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Don’t Forget to Reward Your Horse

By John Strassburger, December 29, 2014


Be sure your horse knows when he’s answered your aids correctly.
While I believe that some horse owners go overboard in making a fuss over their horses every time they do something right, I do think that, sometimes, some of us forget to reward our horses when they do something right.

For instance, we have one student who is such a perfectionist that she can rarely acknowledge when she and her horse have done an exercise well. Instead, her mind congers up five or six ways she should have done the exercise better, so I often have to remind her to pat her horse, to tell that she, at least, performed well.

Training horses is very much a carrot-and-stick game. You have to reward them for answering your aids or commands correctly (with the figurative or literal carrot), but they also have to know that there is punishment for not answering correctly (the figurative or literal stick).

I always preach to our students that they must be in command of their horses, both on the ground and on their backs. Horses want to have a leader, and if you don’t fill that role, then they will, because nature abhors a vacuum. And part of leadership is telling those in your command when they’ve done something right—rewarding them.

I’ve always found that reward is particularly important with young and green horses, and your reward often needs to be effusive—lots of pats on the neck, repeated “good boy” or “good girl,” or food treats. Why? Because their understanding of proper and improper answers and behavior is limited, so every time they give you a right answer, you need to tell them. As horses get older and become more experienced, they need for effusive reward becomes less because they know when they’ve answered correctly. But you should still confirm, at least in a small way, that they’ve answered correctly.

In the photo you see here, I’m patting my wonderful mare Alba on the neck in the middle of the intermediate cross-country course at the Woodside Horse Trials here in California. This might seem to be in direct contrast to what I just said, but we’d just completed a rather difficult combination at which, in our previous run there, I’d pulled her out at the second jump because I’d made a mistake approaching the first jump, making the stride impossible to make to the second one. I’ll admit that I was probably congratulating myself as much as her, but I wanted make sure she knew that I was proud of her and pleased with her excellent effort.

On course, I would often reward Alba with my voice or a pat, because she galloped around big courses on her heart, because she’s a brave and eager little horse who believed in me and trusted our relationship. So I always wanted to keep adding glue to the bond we had between us.

Similarly, my previous star Merlin was oddly lacking in self-confidence, despite the fact that his physical gifts towered over Alba’s, and I always rewarded him on course for his efforts, especially when he was a young horse. I wanted to be sure that he knew that he’d been brave, and I always felt it was an important ingredient to adding to his trust in me.

On the other hand, my current intermediate horse, Amani, is a different sort. She’s very confident in herself (I often joke that she truly believes the sun rises every morning just to shine on her beautiful back), but when she was young her first answer to new jumps was periodically an emphatic “No!” I literally used the stick to convince her that that was absolutely the wrong answer and that she could jump anything I’d ever point her toward with one leg tied behind her back. After a few months, she decided I was right, and she hasn’t had a cross-country jumping fault since she was 4 (she’s about to turn 8).

Yes, I do quietly reward Amani for answering my aids correctly, but not nearly as effusively as with Alba or Merlin. Just a quiet “good girl” or a scratch on the neck with my pinky finger.

Trailer training is another place where rewards are a good idea, especially if the horse is an anxious or uncertain loader or shipper. In the last few years, I’ve had two horses who would go on the trailer but not back off it. One was an older mare who could be quite stubborn, and the other was a young horse whom we’d bred. With both, I taught them how to back up on my command all around the barn, at first using a chain over their nose and a dressage whip to encourage them to respond by backing up, and then rewarding them with my voice, hand and treats when they did it right. And for awhile I made sure to have a treat when they backed off the trailer correctly.

The bottom line: Be sure you’re in command of your horse, but remember to reward him for obeying you.

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Six Reasons Why Horses Resist Your Aids

By John Strassburger, December 22, 2014


Amani jumps confidently around cross-country courses because she knows I’m in command—and because I’ve taught her how to answer the questions she’ll face.
My nearly 45 years of experience with horses has taught me that, generally speaking, horses don’t do what you want them to do for one or more of these six reasons. So the way to solve that resistance or disobedience is to address the problems that result from these six issues as part of your training.

I see these resistances happen most dramatically when jumping, especially when a horse refuses a jump, either occasionally or regularly. But these resistances can all certainly apply to everyday life—things like bringing the horse in from the field, loading in a trailer or even standing for the farrier to do his job.

