Thursday, January 19, 2017

Real Life Reinforcers, Punishers and a Story of a "Naughty" Horse

The naughty horse in this story is my own and I take full responsibility, as I must, for his behavior. "Naughty" is just one of many adjectives we hear when describe animals. Stubborn, willful, spoiled and even arrogant are just a few others. The more we learn about behavior, the less we need these labels, although I still need to stop myself from using them occasionally.

If I were to replace "naughty" with kinder and possibly more helpful descriptors, I'd say he's a good problem solver. The challenge is that that we have different ideas about which things are problems and which are solutions. I consider fences to be a solution to the problem of having a horse somewhere I consider unsafe: in the road, on bad footing, eating pasture too lush for his digestive system. He considers fences a problem to be solved so that he can eat tastier grass and explore places. I consider his penchant for escaping to be a problem. And around we go.

I do have one fence which contains him. It's a five foot high woven wire fence on solid posts set well into the ground and topped with one strand of electric. I don't like to keep him there because it's a small area and one I feel badly about confining him to. Also, if I confine him, I must confine everyone so they each have access to shelter and water.

The larger pastures are fenced with electric rope. That is sufficient for everyone else, as long as I make sure that the fence is on, no wildlife has gone through it, the height is appropriate for the individuals confined, and other basic maintenance.

Before last summer, that at least functioned to keep Percy (aka "naughty horse") in as long as there was grass to eat, which, after all, is a horse's natural behavior. Giving an animal appropriate natural behaviors and fulfilling their natural requirements of food, water, companionship and shelter goes a long way toward keeping the peace.

Previously he had several ways of conquering the fence problem. When he got bored in the winter he would play with the fence posts, taking them in his teeth and pulling them out if he could. If not, he'd rub his neck gently on them until they loosened and tipped. While playing with them, he'd discover that in the winter, the fence wasn't as "hot" as in the summer. With the earth solidly frozen, there was no moisture to provide a "ground" for the electricity to go to, and the little tingle it gave off didn't deter him from playing with the rope itself, sliding insulators up and down and removing them entirely with his clever lips.

As if that wasn't enough, last summer I taught him how to jump out.

That wasn't my intention of course. With my history in eventing, I know that a horse can learn how to use his body over fences best without being encumbered by a rider. One can build a jumping lane of fences and chase the horse down through it so that he jumps the fences in his way and practices his gymnastics. Because it involves chasing, I came up with a reason for the horses to want to jump through, rather than needing to chase them through. I already had a lane for them to go out to pasture and back, so I simply starting placing things in their way. First it was a rail, then a couple, then a small jump, then a couple, etc. I've been working up to larger jumps over the past couple years and pleased to see them each becoming more and more comfortable. They seem to enjoy it and I don't leave the larger jumps up for them to need to do multiple times a day. I usually set them up for them to go over on their way out, then lower them to smaller obstacles for their trips back and forth. Percy showed a knack for clearing the jumps I set.

step one of teaching Percy to jump out
I also taught him to jump in a more thoughtful and controlled manner by doing some agility with him. A somewhat new sport with varying levels of contact and liberty work, it was the theme of the August clinic I hosted last summer, along with Katie Bartlett, Cindy Martin and Marla Foreman. So I spent the earlier part of the summer playing with Percy on the various obstacles to become acquainted with them: a tractor tire filled with sand, weave poles, hula hoops to station in, etc. Oh, and little jumps. While all the horses and ponies liked to race out through the lane to pasture, Percy took a much more casual approach to our agility jumping. He really didn't think he should get ahead of me and I can't go as fast as he does so he learned to jog up to jumps carefully and hop over them, not leaving me too far behind. That, apparently, was phase two of teaching him to jump out.

The first time I looked out to see him grazing, alone, in some deep and lush clover on the opposite side of the fence from the others, I searched to see where the fence was down. It wasn't. No one else was out. I thought he must have been reaching underneath the fence to graze, and mistakenly pushed through it, somehow allowing it to spring back. I put him back with the others, checked to make sure the fence was on and watched from the barn.

He trotted down to the narrow strip of grazing they have each day and walked carefully up to the fence and reached out to test the fence with his whiskers (this is how he assesses whether it's on or not). I saw him pull back quickly and then buck several times in place. Aha, I thought, now he won't try anything again. But then he backed up about four steps, did a lovely little lift of his forehand off the ground, trotted forward...and jumped the rope.

I won't tell you what I said.

So that's the background for this past week's tales of naughty.

To Be Continued

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