Saturday, August 28, 2010

Jet Lag,

Whew. After 27 hours of traveling, I got home last night at about 9. The time difference between here and Taipei is 15 hours, so I am all kinds of tired. My mom finally managed to drag me out of bed at about 10, after much grumbling and complaining on my part.

Then she dragged me out to the barn to visit McKinna, saying how it would wake me up and be good for me. Ha! As if walking around out at the barn could really wake me up when it was supposed to be about 4 in the morning.

She was right, of course. I know, it's shocking.

We had a nice visit with McKinna, who quite thoroughly let us know that she'd rather not be ridden today. (She does this thing where she stands in her stall and turns and walks out into her run whenever you approach...) Lucky for her, I didn't feel like riding either! So we just hung out. And I held the target in her run from outside, just to see if she remembered - she looked at me for a second, then walked up and stuck her nose right on it. She got a click and a sugar cube for that one.

I think I'll play around with some clicker work tomorrow. I was working on the bow before I left, but it just wasn't quite connecting with her, so I've decided to try a different exercise to help her realize that it's the click that marks the action, AND that she doesn't get it just by hanging around me. I'm going to set a cone several feet away from me (we'll start targeting it closer), so that when she touches it and I click, she has to turn and walk to me to receive her treat. Then she'll have to turn and walk back to the cone to touch it to trigger another click.

I'm hoping this will help clear up the process for both of us, and then we can move on to more complex work.

For the rest of the week, it's just light riding. I think I'll go for some nice hacks out in the big hay field. Then I head up to Aspen Farms to groom for Devin at the event. It's my last grooming event of the year! I learned an awful lot about care and keeping of event horses while working for Devin, so I'm really glad I did it. Still, by the time school rolls around I think it will be a nice break from my hectic summer!

I've got the eventing rally coming up in a few weeks, which is sort of the last hurrah of our summer. Hopefully I can get some jumping lessons in between now and then! I'll wind things down during fall term (which is, inevitably, what always happens - then I feel guilty for not riding as much), then come back into work during the winter with some serious dressage training as well as start up again with jumping. 

Anyway - thought I'd let you guys know that I'm back and posting should return to more frequent levels now!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fun with Clickers

Let me explain a large chunk of my personal training philosophy:

'Good enough' is never good enough.

I don't mean this in terms of the work my horse gives me. I mean it in terms of how I train, the methods and equipment I use. Example: I used a loose ring double-jointed bit with a lozenge-shaped center piece, and it was good enough. But she could have been a little quieter in the mouth, so I switched her to a loose ring happy mouth french link. Now she is much happier, quieter in the mouth, and more willing to take contact. (Even now, I wonder if this is Good Enough: I've long contemplated trying a Nathe with her, which is a soft flexible rubber rather than harder plastic). I'm the same way with saddle fit - it could always be better, right? This drives my mother crazy, by the way.

So, clicker training as a training technique is always lurking in the back of my mind. I've used it to great success with my smart, friendly, highly toy-motivated dog whenever I have some spare time. (Also known as: it takes me about 15 minutes to teach a simple new trick when I come up with one, and a few 5-minute sessions had him almost skateboarding). So - why not try it with my smart, friendly, highly food-motivated mare? I knew it would work. Once, when I was tired of her not letting me wash her face, we used treats and within about two minutes she was happily letting us wash her face.

Anyway, it's always something I've wanted to play with in addition to my regular training. I'm not about to renounce tack and only ride bareback with a neck rope or only do groundwork or anything, but I think in the right circumstances clicker training is a useful tool to have in the box, and I'm surprised I don't hear of more people using it to supplement their traditional training. In this case it's perfect for me: I have a willing, cheerful, intelligent, and motivated pony.

So I busted out the old yellow clicker I got years ago with a dog-training book, grabbed a bag full of horse cookies, pulled out a long-handled bucket-scrubbing brush, and headed into the arena.

For those of you new to clicker training, it basically works like this: the clicker is a marker signal to say 'yes, that's right, now you're going to get rewarded.' It's a very specific sound that can mark the instant of a behavior with great accuracy, and the horse learns to associate the click with an impending reward. Lots of people use treats, especially with horses. If your horse is suitably motivated by scratches (works very well with babies) or verbal praise, more power to you.

Usually people start clicker training horses by teaching them to target. You hold out your target - lots of people use a cone, I used the end of the long scrubby brush - and as soon as your horse investigates with his muzzle, you click. Remove the target, give your horse a treat. Stick it out again and click/treat when your horse touches it with his muzzle. And so on and so forth.

