February 25, 2014

Clicker Training: Why and How I Started

As some of you may know, I use the clicker training method with Ypke. This post will include an explanation of why I use clicker training, how I came to find out about it, and a general overview of the versatility of this method. If there is interest in this series, I will be sure to go more in depth about how I integrated it into our daily routine.

Ypke is an alpha mare, and we constantly had a power struggles. She hated standing while tied, dragged me around as I lead her, refused to pick up her hooves, was a racehorse VERY fast trotter, and the list goes on.  In short, she didn't respect me at all and would take advantage of me a lot.

A controlled trot, a bit of rounding, and a relaxed horse.  There is no speedy trot, giraffe neck, or frustration.
I had searched and searched for a method that would work for us. I was getting increasingly discouraged, and she was getting worse. here was one thing I knew for sure about the Enigma — she loved food. There was one problem: everywhere I read said you should never use treats during training. I had a "the heck with it!" moment. I didn't care. I had tried everything, what other choice did I have?

I discovered the clicker training method shortly thereafter. I have always associated clicker training with dogs, but much to my surprise Sea World marine animals, cats, rodents, livestock, etc. use the clicker training method as well. If it works with those animals, and people have had success using the method with horses, what was there to lose?  Forget the "never feed treats" rule.

Clicker training a horse
Look, an alpha mare taking a treat politely!  
Shortly after discovering clicker training, it finally struck me that horses were similar to people.  Some learn quickly, other learn slowly. Some methods work for certain horses, yet other horses need a different method. If you keep on comparing your horse to someone else's horse, you will get nowhere fast.

Throughout my experience with clicker training, I have found how versatile the method is.  If your horse is extremely spooky, clicker training can help him gain confidence and literally forget his fear (I've tested this out on three different spooky horses with success).  If your horse is dominant or has a sour attitude, you can tailor it to fit their needs.  You can also use clicker training to overcome obstacles like picking up hooves, trailer loading, etc.

Horse crossing a bridge
In under 10 minutes, Ypke was confidently crossing the bridge
I personally use clicker training for everything — groundwork, desensitizing, riding, etc. Ypke's attitude has improved dramatically since I began using this method.  It may not seem like it by the way I describe her, but she really is ten times better.

Clicker training target
Throwback to when I first taught Ypke how to target.
Special shout out to Alexandra Kurland, author of The Click That Teaches, A Step-by-step Guide in Pictures.

Have you ever used the clicker training method?  If so, I would like to hear about your results with it!

February 21, 2014

After 3 Weeks of Not Being Ridden...

The weather these past few weeks has been horrid. First it was snow, then it was wind... lots and lots of wind.  Due to the terrible weather and lack of time, I was unable to ride for three weeks. My lesson was rescheduled for Friday afternoon, and much to my luck, there was ZERO wind. It was warm, sunny, and occasionally there would be a slight breeze that would come by. Perfect.
R.I.P. Jim Bob the Snowman
I gave Ypke a thorough grooming and saw that the woolly mammoth was shedding. Spring is coming! She was a bit of a brat as I was picking out her hooves, a stunt she hasn't pulled in a long time, but I refused to give up, so she ended up cooperating.

Before the lesson I did 20 minutes of groundwork and used clicker training to reinforce the good behavior.  I must say, she has been improving quite a bit!  She used to not want to halt while I was leading her, but now she typically only takes one extra step before halting.  Hopefully after several more ground work sessions we will consistently be halting right as I ask.

The moment of truth came when my trainer arrived and it was time to ride Ypke the Beast. She. Did. Awesome. This was one of those days where I wish someone had been recording.

She was consistently doing a western jog while maintaining collection (definitely not perfect collection, but this is a huge step for us). We were switching directions, doing small circles, and passing another horse without fussing! It truly is a wonderful feeling to be working in unison with a horse! With just slight calf pressure and a bit of a half halt, she would begin to round and I could feel a major difference. I didn't have to ask her to maintain collection either, she was just staying there by herself. This was done with a small amount of slack in the reins too.

Around halfway through the lesson, she got bored.  She stopped and pawed (I had vivid flashbacks to THAT day), but there was no way I was letting her roll. She began to break gait several times and started to become lazy.

Luckily, we were able to end on a great note though. I was really amazed with how well we did!  My equitation didn't suck, and Ypke and I were actually working with each other instead of against each other. Definitely a confidence building day!

Staring off into the sunny hills

February 16, 2014

Trailering: The Ultimate Entertainment

Throwback to the day I bought Ypke.  Good gosh how time flies!
We've all been there before. The point of no return: when your horse REFUSES to load in a public environment, be it a show, clinic, trail ride, or the infamous 4-H meeting. There is something about a horse refusing to get in the gosh darn trailer that attracts people like flies to a barn. Is it the feeling of superiority that their horse loaded yet yours didn't? Are they a teenybopper wannabe trainer? Or are they simply bored for the day and want some good ol' entertainment?

