Tuesday, July 20, 2010


In the movie Fifty First Dates Drew Barrymore plays a charming sort of airhead with memory issues. Every day is a brand new day as Barrymore wakes up and can remember nothing from the day before. The movie is funny and quite touching. Especially at the end when her boyfriend turned husband, Adam Sandler, makes a video of her life to that point and has it ready in the DVD player each morning so she can watch it and remember who she is and what she's done.

Reminds me of a certain horse…minus the DVD player and compassionate, understanding partner. I did find it funny, in a completely exasperating way, that my post last week used trailer loading as the example of negative reinforcement. I finished that post and walked outside to load horses for a ride with my daughter and discovered life wanted to imitate art. Again. 40 minutes after working Chance into a sweat using (highly) negative reinforcement to get him to load into my new aluminum trailer, I called it quits. Forget it. Forget these annoying beasts who call me to rise to a new level of patience and skill. I loaded up (my new favorite) Cowboy and drove off in a cloud of dust. While Eli would load easily, he’s been testing me recently and I knew I had no patience left to deal with that in the right manner. Instead, I watched my daughter ride and contemplated getting a motorcycle.

Okay, not really. But I did have time to think about the scenario with Chance and how to approach it when I had gathered together any remaining shreds of patience. Good opportunity to try out the clicker and see if positive reinforcement could help him remember he did know how to load and had, in fact, been loaded multiple times in more then one trailer. Did I mention I’ve already spent hours on trailer loading this horse? Yes, nearly all of his experience includes trailers with ramps, but that’s no excuse. We had ended the last attempt to load with one foot in—for approximately two seconds—and Chance hanging his head inside the trailer in total defeat, his eyes broadcasting the fact that he had completely checked out and would be (re)learning nothing else that day. At least that way.

Its important to know that this horse is highly reactive. No cougar would have a chance to eat this Chance in the wild. Trust me. He continually scans his environment for details—no matter how small—that have changed in his tiny comfort circle. Grass growing, for instance. We call him our guard horse. Though he knows his leads, is very light in the face, bends and counter bends, sidepasses, backs, stops on a dime, etc. etc. this is all useless when he gets anxious and something triggers his flight response. Cue Fifty First Dates. This horse is a perfect example of why emotional stability is so important in ones mount. You can get away with a lot of things on a horse with low flight drive or one that is dull/lazy. A reactive horse, on the other hand, broadcasts all the weaknesses in ones horsemanship in blinking neon letters. I’ve decided I will never knowingly purchase a reactive horse. That said, I foolishly enjoy a challenge and like to experiment. Seems I have a horse that provides endless opportunity for both.

I approached the trailer, clicker and treats in pocket, with Chance later that same day. His panic about the new trailer seems to be the fact that it is a step up and the floor moves more then the old one when loading and unloading—environment change alert. At that point Chance had had maybe five sessions with the clicker. He was interesting to work with for two reasons: he took longer then the other horses to connect the sound with the treat and he never went through the pushy stage to get at the treats. Because he disengages easily, he frequently lost focus during the sessions, staring off into space and entering that place in his mind that remains locked. The “key” I’ve used in training is negative reinforcement to get him to accept new things. While this has worked to teach cues and maneuvers, I cannot say it has helped at all in rewiring the crazy emotional circuits.

Once Chance discovered the correlation between the click and a reward he seemed very pleased with himself. We worked on target training and the head down cue. My goal is to get him to lower his head on cue and keep it there for extended periods of time. This lowers adrenalin and seems a multi-useful cue. Alexandra Kurland makes an insightful statement in her book: You are never training only one thing. Just as one behavior problem is multiplied in other areas of the horse’s life, good training in one area multiplies into other, seemingly unrelated, areas.

As for the trailer, it took two days to get Chance standing inside with all four feet. He isn’t completely comfortable yet, but he hasn’t shut down (and neither have I, for that matter). I feel encouraged. My hypothesis (fingers crossed) is that positive reinforcement will be a stronger motivator for this particular horse. The click and new language between us appears to help him stay in the thinking side of his brain rather then the reactionary one.

If this doesn’t work I’m outfitting a DVD player in his stall…

PS. The above picture is of Cowboy (this weeks favorite horse) frisking an empty bag of grain. I haven’t introduced him to clicker training—if it ain’t broke don’t fix it—but I’m sure he’d be an enthusiastic student. This horse would sell his soul (and yours) for food of any kind. Donuts, sandwiches, Cheezits, salt and vinegar chips…Cowboy enjoys buffet style dining.


C.J. Darlington said...

I love how you balance the training stories with humor. Guess that's a must when dealing with horses, eh? :)

Catherine said...

It is definately a must, CJ. But you already know that:). Thanks for the encouragement.