Playing With McCool

SAMSUNG CSCThe snow is reaching outrageous levels here (at least for southern Ontario).  It’s been drifting in across the open field in front of my place. The plow truck is no longer able to deal with it (although it must be said that there could be some operator incompetency involved – I think maybe snowplow drivers in the GTA lack practice with, you know… ‘snow’?). There are huge snow piles between and covering my driveway (or what’s left of my driveway) and the house and barn.  We have to climb banks to get to the cars.  My truck is completely stranded on the house side of the snow mountain.   So we’ve got a front end loader coming in sometime in the next couple of days to try to clear it away. At this point, the hay is running low, and we’d have to lug the bales up over snowbanks and wade to the path to the barn with them, one at a time. So I really hope the loader comes before the hay.

McCool, despite the intimidating piles of snow, has made a couple of breaks for it lately when we haven’t been careful. He’s a very adventurous guy. Shooting across the ice in front of the barn, up over the drift, across the next ice patch, and over the snow mountain to the plowed section of driveway. Wahoo! Then he skids a few times on the ice before returning to the sound of food rattling in a bucket.

Since he seems so determined to explore the world, I took him for a walk today. Just in hand. No riding. Even walking it’s pretty scary footing. The plow cleared the main drive back down to glare ice.

McCool is one of those horses who barges through life cheerfully, mowing down anything in his path. That would include humans if they were foolish enough to get in his way. So that’s what we are working on currently. Good leading manners. Teaching him that humans need a space bubble around them.  He’s quite willing, just uneducated and not particularly sensitive. I’ve already done some work with him, but that was a couple of months ago. So we had a refresher today. His job is to maintain his position, no matter what I do. I want the middle of his neck exactly parallel with my shoulder while I’m walking, and an arm’s length of space between us.

To do this, I start by walking forward and then stop. First just one step and stop before his attention drifts off. If he stops with me, I click and reward. This pretty much gets him locked right on to me like a laser. I keep repeating a few steps and stop. He has to be paying attention and stop with me. I don’t reward him if he gets ahead of me.  I just ask him to move back into position beside me before carrying on with a couple of steps and stop again.  If he won’t move back into the correct position, I do not move, and I don’t struggle with him. I send him forward around me in a circle until he comes back to where he should be. Then carry on.

Once he stops reliably, I make it a bit harder. I stop and step back. If he’s learned the lesson that I think he’s learned, he’ll step back with me, keeping the middle of his neck exactly parallel to my shoulder, and not swinging his hindquarters outward.

With a horse like McCool, who is very confident, I have to be very careful to feed for position. That means that I must stretch my arm out, and put my closed hand where I want his head to be (not pushing into my space, facing straight forward, with the middle of his neck beside me) before I open my hand.  This teaches the horse that mugging the human is pointless. The food is going to be “over there”, away from the human.  If they are going to mug you, or come into your space, it will happen when you back up. Because instead of stepping straight back, parallel to the human, they will tend to want to swing their hindquarters out and just turn inwards to follow with their head.

The next step is speed changes. So I walk slow, then fast. If he speeds up to maintain his position, I click/treat.  (If he gets ahead of me, I stop, plant my feet, and reposition him.)  Then try slow… fast… stop. Then try jogging. That always seems to surprise them the first couple of times.  I usually introduce the cue “ready?” at this point. So I’ll say “ready?” just before I start. (This turns into a verbal cue – “ready? trot!” that I use when trotting my horse for the vets in competition. ) Initially when we jog, it’s only a couple of steps and stop. I’m not looking for speed. Just want two or three steps of trot with the horse maintaining that position exactly parallel to me. It’s really important that I know exactly where I want the horse to be in relation to my shoulder and only reward exactly that position. I use a visual reference point. Like being able to just barely see the point of shoulder out the corner of my eye. That’s what makes them understand the exercise. If I am vague about where I want them, they don’t really ‘get’ what I’m asking for. And even with a treat, they will begin to either get frustrated or just lose interest in what the stupid human is unable to explain to them. Precision and timing are really important, just as they are in all horse training.

Usually when I practice this stuff, I do some circles and turns. But with the ice, we could only find a few spots where we could even jog a couple of steps.  McCool seems to be careful and good with his feet. So his slips were just small and controlled. But it was probably stretching it even to do what we did. It’s just been driving me crazy not to do anything though.

