Thursday, January 26, 2017

Naughty Horse Part 3: The Inconclusive Conclusion

horse tracking
The morning after that escape, I followed Percy's tracks backwards from the pony pen. As I mentioned earlier, I have a track which goes around the arena. There is pasture surrounding the arena so this track allows me to open up various parts of the pasture for grazing. I had placed the jumps for the jumping lane on the eastern side of the track, as that side is used if the track is used at all. The southern and western sides of the track only give access to the small pasture along the road so they aren't in that part as often. For the winter, I remove the eastern track fence so they have access to the entire field. I then put a short piece of electric rope across the opening to the southern and western track to keep them out of it entirely. Yet this is where Percy's tracks led. 

When I got to the rope closing off that portion of track, I discovered that the increasing depth of snow had left the rope only about 18' above the snow. The tracks indicated that Percy had jumped over it, possibly from a standstill. The tracks went right up to the rope on the takeoff side, but didn't begin until about 4 feet out on the landing side. He might have walked up to it in order to assess it and then backed up to trot up and jump as I have seen him do. I'll never know. 

I had swapped out my yak tracks for snowshoes when I climbed out of the plowed barnyard into the track and now I maneuvered them carefully over the rope. One end of the rope was attached to an insulator which was then attached to an arena post by wire. I had not turned the fence off before coming out. In the summer, it would have been a quick walk back to the barn to do so, but when snowshoes and yak tracks are both required, I decided to do what I could in the moment. I pulled off my gloves and slowly worked the wire up the post, being careful not to let the hot rope touch the insulator wire. I doubted there was much tingle in it this time of year but I didn't want to find out. I raised it until the rope was at my waist height. Since I was on snowshoes, Percy's weight to surface area ratio on hooves was going to put him deeper in the snow. And yes, I crossed my fingers and went in the house.

All was peaceful for a few days. I was careful to put hay out far from his new escape area and plenty of it. I made sure I was not late for chore time. Any time my obligations kept me from being home on time, I confined everyone to the small sacrifice area near the barn. I hated to do it, but I also didn't want to come home to find horses out everywhere. So far I'd been lucky that no one else was following Percy out. They must have decided he had some kind of magical power. Ande and Stowaway had both been doing the jumping lane every time Percy did and Ande had done plenty of free jumping in the arena as well. But thankfully, they did not use their skills the way Percy did. 

Then one morning I had to leave very early. I committed the cardinal sin of putting horses out with hay and water but not cleaning stalls. I really, really hate leaving stalls dirty but just did not have time that morning. I love surveying a nice clean barn before I walk out of it, knowing that it has hours to air out before horses go back in. To add insult, I forgot they weren't clean until I went out for afternoon chores. Ugh. Shortly after I started in on cleaning Percy's stall I heard a commotion outside. When I opened the aisle door, there was Percy. It was clear by the tracks in the dusting of snow that the commotion was him falling on the ice. Interestingly, the UPS man was also out there. I'm not sure who was more surprised but Percy and the UPS man were both wide eyed and staring at the other. I calmly took the package from the UPS man while Percy trotted around the barnyard on the ice with his tail up over his back. I waited until the UPS truck had left and  took the time to observe that Percy didn't seem to have any ill effects from falling on the ice. Then I called him, all the while thinking:

behavior which is repeated has been reinforced

I decided that being allowed to play in the barn while I prepped stalls the other evening had encouraged him to jump out again and come to the door. I didn't want to strengthen that habit, plus I still had two dirty stalls to clean. Had I been a good girl and done the stalls earlier, I could have put everyone in and prepped stalls around them but I didn't want to put them in dirty stalls. Instead, I opened the gate and put Percy back in with the others where they were waiting for me to finish chores. He did get a treat for going in. I thought perhaps falling on the ice might function as a punisher completely unrelated to me and make him think twice before going that route again. And he wasn't going to get to play in the barn this time.

