The snow is reaching outrageous levels here (at least for southern Ontario). It’s been drifting in across the open field in front of my place. The plow truck is no longer able to deal with it (although it must be said that there could be some operator incompetency involved – I think maybe snowplow drivers in the GTA lack practice with, you know… ‘snow’?). There are huge snow piles between and covering my driveway (or what’s left of my driveway) and the house and barn. We have to climb banks to get to the cars. My truck is completely stranded on the house side of the snow mountain. So we’ve got a front end loader coming in sometime in the next couple of days to try to clear it away. At this point, the hay is running low, and we’d have to lug the bales up over snowbanks and wade to the path to the barn with them, one at a time. So I really hope the loader comes before the hay.
McCool, despite the intimidating piles of snow, has made a couple of breaks for it lately when we haven’t been careful. He’s a very adventurous guy. Shooting across the ice in front of the barn, up over the drift, across the next ice patch, and over the snow mountain to the plowed section of driveway. Wahoo! Then he skids a few times on the ice before returning to the sound of food rattling in a bucket.
Since he seems so determined to explore the world, I took him for a walk today. Just in hand. No riding. Even walking it’s pretty scary footing. The plow cleared the main drive back down to glare ice.
McCool is one of those horses who barges through life cheerfully, mowing down anything in his path. That would include humans if they were foolish enough to get in his way. So that’s what we are working on currently. Good leading manners. Teaching him that humans need a space bubble around them. He’s quite willing, just uneducated and not particularly sensitive. I’ve already done some work with him, but that was a couple of months ago. So we had a refresher today. His job is to maintain his position, no matter what I do. I want the middle of his neck exactly parallel with my shoulder while I’m walking, and an arm’s length of space between us.
To do this, I start by walking forward and then stop. First just one step and stop before his attention drifts off. If he stops with me, I click and reward. This pretty much gets him locked right on to me like a laser. I keep repeating a few steps and stop. He has to be paying attention and stop with me. I don’t reward him if he gets ahead of me. I just ask him to move back into position beside me before carrying on with a couple of steps and stop again. If he won’t move back into the correct position, I do not move, and I don’t struggle with him. I send him forward around me in a circle until he comes back to where he should be. Then carry on.
Once he stops reliably, I make it a bit harder. I stop and step back. If he’s learned the lesson that I think he’s learned, he’ll step back with me, keeping the middle of his neck exactly parallel to my shoulder, and not swinging his hindquarters outward.
With a horse like McCool, who is very confident, I have to be very careful to feed for position. That means that I must stretch my arm out, and put my closed hand where I want his head to be (not pushing into my space, facing straight forward, with the middle of his neck beside me) before I open my hand. This teaches the horse that mugging the human is pointless. The food is going to be “over there”, away from the human. If they are going to mug you, or come into your space, it will happen when you back up. Because instead of stepping straight back, parallel to the human, they will tend to want to swing their hindquarters out and just turn inwards to follow with their head.
The next step is speed changes. So I walk slow, then fast. If he speeds up to maintain his position, I click/treat. (If he gets ahead of me, I stop, plant my feet, and reposition him.) Then try slow… fast… stop. Then try jogging. That always seems to surprise them the first couple of times. I usually introduce the cue “ready?” at this point. So I’ll say “ready?” just before I start. (This turns into a verbal cue – “ready? trot!” that I use when trotting my horse for the vets in competition. ) Initially when we jog, it’s only a couple of steps and stop. I’m not looking for speed. Just want two or three steps of trot with the horse maintaining that position exactly parallel to me. It’s really important that I know exactly where I want the horse to be in relation to my shoulder and only reward exactly that position. I use a visual reference point. Like being able to just barely see the point of shoulder out the corner of my eye. That’s what makes them understand the exercise. If I am vague about where I want them, they don’t really ‘get’ what I’m asking for. And even with a treat, they will begin to either get frustrated or just lose interest in what the stupid human is unable to explain to them. Precision and timing are really important, just as they are in all horse training.
Usually when I practice this stuff, I do some circles and turns. But with the ice, we could only find a few spots where we could even jog a couple of steps. McCool seems to be careful and good with his feet. So his slips were just small and controlled. But it was probably stretching it even to do what we did. It’s just been driving me crazy not to do anything though.
McCool is highly food motivated, and being an Arab, also highly interested in interacting with humans. So he’s all over this clicker training thing. He reminds me a lot of King when I’m working with him. Very intense, and so quick to learn new things that he sometimes jumps way ahead of my lesson plan. Today, he was really good. By the end of the session, he was in flowing in perfect lock-step with me. He hasn’t forgotten anything that we’ve worked on, and was just thrilled to be out hiking around. He is not the least bit interested in what those boring horses at home are doing. He is not, in any way, a nervous, herd-bound horse.
I’m not fooling myself into thinking that McCool is always going to be totally easy. He has quite a few opinions of his own. But I’m really getting to like him a lot. He is confident, smart, and forward. And since he’s had his teeth done, and the chiro and massage work, he’s been exhilarated with life. It’s fun to see just how darned happy he is these days.
[P.S. For anyone who is not familiar with clicker training… no, I don’t feed treats constantly and forever. I use clicker training to teach new behaviours, and to reinforce periodically thereafter. And I teach good treat-taking manners first, before focusing on other things. Usually with target training (teaching them to touch a target from the other side of a fence, wall, or gate). ]