Lesson #3: Target practice - cones are your friend :)
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
We’ve moved on a little from your classic lunge lessons and on to using target practice on the ground and then in the saddle. The exercise is pretty simple, I get three or four ‘targets’, these can be anything safe that your horse can identify as something to put his nose on and therefore focus on. We use little orange cones but they could be mats on the floor or anything safe enough for a horse to stand on. Bob being Bob loves to stand on them and the cones just bounce back without causing any injuries. The cones are placed out in a large square or a triangle so that I can stand in the centre and lunge round them. Then we get lunging, we tend to move around a lot so the horse is not always working on the exact same circle, so we move about the arena in and out of the cones and every so often I use the command ‘Target’ and Bob goes to the nearest cone and touches it with his nose, then he is rewarded for the behaviour. Then, once he and I have had a chance to our body language (I am pretty sure this is horse to rider as much as rider to horse) and I decide we are in the right frame of mind I get on and we repeat the exercise. I use the cones as targets and we walk/trot around and to the cones, I am careful to mix the exercise up so that not every time we get to a cone Bob expects to stop and he is rewarded as much for leaving a target as he is for heading to a target in the first place. Once we are settled in the walk we head off into trot. At this stage of the game I am not at all interested getting a round horse, I just want a horse that is attentive, relaxed and enjoying his work. So we mooch about between the cones on a long rein, which by the way is a good test of my confidence that I am happy to ride about without hanging onto his head all the time. The other idea of working with targets is that Bob associates them as a 'safe place' so if he gets too over emotional about things then we just go and stand at a target to regain his focus.
In one of the sessions I started lunging and he was pretty 'hot' so I was wondering if I would be able to get any focused work. I switched from cantering on the lunge to working with the targets just in walk and this seemed to bring Bob back down from his 'threshold' of emotional tension. After a some focused work walking and trotting (him and me I have to try and keep up on foot :)) he became more relaxed again and I was able to mount and repeat the exercises while riding.
I have done this target practice exercise a number of times and put the cones out in different patterns, sometimes in a straight line, sometimes in a square or triangle just to make sure things don't get too boring. I always have a plan before I ride, I may not stick to the plan once I am on board and I can sense what sort of mood we are both in, but I have a plan to start off with. I keep the sessions short and positive so that we both end in the right frame of mind. I also have repeated the game on the ground as part of getting to know Bob, this also means that we can work through any issues around communication with me on the floor which can sometimes be more precise. So for example I want Bob to stand beside the cone not on top of it. The idea being that at some point I can transfer the target (in my mind at least) to the letters on the menage and then we can start using these to ride with more accuracy, eg halt at A becomes a lesson in target practice as much as a lesson in dressage! I will edit a video of some of the ground work exercises for a future post in case that is helpful to anyone wanting to see more of the steps in this process.
Trainer comment from Patricia:
“This is a great situation to put R+ techniques to use. The work with R+ begins in the stables with building a consistent reinforcement history. Cue behaviours, a positive reinforcement (food most of the time) is given immediately and a relationship develops. Clarity for the horse about what behaviours will be rewarded and what will not get a reward is paramount for Bob to learn self regulation and motivate him to keep focused. Working out further to the arenas unmounted, testing the focus and willingness to stay connected to Rachel is an important step for both of them to feel good. Using the same exercises under saddle that they just practiced un-mounted can give confidence to both partners. Rachel can also have a way to quickly recover from any outside disturbances or her own personal tension or distractions.”
Patricia Lincourt specialises in R+ training and is available online and on the phone for anyone who is looking for guidance. If this is of interest please contact us for further information.