Monday, July 12, 2010

Break it Down

I have been chewing on the request made by you guys on how I trained Bodhi to work at liberty. My husband summed it up best I think: he said
"Trial and error, positive reinforcement, and persistence."
So that is the short answer! I am going to attempt and break down the behaviors and talk about how I shaped each piece as I think that will be most helpful. There will be a bonus golden blooper at the bottom so please read on... :) I tried reeeeally hard!

The key for any behavior you want to teach is to break it down: Things Bodhi could do before I unsnapped the lead:

  1. Bodhi was classically conditioned to a tongue click. To me this is crucial for liberty work. I can communicate to my horse from a distance that he has completed the behavior I want. A "click" is also a natural pause button in the session. This means if all else fails you have a whoa when your horse understands that a click means "good job stop and get your reward"**
  2. -Bodhi understood basic commands on the lunge through voice and body language. He would move off, stop, and turn while maintaining slack in the line. Keeping your horse on a line while perfecting your, whoa, go, and turn supplies you with a safety net in case your horse gets excited overstimulated or distracted. Which cues you use is up to you. I started Bodhi as a two year old with NH. So he yields his shoulders and hind end when you point with a whip or hand. He also takes cues from whether my hips are "open" (facing him) or "closed"(parallel to him). Facing him means stop. Parallel means to travel parallel to me and when I angle my hips in he knows to circle me. The positive side for body cues of course is that it is not dependent on pressure from a line. So it translates well for liberty. I also have a verbal whoa. Used more undersaddle but it works at liberty too.
  3. -Bodhi knew how to target- Targeting is one of the basic lessons many positive reinforcement trainers use. It is a great tool in your tool box and can be used for a variety of tasks once trained. It is a way to ask for movement and direction without using driving aids like a lunge whip from behind which may be too much for the sensitive horse at liberty causing a horse to break the connection and leave. I found targeting put Bodhi in the habit to looking to me for directions on where to go to get rewarded. **

Our Liberty Work- a Progression:
What you need: enclosed area-We have a smaller riding ring which I worked in to teach all of the initial pieces. A small simple environment is the best place to train liberty work. I find round pens are too small. I like my horse to be able to "leave". It shows me where the holes are in the commands. I think it makes them feel less chased and more playful when it is actually their idea to participate.
A target stick -dressage whip, carrot stick your hand etc. whatever you train your horse to target can then be generalized to give direction at liberty.
A marker: A marker is what signal you condition your horse to respond to. I use a tongue click because it is unique sounding, easy to produce and sharp. You could use a phrase like "good" or "Yes" but you have to be careful to say it the same way each time and not use it in other contexts**
Rewards I trained all the behaviors by reinforcing them positively. I use a portion of Bodhi's grain for rewards with pieces of carrot as a "jackpot". I carry them in a pouch designed for dog training. You can also use a cloth tool bag or fishing vest.**
Control of gaits and Whoa I trained Bodhi first to walk trot and canter and whoa around the ring on command. I found for a lazy pony it helped for me to travel around in a smaller tract with him which then evolved into body cues for Bodhi on which gate I want. I trot for trot, and I skip for canter. I stop my feet, he stops his feet. It is simple and easy for me to remember. Keep in mind these behaviors, as he responds correctly, are being reinforced by a tongue click and a reward. As Bodhi was trained to yield his hind end at the whoa I then reinforced direction changes as well from the halt by indicating which shoulder I wanted him to yield and reinforcing when he picked correctly.
Targeting- I then practiced targeting around the ring at liberty. I gradually faded out the clicks and rewards and had him following the target for longer and longer periods of time without a click. This helped him to generalize that the target was indicating direction not just an immediate touch. I then practiced weaving, serpentines and circles as he followed the target. He eventually generalized that the outstretched dressage whip was indicating his trajectory and I was able to phase out the touching of the target completely. My body language cues from our previous ground work then filled in the gaps and I was able to "control" him at liberty.
Jumping I think this is the most simplistic part. At liberty I set up ground poles around the arena and reinforced him for walking and then trotting over them. He quickly caught on to the game and we diversified by setting up cross rails combinations of ground poles and jumps, tiny oxers and the like. Bodhi was learning how to jump so we went slowly. Teaching a horse at liberty is just like teaching a horse to jump on the lunge only he was never forced to go over any object by jump shoots and never punished for dodging or refusing. In this way I knew when the obstacle was too difficult or we had progressed too fast. If he went around or refused an object I just brought it down to something he had already mastered and began again. By earning a click and treat he had incentive to try hard and be persistent.
The result is what you saw. A horse that is happy to travel around a course of jumps, and turns, stops changes directions and gates by body language. It took a lot of hours to learn but we did not notice we were having too much fun!

There are many means to an end. There is probably a million ways to train a horse to work at liberty. There is no one right way to do it. I can only attest to what worked for us.

