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.

Starting a horse : clicker-style

This spring my partner Sara’s horse, Fig, turns seven. Fig was unstarted when Sara bought her two years ago and they’ve spent this time getting to know one another and building a solid foundation of clicker lessons. Fig is Sara’s first horse and they are taking their time. As they have progressed in their work from basic emotional control to more subtle work, Fig has become increasingly thoughtful, attentive and controlled. It feels like time to think about riding.

What does this mean?  It means that Fig is able to offer learned behaviors even when the environment changes or is scary. It means Fig is much more centered and calm than she was even a year ago, able to handle maneuvering her body in tight spaces, being asked to stop even when she would rather go and finds listening to Sara reinforcing. She has both learned the behaviors necessary for a safe riding horse and demonstrated she can follow guidance offered from a human partner in a tight situation.

Here’s a video of Sara and Fig’s latest lesson:

In this video, you see that Fig is working in her bridle. Sara first picks up the rein. If Fig stays attentive and doesn’t walk off, click/treat. Once she picks up the rein, she will slide her inside hand down and ask Fig to give at the jaw, click/treat. If she can do both of these things without walking off (receive information about how to move off without rushing or emotionally running away) then Sara breathes in deeply so her side touches Fig where Sara’s leg will once she is mounted. When Fig moves off on this cue, click/treat. If she moves off before this, you will see Sara slide her hand down the inside rein and pivot to face Fig, asking her to ‘re-set’ and back-up. It’s important for Fig and any riding horse to be able to make a mistake and not be upset if she is re-set or told to look for another answer. If Fig looks to the outside of the circle, Sara slides her hand down the rein and waits for Fig to give at the jaw again, asking her to remain on the circle without constant contact as a reminder, click/treat.

While they are walking together on the circle, Fig is using Sara’s body as a target. We literally want her “in front of the leg” just like a horse would be under saddle – not lagging behind and not rushing away without regard for where Sara is in relation to her. This way, Fig already understands the concept of Sara’s body being  a guide for her, as her seatbones and legs will be under saddle. So far it looks like a pretty nice ride!

But how about the mounting block? It’s important to make sure your horse understands how to stand still at the mounting block and is ok with pressure on their back and the sight of you up over their head. Here, Fig is bareback, but she shows she understands the concept of lining up to the mounting block and offering her back to Sara.

Notice that Fig is free to walk off but chooses to stay at the mounting block because of a solid reinforcement history. This allows the mounting block behavior to become a “barometer” of whether or not to get on your horse. Since it was introduced as a fun game and is something Fig enjoys, if she won’t line up or moves off we can guess she is sore, not feeling well or having a bad day. This is good information to have and information we want with all horses, but with a green horse, especially. This week Fig will practice the mounting block saddled, to get used to stirrups being pulled and weighted and the feel of a saddle shifting on her back.

So what’s left? Sara needs to confirm all her bridle cues at the trot and practice all her work saddled with stirrups flapping. Alexandra has a saying, “When your horse is ready, he will invite you onto his back.” I love that saying because I see so much early work that is more like, “If you think you can get away with it with only minor injury, do it.” Riding should be a partnership from the very start and it’s our responsibility to provide the good foundation. I think Sara has done a great job!