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More Horses

Last week, I went back to Penrose to play with horses at Equi-sense. I spent the entire week working with Brandy, asking her to do things horses normally don’t do. With the help of one of the workers there, Brandy and I took on the obstacle course every day, and worked on improving communication skills. As the owner said, a horse will put forth no effort to communicate on your level, you must communicate on the horse’s level.

The end goal was to get the horse to walk sideways in an open area, and to stand with it’s front legs on a tire while rotating around it. To get the horse to understand what I wanted took a lot of work, divided into small steps.

For the first task, I brought the horse up to a fence so it couldn’t walk forward, then I held my hands up, one towards her face one towards her rear to ask her to move sideways. We practiced that for a while before moving to a smaller obstacle, a log on the ground. She kept wanting to just walk around or jump over the log, so the man helping me stood in front and moved with the horse. Brandy had a harder time with this, but we were able to get it done. We also had to work in small steps to achieve the tire rotation. We started by having her in an open area. I waved one hand at her rear while pulling her head towards me to get her to spin around. We worked on this for a while.

It paid off beautifully. On the last day, we had no trouble getting her to spin on a tire. We still had some trouble getting her to walk sideways in the open, but for only four days of training I think we did pretty good. We did get her to walk sideways from the open over some barrels (so her front legs were on one side of the barrels and her rear legs were on the other) and continue to walk sideways across their length. That was pretty cool.

I did get to ride Brandy a bit the last two days. Fortunately, there was a smaller saddle available, and we did eventually get the stirrups shortened to a length that allowed to me to lift myself off the saddle (I’m quite short) so this time I was able to ride a galloping horse (couldn’t do that with Boots.) I had a great time.

Lessons learned:

  1. Take small steps when training an animal.
  2. Horses are heavy, and they won’t care if they’re standing on your foot. Happened twice that week, once with each foot. Ow.
  3. When riding a horse, it’s best to have it walk or gallop. The speed in between is… painful. I still have bruises from bouncing on the saddle.

I figure now is a good time for a round-up.

Equi-Sense Day 4: Yellow and Boots

Yesterday was my last day working with horses at Equi-Sense. We started out by doing the obstacle course which was the hardest task of the previous day. I worked with a horse I’d never worked with before. I chose her because I’d observed her following a helper in the pen just moments prior. As far as I know, this mare didn’t have a name, so I just called her Yellow.

Apart from walking a bit too fast and occasionally stopping to feed on tufts of grass, I had no problems at all with her. She was a good horse who knew the obstacle course very well. As I was leading her around, the wife of the owner of the place (possibly co-owner,) came over to talk about me. She seemed surprised at how well Yellow and I were doing, telling me that Yellow tended to be high-strung and a bit aggressive. I saw neither of those traits that day. She was great horse to work with.

After this, we rode a horse for the first time since being there. Boots was a horse I’d never worked with at all before as well. She was a large horse, and the leader of the heard from what I observed.

I had trouble getting on her, requiring a boost. I had both stirrups shortened as far as they could go, yet I still barely reached them, and my feet often fell out. Walking, we didn’t have much trouble. Boots was very responsive to directions, and we were soon traveling in figure eights in the small pen. Then I rode her over to the large pen (after removing Brandy from it so it was empty) so we’d have more space. A few times I asked her to trot, but when she did, My feet lost the stirrups and I felt like I might fall off. I tried riding her around a bit without using the stirrups at all, but, unable to lift myself off the saddle, it was a bumpy, unsteady ride. I didn’t want to fall off, so I decided it was best to stick to walking.

All in all, I really enjoyed my experience at Equi-Sense. I feel that I learned a lot about horses and communication, about leadership, and about operant conditioning. I also feel that working with horses has helped me feel more confident around horses, as well as help manage the anxiety I’d been dealing with lately.

I was pleased to learn that there’s an advanced class starting next month, which my health insurance will also pay for. Count me in.

Equi-Sense Day 3: Stepping It Up

This was my third day at Equi-Sense, and the game has changed quite a bit. Our interactions with the horses are becoming more complicated, as well as more rewarding.

We started with a review, repeating our more difficult tasks from the previous day, with the same horse, Brandy. First, we guided her through the tri-cones, which was our final task of the previous day. This, the horse and I accomplished with no difficulty at all.