Some things were a surprise to me. I had no idea that Bodhi would generalize so quickly to my body language. That was a very happy accident. I was also so surprised at how tenacious and happy he became. He really likes to jump and to run around with me a liberty. Who knows why?!

Each horse is different. What I will say about this sort of work though is that it will teach you a great deal about your relationship with your horse. It will show you what needs to be worked on and what has been reinforced well in your training. You will see more of your horse's personality at liberty too. As you express yourself without the aide of tack don't be surprised when your horse expresses himself right back!
I hope this little narrative is helpful. Go out and play with those ponies!
**As I am writing this post I feel like each of these points could use a whole new blog entry. Food is a touchy subject among horse people. Also targeting and classical conditioning are basic concepts used by animal trainers but may be novel to some of you. I know I have a mixed audience from different disciplines and backgrounds so if you guys would like any of these techniques explained yell out and I will be happy to give it my best.*

Ok on to the promised blooper video. Below is what happens when you have an agility trained dog and horse. You get a dog in pony show.
Disclaimer: This was not planned. I thought Stella was distracted with a ball but apparently not. Don't try this at home it could have ended with a squished dog. I was lucky so now we can all laugh.


  1. Sounds like so much fun! I think it's so easy to focus on riding that we miss out on a whole different aspect of the relationship. I'd be interested in hearing more about how you think the liberty work affected your under saddle work. Do you think it made some things easier? Some more challenging?

    I don't know why, but your videos aren't showing up for me. There's just nothing there. Anyone else have this problem?

  2. Oh no Ruckus the videos are the best part! They turn white when I try and make the video full screen but they play otherwise for me. Anyone have any ideas?

    And really good question! I will have to think about that!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing - very cool. I think I'm going to see if I can eventually convince Tucker to respond to the position of my hips on the lunge line. That would be a good place to start right? (Oh, and videos are showing up for me -- thank goodness because I love them!)

  4. The video's working for me - that's very funny!

    Thank you for going to the trouble to write this out - I'm a newbie to clicker and found your clear explanations very helpful.

  5. Thanks for breaking that down a bit for us! I've done some targeting work with my horse and he gets it ok - maybe I just never took it far enough for him to start enjoying it or something...?

    Interesting stuff about your hips and the different ways you use them to communicate with him - I had kind of heard of that before, but didn't really put it all together. Interesting...

    I can see the videos ok...

    I'm interested to know how you apply the click to saddle training - do you use a food reward when riding too? I always thought it would be awkward and would also kind of "interrupt" whatever you were working on if you had to stop, click and treat.

  6. Impressive, just goes to show that if you really believe in your training method and let the horse set the pace you can train your horse to do most anything! And apparently your dog too. :) That was a very cute video, now if you can get them both to do the A frame at the same time I will be very impressed :)

  7. Oh, and I hope you don't mind that I've linked in my last post. And interesting stuff about body position - horses are very good at reading subtle stuff like that and it's very effective when working on the ground.

  8. Thanks Kate!
    Beth- if I find an A frame big enough you bet I will try!
    Marissa- Which ever cue feels natural to you use it. I would start with the halt first because it is the most dramatic movement and Tucker will be able to pick up on it best.
    Laura- good question. I will think about it and maybe respond to your question along with Ruckus' in my next post. If you guys keep asking me questions I won't have to think up any more post subjects! I would love that. :)

  9. Thank you so much!! You broke things down very well. It's a logical progression, although I'm sure it took quite a lot of time and patience. I'm totally impressed!

    The only things I'm confused about are under the "Target" section. First, did you use the dressage whip as a target? And secondly, this sentence confused me a bit -- "He eventually generalized that the outstretched dressage whip was indicating his trajectory and I was able to phase out the touching of the target completely." Did you stop touching the dressage whip to where you wanted Bodhi to go? Sorry, I am just very interested in this and want to make sure I understand it clearly.

    When I was working with Salem, I unintentionally taught him to halt using body language! I never even realized that, whenever I asked him to halt, I would square up to him, and when I wanted him to move I would turn my hips more parallel. One day, I accidentally squared my hips up to him and he halted. Total lightbulb moment for me!

    Thanks again! Now I just need another "project pony" to work with so I can try this stuff!

  10. Great video. You should be able to send that to a TV show somewhere, and I love the cows mooing in the background if that's the sound I'm hearing.

    Great step by step instructions. Thanks for putting it all together.

  11. I got it! I opened Explorer (I usually use firefox) and it asked for an Adobe add-on when I got to your page...and the videos worked. So I'm guessing I somehow turned that off in firefox. Weird. Loved the videos!!

  12. Great work! We talk about liberty being the test of what you do online...if you're using body language as the main form of communication, with tools to back you up, then it should eventually be possible to communicate with the horse without using tools!

    Kerrin Koetsier
    Parelli Central