Diamond and I finally had a breakthrough. I’ve been working with her for about six months, although not very much in the last several weeks as I was running for office and didn’t have a lot of time. Now that the election is over (we won!), I can get back to training.
One of the issues I had with Diamond was that, while I knew she trains fast and doesn’t tolerate changes of criterion very well, we were still stuck on a few things. One is that she had a head swing that was beginning to annoy me and it popped out any time I stopped the food for a second or two.
The head swing came about through my trying to shape her to stay off me. She crowded me a lot when I was on her left side. I clicked and treated wayyyyy over to the right, but she doesn’t move her feet. At. All. What I ended up with was a super big head swing instead of getting her off me.
The other was that some behaviors just weren’t happening. If she trains fast and picks things up fast, especially those things I’d rather she didn’t, then why was I having so much trouble with, say, backing away from the gate?
Then Peggy Hogan said something to me about just free feeding really fast. I had done it with Diamond before but had left it behind in the past. I thought we were over that. Well, I guess not. So I took a day or two to just feed. I tried feeding one large pellet at a time, but gave up and fed small handfuls at a time. Keep in mind that in the past, I’ve managed to start a choke on at least two horses! I didn’t want her to choke, but she just inhaled the food!
Then she had to take a chew break. It’s just too funny to watch her move her head to the side to chew, with huge chipmunk cheeks filled to bursting, as if to say, “I jusht can’t right now. Nom, nom. I need to schew. Nom, nom, nom. Oh, I want more, but I jusht can’t. Nom, nom, nom.”
Once I had gone through about three “Peggy” pouches of food, she changed in some way. Did she get more relaxed? Did she finally figure out where the food came from and why? In the video you can see that she tried mugging my right hand a couple of times but quickly realized that the food appeared right in front of her under her chin in my left hand.
After this, she started to offer a back up at the gate without the head swing! Sometimes that head swing will still resurface, but mostly it’s gone.
I don’t know if this is actually a form of food anxiety or not. If it is, I sure didn’t recognize it. She was never pushy or grabby about the food. She wasn’t totally standoffish, either. (I worked with a mare, also named Diamond, who initially wouldn’t take food or even eat around humans.) She just trains fast but at the same time didn’t seem to know what governed receiving the food and why she got and where it came from.
Another tip Peggy gave me was her thought that horses will continually try to position themselves where they think they should be relative to you to get the food. It takes some training for them to realize that they don’t need to back up when grooming for example.