Falling in Love Again
I really do fall in love way too easily, especially with horses. Dante has stolen my heart and, thankfully, stolen the heart of his owner even more. The contrast between where he was when we started and where he is after four short sessions makes me smile. Dante sees the world through different eyes. When I first met him his eyes were wide, his head was held high and there was no question that he was very alert. Not the kind of I’m going to bolt or kick you alert, just the I notice and process every minuscule thing in my environment alert.
Everything Has Meaning
As I watched him process his world, I felt then that every object in his environment, from a bucket to a bottle of fly spray, carries something similar to an electrical charge, each producing different responses. By the widening of his eyes or the stiffening of his back, I could tell the type of charge each object represented.
And to make things a bit more complicated, the manner in which each object is presented also could change the meaning of the object. For instance, the soft dandy brush carries a neutral to positive charge until it travels up to his ears, then the charge becomes more negative, judging by his raised head and stiff back.
When I watch Dante, I can’t help but want to wrap my arms around his neck and thank him for being such a good boy. Although there are many things that he’s uncomfortable with, he remains on his best behavior. But the tension in his body tells me he’s not having any fun. This is great for Barb and me because we get to show him that life can be fun.
Introducing Something Wonderful
The first lesson in fun is to show him that the sound of the click means something wonderful (SW) is about to happen. I started with him in his stall while I stood by his feed bucket mounted on the wall. Using my hand held clicker, every time I’d click I’d drop a bit of feed in his bucket. Within a few repetitions he seemed to understand the connection.
My usual next step is to teach the horse that every time its nose touches an object, it hears a click and gets SW. With Dante, given his almost supernatural sensitivities, I wanted to start a little differently. I entered his stall with my trusty shallow rubber bucket tucked under my arm. I clicked, held out the bucket as if it were the end of a target stick and dropped food into the mobile rubber bucket.
I chose to have him interact with the bucket rather than a random object because of the electrical charge. I haven’t met a horse yet that doesn’t speak bucket. Buckets, after all, are the source of really good things. In about two minutes I was able to ask him to target the bucket as he followed me in a tiny circle in his stall. During this time I also introduced him to the concept of head down.
I think the warm fuzzy feeling that bucket held for Dante kept him very relaxed and curious to interact with me without tension. In the space of about ten minutes I accomplished three of my goals.
- Click means something wonderful (SW) is about to happen
- Following an object earns SW
- Head down is safe and earns SW
Between this lesson and second, both Barb and I realized the importance of finding a food that truly motivated him. He’s a rather portly Paso carrying about 100-200 pounds more than he should. Barb is very diligent making certain he stays on his weight loss plan.
Also because of Dante’s sensitivity it was difficult finding a food that would be SW for him. He’d turn his nose up at his regular feed as well as my old standby of alfalfa pellets. He liked the packaged Hoof Snax treats, but it was difficult for us to break them up into small pieces and make sure he didn’t get too many. I also found if the SW was too small, it wasn’t all that wonderful to him.
Barb, through her detective work, found that Dante’s interest in targeting became supercharged once she found a SW that carried a positive charge. That SW was, of all things, chopped grass with a sprinkling of Honey Bunches of Oats. It was just enough to put him in the feeling place of receiving something that felt great, without adding to his girth.
Barb experimented with different objects for Dante to target. She found that the small orange cone caused him to be suspicious, but he was comfortable targeting her hand. In the second lesson we transitioned from the hand to my lunge whip with a sponge on the end. This can be difficult for some horse to target a whip for obvious reasons.
I’ve found so many practical uses for target whips of all lengths, that I really needed him to think that my dressage whip was SW. To do this, I took an old sock, soaked it in molasses and stretched the sock over the sponge on the end of my whip. When I presented the whip, with the most excellent scent, I asked him to touch it. He touched it, and I swear he smiled and began licking and chewing. Suddenly all fear of the whip vanished and it truly became SW.
By the third lesson, Dante was targeting all sorts of objects like they were magnets. We could lead him unhaltered and unrestrained as he followed the object with his head down. I think this became a major turning point.
By lesson four he seemed so different. This was when I really fell in love. He had the energy and enthusiasm of a cuddly kitten. He was so soft and attentive and only wanted to be with Barb. His past behavior where he’d run off and join his buddies when he was off his lead had vanished. Now instead of running off, he hangs out with his SW, Barb.
During lesson four, I introduced him to the concept of targeting his feet to a concrete paver block. Again, it was so much fun to see him figure out that every time his foot touched the block SW happened. We ended the session with a jackpot of chopped timothy forage when both front feet were on the block.
I left wondering if he’d repeat the behavior since we ended without having him repeat stepping up with both feet. My question was answered the next day when Barb called me to tell me Dante’s latest accomplishment. Barb stores a horse cart that she keeps under cover in the wash rack area. Since it was bath day, they moved the cart into the yard. This naturally made Dante a little upset to see a big something in the yard that wasn’t there before.
Barb decided to take her target stick and ask Dante to target his way to the horse-eating cart. Once they arrived she asked him to touch the cart. When he did, his fears vanished and the cart carried a neutral charge.
I was more than thrilled. It confirmed one of my biggest theories that if a horse can be relaxed and interactive it dissolves tension. I’ve always heard, It’s not what a horse is doing, but how it’s doing it. I take it a step further and assert, How the horse is taught determines how it will do it.
In this case Dante has been taught a new set of behaviors with pure positive reinforcement. He has no fear of punishment or pressure or pain. Barb creates an environment where only SW happens. And, she told me he stepped up on his flat concrete block with both front feet the first time she asked!
Pretty soon Barb is not going to need me. This is why I love positive reinforcement training. In such a short time a horse, or animal, can be taught just about anything in a way that feels good to both parties. To me, this is a really big SW!