Posts Tagged ‘clicker training’

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

September 21, 2011

Looking back at last year’s blog entries, I see that I have slacked off quite a bit on writing here.  Tonight, recovering from a sore throat that ended with laryngitis, I’ve got a bit of unencumbered time.  Normally, I’d be in adult ballet class, sweating away, but my voice is still gone, my throat still a bit sore, and I decided to stay home.

The leaves have passed the peak gold—I think the best day was Sunday, when Alayne Blickle of Horses for Clean Water was here for a workshop organized by my horse club, University Equestrian Network, with the help of Interior Horse Council, Interior Horsemen’s Association, the UAF Office of Sustainability, the UAF Alumni Association, and Camp LiWa, where the workshop was held.  I’m adding their links so all seven of my readers can check them out.  It was a gratifying collaboration.   Alayne had lots to offer us: ideas for dealing with run-off, ideas for incorporating native plants into a horse property, solutions to manure and mud issues, barn and facility design.  She had the impressive ability to listen to our complaints and excuses about our situations without sounding critical—there are limits to what we can do depending on budget, time, availability of help, but I think we all came away seeing that our horses can be a part of a larger network of growing things.  Here at Mattie’s Pillow, I sometimes look at Mattie and Sam as manure producers—a valuable commodity among my gardening friends.  I can’t always keep enough manure here for my greenhouse and raised beds—especially once spring rolls around.

I took Alayne to see several horse properties while she was here and the blue sky and gold leaves set off the day and the good conversation.  I look forward to following up on the ideas she inspired.

The summer’s riding is pretty much over, though the days are nice enough for trail rides—if only I weren’t sick or so busy at the beginning of the semester.  I’m looking forward to groundwork again this winter, polishing up those areas that have gotten rusty in the rush of summer’s saddle up and go pace.  Sam is looking better now than he did a few weeks ago, now that I’m adding Vitamin E to his diet.  I’ll still have him tested for Cushings—and I’m reading up on all that will involve for him and for me.  It would be nice if his shaggy patchy coat this year could be attributed to a vitamin deficiency, but it hardly seems likely with the fancy supplement he gets (Platinum) and the fact that he’s done so well on it till now.  We’ll see.  An older horse has special nutritional needs, and at the last tooth floating, it seemed like he might not ever be rid of his wave—he’s getting short in the tooth, which is what horses get after getting long in the tooth, since they have a finite length of tooth that grows out and grinds down over a lifetime.

So, I’m shifting the way I think of Sam.  He will probably not ever go back to his youthful glory, but he needs to have a job or purpose for these later years.  He’s too much of a scaredy cat for much trail riding, and he continues to be the trickster in all things.  I may try teaching him actual tricks, now that I have a better understanding of what that takes.  Perhaps learning more about clicker training this winter will help.

As for Mattie, she had a good summer’s training at the Intro A, B, C level.  She’s 15 now, and gradually developing a twist in her stifle at the walk that may be a problem down the road.   She’s mellowed out lots, though still has her ears-back style.  Ground work is in order for her, too, this winter.  I’ll try to take her out on the road a few times before the dust settles and we are in full winter.  It all goes by so fast.

The moon is half full, now, fuzzy behind some low clouds.  A neighbor’s dog has adopted us—she was up on the deck with Jeter when I came home this afternoon, her creamy Lab head peeking below the deck benches beside his curly chocolate head.  She’s young and goofy—I put out a sign on the road and called the shelter to leave my number.  I expect someone is looking for her, but we walked her around the neighborhood, and she doesn’t seem to have a clue where she belongs.  The leaves are spinning down from the trees—there’s gold above and gold below.  It’s a dizzy time, full of smells and motion, brilliant light and deepening darkness.  We’re teetering on the edge of the season.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 9, 2010

Sam hasn’t posted for a while.  He’s been busy this winter growing a magnificent coat of white fur, which he is now in the process of shedding out.  But now, he’s ready for an update.

