Training horses, especially if they haven’t been handled much can be a puzzle to start. A puzzle where you both don’t want to get hurt, but you also want to make sure they know what is being asked for so they can do it well for someone else. As with most animal training the usual methods tend to be rather abrupt and not how we would prefer being trained. Bits, spurs, whips are usually parts of a system based on negative reinforcement and punishment (definition of punishment is something done to suppress a behavior) and not the friendship of “My Friend Flicka.”
I’m working with two mares aged 5 and 6-years-old in a mostly reward based model of training. They are quite bonded together and they haven’t had the benefits of early conditioning. I started working with them on the far side of a fence. Teaching them to cue to a hand target, learn a marker sound and then get a treat. They didn’t know about treats and they thought the marker sound was the electric fence popping – a good reason to jump back. I had to drop carrot pieces to get them to realize that was what was in my hand and another horse showed them that carrots were for eating. OK, so a week went by for this piece of the training, but they learned to come to my call, take a treat, not jump away just because there was a clicking sound.
Next I went inside. They have two inside stalls that also have outside access. Once they knew I was worth it, they came inside to play reward games. The key info I wanted them to know was they needed to do something, hear a click, then I would reward. They don’t get to mug me to get carrots. I wanted a come to me, look away for a click then hand out the treat – efforts to get into my treats got nothing except me moving out of range.
Then onto more hand targeting with the treats in the opposite hand. Then putting on the halter, then back steps to desensitize ears and poll area because they were quite worried about this. Then handling and putting on halter from other side. Then moving their head where the halter pressure indicated. Then backing a couple of steps.
So what did all this get me other than the above items? Much calmer and gentler horses who were much more aware of where I was and where their heads were in relation to me, I became much more valuable to them. Next I went on to sacking strategies. Inside of the barn there were cobwebs so I broomed them down and the girls were shocked, they left and came back and I rewarded their return and tried sweeping again a little less high. From there I went to a saddle pad and dancing in the aisle, pretty soon it was just a horse theatre with carrot munching. The next visit more of the same, just closer and higher until finally I could sweep their stall and put the pad on their heads, back and flapped against them.
On to playing with other usual tools. Bridling with the horses putting their heads into the bridle, they were not impressed with the metal bit. Whip as a pointer for cuing movement, but first desensitizing them to the whip as it had been used as a scare tactic before.
So yes, I am using the usual tools, but in an easier – this is what you do about this stuff way. I’m also going through about a pound of cut up carrots at each session and they are free to leave. If they leave I know I have not been interesting enough or I have applied too much pressure and they decided it wasn’t worth trying to figure out what I wanted. They have not wanted to leave (except when I scared them with the broom and when I first got out the whip) or to stay gone except today I got some hesitancy.
I came to a point a couple of weeks ago where I felt the current system of run-in stall was no longer working. One mare seemed to be in-season and the ex-stallion was accompanying her there. I took the other mare out into the barn aisle for a separate stroll. It was working very well until the third mare decided she couldn’t stand it and attempted repeatedly to ram open the stall door and then stampede outside and loudly whinny her frustration. Anxiety is catching, I certainly caught it. All the conditioning I had done came in very handy as the mare I was leading got upset, but not unmanageable and I got her back inside with the others and unhaltered without an incident. Wheeow!
OK, time to separate one out for real. Why so long to do this? Partly the Wisconsin monsoon-like weather, but otherwise long term bonded horses can do crazy things when you try to separate them.
Out into the round pen, repeat all earlier training because this is a different location and without horse friends, at a sped up pace then onto things like fly spraying and surcingle and free lunging. And no crazy escape attempts…yahoo! She’s doing great up ’til today.
Today she was grumpy and she did seem to start out grumpy, so maybe in season. And maybe I asked for too much considering how well she did yesterday. Today with the surcingle on we got some crow hops and some tearing around instead of just nice movement, huh. And today when I left the enclosure I realized how few rewards I had actually given out, so who was actually being mare-ish and moody?
At the end of the lunging training, that wasn’t all it could be, I took the surcingle off and tried to see if she would target or do any very simple things with me, she just looked and then examined her underside where the surcingle had left a sweat pattern. She seemed to be giving me a clear message.
I took the equipment back to the barn and brought out the brush and fly spray. She was appreciative, but still not quite her usual self. I think I’ll check in again with her this evening with incentives at the ready and when the flies are less and the breeze is cooler.