Trailering Skills, Sessions #191-3, 11-22-14, #thevolunteeringhorse

Atty on Trailer PHDuring session #190 where we were all having a party, things went really well.  At least in the human’s mind.  Ollie jumped on far sooner than I had expected and he left out all of his little circles at the back of the trailer.  That’s the good news.  It’s also the bad news.

Why is it bad news?  Ollie significantly raised the criteria on himself and when an animal does that, for whatever reason, it often backfires on them and us because it was just too much.  I think Ollie scared himself.

I’ve seen it happen before.  I had a friend’s horse here with me for a couple of months to try to get some training in him before she sold him.  Harpo is one of those horses who looks and acts brave but, in fact, is not.  He would march right up to something, down a trail, to my trailer, or to a plastic chair in the arena, and then bolt outta there.

With him I learned that the arched neck reminiscent of a stallion’s and snorty, blowy way of breathing are actually signs of a horse already over threshold and about to come unglued.

Some horses show their anxiety in ways that we humans readily recognize as signs of fear or anxiety.  Those horses are easy to figure out and we remove them from the scary thing right away.

But the horses that appear brave but actually aren’t require us to pay attention to the signals they’re giving and then calibrate those signs with what they actually do.  I learned with Harpo that I needed to turn him away from the scary thing ASAP as soon as he arched his neck or started to breathe loudly.

Ollie is a very anxious horse.  If he’s uncomfortable in any way, he leaves.  He just walks away.  It often takes FOREVER to get the behavior I want.  I’ve had him for nearly 10 years and I’ve been using clicker training with him for probably the last five years or so, but kind of on and off.  I’ve worked on getting him to be comfortable in the wash stall.  That has literally taken years.  But now he offers to go into the wash stall and stand.  I’m still working with his feet and letting him offer a foot rather than my taking his foot, or even cuing him to give me a foot.  For his emotional/mental comfort, I need to let him set the pace, whatever detailed, snail’s pace that it is.

To have him jump on the trailer when he did, and when I thought it was too soon for him, means there’s going to be a set back.  And there was.  Another sign of his taking on too much was the way he came off – bunny hopping backwards.

The last three sessions have gone very, very well with Atticus.  But Ollie is not only going back to circling, but his circles are more like long oblongs as he walks away from the trailer a good ten feet or more before deciding to come back.  Or I’ll wait 30 seconds and then go see if he’s willing to come back.  Or sometimes he goes way far away (70 feet or more) and I know that he’s really stressed.

Using high-value reinforcers here, and especially really high-value ones, may mean that I’m asking him to override his caution to get at the goodies.  Sometimes I go back to my usual Alam cubes when I go back to shaping, which I’m having to do with Ollie.  And he may leave because the scales of physical or emotional effort are not in balance with the reinforcers.  I have to make it worth his time and effort, yet not overface him with what I’m asking and what reinforcers I’m using.

Today I used Stud Muffins, carrots and Alam cubes.  Unfortunately, the carrots were frozen and I wasn’t able to bite them off in small pieces.  The Stud Muffins were too hard to break.  And the Alam cubes weren’t “strong” enough for the task.  He was more prone to walking away than before or not offering quite as much.

Knowing how long it took for the wash stall and his feet, I need to lay off the really good stuff and just keep shaping him at his pace until he’s fully comfortable with what he’s doing.  If that means that the party in or at the trailer is more subdued and stays at the same location for a long time, that’s fine.

The session numbers apply to Atty and I’ve been working with him for nearly two years.  Ollie really has only just begun this process of trailer loading at liberty and he needs just as much time and patience from me as Atty has gotten.

But the proof of the pudding is when they are totally comfortable with being ON the trailer when it’s MOVING.  That is the ultimate goal.

Keep calm and click on.  🙂

About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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