Motivating your equine partner (and yourself) with positive reinforcement
I wrote this blog several weeks ago, since then things have changed a great deal and we now find ourselves dealing with a new way of living and working. As a consequence we can’t teach lessons face to face at the moment but we are working online instead. We will have more news about online services coming soon but in the meantime a I still wanted to share some of what I have learned in the last couple of weeks.
Early mornings have always been my favourite time to ride, the yard is usually quiet and there is nothing better than watching the sun rise from the back of a horse. Plus, you then have the rest of the day free to do everything else and if the ride goes well you bounce off to work with a big smile on your face.
However, my last few rides have been early mornings and rather than being a time for peace, reflection and partnership with my four legged friend the yard has been a buzz of activity. The maintenance team are out in force early morning meaning there are lawnmowers, sprinklers, tractors grading the rings and leaf blowers to contend with. Plus we are only a few hundred meters from one of the busiest freeways in Los Angeles so the constant thunder of cars is always humming in the background. I am working hard on myself to think of all these distractions as an opportunity to be able to ride and get into a ‘flow’ where you can’t be disturbed because this is what I will need to do the next time I get to a show!
Anyway, my last few rides with Charlie have been awesome for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I think we are starting to understand each other. I have come to realise that horses have a unique ability to translate a multitude of languages and generally they make a very good job of it. So when I ride Charlie she has to decipher what I am asking of her compared to the last person. The language is basically the same, legs mean go etc but my legs are not in exactly the same place as other riders so to her it must seem like my conversation is muffled. Imagine someone insisting you listen to them even when they are shouting at you in French when \you only understand English and that is how I imagine she must feel. SO the more we get to know each other the more she has an understanding of what I mean and I have a better understanding of how she interprets my instructions.
Secondly, I am starting to understand her brain a little more. The last few times I have ridden Charlie has been SUPER, and I mean SUPER motivated. I put this down to her fundamental attitude to life, Charlie is a trier and she likes getting things right. Plus the R+ methods my mentor and our trainer Patricia Lincourt uses means that Charlie wants to work. This is good because due to the landlocked nature of our location the horses spend a lot of time in the arena compared to the horses I have ridden my entire life where I had the luxury of the British countryside on my doorstep. We can’t hack or trail ride for hours as we are in the heart of the city. Therefore it's up to us as riders to make the horses training sessions as enjoyable as possible, and when they are being worked with positive reinforcement methods then their attitude seems to improve as they are rewarded for working.
I’ve noticed that Charlie often starts a schooling session really relaxed but then as time goes on she becomes more and more ‘lit up’ with work. So my job is to read when she is becoming over motivated and bring the work down a notch or two so that we don’t escalate into over enthusiasm. This I find tricky because the feeling she gives you when she is motivated to play the game is incredible. She is soft, supple and moves effortlessly between paces and exercises. I then get greedy because the work feels so good and have to remember to just come back to a walk or halt to chill for a few moments to give us both breathing time.
My focus at the moment is to really think about riding with a light seat and soft upper body (while remaining straight) and I am finding the more I lighten my seat the more she responds and carries herself. So I have to set the framework for what I want and then do my best not to interfere, getting out of her way so that she can do her job. The more Charlie works and becomes motivated by the game the more she wants to experiment and raise her own ‘criteria’ so for example before you know it she will be offering quarters in or leg yield when you were just trying to trot a 15 meter circle. I am finding there is a fine line between giving her enough to do to keep her mind occupied without over stimulating her so that she becomes so motivated she loses all her inhibitions and starts throwing out experimental disco style shapes!
Today (not early morning but there was a Western roping competition going on at the
property next door which meant country music blasting and galloping cows
thundering past) we went for short successful exercises and then walking or standing and admiring the scenery (and other horses) in between. My aim was a moment or two of great trot with lots of straightness and swing and then back to a square halt then stand for a moment or two scratching her neck before heading off into a walk to canter transition, popping a cross rail and then walking on a long rein for a moment or two. This is how my training sessions are shaping up and I think it's beneficial for me too. I get the chance to reflect on how each exercise is working, whether I should repeat it and ask for more or fix any issues or move on to something else. The lighter and straighter I sit the more she is enabled to move and the happier we both are. I am learning to use variety to keep
interest rather than repeat the same exercise over and over again which often leads to tension and frustration while we seek perfection. Quality not quantity is my new motto and another lesson I am learning is to just let the horse do their job, and reward them handsomely when they give you what you are looking for.
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