A two horse stock trailer Ypke used to ride in... it has since been sold
On a blazing hot July afternoon in 2012, I found the answer was all of the above.  Where might I have found this out you ask?  Why, a 4-H meeting of course!

Ypke was always a good loader up until that day. The facility borders a freeway, so there is always a lot of noise. Ypke wasn't having any of it, and she did NOT want to load right there along the busy street. Immediately there were at least a dozen people surrounding us.

"Have you tried a bucket of grain?"
"Have you tried backing her into the trailer?"
"What about lifting her feet in there one at a time?"
"Do you ever used the blindfold method?"
"You should try using a butt rope on her!"
"Want me to try to load her?"

I regret accepting the 6th option. She was an 18-year-old 3rd level dressage rider with a half decent show record, so I figured that maybe she knew what she was talking about. NOT. Without warning she whipped Ypke (I'm not talking about an encouraging tap, I mean raise your arm above your head and WHACK) three times with a dressage whip. I was appalled. Ypke was trying to pull away, but the girl whacked her even harder for that. I am typically a very cool cucumber, but there are some things that I will not stand for. I immediately told the girl off, wrenched the lead rope out of her hands, and stormed off into the pitch black night. The girl yelled some rude things after me.

Needless to say, I came back. What choice did I have? The girl was still there, a smug look across her face. I told her it was probably time for her to leave and she left, but not before whipping Ypke again as she walked by. It took a lot of effort not to retaliate against her. Everyone else drove off and there I was, alone in the pitch black darkness with a scared horse. That is enough to put a damper on the day.

Low and behold my trainer came rolling in. Thank goodness! I think she was rather surprised to see us there, but she of course began to try to load Ypke. It was not more than five minutes later until the girl that whipped Ypke came speeding in. Apparently she had brought her horse home but drove back to see if were still there. She hopped out of her car, crossed her arms, and just stood there. Within 15 minutes with a patient person trying to load her, Ypke stepped into the trailer. Smug girl hopped into her car and drove off immediately after without a word.

I have had loading issues with Ypke ever since that day. In fact, two days after that incident she had a major blowup (I am thinking it was because of being scared of being whipped) that landed someone in the ER. Luckily, it was just a badly sliced up hand due to a malfunctioning "panic release" snap.  You can no longer have a whip around the trailer because she will freak out, and she is always looking behind herself, almost as if she is expecting to be whipped. I know that she wouldn't be quite such a horrible loader if that event hadn't happened.

Have you ever been a victim of trailer loading trouble?

Stock photo of Ypke's new 2013 Exiss warmblood trailer

February 12, 2014

A Wacky Wednesday: When Horses Attack...

A tale of misfortune from January 2013.

It started out like any typical late afternoon as I walked up to the barn to bring the horses in for the evening. I noticed that my neighbor's horse (henceforth known as The Kraken) was loose, which isn't uncommon, and figured I would just catch her and put her back in her field after Ypke and the mafia were put away. As we all know, sometimes the simplest of plans takes a wrong turn.

I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Could it have been the mediocre cafeteria food acting up? No, no, it wasn't that. 

"Do you think she will attack?" I asked my mom as I walked out the door.

"She isn't going to attack!" My mom replied with a laugh.

I began to walk up to the barn and was halfway there when it all began. All of a sudden, I heard a bloodcurdling squeal and oncoming hooves. I whirled around only to see that the horse was running straight at me. The Kraken had been released.

This was no Pirates of the Caribbean drill, this was the real deal!  I scrambled jumped over the fence with seconds to spare before the Kraken turned around and gave me a good ol' double barrel.  The barrels blew a hole right through the fencepost.

As the Kraken was raising heck, I whirled around at the sound of oncoming hooves yet again. The cannons had arrived! This time it was Ypke, and I was trapped between two angry mares. Great, just my luck. Was Ypke here to finish me off or to rescue me?  Friend or foe?

I fell slid through the fence panels and ran to the house. It was painful to watch the fence panels breaking like twigs... The Kraken was about to break the walls down. All of a sudden, The Kraken fled along the deep depths of the driveway. The battle wasn't over yet though, and The Kraken came back for another go! She galloped along the fence lines, searching for a way into the pasture and raised heck among the horses.

As this was happening, her owner was driving by. Needless to say her owner, shocked at the sight, slammed on the brakes before speeding off to their house. A short while later they had a bucket of grain and a halter.  When The Kraken heard the bucket shaking, she stopped, spun around, and cantered quickly right at her owner.  Not going to lie, I was thinking that her owner was going to be trampled.

