Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stowaway at the beginning

Stowaway is the newest member of Bookends Farm
He arrived at the end of last summer. I purchased him for my lesson program as a solid citizen who would be safe for young kids. Stowaway is a 14 h POA about 12 years old. He has been used as a camp pony and is very quiet and absolutely wonderful for the kids. He introduces an interesting topic for clicker training. What makes him such a traditional "bombproof" horse is that he doesn't react to much of anything. He seems not to mind what kids do on his back. However, the object of clicker-training, or at least the way I see it, is to teach horses to respond well to the lightest of aids so that harsher aids aren't necessary. So Stowaway will be an interesting project for me to see if I can make his life better without making him too sensitive for beginning riders.

I chose not to begin clicker training him when he arrived because I wanted to be able to teach him the foundation lessons when kids would not be spending time with him. The foundation lessons are about Manners and include staying calm; and being polite about food and space. I knew there could be some questions in his mind at the beginning about just how to get the treats and how pushy he could be. I did not want him to make any innocent mistakes that could endanger or frighten a child. So I waited until winter, when my lesson season takes a long break, to begin. And then we had a very cold winter so I'm really just beginning with him now!

Targeting and charging the clicker are the place to start any horse new to clicker training. Charging the clicker is simply helping the pony to understand that click=treat always. You can do this by simply standing with the horse and clicking and treating until the horse begins to perk up every time he hears the click because he knows a treat will follow immediately. You can also begin by introducing very simple targeting and charge the clicker at the same time. This is what I did with Stowaway. I use a wooden dowel about 15" long with a tennis ball stuck on the end. The ball provides a bright large target to aim for so that the pony doesn't try to target the area right next to your hand. By putting the ball right in front of his nose, he couldn't avoid touching it and each time he did, I clicked and gave him 2 hay stretcher pellets.

Stowaway has reacted the way I expected: not too enthusiastic. I think he has been taught not to offer other words, not to do anything that he hasn't been told to do. This is generally considered the safest way for kid ponies to behave. But clicker-trained horses are far more active participants in life. This is where I am going to need to be careful. But so far, the other horses that I have clicker trained have exceptional manners.

In any case, I am spending my time with Stowaway doing a lot of targeting so that with luck, he will become more confident that this is something he can do and will be reinforced for. He will gladly touch the target, will reach up, down and to both sides for it, and will walk forward a few steps to touch it. If there is hay in the paddock, he would rather go eat that (unlike the other horses who prefer to play and interact than just eat hay) so I do keep him on a halter and lead so he can't walk away from me. He shows typical one-sided behavior. I started teaching him by standing on his left and he is much more hesitant when I move to his right. He tries to walk around behind me to put me back on his left....which technically is OK since he is touching the target and in fact is putting a lot of effort to get to it. But I want him to learn that he can work off both sides so that it will transfer over to other parts of working with him including riding.

He also likes to conserve his energy and so backing up to take his treat is not something he does willingly. I do think that will be important to teach him because if a child has a treat, I want him to back away to get it, not reach for it. He will also really benefit from the muscle building which will occur with the "rebalancing" of his weight to back up. Today he was very unwilling to back but I realized that he was a little concerned about the footing (slushy ice) and if I positioned him so that he was backing on the level or slightly downhill, he would back; it was only if he had to back up a slight incline that he refused (and so would abandon the treat rather than back up to get it.) Hopefully that shows that I am learning to problem solve!

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