Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Would I Hand Feed a Horse That Bites?

Because I'm working on training him not to bite - to keep his mouth to himself - using clicker training . . .

I've only made use of clicker training for a few purposes - helping Dawn with scary objects was an important one (we'll do more of that).  I'm certainly no expert at clicker training.  But I really do like it for certain purposes, and I'm sure if I thought about it more, I could find lots more ways to use it.

Drifter is very mouthy - that's probably part of the "I used to be a stallion and still want to act like one" routine.  Now that he's feeling better due to his EPM treatment, he's quite the sassy little dude, and anytime my hand is near his head there's a possibility that he'll try to nip at it in a (highly annoying) playful way - not OK.  I like to use a hand up, palm out, as a signal to back out of my space, and this is problematic with Drifter - he wants to play at that point, which involves biting - again, not OK.

Clicker training also greatly concentrates the equine mind - if you want them to really focus on something, and learn to respond, clicker works very well.  And it's positive, not negative, reinforcement - swatting a horse that nips or bites is often a very counterproductive strategy as it tends to produce even more of the nippy play behavior you're trying to discourage - just watch two geldings doing "bitey-face" play and you've got the idea.

So hand feed the horse to train it not to bite - sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it?  Here's what I did in the barn aisle this afternoon - I'd brought my horses in out of the 45 mph winds - they were ready - and was doing some grooming.  Drifter already understands the basic principle that a tongue click means he's done whatever it is precisely right, and that a treat will follow - I used clicker to teach him good hoof handling and then faded out the treats and now only use them occasionally.  He's also a very smart horse, and clicker works really well with smart horses - it's amazing how fast they figure out what you want.

I took him off the crossties, and holding the lead loosely, put my hand out, palm up and said "back".  (He already knows what the palm up and out and the word "back" mean, he just often prefers to play bitey rather than do it - I think he sees my hand as a challenge.)  He backed a step - I clicked as soon as the first foot moved back and treated promptly.  Now I had his full attention.  We repeated this a few times and he was very interested in complying.  Then I asked him to step back without my saying "back" - it took a moment but he did it.  We repeated this a few times, then I asked for two steps back and had to wait for a moment for him to do it, but he got there. That was it - about 5 minutes in total but I already feel like we made good progress.

On his rearing/lameness issue, he's pretty careful, despite the cold temperatures and high winds, to not move at a speed above the walk in turnout, which isn't typical for him.  He did spook briefly this morning and trotted a few steps, but it wasn't a good trot - the left hind/right front pair clearly didn't feel good.  This afternoon, he told me that it was his armpit area - where the right front joins the body - that was sore - I'm wondering if he slipped in the mud when he was feeling good and extended his front leg too far to the side.  I'm hoping our vet/chiropractor can help him out, and I'm still feeling a bit bad about making him trot yesterday after the rearing, although I'm afraid it was probably necessary and it's good that horses mostly are forgiving sorts . . .

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