the downside to clicker training

alternate title: when you fuck up the clicker training

Don’t clicker train your horse, they said. You will make him mouthy, they said. You will make him beg, they said. You will teach him bad behaviors, they said. You can’t change his nature, they said.

Psh, I said.


look how good at standing still this clicker trained horse is

Then it rained.

Then I clipped.

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

have been getting real familiar with this view

So let’s back up just a skosh.

I knew I had to clip last weekend. Murray is getting back into real work, and he’s not really in shape, so he sweats. But he won’t be rid of all that hair until May-ish (when he is usually done shedding out), and I don’t have the time to deal with a fully-haired horse in full work in hot-AF-California weather. It’s just… not going to work for us.  So I sharpened my blades, girded my loins, and prepared to clip.

As in past years, Murray was not totally down with the clipping thing, but he was relatively good. Because I kept a relatively steady stream of small handfuls of his favourite grain headed straight from my fanny-pack-full-of-treats to his mouth.  For some reason, he never really settled down.  Maybe it’s because I was too absorbed listening to Oathbringer on audiobook to pay full attention to him and click for good behavior instead of not-bad behavior (probably should have learned by now not to multitask my training). Maybe it’s because there was a huge storm system coming in and the barometer was plummeting.  Maybe he felt like being a punk.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I get it. It’s hard having such an incompetent clown for an owner. But we got it done.

It was the day after we clipped that the shit hit the fan.

First, Murray had his first tacking up incident since we started clicker training. I couldn’t really blame him… everything was wet and slick, and I wasn’t being considerate of the fact that he was newly nudified.  On top of it, however, he was a cookie-demanding monster.  Kiddo could not stand still to save his life, he just hit me with an onslaught of various behaviors in an attempt to acquire rewards.

This continued when we headed out to the arena, where Murray started digging at the footing almost immediately. I kept him walking so he wouldn’t roll (in the hopes that his desire to roll would dissipate), but there was absolutely no regard for either my personal space or (what I thought were) the firmly established rules of walking and clicker training. Murray was barging past me, cutting in toward me, pushing me over with his shoulders, and then snaking his head around to grab his reward for this excellent behavior from me.

Um, no. It does not work that way.


opinions, opinions, opinions

I stopped giving him treats at this point, instead focusing on the “do not fucking climb on me you horrendous beast” aspect of groundwork.  In response, Murray upped his desperate attempts to acquire any kind of grain reward from him.  When we walked over a ground pole he stopped after putting two feet over, then immediately walked backward over it without prompting. He never wants to walk backward over poles without prompting.  I tested this out again and approached another single ground pole, and he walked forward and backward over it and then looked expectantly at me.  When no treat revealed itself, he threw his head to the ground and started pawing.

It was around this point that I realized we’d not be riding that day, and I needed to take a different approach. I took off his saddle (for which he was really unreasonable and awful), and Murray immediately threw himself on the ground to roll.  He got up, took two drunken steps, then threw himself down again for another go.

After this, we worked on basic ground manner and basics. You don’t walk on top of me, you don’t shove into me with your shoulders, and you definitely don’t run past me and then walk around me in a circle. In fact, all of our sessions since then have been heavily focused on calming the fuck down and listening, instead of wildly offering any and all behaviors in a desperate attempt to see them rewarded.

murray’s spook level post clipping

And this, my friends, is what you get when you fork up your clicker training. I’m fairly certain that my unconscious clicking while clipping led to Murray being rewarded for a lot of crappy behaviors, and his expectation of a lot of rewards in a short amount of time. So I will need to take a new, more self-conscious approach when tackling training during challenging tasks in the future.

This has also highlighted some holes in my clicker training program. Patience and behavior duration, to name a few.  That’s what we’ll be focusing on for the next few weeks as we get back into serious training.  Hopefully I will suffer a minimal number of days when Murray desperately needs to throw himself on the ground instead of being ridden.

