Dialogue with Dante: Practical Play

After our fifth lesson with Dante, Barb sent me a quick email update:

Hi Cheryl,
Just wanted to give you a quick update about Dante.  He is such a sweetie.  I’ve been working with a target stick over head and head down when Larry started the big scary diesel tractor with the bush hog going right in front of him.  He was scared but he touched the target anyway!  Yea!!!!

But today was so neat.  I followed your suggestion and put a sock soaked in molasses on his ball.  He followed it and sometimes pushed it a little and picked it up and shook it and tried to suck the molasses out of the toe.  Too Too cute.   When I was ready to quit he went over and touched the ball again.  I guess he was having too much fun.  When he went out to the pasture he hung around with me for a long time and even followed me and definitely didn’t want me to leave.  He has come so far.  He really is breathtakingly beautiful.

Tomorrow I’ll try the tire thing again or at least sometime this week.

During the first four lessons Dante learned to target his nose to both stationary and moving objects. He then learned to target his feet to a flat 16×16 in. concrete garden paver. In Lesson 5 I decided to put those skills together to begin preparing Dante for a rider. I do this by teaching them to stand still at a mounting block and accept an SW (a something wonderful food reward) from both sides, which also serves as a lovely neck stretch.

Barb and Larry already have a tire pedestal which is about 48″ in diameter and buried so it’s about 12″ out of the ground. This makes a great mounting block. We placed the concrete paver next to the tire which was the mark for Dante to target his hooves.

We used the target stick to lead Dante to the tire and began to ask him to target his hooves to the concrete block. Being the smarty pants he is, it took him a second to reorient himself to stepping on the paver next to the tire. Before, the paver was in the middle of a paddock.

Within a few moments he understood what we wanted and stepped up on the concrete paver. We then dropped the target stick slightly in front of the paver to serve as a stationary target. I felt we had communicated very clearly, without pressure, that we wanted Dante to stand in place. And he did. It was so much fun to see a horse stand still because standing still brings SW (something wonderful).

Contrast this with pressure-based training. If the horse moves when a rider tries to mount, the horse is then made to move either backwards or out on a longe line until it decides standing still is better than moving. This is an example of make the right thing (standing still) easy and the wrong thing (moving) difficult, a hallmark of pressure-based training.

I think that type of reasoning is unfair to the horse. In my mind, it also makes moving a type of punishment. Why not make the right thing so clear that it never occurs to the horse to do the wrong thing?

With Dante we were able to show him clearly what we wanted with the simple use of targets. Not once did he show any desire to move. Why? It felt good to stand still. Soon, we won’t need the targets and Dante will have a solid and relaxed understanding of what behavior Barb wants at the mounting block.

Even when I stepped up on the tire and leaned over his back for the first time, he stayed rock still. When I clicked he calmly turned his head away from the tire towards my outstretched hand over his back and accepted his SW. This also prepares him to accept food rewards under saddle.

My my goal for all horses I encounter is to show them that the time they spend with humans is much more fun, enjoyable, interesting, safe and relaxed than their time at liberty.

I treasure Barb’s email. It rings so clearly of a human falling in love with a horse and a horse falling in love with its human. Even if a horse is not capable of falling in love, Dante certainly is seeing Barb as something wonderful, so wonderful he doesn’t want to leave her to join his buddies. Before he would gallop off and not look back.

At the end of lesson five Barb decided she’d like Dante to learn to retrieve. This behavior involves following a moving target such as a ball and then picking it up in its teeth. Barb covered a 4 in. squishy ball with a molasses-soaked sock. The scent of the ball encouraged following as well as fetching. I was happy to read about Dante’s enthusiasm.

The great thing about teaching a horse to retrieve is two-fold.

One, it encourages them to play. I’ve found that when a horse is allowed to manipulate an object either with its mouth or hooves, it’s almost as if I can see the horse begin to become very curious and even more interactive, because it includes an element of play.

And two, it provides an amazing benefit under saddle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dropped something on a ride like a sweater. I didn’t have to dismount to get it. Sometimes before feeding time as a little game, I’ll hop on Romeo or Juliet and they happily pick up their buckets and hand them back to me.

Actually, with this handy retrieving skill, Juliet now has found a way to outsmart Romeo, who in the past would wolf his food and then proceed to commandeer the other herd member’s feed buckets. Now Juliet, in the event Romeo chases her away from her bucket, simply waits a second, walks closer, reaches over, grabs the bucket in her teeth and pulls it away from Romeo. This completely baffles Romeo. At least for a few moments she’s able to keep eating until he realizes his bucket is missing.

I view this as yet another example of how a horse’s world expands when it’s allowed to play and interact in ways not common to traditional horsemanship. For the life of me, I can’t understand why folks would say that horses do not reason. Dante appears to be clearly reasoning that Barb is Something Wonderful and is gaining confidence daily. The addition of the opportunity to manipulate and interact with objects in a pressure-free environment is, in my mind, a huge factor.

To steal a line from Barb’s note, this relationship is also breathtaking beautiful.



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