Thursday, March 28, 2013

Wash Stall Training Progress

Tuesday, I was somewhat short of time but wanted to get in short rides on both of the boys in the afternoon, so Red and I didn't work on the wash stall (see previous post on this), even though his legs and feet were nasty with mud.  There was no point in working on it when I might feel time pressure - that wasn't the right atmosphere for this sort of thing - it would hold to another day.

Yesterday, I did have time, so we worked on the wash stall again.  As I had suspected, the progress we'd made held well - breaks like this sometimes advace the training more than just keeping on working on it actively - it gives the horse time to process.  After one brief hesitation on the first try - I had to tap him on the side with the lead only a couple of times - he was taking nice steps, one at a time, backing a step or two at my ask and then leading forward again.  We led in and stood for a bit, then led in and I ran the water.  All was good.  I put him away for a while, and groomed Pie.

When we came out again, the moment of hesitation on first coming to the wash stall was even briefer - all I did was move towards his side and he stepped forward - no need to tap with the lead rope - you could almost hear him saying, "alright, alright, I get it".  After than he led right in, stopped and stood with the water running, and led out just about perfectly.  Ho hum - that's how it should be.  The next time I led in, and had him standing there, I started hosing his legs as if it was no deal.  He stood there on a loose lead, relaxed, and we completed the hosing.  Back to his stall as a reward.

The things I would emphasize that work for me: breaking it down into very small steps and being very specific about the exact thing you want at each stage; offering the horse choices and then rewarding the choice you want; timing releases of pressure the instant you get a response you want - the foot stepping forward, not the foot reaching the ground, for example - you're rewarding the try, not the completion of the action and can shape and perfect the response as you go; lots, and lots, and lots of praise at each small increment of progress; not trying to get everything done at once, or have things perfect; taking lots of breaks after short work sessions - if you're doing something in the arena, for example, just taking a walk around for a few minutes can be a break.  I'm always amazed how people ask horses to do something - there was a horse in the arena yesterday that wouldn't go in one corner, and the person riding never gave the horse a break, or any praise, but just kept asking for more, and more and more - I've seen people do this with trailer loading - the horse eventually gave in but the horse wasn't happy and never got the opportunity to make a choice.  I'm not even sure the horse understood what the rider wanted, since there were never any releases or rewards.

It isn't about getting the horse in the wash stall, it's about how the horse gets in the wash stall, how the horse stands in the wash stall, how the horse gets out of the wash stall, and most importantly, how the horse feels about things at every step of the way.

I wouldn't start work like this with a horse until basic leading and your personal space were well-established, and the horse knows how to respond to soft pressure by moving away from it.  Working in close with a horse that doesn't understand these things can be dangerous. I would also caution that a horse that is afraid, or nervous/anxious close to fear, would likely require somewhat different handling - I've had very good success with clicker training in these cases (clicker can be useful for other things too - I started my work with Red on hoof handling using clicker - his behavior when having his feet handled when I got him was dangerous - clicker is a quick way to convince the horse that maybe paying attention to something you want is a good idea).  Too many people assume a horse is just saying "no" when the horse is fearful or anxious - that's where many of the "make them do it" "training" techniques come from.

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