Sam, in spite of being an Andalusian gentleman whose ancestors are from a much warmer climate than Interior Alaska, grows a coat that is nearly four inches long by the time shedding season comes in April.  All winter, he looks like he’s half polar bear, and as the sun returns to the corral, the longer outer hairs gleam so that he looks haloed in the morning sun.  Mattie’s hair is not nearly as long or thick, though she seems to grow more of an undercoat.  Now that they are shedding, the corral is littered with clumps of their hair, especially in spots where they are standing to be groomed.

Today, Trish, from our horse club came over to see Sam.  She is considering being one of two riders (besides me) to ride him in lessons and clinics this summer.  We have an ambitious schedule planned and now that the ice is nearly melted from the corral, we can start getting the horses fit in earnest.  We stood for nearly a half hour in the sun grooming out his shedding coat with the shedding blade—a metal strip with a serrated side that rakes the loose hairs from his coat.  We were nearly ankle deep in white hair when we were done.  We tacked Sam up in the longeing cavesson and surcingle and got him going in circles at the trot and a bit of canter.

All the clicker training I’ve done—however sporadically—has paid off, it seems.  He stands to be groomed now—not as much inching back to the end of the lead rope then “panicking” at the feel of the halter pulling on his head.  He stood still as we worked on him, dozing in the last sun of the day.  He was—well mostly—polite as Trish walked him then sent him out to the end of the longe line to work.  He seemed happy to be working and comfortable with what we were asking of him.

Afterward, we went to work with Mattie, too.  After the last incident I reported a few weeks ago, I’ve been working with her on moving her shoulders away from me, tapping on her shoulders till she takes a step sideways away from me, then rewarding her by letting off the pressure, then trying again.  The idea (which I found on a John Lyons trainer’s blog) is to teach her to move away from the whip so that, eventually, I can just point the tip of the whip at her shoulder or hip and she will move out to the end of the line, instead of turning to face me.  Things have been better with Mattie, too.

It’s gratifying to have new people come up and see Mattie and Sam, for it gives me a better perspective on how far we all have come.  I’m less timid about pushing the horses a little now—though I always watch Mattie carefully for signs that she feels threatened—and they know more of what I expect: good behavior.  In all, it makes for pleasanter times with them, and I think of the behaviors I’m trying to shape in them as horse survival skills.  Just like teaching Jeter, the poodle, to sit at the side of the road when he hears a car coming rather than revving up to chase it, teaching Mattie and Sam to be calm and responsive to humans could save their lives if they ever have to be cared for by some other humans less crazy about them than I am.

In the book Black Beauty, Anna Sewell writes that horses’ lives are a story of changing hands, going from person to person.  Unlike dogs, who often live with one person for their shorter lives, horses move from owner to owner throughout their sometimes forty-year lives.  Girls grow up and go to college and their beloved horses are sold to a new owner, or a divorce or illness happens and the owner can’t keep the horse, or a rider is in a long search for the right horse for the purpose and goes through several in the span of years.  Recently, the endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, a half-Arab flea-bitten gray (like Sam) died at 38 with his life-long owner at his side.  He has the record for the most lifetime miles in competition of any horse in that sport—and he competed in his last race this past fall.  He is the exception, to have lived so long with one owner.  I hope to counter this trend with Mattie and Sam—but want them to have reasonable manners just in case.  Besides, they both have psychological and behavioral baggage from their pasts; I want them to feel secure with me.

The corral is mostly down to dirt, now.  This weekend, if the temperatures go back above freezing, we’ll get a crew together and rake and scoop as much of the manure as we can off the packed and frozen sand below.  By next weekend—if it doesn’t snow or rain and freeze (knock on wood)—we could be getting out the saddles.  I have two more lessons on Stormy in the indoor arena, then Mattie and Sam get my full attention, with the help of Trish and Casey.

