Scratching: a primer

Itchy RuneMy last post about Rune outlined the details of our relationship and training in our first six weeks together. I assumed most people know foals are  born “itchy” and love to be scratched more than anything in the world. It’s a natural reinforcer and relationship builder that is pre-wired in all young horses. But how to scratch? Not everything is equal, and details matter.

Find the right spot: Every foal has a unique favored itchy spot. Some like the underside of their neck scratched, some prefer the top of their tail and some really prefer the top of their neck along their mane. Sara’s foal, Isolde, loved mane scratches when she was small but Rune found them totally overstimulating. Even a scratch in a favorite place can become uncomfortable if it goes on for too long (think of a back rub that goes over the same location endlessy, eventually it becomes annoying. ) When you have scratched in one place too long, or your foal is no longer enjoying the scratch, their tail will start to flip up and down rapidly.                       To add to the complexity, favored itchy spots change. When Rune was three weeks old, she would do anything for a top of the tail and a butt scratch, but now she really loves to be scratched in her armpits where she can’t reach with her nose.

Why does this matter? It matters because when horses are young, under six weeks old, food doesn’t function as a reinforcer. Their only real nutrition is mare’s milk at this time, though they will nibble on hay and grass in imitation. If you want to train in a positive reinforcement paradigm, you need to be able to offer something your foal values. In this case, a good scratch! So, now we have something our foal wants, but how to use it constructively within a training session?

Make It Contingent: One of the  first things you can and should do with a foal is to link scratching with a simple, likely- to-be-offered behavior. In Rune’s case, I just made sure that as she approached me, my outstretched, flat palm was available and near her nose. Once she would touch it, I would click and then immediately begin scratching her. This way, through repetition, she understood she could “control the situation” with a polite nose touch, rather than crowding into my space or shoving me with her face. Many people start out scratching and massaging their foals while they are little and cute, but quickly get frustrated or start to use physical punishment, because they have inadvertently taught their foals to nip, push into them with their shoulders or cut in front of them to demand a scratch. What is cute at five days old is already starting to be intimidating at four weeks. You have to be aware when you hand out your scratches! Making scratching contingent on a polite behavior not only sets rules around your interaction with your foal, it also begins the game of learning, “If you do this, then I will do that.” Easy, safe and fun.

Scratch so their head turns away from you: When you scratch a foal, it’s natural for them to want to wiggle their lips, turn their head and nibble or bite you. Horses are social groomers, and in foals this response is strong and immediate. I didn’t want to start out offering Rune a reinforcer and then end up punishing her or scaring her physically because she had bit or nipped me. I found that if you scratch the side of their body that is opposite to the side you are on, your foal will turn their head that way, toward the pleasurable sensation and end up nibbling and lipping themselves. That way you don’t have to suppress their natural social response and you can avoid teaching your foal to use their mouth or teeth on you. Here’s a very short video of Rune at about sixteen days old learning how to turn on the “scratch machine” and me learning how to direct her nose just with the location I choose to scratch on her body. This is more important in the first four weeks when foals are more free with their mouth and less discerning about how they use them.

Even though foals are tiny and absolutely enchanting, it’s important to remain aware of the habits we are building when we interact. Safe and sophisticated handling comes from a thoughtful set up and attention to detail. With young foals, knowing where they like to be scratched, paying attention to their enjoyment or overstimulation, making the scratch contingent on a simple, polite behavior, and scratching so that you don’t encourage your foal to bite you are details that will set you up for success! Happy scratching.


