Monday, April 13, 2009

Learning to Give

I mentioned in a recent post that Halo spooked herself while tied the other day. She got her head caught under the rope and panicked, pulling back. Because she hadn't had any incidents with tying recently, I'd become complacent. Fortunately there was no wreck (other than a sore neck), and I knew I had some work to do.

The weekend before last I decided that it was time to do some rope training. Halo does not like it when you raise your arms above your head in front of her, especially if you have a rope in your hand. Here is a perfect illustration of what she does when confronted with the scary rope!

Note how her head goes straight up into the air, her ears are forward, and she is leaning her weight back onto her haunches, even to the point of taking a step backward with her off hind foot. Instead of this response, what I want to cultivate by the end of our lesson is for her to put her head down when I raise the rope above my head. I also want her to give to the pressure of the rope when applied to her head, neck, or even her face. It sounds ambitious for one lesson, introducing these concepts can take as little as 15 minutes.

Step #1: For now, I ignore the fact that she flings her head in the air when I raise my arms. I put the rope over her neck from the side and reinforce a lesson she learned before I bought her - yielding to poll pressure. I should note here that she was halter broke when I got her, and her former owner also taught her to yield her poll to pressure in order to help with her tying issues. This is a familiar lesson to her. I ask her to lower her head by putting pressure on her poll with the rope. The minute she "gives" by lowering her head a few inches, I release pressure. If she raises her head again, I ask once more for her to put it down. In the picture below you can see that after a few tries she remembers this lesson and gives readily.

Also, note how her posture is now more relaxed. Her weight is on all four legs, maybe a bit more on her forehand, ears no longer pricked.

Step #2: To expand upon the poll lesson that she already knows, I put the rope between her ears and over her face, and then ask her to give. I do not recommend doing this unless your horse already fully understands giving to pressure at the poll. Halo is quick to understand, and puts her head down for me again. I repeated this several times with the rope in different positions over her face and neck.

Step #3: Next, I want to apply giving at the poll to what happens when I raise my arm above her head. In this picture, I am raising my hand above my head, but I keep my hand on the lead rope. I ask her to give her head to poll pressure with the halter, keeping my raised hand in the same position. Look how her posture is much more relaxed already than the first picture. She is still alert, and has raised her head and put her ears forward, but not to the extreme as she did in the first picture.

See, here she gives to the pressure, while my other hand remains above her head. She looks very relaxed now, and her ears are even slightly lopped. As with every other iteration of this exercise, as soon as she gives to the pressure, I release my cue.

Here's an instance of the release of pressure. We just hang out for a minute, she gets a few pats, and she is allowed to lick my hand. (I don't ever feed treats during training).

Step #4: After a few more times practicing Step #3, we graduate to the final step - lifting the rope above her head without using poll pressure.

Look at that - even without my hand on the rope asking her to lower her head, she immediately responds. Good girl!

As I mentioned, this series of photographs was taken in less than 20 minutes. It may take longer to do these exercises if you are starting from scratch. Step #1 is the most important - giving to poll pressure. It may take several sessions just to teach that. Once the horse understands giving to poll pressure, you can move on to the other steps. With a rope looped around the horse's neck, you can also ask for the horse to yield his or her head and neck to the side in addition to down.

The reason I wanted to teach Halo not only to give to pressure, but to lower her head when I raise the rope is for the following reasons:

a) It will make her easier to halter, especially for a short person or child.
b) She will put her head down to be bridled.
c) She will put her head down when someone puts the reins over her head.

I feel that training a horse to give to pressure and lower the head are valuable skills that will make for ease of handling for the rest of the horse's life. For the best results, this series of exercises should be repeated regularly until giving to pressure and lowering the head when asked is second nature to the horse. And best of all, it only takes 15 minutes per day!


Leah Fry said...

Very well said. Believe it or not, Poco is better about putting his head down to be bridled than Jaz, who likes to toss his head. I'll give it a shot!

moosefied said...

Thanks for explaining it so clearly, and with photos. I'll try it, too.

Bullwinkle has been taught to lower his head with poll pressure. But sometimes, when he is feeling contrary, he will jerk his head down and then jerk it back up again and away from me, pissily. What should I do then?

spazfilly said...

moosefied - if he's jerking his head around, he's not really doing what you're asking. He's trying to evade work! He should give his head gently and respectfully to the pressure. If you ask him to give and he flings his head down, the pressure you're putting on him will be released, however, if he follows that with a jerk straight back up, you should immediately ask him to lower his head again. Then release the pressure the moment he lowers it. He needs to learn that release only comes when he lowers his head, never when he flings it back up in your face. It's all about working on the timing of your cues. Eventually you will find that you can anticipate the upward head fling. You shouldn't brace yourself against it, but instead just repeat the head down cue right away once he's had his fit. Try to make sure at first that you reward him for even a tiny bit of give at the poll. Never hold his head down - just ask him to lower it and then let him have his head back. If you try to hold his head down, that can definitely cause him to want to snap back up. Does that make sense?

moosefied said..., if he jerks his head down rudely, then as soon as it comes back up, touch it again so he will put it down again? For how many times? I mean, if he keeps up with the irritability, do I just expect one more head down, or is there a way to get him to soften his response?

I do understand about not holding his head down, but I'm not sure about how to get him to be politer about head down.

Sorry if this is too long on my topic.

spazfilly said...

I'm not as concerned about the jerk down as the jerk up. If he puts his head down quickly, as long as he doesn't pull your arm hard, I would just let him be and give him the release of pressure. It's if he uses jerking his head down as leverage to jerk it back up into your face that it's a major issue. If he flings his head up, yes, ask for head down again, but when he gives it, release the pressure and let him stand for a moment. If he gets too fussy during the "release" times, maybe a better reward would be to release and then walk him around a few times before asking again. Also, this is something that the trainer may be able to help with this weekend. You might want to bring it up with him in the context of leading/tying. It's hard for me to know exactly what will work for Bullwinkle since I can't be there to try a few different things and see what he responds to. I imagine between you and the trainer you may be able to find some solutions this weekend. Did that clarify at all?

moosefied said...

Yes, thanks.