The six major causes of disobedience in equines are: 

1. You’re not in charge. You’re not actually giving the horse a command or direction; you’re asking him if he’d like to do something—and, predictably, the answer the horse usually gives is “No.” Your attitude must be, “Now we’re going to jump/walk past the barn/load in the trailer,” but instead you’re meekly asking, “Could we jump/walk past the barn/load in the trailer?” It is imperative when dealing with horses (or any animal) to remember this: You are the boss, the drill sergeant, the coach or the teacher. Be any of these—but be in charge! When you properly give a command, your horse should snap to attention, salute and respond, “Yes, sir/ma’am! As you wish.”

2. Your aids aren’t correct, clear or understandable. For instance, you think you’re telling the horse to canter or to jump, but you’re really preventing him from doing either. Perhaps you’re using your leg aids correctly, but you’re pulling back on the reins when he starts to canter or jump. Some horses are willing to ignore the rider’s aids to do the job they know they’re supposed to do (like canter or jump, despite the rider), but others are either more sensitive, more demanding of correct aids or just lazy, so they won’t do whatever it is you want unless you tell them correctly.

3. The horse doesn’t understand what you want him to do. This mostly applies to jumping or negotiating some kind of obstacle on the trail, and it’s very much a training issue. Often it’s the result of what someone did, or did not do, before the horse came to you, and now you have to deduce or guess what that something was, kind of like a CSI investigator. You need to ask yourself if you’ve prepared the horse to answer the question, both in previous training sessions and in today’s session. Ask yourself, “What does he not understand?” and break down the question into smaller pieces, if possible, to help him solve it.

4. The horse is genuinely frightened. He doesn’t like jumps in certain shapes or colors. He doesn’t like to go into dark or narrow places (such as forested paths or indoor arenas). The noise and motion of streams unnerves him. I’ve written two recent blogs about the eyesight issue we’ve discovered one of my competition horses has, and I believe more and more strongly that “spooky,” easily frightened horses, and horses who aren’t brave behave that way because they don’t see certain things in their environment well. To overcome their anxiety, you need to develop their confidence in you. You need to convince them that if you say they can jump that jump or go past that object that they’ll be OK. They need to believe that you’re correct when your aids tell them that whatever they can’t see perfectly won’t hurt them.

5. The horse doesn’t have confidence in you. Horses behave and perform for us because they trust us, because we make them feel safe and confident by commanding them and by teaching them how to solve questions like jumping. They develop confidence in us through our own confident attitude and by our repetitive success in helping them answer questions that life or we present to them. Problems 1 through 4 are all reasons for horses to lose or gain confidence in their riders. If you’ve repeatedly demonstrated to your horse that you’re not a leader, that you’re even weaker or more timid than he is, he’s going to resist going most places with you. Why? Because he doesn’t feel safe with you and he doesn’t want to be separated from the friends or environment where he does feel safe. Horses want you to be their strong leader, not their mild companion. Don’t believe me? Watch a group of three or four horses in a field.

6. The horse has a physical problem. He could be lame or sore, for any of hundreds of reasons. He could have a shoeing problem (as simple as needing to be on a regular six-week shoeing schedule, or needing a properly balanced trim, which probably means you need to change farriers). Perhaps he has ulcers or other gastro-intestinal issues. Perhaps the saddle doesn’t fit, slightly or at all. Perhaps he has an eyesight issue (see #4). I’ve just barely scratched the surface of possible physical issues that could cause resistance. 

The bottom line, as we like to say at the Horse Journal, is that, if your horse is resisting your aids, your commands, you have to figure out why. Then you have to change it; you have to fix the problem, and you may have to change you. And, often, that change or fix will require serious effort and serious money.

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If Only Horses Could Wear Glasses

By John Strassburger, December 13, 2014


With training and experience, Merlin overcame his eyesight problem. How many other horses cannot?

 

A few weeks ago I wrote in this space about one of my horses, Boogie, complaining of poor eyesight when we “talked” with him through an animal communicator. You’ll recall that I included a photo of Boogie wearing a giant pair of joke glasses. 

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about equine eyesight. 

Boogie “said” that his jumping problem was his depth perception, so since writing that previous blog, I’ve purchased for him a racing shadow roll, to see if it would encourage him to look down at the bottom of jumps to help him judge his physical relationship to them. I’m very glad to report that, yes, it does seem to be working. He’s most definitely jumping straighter than he was—I’m suspecting he’s not fading left on take-off or making awkward leaps from much-to-deep distances because he’s seeing the jumps differently (and better). 

