Aesop starts to grow up

Since Aesop has been coming along so well in his foundation lessons, it’s time to start thinking about riding. While I’m never in a hurry to ride my horses, I love preparing them for under saddle work and developing them as confident, willing and balanced partners. It’s especially satisfying to see my mustangs progress from unhandled wild horses to educated tame horses.
I’m certainly not the first person to successfully blanket and saddle a horse but seeing them in their tack for the first time is always such a thrill. I made videos of Aesop’s first time seeing and wearing a saddle blanket. It’s not exciting at all as he accepts it with his typical lack of concern and full consent. But his relaxation is lovely as is his ability to remain operant in a new situation. He offers his typical neck arch or slight inside bend or head lowering to show his relaxation and earn his click. This isn’t cued or prompted, he just offers and I accept.

Here’s the video showing his first time with his saddle blanket:

And to be equal, here’s his right side:

It would be easy with a horse like him to move very quickly through the progression without really confirming what he knows. I don’t want to rush because “Aesop is always relaxed” and then find I’ve failed to build a solid foundation in a distracting or stressful situation.  He deserves thorough preparation, the same as I would offer any other horse.

Aesop gives a clicker lesson

When I first saw Aesop last year, I was looking for a kind, relaxed horse who might make a good teacher for people wanting to learn how to work with horses and the clicker. I already had Dragon, my huge athletic Friesian cross and Tarot, my gorgeous but fearful mustang stallion. Both are incredible horses, but not suitable for beginners. I chose Aesop based on his soft almond eye, relaxed mouth, and lack of muscular tension in all his photos. (I “won” him in an internet auction and would have loved him regardless of his suitability for newbies.) He came to our farm last summer and is one of the kindest, easiest horses I have ever had the pleasure of teaching and working with. His foundation training was finished this spring so this fall he started to work with his first two students.

Because he was wild not that long ago, I still go through a protocol to introduce Aesop to brand new people before they handle him. It’s likely he doesn’t really need the whole protocol anymore, but it’s a good introduction for new horse handlers and it helps them build their awareness of their horse’s comfort level. Here’s a short video of the “getting to know you” protocol:

Basically it begins with three nose targets and then moves on to placing your hand on his neck and waiting for him to arch his neck or do a small jaw give to the side you are working on. When he is able to offer one of those operant behaviors you can slide your hand to the next body part (side of poll, neck, shoulder blade, shoulder muscle, wither, etc) until you at his hind fetlock. It is easy to see that Aesop is relaxed and happy to offer his arched neck to show he is complicit in the game. It is fun for the handler and gets them used to checking in on the horse’s body language so they can remember to do it once they are busier doing two tasks like currying or hard brushing.

Once Aesop was all groomed up it was time for some basic leading lessons. Since all of the clicker ground-work carries over into ridden work, good mechanics are important from the very beginning. These are the basics that will lead to good single rein riding later. Brand new students work a loop of two behaviors: 1) A casual walk-off (click point being the horse walking with you bent slightly on the circle)  2) The grown-ups are talking (click point being still feet and slight bend in on circle if offered). This loop allows students to get comfortable moving next to the horse and gives them a way to ask questions or process information without ignoring/frustrating the horse through “grown-ups”.  Here’s Aesop in his leading lesson with his new friend and student, Carly:

The loop allows Aesop to relax and offer familiar behaviors that he already knows. The loop allows Carly to always have something to focus on and click for while learning about this large new species. As she masters this loop and they become more comfortable together we will add more behaviors to the loop and they will begin to move more fluidly between different behaviors as needed. For now, though, they both look calm, happy and relaxed. I am so proud of my new “school horse” Aesop!

Aesop’s first hose bath

My mustang gelding, Aesop, had his first bath on Tuesday. This time last year he had just come home to the farm and was as yet untouched. You can see from the video that he is now trusting and relaxed even when completely new stimulus are introduced. The only time he has ever seen a hose before this is in his water trough, submerged. I was going to title this post: Here is the reason clicker trainers don’t have tv shows. The video is completely boring because he has no conflict whatsoever, which is, of course, the goal.

 

 

Teaching Aesop to love hoof care

I’ve had a few conversations lately with several different friends about the range of experiences their animals have had with animal professionals like veterinarians and hoof care specialists. Even as an animal professional myself it can feel scary to trust my horse or dog to someone else’s care who might not have the same ethics or awareness of body language that I do. Both the horse and dog world are still works in progress.  Empathetic handling is not always a consideration. Behavioral health often takes a back seat to “getting the job done.” This is a particular concern when it comes to mustangs. Aesop was wild until he was four years old. He’s only known a few humans, and the first few chased him around with flags and acted unpredictably. There wasn’t time for a relationship. Unlike many domestic horses, he is not automatically trusting of new humans. It is critical that he forms a positive opinion of as many new people as possible. It is critical that he views humans as safe, since he’s known so few. It’s my job to advocate for him.