Advertisements

just keep clicking

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.

 

and then

The last two weeks have been just this side of mayhem. Thanksgiving is just about my favourite thing about America, and definitely my favourite holiday. I adore an excuse to show people how much I love them by cooking for them, and there’s nothing stuffy or pretentious about Thanksgiving food. No need to stand on formality.  It’s about comfort and deliciousness!

So of course I aim for the most deliciousness possible.  It’s a little all-consuming, but I love it.

Elinore is Queen of the Arena, always

Just before Thanksgiving though, Murray did go ahead and cast himself, which resulted in one slightly puffy pastern and one rather horrifying elephantiasis leg that JUST HAPPENED TO  BE THE SAME AS THE LEG HOLE LEG.  Which meant that I fretted about it the whole week I was away, and came home to two perfectly normal legs. Phew.

Murray has also graduated to a new and important phase of his recover.

FREEDOM!!!!

Your eyes do not deceive you! The fluffy beast has finally been granted his freedom at nights once more. I put elastikon on both ends of the bandage to forestall any possible movement of the wrap (though it’s hardly needed anyway any more), and took Murray out with a bucket of grain and his hay as the sun set.  My clever trick worked, and Murray trotted off for one second once he realized he was free, then immediately returned for his dinner.

I did nearly chicken out on the turnout. I mean, elephantiasis leg last week, potential extensor tendon involvement the last three months… And what if Mr. Horse decided to throw himself around and break open all his newely-healed skin, or rip his whole leg right off?!!


Food trumps friends, apparently.

But it had to be done, for both Murray’s mind and his feet.  I mean, if my horse can’t be sound in pasture with a tiny scrape on his leg, there’s not all together much hope for us… Plus, he’s insured! But more seriously, I am very committed to this barefoot experiment (more progress pics to come soon! I’ve been delighted with the progress once I checked in with pics!), even if it means my horse will not be properly back in work for quite a few more weeks.  He will go back with friends very shortly, though our pasture groups are undergoing a little shake-up right now, so perhaps there will be new friends for Mr. Horse.

More exciting for me, and less exciting for Mu-Ray, we have also ridden twice!! this week.

The first ride was something of a whim. We got some new sand footing, and I knew I needed to get Murray out and moving around for foot progress. I steeled myself and tacked him up in the barn aisle, and… he was perfectly behaved. I mean, he wasn’t perfectly behaved like a normal horse is perfectly behaved.  I still had to untie him for safety, and he walked off quite lame and tripped just after the girth went on.  But he didn’t run off, he didn’t lay down, and he didn’t move his feet more than a tiny step the whole time.  Forking. Legend.

Murray and I wandered around the outdoor for a bit, then went to try out the new sand in the indoor arena.  And he was sound! (Still barefoot, remember!)  He did not love carrying my weight across the large gravel of the parking lot, so after a teeny bit of trotting we walked back in together.

My second ride was bareback and in the dark.  Bareback rides are so lovely warm when it’s cold outside!!  We did a little ground work in the arena on the new sand first, including walking slowly over some poles.  Murray doesn’t love slowly.  He wants quickly.  Quickly means more treats more often.  So we also worked on matching my speed — having him walk right by my shoulder even if I was walking quite slowly, or quite fast.  Then I slid on with bucket in hand (that was a challenge), and commenced the clicking and treating.  Which was even more challenging and twice as ridiculous — with me leaning over to stuff grain in his face every time we stopped.

moar foodz plz

One side effect of our bareback game was that Murray started responding very promptly to my shifting weight or a little squeeze with my inner thighs by stopping and looking at me for a treat. This is a very good thing for me, you see, as it means that whenever I lean to a fence my horse will stop. Which will surely be a very effective method of training me not to throw myself at the fences!!

neato barefoot progress

Murray has been barefoot for three weeks now, which I had fervently hoped would be long enough to see some changes in his footsies, but logically expected that no real progress would be evident. But lo!  Progress there is.