McCool is highly food motivated, and being an Arab, also highly interested in interacting with humans. So he’s all over this clicker training thing. He reminds me a lot of King when I’m working with him. Very intense, and so quick to learn new things that he sometimes jumps way ahead of my lesson plan.  Today, he was really good. By the end of the session, he was in flowing in perfect lock-step with me.  He hasn’t forgotten anything that we’ve worked on, and was just thrilled to be out hiking around. He is not the least bit interested in what those boring horses at home are doing. He is not, in any way, a nervous, herd-bound horse.

I’m not fooling myself into thinking that McCool is always going to be totally easy. He has quite a few opinions of his own.  But I’m really getting to like him a lot. He is confident, smart, and forward. And since he’s had his teeth done, and the chiro and massage work, he’s been exhilarated with life. It’s fun to see just how darned happy he is these days.

[P.S. For anyone who is not familiar with clicker training… no, I don’t feed treats constantly and forever. I use clicker training to teach new behaviours, and to reinforce periodically thereafter.  And I teach good treat-taking manners first, before focusing on other things. Usually with target training (teaching them to touch a target from the other side of a fence, wall, or gate).  ]









Checking In On Dressy

My Standardbred mare, Dressy, went over to live with Brooke at the beginning of January. Brooke rode Dressy in competition for one season a couple of years ago, and the two of them got on remarkably well. Dressy likes to be worshipped. And Brooke worships. A match made in heaven.

Getting tacked up. Lots of purple going on there.
Getting tacked up. Lots of purple going on there.

She spent a week or so just working with Dressy on the ground before starting to ride her again. I think there were a few moments of more than optimal excitement in the first few rides. Brooke made the mistake of thinking that Dressy would be calmer in the arena if there were other horses. Then decided to try cantering the mare while all the other horses were cantering. Ex-racehorses are not always so good at calmly proceeding, at speed, in a crowd. However, Brooke managed to deal with her and decided that perhaps riding alone was a better idea after all.  At least for now.

Dressy and Brooke

Yesterday I went over to observe a riding session in the arena. Jen and Anastasija came with me. I took my camera. But of course it was very dark in the barn and in the arena. I took lots of photos and most are so grainy and dark that I couldn’t really rescue much, even with Photoshop.  But I post them here purely as evidence, not art 🙂


Dressy seemed happy to see me (or the carrot I was feeding her maybe). But I think she was just as pleased to see Brooke when she showed up. Apparently my horse doesn’t need me at all.  She’s looking good. Freshly trimmed feet, glossy coat, and in very good cheer.






She was good in the arena. A little speedy at first, but Brooke got her dialed down within a few minutes.  She walked her until she stretched her head down and relaxed. Brooke commented that she never had to put any leg on the mare to get her to go. Nope. That’s for sure.  All you do with Dressy is think about trotting, and away she goes in a huge Standardbred power trot.   After some walk/trot work, Brooke finally pulled out the big trick. The thing that had her glowing with pride. Dressy. Cantering. “Good MARE!” I said, out loud, and Dressy’s head whipped around to look at me inquiringly. Jen and Ana both cheered and Dressy looked over at them too, ears perked. “Oh yeah? Yeah! I AM a good mare!” She marched over to me for a scratch and then carried on. She does love an audience. 


I was impressed. She couldn’t hold the canter, but she stepped into it almost every time Brooke asked. A couple of times she made it right down the long side and around the end before it fell apart.  It’s not a good canter yet. But it’s far better than I expected after this much of a layoff.   I didn’t see her pace even once tonight. Not that she paces under saddle much, but if you ask for canter when she’s feeling tense, it’s a toss-up whether you’ll get pace or canter. So the sheer volume of canter steps tells me that Dressy is feeling calm and confident with Brooke.

She has her going over a very small set of cross-poles too. Dressy doesn’t appear to be at all concerned about the jumping thing. She was always a very confident jumper on trail, going over logs and banks. So I expect that she’ll do fine once she figures out the mechanics. I tried to get decent photos, but it was just way too dark in the spot with the little jump.


After she was done riding, Brooke hopped off and stripped the tack to do some groundwork. Dressy was very attentive (clicker training will do that) and very cheerfully practiced a few things. Primarily the new trick they are working on… a bow.


Brooke’s mother asked me if I missed Dressy. She seemed a bit surprised by how emphatically Jen, Anastasija, and I all replied in unison, “YES!”  She’s a mare with a huge and quite endearing personality. Despite how much I love The Queen though, she is having a great time with Brooke, and getting some very valuable schooling.  She cannot be a distance horse anymore due to her metabolic issues with heat. Horses that lack a career are horses at risk. She’s a strong, athletic, intelligent mare with a big engine and a bit of spook. Not to mention that she’s a Standardbred pacer, which turns most riders off before they even see her. That’s not a recipe for a safe backyard trail horse or a school horse for beginners. While I certainly don’t plan on it, if something should happen to me, this could be her ticket to safety.








