Saturday, December 20, 2008

Out of the Blue

It's been a very long time since I posted, I know. But just as the plants and animals become less active as the days become shorter, hey, so do I. Bo's education has continued but not as vigorously. I worked with him a bit on his "agility" equipment prior to Thanksgiving. I was having family and guests in, and I wanted Bo to perform. He put on several performances for small audiences of one or two or three people, whoever happened to brave the cold temps and sometimes rain.

To catch you up, here's what Bo is now doing. In agility, he has two jumps, a teeter board, and a set of cones for weaving. We worked on each piece individually, then started linking pieces of equipment together. At this point, he can weave through his cones, jump two jumps, then walk his teeter board. He really likes this physically active type of work. We do all this out in the round pen.

However, the weather is often icky, so we do a lot of work in the barn aisle. I bought interlocking foam mats in bright colors to work on in the barn, and Bo loves his mats. When I come into the barn in the morning and open his stall door, he comes out and goes straight to the "play" area. He wants to do something. He'll stand in the middle of these mats and wait for me while I clean his stall and putter around. If I peek out at him, he will offer a behaviour -- his latest favorite being a rear. There he is standing in the middle of the barn aisle, and he starts to gather himself to stand on his hind legs.

Now this may not sound so good, and I had to think long and hard before I started capturing the rear. But it is something he likes to do naturally. What I'm careful of is to only reward a rear when he's given a specific cue. It's taken a week or so, but I think he gets it. And with rear, I both start and finish with submission positions of head down and bow.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I've been working in earnest on bow with Bo since Thanksgiving weekend (within the limitations of the season -- see above). Prior to that I was trying to shape individual bits of head down and lift leg and push back, but it was not going so well. He'd just back up. My sister was here visiting for Thanksgiving, and she suggested baiting him with a carrot between his legs. I'm not keen on baiting, but what the heck, the shaping wasn't working for us, so I gave it a try. If I lifted his leg, then baited, he figured out how to get everything else where it needed to be, and allowed me to lower him to his knee. All right, success!

Well, sort of. He was relying on me to lift his leg, or more accurately, hold it up. He would happily lift his foreleg and curl it tightly to his belly, but when it came time to head down and shift weight backwards, he'd put his foot back down, his front legs spread in a wide V, often backing up. If I just put my left hand out flat and supported his pastern, he would head down and shift weight back and allow me to lower his knee to the ground, no problem. That gave us the final outcome of a bow, but I just wasn't happy with all my intervention. So I made a concerted effort this week to fade out my touching his leg at all.

At this point, his cue for bow was I would be on my knees on Bo's left side. I'm right handed and it just was easier for me. I would touch him in the girth area behind his elbow, and he would lift and curl his left front leg. To get his head down and start the shift backward, I baited him with a carrot in my right hand, tapping under his belly to lure him down. To ensure he kept his foreleg up, I would support the pastern with the palm of my left hand, and with the luring would lower his knee to the mat. From there, I would click and treat him with his head still down hunting that carrot under his chest.

Another aspect I wasn't happy with was the baiting/luring was causing him to bite. He was making jabs and grabs, and I got nipped a few times. Being a stallion, he's already prone to biting, and this whole scene was encouraging it even more. So it was important to me to fade out all this contact I was having with him.

First I ditched the left-hand support of his foreleg. He was lifting it himself and curling it tight against his body, so it was time to take off the training wheels, so to speak. I simply refused to touch or hold his leg up, and each time he stepped backward I would simply reposition him and try again, still luring with the carrot. This took about three sessions for him to accept that the only way to a treat was to go down on his knee under his own power. He's a smart little guy, and he made the transition. Now it was time to end the luring.

This wasn't as hard as I thought it might be, and the results are great. The snarky biting has subsided to almost nothing. I still cue him with a light scritch to the belly/girth area, and continue that until he drops to his knee and has his nose well down on the ground or under him. I then give him the treat in that position to reinforce that's where I want him to be.

Now for the "Out of the Blue" part. Tonight I went out to the barn to bring Bo in for bed. I worked with him a bit on bow and head down, and he did both very nicely with a few reps of each. So I got up to get his brush to do some grooming. I brushed his left side a bit and then went round to his right and worked on his neck a few strokes and moved back toward his shoulder and ribs. As I scratched the brush down and behind his elbow, he lifted his right fore. Hmmm, interesting. I got down on my knees to brush the feathers of his front legs, and he was trying to grab the brush. At one point, he dropped his head low and back between his front legs in the obeisance bow position. Again, interesting. I ran the brush under his belly, and the front leg came up and the head bobbed down tentatively. This is getting very interesting. So I abandoned the brush altogether and gave him the scritches on his belly/girth. Up went his RIGHT foreleg, head down, shift weight back and down onto his knee. Holy Cow! He's not supposed to be able to do that! I've never worked with him on bow from his right side. As a matter of fact, he went down to both knees and held that position for the first click and treat, and continued to hold while I madly fished in my pocket for more carrots, the last few I had and would normally have saved to put in his hay bowl as a goodnight treat.

I was so excited. I was babbling away to Bo, telling him how clever he is, giving him strokes and scritchies. Everything I've read says you have to teach horses on each side, that their brains aren't wired to correlate a behaviour from one side of the body to another. But I've always said Bo is a wiz kid of a pony. Exciting stuff.

Finally, an observation I've made over the past month. This concentration on the bow has done a couple of things. It seems to have improved his head down as well. I've been getting a head down from Bo from the first day I started cuing him, but it's been just a bob down. Along with the bow, he's now really thinking about his head down and will drop and hold it longer. And even if he pops up, I will continue cuing head down and he'll drop and hold better. I can see him really thinking about it and struggling with it, but he's improving his submission. Perhaps he has trouble with submission because he's a mature stallion before all this training started.

I'll keep you posted in the new year as to our progress. I always look forward to the day after the Winter Solstice because the days start getting longer and I'll be doing more with Bo. BTW, he has started wearing his bit. When we get out for walks, I put the bridle on, then the halter, to give him some time with the bit. And when he's out walking/trotting and looking around, he doesn't fuss with the bit as much. Once back to the barn, without any distractions, he tends to chomp and mess with the bit. I've got to get him on the road to his real horse career of driving.

Next post I should have some pics. (fingers crossed)

1 comment:

Helen said...

Hello, I just found your blog after IceRyder left a link to her blog on mine. Bo is gorgeous!

I was very interested to read what you had found about behaviour on one side transferring over to the other very easily because that has been my experience with clicker training too. I just pubished a post on my blog entitled 'Is Clicker Training Unique'. Perhaps I should have included this observation, but I wasn't sure if it was universal or just my horses.

I look forward to reading more about the lovely Bo.