When his shoes first came off, Murray was footy (tender, sensitive) on the gravel of our barn’s driveway, which is unsurprising. (I’m footy on that fucking gravel.) He’s now able to walk from his stall to the arena without any noticeable limping or guarding. Murray was also lame at the trot in the round pen during his second turnout, even though the ground was softened by recent rain. But just this week in our indoor he pranced around pretty happily and without a hitch at liberty (though a little gimpy on the lunge line).

So without further ado, here are some feet. Maybe I’ll start scaling these to the same hoof size in the future so it’s easier to see the differences.

 

Murray’s left-front is his most typical TB-ish foot. It wants to be flat and heel-less. It also has a slightly uneven hair line — something I’ve been trained to look at from the Rockley blog! But just three weeks in (see below, going left to right) the frog is a little wider and the bars are moving out to the side. It looks like there might even be more expanding to come. Maybe the heel is moving back a skosh also? Hard to tell since the views aren’t identical.


um apparently my phone also started taking pictures in different aspect ratios in the last three weeks…

The right front is the freaky foot. I’m not sure it’s clubby upright-ness is really clear here. My farrier actually doesn’t worry about this foot because, in her words, she’s figured it out. It’s the LF that causes us problems.


changes in the RF are way more dramatic!

There is some good shit happening to this foot which is SO EXCITING. This is the foot I really wanted to see progress with in this whole barefoot experiment. What I see is the old frog sloughing, and LOTS of expansion of the bars to make room for the new frog. My recent, detailed explorations of the Rockley blog shows that many feet seem to take on this pattern — the spaces around the frog widen quite a bit to make space for the new frog as it comes in.  This could also be the angle of the pics, but it looks like the heel might be moving forward too?! That could be nice.

Oh and that crackola in the middle of the frog is really deep. Actually all of the creases of the foot were threatening thrush. The central crack/crease is longer and deeper than it was before, but I think that’s actually because it’s growing out/forward, not because it’s growing up into the foot. We’ll see though.

right hind

Nothing too exciting about the right hind — although it’s the least lame foot on flexions, per the vet back in August.

It looks like there might be some widening of the frog on the right hind, and definite widening and growth of the bars.

Left hind is also somewhat unremarkable. I like the shape of these feet, though now that I’m looking at them in detail I can see that the heels are a little underrun and could do with more strength. The frog is expanding a bit, and the bars are getting more definition too. So that’s cool!


blurry pic feat. purple clicker!

Murray doesn’t yet have a heel-first landing, but that’s okay. It’s less toe first, an d I’m sure with time we’ll get there. Luckily for us, I think this kid is going to be getting turnout starting next week (dear lord jeepers please let the pastures dry out enough for turnout), and all that movement should (if my understanding is correct) help him develop some palmar hoof strength.

And if you find this all as weirdly compelling and obsessable as I do, you can find lots more at Nic Barker’s super Rockley Farm Blog.

intended & unintended consequences of the clicker game

I started clicker training Murray with some specific goals in mind, one of them being his general attention to and engagement with me.  I also wanted to provide him with mental stimulation while he was stuck in his stall, hopefully change his ability to think and learn, and make his life a little more interesting.  The clicker training has definitely done that, but there have been some unintended consequences too.  Both good and bad.

now-Murray: hello Nicole! being with you is interesting and rewarding!

Intended: Murray is more attentive to me
To be honest, the number of shits Murray has ever given about me has been limited. He’s much more motivated by food and other horses. I’m a distant second to his first favourite person, a fact that is only tolerable because I know that the rest of humanity doesn’t even make the list. The only time Murray consistently shows any interest in me outside of when he is forced to (e.g. I’m holding him, he’s tied up with me) is when I’m the sole deliverer of food and/or comfort.

Now Murray is very interested in me.  He’s more interested even than he was when I was the one just bringing his buckets to his stall daily. In some ways, this makes no sense: he’s getting the same amount of food, so why care more when he has to work for it? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense: clicker training him literally rewards him for paying attention to me.

