Sunday, April 17, 2011

Crate Games for Ponies

I have been having great fun transferring one of the dog games onto my horses.

The game is actually part of a whole group called Crate Games. Susan Garrett sells a DVD by this name which I bought last summer after getting Eloise. She'd spent a lot of time in a crate before I got her and while I don't keep dogs in crates, she was not reliably housebroken so I had to put her in one if I left her in the house for any reason. I wanted to change her feelings about the crate and I thought this looked like a fun way to do so.

The Crate Games are in the Critical Core exercises of the e-course and therefore the lessons from it reverberate on into many other behaviors. One of the criteria in this game is that the dogs pop into a sit whenever you touch the latch on the crate. I had this in my mind when I went out to the horses one day and as I watched Percy give me his now-standard three steps back as I approached the fence, it occurred to me how useful it would be to teach all the horses to back three steps whenever I touched the latch of a door or a gate handle. Rather than asking them to back, touching the handle itself would become a farm-wide cue for backing. No more heads popping out of doors as soon as they opened, no more crowding at the gate, no more rushing to get out...the benefits were endless. The beauty of course, is not only the vastly safer behavior, but the mindset which would result! Instead of "I wanna", I'd have a conscious polite waiting to be released from three steps back (as this is also part of the behavior- it's not a three steps back and then ricochet forward again). I LOVE it!

I began with Percy as my test case since he was already familiar with his three steps back. He is offering backing regularly now and so when I slid the latch on his door and hesitated, he backed right up. That was easy. Now I must say, there is some punishing that goes on here and I'm curious to see the results. If the dog tries to leave the crate before being
verbally released , the instructions are to shut the door, blocking him in, wait a bit and try again. (there is more detail to all this with plenty of reinforcing going on for staying in). It's very effective but I don't kid myself that this is all positive. Unfortunately it was aversive to Eloise because the noise of the latch scared her but that's a different story and she's much better now. But how aversive to a horse? From three steps back, if Percy tried to come forward as I opened his door, I had time and room to slide it shut again before he got to it. This wasn't terribly different from when I approached him at the fence and he stepped forward before I ducked under. If he did, I would back up. So in both cases, I was removing myself (and my attention), to stop the behavior of him coming forward...negative punishment. I could have done it all with the clicker and +R...simply building duration and adding the "distraction" of my entering the stall. But it's really no different than the "you can't make me eat that" game where the food is removed if the horse reaches for it. So I accept that it's not all +R, and am watching each individual to see if I see any unwanted consequences. By the way, I don't verbally release the horses from their position, I approach and ask them to put their halters on where they are or else cue them for something different if I'm not taking them out.

Mariah was the next one I tried it on. It was like falling off a log. She's had so much training that she's a quick study in any situation. She already knows her grain won't land in her tub unless she turns away so it was a very short step to get her to offer to back away from the door when I had hay, and on we went to backing away from the door in all situations. She does not need the reminder of me hesitating at the door like Percy sometimes does.

Next were Rumer and Ande. They are trickier because they share a paddock and this is where the jockeying for position happens as they push each other to be first to me. I had some help from someone else one day and we both worked on "you can't make me eat that" while they were several feet from each other so they could each be reinforced individually but while having the distraction of the other nearby. I am continuing to work with them singularly before expecting much cooperation while together.

The lesson ponies don't crowd the gate, but tend to go up to the top of their paddock and wait where I feed them so I simply ask them for a step back before putting their hay down to introduce the idea, if not the cue.

Conceptually, I have also begun to see if Percy can figure out how to back out of my space regardless of how I approach him. He will easily back if I approach him head on, but I'm also playing with approaching him at an angle to see if he understands that I have a line that I am walking, and if he intersects that line, he needs to back away. So far, so good!

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