The idea with clicker work is that you begin by rewarding the slightest effort in the direction you want. So first you could click/treat the horse even moving his muzzle slightly toward the target. As he begins to understand, you reward only when he gets closer to the target. As you progress, you then only click/treat when he actually touches it. Then you begin to require longer touches before you'll click.

Targeting is useful to start with because it's usually a completely new behavior, so horses won't have any old cues or knowledge. It is easy to introduce and it's pretty clear whether they've 'got it' or not, and will help the horse learn how the clicker works.

McKinna had targeting down in about 10 seconds on Wednesday, but we all knew she was a smart pony. Yesterday, as soon as I held out the target she pricked her ears and marched over from halfway across the arena to stick her nose on it.

Okay, so she knows how to target.

I've started working on a bow with her - not a one-knee bow, but a both-legs straight out in front bow.

  Like this, but with the bent foreleg stretched out in front too. Photo: Keegan Jewell, by Larissa Allen.

I'm interested in the stretch value mostly, and to see if I can teach it to her. Call it an intellectual exercise, or a training one - I'm curious to see if I can teach a somewhat complicated behavior, one not related to anything she's learned before.

If I'm successful, I'm curious to see how I can work clicker training under saddle. It's just such an interesting tool to me, one that makes the 'yes/no' distinction clearer to the horse. The clicker means yes. Once the horse understands that, why wouldn't you want to use it under saddle? Maybe it won't work. I don't know, I've never tried it. I know that you don't really hear of competition riders using clicker training much. But if it gives me a clearer way to tell my horse when she's on the right track, and results in a much more enthusiastic effort from her (believe me, after our first day of clicker work she was ready to come in from the pasture and get into that arena!), it sure seems to me that clicker work is a good thing to add. Not to mention that it really installs a fun, "what can we do next?" feeling in both trainer and horse - never a bad thing to have when you're working.

This weekend we're camping, and on Tuesday I'm off to Taiwan for ten days. So I think the majority of the bowing will have to wait until I get back, unfortunately. I'm really, really looking forward to getting to work with McKinna more consistently once I return: our dressage work, as I discussed in my last post, is coming along wonderfully and I'm itching to feel that awesome trot lengthening again; then there's playing around with clicker work; then there's a return to over-fences work, since I'm headed to the Eventing Rally in September.

I am sure my mother will enjoy the chance to ride her horse for a couple weeks in the meantime :-)

I know a lot of people are really against using treats when training horses - I've found it's not an issue with McKinna, especially since targeting teaches her that touching something other than me gets her the treat - but if I had a pushy horse I might be more careful about the use of food rewards. I'm curious to know what you guys think of clicker training. Have you heard of it before? Have you ever tried it? Would you try it?

Good places to start reading if you're interested: (you'll need a login to read - you can create one free or use bugmenot as both username and password) - a good article on introducing clicker to under-saddle work, and using a scratch instead of food reward


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dressage Love

Sometimes I question my identity as an eventer. Because - gasp, horror! - I actually like dressage work.

I know a distaste for dressage isn't universal, but it sure is part of the eventer image. Get through the boring part so you can get to the jumping! Do whatever you can to contain your exploding, hot, fit horse!

Well, yeah. Dressage and I have had our moments. But for the most part, I really actually enjoy it.

I love the process and knowing that it is built so clearly on a logical progression of increasing skill, strength, balance, suppleness, and communication. The better our dressage work gets, the better our jumping work gets. The more dressage work we do, the stronger McKinna becomes - and the stronger McKinna becomes, the better our dressage work gets!

Even though I've been gone a lot and thus riding very sporadically, things have been going quite well. Example: we had a fabulous dressage lesson last night. (Please imagine the word 'fabulous' complete with sparkles and angels singing in the background.)

I asked Leslie if we could begin doing some lateral work. We haven't spent much time on it at all, having been focusing instead on getting three quality gaits with suppleness and push from behind and all that good stuff. I've been feeling lately that she's ready, at the walk and trot at least, to begin working on some new things like leg-yield and shoulders-in. Leslie agreed, so we got to play!

Overall, McKinna was wonderful. From the moment I picked up a trot in warmup, I could tell her trot was just going to kick butt: it was soft, fluid, forward, and she was willing to be as stretchy or as compact as I wanted. Cool beans. The best part is that she is actually beginning to understand connection and contact, especially going to the right. We are still having issues accepting the right rein when it's the outside rein, especially in left-lead canter where she wants to motorcycle and it's virtually impossible to get her to stand up, but we're working on it.

Bonus: the lateral work will strengthen her and teach her more about proper connection anyway, so it's win-win.

