Good Horsemanship

Suppling Exercise--"Elephant on a Ball" Also Known as: Trail's End

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Training and Suppling Exercise

The object of the exercise is to ask your horse to lower his head and bring all four feet as close together as possible. A good stretch for the neck, back, hindquarter muscles. Be sure that your horse is good at head-lowering as a separate behavior before combining it with bringing the legs together.

First getting each hind foot to move consistently from a light tap on the fetlock/pastern area (dressage whip was what Sharon used). Click when the foot hits the ground, so that you're recognizing the "down" phase.

A few observations here: VERY LIGHT tapping, and as many reps of it as necessary, work WAY better than escalation. You want to keep things VERY quiet and relaxed, otherwise you'll worry your horse and he'll want to move forward. If you've seen Alex's second video, you'll recognize this kind of tapping as an example of "a small amt. of pressure applied over a long period of time".

The quiet, relaxed part of this is SUPER important. The horse should be fluent with head lowering and backing, so that you can keep his front end soft. The head should be in a relaxed, lowered position; later on you can shape the ideal head-down position once you've got the hind legs on track, but for the beginning stuff half-mast is probably sufficient. You need to be able to feel through your rope when tension develops... most likely what will happen is those front legs will lose their softness, and the horse will take a step forward. The better your feel is here, the better your timing will be to make the necessary correction (front feet back into "square" position).

So teach the horse to shift his hind leg position in response to a light indication with the whip. Initially teach the left hind from the left side, same for the right, and when that's pretty danged consistent then begin to work on crossing over (RH from the left side, etc.)

Once you've got the shifting of the feet pretty good, shaping them to come under the body is pretty easy... just raise your criteria incrementally.

Another observation: teaching this exercise takes finesse! You really need to go slowly... I've been playing with it occasionally for a couple of weeks now, and I'm just now getting the feeling that I'm getting somewhere with it. He had a "stuck" spot with this exercise because I originally taught him to raise his leg from an indication of the whip toward his hock. Every time I went to tap his pastern he would raise his leg, get frustrated because I wasn't clicking, and then tune me out. I know him well enough to know that when he tunes you out, pressure isn't going to get you what you want over the long haul... he seems to disengage his brain, and even if he obliges you with the necessary movement, the click doesn't have a very great effect on his mind.

So to help him get over this, I used a target stick and the light tapping. At first I held the target off the ground a few inches above his foot, tap tap tapped, and C/Red just touching it with his foot in the "up" phase. Then I shaped stepping on the target with his hind foot. By that point he knew that the tapping meant to step the hind feet somewhere (not raise the leg), so then I could use the tapping more and fade the target. Just last night he was offering really nice shifting and some more "under" type efforts. Still got a long way to go there, though.

If you want to use the exercise as a prep for lying down, you probably don't need to shape the legs coming under nearly as far as you would for "Elephant on a Ball". Once you get the hind legs shifting, coming under slightly, and the head down, all you need is a nice spot to lie down!

Is this a behavior similar to the End of the Trail stance in which the horse's front and hind feet touch (well actually all four feet would be touching, as the fronts and rears would be touching side by side too)?

If this is similar I taught it to Dan last year some time. I taught it in one day in about 5-6, five to ten minute work sessions. I didn't use tapping or a halter and lead, but I did use a pedestal and really relied heavily on Bill Dorrance's Leading Up Real Free exercise and added the clicker.

We had alot going for us as far as leading goes because it really came down to being able to move the horse's feet in tiny increments-which is really just a result of leading. We had extensive pedestal work under our belts and he was able to work on a really small one. When he stood with his two front feet together on the smallest pedestal, his two feet together were actually wider than the pedestal. The pedestal was not quite two feet long and maybe ten inches or so wide.

Dan was really comfortable working with the smaller pedestal (we started with large ones and progressed to smaller and smaller) so not much upset him here and he understood how to place his feet and center himself. Thanks to leading exercises he paid close attention to how I leaned back or moved and he would move in those increments. Then it was just a matter of influencing whichever foot I needed him to move by how or where I leaned and how he naturally stepped and moved and thinking ahead about how he naturally steps.

