Thursday, March 25, 2010

Trust Me

I have written before about the difference between being taught TO stand versus being taught NOT to move. I think horses are more solid in their behaviors when they are taught to do a behavior, rather than just being taught to endure anything we do to them. Training this approach means I allow the horses to initiate as much behavior as possible, and reinforce them for what I want, ignoring what I don't want...a process known as free-shaping. So when I introduced the young ones to clippers, I simply held the clippers while they were completely loose and allowed their own curiosity to encourage them to approach them and then clicked when they did. This, in turn, made them want to explore them more and we proceeded from there (you can read it in more detail in this post).

I think Percy has had this approach exclusively. I can't guarantee it because my background certainly wasn't in this approach and I may have slipped over the line without realizing it. The reasons I'm pretty sure, however, are that he is the youngest, so I had more practice by the time he came along; and his temperament definitely is not suited to being forced to do things. There have been several occasions when I tried to make him do something and he said, "nope". So I would change my approach and ask him if he'd like to do something, and he'd reply, "why, sure, I'll give that a try if there's something in it for me". To non-clicker trainers, this may sound like he's spoiled, to which I reply, how many of you would go to work every day if you weren't getting a pay check for it?

But I'll admit there are times when our horses do need to allow us to take over and do things to them. If you know any good clicker trainers, you know these instances are few and far between. Clicker trained horses will happily volunteer for trailering, worming, approaching frightening objects, standing on a block for x-rays or in a tub of water for soaking a foot, etc. I think really, it is in an emergency situation that we need them to just plain trust us and let us do something to them. If they are bleeding badly, we need to deal with it without having to go through a training process of allowing a tourniquet to be applied. In an accident, we need them to follow us or stand still, depending on the situation, without taking time to adjust to the scenario. Now a lot of this will be done without a hitch if the horse and handler have a good clicker-based relationship. That automatically builds trust. But sometimes we have to bring in another person- a vet, emergency personnel, etc. So it's good if we can express to our horses that they just need to stand still and endure because we tell them to.

So today, for the first time in his life (I think), I said to Percy, "you stand there on the cross ties and let me do this". "This" was letting me measure him with a T measuring stick. It's metal and plastic, telescopes in the longer part and the T part flips out to the side and snaps in place. It was very scary. And it wasn't enough to sniff it, he had to let me approach his side and have the top slide down and rest on his withers...all the while he couldn't see it well because of it being almost out of his line of vision (especially on the cross ties where he couldn't turn his head). I've seen mature seasoned horses who didn't want this done.

I did start with him loose at noontime and outside. But he decided that was a Very Dangerous Weapon I was carrying and left the scene. Rumer stepped up and I was able to free-shape her to stand for it.....12.2 h. That was when I decided this was not-an-option for Percy. I came back later in the day and put him on the cross ties and groomed him first. Then I brought the stick out in its compact position. I let him sniff it and clicked him for that, which I know I couldn't have done if he was loose because then he would have thought it was about putting his nose on it and pretty soon he'd have been carrying it around and trying to measure me! (He loves to carry the longe whip around- I think I could do a pretty good comedy sketch of horse-chasing-person with whip). After he'd snorted and blown at it, I was able to click for just a quiet expression and head position- low on the cross ties but obviously he wasn't able to put his nose on the ground. Then I slowly telescoped it out little by little, clicking him after each move when he lowered his head on the ties. He was not relaxed- his neck was pretty tight but he knew that a low head position was asked for. His eyes watched that stick very closely. I moved to the front of him and moved it from horizontal to vertical and back a couple times. He did not like to see that it was bigger than him and his head went way up! Then I approached him with it again, clicking for him keeping his feet still...again, this is something he knows is a good thing to do...stand still rather than wiggle around. Head down and feet still are default behaviors by this time so he knows that they'll probably get reinforced. I don't disappoint him!

At this point I could tell he was pretty tense even though he was being very good. I leaned the measuring stick up against the wall (being sure that it wouldn't slip over and scare the bananas out of him) and then unclipped the ties and took him for a little walk around the paddock to just allow him to shake off the tension. I also gave him some easy clicks- targeting my hand, backing up, etc. Then we went back in the barn and I did a little test run without him being on the ties. He let me get just as far as I had earlier and he stood stock still. When he's worried and I ask him to put his head down, he reminds me of when I first try to drink from a steaming cup of tea or coffee and I don't want to burn myself. He puts his nose down quivering very slowly as if he's ready to leap back up having burned his lips. Once I saw that he passed this test, I put the cross ties back on and carefully flipped the T out. I let him sniff that and then approached his side cautiously, again clicking as I went for keeping his feet still and his head as low as possible on the ties. Before resting the T on his withers, I placed my hand there several times so the feel wasn't new.

I was very happy that he allowed me to do all this. I technically could have free-shaped it like I did with Rumer but I think it's good that we have one experience like this under our belts. And at 20 months old, he's 15 h., although I confess I didn't take the time to make sure the little bubble indicating level was in the right place! It will be interesting to see how big he gets. This photo was taken last October. His mane's even longer now- ugh.

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