But alas, the tale isn't over yet!  The Kraken calmed down and began to act like a sweet little puppy.  To this day, The Kraken still comes by for a visit. While The Kraken and Ypke had to sort out their difference over the fence, they have come to be buddies.

Ypke (L) and the Kraken (R)

February 9, 2014

Snowy Sunday Stills

As told through Ypke's point of view...


No, really, where is it?

Gone? Nooooooooooo!

That cat is the bane of my existence, HE caused this.

Hey!  I found some!

February 8, 2014

My First (and Second Worst) 4-H Meeting

Ypke and I are kind of involved with 4-H. We go to the occasional ride meet, and I go to all the information meetings. I had just switched groups and was rather excited to show off my dear Ypke. Without further ado, let's throw it way back to July 2012.

Story time!
It was a blazing hot July afternoon and I was off to the riding practice. Ypke loaded within two minutes (score!) and we were off to the arena. We arrived 45 minutes early, so there was plenty of time to warm up and get used to the facility (double score!).

Ypke draws attention wherever we go, something that my not-so-humble-never-fallen-off (at that time) self loved. Around that time frame, I thought that we were all that, and I was excited to show off our mad dressage skills. I'm sure we were a sight for sore eyes: muddy boots, tank top, hair down, ill fitting helmet, mediocre equitation, out of control pony, and squeaky Wintec... Good ol' Wintec, you were such a trusty saddle despite your voice!

Squeak, squeak, squeak.

We were racing around the arena at an uncontrolled extended trot. The pony's head was sky high, and I was on the incorrect diagonal, trying with all I could to slow her down. After several laps around the arena and jumping out of the ring a few times, we finally managed to halt. Immediately when I halted, she began to paw. How cute, I thought.

After she quit pawing, I rode her over to the roundpen where there was a lunging tutorial going on. I was so busy watching that I didn't even notice Ypke was pawing again until it was too late. As I finally noticed she was pawing and dismounted, a strange "not quite right" feeling settled in my gut. Right when I dismounted, she dragged me about 15 feet away to an extra deep, sandy area.

Down she went. Straight onto the arena sand. Straight on top of her tack. She was rolling. I was flat out mortified as I watched, trying to get her up to no avail. My cheeks were burning red with both anger and embarrassment after a man standing nearby began to snicker and insult us.  I was now beyond mortified.
rollin' n' hatin'
She got up and shook herself off, enveloping anyone within a 5 mile radius in a dust cloud. Luckily, the tack was perfectly fine!  I miss that trusty Wintec, it went through heck and back that day and wasn't even scratched. That is the major pro of synthetic tack — it takes a lot to ruin it!

I got back on and we were off; trotting madly around the dressage arena once again. There was one spook in which I almost fell off, but other than that the meet went well. During showmanship she rolled three times though.  Everyone thought she was colicing, but she was just enjoying the hot sand on a blazing hot day.

Moral of the story: If your horse begins to paw on a hot day... or while they are in water... keep them moving forward!  Lesson learned.

February 5, 2014

Turning Tables

I haven't always been a timid rider. In fact, when I first got Ypke the possibility of falling off or getting injured had never even occurred to me. Weren't falls, spooks, and what not only in dramatic Saddle Club episodes? Weren't horses supposed to magically bond with you? You know what they say, ignorance is bliss.

After two major spooks (she is a "teleport 20 feet to the side" spooker) that involved me falling off, I was left as a timid rider. Suddenly, things that I used to do with no fear left me as stiff as a board. I no longer had a desire to canter, I no longer wanted to try anything new, and I preferred to ride Western for a false sense of security. Ypke quickly found that she could easily take advantage of me... which of course made me even more timid around her.

Eventually, I discovered the clicker training method and gradually built up my confidence with her again. Ypke is obsessed with food, so this method worked well for us considering how she couldn't get treats unless she was good. My confidence had been repaired, and I was ready to branch off and do new things with her.

My confidence was tested when I tried to ride her out in the pasture again. We were riding through some trees when she bolted/leaped several steps. I wanted to get off, but I refused to let myself quit.  Soon enough, we were both calmed down and trotting around the field.

My confidence is always rising and falling. I am still scared to canter, I am still scared to ride her in that corner of the arena, and I am hesitant to do a lot of other things. Of course, confidence is not something that grow to 100% in one day. I'm sure it will take many good rides, bad rides, and a lot of time until I am consistently confident with horses.

Throughout my time with Ypke, I have come to love her HUGE personality. Despite our differences, she has been teaching me a lot.