Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Working Towards Softness 4 - Patience and Self-calming Exercises

For the other posts in the "Working Towards Softness" series, please see the sidebar.  And, as always, please keep in mind that I am not a horse trainer, just a horse person who works in the best way I know how with my horses.  I think of these exercises as progressive, although after you have begun to get the feeling of softness in your own mind and body, the later exercises don't necessarily have to be done in order - it may depend on what the particular horse needs to work on.

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I think that there is a lot we can do to help our horses become calm and patient, which can be especially helpful as a "default" condition when things get worrisome, and also help the horse learn to self-calm and relax after an upset. The most important thing I believe I can bring to the table is to be calm and patient myself, and if the horse is engaging in drama, not to get caught up in that - if I can model calmness and patience to the horse that really helps. But ultimately, I think patience and calm have to come from inside the horse. This post contains several exercises I have used to help my horses with patience and self-calming. You can probably think of many more to try - suggest other things in the comments.

One thing I try to do when doing these exercises - in fact any work with the horse - is to reinforce the behaviors I want with rewards - praise, scratches, a release - and ignore or redirect the behaviors I don't want.  Sometimes giving a horse attention - by correcting a behavior, yelling at the horse, or fussing/fiddling with the horse - even if it's negative attention - merely reinforces the behavior you're trying to prevent/eliminate.

Just standing around.  Before talking about this, it may be helpful to reference a few things from Tom Widdicombe's book Be With Your Horse: Getting to the Heart of Horsemanship (I strongly recommend this book and my review of it can be found here).

Tom repeatedly makes the very important point that how we are with our horse is as important, and probably more important, than what we do with our horse. This is particularly important if my goal is to influence, and change, how the inside of the horse feels about things, and not just apply technique to the outside of the horse.

Here are some representative quotes from the book to give you a flavor:
[I] would like to relax with my horse, but I have realized that for me to be able to relax with my horse, I have to make sure that my horse can relax with me. (p. 33)

I like to establish really early on with a horse that there is a place where we can both be together where nothing is happening, where we both just stand quietly, together. This is the basis of everything I do. Horses feel safe there because there is no pressure and it is easy for them to understand that they are getting it right. (p. 35)

It is very handy to show the horse that he can actually relax - that he can just stand there and rely on you to take care of things. With some horses, it is almost as if they have forgotten how to do nothing, and in a lot of cases this is simply because their owners just do too much. (p. 62)
OK, how does that relate to just standing around?  The exercise is very simple - the horse, wearing a halter and lead, stands with you.  That's it; that's all.  If the horse moves around, don't correct him so long as he stays out of whatever you define (consistently) as your personal space - in my case an arms' length.  It's OK for me to approach the horse and touch him but not OK for the horse to come into my space.  Pretty soon, most horses figure out that all they have to do is stand there with you.  It's good to start work with a horse on this in a familiar place and where things are low stress.  The objective is for the horse to learn that being with you is a safe place to relax and just be - this helps build basic trust.

Later, once the horse has learned to relax and be with you, you can try this exercise in different situations.

Standing still under saddle.  This is a variation of the just standing around exercise.  I pick a location, and ask the horse to stand still on a loose rein.  If the horse moves, I don't correct the horse, I just calmly redirect the energy (not using any aids to keep the horse moving) by turning the horse in a smallish circle until the horse offers on its own to stop (this can take a while until the horse figures out what you want).  It doesn't matter if the horse ends up in the same spot you started in.  If the horse is nervous, you may spend several sessions just mostly doing circles with a few moments of standing in between - that's OK.  Most horses pretty quickly figure out that all they have to do is stand there and either doze or look around.  Once the horse knows how to do this, we do the exercise in different situations, such as in an arena while other horses are working, watching horses being led in from turnout, on the trail, etc.

As you're working to lengthen the time the horse can stand still, try to ask for "one second less than . . ." - that is, if you think the horse can stand still for only 5 seconds without moving, only ask for 4 seconds and then direct the horse to move off before the horse decides to move on its own.  This means you are giving the horse help and direction.  And if you wait too long and the horse moves before you direct it to move, just circle, wait for the offer to stop and try again.  This isn't a black and white sort of thing - it's an incremental skill that can be developed over time.

A further version of this is to dismount, walk away a few steps and then come back to the horse, with the horse standing still until you return.  Gradually increase the distance.  Eventually, the horse should be able to stand wherever you leave him until you return.  It is usually helpful to teach the horse to stand ground tied (see below) before doing this variation.  Here is Maisie standing while tacked:

Standing tied.  This presumes that you have a horse that ties well and doesn't pull back - it's also important to not try this exercise with a horse whose energy level is so high that there's no way for the horse to be successful - set your horse up to succeed.  (This exercise is also not about tying a horse to a fixed object and allowing it to fight and struggle until it gives up hope and submits, or injures itself - this isn't a humane way to teach tying or to deal with a horse who already has tying problems, and the horse can be seriously injured, not to mention have its trust destroyed, in the process.  Using "learned helplessness" to "train" is a losing game in my opinion - it may work in the short term but even if someone is willing to do this sort of thing to a horse it causes shutting down and emotional damage that can cause big problems later.)