We got some nice leg yields at the walk and trot, and some reasonable shoulder-in. Theoretically I know what a shoulder-in is, and how to ask for it, but I haven't really schooled it much, so it was good to get some guidance. McKinna can be quite noodly with her body, but I think as she learns what I want from a shoulder-in that problem will go away. Also, it really helps when I keep my outside leg firmly on. (Please don't ask me how my outside leg, behind the girth, magically keeps her shoulders in. It just does.)

Best part: Leslie had us do some trot lengthenings. One of them felt so good that I'm pretty sure I let out a 'woohoo!' as we went trotting along! McKinna took a steady contact, stayed soft, reached forward and up, and pushed from behind into longer and longer steps. Way cool.

We did some more, and I discovered that if I give her too much slack in the rein while trying to get her to stay soft, it backfires and she wants to pop up into the canter. I need to keep my contact, ask her to soften, and give her a supportive rein contact to lengthen into.

Yay dressage. Leslie is great, she really is. I enjoy my lessons, learn a lot, and McKinna is improving all the time. While I'm away, I'm going to have Leslie do a couple training rides in addition to my mom riding. She says she will continue introducing more First Level stuff - the shoulder-in, leg yield, maybe some shallow counter-canter serpentines. I think it will really help to have Leslie ride that canter, because I'm not sure if she can see from the ground just how much McKinna is avoiding the outside rein when we go to the left. When she rides, she'll be able to feel it and take steps to correct it.

Can't wait to play with the lateral stuff and lengthenings more at home.

That's all for now. Time to go do some laundry...

Monday, August 9, 2010


Home from Quiz Championships in California - before that, I was teaching our Pony Club's summer camp - before that, Rebecca farm, and before that the annual band leadership camp. The best part? I am literally home for a week, then I leave for a 10-day trip to Taiwan, then I'm home for four days and I go to groom at Aspen.

This is easily the busiest summer I've ever had. Lots of fun, and a good variety, but I am ready for a break. Thankfully September is a little more laid back (and by laid back I mean I'm spending one weekend grooming, one weekend at an eventing rally, and potentially one weekend at an event derby).

Quiz was extremely fun. Western Pony Club Champs were held down at the Woodside Horse Park in California this year, which is a lovely huge horse park with approximately a zillion arenas and a big XC course with nice fences. All the grass is brown which is weird for me, but the footing looks great, nice and sandy. Unfortunately the riding parts of Champs didn't really start till after we left, so we got to watch a few Show Jumping rounds and that was it.

My team ended up with 5th out of 7 in the Senior C division, which is actually a big accomplishment. We were a "short team," which means we only had three competitors - and we were the ONLY short team, as all the rest had four. This is a major handicap because in every round of individual competition (two Classroom phases, Mega Room, Barn, Written Test), the lowest score of the four is dropped. But if you have a short team, you never get a dropped score. So, considering that, the sheer fact that we did better than two teams was impressive.

I learned a lot, as usual. Studied 90% of the B/A Pony Club manual on the drive down there. It's almost 500 pages and has some serious thickness of material, so that was entertaining. Learned the major bones in the axial and appendicular skeleton, some major muscles, all the parts of the digestive system (small intestine has weird names!), lots of Polocrosse and Tetrathlon rules, tack stuff, disease stuff, teaching stuff. Retained a lot of the things I memorized, so that'll come in handy for future studying for my next rating, the HB, which is almost all knowledge-based.

Also learned some things during the test, like: in an ABC fire extinguisher, type A puts out wood/paper fires, type B puts out flammable liquids like gasoline and oil, and type C puts out electrical fires. (D puts out chemical fires and is not included in most fire extinguishers). Why did I learn this? Because I missed a 15-point question asking what the B of an ABC fire extinguisher put out. Ugh.

Car ride was long. Glad we weren't pulling a  horse trailer. Rode in a fellow clubber's motorhome, played lots of cards and drawing games and 20 questions, read a lot, tried to sleep but it's difficult at a small table. Got home at 2 or so to a very insistent cat, who also woke me up at 8 with some serious nose-in-face and claws-kneading-on-skin action.

I'm sleepy.

But I am glad we went. Learned lots. Enjoyed my team. Bought a saddle pad and a USPC sweatshirt.

Kicking around ideas: new thoughts for playing with McKinna's training, writing a letter to USPC National with suggestions to improve the quiz rally experience, I am hungry and want some breakfast, need to get kicking on some old blog post ideas that are clamoring for attention, maybe talk about the club's camp a bit.

Pictures soonish. We took some good ones out on XC at Woodside. Big fences out there.
Related Posts with Thumbnails