Boogie has also not been dramatically over-jumping everything in his customary style, and as a result of both of these changes he’s also jumping in a rounder frame and softer attitude, giving him a much better shape in the air. He feels great—he finally feels like a 6-year-old horse whom I’ve been training to jump for three years should feel. 

My experience with Boogie these last few weeks has made me ponder how many horses have eyesight issues? How many horses who regularly refuse jumps or spook at unfamiliar sights or objects are doing that because they can’t see well enough to feel comfortable? How many horses who are dismissed as “useless” or “crazy” are really that way because they can’t see well? 

In other words, how many horses could really use a pair of glasses or contact lenses? For millennia, riders have assumed that all horses see well, that natural selection has given them eyesight that fits into a much narrower range of “normal” than we humans do. But why couldn’t some of them have poorer eyesight than others? After all, they’re mammals, just like we are. 

The only other horse with whom I’ve “spoken” through an animal communicator was my wonderful partner Merlin, and we’d suspected that he had an eyesight problem long before the communicator confirmed it. 

Merlin’s weak eye was his left eye, and it was why he didn’t like going from light to dark. It was also why he spooked at things that were on his left side, why when he spooked he always spun to the left (so he could see whatever was scaring him with his right eye), and why he was far spookier at home than away from home. (At home he knew what objects were and where they belonged and got upset when they were moved, but at way from home he didn’t know where things were supposed to be, so it didn’t bother him as much.) 

When Merlin was a young green horse, at ages 3 and 4, he often ran out at jumps—always at jumps or questions he hadn’t seen before and always, always, to the left. But, with training and experience, his innate tremendous work ethic allowed him to figure out how to overcome his eyesight and he developed confidence in his ability to do just that, with help from his immense physical gifts. 

Racehorses’ running form often improves dramatically when the trainer puts blinkers on them. I wonder if that’s because those horses’ eyesight is so good that they get easily distracted by things around them, which racing people generally accept is the reason blinkers work? Or do blinkers work because those horses have poor eyesight and are worried about things around them that their poor eyesight prevents them form understanding, so the blinkers focus their vision in a productive way? Or is it both? Do some horses not like to run in blinkers because it makes their limited eyesight worse? 

I’m wondering if eyesight is one of the factors that make some horses more likely to knock down rails or refuse jumps than others. Boogie “said” he was hitting jumps because he needed to touch them to tell where the rails were, and it’s always been very challenging to get him to the jumps on the correct stride. On the other hand, it’s really hard to get my 5-year-old mare Bella to the jumps wrong. She’s always shown an uncanny sense of where she is in relation to the jump. I’m wondering if that’s because she has exceptional eyesight. 

Heather an I also recalled that, five years ago, we had a horse in training we were sure had an eyesight problem, because he was spooky and would always turn his head to one side to look with what we suspected was his good eye. And he wasn’t a brave jumper at all. I got him to jump clean at beginner novice (where he won an event) and at novice levels with his junior rider, but he never got around at training level with two other trainers (one of whom has the reputation that if the horse won’t jump for him, he won’t jump for anyone). 

Is there any way to solve the problem of horses’ eyesight, any way to correct the vision of horses with jumping or spooking problems? My glib answer is that it’s really hard to get horses to read the eye chart, especially because we first have to teach them the alphabet and how to talk. 

Seriously, what could we do? Could we put corrective goggles or blinkers on them? Giant contact lenses? It’s hard to imagine the FEI, USEF or racing commissions allowing horses to wear corrective lenses, because it would certainly seem to be a competitive advantage. 

At least it would be a good question for equine medical research, if only there were the money. You may recall that last February I wrote an article for the Horse Journal describing the U.S. Eventing Association decision to assess a $1 starter fee for every entry to help fund equine medical research. Well, I think that this would be another reason why every equine sports organization—USEF, USHJA, USDF, AQHA and more—should follow the USEA’s far-sighted lead.  

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California Chrome—Simply Awesome

By John Strassburger, December 02, 2014

2014 Hollywood Derby - California Chrome
 2014 Hollywood Derby - California Chrome
I got to watch a superb equine athlete perform at the top of his game last Saturday, when California Chrome won the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar Race Track near San Diego.

When I saw on Friday, while watching TVG, that California Chrome was going to be racing the next afternoon, I made sure that I’d be in the house and able to watch the race. Why? Because I’ve felt, ever since he first saw him run last March, that this horse truly has a mystical, almost magical, quality about him.  And as a horseman whose niche has been training young horses, it’s been fascinating to watch his physical and mental development over the course of the year.

