Cowboy, the latest of my clicker-training clients, is working with me on yielding space to approaching humans. Cowboy is curious and friendly. He is more apt to smother bipeds with attention than he is to avoid getting caught. He’s cute to the horse-initiated, but at 16.2 hands and over 1200 pounds, his exuberance is intimidating to the non-horsey, not to mention potentially dangerous.
His owner would like to have her husband, decidedly non-horsey, be able to feed Cowboy without incident. It would be nice if hubby could bring food to the stall, ask Cowboy to back up, and place the food without wondering if a horse will be in his way when he turns to leave.
Time for Cowboy to learn targeting!
On my first visit with Cowboy I take a detailed history. The question I’m left with (hypothetically) is, “When does Cowboy get to be right?” I hear stories of a horse who is so tightly herd-bound to a travel mate, at a show or trail ride, for example, that he had started to kick others who might be in between him and his chosen horse partner for the day. That got him sent to a trainer, where he stayed in a stall for the first time in his life.
Apparently he barged out of the stall and nearly ran over the trainer, who “didn’t take kindly to the situation,” whatever that means. Then if shut in his stall he made such a fuss that he was given kick chains to wear. To mitigate his kicking out at other horses, he was tied in the arena for hours while others rode by. I’m not sure how this worked (was the idea to have horses coming past him so often that he finally gave up reacting?) and the owner didn’t have a first hand account; she was simply telling me what she had heard from the trainer.
Cowboy was sent to the traditional trainer and, from what I hear, received a traditional training dose of corrections. Punished for running out of the stall (more on this in a second.) Punished for being upset in his stall. Required to stand tied for hours, unable to leave a potentially unpleasant situation. When did Cowboy get to be right?
Only when he gave in to the pressures around him.
Let me pause for a minute to address the issue of safety. SAFETY ALWAYS COMES FIRST! So in regards to whatever the trainer did when Cowboy ran out of his stall, I can appreciate that she probably made herself big and scary and intimidating, whatever she felt was necessary to keep herself safe from impact. Sometimes the moment requires this. Better, of course, would be to set the horse up for success in the first place.
Better, in other words, would be to switch our focus from all the things Cowboy is doing wrong, to what does Couwboy do well? Let’s build on those things and help him fit into the odd requirements of domestication. Requirements like yielding space to humans.
I love clicker-training for horses like Cowboy because it allows them to be right, right from the start. Cowboy is naturally curious and exuberant? Perfect. Clicker training is all about checking out what’s new in the environment. Bring a target (new) into the environment and Cowboy is absolutely going to check it out. That gets him a click and a treat.
Hmmm, thinks Cowboy. I like treats. Within minutes he’s figured out that touching the target earns him a treat, and he’s eager to follow that target wherever we place it around the stall.
In future posts I’ll detail the steps we took to bring Cowboy from in-your-face to here’s-your-space.