Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Contemplating Extinction

No not that extinction!
I am not really interested in the debate over what killed off the dinosaurs. (Last I heard we are back to asteroid bur my personal theory is Zombie virus.)

I am thinking about the term extinction when used in the context of learning theory and behavior. Extinction refers to the withholding of reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior in order to eliminate that behavior*.

We have all heard the advise ignore it and it will go away. Sometimes we encourage behaviors we don't want in our horses accidentally. When we realize it we put the behavior "on extinction" or we consciously withhold our reinforcement. The reinforcer is usually our reaction to the behavior. This is a common treatment for attention seeking behaviors like vocalizations, pawing, nosing etc. I have also heard trainers recommend ignoring horses that spook or shy. Heather Blitz described a spook as a ripple in a pond of your schooling session or test. By reacting in anyway you are making a bigger disturbance in that water. Your objective as a rider and trainer is to keep the water flowing and still in your ride(I am paraphrasing).

If the behavior is not immediately endangering you or the horse I believe that putting the behavior on extinction by ignoring it or by replacing the behavior with a more desirable and incompatible behavior with the undesired one, are all you need in your tool box to reduce unwanted behaviors.

What about the other side of the coin though? How often do horses quit performing behaviors that we want because we have accidentally put them on extinction? Horses trained with negative reinforcement (which is to say almost all of them) usually become dull to aids or cues because of poor execution of negative reinforcement causing habituation. Negative reinforcement is an exact science and to err is human so all of our horses probably suffer at some level with habituation to our aids ( I know mine does). I wonder though if extinction has a role to play as well in the dull horse?

In the beginning of acquiring a new skill the rewards are big (or at least they should be). Think about how you approach teaching your horse something new. How do you show him he is doing well? A big release of the inside rein? A nice rub on the crest or whithers? A rest? A treat? Whichever form you decide to deliver your reinforcement you are providing feedback on what behaviors you want while simultaneous providing incentive to repeat the new behavior in the future.

So what about those tried and true behaviors or those "push-button" horses? What do we expect our horses to do automatically? Sometimes extremely well trained horses "forget" well formed behavior or offer a lack luster performance. In some instances I think this happens because we have stopped giving feedback. Just like people, horses require feedback even on tasks they perform with confidence in order to know the behavior is still what you want.
Additionally who would want to continue to preform a task with no reward or recognition?

I guess the take home message is this. If you are having issues with a horse not performing a well rehearsed behavior or motivation in your equine in general make sure you are providing consistent feedback so your horse knows when he is getting it right!

Enough contemplation back to what really matters.... Bodhi!
I got in a quick ride today right before a downpour. Bodhi.was.awesome. He was forward but listening to even the lightest aid of my seat, legs and reins. He felt amazing! It was definitely a ride to hold on to when problems will arise again. It only lasted ten minutes and during our 2nd canter the sky opened up. We made a B-line for the barn after that and waited for the rain to lighten up.
As Bodhi stood drying off by a fan I played with the barn manager's nervous Nancy TB and a boarder's TB on stall rest. They both love to play clicker games and I like to give both of those high energy high and intelligence horses something to do for a few minutes to elevate the boredom.
After the rain let up a bit Bodhi and I jogged together at liberty back to his pasture. Before I left him to graze I took the opportunity to work with him in some of the forming puddles. He was willing to walk and trot through them at liberty and finally even backed into a puddle! So proud as he is not a fan of water. What an idyllic day with my golden boy!


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Duuuuude... Chill........

We interrupt this post to share two relevant links for my fellow bloggers.
Check out Behind the Bit's post about the new Horse blogger group she started

Check out the latest post from Dressage Mom about the contest she has entered. Support a fellow blogger and vote!
Ever wonder what Mr. Golden is up to? I convinced him to write my blog entry last night over at Ethical Eats.
It is June in the sunshine state. Temperatures in the mid 90's with the humidity bringing the heat index up to unspeakable numbers. Everything is sticky and simple tasks outside have now become trials. Why is it then, my fabulous followers,my rotund little golden pony has grown rocket boosters?

Bodhi has always had more whoa than go at the best of times. He is also not a fan of Florida summers, turning into an itching(allergies), sweating, groggy mess. One of my constant training challenges has always been to keep him "light". I would say he varies normally between average to very heavy and slow in his responsiveness. He can be slow as malasis on a hot day. I have ridden him with spur buds and a dressage whip (with my trainers insistence) before. I have been working lately on his responsiveness to my legs with clicker training as well.