Then we went on to lunging, directing the horse around the round pen without touching her or using a rope. I had a lot of trouble with this on the first day, but not I have a better understanding of what to do. Horses, as I’m told, are very reliant upon body language. I didn’t have to actually have a rope, I need only imitate the motions that I would use if I did. If I pretended that I was guiding the horse with a rope, the horse would pretend this too, or so I hoped. I pointed in the direction that I wanted the horse to move with my leading hand, and used my second hand to gesture. It worked. I was able to guide her around the pen, coax her to move faster, turn her around, and get her to stop without using a rope.

Our first new challenge was this. There were two cones placed no more than 8 ft apart in the center of the pen. Our task was to get the horse to walk between these cones. We weren’t allowed to touch her, or use a rope. As I went first, it was up to me to figure out how to accomplish this. The problem of course was that the target was in the middle of the pen, whereas the horse preferred to keep to the perimeter.

The people who ran the place later expressed surprise at my choice in tactics. They said it was weird that I wouldn’t even let the horse near the cones and said they hoped I had some kind of strategy. I did. I kept her at the perimeter. As in the review exercise, I guided her around the pen, making her speed up and turn as I wanted until I was finally satisfied by her compliance.

“Whoah,” I said until she stopped. She looked at me for a bit, then she lowered her head and approached. I momentarily forgot the no-touching rule and petted her. Then I turned around and walked through the cones and towards the gate. I knew better than to look over my shoulder, I didn’t need to anyway. I could hear the horse’s footsteps as it followed right behind me.

I never even tried to guide her near the cones, I knew it wouldn’t work. I just wanted to guide her around a bit. I wanted her to see me as a figure of authority, someone to take direction from. I wanted her to see me as a leader, someone to follow. And she did.

That was the easiest task of the day. Later we had two separate obstacle courses, both of which involved lots of jumping. The first obstacle course was relatively simple, but was the one that I had the most trouble with. I used Brandy for this one, as we seemed to be getting along much better than we had when we first met. The first task was to get her to jump over a line of tires a few times, change direction, then do it again. I had a bit of trouble with this as keeping Brandy in the center of the tire line required holding her line shorter than I normally would have, which made it harder for me to change her direction. She nearly walked right over me a few times. Next, there was an arrangement of five logs arranged in a semi-circle radiating outward from the center point like the spokes of a wheel. I had a bit of difficulty again, but I did get her to jump each in their turn as she passed through (she kept trying to go around them.) The final task of the course was to lead the horse in an “L” shaped walkway bordered by some logs. Getting her to go in, turn, and stop was easy. The hard part was backing Brandy up and back through to the beginning of the “L,” but we eventually got it.

The next course was more complicated, but Lota, the first horse I’d met here, knew what he was doing and needed little direction from me. First, there were three logs on the ground, spaced well apart, for him to jump over, which he did with ease. Next, there was a ditch that I was to guide the horse into while not entering myself. At the end of it, I was to have him walk up the slope. The only trouble with that was keeping him from stopping to eat the sparse tufts of grass. The slope turned into a hill winch, on the opposite side as the ditch, turned into a steep drop-off. I directed the horse to drop down, then, while remaining on the hilltop, got him to jump back up, then descend into the ditch again. The only problem here, which I should have anticipated, was that the horse gained a lot of momentum this way and so I had to follow quickly and then slow him down. Next, I had him jump two hurdles, two logs held about a foot or so above the ground by posts. Lota took these on beautifully. The figure 8 followed. Standing the the middle between two barrels, I guided the horse in a slow figure 8 pattern. After this came the only obstacle I really struggled with on this course. There was a barrel laying on its side on the ground, and I was supposed to make the horse jump over it one way, then turn around and jump over it from the other direction. I was able to get him over the first way just fine. But after turning him around, the rope length wasn’t correct and he keptgoing around the barrel instead. We got it eventually, it just took patience. The final task was to guide the horse over to a tire on the ground, put both of its front feet on it, and say there. Lota already knew what to do here.

I’ve really grown to like the horses I’ve been working with over the last few days, Brandy, Thunder, and Lota. It’s sad that tomorrow will be my final day with them. By this I of course mean because it’s a four-day course, not because some lunatics think it’s the day of the rapture. And no, I didn’t take the tornado that I saw while driving home to be an omen. That just made me wish that I had something other than my phone’s built-in camera.

Working With Horses: Operant Conditioning

Over the last few days working with horses at Equi-Sense, I’ve given thought to the operant conditioning methods in use.

The first and my favorite is positive reinforcement. Positive Reinforcement is when a desired behavior is reinforced with a reward. When working with dogs, this is usually done with a treat, especially when shaping behaviors. With the horses, we had no treats. What we did instead was pet the horses and speak in a soothing voice when they did as we pleased.

