Sensitivity Training [Yours]

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It is a constant source of amazement to me how much horses can be like people. Rina is what you would call "tender headed" (if she were a person); she is quick to complain if I pull too hard on a tangle in her mane by swinging her head around and nudging me lightly (in much the same way a child would say, "Hey, not so rough!"). Taya on the other hand, could care less if I hit a tangle; she's perfectly content to stand there and let me tug my way carefully through it. So what's my point? The point is, that just because one horse will tolerate something it isn't a license to assume that all horses will (this was somewhere around Lesson #197 for me; it was an early one :o) Of course I also remember being taught that horses had no nerve endings in their manes and therefore could not feel anything at all when it was brushed or thinned which is not necessarily so (obviously).

Still wondering why you should care? The idea is to know your horse; this issue can save you and your horse time and trouble when it's important. It can also go a long way in preventing unnecessary frustration and possibly unfair punishment. Allow me to illustrate (using last week's Note to Self); anyone who keeps horses naturally knows they get periodic nicks, scratches and dents. Sometimes they are easily seen and sometimes they are not. Picking out Rina's feet one morning (our horses are all barefoot), I was almost finished; last foot. I had barely begun to bend down when Rina suddenly shifted, putting her right front foot out of reach. Allowing for the possibility that she was not standing balanced enough to lift it (which happens sometimes), I moved forward to her shoulder and touched it again (our cue to pick it up). Rina turned slightly away, and brought her head around effectively blocking me. Hmmmm. I dropped the hoof pick in the bucket and returned to Rina palms up to show her I didn't have it. I squatted down to check her leg - and she stood quietly while I did so - but could find nothing wrong. Scratching my head, and thinking maybe she had a bruise on her foot, I cued her to pick it up (still without the hoofpick). Again she moved her foot out of reach and swung her head down, looking slightly miffed that I wasn't acting too bright here. Finally, with soothing words and palms out she agreed to stand still long enough for me squat down and inspect her foot; nose to hoof. I finally found a teeny tiny itty bitty ding on the surface of her foot; so small I could barely see it even with my nose almost touching her foot. You've got to be kidding me; is that it?? That dinky little dent? Surely not! Carefully, watching Rina's expression, I lightly pressed the ding. She responded by snatching her foot sharply backwards and giving me a very hurt look (and wasn't I immediately swamped with guilt?) Oh, Rina I'm SO sorry! It has been a week now, and she finally will let me brush off the surface of that hoof but that's all. Had I not known, however, that Rina was on the sensitive side I might have mistaken her ouch for difficult behavior and wouldn't that have been awful? It can set your training back (and then some).

Now, let's compare this to Taya's ding (I have no idea what the two of them got into, but they had almost identical dings on opposite front feet one morning after the other). Taya's dent was much more easily seen; in part because it was on a white hoof but also because it was much bigger than Rina's. Taya made it clear that her foot was rather sore, but she was willing to compromise; as long as I held her foot carefully by the fetlock, she had no objection to me picking it out. Of course this too seems to be eerily similar to people; some are up and about their business shortly after an injury or surgical procedure and others take more time to recuperate. Isn't that interesting?
For information on why barefoot is better, read this article:

Guest Post: Trick Training in Reverse

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Little Bit of Background...
Santanna's Reflection is a double registered; Half Arabian (with Arabian Horse Association) and purebred appaloosa (with the Appaloosa Horse Club). I met him in December of 2006, and he came to live with me on Christmas Eve for a two week trial. I knew the first time I rode him out on a trail (the day after Christmas) that he wasn't going anywhere. 'Tanna's previous owner had decided she wanted to endurance race and thought he would be a good prospect. So all she did was get on him and GO. He wouldn't stand still to be mounted - he wouldn't stand still period! - he wouldn't walk. He was no fun at all to ride. So she threw him out in a 2 acre "pasture" with 7 other horses and left him for 2 years.
He was pretty much low man in the pasture so when I met him, he was 150 lbs underweight, scabby from bites and kicks and so nervous he'd weave out in the pasture. I don't know why I was attracted to him (other than the fact I think he's gorgeous). I was almost 50 when I bought 'Tanna. I've had horses all of my adult life - I trained and showed to my share of championships in the 80s and 90s. I did not want a problem horse.
But I fell in love with him and - in spite of the fact that my husband all but pleaded "Please, no appaloosas!" - I brought him home and I've never once been sorry. It only took him a couple months to settle down and learn to stand quietly being saddled, mounted or just waiting. I've even had people ask me if I'll train their horses because he's so well mannered out on the trail. He has become the trail horse/buddy I've been missing since my stallion died in 2001.
'Tanna is very laid back and easy going (although he does still weave from time to time, which may be a life-time habit. But I know why he does it and he does it less and less all the time - for everything else he gives me, I can live with that.) He is strong, steady, has a very quick intelligence and a sly sense of humor.
I am so blessed I found my Happy Appy!