The first step in advocating for your horse (dog, bird, newt) is teaching them the skill set they will need for their procedure ahead of time. You don’t want the first time the equine podiatrist comes out to be the first time your horse has their feet picked up and held for longer periods of time. Alexandra Kurland has a saying: ” If you haven’t gone through an active teaching process to teach your animal a behavior, don’t expect to get it on a consistent basis. ” Basically, don’t leave it up to luck;) Making sure your horse is comfortable in the cross ties, can lift all four feet and hold them in different positions, is comfortable with a rasp and is comfortable with a “new” person handling him is the bare minimum for a hoof trim. Standing still and balancing on three legs are skills too, passive though they might seem.

When my  new trimmer, Autumn, came out the first time I completely underestimated how afraid Aesop would be of someone new. He and I work together a lot but  since we aren’t at a boarding barn there’s not many new people to get to know. Aesop was terrified of being touched by anyone at all, including me,  with the new strange people in his barn. Oops! Autumn was kind enough to set up appointments with me every Monday so she could come out and handle Aesop and he could get used to her at his own pace. She’s been out three times now and he is getting really comfortable with her. It helps immensely that Autumn is relaxed and open to new ideas and has learned the “clicker game” very quickly. Here’s a (long) video of Autumn and Aesop working together today:

The video is a little bit like watching paint dry and that’s the point. If we go slowly, listen to our horses and progress only when their body language indicates comfort, the whole process of introducing new people and procedures can be relatively stress free. Once or twice in the video you will see Aesop raise his head, stiffen or just turn away toward the windows. Those are micro-expressions of stress/fear in him. When he expresses those signals, Autumn moves back to the last point in the procedure where he was comfortable. Once his muscles are soft again and his head is straight and low, we know we have the green light to move on to the next step. He even starts to offer his foot once he is sure of what we want.

It’s a new concept for animals to participate in their own care. In the past, the definition of success was “nothing happened”. But I don’t want horses who don’t move a muscle because they are terrified of the consequences. I want horses who show me through a drop of their head, offering of their foot or nice deep sigh how complicit they are in their handling. Aesop didn’t ask to be rounded up and brought into my world; it’s my responsibility to make his experience comfortable, safe and fun.

Aesop’s second lesson in foot handling

Here’s Aesop’s second lesson in lifting his feet. He’s getting the hang of the front feet. One or two more times and he should have back feet down just as well. I want to document each step so people have a realistic idea of what it looks like to work through this skill set using positive reinforcement. As far as the back feet, I’m clicking for him lifting them early in the action so that he is reinforced when he just starts to lift the foot, not when the leg is at it’s highest point. This should help him lift it slower and in a more relaxed fashion. When the lift is more relaxed I will start to hold the fetlock hair through the lift like I did initially with the front feet. Eventually we will work through to picking his hoofs, then rasping them in preparation for the farrier.

Aesop shows off his grooming skills

I’ve been working hard on finishing Aesop’s basic handling so he can be cared for without any stress and enjoy a relaxing winter. We’ve been working in the barn, where we’ll have to work when there’s snow. Although I have him in the cross-tie area, I don’t have him tied yet. I want to make sure he feels free to move if something overfaces him, rather than have him feel trapped which could really escalate any anxiety over handling that may come up. He is generally really relaxed about new things which could make it easy to push him too far. I’ve taught him to ground-tie so when his lead-rope is on the ground he understands he will get reinforced for standing still.

The video below shows body brushing on both sides. I click him for him standing still and a slight bend toward me. When I feed, you see me hold the food up a bit and wait for him to bring his head up to retrieve it. I like that he is relaxed enough to have a low head but I don’t want him practicing being so out of balance for long periods of time.

Aesop’s first foot handling

Here’s a short video of Aesop’s first hoof handling. This is also his first time in the barn. As you can see from his behavior in the video, he is pretty much a “low conflict” animal. He is not one to worry too much or expend a lot of extra energy.

Since we are using positive reinforcement, if he pulls away I just let his foot go. I don’t want him to feel trapped or elicit or build an opposition reflex. We just try again and when he is able to accept the hold and lift his foot without pulling he gets a click and a release. I know it isn’t a very dramatic video, but this is truly his FIRST hoof care lesson.