Djinn: week two

Day 8-15:

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:

Good horse!

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.

 

Djinn: week one

Last week Friday, Djinn, my new black mustang mare arrived from California. I had been in love with her since last October when I saw a picture of her in a BLM internet auction. She is solid black with no white markings. Something about her called to me and when I found myself still thinking of her this spring I decided to adopt her. This is the picture that I fell in love with:

  When I imagined working with her, I imagined an experience similar to  my other mustangs, Aesop and Tarot. Both were cautious horses who needed lots of time and incremental steps just to feel comfortable with approach and touch. I was looking forward to the exactness and subtlety of the work of taming. It’s work I really enjoy.

You can imagine my surprise when both my transporter, Rick, and the BLM contact who helped me through my adoption process called to let me know how friendly my mare was and that she approached and let both of them scratch her on the shoulder. I was a bit incredulous and double-checked with the BLM that no one works with the horses at the corrals and they assured me they do not. Regardless, Djinn is very social, actively interested in people and was obviously hand fed by someone.  She was also captured as a yearling so she was much younger than my other two when she left the wild. The work I have to do with her is completely different from what I pictured. She is open, curious, tactile, beautiful and intelligent. She is exactly the horse I needed at this moment in time.

Here’s a video showing her investigating our farm cats the first day she got here:

Djinn loves touch and lets you touch/scratch over her entire body while stretching out her neck and wiggling her lips around. It would be easy to assume because she feels so tame that she will also know how to cooperate and interpret human requests. But she is completely un-educated. It is up to me to teach her the skills she will need to be an extraordinary companion. I don’t want her just to get by. I want her to thrive.

I decided I would train her every day for the first hundred days in my own version of “Extreme Mustang Makeover”.  The mustang challenge or makeover is a contest where trainers receive an unhandled mustang and have 90 days to train the mustang for a competition to determine the best trained horse and win cash prizes. I’m not a fan of time limits in any training situation since the pressure often leads  goal-oriented humans to make bad choices for their animal. But I am interested to see exactly how far Djinn and I get together in a hundred days. A clicker trainer’s mustang challenge. I will update weekly on her progress with video.

I quickly realized I would need to be able to ask her to move back out of my space if I was going to go into her pen. She is curious and forward and I didn’t want to end up with a 900 lb untutored horse in my lap. So after teaching her to target on days 1 and 2, I taught her how to move forward and most importantly, back, on day three. Here’s a short video of Djinn learning to move forward and back using her target:

Smart girl! On day four Djinn started to get a little grabby and over-eager about the food so I decided to teach her a default leave-it when food was in my hand or on my body. This means if I am holding food she should take her head AWAY from the food and down to the ground and wait for me to dispense it to the ground. It’s one of her first lessons in impulse control and she does a really good job.

Djinn would be an easy horse to get in trouble with if you were just learning positive reinforcement as a method. She is motivated and brave and like all new learners is more easily frustrated. It’s really important that I go to her with a training plan that addresses all the behaviors that are likely to crop up. I need to anticipate what she needs to learn so she can offer clickable behaviors and feel like learning isn’t too stressful or hard. I don’t want either of us to feel confused or unsafe.

If you are wondering what on earth a Djinn is:

A Djinn is a supernatural being that, like humans, can be good, evil or benevolent. In myth, Djinn’s can take many forms, human or animal, and are created from smokeless fire. They are fabled to be the energy behind magic tricks and the spirit that gives information to the fortune teller. Djinns or Djinnis are also the spirits who were trapped in enchanted lamps or bottles by magicians and sorcerors. If you rubbed the lamp they would appear and grant you three wishes. If one of your wishes was to set them free, they would become yours alone.

I invite you to share my journey with this playful magical spirit, Djinn.