video. I have never seen myself working in that way and so I think seeing it from an outsider's perspective instead of only as a participant will give me some new ideas to change things for the better. :smile:

A video of a horse doing this for the first time will follow, I just don't know when I will get the chance to play with a new horse.


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PostPosted: Sun Sep 19, 2010 9:42 pm 
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Romy, I just watched your video with Summy and I'm just wowed. Fabulous.

What a tango! :love:

Many thing s to think about and learn from and explore here with how you're engaging with Summy.

And, I must admit, I found your clarity about being engaged specifically with him -- and not with Titum, who was obviously so interested, or Pia (her 'see me now!' move is such a Circe kind of move :queen: I tell you, those beautiful blondes! :funny: ) -- at least as impressive as everything you were doing with Summy.

Beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing.

xo
Leigh

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 20, 2010 6:53 am 

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Ik watched the video and it was really interesting.
Wonderfull how he watches your steps

I have, however, two questions.

Don't you mind the rearing that close to you? I think it would made me a little bit afraid..
Ik don't espesially like my horses to rear that close.

I see you use a lot of treats. Do you keep on giving a lot of treats all the time or just in the learningproces?


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PostPosted: Mon Sep 20, 2010 8:08 am 
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Leigh, thanks again! :kiss:

I was lucky with Titum and Pia being so patient. However, Titum has a very effective way of getting my attention: we have agreed that whenever he calls me (neighing at me), I come and give him a treat. So when he realizes that interfering really does not help, he just neighs and then I have to come. Which is cute, but he is so clever and sometimes a bit nasty, walking away to the other end of the pasture and neighing from there. Seems like he enjoys making me run. 8)

Today those two who were neglected yesterday were extra motivated. Especially Titum, with whom I played in a similar manner like with Summy. There are some interesting differences, but I will not hijack this topic further but write that into his diary later and maybe make a film next weekend.

liljebo wrote:
Don't you mind the rearing that close to you?


Oh, I do. :smile: But I think in order to understand why I am not reacting strongly, you have to see where we are coming from: when we started with foodrewards, Summy got so excited about them and it really became dangerous, with him rearing not only close to me but AT me. I have, however, decided not to use punishment and simply "forbid it" but ask him to move out of my space afterwards and reward him for keeping more distance. If you are interested in his journey, you can read the early pages of his diary.

Anyway, we almost completely got rid of the rearing out of excitement (as an exercise it's still there), except when I am behaving wrong. For the big rear in the video you can see it coming seconds before, and I did, but for some reason I wanted to continue the sequence although I knew it was too much for him and he was getting hyper-excited. Actually that's the case for almost all of his rears: I could have prevented them by acting more wisely. So why punish the horse for doing something I provoked him to do?

The other little hops are cued by my body language, some intentionally and some because I was just not clear enough.

Quote:
I see you use a lot of treats. Do you keep on giving a lot of treats all the time or just in the learningproces?


I continue giving many treats. The more the better. ;)

For me it's not so much the treats being a means of getting the exercises, but the exercises as a means for being able to give treats. Maybe that has to do with my main goal in my interaction with my horses: bringing out an entrepreneur mentality in them so that they understand that they can influence their environment through their own actions. And with that goal in mind, fading out the treats is most likely not going to help.

If you want to read more about treats and the way in which different people here use them, check out the topics under 'Foodrewards' in our Links to threads topic


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PostPosted: Mon Sep 20, 2010 9:36 am 
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Romy wrote:
Quote:
I see you use a lot of treats. Do you keep on giving a lot of treats all the time or just in the learningproces?


I do continue giving many treats. The more the better. ;)

For me it's not so much the treats being a means of getting the exercises, but the exercises as a means for being able to give treats. Maybe that has to do with my main goal in my interaction with my horses: bringing out an entrepreneur mentality in them so that they understand that they can influence their environment through their own actions. And with that goal in mind, fading out the treats is most likely not going to help.


I see that what I said here could be slightly misleading, so I will try to clarify.

Of course I don't continue to give the same amount of treats for the same things performed at the same quality. I do raise criteria and doing that I reward less for a given move at a given quality over time. So in a way you are right, I only give that many treats during the learning process. But our learning process lasts forever, if you don't see it in terms of certain exercises which are either done or not done, but as a continuous communication getting more refined over time. So the amount of treats stays the same, but the things that they are given for do change. Hope that's a bit more clear. :smile:


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PostPosted: Mon Sep 20, 2010 3:06 pm 

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Okey thank you very mutch for the answers.
I just try to learn and to understand.

I do not use punishment eather, for i think its confusing for the horse when i'm asking to learn by trial and error, but punnish when his trial is, in my eyes, wrong.
For the horse, there is no right or wrong. He is just trying what works...
I think i would do the same and reward keeping distans and work a lot with that.

With the treats, your second explanation was clear... I do actually the same....
I ask more for a treat as we go on.
I do have a goal, but efter reaching the goal i would make up more goals to work with

Thanks again.


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PostPosted: Wed Sep 22, 2010 3:24 pm 
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Thanks for posting this Romy. I really need to remember to stay soft and polite and parient with Bear especially when he gets pushy. It is so easy to get frustrated and to push back and this makes him much worse. For a while I was getting stuck in the mindset of "if only he would just stop being so annoying we could do something fun" which I don't think was very helpful.
Anyway I think we are now starting to get a bit of conversation going with him. We are noticing sooner when he has had enough and he has started stopping and walking away when he loses interest (a big thing for him). I agree that the more attention I show to what he is doing the more likely he is to engage with what I want. I think I might start focusing on rewarding him for little efforts to follow me when I get him to mirror me on the other side of the fence.
I have really learnt from Bear that just because he is in my face and seems enthusiastic it does not necessarily mean I have his attention or that he wants to do anything (unlike Poppy who I spent ages in the beginning trying to convince her just to come over and have a carrot and maybe would she try something).


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PostPosted: Tue Sep 28, 2010 1:28 am 
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This is very inspiring. I really like how you don't respond to what you don't like (the rearing) and immediately ask for space and reward. I really need to work on praising and not disciplining with my littlest girl. I don't like her pushiness, but it occurs to me how pushy I am with her :blush:

I am going to be restarting clicker training with her, and hope to work towards a relationship like this:)

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 28, 2010 7:22 am 
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In all fairness it is that simple: you get out, what you put in


:funny:

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