Saturday, December 20, 2008

Out of the Blue

It's been a very long time since I posted, I know. But just as the plants and animals become less active as the days become shorter, hey, so do I. Bo's education has continued but not as vigorously. I worked with him a bit on his "agility" equipment prior to Thanksgiving. I was having family and guests in, and I wanted Bo to perform. He put on several performances for small audiences of one or two or three people, whoever happened to brave the cold temps and sometimes rain.

To catch you up, here's what Bo is now doing. In agility, he has two jumps, a teeter board, and a set of cones for weaving. We worked on each piece individually, then started linking pieces of equipment together. At this point, he can weave through his cones, jump two jumps, then walk his teeter board. He really likes this physically active type of work. We do all this out in the round pen.

However, the weather is often icky, so we do a lot of work in the barn aisle. I bought interlocking foam mats in bright colors to work on in the barn, and Bo loves his mats. When I come into the barn in the morning and open his stall door, he comes out and goes straight to the "play" area. He wants to do something. He'll stand in the middle of these mats and wait for me while I clean his stall and putter around. If I peek out at him, he will offer a behaviour -- his latest favorite being a rear. There he is standing in the middle of the barn aisle, and he starts to gather himself to stand on his hind legs.

Now this may not sound so good, and I had to think long and hard before I started capturing the rear. But it is something he likes to do naturally. What I'm careful of is to only reward a rear when he's given a specific cue. It's taken a week or so, but I think he gets it. And with rear, I both start and finish with submission positions of head down and bow.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I've been working in earnest on bow with Bo since Thanksgiving weekend (within the limitations of the season -- see above). Prior to that I was trying to shape individual bits of head down and lift leg and push back, but it was not going so well. He'd just back up. My sister was here visiting for Thanksgiving, and she suggested baiting him with a carrot between his legs. I'm not keen on baiting, but what the heck, the shaping wasn't working for us, so I gave it a try. If I lifted his leg, then baited, he figured out how to get everything else where it needed to be, and allowed me to lower him to his knee. All right, success!

Well, sort of. He was relying on me to lift his leg, or more accurately, hold it up. He would happily lift his foreleg and curl it tightly to his belly, but when it came time to head down and shift weight backwards, he'd put his foot back down, his front legs spread in a wide V, often backing up. If I just put my left hand out flat and supported his pastern, he would head down and shift weight back and allow me to lower his knee to the ground, no problem. That gave us the final outcome of a bow, but I just wasn't happy with all my intervention. So I made a concerted effort this week to fade out my touching his leg at all.

At this point, his cue for bow was I would be on my knees on Bo's left side. I'm right handed and it just was easier for me. I would touch him in the girth area behind his elbow, and he would lift and curl his left front leg. To get his head down and start the shift backward, I baited him with a carrot in my right hand, tapping under his belly to lure him down. To ensure he kept his foreleg up, I would support the pastern with the palm of my left hand, and with the luring would lower his knee to the mat. From there, I would click and treat him with his head still down hunting that carrot under his chest.

Another aspect I wasn't happy with was the baiting/luring was causing him to bite. He was making jabs and grabs, and I got nipped a few times. Being a stallion, he's already prone to biting, and this whole scene was encouraging it even more. So it was important to me to fade out all this contact I was having with him.

First I ditched the left-hand support of his foreleg. He was lifting it himself and curling it tight against his body, so it was time to take off the training wheels, so to speak. I simply refused to touch or hold his leg up, and each time he stepped backward I would simply reposition him and try again, still luring with the carrot. This took about three sessions for him to accept that the only way to a treat was to go down on his knee under his own power. He's a smart little guy, and he made the transition. Now it was time to end the luring.

This wasn't as hard as I thought it might be, and the results are great. The snarky biting has subsided to almost nothing. I still cue him with a light scritch to the belly/girth area, and continue that until he drops to his knee and has his nose well down on the ground or under him. I then give him the treat in that position to reinforce that's where I want him to be.

