I had suspected from the beginning that Djinn had been frequently hand -fed without any rules. My hauler, Rick, warned me she uses her mouth a lot. She hadn’t bit him, but she was grabby. In the beginning, she reminded me of a petting zoo goat. Constantly craning her neck through the bars of her pen with a active mouth and even grabbing unsuspecting people’s pants who were within reach. I was annoyed that she had been allowed to learn these habits and a little perplexed too. Who had hand-fed her? I called my adoption contact at the BLM this week to let her know Djinn was doing well and to hunt down some more information. It turns out when the public comes to tour the BLM facility in California they keep carrots on hand for people to feed the horses. From their point of view it helps make the horses more tame and it’s fun for the humans too. Djinn, however, learned to grab at people to make them dispense food quickly. Multiply that by the two years Djinn spent there and that’s a whole lot of practice! Luckily, I know how to teach her new rules around food, but a different owner likely wouldn’t.
For this reason, all of our lessons are centered around what to do with your muzzle when a human is interacting with you. I need multiple ways to request Djinn keeps her lips and teeth to herself, by asking her to perform learned behaviors she enjoys and understands. It’s easy right now while I’m on the outside of the pen. If she goes to grab me I can just back away. But I need to be thinking about when I am inside the pen beside her. If I am going to be safe then I need to be sure Djinn understands exactly what I want from her. The easiest way to give Djinn something to do was to teach her a nose target to an object I can hang in her pen. She will receive reinforcers for stationing quietly with her nose touching her target. In this case I chose a jolly ball since it is large and mostly indestructible. When I am grooming her, instead of her being bored and thinking about nibbling me, she can concentrate on keeping her head straight and touching her ball. But before she can station quietly she needs to understand how to touch a target with her nose. Here’s a video of one of her first sessions:
You can see in the beginning what a good job she’s done learning the default leave-it. Everytime she reaches me she offers her head down, barely noticing the giant blue ball in my hand. I am sliding it along the fence so she has to walk forward to follow me. The forward motion makes her much more likely to to bump the ball with her nose, even by mistake. It takes a few tries but she starts to get it in about a minute or so. It’s a wonderful first attempt. It’s a good thing I introduced a new behavior, too, because she was starting to think head down would be the right answer to my every request and I have bigger plans for us! She is a new learner but not too new to learn that the right answer changes. Here’s a video of her four days later showing how much more she understands about keeping her nose on the blue ball:
In a few days I’ll put the ball touch/station on a verbal cue and then introduce touching her neck while she remains at her station. She already allows me to touch her whole body through the fence, so the neck touch won’t be new, just new while she’s touching a target. From there I’ll build to handling her whole body while she stations.
Since we also have back up on cue I can use that to move her cleanly away from the target without having to fuss near her face or mouth in the beginning. I can ask for head-down after she backs as a balancer and a moment of quiet and then I can send her back to her target for some more stationing. Station, back-up and head-down will form the foundation of our very early work together. With those behaviors I will be able to introduce grooming, giving to pressure, leading and staying quietly out of my space. I want to teach her these things both so I can be safe and so she feels like she is right in her choices. I don’t want training to be poisoned with frustration or conflict.
Djinn has pushed me to be more creative and thoughtful in my training. She has changed already from a grabby, frustrated horse to a more thoughtful mare that understands certain behaviors earn rewards at certain times. I am seeing glimpses of the educated horse she will become: engaged, intelligent and responsive.
Thanks for posting the two videos. I really like seeing the progress between these two. It’s obvious that she is catching on. 🙂
Also, I love that you are building a handful of different behaviors using protected contact as well as balancers for those behaviors. I’m sure this will help set her up for success later on when you start working non-protected contact.
I see way too many people (and I’ve done it before too!) working non-protected contact when they should be working with protected contact. Although they are often successful after some time, I think it is often much easier on the horse and prevents extra frustration (for horse and human) if we can build a solid foundation of communication before putting the horse in situations where she is tempted to mug or crowd the person.
Thanks for taking the time to watch! I did go into the pen with her once or twice and I just didn’t have any safe way to direct her if things started to go south. I respected my feelings and decided to work longer behind protected contact. I think because horses are domestic animals we take risks with them that are unnecessary. I didn’t want to end up having to use sort of non-contingent force to keep myself safe – how confusing would that be for everyone! I look forward to having some clean, fluent behaviors to call upon once we are working together in the pen.
“I think because horses are domestic animals we take risks with them that are unnecessary.”
This is SO true, Jen!
I have a few friends who work with zoo animals and I see the safety protocols and caution that they use to keep people safe. Then I look at the horse world and see people doing many, many things that could easily get them injured or killed. Or putting themselves in situations where they are forced to use force to protect themselves. One thing I do like about clicker training is that (when done right) it does build a foundation that will keep the trainer a lot safer than in many traditional horse training practices.
Jen, I’m going to share the link to this blog post in my weekly newsletter, hope you don’t mind. I think it’s great that you are posting weekly updates so that people can follow along with Djinn’s training from the beginning.
I don’t mind at all, I’m honored. Thanks!