There are tiny tomato and cucumber plants under my shop light and in the window during the day.  I’m beginning to clear out the greenhouse to prepare it for this summer’s plants.  The ground is brown with dead grass and leaves; the trees are a web of bare twigs.  The Tanana below us is still white with a widening gray swath that shows where the ice is thinning, thawing, and refreezing.  Anything can happen—snow, forty below, a quick melt and breakup.  We’re holding our breath.  We have our Nenana Ice Classic tickets in the can.  One day we’ll see pale green like a haze in the hills.  Then, then, spring.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

January 24, 2010

Every day the sun moves a bit higher in its trajectory across the southern sky.  For weeks past solstice and the New Year, it would blip up over the horizon, then slip behind the spine of the ridge that slopes down to Rosie Creek to the southwest of us, so that the newly lingering light of afternoon would be slightly muted and colder than it might otherwise be.  But today, the sun hung high enough above the ridge that it seemed to be climbing an eddy along the ridgeline and light bleached the sky and gleamed off the snow and off Sam’s white coat.

Sam hasn’t had a post here in a while, partly because he and Mattie have been on their long winter break. Since Thanksgiving, it seemed that I never saw them in daylight except for weekends, and then it would be too cold to do much besides clean the corral and chat with them while throwing in an extra flake of hay.  But today the temperatures rose to nearly zero—warm enough that I could take my gloves off to groom or to do some clicker reinforcement with Sam, who really needs it.

The horses get a bit feral during their winter break.  They hesitate when I come out with a halter, thinking it over, even though they know I have beet pellets in my hand.  Once, this fall, when the temperatures were headed to thirty below and I wanted to blanket them while it was warm enough (twenty below) to move my fingers on the metal blanket hooks, Sam took one look at me and walked away, swishing his tail.  Today, though, he came up to me and let me halter him.  He seemed glad for the attention, though he wasn’t entirely cooperative.

We worked on basic stuff—things he’s known how to do his whole life: stand in place, take a treat graciously without tooth-to-hand contact, back up, come to me (I use the command, “step up”), keep his head out of my space (the hardest for him).  With Sam, because he’s so clever and has gotten away with such mischief before, it’s always good to review the basic groundwork before getting him back in shape for summer, oh so long away.

Sam has never been and will never be a sleepy cuddly gelding, like the ones I’ve been riding at a local facility.  A group of us in Horsemasters have rented an indoor arena and lesson horses from a local camp and we’ve started riding every Saturday night.  It’s good to work with Stormy, the reliable Quarter horse gelding I’ve been riding.  He stops if there’s any trouble in the arena; he’s never pushy; he seems resigned to a life where lots of people of varying abilities ride him; and he seems grateful for the attention I give him, grooming, talking to him in my horse voice—a kind of soft banter I learned from my riding instructor when I was a kid—mostly “Good boy, good boy.”  After working with Stormy, I feel ready for Sam.  For one thing, it’s clear that it’s not unreasonable to ask Sam to develop good horse manners, no matter what he thinks.  For another, it’s clear that I do know how to handle a reasonable horse.  Sam just has his own ideas about things.

It was still too cold to use the clicker today, so I did what I’ve read that others do—a soft ticking sound with my tongue, not to be confused with the cluck or “kissy” sound of encouragement.  He got that it was the same deal as the clicker, and after a few review tries, he stood when I said “stand,” with his face straight ahead.  Because he turns his head away when I say “wait,” something we developed early as an alternative gesture to diving at hay at feeding time, I’ve defined “stand” as with his head straight forward.  This also counteracts his tendency to want to mouth or nose-butt me while I’m grooming him.

After we worked on “stand” I had him stand while I moved to the end of the line, and we practiced “step up”—easy—from the front and both sides.  And always, we worked on “gentle” or taking a treat with no teeth, something he’s motivated to learn, since the treat goes away when he applies teeth.  Strangely, though, he doesn’t seem as talented as Mattie is at picking things up with his lips and drops the beet pellets sometimes.

Mattie and I worked some today, too, though not with the clicker.  With Mattie, it’s always a matter of reminding her once again that nothing I do will hurt her, a slow desensitization every spring.  I groomed her, picked the ice balls out of her feet with the ice hammer, and worked on small circles on the longe line.  She doesn’t like to work far from me, though she was doing better by the end of last summer.  After a few circles in both directions a couple of times and some “stand” and “step up,” we were done.   A good first day of preparation for spring.