So here's the story:

I have a 10 year old Arabian - appaloosa cross, Santanna, my Happy Appy. 'Tanna is not the least bit interested in doing tricks. His attitude is "give me the treat or quit messing with me". Since I have my 3 year old purebred Arab who LOVES doing tricks and I sincerely believe that some horses like and are good at some things and others excel in other areas, I haven't pushed him. Santanna is a wonderful trail horse, he LIKES being a good trail horse and that's what I wanted from him, so we are both happy.

Last Saturday night, a couple friends and I participated in a moonlight ride at a local (Dallas, Tx, area) lake. We found ourselves in the position of having to ride the last 5 miles to our camp by ourselves over a trail we'd only ridden once - going out that day - in the dark! While the moon was big, bright and beautiful, it didn't shed much light under the tree canapes. But I had a flashlight and wasn't afraid to use it. The first time I turned it on, all three horses jumped. Santanna did not know what to think about the shadow of his head and ears stretching out in front of him. But once I learned to moved the flashlight out to the left and put the light on the trail a few feet ahead of us, he realized it really helped him see where he was going.
We had a long way to go and I didn't know how good the batteries were - and to be honest it was such a beautiful night. The moon brilliantly lit the sky and silvered the lake and grass along the trail - I didn't turn the light on very much.

We hit a place that was dark for only a few feet so I didn't turn the light on. Santanna moved his head to the right, slowed down and then stopped. I urged him on, asking what was wrong. He turned enough to roll an eye at me, faced forward - and waited. I thought something was in the trail, so I turned on the light. Nothing there, but as soon as he had light, 'Tanna boldly stepped forward. When we hit the next darkish spot, he hesitated and moved his head to the right again. Again, I didn't get it, so he stopped. I turned on the light and away we went. The next time he hesitated and moved his head to the right, I turned on the light and he snorted (horse talk for "good girl"?) and moved out. From that point on, I "got" it. Whenever he needed the light, he'd move his head to the right, my cue to "turn on the light". With no more hesitation, we ghosted through the cricket's singing and the magical scenery and led our friends safely home. What a treat he shared with me! How gorgeous to ride through the moon-silvered landscape!

I thought some of y'all might get a kick out of the fact that, while Santanna may not be interested in DOING tricks, he had no problems with teaching me one!

"Want to change the world? Start by smiling at and being pleasant to people you don't have to." ~ C. Wayne Owens

Trick...Er, Treat?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Did you know that you can teach a horse to politely accept a treat? I didn't. Bella is our best treater; she will ever so delicately pluck the treat from your palm. Rina is not quite as demure as Bella, but she's becoming a close second. Lady, on the other hand, causes you to count your fingers to make sure you didn't lose any of them following a frantic snatch and grab. That is, of course, provided you're actually brave enough (or foolish enough) to offer her one in the first place.

In the same basic manner you can teach a child not to rip things out of your hand, you can teach a horse. Lady seems to understand the basic concept of a quietly murmured "eeeaaasy now" and it has made a marked difference in her demeanor when accepting treats, it's now a simply a matter of time and repetition. The horses are not allowed to nibble at my pockets (that can get out of hand far too quickly and didn't I just have to learn that one the hard way?).

Taya (our "toddler") is learning to wait politely for her treats, and not to "ask". Initially, she would ask by touching then pushing at my pocket with her nose (get the "EH" buzzer sound or a "No") and quickly turn her head away. It wasn't long before she became self-correcting (she'd forget and poke-then oops - and turn head back on her own without my saying anything). She would, however, crack me up by keeping her head turned slightly away and her eye pinned on me to make sure I was aware of how hard she was working (because you could tell the wait was just killing her - but she did it, earned some serious praise too and ended up being quite proud of herself :o)

The thing about treats is that they are a fabulous fool-proof incentive plan. Especially until the horse figures out that you are actually pretty cool to hang with; then you can cut way back. Use feet for an example; you may start out treating after picking each individual foot. After awhile, you can cut it back to treating per side, and then later after all four feet are finished. We do spend time with the girls and the moo crew without any treats involved, as it keeps them from expecting a treat every single time. But just as people are willing to work for money or study for a good grade, there needs to be something in it for the horse: Think of it as a paycheck of sorts...