Component skills for trailer loading

Last week my friend Natalie came over to train her horse, Harrison, in our arena. He loaded up into the trailer easily on the way over, but once he was done training he just wasn’t confident he wanted to get back in. He would walk up to the opening but once he got close enough to load his feet were frozen. Any pressure on the lead, even very light, was too much pressure. He would tense up and back away to a “safe zone”.  Like many many horses the world over, Harrison was likely pressured or tricked onto a trailer other times in his life. While strong pressure might work in the moment, it poisons the lead rope in the future. It’s no longer available as a tool.
Forty five patient minutes later, Natalie got Harrison on the trailer through patience and clicking for leans forward and back. Trailer loading was definitely on her training list for the week. We want to have her over at least every Sunday to train and it will be much more fun for all involved if her horse loads calmly and easily. Luckily, Natalie had already taught Harrison an exercise that contained the component parts needed for trailer loading. So once she got home, she planned out a new exercise to combine the skills he already had with the presence of the trailer to create great trailer loading.
Last year Natalie had worked with Harrison so that she could move any foot she chose forward or back just with a small cue on her lead. Harrison was having trouble standing square and to teach him how to stand in balance she needed to be able to influence his feet. We call this skill “needle-pointing”.
She also taught him to stand on a mat. The mat has a myriad of uses, but in this case the mat is used to reward Harrison for doing a particularly accurate or light job moving his feet. It is doubly rewarding as Natalie has the mat placed away from the trailer. For a horse who is still nervous about the trailer, getting to move away from it is a functional reward.

In the video you will see Natalie is walking on a cone circle with her trailer parked on the edge. This video is the second day she’s worked on this so we join her a bit further into the process. Originally, she worked on moving Harrison’s feet forward and back, or needle-pointing, out on the edge of the circle and then would go to the mat as a reward. When they would get to the point on the the circle where Harrison was facing the trailer and in the orientation to load, but further away, she would click him and then just feed him over and over for being near the trailer. It wasn’t dependent on Harrison’s behavior because it was counter-conditioning, or:  if you are near the scary trailer you get lots of good food! It’s an easy way to get relaxation in a situation that was previously worrisome. When we join her in this video she is further in her process and beginning to ask Harrison for his needle-pointing when he is approaching the trailer. She alternates those reps with needle-pointing out on the circle to keep the session light. She doesn’t fall into the normal trap of most humans, which involves making the situation to difficult too quickly and then being angry that she failed. She listens to her horse and progresses when he feels as light and engaged near the trailer as he does when he is working out on the circle.

Once Harrison is relaxed and responsive with mobilized feet near the trailer, Natalie decides to request that those feet move forward onto the trailer. Watch their fancy footwork here:

You can see that he is ready to get in the trailer because he puts his foot up right as he reaches the trailer. She immediately asks for another foot and gets it with no hesitation. If you turn up the volume you can hear her calling out what foot she is asking for next so you can watch for it. Basically she continues needle-pointing Harrison but this time he is on the trailer. She wants to make sure her forward and back still work despite the “change of scenery”. If they don’t she will know her horse is tense and to go back to the last step in the exercise where he was relaxed and able to offer all feet in all directions. From time to time she backs him out to give him a break and on his best attempt she surprises him with sliced apples in the trailer. Because of the two small pull backs he offers despite an otherwise lovely session, Natalie decided not to ask for back feet in the trailer in this session. She understood he had some small reservations left, and understands the fastest way to fix trailer loading issues is slowly.

The last video is of Harrison loading fluently into the trailer because of his mastery of smaller component skills.

Here you see Natalie halter Harrison in his pasture and walk him directly onto the trailer, no warm-up required. Once in he stands calmly and quietly and then is able to move one foot at a time when asked. This a good indicator of relaxation. You will hear Natalie say “drop” when he is at the edge of the trailer and about to take a step down. This way he isn’t surprised by the drop-off. Once he is out she releases him to go trot to his mat as a reward. Fun and easy for horse and human!

The component skills for trailer loading are just foundation lessons. Natalie has taken time building a gorgeous foundation for this horse and it shows.
The foundation lessons involved here are: go forward, back up, and stand on a mat. She combined those into the more refined skill of needle-pointing each individual foot and then added in classical counter-conditioning near the trailer for emotional relaxation. Harrison knows exactly what she wants from him and is happy to offer it. It is such elegant training I wanted to share it with you!