He neighs and whinnies at me as soon as my car pulls in the driveway, and any time I appear in his field of view, I typically get an earful.  When I come to his stall door he doesn’t immediately stomp out into his paddock (although he still does when I bring the wrapping supplies in), he walks up to me and asks to have his halter put on. It’s quite nice actually.

before-times Murray: why are you here, human?

Unintended: Murray is too attentive to me
Unfortunately, Murray now also bucks in his paddock when we are about to start training, or if I walk away from him with the grain bucket, regardless of whether it’s full or empty. Because he is obsessed with this training game, both the opportunity to play the game and the thought that the game has been taken away are cause for major celebration/major concern.

Intended: Alleviated boredom
Obviously, training my horse is alleviating the boredom he feels standing around in his stall.  Normally he would be able to spend 10-12 hours a day (night, actually) outside with his friends, doing social horsey things. Murray loves social horsey things. I can’t replicated 10 hours of social, horsey things in 1-2 hours with the clicker, but at least I can make his brain work a bit more.  He loves clicker training! And that means I did my job right (kinda).

Unintended: Created stupid, borderline dangerous anticipatory behaviors
You know how when someone posts on OTTB connect about their horse bucking and the keyboard warriors immediately jump in with “he’s clearly unhappy about something! something must be terribly wrong!”  Yeah, well my horse bucks when he’s happy. Or annoyed. Or joyful. Or excited. Or frustrated. Or has any feelings, really. These are showing up more now because the overall quality of his life has decreased (no turnout) so the few awesome things that do happen have more value.  Hopefully this will go away, but I bet it will come back any time he’s on stall rest (sigh).

it will not shock you to learn that this behavior is not appreciated in his stall or paddock

Intended: Increased learning ability
Murray actually thinks about what he’s doing now, and doesn’t go straight to lizard-brain instincts. For example: I train my horse with a big pink bucket full of grain. When we first started, he would take any opportunity to dart into the bucket and just stuff his face.  Now, I can leave the bucket unattended for a minute or so without Murray changing what he’s doing. He might look at it, but when I say “no” he goes back to what he was doing before (usually touching his target).

This was literally not a thing my horse could think of in the past. To not take the food and shove it in his chipmunk cheeks was unthinkable. But now he knows that if he just waits, and has a tiny bit of patience, the food will come to him.  This is really cool.

Unintended: Rearing
Maybe this has more to do with hand walking a stall-rested horse than it does with clicker training, but the timing is uncanny. This horse had reared maybe three times in the four years I’ve known him. In the last three weeks he’s reared a handful of times. Never anything aggressive or dangerous (beyond the inherent danger of rearing), but if he’s surprised by a stiff wind peeking between his butt cheeks or some other horse shifting in the gravel, he’s much freer about standing on his hind legs.

Unintended (unexpected?): I feel more comfortable around him
I didn’t necessarily feel uncomortable with Murray before. Especially not in his stall or tied up or in the trailer. But when we would play around at liberty or I had to do something that I knew he doesn’t love (bandage changes! standing wraps!), I was always on edge.  At liberty, he could easily, accidentally squash me without even thinking about it and it would completely be my fault. Since he’s actually paying more attention to me and where my body is and what I’m doing in order to do the right thing to get treats, Murray is way more considerate of my personal space now.  I ran around with him trotting behind me the other day, and I didn’t at all worry that he might run me down or run off with me by accident.  It was pretty cool.


practicing his sliding stops for when we change careers

Unintended: Food aggression
Er, yeah. So my horse suddenly became super food aggressive to his neighbor, who obviously watches us clicker train with great interest because there’s nothing else to do all day. Not exactly sure how I’m going to undo that one.

