My background in clicker training and positive reinforcement training of all kinds of animals (dogs, cats, macaques, giraffes, eland, elephants, horses, chimpanzees, zebras, tigers, gorillas… that’s basically the list) may make my dismissive attitude towards Natural Horsemanship (the type with the capital N and H) a little surprising. Honestly, I don’t know a ton about Natural Horsemanship, and I would probably learn a lot from the philosophy if I gave it the old College Try. But I’ve seen a few choices videos that don’t quite make sense, and my general inclination to avoid any one “doctrine” in training my horse (or doing anything) makes me shy away from the plan.
a curiously difficult species to clicker train
What I do like is the antecedent-behavior-consequence sequence that I can usually find in many other animal behavior modification programs. Since I’ve recently been taking a more serious approach to ground work, this now plays an even larger portion in my interactions with Murray. (Which is stupid, really, since behavior modification happens constantly, including under saddle. But it’s much easier to see, and evaluate, from the ground than the saddle.)
As with all things in horses/my life, I jumped in way too deep to start with and became frustrated that Murray couldn’t shoulder-in with me on the ground and wanted to run away from me or run in circle. So (for once!) I stepped back, looked in to some really basic exercises, and committed to doing those until I could call them done. Mostly I used Emma’s fabulous write-ups to give me a baseline for what I wanted to do. There were a few behaviors I already knew that we needed to work on — standing while I touch all over his body and walk behind him, letting me approach the girth without running off, go forward, go back. And then there was the whole “I want you to be able to step backwards over a pole” thing. I somewhat-irrationally decided I needed my horse to be able to do this. But it turns out it was a good thing anyway.
belly rubs and the subsequent rhino lip are an important part of groundwork games
Fortunately, Murray has gotten past the extinction burst of awful begging behaviors (including trying to and successfully biting me) that showed up when we first started playing this game, which makes it much more fun for me. He’s also gotten “worse” at some of the behaviors we’ve been working on, specifically backing up. Which is interesting. But the important thing here is how you define “worse”. Murray doesn’t respond as quickly to the back up cue, go as far, or move as fast as he used to when we first started playing this game. But, he is much more relaxed when we do it, and processes a response to the cue to back up instead of just flying backwards whenever I stop. So maybe this one is actually a win?
Troubleshooting Murray’s reluctance to back up over a pole was also fun, and I’m pretty pleased with how it’s panned out so far. Once Murray knew that I had some intention of asking him to back over a pole, i.e. after the first time I asked him to perform this behavior, he had absolutely no interest in doing anything remotely akin to backing up over a pole. He would walk really quickly over the pole, then immediately re-position his body so that there was no possible way I could reasonably get him to go backwards over that pole.
First, we worked on stopping and standing quietly with front and back legs on either side of the pole, and then positioned just in front of and behind the pole. We progressed to stepping front feet only over a pole, and then finally getting hind feet, and then all four feet backwards over a pole. Murray scared himself at one point, when he stepped on the pole, rolled it on to his own feet, then kicked it backwards with his front feet on to his hinds. While funny at the time, it did make Murray’s confidence take a dive.
Hopefully, after a few more weeks, we’ll be able to back up over a couple of sequential poles. Though that will require a little more careful footwork than Murray has so far demonstrated. We’ll see.
The better part of all of this, is that Murray is taking me more seriously on the ground in general. Obviously nobody would ever have been able to predict that developing better communication for essential and important groundwork behaviors would lead to better communication overall — NO, NOBODY EVER.
I don’t think Murray’s and my relationship has suffered tooooooo negatively from missing out on this relationship building through groundwork. I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to take such a logical and reasonable approach to it when we first got together, though. I was too impatient, even all wrapped up in my ideas of going slowly. But now we both have a little more perspective, and Murray’s really learned now to learn, and we’re making progress.
This paid dividends when I took a little outing this week for another fitness hack (over an hour of walking, and two short gallops, 900m and 1300m respectively). Murray didn’t want to get in the trailer again, which is par for the course post Twin. I had put a flat leather halter on over the rope halter to tie him with inside the trailer, but the lead rope was still hooked up to the lead rope. When Murray stopped at the open door of the trailer and said, thanks but no thanks and tried to run off backwards, I had a much better idea of how to handle it. First, I didn’t let him get away with running off backwards (I actually grabbed on to the trailer with my hand not holding the lead rope so I’d have an anchor), which at least made him stop and reconsider the situation. Then I pulled him over to the side and we had a little discussion of “yes, this means forward, and it means forward now!”. On the second go it took him a moment to accept, but jumped right in after a little think. On the way home, he jumped in first go.
I’ve stopped being amazed at the aspects of horsemanship that I still have to learn about. The answer is simply: everything.