About twelve days ago, Sara and I set off with three of our dogs, a jeep and a horse trailer to pick up our new horse from the BLM adoption center in Oklahoma. Whether or not I agree with the round-up of wild horses ( I don’t) is secondary to the reality that there are roughly 50,000 captive and wanting for good homes. We “won” Aesop on one of the BLM online auctions in May after a fierce bidding competition with someone from New York. We fell in love with his soft eye, balanced conformation and gorgeous strawberry roan color.
It was a good twenty hour drive both ways to pick him up, and by the time we got him home to Idle Moon Farm all of us were exhausted. He rode in the trailer like a champ, though, and we managed to drive without causing him too much stress, I hope. And he had regular stop breaks so he could rest his muscles from active balancing.
The very first day I had to approach his corral to give him hay so I began immediately with advance and retreat. For those of you who aren’t familiar with wild horse training, advance and retreat utilizes distance or retreat as reward for horses who aren’t yet tame. You can use it on birds, goats and llamas too. The general rule is you move just enough toward the horse to cause some concern, but not enough to make them walk or trot off. You then wait in that space until they turn their face toward you, ideally two ears and eyes focused on you and then you reward them immediately for showing interest by walking away. In that way you can close the distance between you and the horse and de-sensitize them to proximity to humans. Otherwise known as: they get used to you being closer to them. I practiced advance and retreat the first couple of days, and Aesop even came over and touched my arm once or twice – great!
At first, advance and retreat felt great and I did get much closer to Aesop. But after two or three successful sessions where I got within a few feet or even had him touching my arm or following me for a few steps, I started to feel uneasy. Even though he offered the behavior I wanted, he didn’t seem engaged and his posture began to look defeated. A few times he turned his butt toward me, not quickly, to kick, but to tune me out and pretend I wasn’t there. Depressing. I could swear I heard him sigh as I entered the pasture.
A core component of my ethics when working with animals is that they deserve choice in their lives. I don’t believe horses or dogs or birds are here to comply with my wishes or that humans have any sort of dominion over the beasts of the earth. I do believe if I am intelligent, sensitive and thoughtful enough I can convince most animals that playing the training games I have to offer is worth their time. But the responsibility is on me to convince them. Without coercion. Because advance and retreat utilizes discomfort as a motivator, it really is negative reinforcement. I was putting just enough pressure on Aesop to make him mildly nervous and he could get rid of the pressure by turning to look at me. Yes he could leave and walk away from the session. But I was the one who got to decide when to start and end the game. There just wasn’t much choice for Aesop.
With a tame horse who I have been training for years, who knows me and lives in relationship to me, constraining choice might not be very alarming for them. They know I am safe and provide solid information to help them through new training situations. But this horse and I were new to each other and it wasn’t how I wanted to begin our relationship. Luckily , Aesop was willing to take handfuls of grass through the fence from a human’s outstretched arm. That meant I was able to deliver food to him, which meant I could start clicker training. I started with Alexandra Kurland’s/Kay Laurence’s concept of micro-shaping and clicked any lean or movement toward me, then fed. Very quickly he was following me around the perimeter of the pen and much more comfortable with me moving my body and arms as it was required for feeding. Once I had him following me, I began to leave my open palm sideways on the fence, right in the way of his nose. At first he was nervous of my hand being out, but his curiosity got the better of him and he bumped my hand. Click! Our first hand target.
After a day or two of targeting outside the fence, I thought Aesop understood the structure of the game well enough that the behavior would hold up if I entered the pen. I unlatched the gate and he had barely any lag time before he reached out to touch my hand. Inside the pen, I clicked Aesop for moving toward me, even before he touched my hand, because it was more important for him to feel confident approaching me than to touch me right away. I was infinitely more comfortable using targeting because you can see Aesop’s enthusiasm and enjoyment of the game. The method is more sophisticated than it first appears because while my horse is enjoying eating his treats and reaching out for my hand, he is also getting used to my hands reaching out toward his face, reaching back into my treat pouch and back out to his face. These are motions that I need him to be comfortable with for haltering and grooming. Here’s a video of that whole session, beginning outside the pen and ending inside:
I love how comfortable and relaxed his posture is. I love the loose way he moves forward showing his lack of tension. I love his continuation with the game once I enter his space, which a worried horse would not be able to do. There is so much information to be had out of this simple act of targeting if you only know what to look for.