When Bodhi was up and charging forward on our conditioning ride in the big pasture I thought that was normal, but on Sunday during our ride in the ring he jumped three caveletties at once (!!!) and leaped into the canter at the slightest leg. Monday I decided to work on tempo regulation and only did trot work but he was super sensitive and as forward as forward can be! We are still in the learning stage of the new bridle but Monday I finally got his head and neck more relaxed and his back more rounded but I had to continually remind him to slow down!

Is this a real problem? I am not sure. If it is, it is a nice problem to have. I have no fear of getting run off with. He still stops on a dime. Yes the haffie power trot is a little exhausting to post, but to actually have a forward horse-- I'll take exuberance even if it is a bit over the top.

So causes of this sudden shift? Here is what I have so far...
  • Bitless bridle a) he feels more free to move forward. I have heard that "lazy" horses can become more forward when you remove the bit? b)he does not like the new bridle and feels anxious about it and wants "to get it over with"
  • He is in shape - we did a ton of rehab and he may be in better shape than he has ever been before.
  • A Maturity thing -young horses go through phases, maybe he is feeling more confident with his better balance and muscle
  • Flax seed=rocket fuel?? he is now on flax seed to help his skin allergy.
  • My upper body= crap. He could be running forward because my upper body is a wet noodle lately.
  • Clicker training; I have been rewarding exuberance and responsiveness lately, especially at the canter. Could this account for his new and improved work ethic? That is what it *feels* like to me. That he is trying really hard to get that click. Unfortunately he is trying too hard.

I am sure it is a combination of several of these things. He definitely feels like he is jumping to conclusions and rushing to answer questions I have not even asked yet. It feels wonderful to have such a enthusiastic student but my role as his teacher now is to ask him to just relax! My challenge will be to find balance in this new issue. Ask him to soften and balance his body off the forehand without loosing that exuberance. If we can shape this wave we will definitely be at a break through.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Yeehaw and an Eductaion

Wild ride:
Took Bodhi out to one of our larger pastures to canter around. My husband came along as well and we turned it into a husband/pony workout with him jogging next to Bodhi.

This makes Bodhi really excited for some reason... I think I may be missing some competitive undertones between the two. Maybe they have been trash talking each other when I go into the tack room for a curry?
Bodhi was very up and a little hard to control in our new bridle. I never felt afraid of losing him completely but there was a lot more pulling going on then I want their to be. I had a huge grin through it all because even if it's naughty an amped up haflinger is pretty much the cutest thing ever.
I remember a similar situation on our first ever trail ride where Bodhi went above the bit and turned me off and that was with a bit of course. So fear not I do not blame the bridle I blame the training. I obviously need to work more on tempo and transitions when he is in an "elevated" state. The problem of course is usually the "elevation" part.

Getting an Education:
I borrowed the DVD "Lesson 6: Shaping on a Point of Contact" By Alexandra Kurland. I have watched part 1 so far. I should probably watch it again. It is packed with information but the audio quality is poor. Here is the synopsis:
Physical balance has many benefits for your horse. He'll stay sounder longer. he'll have smoother, more beautiful gaits. And he'll be more focused and emotionally settled. How do you bring a horse into physical balance? By shaping on a point of contact so your horse becomes internally body aware and learns how to adjust his own balance. find out what that means and learn the skills to help your own horse achieve physical and emotional balance in this two hour DVD lesson.

One thing I have really gotten out of this DVD so far is how to use negative reinforcement correctly. This may be covered more extensively in other DVDs from her but I only have access to this one.
As she describes it all you need for "pressure" is to get to the point of contact with the horse and wait until you get your response. This is demonstrated with a horse on lead being asked to go forwards and backwards. Sliding your hand slowly up the rope lets the horse know you are about to cue then stopping your hand at the point you feel contact with the horse. No escalating the pressure from there. You immediately release as a -reward and if you add the clicker you get a + reward as well. Using a clicker to explain pressure and release during the acquisition phase makes a super soft horse without having to "up your pressure" (which I hate). She also explains body posture to help the handler stay soft but firm.
Started some work with Bodhi and he responded right away! He is a real slow poke on the lead too which is really frustrating. I am glad I have this tool now. Instead of playing the "how serious are you really about this?" game I can just reinforce when he responds to the level of pressure I want him to respond to. Perfect!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

He's Back!

Last week the vet came to look at Bodhi along with updating his shots etc. She concluded that he is back to normal!