It’s dark now.  In a few minutes, I’ll make up their dinner dishes: beet pellets, supplements, and a small scoop of flax seeds for their coats.  We’ll haul a few buckets of water out to the water tank while they’re munching the hay.  Jeter, who looks like a café au lait cub with his coat all grown out and flopping as he runs, will come with us, bounding around, picking up frozen horse “balls” and running with them, pulling up in front of me with a sliding sit for treats.

We’ve made it through the darkest time.  All’s well.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

June 1, 2009

The other day, I met a woman walking her dog and baby stroller along our road. They stopped to let the dog, a curly coated Chesapeake, play with Jeter.

“So you own the white horse?” she asked. “My daughter thinks he’s a magical horse.”

“That’s Sam,” I said, “and he is a magical horse.”

Sam and Mattie came through the winter in fine form and are now sleek coated and getting some muscle definition—at least Sam is. After a long stretch of clicker training, both horses seem to have responded in ways I hoped them to—especially Sam. He hasn’t been head butting—except for the occasional slip up—and he knows the command “stand” and remembers to use his lips, not his teeth to take a treat. Mattie has her ears up more, but she and I need to go back to the clicker now that I’m saddling and mounting—both things she has lots of anxiety about.

Life is great for Sam, however, since he met Casey, who is part of a campus horse club. She’s an experienced rider without a horse and she’s coming out twice a week to work with and ride Sam. It’s great to see him respond to her. He’s bonded with her quickly—I have to remind him that I’m his person, too, sometimes—and he comes up to her and behaves like a gentleman for her, mostly. Because she’s willing to come twice a week to ride him, I can concentrate on solving some long standing issues with Mattie, including mounting and saddling.

It’s summer, summer, summer. The days are warm, the horses gleam in the corral, the garden is slowly getting planted on schedule (today’s our last frost date, so traditional planting day). Except for the earthquakes and tremors we’ve been experiencing the past few days, this is the best time of year here or anywhere.

Need to get back to the greenhouse, now.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 23, 2009

Not much to report on the training scene right now as we wait for the corral to clear of packed ice and snow melt. Sam and Mattie are responding to the clicker training, but I’m not sure I’ve been trained well enough to make it stick at this point. When I click the clicker, Sam arches his neck down, knowing that a treat will follow. But he’s so smart and has been able to push people around for so long, that he eventually tries to get around me to get the treat without the work.

I spent some time on You Tube the other night watching videos of Andalusians doing high school tricks and movements. These were Mexican Andalusians, mostly, broad-backed, high strung, athletic. I watched the passage and piaffe to see what the riders did with their aids and whips. Some of the riders weren’t trying to be subtle, so I could see how they shifted their weight at each step and even cued the horses’ shoulders during the Spanish Walk. One horse crouched down in piaffe to launch into cabriole, leaping up and kicking his hind legs straight behind him.

I watched horses at liberty and under saddle; some were Spanish, some French, some German. Many of them did tricks, as well, bowing, lying down with the rider then getting up again. None of this is usual dressage arena fare, but it gave me some ideas of how Sam may have been trained at one point and why he’s so excitable about being asked to work.

Today, I decided to get back to working with them, despite the moonscape quality of the corral. Both horses are a bit too fat right now, in spite of my care in how much hay they get at each feeding. I’ve decided that the hay–from two different growers–has two different levels of sugar content. I’m feeding mostly from one side of the hay barn now, trying to empty out that bay so I can clean under the pallets and fill it up again with the first cutting of summer. But they’re doing too well on it, and now we need to cut back a bit and step up the exercise a bit.

Which brings me to today. Monday, I was in the corral with Sam trying to scrape some of the manure layer off the packed snow/ice layer. It was a lovely warm afternoon, and Sam wanted to play gelding games with me. I wanted him to be a cuddly horse, one that I could lean against, forehead to forehead, as I had once done with my childhood horse, Bambi. Sam is a trickster, and I knew better, but I was off my guard, and busy with the rake and shovel. He came over and put his face near mine and swung it toward me as I moved, catching me on the mouth. I got a split lip and more determination to follow through with the clicker work. I’ve gotten too casual with it.