Now for the "Out of the Blue" part. Tonight I went out to the barn to bring Bo in for bed. I worked with him a bit on bow and head down, and he did both very nicely with a few reps of each. So I got up to get his brush to do some grooming. I brushed his left side a bit and then went round to his right and worked on his neck a few strokes and moved back toward his shoulder and ribs. As I scratched the brush down and behind his elbow, he lifted his right fore. Hmmm, interesting. I got down on my knees to brush the feathers of his front legs, and he was trying to grab the brush. At one point, he dropped his head low and back between his front legs in the obeisance bow position. Again, interesting. I ran the brush under his belly, and the front leg came up and the head bobbed down tentatively. This is getting very interesting. So I abandoned the brush altogether and gave him the scritches on his belly/girth. Up went his RIGHT foreleg, head down, shift weight back and down onto his knee. Holy Cow! He's not supposed to be able to do that! I've never worked with him on bow from his right side. As a matter of fact, he went down to both knees and held that position for the first click and treat, and continued to hold while I madly fished in my pocket for more carrots, the last few I had and would normally have saved to put in his hay bowl as a goodnight treat.

I was so excited. I was babbling away to Bo, telling him how clever he is, giving him strokes and scritchies. Everything I've read says you have to teach horses on each side, that their brains aren't wired to correlate a behaviour from one side of the body to another. But I've always said Bo is a wiz kid of a pony. Exciting stuff.

Finally, an observation I've made over the past month. This concentration on the bow has done a couple of things. It seems to have improved his head down as well. I've been getting a head down from Bo from the first day I started cuing him, but it's been just a bob down. Along with the bow, he's now really thinking about his head down and will drop and hold it longer. And even if he pops up, I will continue cuing head down and he'll drop and hold better. I can see him really thinking about it and struggling with it, but he's improving his submission. Perhaps he has trouble with submission because he's a mature stallion before all this training started.

I'll keep you posted in the new year as to our progress. I always look forward to the day after the Winter Solstice because the days start getting longer and I'll be doing more with Bo. BTW, he has started wearing his bit. When we get out for walks, I put the bridle on, then the halter, to give him some time with the bit. And when he's out walking/trotting and looking around, he doesn't fuss with the bit as much. Once back to the barn, without any distractions, he tends to chomp and mess with the bit. I've got to get him on the road to his real horse career of driving.

Next post I should have some pics. (fingers crossed)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jumping and Leg Yields and Pedestal Work

Bo has been working on his dressage and jumping this week, as well as perfecting standing on a pedestal.

The pedestal work has been interesting to watch as Bo thinks about how best to place his feet to be able to balance on his pedestal. He's tried several different placements, but has now settled for a wider stance in front, with his hinds tucked up underneath him and rather close together. He's also found that arching his neck a bit and dropping his nose on the vertical helps keep him in balance.

We've also continued work on leg yields both left and right. I've added a very physical cue by stepping toward Bo and crossing my legs to move him over. I don't know if he's mirroring my actions or he can simply see the cue more readily -- he is only 31 inches tall -- but a the light bulb came on very bright. The leg yields also encourage him to round up and use his back, arch his neck and drop his nose on the vertical. Hmmm, I guess it's all the chicken or egg theory. Or as Alexandra Kurland says, "Everything is everything else."

Finally, Bo is jumping freely. I initially had the jump up against the fence line to I could funnel Bo into the jump. I've now moved the jump into the middle of the round pen, so he does have the option of going around -- which admittedly he does use on occasion -- but he's jumping of his own volition.

Finally, last night I introduced Bo to leading off the ATV. I want to use the ATV to put some mileage on Bo until I can get him trained to drive. Bo's gotten a bit, um, fluffy over the last month and needs to burn off some calories. We can do both walk and trot off the ATV.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Long Time, No Write

Wow! I've been away from the blog for a long time. But that doesn't mean Bo hasn't been busy.

First, Bo told me I was giving him too many new behaviours. I knew I was breaking the rules of training, but he's just so quick and willing. But his individual behaviours weren't solid, and he seemed to be getting frustrated. So I took a deep breath and s-l-o-w-e-d down.

I went back to what he already knew and simply reinforced things without adding anything new. Well, let's just say I slowed down adding new things.

Since Bo came home, he started with pirouettes. He's now well versed in those pirouettes and can turn both away from me as well as into me from either side. The addition of the dressage whip, once he understood its function as an extension of my arm, was a great benefit.

I started Bo on dressage work -- shoulders in and leg yield. We started by asking for just a turn of his head toward me while on our walks. The turn of the head soon became Bo curled around me and he was moving in three tracks. Then I added the dressage whip at his girth area, asking him to move away from me, and voila! leg yield. Each day he gets better and better. We've moved the lessons to the roundpen at liberty at both walk and trot.