 

just like that

I’m hesitant to make any statements about the inevitable end of the leg hole saga, but I was quite surprised by the sudden and marked improvement in the wound this week. From the surgery date until the first of November (about seven weeks) the hole had been steadily but very slowly closing in with lovely pink scar tissue.  And I do mean slowly.  We were making 1-2 mm of progress every four days.

It even got to the point where I started lining up all of the pictures I’d been taking, scaling them to the same(ish) size based on multiple landmarks, and measuring the size of the wound with circles and lines on PowerPoint.


left to right, late September to mid November (mostly every 4 days, but with a good 2 week gap between the 4th and 5th images)

The wound was persistently puffy and open for about two weeks at the end of October (between the 4th and 5th images above), and seemed only to get angrier and threaten more proud flesh.  I hung around while my friend’s horse had a sizeable degloving wound checked out by the surgeon who treated it, and fortunately learned a good deal about granulation tissue, what it’s made of, and what it can look like. The answer: it can be made of almost nothing glued together by even less, and as a result can have a whole range of different appearances.  (Life pro tip: do not google image search “granulation tissue”).

Murray also became less well behaved during bandage changes. Despite the hand walking and the training and the increased attention, one change at the end of October was awful. And then, as I was cleaning up the wound and getting prepared to re-wrap, another piece of skin fell off. In a different location. Below the original wound.

W

T

F

I don’t have any pictures of this because I was so busy screaming NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO that I was incapable of taking a picture.

Lucky for me, RBF was on hand and pointed out that the skin that had fallen off was very superficial and I could just use some more telfa over it and it would probably heal real quick. Even better, she was right.

wound shrinkage, as indicated by my cleverly-inserted red circle

And then — miracle of miracles — a scab appeared. Right over one of the deepest and almost-proud-flesh-iest bits of the wound, a nice healthy scab just showed up one day. And the rest of it was nice and dry and that yellow-y flesh that I’ve seen on other healing wounds. I’ve never been so happy to see a scab in my whole damn life. Scabs mean healing! Scabs mean that the granulation tissue was flat enough for … well I’m not sure what for! But a scab is a great forking sign!!

There is a tiny bit of puffiness left, which I discovered when I left the wrap off for a few hours to let the leg air out a bit.  When I came back to it, the last little bit of open granulation tissue (by the blue arrow above) had puffed up, as it has been wont to do.

Our vet happened to be at the barn during this, and took a quick look. She proclaimed us almost done, and cleared Murray for limited turnout in the round pen. Murray celebrated in the way to which we have become accustomed.

8 weeks of stall rest + 1 #notoriousottb = 🏇💨🚀

A post shared by Nicole Sharpe (@nicolegizelle) on

re-training tacking up

Though it’s less fun than training my pony to perform like we are in Cavalia, I’ve focused on several functional and important behaviors in Murray’s clicker education.  There are a couple of really important, glaring behaviors that anyone familiar with this horse will know we need to address.

Image result for circus horse
but… tell me why this is a bad idea?

The list goes a little like this:

1. Tacking up
2. Tacking up
3. Eat cookies Tacking up
4. Tacking up
5. Tacking up

More specifically, homeboy really needs to be able to tolerate the sensation of a girth being buckled up without melting down to the point of breaking halters or himself.  We’ve made HUGE progress on this with consistency, bribery, strategy, well-fitting saddles, fuzzy girths, and me paying a ton of attention to Murray and the environment during our whole grooming-tacking routine so I know kind of mood he’s in.

this is the approximate size of one “reward” for one click for Murray

There’s a lot of stimulus that goes on during tacking up, especially for a sissy sensitive boy like the Mu-ray.  There’s flapping fabrics and leathers, clinking buckles, great leather torture devices being slapped over his body… really, the fact that he tolerates it at all is a minor miracle.  And that is, at best, what he does —  he tolerates it.  But the whole point of this clicker training adventure is to change his feelings (and maybe thinkings) about it.  I get that for some clear-only-to-him reason he hates the initial feeling of having the girth put on.  But right now he sticks around and wiggles minimally* because he knows that it’s harder work/less pleasant not to do so.  I want him to stand still because he wants to do the right thing to get delicious, delicious candy.