Less frequently, we’d use what’s called positive punishment. Positive punishment is following an unwanted behavior with an aversive stimulus. I don’t so much like this method, and neither does the owner. He instructed us to use this method only to deal with aggressive behavior, such as when the horse tries to bite. When Brandy bore her teeth at me yesterday, I was told to punch her in the mouth. On one occasion, I did lightly tap her on the muzzle with the end of the lead rope, but even doing that made me uncomfortable, so I only did it once.  I don’t like striking animals, and I understood where the horse was coming from. If some stranger started pulling me around by my face, I wouldn’t be in a great mood either.

I did, on a few occasions, use what’s called negative punishment. Negative punishment is dealing with an undesired behavior by taking away something that the subject wants. When I was leading Thunder, and then Brandy, sometimes they’d walk ahead of me or into me. When they did, I’d stop them and pull them around in a circle before moving on. The horses wanted to move forward, but I would only allow them to do so when the agreed to do it my way.

I used a similar method with Brandy later while in the small pen. As I discussed in my previous post, I was having trouble leading her back and fourth through some cones, and as a result she became upset with me enough to bare her teeth. A helper instructed me to “pop her in the mouth,” but I wasn’t comfortable with that. Instead, I instructed the horse to stop and had her hold still. This kept her from moving as she wanted to (as well as giving me a moment to figure out what I was doing.) I didn’t need to strike her, I just had to let her know that she couldn’t her her way by being aggressive. She didn’t teeth at me again after that.

The most common method used, and in contrast to the methods of positive reinforcement that are the staple in clicker dog training, was negative reinforcement. In negative reinforcement, an aversive stimulus is applied until the desired behavior is achieved. The owner called this  “pressure and release.” When we wanted the horse to move its head away from us, we’d wave our hand near its eye. Horses don’t like this, so they turn away from the hand. When we wanted the horse to move its hind end, we’d gently tap its hip (when I say gently, I do mean gently. We tap the horse no harder than one could tap a baby without making upset.) Sometimes it isn’t even necessary to touch a horse to apply negative reinforcement. Off lead, we’re able to control a horse in a pen simply by standing behind its haunches and waving, compelling it to move forward. Once the horse does what we wanted, we cease whatever we were doing so the horse knows it did what we wanted it to.

Equi-Sense Day 2: Brandy

Yesterday was my second day working with horses at Equi-Sense. We started out by reviewing what we’d learned to do yesterday. This time, I started off in the big pen working with a mare named Brandy. I began by trying to have her walk along side me, but she had a tenancy to break into trot and walk into me. Twice, she bore her teeth as if preparing to bite me as I’d put put my hand up to keep her from running me over. I had a lot more trouble controlling her than I had with Thunder the day before, but I did eventually get the hang of it and eventually convinced her to walk straight and slowly at my side.

Afterworlds, our whole group was given a new and interesting task. One of the helpers drew a small rectangle in the dirt in the large pen. Our task was to coax one horse at a time to stand in the rectangle for five seconds, and only the leader amongst us was allowed to talk. It was harder for us to convince any given horse that we were in charge since there were three other horses in the pen. Some horses could be guided in after being separated from Boots, the mare in charge of the herd. Others simply followed a human that had earlier established himself as  leader. Boots was the hardest to convince, because first there were always other horses around her, then there were too many people around her so the poor horse didn’t know what we wanted.

That done, we spent the rest of the day working one on one with Brandy in the round pen. We’d put the horse on the lead, then use rope signals to guide her. Walk this way, go faster, slow down, turn around, stop. Then it got harder. A helper put three cones in a triangle inside the pen for us to guide the horse around and through. I had trouble with this at first because I couldn’t get a hang of the pattern. Since I wasn’t sure what I wanted, I couldn’t clearly communicate to the horse what I wanted, and she got a bit cross with me.

She bore her teeth at me again, which is not OK with me. I stopped her and took a second to consider what I was doing. I decided to not worry about the pattern and just take it all one cone at a time as I pleased. After that, the horse and I had no trouble at all.

Lesson Learned:

  • Whether working with horses or people, in order to be an effective leader, you have to be clear about what you want. In order for others to know what you want, you first have to know what you want yourself.

It’s only been two days but I think I’m already a lot more confident and comfortable around horses. It’s almost funny, looking back, how frightened I’d been of Lota, a horse that never showed me any aggression at all, to calmly handling Brandy, a  more difficult horse who did show mild aggression.

By the end of the day, I think Brandy and I came to an understanding. She too, joined me in the center of the pen for a nuzzle.


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