The objective is for the horse to stand tied quietly and without fussing, pawing, etc.  I don't care if the horse calls, although if the horse is calm it probably won't be calling.  The important thing here is to not pay much attention to what the horse is doing - just let it figure things out and certainly don't say anything to the horse or correct it for moving around or pawing - that's just giving the horse attention, even if negative attention, for the behaviors you don't want.  Very short intervals of standing still should be rewarded at the beginning, and the horse should only be approached, praised or untied when it's standing still in relative calm, if only for a few seconds.  Most horses pretty quickly learn that they can rest and relax rather than fuss.  In the case of horses who start out very fussy or need to move around a lot, tying to a high line may be a better option to start with - the horse can safely move around as much as it wants which can be helpful as the horse learns to stand still on its own initiative.

Eventually, the horse should be able to stand tied for long periods without fussing in a variety of situations.  One of my favorite variants is to tie one horse in the arena while I'm working with another horse - it's good for both horses.

Ground tying.  This can come in handy in all sorts of situations, from grooming, to tacking, to farrier work.  After just standing around, it's one of my favorite exercises to help a horse learn to relax with me, and I usually start with grooming, which most horses enjoy.  I just take the horse to the location I want and drop the lead.  When the horse takes a step in any direction, I don't constrain or stop the horse but ask the horse to circle me until it offers to stop - watch carefully for the slight hesitation that indicates an offer to stop.  Drop the rope and repeat.  As with the other exercises, it doesn't matter if the horse ends up in the same place you started.  Most horses figure out pretty quickly that all they have to do is stand still.  Once the horse is used to ground tying, you can do the same walk away from the horse exercise described above, and can also do other activities with the horse while ground tied - saddling, unsaddling, etc.

Here are a couple of photos of my horses standing ground tied:

Standing still for mounting.  My objective is for the horse to approach the mounting block on its own, stand next to it in an appropriate position, and stand still on a loose rein until I've mounted and adjusted my stirrups and reins and asked the horse to move off.  This exercise is really a variant of the standing still under saddle and ground tying exercises, with the added element of approaching the block and standing in the correct position.  For this exercise, it's important to break it down into steps and reward the horse for incremental progress by taking breaks, praising the horse and just walking around for a minute or two before returning to the exercise.  It's also important to have the horse learn to choose for itself the correct options rather than being put, or placed, into position, or held there.  Everything should be done on a loose rein and the horse should have the option to move, so it can learn to choose to move where you want it to and to stand still in the correct location.

I usually do this exercise initially with a halter and lead under the bridle, as it makes it easier to direct the horse.  You may need to break this down into more steps than I describe.  I get up on the block and chirp to the horse to encourage it to move, and keep chirping until the horse approaches the block.  Walk around as a reward.  Repeat, this time continuing to chirp until the horse is close to the block next to you.  Repeat, this time rewarding if the horse comes up even with you.  If the horse just keeps on moving, don't stop or constrain the horse but continue chirping and direct the horse around you in a circle - you stay on the block.  The objective is to chirp until the horse is in position next to you - then stop chirping and reward with a walk around.  Once you've chirped and the horse is standing next to you, in a number of steps, put your foot in the stirrup, take it away and reward if the horse stands (if the horse moves at any point, immediately get down and direct the horse in a circle while chirping until the horse is back in position); put weight in the stirrup, get down and reward; put weight in the stirrup and lean across the saddle, and reward; put weight in the stirrup and one knee on the saddle, and reward; etc.  Again, if the horse moves even a bit (other than shifting weight or moving a foot to regain balance), jump down and direct the horse around again.  The last step is to mount, still on a loose rein, adjust and fiddle with your stirrups and sit quietly for a moment until you direct the horse to move off - the horse should not move until you ask.

Here is a sequence of photos with Dawn, showing the steps in this exercise (without the very important walking around for a reward in between steps):

If you mount from the ground, you can do this exercise with that modification - I tend to use a mounting block to spare my knees and the horse's back.

Scary object work.  One important principle of this work is that the horse must be able to make a choice. It's the choosing that builds courage and the ability to self-calm and spook in place rather than fleeing.  Scary object work, in my opinion, should never be done with the horse tied up or constrained in a way where its not allowed to move its feet or overwhelmed by something that is too scary. Having the horse in a halter on a long lead can be helpful as long as it's just used to define the work space and not to make the horse do things - the lead needs to be long to give the horse freedom to move - I use a 10' lead and a web halter.  If the horse is forced to put up with being scared and cannot move its feet to get to a comfortable distance, in my opinion you will end up with a horse that's either more afraid than when you started or shut down and emotionally overwhelmed rather than calm and brave, which is a recipe for later disasters - another example of learned helplessness which is damaging to the horse's trust and long-term emotional and mental stability.  Scary object work for me also isn't really about desensitizing the horse to specific objects or situations - it's more about building a more general ability to deal with scary things, self-calm and trust the human handler/rider.

