Endurance Riders

Endurance and Long Distance Equine Disciplines

My 2008 resolution is this:

Spend time with my horse learning or teaching something new at least once each month of the year.

On New Year's Day, we began with New Thing for January: trick-training.

Since Fiddle is tall and I am not (see photo), I decided that the trick I'd focus on would be lie down so I can get on. So that is the goal...but not the starting point. The trick is broken down into smaller segments. Teaching a segment is done in 15 minute sessions, practicing each part until the segment is comfortably learned before adding a new part to it. The entire trick might take us a month or two to master.

We start with target practice.

In target practice, the goal is to use the words "touch it" to cue the horse to touch an object with her nose. She earns the reward of a praise word and a cookie when she does it. Some people use clickers in place of the praise word, but I figure that's just one more object to keep track of and juggle in my hands...so I just say "Gooooooood Girl" instead and it works just fine.

The target must be something lightweight enough for me to hold in one hand, but big enough that if she is reaching to touch the object, she won't overshoot and accidently bite my hand. More about that later.

In the first stage of target practice, Fiddle didn't know what I was asking. Why should she put her nose on a traffic cone held in my LEFT hand, when she could smell that the cookies were in my RIGHT pocket? I gave the cue words "touch it" and then let her explore the options without reprimanding her. For really dim horses, I'd have to first verbally reward the behavior of moving the nose anywhere away from my pocket. For Fiddle, I gave a verbal reward when she approached my left hand, and then I "cheated" by bumping the traffic cone onto her nose, enthusing "Gooooood girl" and handing her a cookie.

Pretty soon she caught on: "touch target, get praise and cookie." She also learns that the praise means, "good job, cookie on the way."

I like to use "non-horsey" items as targets--a traffic cone, a boot, or a rubber duck--because target practice can be handy at other times, like when my horse comes upon some terrifying monster (a mailbox, for example) and I want her to face her fears by touching it.

By using foreign objects in target practice, I teach Fiddle that any new "terrifying monster" is really just a new target. She has already established that she LIKES targets, because she gets a cookie when she touches them with her nose, so she should stop huffing at it and just walk up and touch it. Cool, huh?

Next step: move the target around. Put it down low and give the verbal cue. Hold it up high (see why you want a lightweight target?) Practice carrot stretches back to the hip on each side. Practice a carrot stretch down between the front legs (see why you want a big enough target to keep your fingers safe?)

From target practice, we can move in many directions, including "fetch". However, my next step is to teach the bow or curtsy.

To execute the curtsy, I want Fiddle to raise up the front leg nearest to me, put her head down beside it, and rock back, carrying most of her weight on her hind end.

Using the same rewards that I used in target practice, I teach Fiddle to pick up the foot nearest me and hold it up in response to the verbal cue "foot."

I start teaching this by giving the verbal cue "foot", tapping the chestnut on the leg I want, and then picking up the foot the way I would normally lift it for cleaning or farrier work. When the foot is up--no matter how much of MY effort it took to get it up, Fiddle gets praise and then a cookie. Since foot lifting is easy and cookies are nice, it doesn't take long for her to respond well to the verbal cue without any extra tapping or lifting from me.

Now to the foot lift, we add the head movement, putting her head down beside the lifted leg. This is done by combining the foot lift with the target practice. So far, so good.

Next step: shifting the weight back, using further target practice and a lot of cookies....

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Comment by Mary K Krauss on April 6, 2008 at 1:26pm
We're SOOO gonna try this. I ditto on substituting praise for the clicker. What if one loses the clicker?

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