Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rumer and tires

Rumer in harness a year or two ago
On Sunday, I wanted to demonstrate to someone how working with a horse at liberty can be eye-opening to what our horses are really thinking and feeling.  I put Rumer in the round pen with lots of obstacles but she was quite comfortable with all of them and willing to investigate, step over or on, etc.  I was looking around for something new when I spotted a couple tires (advantage of living on a farm- we use tires to hold a lot of things down so there are always some lying around).  

Rumer has an unhappy history with tires.  When she was about 2, I got one out to familiarize her with it because several people recommended using tires as a good thing to pull to acclimate a horse who will drive.  I neglected to think carefully about how Rumer investigates new things which is by pawing them.  She has learned that at times (like on the cross ties), it is more reinforcing to stand with her feet still, but when she comes across something new which involves her feet, she paws first.  When she pawed the tire, her foot got caught in it as she pulled it back and the tire went underneath her and jumped up and hit her in the belly.  Ever since then, she has labeled tires as Not Safe.  I have worked with her off and on but know that she'll want to paw them again and I didn't want to go to the work of nailing one down to something to ensure we wouldn't have a repeat performance.  

So on Sunday, I brought two tires into the round pen and set them down several feet apart from each other.  She eyed them suspiciously but came over and targeted them a couple times for a click and treat.  Before she could start pawing, and with no halter on, we began using a target stick to see if she would walk between them.  After a few successful trials, I moved them a little closer together.  That made her uneasy.  At first she chose to touch the target by going around the tires rather than between them.  I pointed out that she still got a click and a treat for that- the presence of the target is a cue to touch it- no specifications on how she gets to it.  After a bit, she was willing to follow a person through, but not go herself if the person stood and just moved the target.  Then she went herself.  She was a perfect demo for my purposes.  I could have put a halter on her and led her back and forth a couple times and said- "all done".  But Rumer was showing us that, given complete freedom, she was still uneasy.  

Observing her carefully, we could see signs.  First was the speed with which she walked between the tires- she sped her steps as she went through.  Then even when her tempo became consistent, she would continue on through after I clicked.  Any other time I clicked, she'd stop dead for her treat.  But for several trials, she'd hear the click, hustle on a couple more steps and then stop for her treat, turning around to retrieve it if I had stopped.  What a super little demo pony :)  

Sometimes I'd target her right back between them and sometimes we'd make a little circuit around the pen for a break with some fist targeting as an easy behavior.  Rumer is purebred PONY so she has the uncanny ability to sense grass beneath the surface of the earth this time of year.  And she'll dig down to get it...another use for her pawing abilities.  So another way she communicated was by walking away and "grazing" for a few minutes.  That was ok- this was about her telling us the way she felt, not us imposing a lesson on her of "you must get used to these tires".  

Eventually we got to the point where she would stop when she heard the click even if she was right between the two tires.  At that point, sometimes I would target her on through and sometimes I would click her several times in a row for just standing there.  To a casual observer, we were done.  I decided to take it to the next step for demonstration purposes.  I gave her a break and went and got her bridle out.  Her little driving bridle has blinkers.  I haven't decided whether I want her to have them or not and I can't take these off without cutting them off permanently so for now, she wears them.  I did not put the surcingle on but just ground drove her around the pen with long lines.  Any time I steered her toward the tires, she would veer off one side or the other.  I didn't press her- she was telling us she still wasn't comfortable with those tires!  

I went to the front with her and again she followed me through.  I decided that was enough for one day.  Whether it was the fact that I was behind her and she wasn't comfortable leading or because she wanted to keep an eye on them and couldn't with the blinders, I'm not sure. Another day, I might put the long lines on her halter and try it.  I will be behind her but she'll be able to see better. 

The next day I took the mat, which she loves, and put it between the tires.  I also put a line of cones extending out to the side.  I had noticed she was a bit bargy with our guests on Sunday so some tutoring was in order on polite leading manners.  The exercise was to weave between the cones, bending politely in each direction.  When we got to the end, she got to take a break on the mat...between the tires.  I thought she was comfortable enough with the tires that this was a sensible next step.  I did have her in a halter now, so I didn't want her conflicted, following because she was supposed to in a halter if she wasn't comfortable.  But she happily marched onto the mat and stood between the tires.  They were now beacons for the mat and she loved getting there.  Interestingly, I found she bent much better to the right, than the left.  I can only guess this is because I tend to lead her from the right when I lead Ande and her together.  By the end of the session, she was bending back and forth between the cones nicely with no cues from me other than my presence.  And happily standing between the tires.  The tires had become part of a bigger lesson.