The Way You’ve Always Done It

I have two horses who are on stall rest healing soft tissue injuries.

When I clean their stalls, I let them out to wander the barn – they’re both middle aged geldings, so they’re responsible, no yee-haws. They roll, wander around, clean up feed that may have spilled and when I’m done cleaning their stall I go put their arm around their neck, guide them back into their stall and give them a treat.

This approach worked well with Oly, but Hawk was getting worse and worse about going back into his stall. I put an arm around his neck and he tries to barge into me or drag me around back to try and bust into the feed bins again. I felt like I was bulldogging him into his stall, and either he was going to knock me over – as he was prone to doing in his younger days – or the battle was going to hurt his knee that was supposed to be healing. And if I went to get a halter, he’d trot off to the other end of the barn, definitely not part of his prescribed stall rest!

I made myself stop. Why was I doing it this way, when it wasn’t a good experience for either one of us??

Hawk was my very first experiment with positive reinforcement training, long before I understood the science of it. As a result, he does lots of tricks, but has no basics or impulse control. 😉

So, I decided, rather than fighting with him to catch him and put him back in his stall, I would teach him to touch a target.

When I first got out my target (which is a rainbow coloured crop) he thought I was going to chase him, but when I did convince him to touch it, and bridge and reward, then he just started offering tricks, going back to what he already knew to try and earn another treat.

It took a few tries for it to sink in that “touch the target” was his new cookie earning behaviour, but then I was able to step away and he walked with me, touched the target, and we worked our way into his stall, and the “jackpot” treat that was waiting in his pail.

The first day I wasn’t sure he wasn’t just following me, the cookie dispenser, rather than truly understanding following the target.

The second day he was better, coming over as soon as he saw me get the target out, and targeting his way into his stall.

Today was the fourth day, and not only was he waiting next to me as soon as I got the target off the shelf, but as soon as I moved towards the stall, he walked in of his own accord and stuck his nose in the pail, looking for the “special” cookie I’d put there for him. (Which had been there every time, even before the target, but clearly he didn’t make the connection before, and does now.)

Definitely much better than trying to wrestle with him, or trying to catch him with a halter, or, my other choice, which was to keep him haltered and tie him rather than let him stretch his legs and roll.

Now that he understands the concept of the target, it will be easy to transfer to using my hand as a target, and ultimately, I suspect we’ll be able to phase out all the cookies other that the one in his pail, and he’ll be happily returning to his stall.

Definitely better than the way I’ve always done it, even if it worked well with the other horses. Every horse is an individual, and if we can change our approach and make life easier for everyone, why wouldn’t we?

Is there something you’ve always done, that you might be able to find a better way to approach? I know I often get stuck in a routine, and I dislike changing it, sometimes even when I know the change will make things easier in the long run. What changes would like to make to your training or management?

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2 thoughts on “The Way You’ve Always Done It”

  1. Hi
    A video would be very useful or pictures and captions. I can’t quite picture what you are doing with a rainbow crop. Do you start by hovering over his nose then when he touches it you click then treat? Then move crop further away? Do you only use this crop for target training so as he does not get confused when using same crop for other things? I have just done my first session of feet on mat with clicker and treat training and he totally got it. You methods are fab xx

    1. Yep, exactly like you describe! I show them the target, their natural curiosity helps so that they nearly always will reach out and touch it with their nose, and the second they do, I bridge and reward. Takes no time at all for them to get the game, and they’ll touch whenever they’re asked, and once they do, anything can become a target. It’s a great tool – with my very cautious mule, the fact that he is target trained means that anything new or potentially scary I first present to him as a target and ask him to touch. Immediately, it’s less scary, because it’s a target, something he knows and understands, instead of something new. I do only use the crop for target training, but mostly because I don’t have another use for it. 😉 As I say, anything can be a target once they understand the concept, but having something dedicated at first (a crop, pylon, pool noodle, duster …) makes it easy for them to learn.

      Here’s a sneak peek into one of the videos in the target training module inside the Introduction to Positive Reinforcement course. (If you’re interested in viewing the full course, there is a coupon code active right now: use PODCAST to get 25% off!)

      Oly Target from Kendra Gale on Vimeo.

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