Saturday, July 3, 2010

Catching your horse in the act of "doing it right"

This darling, exhausted little fellow is Harley, the newest addition to my family of (now) two Golden Retrievers, four horses, three kids (all off at college), and Best Husband in the World.

Harley started his training the day he came to live with us, at eight weeks of age. He is now 13 weeks and knows how to come, sit, take food without leaping into the air in spins worthy of Superman, and to walk politely on a leash. "Stay" may take a little longer.

Much of my training program revolves around catching Harley in the act of doing a behavior on his own that I would like him to do on my command.

For example, as we morphed from "sit" to "down," I looked for times when Harley had decided, on his own, that it was time rest his, uh, er, "dogs," also known as legs.

If I saw Harley in the down position, I began to lavish crazy praise on him, saying, "down, good down," over and over while rubbing enthusiastically on his chest.

This has proven extremely effective in terms of chewing. If I see him chewing something that's a no-no, like, say, our dining room table, I promptly put an approved chew toy in his mouth. The minute he takes the toy, I praise him. If he's just hanging out, playing with one of his toys, I also praise him.

By catching Harley in the act, he has learned much faster and I have had absolutely no frustration.

As you are training your Standardbred to transition from harness racer to saddle horse, catching her in the act of behaviors you want her to learn is a very good way to help your four-legged friend learn faster.

I got an opportunity to put this into action yesterday. My wonderful mare, Cordealia, has been on stall rest for several months now. She has, at last, been given the green light to return to work. Yesterday, the first day I put her back into the round pen at liberty, all she wanted to do was canter.

And pace. Grrrr.

Cordealia (aka "Cori") has been off the track for almost four years now. She has had extensive saddle training and, before stall rest came along, was working very well in some upper level dressage moves. She rides both English and Western. She is light and responsive. She does not pace.

Yet, there she was, full of vinegar. And pacing. Did I already say "Grrrr?"

My reaction was to prohibit her from pacing by forcing her into the canter every time she paced. However, I couldn't just let her canter forever, because it was her first day out. I didn't need to re-injure herself. But neither did I want her to think that the pace was a good thing.

My plan of attack, then, was to ignore the pace. Every time she paced, I stood very quietly. I did not give her any reason to go faster. In fact, I kind of acted like I was trying to be invisible.

As I knew it would, there came a moment, about four minutes into a pacing episode, when she broke into a trot. At that moment, I applied the "Harley Rules." I lavished her with praise, singing out to her, "Trot, yes, good trot, good trot." Over and over and over.

This method of "catching her in the act" will help Cordealia get back into trotting mode very quickly.

If you are trying to teach your pacer to become a trotter, think about catching your horse in the act and then rewarding that behavior lavishly. The "Harley Rule" applies for anything you are trying to teach your horse. Catch her in the act, then reward, making sure to identify the behavior specifically with "good trot" or "canter, good canter."

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