Is treating really worth a little extra effort? Let's look at some pictures of the girls (notice nobody's fussing):
Here is Bella - she has some dirt near her eye and is perfectly content to stand quietly in the middle of an open area and let me get it out (my hand is simply resting on her muzzle).
Bella accepting her treat

Rina accepting her "paycheck" after voluntarily putting her nose through and scooping up her halter - she's gotten very good at it (I laughingly dubbed them halter drills; and it's now a training game). Living in a place where hurricanes happen can make this a wonderful thing to be able to do in a big hurry - besides, who wants to chase their horses all over the place?
and last is our "toddler", Taya after her halter drill (Rina is graciously *cough* volunteering to do it again for me; her chin is resting on my forearm). The day Taya "got it" (the bulb came on) with the halter drills, she wound up wearing all 3 of the halters I was carrying at the same time - and she was mighty pleased with herself, too :o) If I'd only had a camera....

"Pavlove-ing" Your Ponies ~ Huh??

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Perhaps A Little Bit of Background First...
This was one of those funny little things discovered quite by accident (don't you just love those?) One of the girls (my collective affectionate reference to our Arabians), Rina, was an absolute wild child when she came here. She came from a large Arabian horse farm in another state that was a wonderful place, but had lost their trainer (she had a baby) and was frantically trying to downsize their herd. They had not found a suitable replacement and their training schedule was way behind. Translation? Rina had barely been handled by the age of 3 months; add the fire that comes inherent in the Arab breed and you've got yourself quite a challenge. Initially, it would take 3 of us to catch her in the corner of the stall just to put our hands on her ~ she was really quick and able to execute evasive maneuvers that would be the envy of any military commando :o)
Maybe I should pause here to confess that I talk to the horses all the time; I'm sure the neighbors within range think I'm dotty (they're just too polite to say it out loud ~ but I really don't care :o) I can't seem to help myself. Once we managed to get past the hands on hurdle, I tried to spend some time with Rina every day. If she was a good girl and held still as I brushed, she got a treat (always prefaced by "What a good girl Rina!" or a similar praise). Somewhere along the line, I noticed that when I uttered the words, "good girl Rina" she'd start to wiggle in anticipatory excitement. Hmmmmmmmmmm...

Uh, Testing 1-2-3...
Remembering the basics of Pavlov's experiment (which was a really long time ago in the 8th grade ~ and we're not even gonna go there :o) I started talking even more, and began consistently linking the phrase good girl to some lovely happy-spot scratches and strokes alternating with the treats. It wasn't long before the phrase good girl began eliciting full body wiggles and a head bob for emphasis, thereby showing her comprehension that she had done something right (cooool :o)
Beating The Three Second Rule
Now maybe you think this is the stupidest thing you've ever heard, but think about it from a training perspective ~ the possibilities are HUGE. It is common knowledge that there is a basic 3 second rule when working with horses; meaning you have approximately 3 seconds to reward or discipline before the moment is lost. By teaching a verbal association to rewards and/or discipline, I can immediately acknowledge desireable (or undesirable) behavior from anywhere I am immediately. I can be right there with the horse, across the fence, halfway across the pasture, or standing in the center of the training area - it doesn't matter as long as they can hear me. I believe this is more or less the basis for the Clicker Training method; but why would I want to give myself one more thing to tote around or (more realistically) forget to bring? I'm not too likely to leave my voice someplace now, am I? :o)
Some Points to Ponder...
Now if you're not willing to be consistent and give this necessary time to develop, it may not be the thing for you. Horses have all different types of personalities, so you have to factor that in (I've noticed that the Arabians we have were much quicker to pick up on this idea than the rest, but they all do respond to it now). Another thing that I've noticed is that it's kind of a "mom thing", at least half the time it's an automatic response. I talk to the horses in the exact same manner I talked to my daughter growing up, (and have had some truly amazing results). I will post something on treats next ('cause they can be mighty tricky :o)

Footnote: To see who Pavlov was, click this link:
Footnote: To read about Clicker Training, click this link (haha - get it? :o)
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