Dress Rehearsal

Yesterday was my 4th session with Red the foot-shy quarter horse; the farrier appointment is next week so we were down to really testing how willing he would be to have a third person hammering on his feet.

He did great! His trainer/owner, Olivia, says that there is a HUGE difference in his behavior since starting our sessions. I mentioned that she might want to use a dose of oral sedative for the farrier appointment just to be sure he doesn’t blow up for this first appointment. She considered, but preferred to avoid the cost of sedation–illustrating yet another reason why it’s worthwhile to train your horse for routine procedures instead of relying on chemical restraint! Training is not only better for the overall safety and enjoyment of life between you and your horse, it also saves money.

After some playing around with free-lunging and hoof-handling in the arena, including with a new person holding and hammering on his front feet, we moved to the barn aisle where the farrier will actually be working. (The new person did not handle back feet simply because she’s not super-confident around horses, and I didn’t want to set her up for risk of a kick.)

Into the barn aisle we went, introducing not only a change of venue but an important change of handling, in adding a halter. Red behaved beautifully and one never would have guessed that he previously had a problem with hoof handling. New person repeated her work with the front feet. Then I stepped in to handle the back feet and hammered away on them, in shoeing position. Red was a champ, and could be rewarded the whole time.

So how exactly has clicker training helped us in this case? We had a scared and fractious horse, one who only became more dangerous (kicking) as the farrier tried to restrain the hooves. We needed a way to show this horse that he was already capable of doing what we were asking; we needed a way to show him which part of his natural behaviors were “correct,” in our world. Specifically, being able to shift your weight to one side is “correct.” Being able to unweight a requested hoof is “correct”. Red soon understood that it was easy for him to work the treat machine when he really tried to offer the right behavior.

Once you have the horse’s trust, and understanding of the “treat machine” (i.e. that his actions affect whether or not the treat shows up), the possibilities are wide open. Note that part of “understanding the treat machine” is noticing when it doesn’t produce. For example, Red might do a great job shifting weight–>treat. Then of picking up foot–> treat. Then he picks up foot and lets it be held for a second–>treat. Then he picks up foot and let’s it be held except–whoops!–he starts yanking foot away–> NO TREAT. Start again: picks up foot, lets it be held, relaxes and allows hoof to be held for a few seconds–>TREAT!! Before you know it, we have have Red giving up his hoof for as long as we ask.

At any point, Red can decide that he doesn’t want us holding his foot. That’s fine; nobody needs to get upset about it. Red doesn’t need to fight to get his foot back, and we don’t need to scold or fight to hold the hoof, or succumb to ultimate frustration and kick the horse back when it kicks at us (I’ve done this! I’ve been taught this!!) All we need to do is—NOTHING; not reinforce, not engage, not treat. Since we still have a horse that trusts us and wants to work (play) with us, he figures out that he can get that treat back when he gives us the foot.

The trainer doesn’t force a behavior, or force participation. The trainer’s job is to pick out particular instances of spontaneous behavior, and reinforce those, and to establish the timing of the session. Horses, like children, like you and me, are naturally curious–so as long as they’re interested, they’ll keep playing. The trainer’s job is to be aware of session timing so that we call it quits for the day (or the morning) before the student’s attention span has worn out.

That, my friends, is FUN. ’til next time …

Thinking horses? Think positive.

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