This strong belief forces me to change how I approach my goals and training with Sonny. I am learning how to read subtle signs of tension so I can intervene earlier and maintain his overall relaxation. I am adapting my teaching environment to his needs each session, with the #1 priority of not letting things escalate beyond light tension. Besides for humane reasons, this could be construed as a means to the end, as animals and people don't learn well under significant stress or tension; the more relaxed Sonny is, the faster he can learn. The world and surrounding environment will always continue to provide novel stimuli that will induce light tension, or quick moments of high tension (ie spook), but the goal is for the animal to be emotionally resilient and able to return to relaxation.
Each horse and human are going to have their unique challenges and situations that induce tension that they will have to overcome. For Sonny it is leaving his herd, dealing with changes in his herd, or any movement of the herd . He is a bit stallion-like with a very strong herd protective instinct - he strongly drives new horses away from his band, and worries if his herd is moving about outside it's usual pattern (ie an owner taking their horse away to ride). He truly always tries to please me and do the right thing, but he basically has anxiety regarding his herd that he cannot easily release. For me this means I have to adapt each session to accommodate his level of tension and worry given the current circumstance. He is not an ATV, I cannot expect him to abruptly cease his job as herd protector because I decided it is time to ride. He is very obedient and I can certainly easily make him listen but I can't 'make' him decide he wants to ride and be together versus with protect his herd. Instead I have to adapt each session to first get real connection then I can progress towards my goals of the day.
I have taken to starting each session at liberty to assess where he is that day and see what he wants to do. Most days he sees me coming and is waiting at the gate and wants to come out and play -- I open it and he comes out at liberty and I often start the session with small games to build connection. We play fetch while I latch the gate (this way he leaves me alone while I toss his rope-toy away so I have time to shut the gate!). Sometimes we will walk together to the horse trailer to play with loading using a hand-target (he touches his nose to my hand), or maybe go for a walk around the farm. When we have good connection then I may ask him learn a new task, or most-commonly we progress to an environment that causes increasing tension such as the indoor arena or walking further away from the barn (as my ultimate goal is to leave the barn for trail and conditioning rides). We then focus on developing relaxation in the new environment using basic foundation games such as targeting an object or my hand, or body yields (back up, hip or fore-quarter yields). After focus and incremental relaxation in the new environment I will retreat back to his comfort zone to let his emotions completely relax. Each time we repeat this he learns it is ok to leave as he comes back and all is fine. When he leaves it is fun, and he is building emotional fitness. This only works as long as I manage things to keep him relaxed and 'below-threshold'. If he goes over-threshold all learning is done and we have to re-group and start over.
To make this a bit clearer and more practical I am using cones (targets) in a row leaving the barn or going through the indoor arena if bad weather/footing. I start walking with him to the first cone, nose-touch and target (click/treat), then onto cone #2. After cone #2 I retreat back to cone #1, then go back to cone #1-2-3, then back to to #2, then #1. At each cone he stops, targets, and gets click/reinforced (C/R). Besides making a fun game leaving the barn, he is learning to stop every few steps on the way back too - no more rushing home!. This is progressive and as he gets more comfortable I space the cones further apart and may go multiple cones before retreating back down the line -- this is based on my judgement of his tension, how the session is going, and how tired I am of walking up and down the hill in the snow! While this feels very slow it truly is progressive. Just last week I spaced 14 cones out 6 large strides apart and we only made it down to cone #7 or so. Today I had 17 cones space 8 large strides apart (each stride is about 3') and we made it all the way to #17, where he did have light tension but still was easily able to focus, take treats (and ask for more by offering different behaviors!!) -- this was a good threshold to stop at and retreat. He will be interested in doing more at the next session instead of feeling overwhelmed with anxiety whenever he is made to go out that direction. (and we were able to reach cone #10 in our riding session!! The best yet - until the next session)
|Line of cones going through the indoor arena|
|Line of cones leading from the barn|
After we do a bit of this we take a break. He goes back to his hay so he can relax and process what we just did, I visit the washroom and have a drink (water - not alcohol, lol!!!). Then I may move onto something else, such as practicing foundation behaviors while riding. This is important as I want to re-wire some basic training that I feel he has never truly had down pat. I re-taught lateral flexion using hand targeting, meaning I hold my hand out to the side while riding and he bends and bumps his nose on it, then C/R. This was fairly easy as he already understood it well from ground work and I quickly progressed it to re-teaching hip yields. When he started to follow my hand with his nose to the side I asked with light pressure from my leg for the hips to move (which is what naturally happens when their head turns enough) and then C/R when he stepped over. This has been fun because Sonny always struggled with having a quiet hip yield without forward movement using more traditional training. Now I can tell that he truly understands what I am asking - he can readily shift just one step over without a thought of moving forward; it is an entirely different feel while riding. No reins are involved - this was all re-taught sitting on him bareback with a halter/lead.
|Practicing foundation behavior while riding|
Other fun things we are playing with including teaching 'hugs' and 'hip-targeting'. I noticed that Sonny was tense if I hugged him (something I don't typically do, but for some reason did the other day). So instead of tension I taught him to offer lateral flexion around my body and target my hand reaching out behind me. So now when I hug his neck, instead of tensing he reaches around and 'hugs' me back - fun! I also decided I needed to spend the time to teach him to move his hip toward a target so I have a method to say move-over-here for mounting (it will also come in handy for haunches-in ground-work down the road!). I enjoy teaching these little games and will often use them initially to establish good connection, or at the end of a session to end with something extra-fun and not quite so hard as leaving the barn.
|Teaching hip targeting|
So where does this leave us for endurance this season.... I don't know. I would really like to at least try for the 25 mile Sheila and Marg Memorial Ride in May, but we have to first get conditioning miles on the trail. Right now we are cone #17 (with 8 stride spacing), leaving the barn (almost 1/2 way to the road to start a conditioning ride). So we will progress at Sonny's pace, slowly increasing the distance between the cones and then eventually gradually reducing the number of cones, until we can start conditioning. And we will make it to a ride when he is ready, I can hope for May but we will see.
|All the way at cone #17 today, at the top of the hill (and yes, I just wear the helmet the whole session - it keeps my ears warm!)|