Over my 40-plus years of watching racehorses, I’ve seen many fabulous horses run. Affirmed, Alydar, Seattle Slew, Riva Ridge, John Henry, Forego, Zenyatta, Flatterer and Lonesome Glory all come to my mind immediately. All were exceptional athletes with an exceptional will to win, horses that walked around exuding class, strength and a sublime inner confidence.

But in my mind there have been only two I would call freakishly extraordinary—Secretariat and Ruffian. Just walking in the paddock or cantering to the post, they radiated an incredible strength, an awe-inspiring athleticism, and extraordinary equine intelligence. Now I’m willing to put California Chrome in a class with these two god-like horses.

He is, simply, an extraordinary physical specimen. The highly developed muscles on his nearly perfect frame simply ripple with strength, as his chestnut coat glistens with health. It must be a daily treat for those around him to see him in the barn or on the track. I’ve always considered Secretariat to be the perfect physical expression of the horse, a 10. I’d rate California Chrome a 9.75.

California Chrome has always shown an extraordinary ability to use tactical speed. He’s able to accelerate and decelerate at nearly any point in the race, an ability that’s often what separates the very good racehorse from the exceptional racehorse. Most racehorses can accelerate only once (some can’t at all!), and it’s the ability to turn the speed on and off that often makes the best ones.

But he showed a new wrinkle to his tactical arsenal on Saturday, when he broke from the gate as if shot from a cannon to immediately grab the lead, before rating back to second and then surging to the front midway through the final turn and then turning it up two or three more notches to seal the score.

That was huge, because the knock against him last spring was how tardy he was leaving the gate. Breaking quickly from the gate showed his mental development, how he’s learning to play the game even better, which fascinates me as a horseman.

Plus, the Hollywood Derby was his first grass race. And, again, that’s comparable to Secretariat, who concluded his 3-year-old campaign (and his career) by winning two 1 ½-mile races on the grass. Victory on the grass means that California Chrome has now won over all three racing surfaces—dirt, synthetic and grass, another highly unusual achievement among racehorses, who generally prefer one surface or another.

I certainly look forward to seeing California Chrome run as a 4-year-old, and I salute his owners for continuing to race him, for letting us racing fans see him run more, instead of shipping him off to the breeding shed, where he’ll be worth a lottery’s worth of millions of dollars. 

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Our “Talk” With Boogie

By John Strassburger, November 26, 2014


Too bad Boogie can’t wear these glasses when he jumps.

 

As a trainer, every now and again your life gets complicated by a horse who just doesn’t live up to your expectations, whose body screams that he or she should be a really good horse, but they just don’t respond to the things you do to train other horses. For the last three years I’ve been training a horse like that.

And today I’m going to share with you the story of our latest journey with him—talking to him through an animal communicator.

Boogie came into our Phoenix Farm program in the spring of 2011—a 3-year-old Oldenburg who was then still a colt because his owner, our barn manager Roxanne Rainwater, hoped to stand him at stud. He was a handsome horse, a fabulous mover and an obvious athlete, so my mouth watered at the prospect of riding him.

He started nicely under saddle, but he soon proved to be a painfully slow-maturing horse, physically and mentally, and, of course, he was constantly distracted by the hormones coursing through his body, giving him thoughts that I don’t think he understood. We decided to geld him at the start of his 5-year-old year, because it was clear that keeping him to be a stallion made no financial sense and because taking him to any competitions was just too nerve-wracking.

Gelding him was the best decision we ever made. It allowed him to focus on his work, and he became the absolute pet we always thought he really was. But his jumping has still progressed rather like a rollercoaster. One day I’d think, “OK, he’s really getting it.” And the next day I’d think, “That was awful. I clearly don’t know what I’m doing.”

I’ve often said that, if I were a high school football or track coach, Boogie would be the kid that drove me crazy. He’d be the kid who’d be an all-star quarterback or running back, or a superstar sprinter or hurdler—if he’d just put some effort into practice. He’d give you excruciating glimpses of his passing skills, of his power or his speed, in practice, but then you’d look over and him just jogging slowly around the track or standing by the fence with a herd of girls fawning over him. You’d want to grab him by the shoulders, shake him, and scream, “You could be great if you’d just put some effort into it!!”

Finally, this summer we decided that at age 6, and having done nearly a dozen beginner novice and novice events, the time has come to move him up to training level. We decided that, as my father used to say, it was time to see if Boogie was going to “fish or just cut bait.”

