A project I've had on my to-do list for a while is teaching the ponies who live in the run-in shed to stay well out of my way when I go in with food. Going into the midst of a group of horses is a dangerous thing to do when they start shoving and threatening each other and when dinner is on their mind, it can be even more so. In the past, I have carried a longe whip just to quietly wave around me so they stay out of my space, but carrying an armload of hay while waving a whip is no easy feat, especially if the footing is muddy, snowy or icy.
I knew the thing to do was to teach them to stand somewhere well out of my way but with multiple horses, it seemed like a big project to teach them all. Right now, however, only Stowaway and Ande are in that paddock so I figure it's as good as it's going to get. I decided to pick a spot along the fenceline and originally was going to have a spot for each of them. As usually happens, I started with a plan and adapted it as I went along.
I began by hanging a milk jug on one of the round pen panels with a piece of bale string. I chose a spot near where Ande usually gets his hay, thinking it might help to begin by having him wait for his hay rather than following me along the fenceline. As soon as I began hanging the jug, Ande showed up and started nosing it so I was clicking and treating even while I was still trying to hang it up. Stowaway came over and so I was able to C/T them both together. One click and each got a hay stretcher pellet. I decided not to focus too much on Stowaway's exact position because Ande is the boss and I wasn't sure how close Stow would be allowed to stand. As long as he was along the fenceline I was going to be OK with it but as it turned out, Ande let him be right next to him. Still, I didn't worry about him nose targeting the jug each time because I knew Ande could change his mind.
Now technically, I should have taught them each separately and then put them together once they knew the behavior. But I was both lazy and worried that by removing one, the one left behind would be mad or upset and less easy to train. Initially it worked out really well because Stowaway kind of followed Ande's lead. He's not a terribly active pony so he seemed to think it was a good deal to just stand there and wait for the click and treat.
After Ande was solidly targeting the jug (less than a minute), I began to take a step back before I clicked. He tends to pace along the fenceline when he sees me coming whether at mealtime or any time he thinks he might convince me to stop and give him attention. (He also whinnies at me any time he sees me come out of the house!) So rather than walking along the fence at first, which I thought would encourage him to follow me, I stepped back away from the fence. I increased the steps one by one, with a click each time and quickly returned to offer the treat. In hindsight, this probably worked well to have them stay at the jug while I returned to treat, rather than coming to me for the treat when I clicked. Depending on the behavior you are training, sometimes you want the horse to come to you for the treat and sometimes you want them to stay where they are. After I was able to take several steps back, I then began building duration. I wanted to do as much as I could to make the boys understand that staying put was the best thing to offer here.
All that moved along quickly (a few minutes) and so I took one step along the fenceline, toward both the gate and the feed room where I get their hay. I made it a small step and clicked very quickly because I knew they would want to follow me. Thankfully, they stayed where they were and Ande was still batting the jug about. I repeated that step a couple times to solidify it, and then began very slowly increasing the distance before I clicked. All went well until, as I suspected, I actually reached the gate. Then Ande left the jug and walked toward the gate. I froze in place, did not look at him or pay any attention to him when he got to me and after a couple attempts at reaching through the panel to get my attention, he decidedly walked back to the jug. I watched closely out of the corner of my eye as I stood still and as soon as he touched the jug, I clicked and verbally praised him as I quickly returned to give him his treat. I was using a box clicker, rather than my usual tongue click, for this since I wanted the click to be loud and sharp enough to carry across a distance as well as over any noises from the horses moving, etc.
At this point, I lost Stowaway, however. He has not had near the clicker experiences that the homebreds have and once he left the jug to follow me to the gate that first time, he just kept wandering back and forth. Again, probably I should have removed him at this point, but instead, I stopped treating him and just treated Ande. I thought he might end up back in the right place at which point I could begin treating him again but no luck there. But I also thought it was good for him to learn that if he's not earning treats, then following me around wasn't going to work either.
I worked with Ande a bit longer that day and was able to walk all the way to the feed room, open the door and step in, out of sight (peeking out through the crack) while he waited at the jug. That was jackpot time for the day and I handed him a full handful of hay stretcher pellets, untied the jug and left. At this point, the only "cue" he will have is that jug tied to the panel. I plan to introduce a verbal or body cue once the behavior is solid and complete but for now, the jug will only be on the panel when I want them to stand there.
This morning I went back out and hung the jug again and both ponies immediately went to it so I clicked and treated both. Again today, I treated Stowaway as long as he was in position. I was able to increase my distance quite quickly today, taking large steps and only about 3 "trials" before getting all the way to the feed room and going in. I knew the next big step would be entering the pen. It would be hard for them to stay at their place when I was going in through the gate which usually meant I was there to take them out! My first trial was just to reach toward the gate, and Ande was watching me closely so when he bumped the target with his nose as I reached for the gate, I clicked and hurried back to give him his treat. It's a noisy gate, so my next trial was to bump the handle so it clanged as it usually does when I open it. Again they stood and I hurried to reinforce them. I proceeded in the following steps:
- unlatching the gate
- unlatching and partially opening the gate
- unlatching and fully opening the gate
- unlatching and opening the gate and stepping in
- finally stepping in and closing the gate behind me
It will be interesting to see whether Stowaway will make the overnight progress again that he did last time. Even though he had not been reinforced for the last part of the last session, he did stay at the jug with Ande today until I entered the pen- much better than he'd done the first day. Will he stay there if I enter the pen the next time? Stay tuned :)