Clicker Training at Liberty, Day Two

I set up my cellphone camera on the edge of the fence today to take video of my session with Diego. My goal is primarily to get him relaxed and focused on me. I don’t really care what we accomplish other than that. The tasks themselves are just a means to an end. So this was a very free form lesson. I just sort of ambled around and rewarded what I liked.

When I went out to the round pen he greeted me cheerfully and immediately put himself in step with me. “Let’s play that game again!” The treats I use are Purina Roughage Chunks. Basically just compressed hay with a bit of yeast. Given the tall grass in the round pen, it’s obviously not the fabulously delicious treats that are making him so interested 🙂

I was very pleased with how relaxed he was both yesterday and today!

Clicker Training Diego

I did a lot of clicker training with King. King actually forced me to learn clicker training since he was such an outrageously extravagant horse (still is, really, but in a good way now). I found myself in very deep water when I first got him as a long yearling. He was emotional, extroverted, and reactive. Not to mention the explosive, aggressive temper when he didn’t get his way. Clicker training gave me a path out of trouble. Though it was a bit complicated by my difficulties in shifting my own thought patterns. It’s hard enough to shift your thinking from punishment-based training to pressure and release (aka natural horsemanship or negative reinforcement), never mind to positive reinforcement. I made lots of mistakes. But I learned a lot. The biggest thing I learned was how critically important timing is.

With Dressy, I was kind of lazy. She had been on the track for years, and she was very easy to convert to a saddle horse. So I just sort of cruised along on her past training. A mistake, in hindsight, since she really would have benefited from a whole lot more groundwork to build her confidence in me. I don’t think it would have prevented her spookiness. But it might have mitigated some of the worst of it.

With Diego, I’ve decided to go back to serious clicker training. We did a bit over the winter. But it was mostly just an adjunct to traditional groundwork exercises (valuable in themselves of course).

He’s been going out into the round pen by himself for a few hours every morning (which is going well btw… he seems to be coping and settled down into it pretty quickly). So I went out and worked with him there. First I just took his halter and gently asked him to step forward. He did, of course, and I clicked and treated. Super easy jackpot. He was a little surprised at that. But happily stepped forward again when I asked. Easy treats! Then I just touched his chin as I stepped forward beside him. He hesitantly moved one foot. I rewarded that. Touched his chin a few more times as I stepped forward and he got more confident with that. Then I just stepped forward and waited. He thought for a moment and then stepped forward on his own. I rewarded that.

Then we walked around and around the pen, with me rewarding every few steps. After he had that down pat, I gradually got a bit more precise about where his head needed to be. Ears parallel with my shoulder. He tried to head butt me once, but I just ignored it and waited until his head was in position. He’s quite clever about all this. Once he got ahead of me and after a few steps realized he’d lost me. He drifted to a halt, looked over his shoulder, and circled around back into position. By the end of the session (about 25 minutes), I could do small circles with him on the inside or the outside of the circle, and back up as well as go forward. All at liberty.

He’s a nice horse to work with. Very calm and deliberate when he’s focused. King is exuberant about clicker training, throwing all sorts of creative behaviours out in a an effort to dazzle you into rewarding him more (“If walking beside you is good, wouldn’t piaffing be better?” “You want me to stand on this platform? How about if I SMASH it with my foot?” “How about if I bite this target and fling it in the air??”). Which can be a little scary for the handler (we had to learn a lot of CALM exercises like ‘head down’ and ‘posing as a statue’). Diego is a quiet thinker. He moves slowly, considering his options. He’s pleased at being good, but not jitterbugging around in glee the way King does. As we worked, I could see a sort of blanket of calm confidence settle over him.

Once done, I opened the gate and we walked across the yard with him in position, still at liberty. I opened the pasture gate but he stopped and waited. I had to step through and pivot so he could come through and pivot with me. It felt very choreographed 🙂


My farrier is very ill, and will not be back to work anytime soon. Generally, I have him come every six to eight weeks, and do my own trimming in between. It keeps me from getting too far behind, especially on the horses I’m not riding regularly. But between him getting sick, and my broken elbow, they’ve been getting a little behind this year.

