Sunday, May 30, 2010

Stowaway lightens his feet

I finally took a video of working with Stowaway's feet. It was a winter project and I worked at it in fits and starts so it isn't as solid as I would like it to be but we'll keep plugging away. The history- Stowaway came to me having been a camp pony and he was horrible about his feet. He wasn't aggressive- no kicking or anything, just impossibly uncooperative. Using all the traditional methods, you could pick them out: grab his cannon area, pinch the tendon, shove all your weight into him to get his balance over, then physically haul his foot up...he could even resist bending at the knee! I worked with him the first winter and he got much better: a little lean on him, and I could pick up his foot and pick it out. His hind feet required a lot of muscle to lift them and he occasionally pulled away.

Over last summer, I discovered two things: lesson students were completely inconsistent with the way they approached and picked hooves; and his behavior deteriorated rapidly as a result. I could still do it, but I hadn't done much to improve his behavior with students. I resorted to letting them wrestle with his front feet but I would do his hinds for them. I like to work on these things in the winter so that the ponies get consistent messages. I decided I needed a two-pronged approach. First, I needed him to pick up his foot on his own, not merely allow someone to pick it up. Second, I needed to establish a very clear cue that I could teach the students and teach them to be consistent in the way they asked.

The initial steps took a long time. Stowaway isn't the quickest study and while he loves to hear the click (and responds with an endearing little nicker), it requires a lot of repetition to sharpen him up. I began by asking him in the normal way- running my hand down his leg and grabbing his hoof, but as soon as he would begin to shift his weight off to lift that foot, I would click. I repeated this a LOT without asking for anything more. And while I didn't increase my criteria, he simply began offering more. (at some point, I need to investigate the difference between clicking tiny movements as a beginning step and clicking tiny movements as a way to get tiny movements). Pretty soon I could click when he lifted his foot, then when he really bent his leg and picked up it up, etc. In the accompanying video, his hind feet are at a more beginning stage than his front feet so you can see how it began and where it progressed to.

While I didn't work on this over a lot of sessions, I did make sure he got a lot of reinforcement for the easy steps every time I did in order to keep this enthusiasm high. Frequency of work depended on my schedule, the weather, etc. Right now, I would be very happy with his performance if he was my personal horse. He lifts his leg promptly when I reach for it and holds it 99% of the time while I pick it out. However, being a lesson horse requires more. He will need to hold it up while tentative students are slower to take it. Some folks want to grab that hoof like it's a lifeline while others leap back in fear when the horse picks it up. So he will need to be patient while the tentative ones get brave. The grabbers will need to be taught the correct cue and a gentle touch.

The hind feet are a different story. I don't really want him yanking his hind feet up because that is too similar to a kick (students should be defensive if a horse snatches a hind foot up), yet I would like him to carry a bit of the weight himself, rather than feeling like I'm holding up a tree. At this point, he will lift his hind foot a couple inches off the ground and I like that. That requires him to think about bending it enough so that the handler doesn't have to wrestle with him. At the same time he isn't yanking it up rapidly.

I will use TAG teach to help the students learn the cues (which are full body cues, not just hand cues) to get him to lift his feet. I will also use a gradual process to teach both Stow and students duration. Rather than focusing on the students' getting each hoof completely clean, I will count to a number and have them put the hoof down. We might practice a couple counts each week but I will be the one responsible for keeping his feet clean. Hopefully week by week we can increase the duration that students are able to hold a foot as well as the length of time Stowaway has to be patient and hold the feet up.


Mary @ StaleCheerios said...

Looking great!!

We have a donkey I need to do this with.

He will hold his foot up nicely once I get it up, but it takes so much pressure and leaning into him to get him to pick it up.


Bookends Farm said...

Thanks Mary- it was great today because one of the kids who rode him last year came and was thrilled to see the difference...he has also learned to self halter and self bridle this winter- two other things he was more than a little difficult about last year. Big difference to have the TAG points to give her so she knew how to cue him for those behaviors. She would like to get him raising his hind legs a little more though :) I actually think I have an idea for how to do it too.