Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Resolution - Emotional Fitness!

Happy New Year's!!

My short-term (and lifetime!!) New Year's resolution for Sonny is learning emotional fitness.   This is a bit selfish  (or goal oriented) on my part as I want to compete with him in 2019 (ie  25 miles at Aprilfest, 50 miles at the Shelia and Marg Memorial ride, building up to multi-days later in the season...) But before any competition first comes the pre-requisite that he is consistently connected and relaxed (and hopefully happy).  This comes first, before any spring conditioning or thought of competition and we will take all the time he needs to develop these skills (but that being said I would like it be as efficient as possible for my goals).  Unfortunately this past year I had to balance developing his emotional fitness with the necessary physical rehabilitation for his tendon injury -- he needed to trot X number of minutes on a schedule for optimum healing and I prioritized his physical rehab over his emotional fitness (for long-term soundness). Now that we have successfully rehabilitated the injury I can switch focus back to his emotional fitness.

Resolutions towards Emotional Fitness:
  • Develop smaller reactions and quicker relaxations.
    • For example, my goal is that when a horse canters past or if someone leaves the arena, he only reacts with a small ear flick or a lift of his head and I ask him for a slight bend or head-lower and on we go. 
  • Maintain relaxation at all 3 gaits more consistently
    • We've got this when relaxed in the outdoor arena! Now I want it more solid so Sonny has a consistent relaxation go-to behavior in all 3 gaits
    • To me this is riding on a loose rein, in an neutral or slightly back-lifted posture with his head relaxed and natural (about level with his withers give or take). Our whoa and go will be balanced. 
To be fair, when Sonny is relaxed he is very connected and has quite a bit of training -- we have nice whoas off the seat at all 3 gaits, he can shoulder-in, haunches-in, half-pass at the walk, and we were previously playing with walk/canter/rein-back transitions. What I am trying to say is that he has the understanding when his emotions allow him to think.

However, when he becomes emotional this goes to "hell in a handbasket" very quickly. I still have good obedience and can use a tight rein (riding bitless with a cavesson or s-hack) to enforce transitions and safety, but that is not my goal and I know that riding is not good or fun for Sonny when he is that anxious! Thankfully I don't believe he wants to be anxious, so I am hopeful that teaching him how to relax will encourage him to want to relax and I will further reinforce those moments with clicker training. C/R = click/reinforce (ie tongue cluck and feed a treat)

Mat training for relaxation

I started out using groundwork and mat training to initially teach him to stand still on the mat. At our last update, a few weeks ago, he was up to 18 counts of standing still with 2 front hooves on the mat.  I tried several methods to be progressive with the mat training, as it seemed he would get distracted and wasn't really getting the idea past 25 counts or so.

