When I first started doing groundwork with Speedy, I noticed that he made a lot of mistakes with the direction the human was sending him. When it was me sending him, I assumed the mistakes were because of a lack of clarity in my newbish directions. When it was MIL and Sheryl, I figured it was Speedy’s inexperience. And one day after it persisted for months, I thought “it’s like he’s just guessing.” I never took data (curse past Nicole), but I’m sure if I had I would have seen that Speedy’s hit rate on which direction to travel when sent was no better than guessing.
That was probably the first inkling I had that Speedy wasn’t learning well from traditional pressure/release training. Looking back on it, I maybe should have seen pieces of it in his work with Sheryl, where he offered the same response (go forward — not forward? go up — not up? go forward — not forward????) over and over and over and over again, and didn’t seem to iterate based on previous releases. Even Murray, Hater of All Things and King of Evasions, responded quickly and precisely to the clarity of pressure/release training by Cowboy Dave. Or in our lesson with the local H/J trainer where Speedy pretty much never offered to soften into the connection or move sideways off my leg.
Once Speedy moved here, I immediately started clicker training with him and immediately thought “why isn’t this working better?” I started with basic manners training, but quickly moved to husbandry behaviors that needed brushing up. For example, Speedy had never really picked up his hind feet with ease when asked. I know several horses who have never been clicker trained and dutifully pick up each foot in order as you travel around their body. But I’d practically have to drag the hony’s back feet out from under him every time I wanted to clean them. And I knew he could pick up his feet. I’d seen him walk. And I knew he’d had his feet cleaned before and shoes put on. I’d seen it! I’d paid for it!
But lo and goddamn behold no matter how much clicking and treating I did for picking up his feet, he didn’t get better about picking them up when asked. He actually got worse about it the second day I tackled it. And he never offered the behavior just to get a cookie. That’s what (food motivated) conditioned animals do. They offer the rewarded behavior to get the cookie. The horse was food motivated, no doubt about it. He just…. hadn’t actually registered the conditioning?
Then there was a moment when I realized Speedy didn’t really yield to pressure at all. At some point in this, Speedy put his head way up in the air — I was probably messing with his face — and I thought “great, what an opportunity to ask him to bring his head down for me”. After a while I was basically putting my entire weight onto the lead rope and he was just standing there with over a hundred pounds hanging off his poll in his rope halter looking at me with a slightly confused expression. I don’t actually remember how that one ended.
I also got a pretty healthy dose of hmmm dumped into my brain over our first three lessons with TrJ. During our flat lesson, we started to tackle leg yields. I could get a few solid steps off my right leg, but off the left leg Speedy was jackknifing through his withers. When I would half halt on the right to realign him, we lost the sideways movement, and when my left leg came back on he’d scoot forward instead of sideways. No amount of gentle tapping with the dressage whip got him to step over with his left hind. When I tackled this later on the ground it was the same story — there was a fair bit of whip boinging around on Speedy’s hock before he thought to step over and I had a chance to click and treat.
The next day we warmed up for a cavaletti lesson with more leg yields and they were actually worse than the day before. To utterly anthropomorphize it, it was like Speedy had spent the night thinking about how he could help me compensate for this bizarre leg thing I was doing and the best way to do that would be to double down on doing nothing when I put just one leg on him as a cue. And if the cue got really big, he could always just go forward. Faster.
The metaphorical shit really hit the proverbial wall the next week, during Speedy’s fourth trainer ride/lesson in one week. After a good ride with TrJ on Monday and lessons on Tuesday and Wednesday with me where he was pretty much on board with the connection agreement, things unraveled quickly on Thursday. There were a couple of distractions (haul in horses) in the arena, and Speedy Just Could Not. He Could Not put his head down, he Could Not hold my hand in the connection, he Could Not canter around the short end of the arena, and he Most Certainly Could Not canter around the short end of the arena and hold the connection and put his head down. TrJ suggested that I exit and come back later, and I gladly left the arena, where I promptly discovered that Speedy also Absolutely Could Not stay out of my personal space. When I made a point of it he backed into the muck tub, scared himself, and ran over the top of me. The horse was clearly not okay. But I couldn’t really understand why.
I was frustrated. Not because I couldn’t jump or because Speedy couldn’t turn the corner. There were lots of good reasons he might not have been able to turn left that day: being sore from a week of heavy work, the slightly bad setup for the turn with the jumps placed as they were, having a minor identity crisis as Derek Zoolander instead of Speedy Gonzales. I was frustrated because I kept having to say no, no, no to this horse and I had so few opportunities to say yes. And when he did get yesses, Speedy didn’t seem to care about getting them again.
I didn’t get it. Speedy likes people. He wants to be with people. He likes food. He wants to eat all the food. But he couldn’t seem to put it all together into doing things that got him more food or made things easier under saddle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he wasn’t hearing what we were saying. More that it was like every time he heard it was the first time he heard it, so he never had the chance to learn from it.
Because obviously the horse can learn things, right? He goes, he stops (mostly), he jumps, he goes faster (mostly), he wears tack, he leads politely, he he knows that “good boy” probably means a down transition is coming. He knows that if nobody is looking and Bridget’s stall is empty he can slither out under the stall guard and go snack on some alfalfa. He’s clearly capable of learning. I just hadn’t figured out how to tap into that.
Maybe there’s such a gulf between how Germans teach horses things and how I teach horses things that it really was Greek to him (doubt it). Or maybe, for whatever reason, Speedy never learned how to problem solve. A lot of his life was a greatest hits show of the things he did best — run fast (XC), jump big (Bundeschampionate), put it in his mouth (his reward cookies obvs) — and skipping over the things that he didn’t do so great (dressage).
Not a lot of time on the “hard things” means not a lot of time trying to figure out how to make those things easier on yourself. Not a lot of time building the learning and reward system in your brain that says “well, when I put my nose down everything got easier last time, so maybe I’ll try that again”. And if you’re perseverative — and cleverative — enough, just enough time being ridden by children helps you realize “when the small one rides, I can almost certainly outlast any attempts at doing the hard things”. This could definitely explain big pieces of it.
Speedy was offering me what he knew how to do. It’s just that all he thought he knew was to go fast, jump big, and put his nose in the air (also put it in his mouth, but that was less of an under-saddle thing). And when those things didn’t work, he just tried, tried again — at those same three things.
My current and best theory is that the remedial learning is a combination a few related things: one, Speedy’s deep reliance on the 3 behaviors he is very comfortable with offering (pretty simple: go fast, jump big, put it in your mouth/put your nose in the air); two (related to one), some rather intense creative constipation preventing him from trialing any new behaviors; three, not understanding that his behavior controls the treat/reward delivery system.
So to get better learning? Break up the creative constipation and help Speedy learn that his behavior can control his treat-laden environment. Next, we break out the x-lax.