The Art of Natural Dressage

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 22, 2015 8:56 am 

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Hi

I posted sometime ago about my emotionally damaged horse - a completely shut down horse who had internalised his problems.

The result was if i asked for any forward motion - by voice, leg or body he just shut down. I'm pleased to say that 6 months later (including 3 months just chilling in the field with no work) we have finally broken through the shutdown barrier. Now he is attentive and interested. On the ground he shows great enthusiam even. He loves to play, and for the first time i'm seeing a personality - and its a cheeky one.

He loves the clicker training and is now doing the bow, spanish walk, touching things on command, moving away from body language laterally, pirouette etc etc..

But despite these huge successes - and they are huge for him - he still struggles with forwards. He was beaten and bullied forwards and it remains the problem. He's starting to go forwards in an obediant sort of way - but i wondered if anyone had any good games to make it more fun for him... He'll play chase with me with great gusto, but as soon as i'm still he finds it too difficult.

Suggestions gratefully recieved!!

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The exact steps of the dance have no importance - it is the joy in dancing that i strive for.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 22, 2015 11:15 am 
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Wonderful to hear that you see such a great change in your horse! :)

I have to admit that I have no experience with what I'm going to suggest neither with the kind of riding you want to achieve but maybe it will help you to think about a possible solution.

There are four things I want to suggest:

1) Reward everything the horse offers.

Therefore, I would spend a lot of time with the horse without any special goal or exercise. We can be together in the paddock or the pasture. It's an benefit if we are not in the arena because then we can do other things than doeing something together all the time. The horse can leave us and be with the other horses or go and eat some grass without getting bored because there is nothing to do in the arena. If there is nothing we can do, we could take a book or something to work on with us, so we can fill the breaks without getting bored by ourselfes.

I think it is really important not to give the horse the feeling that you are waiting for him to do something. Thereby, the horse would be under pressure again, a different kind than before, but still pressure. And in my opinion we can't push someone into being confident and brave and making own decisions. That's why I would walk around the area by myself, watching the other horses, searching for little flowers, sometimes bringing a treat to my horse, doing work or something like that. When the horse decides to join me I would reward and be very proud.
When the horse choses to be with me I would reward every little thing he does like coming to me, standing next to me, moving a step in any direction, looking at something, touching my hand, touching something else and so on.
My focus is not on the horse, so that it is not important if the horse choses to do nothing but snooze next to me. There is no pressure on the horse to do what I may have in mind because there is nothing in my mind ecxept to admire everything he does. He does not have to solve a puzzle as sometimes in clicker training. After I rewarded the horse I would focus again on what I did before.

But when I feel that the horse really wants my attention but does not know how to get it I would give it to him, still looking for every tiny thing he does on his own.

If the horse would take a step away from me I would reward and show him how happy I am about that he does not need me to tell him where he has to go. When he seems to wait for me or want me to come with him, I would follow. This can result in walking around the area together, looking here and there, doing this and that.

My hope is that the horse gets to know that he is right with telling me what he wants to do and that I am soooooo happy that I'm allowed to join him. We both experience that we can relax together and are not pushed to do specific exercises.

2) Building a language together and making sure the horse knows that a „no“ is an accepted answer.

When I think that the horse feels good and relaxed with me being around I start to make similar suggestions as the horse does. I make sure that I ask (!) all that time. That means that I reward a „No“ as well, so that we don't fall into a „right and wrong“ kind of thinking and the horse is confident to show me not only what he wants but what he does not want, too.

I try to find out which of my actions gets which response from the horse. Does he stop, move forward, away from me...? Never forget to reward everything the horse offers too. Don't forget that we want to stay relaxed and show the horse that he does not have to do something.

The Encouraging Politeness might be very helpful to build a language together with the horse.

3) A different kind of going for a walk.

When I feel that my horse gets the idea of offering actions without me asking for it and I know how he responds to my suggestions and body language, I ask him if he would like to go for a little walk. The goal is to be as relaxed outside as we are together in the pasture. I take a long rope so the horse does not have to stay too next to me. When we are next to the gate I open it and now the horse can choose if he wants to step out or not. Both is great because it's a decision of the horse.

When the horse wants to go out I follow him and now we do the same as in the pasture. I reward for everything the horse offers. We walk around, looking at things we can find, the horse choses the direction. He can always walk back to the pasture and I will let him in to his friends. We don't have to walk far away. Every step is great and I'm really fine with it.

When I feel the necessity to ask the horse if he still responds to me I suggest little things like taking a step into my direction, walking slower or faster, stopping or just turning an ear into my direction or looking at me. I don't want to draw the attention of the horse away from the environment but neither want I to lose it completely. Therefore, I try to establish a constant but very gentle dialogue.

My hope is that the horse enjoys to be a explorer together with me and that he has fun while walking around.

4) „Stronger“ suggestions away from the horse.

