I’ve mentioned this several times already, but in case you somehow missed the memo, I can now tack up my horse!!!! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you read that correctly. I can now do with my 9 (nine!!! how did that happen?) year old a task that many three-year-olds — and even two-year-olds on the track — perform daily with almost no fuss.
I. Am. So. Proud.
murray models a medieval pony torture device
We’re just about a year out from our last Major Malfunction, but that wasn’t the last time we struggled with tacking up. That day was a major outlier, but Murray’s never been an easy tack up. And there have been days when I lost hold of the girth or the billets or the horse or some piece of tack or whatnot in the wiggling. He’s just never been good at it. Never.
So, how did we accomplish this thing? Hippy granola shit with a big side of voodoo magic, that’s how.
When I last blogged about re-training tacking up, I was still working with Murray in his paddock at liberty. I was using the jollyball to indicate a target where he should stand still (with his nose placed on the ball), and was putting a variety of things on him (girth over the back, saddle pad, surcingle, etc.) and clicking and treating when he returned to the jollyball. The idea behind this was that he was allowed to be scared, but being with me was to be more reinforcing than being scared.
side benefit of training your horse to stand: he can now be trusted in the hay/grain barn while you scoop things!
Stupidly, I didn’t write about the process at all between then and now. Before working with the saddle at all, I started practicing standing still at the tie rings in the barn aisle. As with most new behaviors I clicked and treated a lot in the beginning for anything resembling standing still. Now I intermittently reinforce Murray for not wiggling around.
I do remember that I decided not to risk one of my saddles by tacking up for the first time in his paddock. What I really did not want was for Murray to freak out and the saddle to get thrown into the gravel and then trampled while I watched in horror.
One day I decided to just bite the bullet and go for it. At some point during our clicker session I brought Murray out into the barn aisle and just started tacking him up like it was no big deal. I made sure to work slowly and smoothly with lots of clicking and treating as he stood still through each step of the process (saddle pad on, half pad on, saddle on, etc.). When we got to the girth I buckled the right side (click-treat) then moved over to the left and grabbed the girth and just held it against his belly and instantly clicked and treated. I literally did not give him a chance to think about it before I was stuffing grain in his mouth. I did this again and held the girth for a moment longer before I rewarded him once more. Finally, I held the girth against Murray’s belly and went for the buckle… only to discover that I had buckled the damn thing too high on the right and I couldn’t reach any buckles on the left.
i see no reason that my pony shouldn’t perform (most) of the behaviors of a dog in obedience classes
(also, is his little jumping-horse-shaped star not the greatest?!)
At this point Murray got a little agitated, so I quickly clicked and treated with a big handful of grain because he hadn’t gone anywhere (yet), and moved around to the other side. I lowered the girth (click-treat), moved back to the left side (click-treat), and held the girth up against his tummy again (click-treat). I then managed to get the girth buckled on a pretty low hole on both billets, gave Murray a huge pile of treats, and promptly walked him away from the tie ring.
And the whole time he did nothing more serious than shift his feet around a bit.
It was pretty astonishing, frankly.
Since then, we’ve moved pretty quickly from tacking up while totally untied (I would loop the leadrope over his neck), to tacking up while tied on the blocker ring, to tacking up and tightening the girth (modestly) while tied. And through all of it he has been totally reasonable. He’s seriously a totally different horse about tacking up now. I’ve way decreased my click-treat frequency so that I can get both sides buckled before breaking to reward him. We still walk away after girthing as has always helped him kinda stretch out his pecs and get used to the idea of a saddle, but I have been gradually increasing the duration that he stands quiet and still before we do this.
With a couple of weeks of thoughtful, dedicated training, I eliminated a behavioral problem I’ve had for four years. I mean, I like clicker training. But I did not expect this to go that fast.
I absolutely do not expect other behaviors to solidify this quickly. In fact, there are other things I’m working on that are stubbornly not solidifying like this. But I’m pretty happy with where we have managed to get with our clicker training! The behavior even stuck over our 2+ week break, which is also quite impressive for the Murr Man.
I’ll have to sit down and think out some distinct clicker goals for us this year, and make some proper training plans. Beyond this behavior, I haven’t really thought out the clicker training in a cohesive manner, and having a plan will definitely benefit us in the long run.