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.

Aesop’s progress

Aesop has definitely turned into a “clicker-horse” this last week and sees people more as an opportunity for reinforcement than as scary, foreign beings. He follows along the fence-line now when he sees us walking by and eagerly plays his target game inside of his round pen.

I have moved on to face touches with him so we can move toward haltering, grooming and leading in the near future. I used the targeting to get him close. Once he was calm and really comfortable standing within reach of me, I just reached up to his nose. If he backed away, I walked off a few feet and let him approach me to begin again. When he didn’t back away, I clicked and treated. Here, in our second session, you see that he is starting to understand what to expect and begins to “offer” me his nose with a slight bend toward me.  At  :54 you will see him be unable to stay through the touch and pull his nose off to the right. I just let him go and immediately he offers his head to try again and is successful. What a good boy! Again, no coercion. If he wants to walk off and not work on being a tame horse today, he can. If he is particularly relaxed and loose during a face touch, I reward him with a chance to target.

The face offering is a wonderful example of two way communication with a horse. I chose the lesson and the rough framework for it, but Aesop added in a bit of bend when he felt relaxed and ready. He could do this because I was predictable and the rules of the game were consistent. If I am aware and present in my work with my horses, I will begin to notice body language and micro-expressions that will inform the work I do. As I notice these small offerings and honor them, Aesop will become even more relaxed with me and be able to trust even more.

A new mustang: advance and retreat or the clicker?

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.

Aesop Rye in Oregon

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.