In this series I will keep you posted about the young horse I am training in order to prepare her for the next farrier visit. I will call her A. in this blog. A. is scared to let people touch her legs, especially her hind legs. She kicks out when she feels something touching her hind legs.
In my last blog I wrote how I started her training. She is now used to the clicker. She knows that a click is an announcer of good things coming her way: appetitives (in this case treats). She understands my end of session signal that tells her that there are no more treats to be earned.
Besides a clicker and treat I use a target stick that I made from a piece of pool noodle on a stick. I chose a pool noodle because they are soft, light weight and cannot hurt the horse accidentally.
I did not start with nose targeting this time. I used the target to touch A. The aim is to teach her that touching her hind legs is safe, will lead to appetitives (something the horse likes to have, such as a treat) and that she is in control (no force or coercion) about accepting her body to be touched. For obvious safety reasons I still work with protective contact. A. is allowed to kick the pool noodle in case I go too fast and nobody will get hurt.
Introducing the Pool Noodle
I already knew A.’s favourite spots to scratch her, so I kept those in mind while training.
I introduced the pool noodle by holding it in front of her and click and treat her for looking at it. I am still working with protective contact (a barrier between her and me). She wouldn’t touch the target in the beginning.
Then I held it a bit more to the left on my side of the fence, still not too close, and clicked and reinforced A. for ‘standing still’. Then I held it a bit more to the right, near her withers and so on. Clicking and reinforcing every little step in order to give her confidence that standing still is what I want from her. Nothing else.
Little by little I could hold the target closer and closer until she could touch it. I haven’t clicked and reinforced much for touching with her nose or sniffing since my goal is not to teach her to touch the pool noodle with her nose. She wasn’t afraid of the pool noodle target by the way, just curious.
After 3 sessions of each 5 minutes I could touch her with the pool noodle on the withers, her chest/throat/mane and her bum. If she moved away, even a little weight shift, I went back to the previous steps when she was still relaxed and OK with it. I would take a step back and continue a bit slower. In positive reinforcement training you mark the desired behaviour. If A. wants to move away that is OK. I just wait until she is ready to come to me and present her body close to the fence so I could touch her with the pool noodle again.
I don’t keep the pool noodle on her body until she stops moving. That would be negative reinforcement (strengthening the behaviour (standing still) with taking away the aversive (the thing she wants to escape).
I know it took 3 sessions because I keep a training logbook. I keep track of time, how many sessions we do each day, how long the sessions are, how long the breaks are (usually 2-3 minutes), where we train (A. lives in an in/out stall and sometimes we train outside, sometimes inside) and how much progression we made and also what startled her or what body parts he becomes anxious. I also wrote down the next steps of her training.
I end every session with an end of training signal. Sometimes A. keeps standing aligned to the fence in the hope of getting scratches, sometimes she walked right back to her hay to eat.
In the next blog I will tell you more about how A.’s training is progressing.
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
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