My latest training fascination is working with all four horses simultaneously at liberty. No halters, no enclosures, nothing forcing them to hang with me, except, well, their tire pedestals.
We started with one very large tire we found for free. It was about 48 in. across and 18 in. high, with nice, sturdy sides. The owner of the used tire place was more than happy to give it to us as it saved him from hauling it to the dump and paying a fee.
Sam, my innovative and talented husband, quickly designed a support system for under the center of this giant tire so it would be stable in the middle.
Once the tire was complete with supports, plywood and rubber matting, it was ready for its maiden voyage. We did sink it into the ground a bit, as 18 inches proved a bit too high for my pint sized Pasos, Romeo and Juliet, to negotiate.
Romeo, being the dominant fellow he is, had to give it a whirl first. He happily hopped up with his two front feet. He already was very versed in staying in one place on his flat, concrete flagstone.
In fact this was an incredibly handy skill when we were shooting the children’s book. I had to find a way for Romeo and Juliet to stay in position and stop improvising (and destroying) the set while we’d get the shot. It turned out that these concrete squares were the equivalent of an actor’s mark, and a life saver.
Once the horses knew that was their job to stand in one place, it was a done deal. I think they were really excited to stand still, doing relatively nothing and get rewarded for nothing (perhaps in their minds). In my mind it was a huge deal to get a horse to stand in one place while they held a stuffed animal in their mouth in the middle of a set with furniture and all sorts of things that needed to stay in one place.
Now, with a really big mark, a giant front-loader tire, Romeo was very intrigued. With his two front feet on the tire, I asked him for his head down. He seemed to enjoy the stretch it gave his back. I then asked him to step up with all fours. It was really wonderful to see him thinking and eager to step up to the challenge.
Naturally, Juliet was waiting impatiently for her turn. She quickly showed me she could do exactly what Romeo did, only faster. I then asked her for a pivot on the tire. This was especially interesting to observe how she could shift her weight and collect to keep her balance for the purpose of staying on the four-foot diameter tire.
I now use the tires to help build back muscles, coordination and balance. I’m starting to see it as either a type of weightlifting exercise or isometrics for horses. I’m also wondering if it strengthens their core muscles as physio balls do for humans. (Video coming soon of the horses, but not on physio balls.)
Even during Raleigh’s first driving lesson, the instructor remarked how well he stepped under himself. I just have to wonder if it’s from all the tire work. I also work Romeo and Juliet under saddle on the tires.
The fascinating part, after adding two more tires, and working on the fourth, is watching how they individually use the tires. Almost everyday I see Juliet, asleep, with her two front feet on the tire. Romeo, if ridden by someone who he feels is not paying attention, will calmly carry the rider to the tire and hop up. I never have to worry about him running away with someone! He just makes a bee line to his tire. It seems that it’s a happy place for them.
My latest tire practice is called “Group Groom.” This is where each horse is on a tire or a flat, concrete square, unhaltered. Each horse stays on their tire while I take turns grooming them. Again they are at liberty, completely free to leave and go graze. The fun part is they seem to really enjoy participating.
They learn to stay and wait their turn. During this time I brush their coats, comb their manes and tails, pick their hooves and put on their fly masks.
My three tire veterans, Romeo, Juliet and DaVinci, have learned the power stay. I can tell them to stay, disappear from sight to get more pellets or a forgotten brush and come back and they’re still standing where I left them. It amazes me every time.
Meanwhile, Raleigh, my Clyde, the baby of the bunch, is learning to stay. The only problem is when I’m out of his sight, I hear boom, boom, boom, which means he has left his mark and is trotting over to find me. I’ve been working on increasing his stay by walking farther and farther away and reinforcing more strongly for increased time.
On one particular day I had to go into the barn for more pellets. When I came out Raleigh was of course waiting for me at the gate. It was difficult, but I ignored him and immediately jogged over to reinforce the other three still on their tires. Raleigh was directly behind me, following me, waiting for direction.
Usually, I’ll point to his mark and he goes back to his position. This time I wanted to see if he truly knew what I wanted without me telling him. After he saw that all the horses had been rewarded and he wasn’t, he walked away from me and found his mark and stepped up.
He received a huge jackpot for that one. It also showed me that he was thinking. He chose a behavior, without me telling him, that he knew would get reinforced. It was so cool to see this happen, to see him walk away from me (the “object” he loves to follow most) and step up to his mark, the concrete square. I swear the look on his face was, Look at me! I did it! He looked really, really proud of himself. I know I was proud of him.
The other thing this demonstrates is that Raleigh was interactive with his environment and with me, rather than simply being reactive, as in a pressure/release environment. This to me is a major benefit to positive reinforcement training. It’s completely interactive, giving the horse the power of choice and the ability to use its mind to solve problems. I believe horses truly have beautiful, capable minds.
Also, a side note, I’ve found that the horses will stand and stay longer on the big tires versus the concrete squares. I think the height of the tires makes them feel that they are really standing on something different. The concrete square is about an inch above the ground, perhaps not different enough from the ground or a challenge in their minds.
And a second side note. I never, ever use pressure or negative reinforcement for tire work. Everything is at liberty. At first I’ll use a target stick to attract them to where I want them to go. After that, they follow my hand signals. I would never want to pull them or force them on a tire. I feel they need to be relaxed or there may be a potential for injury if they trip or fall because of tension.
I think this type of work falls into the category of environmental enrichment. If the horses were in the wild, they’d have all sorts of challenges to negotiate, such as rocky creek beds in search of water. While I can’t give them a rocky creek bed (yet), I can give them giant tires and lots of exercises that challenge their minds and bodies.