  • I added on head-lowering criteria, so he had to stand on the mat with 2 front hooves and his nose lower than his shoulder (ie neck horizontal or lower) in order to be C/R.  We started the count over from the beginning when adding on the new criteria, so he had to stand like this for 1 count then C/R, then 2 counts and C/R, and so on until after a few sessions we reached about 30 counts.  I think this helped him understand and connect to the game a bit more, otherwise he was so distracted when standing on the mat he didn't realized why he was being C/R. 
  • After a while we still couldn't seem to really make it past 30 counts or so without a emotional distraction. I decided he needed more incentive to stand still and also to develop more emotional fitness with 'coming up' and then 'coming down'.
    • So I added in the trot on a longer line (remember that "Motion creates Emotion", credit Parelli). When he stepped off the mat I encouraged him to move out and trot or canter, rear, buck, in rough approximations of figure-8's. At anytime he could choose to come back to the mat and stand still with his head lowered and get C/R. When adding in trot+  I once again relaxed the duration/count criteria and C/R'd immediately when he chose to come back to the mat. Next I rather quickly added the criteria of head-lowering back-in the mix and then slowly increased the duration.  He figured this out fairly quickly and I also realized it was really good for him to work off anxiety by moving his feet!
    • A few sessions later we had the arena to ourselves and I decided to try the mat at liberty as he had a good understanding of the game at this point. It was amazing!!! At first he galloped, bucked, farted and yee-hawed around the arena while I stood patiently at the mat.  After only a few minutes he chose to stand and lower his head, C/R.  He left and came back a few times, and then he wouldn't leave. After about 30+ counts we called it a great session! Can't wait to play with that more.  
    • I also re-read the section in Alexandra Kurland's book "Riding with the Clicker" about the 300 pigeon peck game (ie increasing duration in a behavior) and decided that more persistence on my part was needed to in addition to increasing emotional fitness in the other ways.  So in another session we returned to just slowly increasing duration and made it up to 35, then 40, and finally today a 60 seconds of relaxed standing on the mat!!! Now the ultimate goal is 300 counts (or 5 minutes) but we can take our time getting there, I am very happy with 1 minute!!!
Now for riding!  I set up 2 rows of 5 cones down the arena as targets for figure-8's and small circles to establish patterns of relaxation.  Initially, we started at the 'safe-end' of the arena doing figure-8's of hip-yields around each cone (or milk-crate) until he offered moments of connection and relaxation, C/R. It took several sessions to progress to the small circles to the far 'scary-end' of the arena.

As with the mat training, we seemed to hit a plateau of progress. He could walk around each cone in a semi-relaxed state and semi-connected, and he could stand still with his head-lowered, but I couldn't quite get full relaxation (like we have in the outdoor arena).  Maybe I am just too impatient and expect faster progress than I should??  Regardless, I have been experimenting with different strategies.

The last 2 sessions including today, I tried increasing the emotion through motion, ie I asked him for an upwards transition.  The thought behind that is to use and establish the pattern of coming-down off emotion to further progress overall relaxation.  My goal is a relaxed gait or trot, in a neutral body position with a consistent moderate speed/tempo on a loose rein. This is also the relaxed gait I need consistent for our endurance ride goals.  Yesterday I was able to use canter circles and after a few minutes he started to lower his head, blow out and relax, we C/R'd and ended the session. What I had today was a runaway trot-gait-a-buck-a-gallop, so I persisted with single rein riding around a cone/obstacle. I would ask him to yield his hindquarters with a single-rein whenever he wanted to bolt away (ie don't leak out through the shoulder and run into the wall, instead you have to turn your hind end!), and then ideally go back to a loose rein, and repeat.  Eventually, I would feel a change and a start of relaxation/connection and would C/R, and he could immediately stand with his head lowered. However as soon as I asked him to move again it was straight back into the head-in-the-air, leaky-shoulder, gait-buck-a-lope. We did this a few times, switching directions, and immediately rewarding relaxation but did seem to hit a plateau instead of progressive relaxation.  I picked a spot of relaxation to finish out the ride and then cooled out walking out on a loose rein around the arena, which interestingly enough he could do fairly well with only 1 initial reminder to walk -- it was still a motoring, not entirely-chill walk. but definitely ok.   I also C/R the more relaxed/connected moments of the walk and ended at the 'scary-end' of the arena with a happy pony interested in playing with the Give-It game (see the video below)!  I am very interested to see if this technique will be helpful after a few sessions -- will he start 'getting-it' and offering more moments of relaxed trotting? Or will he stay anxious which would tell me I need to go back to slower games like 1-step at at time, backing, lateral work, etc. Always data collection.....

FYI - the Give-It Game - Sonny can only play the Give-It game when he is sufficiently relaxed to think and play, so it is a good emotional status indicator.  The game consists of me dropping or tossing my glove or his special new dog rope-toy, him retrieving it and giving it to me! So much fun!

And as always, I think (or am sincerely hopeful!) that these arena exercises of learning to relax will be HUGE at endurance ride-starts or other intense moments during a ride (or simply trying to come back to the barn, at a walk, from a trail ride..)

Happy New Year!!!!

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