Recently, I have been traveling and co-teaching with my friend and co-conspirator, Peggy Hogan. She had flown to the east coast from her home in California to do two clinics – one in Greensboro, North Carolina, and one in Pennsylvania where I live. (This actually became a couple of lessons in New Jersey, a couple in Maryland, and one in Pennsylvania.)
These clinics or lessons illustrated how brilliantly Peggy thin-slices the environment in order to get something – anything – from the horse. One horse was completely shut down but others were obsessed with food or had food aggression. Both ends of the spectrum can difficult to deal with. In another case, the horse wouldn’t target anything unless he bit it.
What can you do if the behavior you’re trying to teach seems so out of reach? You can’t click your way out of pawing and you can’t click your way out of biting either. What to do?
For the biting instead of touching problem, find an object that is either too big to bite, such as a ball that’s too big for mouth, or, in Wil’s case, a large scrub brush that he couldn’t hurt if he bit it but he didn’t want to bite the bristles of the brush. Brilliant!
For one horse, Mags, the whole of the environment was difficult. He was stressed out, wouldn’t take treats, even high-value ones, got stuck on targeting cones, and couldn’t relax in his stall. One of the things he does when stressed is to kick out or stomp with a hind foot. Not only can this be dangerous for those around him, we just don’t want him stressed out like that.
What we discovered was that while in his stall, he was resource guarding his whole stall and the food in his pan. He got along with with pasture mate, a mare, but not with the quiet gelding on the other side. He would walk the stall, rear up to look over the stall wall, stand in the corner next to the quiet gelding trying to see him through the bars and walk some more.
What Peggy did for Mags was just feed him in his food pan one small handful at a time. Drop in food. Wait for the head to come up. Drop in a little more food. Wait for the head to come up. Repeat.
Then there was James. James is a young, overweight Fell pony on a diet and he’s not happy! Fortunately, the owner had taught him an auto back up so that when he didn’t know what else to do, he tried backing up to see if that paid. It did.
With James in his stall and feed pan on the ground, Peggy tossed treats into the pan. The difficulty was that the sound of the treat hitting the pan was not initially meaningful to him. The hand motion was. And, if Peggy tossed the food too early and it hit him while he was eating, that was aversive to him. If she tossed it too late, he didn’t notice that it went into the pan.
This is James at the beginning of the session:
After many, many short, short session, James began to get the idea. The auto back up helped him back up from the stall gate so that he wasn’t mugging anyone for treats. The treats appeared in the food pan and he eventually connected the sound with where to find the food. At this point a clicker could be introduced to make it even more clear.
Then Peggy added a target to the game. James already knew about the target, but having the food appear in the pan was a change from how he was trained before. Delivering the food to the pan took away the issue of hand feeding and grabby horse.
Here is James at the end of the day:
As Bob Bailey, says, we are the master manipulators of the environment. How can you set up or change the environment to help the horse succeed? What will make the task easier for the horse? What can you change to make it safer for you?