I had a hunch he was but it was great to hear it as an official prognosis! What a relief. We have been celebrating by doing canter work again. He is now getting both leads perfectly. He is also showing such improvement over fences. Today I tried him over a 1'3 to a 2' bounce and he did great.
I am so happy to have my horse back. I honestly think he is more athletic and balanced then he was before the injury. I think this is partly maturity and partly all the physical training I did with him. Since his left side was his weak side already it really paid off. My vet got a kick of my PT work that included leg lifts. :) I know I am ridiculous. Since the injury happened in March it took about 3 months to completely heal. Just as my vet predicted. That is why they pay her the big bucks!

Look out folks Bodhi and I are back to work!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lets get this straight before we get round

When I was taking dressage lessons from my most recent and favorite instructor she described the role of the reins as for "headset only". As she would often say reins are for explaining "I would like your head here". As a few commenters have said headset is not collection. I could not agree more! I am going to try and share what I know about the ever elusive concept of "on the bit" and collection. I am by no means an expert (obviously) and would love to hear your thoughts. How were you taught to put a horse on the bit? How do you define collection?

To elaborate on what my trainer explained: cues from the reins are really the icing on the cake. In dressage the seat, body, and leg aids communicate 95% of all cues to the horse including gait, tempo, bend, direction changes, turning, etc etc. That is why I can ride my little green bean bridless--because of this concept. What my trainer means by headset is the soft "give" of the pole and also the very minor bend at the pole for circles etc. It really is not much, and it really is the last thing you think about- as in the last thing you ask for and the last cue you give. I have heard this described as riding a horse back to front.

Riding a horse on the bit has a definite feel. To me it feels like all things are possible and the horse can respond instantly to any cue for a transition or change of direction. Having a horse that is soft in your hands to me is the beginning of being on the bit. I think what I find confusing and what seemed to have others just as confused though is: is being on the bit the same as collection?

To me it is not. To me having a horse on the bit is just having a soft horse that is giving at the pole and when supported through the riders legs and seat encouraging him/her to be forward and reaching under your horse is now round and on the bit. I have always thought of collection being an advanced frame used in higher dressage movements like the collected trot, piaffe, and passage. I think on the bit riding is a definite precursor to collected work. Though as Kathy pointed out does a horse really need a specific head set to be collected? If you watch your horses playing and frolicking in the pasture I would say no (especially Kathy's horse Satin, I have seen her perform "airs" in the pasture that would make a Lipizzaner jealous).

That is why there is a dressage training scale. First you want forward. You want your horse to move freely forward no matter what. Then you want rhythm, and relaxation, balance and straightness. Only then do you want to harness that energy and start to shape it. Collection for me is a highly concentrated form of the horse's natural power and energy. When collected the horses front end will be light (so off the forehand) and the driving power will be coming from the behind. A collected horse is ready to achieve the amazing higher movements talked about above like the collected and extended trot, the piaffe and passage.

Recommended reading
Sustainable Dressage on collection
Jane Savoie on how to put a horse on the bit
Regarding horses on how to put a horse on the bit

By the by what do you guys think of the new lay out? Better? Worse?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New Bitless Bridle!

Got a new bitless bridle for Bodhi in the mail yesterday! We have had two rides so far and I have nothing but good things to say. It is a rope side pull, that I got from ebay from Knot Just Rope
I am sure I will invest in a Cook's Bitless or Nurtural Bridle when I can afford one but for now I thought this could be a nice alternative.
What I like
  • You can atatch it to any existing bridle you have
  • It comes in many different colors and styles
  • Soft rope ( I hate when it is stiff!) well tied and secure knots
  • The price!
  • How it is custom made for Bodhi's nose
  • The service : I ordered it on Friday- I got it on Monday

What I don't like
  • Nothing really so far!
  • It is a very simple design, I am sure someone handy could easily make this, but I am not one of those people
  • It may turn out to be too harsh with the two knots, if so I will put one of those fuzzies on. They have "gentler" designs though.
As I have said I rode Bodhi in it twice so far. He turns, stops and bends just as well in this as he does in a bit. Much better than riding in a halter! Today I played around with some sharp turns and a halt from the canter. It was perfect! I will take him out on the trail and in the big pastures for conditioning soon and try it out some more. The only thing I have lost is head set. That will come with training of course. I just need to figure out how...

As an aside I am wearing boy's pants that are several sizes too big (it is how a roll) They look really funny all bunched up around my waist and legs.... I know not riding pants!