When I feel that my horse has fun and is really self-reliant with showing what he wants and what not, I begin to make „stronger“ suggestions. For example when I suggest to change the direction I choose an object or an place and put my focus on it. I try to raise the feeling that I am curious about what kind of object it is or what we can explore there. The „strong“ is not directed towards the horse but away from him. I don't want the horse to go there. I want to go there for a good reason (there is lucious grass for the horse to eat, there is something we can step onto, there is something that we can destroy, there is a place we can move faster...). The thought in my mind is not „We have to go there because I want it!“ but „Wow, look there! Isn't that great! Let us go there and eat it/climb on top of it/run there...!“. It is the feeling of being enthusiastic about something.

Still the horse can follow me or chose not to. But my wish to do it is bigger than with the suggestions before. I would be careful with it when I am not sure how the horse will feel about it. Maybe it is best to do it step by step so that the horse isn't overwhelmed with it and to establish it in the pasture first were the horse is at liberty. Then we would have the benefit that we can't make the horse follow us by using pressure (with the rope) and we would have to learn to raise such a good feeling that the horse wants to go there too.

I don't have experience with the fourth point, so I don't know if it works.

Now I have written so many things that have nothing to do with riding :blush: but I think that we can transfer it:

We already established a kind of communication where both partners can do what they want. We feel relaxed with each other around and we have fun together. We can make suggestions with different intensity. And most important: we know each other very well.

That would be the point from where I would start to do the same thing as from the ground from the back of the horse. If there is the possibility I ask another person the horse likes, to sit on him while we do point 1). I would just do it a very very short time like 30 seconds and stop before the horse feels discomfort.
Within time the horse gets to know that there is now difference between „riding“ and „groundwork“ and we can go further to step 2), 3) and 4).

Chase the tiger could also be helpful for a horse that needs the human to tell him what to do.

I don't know if this is helpful for you because I may got the problem wrong or you need a different advice. But I'm sure that you will be able to solve the problem soon and that you are on the right track! :yes: :f:


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 22, 2015 11:52 pm 
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Great suggestions, Anni! :) I'll just add one more link to a sticky about a similar topic: Forwards movement and running.


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 23, 2015 9:12 pm 

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Thank you both for taking the time to respond, and the detail is much appreciated. I have touched on many of these exersizes on the ground, and that is where all is improvements and trust have come from, but i havent really tried to apply them ridden... i've been focussing on clicker training forwards motion, but it is incredibly difficult because i'm still 'asking' for the forwards motion.. the link that i hadnt put together was to either have no goal (sit and wait) or create a different goal like to go and do something, that just happens to be 'over there'.

Cant wait to experiment with all these new ideas you've armed me with.

All of the negatives in him aside i actually had a most beautiful session with him today where he was totally focussed on me. We didn't 'do' alot - but i know i dont need to preach to the converted - the joy was in the connection as he really tried to tell me he was doing he best.

Thanks again for lovely responses.

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The exact steps of the dance have no importance - it is the joy in dancing that i strive for.


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 24, 2015 12:11 pm 
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Well, I thought I had something useful to add, as creating forward impulsion is the dominating topic between Mucki and me since I have him ;). Yet now I find it very hard to put into explicit exercises. Anni's excellent post contains most of the things I do as well. Also, the issue with Mucki has not to do with having been bullied into forward motion, so you probably deal with things that I never encountered with Mucki.

The successes we had over the years I attribute first and foremost to the growing bond and understanding of each other and that just takes time. From what I read in your postings, you two are already doing splendid in that regard :).
Similar to what Anni already mentioned, I also emphasised on all exercises that create a natural urge to go forward, without me having to tell Mucki to do so. Can be very simple things like starting a synchronised trot when returning to the herd after a session in the arena. Mucki loves the herd, so the chance that he also feels like trotting in that situation is very high. I reward for the synchronicity and thus slowly build that up as something positive.
I also invented many games that contained a rewarding goal to go to. Like hunting for apple slices in the yard, or celeriac cubes in the dark ;). Or just running to jump over a log in the forest. Or using trees in the pasture as agility course.

All those little things added up in the end for Mucki having fun in running in my presence. Or basically what happened is that he comes out of his shell now when playing with me. That contains trot and canter, but also rearing and experimenting with higher energy things, which wasn't possible before.
Later, when the fun part was safely established, I also added cues (even classical cues like using a whip for greater distances). But I always have to be careful with that as Mucki hates to be pressured into things.

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 24, 2015 3:17 pm 
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Romy wrote:
Great suggestions, Anni! :)

Thank you, Romy :blush: :)

oldhack wrote:
i've been focussing on clicker training forwards motion, but it is incredibly difficult because i'm still 'asking' for the forwards motion.. the link that i hadnt put together was to either have no goal (sit and wait) or create a different goal like to go and do something, that just happens to be 'over there'.

Cant wait to experiment with all these new ideas you've armed me with.


This remembers me of a problem I had with a shetland mare, Cindy. I wanted to go out for a walk with her and there was no problem as long as there were other horses with us. I always thought that she was such a self-reliant person that she wouldn't struggle with leaving the herd an go for a walk alone. I think this is why I misinterpreted it when she only walked to the gate and then froze, rejecting to move forward. With the clicker I could convince her to do some steps but then she would stop again. I wasn't so clever at this time so we continued the stop and go for about two hours. This way Cindy and I had no fun at all, but I showed her who was boss :roll: .

