Training the Balancer’: The Gold at the end of the Rainbow
Horse training, or learning about horse training, is a long road. It never ends. However, there is great joy when you find the gold at the end of the rainbow. There have been many ups and downs while training Jackson. There have been quick and unexpected results and there have been times when I didn’t think we were ever going to accomplish a certain task. Teaching Jackson the balancer’ (pronounced bal-on-say) is one of those things that took a long time, but I think I have found my pot of gold.
Ever since I saw Nevzorov’s horse doing the balancer, I have wanted to train Jackson to do it as well. There was very little I could find out about it. In the beginning, I didn’t even know how it was spelled. Eventually, I found out how it was spelled and learned just a little bit about it, but there was not clear plan, that I found, on how to start training a horse on the ground at liberty. So I had to pave my own way.
I started last fall, I think. I knew that, for me, to capture the behavior I wanted, I would need to use the clicker. I started the training in the round pen. First I would have Jackson trot or canter around the round pen, then I would suddenly ask him to reverse directions, making sure he turned to the inside. If he did, I would let him slow down afterwards and then I would give him a treat. I made sure to do this evenly on both sides. Then I began to ask him for more. I wanted him to turn more quickly, more like a pivot on the hind legs. If he did it nicely, I would click that moment and reward.
This seemed to be the hardest thing for him to learn to do consistently. Some days he would do some nice changes of directions and other days it was just sloppy. I decided to shelve it, for the most part, during the winter. As soon as the snow melted however, I was ready to give it a try. As it turned out, he seemed to have remembered our previous lessons and did pretty well. I then began to add more difficulty. I would ask for a change of direction and then, right away, another change. When he would put those two together, I would click and reward. It did take a lot of patience and quite a lot of pressure (being careful not to use too much pressure, of course). It might have been easier for a horse that had more energy than Jackson, however.
Then we spent lots of time working on getting two or three changes of direction consistently. The trick was getting him to change directions, without doing any forward steps. After working on this for a few days, there didn’t seem to be much progress. So I dropped it for a few weeks. Then, right before the horse show in April, I gave it a try. There was huge improvement. When I asked for those changes of direction, he gave me some really nice movements. Certainly, it was not hopping from one foot to the other, but it was consistent jumps from one side to the other, pivoting on the hind legs. I was thrilled!
Then it seemed to get easier and more fun. I needed to refine his jumping and landing on both legs to jumping from one leg to the other. I began by just asking for the jumping side to side. I would click and reward for consistency and rhythm. After about a week of working on it, he started offering to jump from side to side on his own. Once he learned that he could get rewarded for offering it, he started to try different things with his feet. If I saw him jump and land one foot, I would click and reward that effort.
It simply became a matter of shaping his behavior to be closer and closer to what I wanted. If he tried really hard, but didn’t get it, I would still reward and encourage him. If he managed a step or two of the right thing, I would praise him a lot and shove handfuls of grain in his face. Finally, he figured out how to jump to his left, land on one foot, then jump to the right, and land on both feet. Progress, but not finished. I needed to figure out how to get him to land on one foot going in both directions.
I would ask for the balancer, and just watch for the behavior that was close to landing on one foot. It didn’t take long at all. I tried to be consistent with what I would reward, and, as a result, Jackson got more and more consistent in giving me two or three or even four very good steps of that balancer.
That was yesterday. Now all I have to do is gradually build on that until he can consistently give me many steps of the balancer. It took a long time to get here; there were times when I wasn’t sure we would ever get it, but we did. With patience, persistence, and encouragement from my friends and family, I did find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Here is a link to the video that we made today. Thanks for watching! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZfWU9i3dtk
P.S. I need to go find another rainbow to chase.