Today, I had him on a lead rope, standing in the middle of the corral. I had the clicker and gave the command, “Stand” and clicked and treated only when he stood still with his head straight in front of him and not at my pocket or near my face. He tried backing up–no treat. He tried holding his head sideways the way I taught him to at the command, “Wait”–no treat. Eventually he got it, though it’s still a pose for him.

I managed to get piles of white hair out of his winter coat using the shedding blade and got him to stand untied while I picked his feet–even the hind, which he likes to feint cow-kick when I go to pick them up. After we did this, I tacked him up in longe gear: a nylon surcingle, cavesson, a longeing headstall and bit, sidereins. We’ve gotten a bit stuck in our longeing, something he used to do like a champ. Now he just wants to circle his hindquarters around to face me. I know I’ve done something to give him this idea, but don’t know what.

Instead of longeing, and in spite of being all tacked up, I just walked him around the corral with my hand on his neck, companionable, but maintaining the space between us. When we did this, he seemed relaxed and interested. When I tried backing off and moving him forward with the longe whip, he got the old doubtful look in his eye. So, I put the whip away and walked with him, but a little farther away, marking the space with a pointed finger rather than the longe whip. At one point he was far enough out on the line that he began to trot. He wouldn’t do this to the other side, but I decided that, given the ice and muck in the corral–not good conditions for going faster than a walk–that this was good enough. I ended the session by scratching him on the withers and down the groove in his back over his spine. He stool high headed, twisting his upper lip in pleasure. I don’t remember him liking to be scratched so much, but maybe he’s only now trusting me enough to let me find the spot. He was pretty shut down three years ago when he first came to us.

Then I worked with Mattie on “Ears up” and groomed her and worked with her at liberty–a trust exercise for her and for me. She didn’t trot, but walked well away from me at the pointing of the driving whip. Mattie is less of a puzzle to me because I know what she doesn’t know and she’s very clear–sometimes threateningly so–when she’s confused or worried about what I’m asking. Then I back off a little and try again in another way. In spite of this, she really does trust me and will let me lean against her and will rest her head on me in a way Sam won’t.

Lots of preliminary work, still, before the corral is in good enough shape to ride, but all in all, a good day with horses.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

March 3, 2009

Sam’s Dream

This afternoon, I went out to work with Mattie to reinforce some of the clicker training I’ve been doing with her. Now that it’s March, the sun is higher in the sky and stays out longer so that, at 2 in the afternoon, both horses are dozy and take naps in the sun.

When I got to the corral, Mattie’s halter slung over my shoulder, brushes in the grooming bag in one hand, clicker and beet pellets in my pocket, I noticed Sam stretched out flat, a white horse sleeping in the snow. He lay completely still; a thin cirrus of breath rose from his nose. Every time I see the horses sleeping like this, I have a moment of panic. As a child, I read that horses sleep standing up, which they can, and I saw horses sleeping with their legs tucked under them and chins resting on the ground. But it wasn’t till I had these two in a corral so close that it seems like part of my living room that I realized that, like us, horses need periods of deep REM sleep, totally relaxed. It’s a sign of how safe they feel in my corral, I guess, that they can sleep so vulnerably as this, though I notice that they do it one at a time, with the other usually standing watch.

I stood watching him for at least five minutes, maybe more. His breath was slow and long and I could see it rise in a mist around his head at regular intervals. His ears swiveled forward and back, as if he were listening to a rider he respected. His hooves twitched, first the back, then the front. Once, I saw his legs move as if pushing off into a collected canter. Sometimes he bobbed his head up and down slightly. Sometimes he wobbled his lips as if taking a treat or working his mouth on a bit. His eyes flickered, too; they seemed to open and close. He switched his tail.

I wondered what I was watching. I imagined he was dreaming of his former life, the training he had, the shows or exhibitions. I imagine that Sam loved his training and worked with an exacting trainer who taught him things I’ll never know about. I imagine that he misses this work, and has only tolerated those of us who’ve had him in our lives since them. Sam doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and in his eyes, we all may be fools.