I think the curb rope was a little loose but oh well!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Many ways to train a horse

There are so many methods out there today isn't there? Everyone has their trainer that they follow or their discipline they stick to etc...
The truth is that there are many ways to train a horse! Yes almost all of the methods work! Horses are amazing creatures and will adapt to almost any training method. The differences I have noticed between the methods though are how long it takes for a horse to learn, how readily the horse remembers the lesson, and what the residual side affects of training on the horses behavior.
Check this out:
Bookends Farm had an excellent post that I would love for you guys to read. I think it really explains the consequences of different training methods on the horse.

What I have personally noticed with + reinforcement is that it takes Bodhi less repetitions to learn new skills, and that he almost never forgets what he has learned. I have had very similar experiences to the blog post above where I slip back into traditional training and correct or even punish and I always regret it. As she says it does work, but is it really worth the stress in our relationship, or the negative consequences?

Yet another reason to love Steffen Peters... he is a clicker trainer! I am not surprised but I am definitely proud to learn that the riding team that won Rolex use clicker training!

Thursday, June 10, 2010


I have been thinking about the subject of babying our horses lately. There are many ways we "baby" them. Can you think of times you think "man you are one spoiled pony"-- for your horses?
Watching them hang out indoors with their fans, and seeing sunscreen on their pink noses always makes me smile. Don't get me wrong they deserve it. They work hard for us and they are our family. They deserve the best feed, treats, and treatment that our stretched out budgets can provide-- it's just funny ain't it?

(Bodhi snoozing under a fan after his pedicure)

As Bodhi returns to his old self from his injury he also turns a year older. I think I have been a cautious trainer with him as the breed is slow to mature, and more recently cautious because of his injury. I try not to work him too long, jump him too often, bore him with drills, or ask him questions he is not ready to say yes to.

I am wondering if I baby him too much though? The answer is probably yes. I really want to make training fun for him and as stress free as possible. I also know that stress is what are muscles need in order to grown and what our brains need in order to learn.

I think maybe my plan so far has been a good one. I baby him because he is a baby. I am quick to reward and I have tried to instill a love of learning. Kindle the curiosity that usually dies in maturing horses. I think now that he is finally getting to the age where all green lights say "Go!" I am going to start work on more mental and emotional toughness. This means more repetition, longer rides, more difficult questions with maybe smaller rewards? Of course I am going to stick to positive reinfocement! I am thinking about shifting how much I expect and ask for though. I know he is not going to catch up overnight! I can't be upset if he still wants to be a baby. I just have to stay calm, correct and ask for a little bit more. I think he is ready. I think he can do it.

Friday, June 4, 2010


This is so neat! The Bitless Horse just did a post about something really exciting! It is called Interdressage. It is an international organization that offers monthly dressage competitions through the mail.

What a great way to get feedback and have the goals that dressage tests bring without the expense and stress! I love showing but I rarely get to because I do not have a trailer, I don't have very much money and I just don't have the time. I really miss out on the vauable information that you get when you do a test. I also miss out on the competitive experience of riding as a sport. Maybe I can try this?

Things I really like about this from the start
  • It allows bitless bridles. So Bodhi and I can actually get feedback on all of the hard work we have been doing bitless!
  • It has changing tests. Ever get bored of the same tests? I do. Bodhi does.
  • It has tons of different tests for every kind of rider
  • It appears to have some over fences tests. How fun is that?
  • It is very accessible. You can do it anywhere and the rules for attire and equipment are basic.
  • It has prizes.

What do you folks think? I don't think it is going to replace the traditional shows but what a fun alternative for people, and what a great way to bring dressage to anyone who is interested!

If I give it a try you know you will hear about it right here!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Happy Birthday Bodhi!

My life is currently turned upside down as a struggle to pack, plan the move, and finish the sale of my condo which includes vast amounts of home improvement crap. Nothing is happening fast enough but I do not have enough time in the day to get everything done! Bleh.

I hate moving.

Bodhi is great. HE IS 5 YEARS OLD NOW! Can I still call him a baby?
He gave three kids riding lessons this weekend and did great. He kept offering funny behaviors like spanish walk and side pass though. Nothing bad just fidgety. I really need to work on more "calming, and sustained " behaviors. When asked to just walk around and around calmly Bodhi is very Bored! He still acts 4. We have not settled into the year of 5 yet. Maybe the new older pony is waiting for us up in Canada. For now I can not blame Bodhi at all for feeling anxious and fidgety. I feel it too kid!

Maybe I will get some birthday photos soon. For now though here is a treasure. Look at my face. Bleh! This is a photo taken during Bodhi's first day under saddle. As you can tell from the photo he took it all in stride.