I had moved on to the next stall when I heard footsteps crunching in the snow again. I swore, went to the aisle door, opened it and stepped out. This time Percy trotted right past me and out to the driveway and around the barn. That answered that. Being put back in paddock with no fun was more closely related to coming to me, than it was to jumping out. Putting him back had served to punish his voluntary recall. I swore again and followed him into the dark. 

It was when I saw him scamper around to the other side of the barn that I had to really stop and wonder just how calculating he was. I had dropped a bale of hay out the loft door on the east side of the barn into the snow in preparation for the following morning. Percy made a beeline for it. Had he seen me do that and figured out that's where he was going from the start? He had left the other ponies in the shed, crossed the sacrifice paddock, gone all the way down around the full length of the arena, in the dark. On a warm summer day in bright daylight, there are sometimes monsters at the far end of the arena. Apparently monsters hibernate in winter. Or don't come out in the dark (which is not the way I remember it from my childhood). In any case, he'd circumvented the entire arena, slid his way across the icy barnyard, out into the driveway, down the length of the barn and around to the far end where the hay bale was. 

taken looking out the window with the aisle lights reflecting
Once again, I found myself at "now what?". This horse is exhausting. Stalls still weren't clean. I couldn't put him in his stall (the one clean one) because he would be unhappy alone in the barn. There was no point in putting him back with the others as I'd seen how well that didn't work. I left him where he was, tearing at the hay bale. I thought he might decide to come back on his own but each time I peered out the window, he was happily wrestling with the hay bale. 

When the barn was finally ready, I went out to him. I was cursing myself for not keeping the eastern doors to the aisle shoveled out. I hardly ever open those doors in the winter and had let the snow pile up against them. It would have been so much easier to open them, right where he was, and bring him in from there. Instead I had to walk around on the ice. Normally he would happily leave a bale of hay to come to me (after all, he left all that lush grass in the summer to trot up to me after escaping), but I had to remember how I had "punished" him by putting him back with the others the last time I caught him. I had to walk up to him and it took a little convincing, but with a decent rate of reinforcement every few steps, he came along. I hadn't even taken a halter with me because I needed to force myself to correct my previous errors, not create more by taking away his choices. 

 When I followed his tracks backward the following morning, I discovered my rope gate had been taken down entirely. The insulator wire I had so carefully pulled to the top of the post, he had lifted right off the top and it lay in the snow. I'm not sure whether he did that the first time or the second, but I replaced it, and tightened it all up so that it would not be so easy to lift off. 

He's far from secure. I continue to feed generous amounts of hay (so that the ponies turned out with him are about to pop even though they get a scant fraction of what he does when they are inside). I make sure I am on time for chores. If there is any chance that I won't be home from training others at the appropriate time, I confine them to the sacrifice paddock. 

Current reinforcers for jumping out include:
  1. hay
  2. adventure
  3. interaction
  4. treats

In effort to find ways to reinforce him for What I Want (always where we should start with any training plan), I have wondered how I can use those same reinforcers to keep him in. The hay I am already doing. What I am working on is ways to use adventure, interaction and treats to encourage him to wait in the sacrifice paddock for me to come to him, rather than having him come to me by jumping out.

I am going out for chores early. Forgive me for whining but training here this time of year is not fun when it involves freezing hands. But we are having mild weather in the 20s and 30s so I'll do something with him, whether it's husbandry practice or games or letting him play in the barn, as long as he is in the paddock when I go out for chores! I'll also let him adventure a little as long as the ice isn't too bad. We're expecting several more inches of snow tomorrow. If it's the kind that sticks to the ice and improves the footing, we'll go out and play in the driveway together.

And I'm counting the days until Spring.


Lottie Eriksson said...

Love how you walk the talk and stick to R+ in the video. That takes a lot of determination in a situation like that! Wishing you the best of luck with the all too clever Percy... it's really difficult having a horse who keeps escaping from his field.

Bookends Farm said...

thanks Lottie. I am lucky that our environment allows me to be comfortable with "loose" horses. I'm very confident in our relationship but if there was traffic zinging by feet from us, I'd be more inclined to use management like a halter. As it is, I rarely put a halter on anyone through the winter!