Friday, May 23, 2008

The Umbrella Game

Training is progressing for my two Art Deco fillies, Grace and Glory.

First, I need to reacquaint them with the idea of getting their halters put on and taken off frequently without jerking away and making a fuss. Grace has reason to need work in this area, because she has had a couple of minor injuries and one fairly serious scare, but Glory is difficult about it for no other reason than that she's difficult about everything.

Because both fillies are so extremely jumpy, I'm using my no-pressure technique for haltering. I put their ration of grain in a bucket and hold the open halter just above it, so that if the filly wants her grain, she has to choose to shove her nose into the halter. At that point, I wrap the strap around the back of her head. If she jumps away, that's fine, she can go, I let her pull free and don't try to hold her.

Each time she comes back, I put the strap across. Eventually, she gets tired of jumping and I buckle the halter. Then she can eat her grain while I wiggle the halter all around, tap on the buckle, stroke her ears, etc. Everything to get her used to being calm about the situation. If she doesn't fuss, then I stop and let her eat her grain in peace. When she's done eating, I come back and take the halter off.

My goal is to ingrain in her mind that the halter is the required uniform for eating her grain. When it gets to be no big deal to put the halter on with the grain bucket there, then I'll progress to putting it on BEFORE I get the grain bucket. Then I'll progress to putting it on and then leading her someplace nice to graze on fresh grass. Over and over, I'll make the halter be the prelude to something pleasant, until she forgets that she was ever upset about it.

Today was the third day of this training for both fillies. They are still so jumpy---none of my other youngsters were like this, but I've been told that the Art Deco bloodline is very hot and unpredictable---but they're making progress, so after the halter lesson was over, I decided to add another lesson: The Umbrella Game.

Here's how it goes: I bring an umbrella into the paddock and open it up. The horse reacts (in this case, by bugging out her eyes and careening around the paddock as if I had just released a herd of wild tigers). I stand still, quietly holding the umbrella until the horse stops and looks at me. Then the game begins.

If the horse stands still, looking at me, I stand still and keep the umbrella motionless. If she looks away or gets distracted, I wiggle the umbrella until she looks at me again. If the horse moves away, I move closer, bringing the umbrella with me. If the horse comes closer to me, I yield and take a step backwards.

The idea is to encourage the horse to react calmly to scary objects by making the correct responses have less stressful consequences than the wrong responses.

Grace snorted and flew around the paddock when she first saw the umbrella, but once the game began, she picked it up very quickly. After seeing my positive response to her stepping forward a couple of times, she gathered up her nerve and walked straight over and started nibbling on the edge of the umbrella. What a good girl! She is SO much easier to work with now that I've separated her from the unruly influence of her sister.

Then it was Glory's turn. I stood in the center of her large paddock (far away from her) and opened the umbrella. She shied so hard she crashed into the fence, bolted around me in a circle and crashed into the fence a couple more times before regaining control enough to simply race around without crashing. She may be a total flake, but WOW does she have nice gaits. The suspension on that extended trot is breathtaking!

As expected, she took much longer to stop running. Even with me standing perfectly still, she was hair-trigger, ready to fly right out of there at the slightest twitch. I let her stand and bug her eyes out at me for a long time, and then I started gently twisting the umbrella and swaying it back and forth. Another explosion!

Each time she ran, I'd just ignore her and keep doing what I was doing. Each time she stopped, I'd stop. After a while, I could see that she was no longer genuinely terrified, she was just reactionary because it was habit. But at least her attention was fully, 110% engaged with the lesson for the first time. She's typically so evasive about not wanting to focus on anything you ask her to do, but this time she was fully present.

This went on for at least an hour before she took her first step towards me, that allowed me to give her the "right answer" reward of backing up. She's extremely smart, and I could see her watching me and testing me dozens of times to check my responses. She'd step one foot forward, then move it back. She's stomp it in place. She'd shuffle it back and forth. She'd try moving a back foot instead.

After examining every possible scenario, she finally figured out what the rules were and realized that we were playing a game where it was actually possible for her to have some power over what happened. That gave her a little more confidence, but she still had no desire to actually approach the umbrella.

So then I closed the umbrella to make it small, and gradually approached her with it. Eventually, after many tries and some more nervous galloping, she stretched her nose out and touched it. I immediately praised her and backed way off, turning my back on her to release all pressure.

She's smart. She got it. After a few more tries, she was willing to take a step towards me and touch the closed umbrella each time.

Then we had to start all over with the open umbrella. She's not a horse who will take for granted that just because the closed umbrella is safe, the open one must be as well. So we went through the whole thing again. At last, she was okay about touching the open umbrella too.

There was just one last step to go. I backed way up far away from her, made sure she was looking directly at me so she would have a chance to brace herself, and then I held the umbrella up over my head... and OPENED it.

WHOA!!!! That set her off galloping again, but just for a second. She stopped, and I let her touch the open umbrella with her nose. Then I backed up away from her, closed the umbrella, waited for her to look at me, then held it over my head and opened it. Off she went again!

I repeated this dozens of times. Each time, she clearly knew what was going to happen, but couldn't help herself from flinching and running. But each time she stopped and asked to come touch the umbrella again to reassure herself.

After many, many, MANY more times, I could see her finally decide that her fear reaction was pointless. I opened the umbrella a couple more times, with her just standing there looking at me cheerfully with her ears up. Then I let her touch the umbrella one more time, closed it, and left her paddock.

As she watched me walk away, I opened the umbrella one last time, and she didn't even flinch.

That's the nice thing about natural-horsemanship-style games. If you do them right, you BOTH can win.


Rhea said...

Awesome details about the umbrella game. I'm glad it worked. You have the gift of patience, I see.

How cool you have cherry trees! I wouldn't know what one looked like either. Hope you get to eat some before the birds next time.

Amy - "Twelve Acres" said...

What an intelligent approach to training horses. Very, very interesting reading today!

Nancy Chase said...

Thanks very much!

Calico Moon said...

:) Thanks for this story. It made me smile.