And speaking of the roundpen, I've got Bo "heeling" at walk, trot and canter in both directions. Much more fun than longeing, and I get plenty of exercise, too! Bo seems to really enjoy the vigorous movements at liberty, and I try to start our sessions with lots of trot and canter and changes of directions. I've even started him on rollbacks, rapid changes of direction back and forth. It's great to see him be able to really bring his energy up for the quick work, then when he hears the click he stops and stands for his treats.

As far as just plain entertainment, Bo has taken up playing the piano, a little toy piano I bought at a charity shop. I also got him a big hot pink yoga ball, and he bunting that around with his knees, bending it like Beckham. :^) We're still working on retrieving, and Bo will pick up his retrieve toy but has yet to make any move to return it to me. Mostly I'm retrieving it from him. But there's progress.

Bo has also taken to his specially made OverRover! jumps. Initially, he was suspicious of the whole jump experience. It took me some time to convince him it was safe to even walk between the jump standards. But through the clicker work, he's now enjoying his jumping and he's jumping clean more often than not. Tonight, I tried him with two rails on the ground as cavaletti. It was fun watching him work out what I wanted; a couple of times he jumped over the rails. But after a few clicks for walking through them properly, he got the idea. I even saw some lovely suspension at the trot as he thought about where he was putting his feet.

For the last two weeks, I've noticed Bo has been doing some odd things when chewing his carrot treats. He would roll his head to the right and really seem to be working the carrots. It was getting noticeably worse. So I called the vet to come out and have his teeth worked on. I thought maybe he had a retained molar cap that was causing problems. But it turned out he was just very sharp and had some ulcers in the side of his mouth where the teeth were cutting up his cheeks. The vet and tech came out last night, and the three of us were down on our knees working on him. Today he was much better with his carrot bits, although he did roll his head on at least one occasion. The vet said he may retain this behaviour for a while, expecting pain on chewing and until the ulcers have a chance to heal. But he was obviously much better.

Now that his teeth have been floated, I will have to get serious about ordering a bit for him and starting him down the road to his "real" horse job of driving. I have no doubt that all the other work we've been doing will cross over to his driving.

Well, enough for now. I'll try to be a better correspondent in future. And if you want to see our most recent video, although even it is a bit outdated, here's the YouTube address:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Video Update

I took a long weekend away, so that meant Bo did, too. While I vacationed in Maine, Bo went back to his former owner's place where he spent time with his former stablemates. He came back home fresh as a daisy and ready to go back to clicker training.

We came home to a UPS package -- Bo's aunt in Florida (whom he's never met) had sent him a gift! Bo's aunt, actually my sister, is the owner of Over!Rover, and she manufactures beautiful dog agility equipment. She's been following Bo's blog and was inspired to build a couple of jumps for Bo. I can't wait to get started on jumping.

Since our return on Tuesday night, I've worked with Bo in the barn aisle, and yesterday I took him out for the first time to the round pen. The barn aisle is devoid of distractions, but the round pen is right at the corner of the property with a very busy road and horse pasture across the street. Even though Bo has a bit of clover and other greens to pick at in the round pen, he still chose to play the clicker game. I was very pleased to see him responding so well even with the change of venue.

Last night I introduced the dressage whip to our routine. I had been considering using a whip to help direct his hips, but I knew he was a bit whip shy. However, after looking at the first video, I decided I wanted our play to look more graceful, and I think the whip has helped. Additionally, in his exuberance in the game last night, Bo gave my target hand a pretty good nip. So I have substituted the whip in hand as a target rather than my splay-fingered hand. I guess those fingers at nose height were just too tempting.

Happily, he's such a clever fellow that the switch to the whip in hand only took a couple of reinforcements (click-reward!) for him to understand.

When I first brought the whip out of the tack room, Bo turned and left me. He definitely didn't want me to be holding a stick. I approached him in the corner and I could see he was uncomfortable in the proximity of the whip. But I lightly touched him and clicked, which made him interested in what was going on. With the clicking, he was able to hang around long enough to "listen" to me and judge my intent. You can see from today's video, he has no qualms about the whip crossing over his head and across his body. I'll be working with him specifically with the whip and refining its use, which will come in very handy when we start driving.