I have to go through a pass-through between Sam’s and Mattie’s sides of the corral to get to Mattie, so I waited for Sam to wake up. I could have walked right by him, but he would have heard me coming and sprung to his feet. Eventually, he opened his eyes and rolled to his belly, feet tucked under him, head up to see me. I held my hand up, in the “stand” gesture, and he lay there, still drowsy, and let me walk up to him and scratch his forehead-something he usually resists. I talked to him and rubbed him on the neck, then left him, still resting, and went to see Mattie.

Things went well with Mattie. I worked on clicker training to reinforce the “ears up” command and “stand” as I groomed her with the rope slung over her withers. She was drowsy, too, a black mare in the sun. When I brushed the sun side of her, her coat felt so warm that I didn’t need my gloves. I finished by picking out her tail, using detangler, while she stood, head half-lowered, eyes half closed.

All in all a good day to be with horses.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

February 26, 2009

Spring Training: Clicking Back, Stand, Ears Up

Another clicker training session with Sam and Mattie this afternoon. I’ve been down with a sore throat and sinus lately–not good for working with horses in the cold. But today, energy back, I worked with Sam and Mattie and the clicker again.

Sam is really picking up on this game. When I went into the corral with the halter and yogurt container, he came up to me, interested. He now will bump the container with his nose wherever I put it. We played a game where I put the container on the ground and told him to stand then moved it and told him “touch” and he walked over to it and bumped it, then looked at me. I then tried adding the clicker to commands Sam already knows, hoping to reinforce them.

Sam is a horse who thinks he knows better than any human and is always testing to see what he can get away with. I’m hoping to refine some basic “manners” with him and build on these to reshape his attitude a bit. I don’t know if this can be done, but I’ve seen Mattie change over time from my teaching her “ears up,” so maybe Sam can change, too.

We started with the command, “Back,” which he already knows, supported by my walking towards him and shaking the lead rope. He will often push me with his head (or try to), and he doesn’t like me to be positioned anywhere but on his left side. I’m hoping to get him to step backwards at a verbal command. I started by saying “back” and stepping toward him. When he stepped back, I clicked the clicker and gave him a beet pellet. We did it again, three times. Then I said, “Back” and waited till he moved his feet backward on his own. Then I clicked the clicker and gave him the treat. We did this a few times, till he was taking several steps back on his own. Then we did the same thing with the command, “stand,” which he knows, but isn’t as patient with as Mattie. I was able to give him the command, “stand” and step away from him to the front and to both sides. Then, because I couldn’t reach him to offer the reward when he was standing away from me, I added “step up,” which they both know and do, mostly. We did this from the front and both sides, then went back to “back.”

Doing clicker training with Sam convinces me even more that someone has trick-trained Sam in the past, possibly with a clicker. Not only did he pick all this up quickly, but he seemed engaged and, if I can say this, amused. I’ve read that this type of training can improve the relationship between horse and human, and that would be a great outcome.

As for Mattie, she’s a bit gentler about touching the yogurt container, as if she really doesn’t believe I want her to touch it. Still, she caught on to the move-the-container game and would walk over to it and touch it at the command “touch.” An added benefit was, since I have taught her to put her ears up to get a treat, she put her ears up, then touched the container. Mattie’s already a good backer, so we worked on “stand” and “step up.” Then I tried walking with her, using the command “ears up” to see if I could get her to walk with her ears up (like a normal horse!). This is difficult for her. Whatever happened to her in the pack/trail string involved being led-maybe tied to another horse-and from the first, she has held her ears back, not pinned, when I lead her at the walk. I don’t know that if I train her to keep her ears up at certain times it will train the anxiety out of her, but it will ease my anxiety to see her ears up. Plus she shows off her proud Tennessee Walking Horse neck better when she has her ears up.