(*Minimally for him, depending on the day.)

I’ve already started working on this.  The first step was teaching my horse what “the right thing” even was.  I’ve known for a while that he doesn’t actually have a solid idea of what I want him to be doing when tacking up.  He seems to understand that running away is not the thing, but there are a lot of things that aren’t technically “running away” but still aren’t the right thing (a problem with punishment-based training methods).

behold: the thing i want him to do! ideally with that bored expression on his face also

Fortunately, station/target training is a great placeholder for “stand still” right now. (“Stand still” is a very hard behavior to teach also, because it’s the absence of everything else.  And many learners think of doing to earn rewards, not not-doing, so then you have to teach them that not-doing is also a thing. But I digress.) I’m happy to tack him up with the station in front of him for the rest of time if that’s what needs to happen.  I don’t think it will be, but we’ll see. A lot of what goes on during the station training sessions is clicking and treating Murray for standing at the station for increasing amounts of time, and while I’m doing other things around him.  This includes touching him all over his body, picking out his feet, basic grooming stuff, etc. but also me walking away from him or standing in different locations.  Once Murray understands that standing at the ball is what I want, and is habitually rewarded, then I will have a huge tool in my kit for all kinds of future development (think: what if the station is by the trailer when we’re away from home, and suddenly it’s not such a great thing to break away from the trailer any more?!).

To get to work on the rest of it, I started with an interesting idea from Jen Digate of Spellbound horses: using flight to reinforce staying still.  It’s an interesting idea, and one that would definitely not work when you are working with a horse in hand (too dangerous), but in a paddock situation, it was something I could work with.

paddock large enough for some controlled flight — and look! the inherited blue jolly ball abandoned in the corner!!

I specifically started flapping a girth around while asking Murray to station at his jolly ball, and rewarding him for coming back to me and the jolly ball even if he did run away.  We pretty quickly got to a point where Murray didn’t run away from the girth any more, but he did flinch and step away slightly whenever I raised it, as if unsure about what my plan was for the girth.  I couldn’t click his behavior of standing still quickly enough, because he wasn’t really offering it.

One of the tracks that a lot of R+ based trainers get stuck in that shaping a behavior (clicking spontaneous offerings of something like the behavior you want and then only clicking for successive, more accurate iterations) is the best way to train a behavior. And maybe it is. But my experience with animal learners is that sometimes you get to a place where you have to push the established paradigm a little bit to get to the next step of learning — by luring a behavior, or in my case, forcing the issue with the girth.  So I offered Murray some grain in my left hand, and gently placed the girth over his back with the other.

Interestingly, this did the trick. Murray didn’t love it at first, but he habituated to the feeling of the girth really quickly.  After I pulled it of his back, Murray no longer flinched or stepped away from me when I raised the girth.  It was as if he better understood my intentions and was more comfortable with what I was asking.  I got to move back to clicking and treating for him stationing at his jolly ball (with a very high rate of reward for this challenging behavior) while I took the girth on and off of his back and moved it around up there.

Since that session, I’ve put a saddle pad and surcingle on him with similar success.  There was for sure a little flight when I did that first surcingle buckle up, but after two iterations he was more than happy to stand still.  I’m not quite brave enough to try this with one of my hard-won saddles yet, but we’ll get there.

celebratory gallops to follow

Obviously, this will need to be adapted for tacking up in the cross ties or barn aisle.  It’s not going to work for Murray to run away even a little bit in those areas, especially not if other horses are about.  I also know that he’s less comfortable on the asphalt surface of our barn aisle (crummy traction maybe?), so I imagine we’ll need to repeat this process ad nauseum in there as well.  But there are a ton of great building blocks in what we’ve worked on so far!  (And we haven’t even gotten to the twitching/braiding/face holding stuff yet!)