(More to come)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Wow, what a pony! I don't want to brag but -- aw, heck, yes, I do want to brag. Each day this horse amazes me. He picks up on things so quickly. And he's very good at correlating what he learns on one side to the other side.

Monday morning I went out to work with Bo for a few minutes before turning him out in his morning paddock. We started with touching his target, then moved on to leading with the target. Easy-peasy. I wasn't looking to challenge him, just play a bit before turnout.

Then I thought I'd ask him to bend his neck to touch his target when held near his side. It only took a few repetitions before he started moving his body and I had him follow the target in a circle. Wow, kinda cool. I found I was quickly able to fade out the target and just use my hand as a signal to pirouette. I added walk by my side, now pirouette to the left and return to walking by my side. I reinforced this lesson on Monday night and again Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday night, I took a chance and introduced pirouette to the right. This caused Bo a bit of confusion and frustration, but he stuck with it and I got several successful reps out of him before quitting. This morning I went over the pirouette right several times, and he seemed to have the idea well in hand. So of course I pushed the envelope and chained together walk forward, pirouette right, walk forward, pirouette left. I had my son video us tonight doing this chain, and you can see that video here:

This is all just in the last three days. In addition, Bo has learned to stand on a mat, follow a target, chase a target, and trot in hand on a loose lead. He's jumped ditches and banks, and met alpacas. We dabbled in long lining this week, as weel. After all, he's going to be a driving horse.

We keep very busy. He loves the training, and because he's so quick, I love training him.

Check back again soon.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Penny Drops

Today Bo experienced the Grand A-ha! Today, he connected his behavior to the click and reward. The lightbulb went on and it's burning brightly. I always love this point in training, when you see that your trainee finally gets it.

During the week, Bo's general behavior has improved. He's stopped mugging, and he's taking treats much more politely. He was a bit of a grabber. In other words, he got the idea that mugging didn't produce the desired results (food), and he no longer felt the need to grab food aggressively because he understood that the click was a promise that the treat was coming. So today I re-introduced the target.

Bo would touch the target when I offered it in my hand, and he would follow it down to the ground and side to side and touch it as well. But when I dropped it to the ground, he had a hard time dropping his head down to touch. He was conflicted about moving his head away from me, the vending machine, to touch the target. But if you offer and wait long enough, eventually your trainee will give it a try and -- JACKPOT! After a few more touches, I was able to roll the target away and he would follow it for the touch. He now loves his target and gets truculent when I finish our session. (We did four sessions just today!) I've attached a picture of Bo touching his target.

Busy First Week

Bo has now been with me for a little over a week and we've been very busy. Every morning I turn him out for a few hours in the paddock at the top of the hill. At mid-day I bring him down to his stall and yard. We got the yard enclosed with an electric tape fence, which he's learned to respect. He seems to like the option of having his stall as a run-in area, and I as often find him in his stall as outside.

Bo is now looking forward to my frequent visits to the barn. He now follows me along the electric fence when I walk by, whereas only days ago he would ignore me. He comes right into the stall to see what I have for him to do.

Bo and I take one to two walks a day up the road. These walks are for his (and my) fitness, but they're also an opportunity for teaching Bo exactly what I expect of him. In this case, I expect him to walk beside me on whichever side I'm holding his lead, with his head even with my hip. I like to be able to see him peripherally. He's not to cross either behind or in front of me, and he's to maintain the speed I pick, no rushing forward or lagging behind. And finally, I want him walking on a loose lead, no pressure either from me or him. To that end, I click and reward him when he is in the desired position. This has kept him engaged with me while walking, and I only have to make minor adjustments now.

A few days ago, Bo finally got to see the neighbor's horses and they saw him. Bo was excited to see any horse (he's the only equine on my farm at the moment), and the neighbor horses were typically excited by a stranger who also happens to be the size of a golden retriever. This excitement offered a great training opportunity for Bo. He was allowed to stand and get a good look at the neighbors, and he could even call out to them, but I expected him to stand at my side and keep his feet still. I clicked/rewarded him for being in the proper position, and corrected him and put him back in position when his emotions took over. I was very pleased with his responses.

Last night Bo had the opportunity to perform one of his responsibilities on the farm: he's equine ambassador for non-horsepeople visitors. We had my husband's boss over for dinner, and Bo charmed him just by being cute. His small stature makes him perfect for non-horsepeople to feel comfortable.