Wanted to share some things that crossed my mind tonight as I was working with Moonshadow. Most of you know she’s a little horse that I consider to be neophobic; she is afraid of almost everything that’s new to her.
I do really love her and I’ve had her since she was 5 months old but she definitely has been one of the more challenging horses I’ve met. Challenging because her extreme timidity and hyper-vigilance makes her more reactive to many situations.
Tonight we had a fair amount of wind which means things were flapping around in the breeze and she was on the alert. I look at these kinds of situations as training opportunities and tonight was just perfect for working with distractions and new things.
I decided to use the hay carrier because it was flapping about and she was looking at it with wide eyes. I took one end of the hay carrier and put the handle in the gate, and I held the other and stretched it out so she could interact with my little makeshift tent.
I started clicking her for targeting the carrier and she put her little nose on, under, around and basically all over the hay carrier. She has also learned to target her forehead to things, and she offered this as well. So far, so good.
I knew that while she was willing to put her nose on something, I also wanted her to learn that moving her feet in a forward motion towards an item was also a way to earn reinforcement.
I think this is a very, very important process for both the horse and the trainer to grasp. The horse needs to learn to shift its focus away from its nose and onto its feet and legs. The trainer needs to learn how to click in such a manner that the horse realizes the shift in focus to a different body part.
I think this is the place where clicker trainers get stuck. They assume that because the horse moves forward to touch something with its nose that the horse understands that movement is the game, and it isn’t necessarily so. Poking a nose towards something is a very different experience than taking a step towards it, the emphasis on the body part changes.
So I made this shift with Moonshadow and begin clicking for foot movement. It was more tentative than when she offered nose targeting, but that’s okay with me. I knew I was beginning to shape and train the experience of approaching something that was scary for this little horse, and broadening her understanding of her feet in the equation. I am certain this kind of training will bring her more confidence.