In this series I will keep you posted on 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 was scared to let people touch her legs, especially her hind legs. She kicked out whenever she felt something touching them.
I promised to keep you updated on our clicker training sessions. We had another session since my last post. Progress might seem slow, but I know from over a decade of clicker training horses that slow is the way to go.
Due to circumstances I had to improvise last time and it went well. This time I started training in her stall, without protective contact (a barrier). I started the lesson with a repetition of where we stopped successfully last time we trained. With her left front leg. I stroked her shoulder and clicked her for standing with 4 hooves on the ground.
The next step was stroking with my hand along her leg and clicking for lifting her leg. A did so well! She remembered exactly what she had to do. She would hold her leg up (by herself, without leaning on me) for a second. I made sure I clicked very soon, so it wouldn’t turn into a jambette this time.
Her other front leg went well too. I decided to try her hind legs. She is used to me stroking her hind legs while working with protected contact. But today, without the fence between us she was startled and she kicked straight out. Not to hurt me, if she wanted she could have! She is so fast. This was clearly too much for her. I was ‘lumping’ instead of splitting.
Back to splitting the behaviour again. I used my pool noodle on a stick again and clicked and reinforced heavily for ‘standing still’. I stroked her bum, hind legs and then her fetlock. Each time she stood still I clicked and reinforced. I made sure I kept her below threshold, so that I didn’t trigger the urge to move away or kick out. I studied her face for signs of tension: wrinkles around her eyes and nostrils, eyes opening further or her head going up a few millimetres. None of that.
One step further
The next step was to repeat the same sequence of touching, but using my hand instead of the pool noodle. Hand on bum: OK. Click and reinforce. Hand on hind leg: OK. Click and reinforce. Then a click and reinforce for something very easy and relaxing for her: touching her withers. Then back to her hind leg and stroking a bit lower, her gaskin and I could even touch A’s hock while she stayed relaxed!
This was a wonderful moment! These are the moments you feel successful and you want to do ‘one more thing’. That is usually my cue (the thought of that I can take it one step further) to stop. She was so relaxed and confident, it was really tempting to do a bit more that day, but I didn’t!
The reason is that when I started touching her hind legs this session she was afraid. A few minutes and a few clicks and reinforcers later she was OK. I didn’t want to ruin that for her!
It was already a successful training: lifting both of her front legs without a jambette and touching her left hind leg with my hand while she was confident and relaxed enough to stand still. Especially the staying relaxed part is really-really important!
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The term ‘husbandry skills’ refers to all the behaviours you want to teach an animal in order to take care of them safely. Daily husbandry skills are haltering, leading, grooming, cleaning hooves, cleaning nostrils, eyes and ears and so on. Medical procedures like drawing blood (important in zoo animals) or administering medication (injections, oral medication, ointments) are also a part of husbandry skills.
In this blog series I will share with you how I train a young horse to lift her legs for hoof care with positive reinforcement (clicker training).
At the SPCA barn I train a young horse to lift her legs for hoof care and trims. The farrier did a good job last time, but his time was limited to do the trim due to the horse. She was very scared and stressed. She is not yet properly trained to lift legs and let us clean her hoofs, let alone lift her legs long enough for a trim.
My goal is to have her much better prepared for a trim next time. I would like her to lift her legs on cue and hold her legs up herself (no leaning into the farrier). I want her to be confident and stress free during a trim.
Starting the relationship
This horse, let’s call her A. is young and she is really scared to be touched, especially on her legs. I introduced myself to her with offering scratches over the fence. She is really itchy at the moment due to shedding, so scratches are a good reinforcer to her right now. The best way to start a relationship is to start giving.
In a few sessions A. figured out how to ‘call me over’ so I would scratch her: if she aligns herself with the fence I come over and scratch her. I started with her chest area, now A. also let me scratch her withers, under her mane, her chest and her bum.
She knows that she can walk away and I don’t (can’t) follow her. She is in control: she can tell me where I need to scratch her and for how long. She even is in control of how much pressure she likes in a certain spot by pushing more or less into my hand.
End of Session signal
I taught her the end of session signal: I show her my two empty hands and say ‘All done‘. It is interesting to see that she now immediately goes back to her hay if I give her my end of session signal. She knows the reinforcers (attention, scratches) will stop now.
I find it very important to have a way to communicate to the horse when and when not to expect reinforcers from me. It helps prevent mugging and turning your horse into a pushy horse.
Next step: introducing the clicker
Now I have a bit of a positive relationship and established some rules (start session, end session, she learned that she can influence her training) and I can take her training to the next level: introducing the bridge or marker signal, the click.
I will keep you updated about A.’s training in the next blog.