I used the Helen Keller metaphor to describe this process in a former post, but, truly, it feels like we’re communicating more precisely with this method. I’m eager to keep on with it.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

February 18, 2009

Spring Training: Beginning Clicker

I had been taking our young dog to clicker training classes in the fall, and decided that it was time to try this method out on Mattie and Sam. I’ve been reading about it in horse books and on the web for some time now. It’s a form of classical conditioning–like Pavlov’s dogs, who were conditioned to respond to a bell. When I first heard about it, I felt that this was a method to take the art out of horse training, that it would make the horse’s response too mechanical, but three things have made me more open to trying it: taking Jeter to clicker class and seeing it work on dogs, learning that this method is used to train zoo animals to be handled for routine care, and, well, Mattie and Sam’s annoying habits.

I’ve done a little conditioning with them and find that they do respond to rewards better than other types of training. This seems obvious when I reflect on it–pleasure rewards more than pain. Last spring, Janet Zadina, the Brain Lady, who has branched out from her own neurological research to offer a synthesis of brain research applied to learning, came to Fairbanks to give a workshop. One thing I remember her telling us was that the brain functions better in pleasure than pain–in other words students learn more when they’re having fun and are engaged than when they’re anxious. This has profound implications for all levels of teaching, and it applies to horses as well.

Take Mattie, for example. When she arrived here, she was so anxious about simple things that she would pin her ears back and snake her neck at me when I brought hay. When working with her, I’m always reading her anxiety level and backing off a little when I seen her stressed nearly to the reaction point. Using pressure or pain to communicate with her is not only counterproductive but it’s dangerous. But with a pocketful of beet pellets–the reward is as much the crunchy sound they make as their food value–I can persuade her to do things she is worried about doing. In fact the first thing I taught her was to put her ears up on command, something I didn’t know I could teach her, like retraining an attitude. There are a few things we just haven’t really worked out yet, though, such as standing still at the mounting block. I’m hoping clicker training will help with this.

The first session with Sam went well. Nina was out for a “mentorship” opportunity, so she helped me with all the details. According to the clicker training website, it helps if you start with a target, training the horse not only to associate the clicker with a treat, but with an activity to complete before the treat is delivered. Ultimately this generalizes into a request for any activity that can be paired with the clicker.

That day, a week ago, it had warmed to 20 above; Nina and I stood in the snow, across the gate from Sam, who was haltered and on a lead rope. We showed him the clicker and he drew back, especially once we had clicked it. But we had beet pellets, so we clicked the clicker and offered the beet pellets and soon the click didn’t bother him. Then we introduced the Nancy’s Yogurt container. Nancy suggests right on the container that we should reuse it in some way, so we took her suggestion. We held it up to his nose and, when he had accidentally bumped the container, clicked the clicker and gave him a treat. He was a bit surprised to get a treat for nothing, and tried a number of things to get us to give him another one. He’s been taught to beg by turning his head away at the command, “wait,” so he tried that. He tried bumping us with his nose. We held the yogurt container up so he would bump it again, and, after a few tries, he was clearly bumping it deliberately to get the treat. Then we noticed that he would turn toward my coat pocket when I clicked the clicker–he knew where I kept the beet pellets.

We tried moving the container around and finally putting it on the ground, and he learned to bump it with his nose each time. He learned it so quickly that, as always with Sam, I had the sense that he’d done all this before. We stopped after about ten or fifteen minutes, so not to burn him out on the first attempt. When I tried it again a few days later, he remembered, and I could move the container around on the ground and he’d bump it and look at me. A good start. Now to figure out how to teach him something useful, like not bumping me with his nose while I’m leading or grooming him!

I tried this with Mattie today. She picked it up quickly, too, and would touch the container anywhere I put it. She clearly got that it was an action to get a treat, too, because she would do the behavior I’d already taught her, “ears up,” at the same time she was bumping the container. The clicker training people write about this process as like learning a mutual language that allows humans and animals to communicate. It did seem like Mattie, Sam, and I were doing something akin to Helen Keller’s first experience of connecting finger language with the meaning of water, opening the possibility of communicating her experience to others and vice versa.

More on this as spring training progresses.

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