Friday, July 2, 2021

Using Enrichment Toys to Train a Call to Barn

Through the month of June, I posted a series of posts to my Instagram and Facebook pages on Mondays with examples of enrichment toys I am now using. 

Here's a quick review of those toys.

Carrot ball (with apples!)
Kong Equine
The Hay Ball

Two Kong Wobblers

A dog tug toy adapted!

Last week I mentioned that I have three goals for the toys: reinforcement for coming in off grass, puzzle challenges for building learning skills and resilience, and longer term entertainment. This post addresses the reinforcement for coming in. 

My horses and ponies can be reluctant to come in off good grass. Previously I needed to halter them individually (very tedious with six individuals) or "herd" them in...not a positive reinforcement approach, even if they received treats once they were in. In previous years, I have tried to increase their interest for coming in by leaving their favorite treat, peppermints, in tubs in the paddocks. The problem was that the first horses in could scamper around and easily eat up the peppermints so that the tail-enders didn't get one. And then they could even turn around and go back out before the slower ones had arrived. 

When I began putting the toys out earlier in the year and saw how happy the horses were to find them when they came in, I thought I might be able to put coming in on cue. When I was a child, my parents had a distinctive whistle they used to call the horses in from pasture. It was almost foolproof that the horses would come when they heard it. Looking back, I am fascinated to think about things my parents taught animals, and us, without the benefit of the education in animal behavior that I had. They did, of course, have a lot of practical experience. In that case, the horses would come in because it reliably predicted that a meal was waiting in their stalls. As new horses were added, they easily picked up the behavior from others, following the group in, and learning the whistle cue. 

Ande's sliding stop on mud

In the past I had trained a recall cue to the horses, but it was problematic for several reasons. One was the excellent response I got.  That might not seem like a problem, but six equines galloping at me was a little hairy. I trusted them to stop in time...but I didn't trust them to appropriately judge the footing they were on (having seen them wipe out in mud and snow while playing). My little Quarter Pony in particular can leave some impressive sliding stop marks, and I did not want to be halfway along that track.

Another problem was that if I only wanted one individual to  work with, I had no way of calling that one, and if I gave my recall cue, I'd have to reinforce everyone, and then they'd go back out, which wasn't always good for maintaining the behavior. So I abandoned that, although I do now have a recall cue for Percy alone, which is quite nice. 

As I watched their behavior when they saw me start putting out their toys, I realized I wasn't really teaching a "recall" cue any longer.  I was teaching a "go to the barn" cue. Rather than coming to me, they would go right past me at the gate to go to the toys. I liked this behavior since it prevented the galloping at me. I decided to be careful not to give out any treats to a horse or pony who stopped at me so that it didn't transition to a "come to me" cue. 

I was able to test this when my 3 year old granddaughter visited because she loved the whistle I used and could whistle from the house porch, and the horses would come to the barn, even though the whistle was coming from the house, and even if I was not in sight. With the cue meaning "go to the barn", I would need to be aware of that specific behavior and use something different (such as a simple hand target) if I wanted them to come to me. 

As I worked on it, I got a very casual response and that was ok with me. I actually preferred it that way. No more horses galloping at me, and no horses vying to be the first one through the gate. Instead, they come slowly, one at a time, allowing me time to open appropriate stall doors or gates to guide them where they should go. 

Training the cue

When adding a cue to a behavior, you want to have the behavior solid first. I got a little tripped up with this because when I started, the horses were getting the toys in the paddock near the barn- they could see me set them out and would begin to come in. So I was adding the whistle as they did so. 

But as the season progressed, they were allowed to stay out on grass longer (as their digestive systems adapted and grass matured) and by the time they came in, the flies and heat meant they were going into stalls and I was putting their enrichment toys inside. They could no longer see me setting out toys, and I no longer had an environmental cue to work off. The whistle was not yet strong enough to get a response so I had to stop using it or I would kill the new cue.

Instead, I reverted to my former tactics of waiting until they were begging to come in from flies and heat. I'd keep an eye on them until I saw them volunteer their way up to the barn, at which point they wanted to get IN.  Then I blew the whistle as I opened the stalls. The whistle was now connected both to the behavior and to the immediate access to their toys and treats...and out of the bad bugs!

Below is a video of me adding the whistle cue as the horses are let into their stalls or paddock.

And here is a video of what it looks like when I now cue them to come in before they ask to come in. You can see how casual it is.  They lift their heads in response to hearing the whistle, and slowly start to make their way to the barn. 

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