What would your horse(s) say? (Hint: it’s not all about the treats.)
Read how I solved real problems using positive methods: If you’ve never tried positive reinforcement training, DON’T do what I did. I viewed it as a curious novelty – but never gave it much consideration. After all – I had kept horses and dogs my whole life – and pretty much had everybody doing what I asked. Without carrying around treats and risking being bitten. (I came from the crowd that thought that hand feeding created biters.)
It wasn’t until Allie came along (and I was desperate for something that could help us get along) that I revisited the idea again. My first attempts have been awkward and full of mistakes – but nonetheless – what an amazing breakthrough! The proverbial “light bulb” came on – for both of us. Her distant attitude toward me warmed – and my appreciation for her tries grew. I won’t go into method specifics here – there are lots of great references online here. I personally don’t use a clicker – but instead substitute a word; “good”. The idea is to create a marker that tells the animal when he or she is doing correctly – and that a tasty food reward is forthcoming for a job well done. For the record, I have not been bitten, either. They get pretty excited sometimes – but there are ways to teach them politeness that are effective and still maintain enthusiasm. Plenty of info online about that under mugging for treats.
And clicker training is not all about doing silly tricks that don’t have much purpose. I’ve used this method with my own to solve a problems that were previously unsolvable using all of my lifelong horse owning experiences. (which, as I get further into this journey I am learning don’t really make up much)
My particular horsekeeping situation involves moving the horses from their stalls through the barn aisle and out a door to the pasture. Most days they are only in at night if it is bad weather, and they are eager to dash off to graze as soon as allowed. I don’t usually put a halter on anybody – they know the way to the door and it’s not likely they’ll attempt to go any other direction. However, the charging out of the stalls is troublesome and dangerous. Jack, the Hackney pony, was OK to come out of his stall quietly, but once he got past me a bit he would “launch”, and be at a gallop in the three strides it took to get to the door. NOT safe, as he is not above throwing in a kick or buck along the way.
For years I threatened him to make him slow down. He knew better than to act like that, but if I didn’t have a halter on him, he knew I had no control and behaved accordingly. I could put a halter on and force the issue – leading him bug-eyed and prancing to the door, only to repeat the scenario once the halter came off – and often getting a shower of mud in the process as he dashed off. We’ve had this pony for many years, and the problem never got any better. A great deal of which I owe to the fact that first thing in the morning is not my best hour for outwitting a pony.
As much as this behavior made me want to kick his bratty little butt, I decided one day to try an approach using treats. He got a treat in the stall doorway for waiting quietly, another one after taking a few steps at a walk, another after a few more quiet steps… and finally a handful at the barn door where he usually took off. At that point, I was the one that ended the interaction – leaving him standing there hoping for another treat – instead of showing his butt and throwing mud at me as he dashed off. Within a few days the problem was solved. I was able to phase out the frequency of treats to one at the end for good behavior, then finally substitute just a pat and a word of praise and sometimes a treat. The positive training books teach us that once a behavior is learned, and OCCASIONAL reward is more powerful in maintaining it than getting a reward every single time. Sort of like playing the lottery…
My other horse, Allie, wanted to leave her stall as if it were a starting gate. As soon as the door came open she was ready to dash through. Which was really bad if she tried before it was all the way open and couldn’t fit. It was easy enough to get big (as some of the trainers teach) so she’d back off and wait for the OK, but then it seemed I was just replacing my body for the door – and as soon as she was given the OK I got the same rush through. Unlike Jack, after that her walk out was sensible.
To solve this one, I used treats to teach her that leaving the stall was only allowed after she put her nose on the opposite side of the door frame, and kept it there until given the OK. This put the ball in her court – the door was open, but she wasn’t to go through until she used self control and completed the required task. Sometimes we’d repeat the “wait” command more than once, just so doing that and getting a treat was more interesting than going out. In time, getting to go out became the treat and I didn’t need them any more.
Billy the ex-rental trail horse‘s problem had to do with food. Because his teeth are mostly gone, he needs his dinner of alfalfa pellets and beet pulp soaked in water to make it soft. The resulting mixture is apparently irresistible (to him) and a big tub of it weighs a ton (to me). Getting it into his stall and set down so he can eat it proper was a real chore, as he’d dive in as soon as he was able to reach it. Having a big lug of a horse head in the way and pushing down on an already heavy tub was more than I could handle.
So I devised a little system of horsey “keep-away”. As soon as he made a move to grab a bite, I’d pull the tub away so he couldn’t reach it. I did NOT scold his rudeness, or chase him off, as I’d been inclined to do pre-positive days. As soon as he’d make the slightest movement AWAY from the tub, I’d advance toward the spot where I always set it down. Of course, at first he was thinking; “Cool! She’s serving it right up to me!” but when the tub quickly disappeared as he reached for it, he soon learned that the only way that the tub was ever coming in the stall was if he retreated and let it come past him without trying to grab a bite. It only took a couple sessions and he’d figured it out completely.
All of these problems were solved so easily once I changed my way of thinking about how to manage them. Instead of correcting the wrong behavior, I stopped focusing on that and instead put my attention on rewarding the right behavior. It really was like magic.
I love it when multiple products align for a common philosophy. The sweet quote above is from Anna Blake’s new book Relaxed and Forward – Relationship Advice from Your Horse, the T-shirt says I TRAIN HORSES TO EAT CARROTS, the horse is Billy – a worn out rental trail horse I bought in South Dakota. I spent considerable effort trying to locate his registration papers; the halter he was wearing when he was delivered is ironically embroidered “Clue” on the noseband and it also contains a distinctive brand burned into the crownpiece – a brand owned by John Hauer, author of The Natural Superiority of Mules. Photo is by Lauren Duncan Folks who are friends with me on Facebook (if you’re not, send me a request here) know that I quote Anna Blake – A LOT. So I am thrilled to announce that I have her book Relaxed & Forward here on the shelves at HoofPrints. This softcover book is just 301 pages, but it might as well be a million, for all the wisdom contained therein. Each chapter is short; just a few pages, but every single one contains profound words like those above, words that summarize a powerful, complex concept into a memorable, eloquent sentence or two with losing any of the meaning. Anna talks a lot about observing horses carefully, and appropriately rewarding their efforts for good behavior, but some of her best words come when she is talking about things going wrong:
“There will always be two stories about horses. One is that they are brainless tools; too crazy or lazy or just not worth the effort. That you’ll always be a victim of a horse’s whims and habits unless you dominate them to a stupor. The other story is that horses are mythical creatures with brave hearts who lift and carry us in perfect unity. That together, we can break free of earthly limitations. Both stories actually start the same way. After that, we get just about what we think we deserve.”
To read an excerpt of Relaxed and Forward click here
Wanna read more of my musings about horses? Go here
Wanna read more about our old house and it’s old and eccentric furnishings? Go here
See the rest of my fave books? Go here