Since he’d always run well at Twin Rivers (where we go three or four times a year), I moved him up to training level at their event in late September. He had only a mediocre dressage test, had one stop in show jumping at a difficult distance, and then jumped nicely clear on cross-country. “Yes,” I thought, “now we’re getting somewhere.”

Four weeks later, I ran him at the Fresno County Horse Park, and we won the dressage with a good score of 26 penalties, and then on cross-country he stopped at a rail on top of a mound between two ponds. Disappointing, but it was a very difficult fence that stopped about 20 percent of the training field, and he jumped quite well everywhere else. But then he lowered two rails and had a stop again in show jumping.

A month later we were back at Fresno, and we had a great dressage test, scoring a 22 (that’s 88% for you dressage folks), winning the dressage by 7 points. Show jumping followed a few hours later, and he lowered four rails, three because he just didn’t pick up his feet high enough.

That was extremely disappointing and frustrating, and we looked at each other in confusion, especially because he hadn’t touched a jump in warm-up.

So on to cross-country, where he stopped twice at the same jump as the previous month, which this time was located in the water next to the mound—so I didn’t expect it to concern him. But, after I jumped an easier option fence so we could continue, he jumped the rest of the course even better than the previous month, including a new rail-ditch-rail combination with striding that I feared would be short for him. But he jumped through it like it was a gymnastic combination I’d set at home.

Now we were thoroughly confused and frustrated. How could he go both better and worse? How could he feel, at the water jump, like he’d just given up and then continue as if nothing had happened, feeling uncertain only on the second water jump? (He’d been jumping through water just fine throughout his career, though.)

Driving home for five hours gave us plenty of time to ponder, and I figured it was time to, as they say, think outside of the box. Heather and I had once worked with another very talented but confusing horse, so we decided to try that, to see if “talking” to Boogie could put us in the right direction.

So last Wednesday evening Roxanne, Heather and I talked with a local animal communicator named Lori Pacheco (lori@healingheartstrings.com), and we had an interesting conversation with Boogie.

To start with, we laughed when he said he thought we were for a party! But from this chat, we did learn several things that we can take action on.

The first was the big question: Did he like eventing, like going cross-country, and did he want to do this job? We were all afraid his answer would be no, he didn’t like this job. But he “said” that he liked it very much, that he liked being part of our team, and that he knew he needed to get better at it—and that he wanted to get better at it.

That was good news, for sure. But why did he stop at those jumps? Boogie responded that he sometimes has trouble with light, with what we interpreted to mean reflection or glare, especially at water.

Boogie also said that he has trouble perceiving his distance from jumps, and that he feels as if he has to touch them with his feet to tell where they are.

Third, he “said” that confidence was an issue, that sometimes he talks himself out of being able to do things. He said he thought he’d performed well in the dressage ring at those two events, but that he didn’t know he’d won. He liked to hear that, he “said.”

Those last two answers seemed to largely explain his jumping problems. We’ve long felt that he had trouble judging the height of jumps. We recalled that when we first started jumping him, he had trouble negotiating crossrails, because he was trying to jump over the highest part instead of the lowest—because he was looking at the top of the jump and not the bottom. So we set exercises to make him look down, which helped, and we’d kind of forgotten about this problem—but I think it explains his uncertainty about that particular cross-country fence.

I felt, both times, as if he wasn’t looking at it, and now I think the problem was that he wasn’t looking at it properly. He was looking at the top of the jump, not the bottom. So in October it looked really high, because it was on top of a mound, and last week he couldn’t see the bottom because it was underwater, and maybe he couldn’t see the top clearly either, because there was water behind it.

So I’m going back to exercises to encourage him to look down. Back to step rails (rails on Blox or similar devices, which I’ve tested for Horse Journal) and bright ground rails.

I’ve also purchased him a shadow roll, the sheepskin noseband popular with racehorses to encourage them to look down instead of raising their heads while being restrained. I’ve used a small one for more than five years when jumping my intermediate mare Alba. (I tried it on Boogie, and it certainly didn’t seem to negatively affect him.) For Boogie, I ordered the shadow roll in white, but, because of his sunlight issue, I think I may get a black cover to shade his eyes like football and baseball players do with black patches on their faces.

I hope those two things work, because I don’t Boogie can wear glasses! We did, though, try on a pair of plastic joke glasses we have. He seemed to like wearing them in the barn, but I’m thinking perhaps I should try sports goggles. I wonder if I can find them big enough? 

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