Working with Fearful Horses

This is my contribution to #Train4Rewards challenge.

Ollie is a fearful horse.  I’ve said for years that he’s afraid of air or that he’s neurotic, although the word “neurotic” can’t really be applied to horses and that word is also no longer being used by psychologists.  I’ll have to come up with another word that describes Ollie’s “normal” state.  He’s very sensitive.  To everything.  And spooky, sort of.  I guess I could say that he’s a “character” or “dramatic” or, well, “neurotic”.

I recently had to divide my paddock and my barn so that the two boys, Ollie and Atty, could no longer truly commune.  Atty needs to lose a ton of weight and he’s recovering from a laminitic crisis.  Not something I ever wanted to have happen, but here we are.

In the process of dividing the paddock, we used electric tape.  Things were okay when Ollie was on the bigger “half”; he didn’t come into any contact with the electric fence.

But I had to switch them because Atty was on the half with the mulberry tree and I assume that the leaves and berries won’t be good for him and his obesity and laminitis.

Ollie went to the smaller “half” and that meant that he was much closer to the electric tape than before.  In fact, it’s attached to the frame of the door he goes out.  This is a Pennsylvania bank barn and the doors are only four feet wide, if that.

Ollie made the mistake of sniffing the tape.  Not a good idea.  He got bitten and hard.  He then scrambled backwards up and over a step and bounced around in the narrow aisleway, not being able to decide which way to go.  He finally made a dash for it and left the barn at top speed and raced around his narrow bit of paddock (20×100) until he could calm down.

Then here I am, silly me, figuring that he had sorted things out and was good to go.  I should have known better.  We’re still working on trailer loading and getting on the teeter that doesn’t teeter.  As I said, Ollie is afraid of air.  Of course he’s going to be terrified of the electric fence and leaving his stall.

Not only had he not figured things out or was fine with it, he would willingly come into his stall for meals (no history of being zapped for coming in!), but he would stay in his stall overnight without going out again to get his hay which was in the hay box.

Nervous (N)Ollie starving himself is not a good idea.  I’m sure he’s working on ulcers as we speak.

More than once, I led him out with a string around his neck.  After a couple of days, I realized this had not helped him figure out how to get out of the barn on his own.

Come on, self!  Train this!  So I started shaping him to come out of his stall.

While shaping him to come out of his stall, I noticed that he thinks that the longe lines I used to divide the barn are also “hot”.  Poor Ollie!  One of the lines could come down since he won’t bother the straw on the other side of the divide, so that’s an improvement.

Then there’s Mr. A, in his stall ready, willing, and able to be annoying and threatening while I’m trying to shape Ollie out of his stall and the barn.  Yay.  Now I get to train multiples!

First, remind Atty what an automatic backup is and that he has one.  Check.
Now transfer that behavior Atty’s to my being near Ollie rather than in Atty’s face.  We worked on that as I was shaping Ollie.  Going from one to the other and trying to remember that the mechanical clicker is for Ollie and the tongue click is for Atty.  Sometimes I switched them and sometimes I did both for both!  But Atty got his treats in his feed pan and Ollie got his delivered to his mouth.

Somehow it worked and Atty decided it worked well enough that he’d not only offer the auto back when I wasn’t looking, but also decided to stay back much of the time.  When I got outside of the barn, Atty went to his window and I could treat him there.  Although I do have to duck under the hot fence tape!

Ollie and I worked on this for quite awhile and I had to refill my pouch a couple of times, but I did not want to leave him stuck in his stall over night.

I varied where I stood to see what worked best for both of them but I think it also helped to generalize the behaviors.  I still have to fade myself from the stimulus picture so that Ollie will find his own way out.  He is getting braver, though.  The process is going faster with each trial.

One of the side benefits is that Atty isn’t as grumpy as when we started with his pinning his ears, snaking his neck and head, and trying to take bites of Ollie.

Considering that Ollie is quite fearful of both the longe line used as a barrier (he thinks it’s electrified) and Atticus when he’s in his own stall, it would be best for Ollie to simplify the environment as much as I can.  Rather than deal with two fear-inducing things, reduce it to only one.

I can’t remove the longe line because I need it there to divide the barn.  I can’t (and don’t want to) convince Ollie that it’s not electrified.  That leaves getting Atty out of the picture.  This I did by asking Atty out of his stall to go eat his hay and I shut and latched his stall gate.

This change made it much easier for Ollie to be shaped out of his stall, through the doorway, and into the paddock.  We practiced that a couple of times.  There is a certain spot in the aisle that, once he’s committed to leaving, he leaves.  If he doesn’t get to that spot, all bets are off.  When Atty isn’t in his own stall, he’s not there to reach over the wall and intimidate Ollie.

The next day, I just used a yellow soccer cone to target Ollie out of his stall after breakfast.  I only had to present the target twice for him to get all the way out of the barn.  The next time was three targets.

The next day after that after breakfast, I just clucked to him to move and he left his stall without having to target anything.  Atty, of course, was not there to annoy Ollie.

Then after dinner, Ollie just left his stall on his own without my help and Atty was still in his own stall eating his dinner.  Way to go, Ollie!  I’m so proud of him!

Here is the end video where you can see that Atty is learning to stay back.



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".
Gallery | This entry was posted in Clicker Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s