The pedestal worked as an outline for him and was a small space that I wanted him to work in. From there I could "walk" him forward or backwards on the small pedestal and have him step so that the front feet met the back feet. If I pointed at a foot he would lift it (this, in my mind was just an extension of Dan giving to pressure) or I could ask for just a shift of weight if I asked softer. If I pointed to the ground he lowered his head. He already knew this so that was no big deal and through obstacle and pedestal work he was very comfortable with balancing himself. So in reality, alot of work contributed to this and it just seemed easy to teach because we had a good acculmulation of training. But alot of times, if you just break this stuff down, you can relate it easily to what your horse already knows. I knew through leading and how Dan gives to pressure (even pointing to him is a sort of pressure) that I could place Dan's feet just about anywhere. All this was, was an extension of leading was how I looked at it and I thought that I can teach this to Dan by relating it to familiar things that he already knew not by looking at it as something totally new.

I read how this is a good beginning exercise for teaching piaffe. I never really thought of that! I have to say that I appreciated it as a way to see how to place my horse's feet wherever I wanted.

I also always used the pedestal to create that End of the Trail pose but this weekend I'll just work on the ground and see how that goes. We'll see if it will carry over. Well, I think that it will if I can make it understandable to Dan. At the end of last summer I could sit on Dan and have him do the pose on the pedestal. We're out of practice though and I may need to brush the old cobwebs out for both of us.

I was working on this last night with him. I started with our little pedestal first to remind him of what the words and body movement I use for the cue are. He remembered it fine (this is the first time we've pulled out the old mini-pedestal in quite a while).

Then I asked him to come over to me and gave him the cues off of the pedestal. He lifted one pair of diagonals and then the other then stood there looking at me. "What should I do?" I thought. Should I take it? I did. But that meant I had eliminated it in part in regards to to The Elephant On the Ball.

I call it trotting in place (since it's not true piaffe) and we had worked on this at the beginning of last summer I think, but had let it fall by the wayside.

I realized that my cue without the pedestal meant something different to Dan than it did with the pedestal-although I didn't want to discourage his trot in place. I decided to give him a board as a visual which he immediately inderstood. Okay, so that was a start. We are now at front feet on the edge of the board, back feet off the board but touching his back feet. That was with our first ten minute session so it was a good start.

I'll keep you posted on our next session, okay?

I don't use a whip or anything to tap him because he just plain doesn't like it much. I have used two dowels (as extension of my hands) in the beginning to touch the diagonals (for trot in place) to let him know what I was after at first but then I didn't use them after that because he understood what I wanted but the dowels were sort of like "yelling" at him (I believe) and he stopped trying.

I tried using the dowels as targets too for each leg lift combinations.

I also don't use the halter and lead because Dan is pretty happy to work as long as I'm clear. I'm not saying that it is wrong to use them or a whip for cueing, it is just how my individual horse works best so that's why I don't use them.

So how are things going on your end with this? Any revelations that you want to share? What have you fallen back on from other training to use with this behavior?

Last night we worked on this again. I used a plank this time about three inches wide. I asked him to step up and he knew the game plan right away. He put his front feet on the plank and started bringing his hind feet close. I'm starting to change one aspect of the cue a little so I can keep his trot in place steps but still have something that he is familiar with to learn EOTB without his pedestal.

He was rewarded for his first step of bringing his hind legs under himself (we made a very big deal out of it, it was fun) and then you should have seen him get into it. He understood! Once he jumped both back feet forward at the same time he was so excited to do it. He made me laugh.

So, now my big plan is to work on the new aspects of the cue and fade out the plank. I'll keep ya posted.

We worked about five minutes last night. Dan was successful and I didn't want to wear it into the ground. Dan seems to learn best with short work sessions on things like this with a good amount of think time in between.

>>As Alex says, better to teach something 10 different ways...<<

I LIKE teaching things in different ways! I think that it is SO good for encouraging the horse to think!

This has been really interesting for me. I know now that using the pedestal was really sort of the easy way out in teaching this in the beginning because it gave Dan sort of an "outline" of where he should be, you know?

I have been thinking too that just because a horse knows how to do something on a pedestal doesn't mean that he can do it without it. A change has been made that the horse may or may not be able to connect when the pedestal is gone.