So I got to work trimming Diego’s feet yesterday. He’s very prone to long toes and underrun heels. Over time, if he’s not kept trimmed really regularly the whole foot capsule tends to drift forward. And when it does, he’s quite trippy. He wasn’t actually too bad, since I’m highly motivated to trim him (trippy horses can be a little scary to ride). Even so, his feet look a lot better after a concerted effort to bring the toe back. I’ve beveled it quite strongly, which has brought the entire hoof angle into a better line. The bevel also gives him a better breakover, and he doesn’t trip. I still have to do the hind feet, since my arm gets tired and sore easily. But I will just pick away at it as I can manage.

After trimming though, I realized that I really have to deal with his reluctance to pick up and/or keep up his feet. Prying his feet off the ground is not ideal. And he has one hind that he doesn’t like to keep up in the air for too long (he needs chiro work – he also travels a bit crooked behind and drags hind toes). Today I did some clicker training with him to get him picking up his feet nicely. He sure changed his tune in a hurry. I had to pry each foot up and click/treat. Then pry it up again and click/treat. And then magically… “Here! Have my foot!” It was interesting that it was exactly twice with each foot before he got it that there would be a reward coming along for co-operation.

As always, there are unexpected benefits from this sort of training. Veronica and Anastasija wanted to go for a ride and were getting their two horses ready. I took Diego out and tied him to the trailer (where my tack is stored). He’s herdbound, so he always finds it stressful to be tacked up out of sight of the other horses. This time, he was rather mellow from all the clicker training. And after tying him, I repeated the foot pick-up exercise. He focused and relaxed, not thinking about the other horses at all. And that relaxation stayed with him right through the tacking up and mounting. I haven’t done a huge amount of clicker work with him, since he’s never been overly food-motivated (nothing like King!). But he seems a bit more interested in it lately.

We had a quiet relaxed ride, with no incidents other than the horde of mosquitoes that tried to carry Ana off for lunch. I wasn’t complaining really. They seemed to find her much more tasty than me 🙂

Horse Kisses

Dressy and King are both clicker trained. Which simply means that they are trained using a positive reward system. During the training phase of a new exercise, I will make a click sound to mark the point at which they’ve succeeded, then give them a small treat as a reward. In scientific terms, it’s “operant conditioning”. Dressy has not had nearly so much foundation in clicker as King though. Just the basics. Targeting, learning to stand for mounting, backing.

Brooke is a young girl who started riding Dressy this winter. She’s going to compete on her this season, most likely in Novice and Set Speed rides, which generally range from 12 to 25 miles. Brooke is completely horse mad. The same as I was way back in the mists of time. So when she started coming this winter, she was very happy to be giving the horses treats. It became a bit of a problem, since she didn’t know clicker work, and was just handing them out willy-nilly to all the horses. Some of them became a little grabby and rude (particularly Diego, Misha’s horse). So I had to give Brooke rudimentary instruction in clicker training and made it a rule that no horse got a free treat. They work for their goodies around here. And also that no horse be allowed to grab for food. So Brooke learned to feed for position too.

Last Sunday, Brooke came running into the house and insisted that I come out and see Dressy. She’d taught her a new trick. Kissing. This is one of King’s favourite tricks, and Brooke loves it. But King can be a bit enthusiastic about it. Not that he will hurt anyone, but he does tend to offer it when you assume the position. Which basically means that you stand beside him facing the same direction. He reaches over and rubs his upper lip against your cheek. Startles the visitors a bit when he offers it unsolicited. Dressy’s version though is much nicer than King’s. When Brooke taps her cheek and says “kiss, kiss”, Dressy slowly reaches over and just barely feathers her lip against Brooke’s cheek. It’s very slow and delicate.

If you show an adult clicker training, they fuss and fume, and screw up the timing, and just generally obscure the whole process for themselves and the horse. Show a kid the basics though, and walk away. You’ll come back to a high-school level performance in a couple of days. Quite amazing.

King has taken to clicker training himself these days. I’m not creative enough for him anymore. Not long ago, I was riding him around my newly built trails. Some of the branches are still a bit low, so I asked him to stop and stand while I broke a few off. I clicked/treated him for standing. “Hmmm” says King. “here’s another branch, why don’t you break that one off too?” He started pointing them out with his nose and then positioning himself under it so I could break it off. Eventually, I had to put a stop to the whole thing because I wanted to get on with the ride. But I did allow it to go on much too long in sheer fascination at his entrepreneurial spirit.