Now I would do it differently - I would show her all the great things we could find outside the paddock so that she herself would wish to go there and get more grass and apple peaces. In doing so I would not concentrate on the forward motion but on the atmosphere between us and would try to shape it into a explorer-atmosphere.
In another horse forum Romy wrote something about role playing. She sad that she went out for a walk with Pia (I think so) and imagined that they were two children who sneaked out at night. Maybe mental images like this could be useful, too.

When I was out for the walk with Cindy we established a little game. Usually I rewarded her only when she walked next to me with her head next to my leg. To motivate her to move forward now I rewarded her for overtaking me. Before, I had observed that she did this when we were trotting together and it worked in walk as well. I think this could have been a great game for us if I had made the rest differently.

I would be interested in hearing which games work best for you and your horse. Maybe you can tell us about how you are doing when you tried something new? :)

Volker, I really like how you worked on this with Mucki as well. Especially the trotting back to the herd seems to be a perfect occasion to encourage forward movement :yes: .


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PostPosted: Sun Jan 25, 2015 12:35 pm 
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Anni wrote:
By now, I would have some ideas but still I would like to know what initiated the change of Mucki's energy?
There was not really a singular event or exercise that triggered that change. It is certainly the sum of all the little things we did together in the five years since I know Mucki. And it's still far from perfect if there is a thing like that.

The things that I think were the most relevant for changing Mucki's energy level, were:
1) giving Mucki a feeling of safety in the given situation. As he is the type who freezes or slows down when anxious, that still remains one of the most important things to look out for. Otherwise, trying to create any forward impulsion would be like wading through waist deep water at first. But with the ever looming possibility of a tidal wave of way too much energy suddenly sweeping us away...

2) the little playful things which I mentioned in my former post. Preferably, those games are inherently impulsive and forward motion as logical consequence of reaching that goal. "Catch the tiger" for example, or hunting for apples, playing hide and seek, using terrain or beautiful vistas to encourage running when going for a walk.

3) what I also did is that I used clicker training to establish a good repertoire of exercises that require a high energy level to perform. Ramener, school halt, rearing, rearing jumps, single canter jumps and any form of collected movement.

4) what's imperative with all those forms of motivation is my body language. I'm still too clumsy for my taste, but I regularly use collection and certain teasing movements to get Mucki out of his shell ;).
In order to use that to best effect, I rewarded mimicry, synchronicity and reciprocity since the very early beginnings of our interaction.

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 25, 2015 10:36 pm 

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Lots more things to try and experiment with thank you for the additional replies.

I had to post a little update as had the most amazing day with my boy today...

He came out the field looking quiet and 'obeidient' (a state of mind i dont like to see in him)... so i worked (on the ground) specifically on something mentioned above - there being no wrong answer. Until now i have rewarded over enthusiastically for anything that i wanted and i ignore or redirect a response that i either dont want or didnt ask for.

So today we stood in the arena, i lit a cigarette, and sat on the block reading my messages... he looked at me and he poked my phone.. i rewarded - then I wandered off, he followed, i rewarded - then he did a trick (which he'd chosen - i didnt ask), i rewarded - and so it went on. His enthusiasm and confidence was quickly at boiling point so i got on his back and repeated the process from there. The more i rewarded anything - the more he tried to do - it was like he was trying to outdo himself.

To my delight another horse being led by the arena got his attention and he trotted off to see them, which gave me the chance to reward that... then, being greedy, i clicked my tongue, and he jumped up into a canter, i sat in disbeleif and he cantered around the whole arena twice, at full power, but not full speed - with the reins hanging loose. That unmistakeable feeling of a highly schooled dressage horse, which i know he once was.

Hes a big, powerful spanish horse, and i'm delighted to say that i have now felt his power potential for the first time. He has got the most amazing movement. Maybe it was amazing because i have waited so long to feel it from him. But i dont care. It brought me to tears. I managed to persuade myself not ask again, and he didnt offer again. But thats ok - what we achieved today was something incredibly special.

I'll continue to re-read and try out all of the ideas above, rome wasnt build in a day, and i'm under no illusion that hes fixed, but what a wonderful session.

Thanks again for all the ideas. I'm wondering now whether to start a training diary so i can working through all the ideas above systematically!!

:smile:

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The exact steps of the dance have no importance - it is the joy in dancing that i strive for.


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PostPosted: Sun Jan 25, 2015 10:59 pm 
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So great how your session worked out! What a remarkable success in such a short time :applause:.
It would be lovely of course to read about your further progress in a diary of yours :yes:.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 26, 2015 6:11 pm 
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Thank you Volker, for your detailed answer :) . While I'm reading through your points I get the feeling that I should've concentrated more on exercises that require a higher energy level because with the ponies I did most exercises in halt. And my body language could be ways better, of course. I will work on it as soon as I can.

Oldhack, I'm so happy about the response you got from your horse in your last session :applause: . I would like to read a diary from you to know how you're going on!


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