Well, it is high time I get started fielding some of these great questions that keep coming to me through Ask Shawna. There are so many great topics that I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I just pulled from the top. Here is today’s question sent in by Susanna:
“I have a one year old filly who hates it when her legs and feet are handled. Especially hind-legs. I’ve tried to let her get used to it slowly and she gets a click and treat for it. Short touches are ok, but she has to cope with trimmings every couple weeks and gets very nervous and you have to start all over again.”
You are off to a good start. That she will let you handle her legs and feet even for short spells says that you are making progress, so kudos to you for that. Now we need to focus on longevity and acclimating her to the tasks that the farrier performs during the trimmings. Keep in mind that all of our horses learn through operant conditioning. This means they are constantly trying to figure out how to either get things that they want or how to avoid the things that they don’t want. They build up is what is referred to as a reinforcement history. They form associations with the things that they experience. The good news is, with the correct amount of reinforcement we can change these associations for the better. I think of them as scales that are out of balance. With the use of reinforcement we can put more weight on the side of the scale that represents the desired behavior. You are certainly on the right track.
Be sure that you have taken the time to really be sure that she understands the clicker and it’s significance. She should always stand with her head forward with proper manners without getting pushy or mouthy when food is present. Also, I recommend target training. I recommend it for every behavior even if it will not physically be used for a particular behavior. The process teaches them how to engage in the learning process and is, in my opinion, an essential part of teaching our horses a work ethic. In this particular case I recommend using the target as we build up her tolerance. The target becomes a familiar object with a very strong reinforcement history. It can serve as a pacifier of sorts. We will want to fade it out of the picture later but for now it will help serve our purpose. So be sure she is strong with touching her nose to a target. I am making an assumption that you know what the heck I’m talking about but if you don’t just let me know or check out the web site or video for more instruction about proper clicker or target training.
I also recommend doing the sessions right before feeding time if your schedule allows. The food will have a higher perceived value for her at this time. I also recommend using a mix of reinforcements. Choose several treats that she likes. This changes up the anticipation of what comes next. Volumes have been written about schedules of reinforcement. It has been proven that the more predictable is not always the best way to raise criteria, and what we want to do is to step up her eagerness to stand still and be patient. By changing how much and what type of treat, we will peak her interest. I want you to sometimes feed a small handful and sometimes feed a couple handfuls. She will work harder to achieve her favorite and to get the larger amount. On those days when you don’t have a lot of time I would, at the least, ask her to lift a foot or two before each feeding. Also, be sure that she has had some exercise or turn out before her training sessions so she isn’t a ball of energy, this will help set her up to succeed.
I suggest to work her as much as possible in the same place where the farrier is working with her so she builds up a desirable reinforcement history with this spot. Also, to mimic the things that the farrier does. Go slow and build up her confidence with each of these tasks. Sometimes they can feel insecure about not being able to have all four feet available to flee so we need to build her trust. I may be reiterating a bit here but I don’t really know what steps you have taken so I’m just going to cover some steps. Start by making sure that she is comfortable with you handling her all over her body not just her legs. Start where she is most comfortable and click and treat when she is standing still AND relaxed. Relaxed is really our focus. We can teach her to stand still but if she is not truly relaxed then we may be reinforcing the wrong attitude and it will come to a head somewhere down the line. Only move on when she is relaxed and calm. Watch her eyes, ears, body language and feel those muscles. When she softens click and feed. Continue this process to the legs and feet. Remember to go at her speed. At first short sessions with a lot of reinforcement will be the best. Quit while she still wants more. Again this will peak her interest and anticipation. In her head we want her thinking… “come back and touch my legs!!” I have found I make MUCH more progress with three 5 minute sessions than with one 30 or 40 minute session. Build up the time once she is comfortable with this phase. Then vary the length of the sessions sometimes quick and sometimes long.
Next is handling her feet. Begin each step by reinforcing the smallest steps. As you begin to teach her to pick up her feet or to allow you to pick them up, think of the small steps in between. For example look for her knee to bend. This indicates that she took the weight off of this foot. This is worthy of a pretty good sized reinforcement. Give her a couple handfuls. The more she participates the faster the progress. Once you have the foot try to put it down only when she softens and relaxes the foot and leg. Remember to click while you have the foot in your hand. You want to click on the behavior that you want to see more of, she will remember what she was doing when she heard the click. If you click when she has her foot on the ground she will try to get her foot back on the ground so she gets the click. Once she is relaxed with this behavior begin to move the feet around a bit. Your farrier will stretch her out pretty good but we want to build up to that degree. Again click and feed small steps and relaxation. If she gets tense back up a little and rebuild the step before and go a little slower. Try to hold until you feel relaxation. When she is good with this and trusting you to do this I would introduce someone else into the equation. The point is to mimic the farrier in this equation. I would choose someone who is familiar with horses and their body language. Start back at the beginning, even though she has been good . This way you set her up for success by going back to her most comfortable place. You will quickly move through the paces. I would use the target at this point. You work the target while your friend handles her legs. This will give her something else to focus on and often helps to prevent horses from getting too wound up. If she is doing good I would suggest intermittent use of the target. This sounds like a lot of steps but I suspect she will go pretty quick.
Just when you get it worked out, get her nice and calm… here comes the farrier! Talk to your farrier and tell him/her what you are working on. After all, this investment of time will make his/her life easier down the road. Farriers want our horses to be good about trims and shoeing even more than we do! As he steps up to her ask her to target and click and reinforce. This will put her in the “work” mode. The target will be like an old familiar friend and will help give her a place to put some of that nervous energy. I have found that the target helps the farrier become more of an incidental just like in her sessions. If she is pretty nervous stay close and ask her to target now and then and reinforce. If she is somewhat calm I would stay nearby but not right at her head since she may fidget just trying to do something to please you. As things are going good with the farrier ask if it is okay to click and reinforce. Make sure that she is doing something worth reinforcing. Feed her well. If possible I would maybe do a foot or two, have him/her work on another horse and then get back to her after she has had a break. As time goes by she will get better and better and you can fade yourself out of this equation. She will realize that there isn’t anything to fear and it will just be part of her routine. Taking the time now will build her confidence. Continue the sessions between the farrier visits even if she is perfect. Remember the scale illustration? This will build up the reinforcement on the correct side of the scales giving her a reason to want to stand still.
Well Susanna, I find my self wanting to go on and on but should wrap it up. I hope this helped give you some ideas for making progress with your filly. Thank you for sending in your question.
I will continue to answer some of the questions sent into Ask Shawna. There is much more to come so stay tuned and enjoy getting your horse On Target!