Dan and I had a good little session last night though. I used a little square of wood this time and a little luck. The square was about 3"x 6" but it was enough to remind him of where his feet should be.

He stepped onto the little square but it flipped out and away from him, but the idea of it was still in his mind and he started doing EOTB.

That was good! And I made a big deal out of it (I was pretty excited actually!)

Then, so I could know that he understood, I picked up the square so that he could see it and put it away. I wanted it to know that it wasn't there anymore. I asked for EOTB and he started to do it.

His front feet are still about 6-8 inches apart but this was good for last night! We worked for only about two minutes last night then went out to a pasture so he could much grass (an extra bonus to let him know that he did really well).

We've worked in the same area each night. Usually I don't worry about that (working in the same area so that the horse makes a quicker connection of what you will be working on) and I believe in training anywhere. But for this, since it was sort of a retrain, it has helped to be in the same area.

I think though that in the next day or two we will move to new areas. I like to be able to ask for behaviors anywhere and, for me anyway, that's how I consider behaviors trained and understood.

Thanks and let us know how you apply the targeting!

I skipped a day working with Dan on the EOTB without his pedestal, but last night we continued. He doesn't need his "mark" anymore to understand what I'm asking and he was able to understand that right off the bat. So the pedestal or any reminders of it have been faded out now.

We worked just a short time with it and his feet are getting closer to each other. I get to a point where if I push it too hard, the behavior starts to deteriorate, so I just sort of "feel" for when Dan's strongest "try" comes through and then I end there.

Over the years I've improved with this, but that has meant getting rid of my ego a little and understand that taking the time it takes, as they say, is much better in the long run.

I'll be unsubbing from the list in a few days just to take a break but before I go I'd like to hear about how the targeting plan is going for you.

I'll still keep working with Dan to see if we can get his feet to touch and I'll let you know what I learn. I'm interested in what you're learning too.

As promised I thought I'd report again on Dan and EOTB.

Before our ride today we ran up to the top pasture (we'll he ran and I SORT of jogged). We usually hit the trails from the gate at the top pasture. Anyway I thought, well, what the heck, I'll see if he can understand the EOTB cues up here in a different environment (and the wind blowing made it a good challenge too).

I asked and he started to do it. I have to admit, I didn't ask for much. There was mud, but that's not a good excuse, I just didn't want to lose his understanding of it at this particular moment. All I wanted from this was to see if he knew it enough to be able to take it out of our usual "EOTB" training environment. I was happy with it and will push it a little more in the days to come.

We should have worked on it last night but I was gone most of the evening. It would have been good in our training sequence to do it. That's just a feeling that I have, but sometimes it's those feelings (To push the envelope a little harder or to call it good for a day) that really gets the job done in my book. I believe in what the moment tells you. If I asked someone, "Well, why did you stop working on this today?" and they answered "It just felt right.".....well, that would be good enough for me!

I was also thinking (and I am no expert here) that there is a point in training this for piaffe that you would gain more by not asking the horse to touch the front feet with the back ones. I see that there is a point where Dan is naturally going to fall into some aspect of lifting the diagonals when the feet are still a foot to a foot and a half apart.

It just seems that to ask for more takes away from the potential that you'd really want to tap into. I think it is great to have the horse do the complete behavior but there is a line you pass so that it's not aiding in piaffe anymore, but is just purely this new behavior. Although EOTB is great for strength, balance and confidence in the horse so that makes it extremely good to practice. I don't know if that makes sense but it's something to keep in mind if piaffe is the main goal.

I went out to the barn last night to work on EOTB with Dan and he touched all four feet together on the ground without his pedestal! He stepped into it, held it for a second then stepped out of it and looked at me like, "Is that it?!"

He needs to build confidence in it and I think that he feels like this is a real balance challenge for him. That is another good reason to pursue it and to add to yours. Dan is already relaxed in the neck as he steps under pretty much probably due to the pedestal work we've done up to this point but I will make a point of encouraging that now. As he and Tulsa build confidence I think that this all will just follow suit.

So now we are at the point of learning to hold it a little longer which I will string out over many days.

Richard Hinrich's tape on classical dressage uses this movement to relax the horse and get them stronger in the back for the piaffe.


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