A relevant quote from Temple Grandin's book Animals Make Us Human (terrible title, great book - my review is here):
When you're working with animals, novelty can be attractive or scary depending on how it is presented. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object.  Animals are terrified by forced novelty. (p. 147)
I've had good luck using clicker for this.  I usually start with the horse in a smaller space - say a paddock or round pen.  I reward the horse being willing to take a step towards the object, then two steps, etc. and once the horse is able to approach the object and touch it, then I can do other things, like have the object make a noise (flapping plastic, turning on clippers).  Then I reward the horse for not moving its feet.  The object can also be used to (slowly and carefully) touch the horse.  It's important when doing this work to not go too fast or overstress the horse - pay careful attention to the horse's expression and level of tension - the object is for things to be easy and simple.  Let the horse set the pace and never move faster, or ask the horse to approach closer, than the horse is comfortable with.  Some horses find this work much harder than others, and take that into account too.  I'm rewarding courage and trust and feel these exercises help the horse develop some resources to self-calm and to also spook in place rather than move their feet.  Clicker is very good for this because you can reward the slightest increment of try with a click without having to pressure the horse, and many horses are highly motivated by food and can overcome fears more easily if food is involved as a reward.

If you're using clicker (and I'm far from an expert), there are some important first steps - the horse must associate the click (I just use my tongue to make the click) with the reward; it's important to teach the horse not to mooch (and in fact clicker can be a great way to help the horse to learn to stay out of your space); and you must be careful to reward immediately precisely the (very small) try in the right direction that you're looking for.  I have found books by Alexandra Kurland on clicker training very helpful.


  1. Haven't tried any clicker work myself.

    The just standing around concept pays off too when the farrier comes. My shoes spends a lot of time fitting and shaping the shoes, so the horse has to stand on the crossties, waiting, while he works. It's another one of those times when lots of groundwork makes a difference.

    Once again, a good, thoughtful post.

  2. Kate, that's a good post. Betty and I pretty much do the same with our horses. We just enjoy spending time with them when we're not asking them to do anything and I believe it pays off. I also totally agree with the spooking training. It's important for the horse to be able to move so they can make the decision how they move or not to move at all. Over time these decisions build up in their brain so they have something to work with on the trail.



  3. Great post Kate.

    You've mentioned a number of these concepts previously, but I really appreciate the more in depth discussion presented here.

    Val and I did calm tying (while grooming), standing still + ground tying (cold hosing out in the open) and scary object practice (heading out near the trail / construction area) - all four this evening.

    After reading the post, I'd have to say that I should focus on the positive reinforcement / clicker training aspects. I think I paid attention to some negative actions...

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post :)

  4. Excellent advice :) I do a lot of standing around and relaxing with nervous horses or ones with histories of abuse. It does wonders. I've also found that making a rider exhale loudly enough for the horse to hear helps both student and horse. Great entry, as usual.

  5. Someday I think I may try clicker work with some of the horses. Bought the books and the clicker already, but I just don't have the time to devote to training consistently right now.

    You've made some very good points in this thoughtful post. We always try to have a calm and relaxed demeanor around our horses in the hopes it will translate into their behavior. So far it seems to be working for us.

  6. Thank goodness you've put these on the sidebar! Once I finally get to start riding my mare again (PLEASE!!) I'll be back to read them in more detail and practice. :)

  7. Good post.

    Teaching a horse to just stand around is so important, but can be difficult for some horses.

    I've had some I've worked with who thought that they always have to be doing something.

    Some clicker trained horses, especially, get the idea that they should always be offering behaviors and trying to please us! Which I appreciate, I like my horses to like their training. However, just being able to stand around, relaxed and calm, is so important too. Thanks for the reminder, as I have a few who could use some more work on this.


  8. I learn so much from you. Thanks!
    I have done some of this with my boys, but I'm thinking, based on what I've read, that I'm not patient enough. I need to put my calm hat on!

  9. "With some horses, it is almost as if they have forgotten how to do nothing, and in a lot of cases this is simply because their owners just do too much."

    I think this is the problem Storm has when I got him back. Whenever a person was around him the poor horse was jumping out of his skin. I don't think they ever hurt him but he just didn't know what to expect. To his thinking because a person was near him something must be expected and he couldn't tolerate not knowing what that was.

    Now he is back to being the quiet horse he used to be. We can go in his stall and not have him jumping out of his skin. That carries over into everything we do.

  10. I think it's really interesting that Tom Widdicombe is "looking for a woah" in a similar way to what mugwump does. They have different techniques, of course, but they both want the horse to have a safe space to stand still and do nothing.

    I've been working on "touch it" with Dixie via clicker training for about a year and a half, maybe two years. It's amazing - it's like she's decided that if I'm asking her to touch it, it can't be that scary. She got a little big-eyed at a horse soccer ball today, but when I said "touch it" she walked right up and bumped it with her nose. It's one of the most valuable things I've done with her.

    Dom - I've been sighing at her for about the same length of time, and yes, if she stops to stare at something and I give a deep sigh she'll sigh and relax too. It's so cool :)

  11. This is great! Thanks for sharing! Shy is great at standing still, but we really need to work on mounting block behaviors, she is terrified if someone is standing on the mounting block!


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