|getting to know each other|
So each went through a session (or two, in Isabel's case haha) with local horsemanship professional Jim McDonald, wherein I also learned Jim's method for teaching a horse to self load. You may recall I wrote about Isabel's training sessions with him way back in 2014.
|the dreaded stick ball!!|
We ended up not ever even getting to the trailer tho. Jim loved Charlie and was floored to learn the horse was only six weeks off the track... but all the same, there are some important holes that need filling before we add a trailer into the mix.
|Charlie started off a little dull|
|but then started expressing himself|
ANY forward motion (even a lean) is rewarded by a cessation of the tapping. Then when the forward stops, or if a response that isn't forward (ie, sideways, backwards or no response) is given, the tapping resumes. Timing is everything with this method, as is the handler's energy.
|Jim emphasized the importance of disengaging the hindquarters|
Therefore, the most critical piece of the puzzle is that forward aid - that the horse is conditioned to the tapping response from the whip.
|Charlie kept his thinking cap on tho!|
Charlie started off responding mostly appropriately, but then grew dull, and then quite sensitive and reactive to the stick ball thingy. Including some spinning away from it, some attempts to kick or bite at it, and some hopping, mini-bucking with the hind end.
Nothing that I would call dangerous, and nothing pointed in Jim's direction - but plenty to show that there is enough sensitivity there to make me believe Charlie would not at present respond reliably to my aids in a high pressure situation. Which is totally fine. That's what training is all about, right?
|deep in thought about the stick ball|
|"erm, 'scuse me but your stick ball thing is touching me" - Charlie|
And the trick is to go jusssssst long enough so that you can release the pressure (by walking forward on a circle with the ball on the ground - so in essence the horse was 'chasing the ball away') right before the horse would have stepped away. If the horse stepped away while you still had the stick ball on him, you had to keep that pressure on until he stilled again - ie, negative reinforcement.**
(**ie: a response or behavior is strengthened by stopping or removing an averse stimulus. The pressure from the stick ball stops when the desired behavior - stillness - is achieved)
|"ugh ok fine" - Charlie|
And again here - timing is everything. You want to be able to apply the aid and then remove pressure at exactly the right moments to reinforce the desired behavior. And nothing less. So if Charlie swung sideways away from the stick ball instead of going forward, the pressure was to remain on until he went forward. I gotta admit - Charlie did not like that one bit.
|"can I bite it tho?" - Charlie|
He encouraged me to get excited about the valleys tho, with the idea being that some breakthrough must be coming soon. Tho he also cautioned that it was of critical importance to seek out the right stopping points. You can only stop when the horse is in a calm and relaxed state (think head low, soft eyes, maybe licking and chewing, responding well to the aids).
|"bc..... I'm gonna bite it."|
This is, uh, obviously just as true for training under saddle as it is with ground work. I can't be the only one who has gone in for that one last try and lived to regret it lol.
|stick ball of dooooooom!|
Jim says (and we pretty much all know to be true) that if you are consistent enough with this, over time the strongest necessary aid to achieve a given response eventually falls away to lighter and lighter cues - until eventually you are getting that response with your softest possible ask. Of course, again - the most critical part is to first know what it is that you want. Rather than say, getting there and thinking 'hm ok good but MOAR' or something like that lol.
|he kinda wanted to stomp on it too|
I'm optimistic tho, and believe that once the appropriate responses to the stick and ball are conditioned in the arena (or anywhere else), it'll apply directly to the trailer and then we'll be in business. As we all know tho, these things take time. And consistency.
It wasn't the lesson I wanted, but it was most certainly the lesson we need right now. Isn't that always the way? In the meantime I'm just gonna rewatch this video a million times to remind myself why this is so worth it haha.