Thursday, May 13, 2010

Backing Up- Literally and Figuratively

I got the cart out for the first time a couple days ago- I sure hope we don't get any more snowstorms! I had stored it in the horse trailer for the winter and didn't want to get it out until Spring. I put it in the round pen to continue working with it with Rumer. I have never taught a pony or horse to drive before so I am going very slowly and carefully. My goal for this lesson was to have her back up to it until she bumped it with her hind legs- I thought that having her initiate that feeling would be preferable at first to bringing the cart up to bump her. I did have the shafts pointing up in the air, so she didn't have to back between them. I just wanted her to get comfortable with feeling the cart against the back of her.

Well, she wanted no part of it! Rumer knows how to back and step over and all the things I wanted her to do but she did not want to back directly toward that cart. So that's when I had to back up in my training and really determine how well she knew my cues. What I found was that yes, she knows how to back and will back as many steps as I ask for. She also knows to step over from a touch on her hip. What we do not have is accuracy. And this was the problem in my session with the cart. As far as she was concerned, she was doing what I asked as well as doing what she wanted when she backed up crooked. She was backing- my request- and avoiding backing up to the cart- her concern. When she ended up crooked, I could ask her to step over, and she would....several steps so that she was now crooked the other way.

I got very frustrated with this experience but could see it was my fault. There was no way for her to "know" what I wanted. I had never before asked her to back into something scary and she was protecting herself. She was doing what I asked so I couldn't fault her there. Instead I had to back up in my training to teach her the subtle difference between one step over and more steps over, backing up straight and backing up any which way. I had to teach her in a way that it was in her own self interest to figure out how many steps to take.

I did this by using the plywood mats. She is very good about standing on a mat so we reviewed that- and I left her completely at liberty so that I couldn't be tempted to force her somewhere. I had her put her front feet on and then her back feet. Then I pulled out a second mat and placed it behind the first one. We worked on having her walk up to the first one, CT for putting her front feet squarely on it, then step forward and put her front feet on the second one. She got a CT for that but left her hind feet trailing out behind her like a park horse so that the back feet didn't have to be on the second mat. Interesting. This was where the subtle cues came in. I need to teach her to step forward with her back feet onto the back mat, without stepping over it or walking off completely with her front feet.

Again, I couldn't, nor did I want to, force her somewhere. But I did need a more accurate way of communicating so I put a lead rope on her halter. I wanted her to figure out what the puzzle was and get rewarded for accomplishing it. So I kept reminding myself to ask with a light rope cue and if she responded at all, release the rope cue. But the only time she got a CT, was if she made progress toward putting her hind feet on the second mat. So if she inched forward with her front feet, but left her hind feet where they were, I released the rope cue and asked again. There was a tiny reward in the release of the rope pressure, but not the click she was looking for. If the hind feet moved forward a bit- CT. Pretty soon she learned it was about the hind feet and she tried various things-
toe on > CT
step over the mat > release but no CT
step sideways with a bump of the back foot on the mat > CT
wiggle completely away from the back mat > release but no CT

So she had options. She could do what she wanted- avoid stepping on the mat with her back feet- and there were no negative consequences, but also no reward. She could do what I wanted, and she'd get a CT. I decided to quit when she had one hind foot on the mat and the other resting. We had made progress in communication. I was becoming more clear with my cues. A touch on the hip doesn't mean just step over however far is convenient. I need to be more precise with my requests and expectations and she is also learning that there are subtleties involved.

I have since watched Peggy Hogan's youtube clip on teaching her mini to drive and I think it's quite brilliant (as much of her training is) so I will use the wheelbarrow next time!

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