Thursday, February 12, 2015

Banishing Boredom

It seems I have been lucky enough to acquire a colt that needs endless entertainment. Otto is a busy minded colt to the least. 

In spite of having  pasture mate, plenty of room to run, a couple of toys (jolly balls and half deflated basketballs) and  enough hay to keep the average horse plenty occupied, Otto is always getting into something.Yesterday, he managed to find a very long old baling twine from somewhere and  was running around with it like he was carrying a flag and using it to play tug of war with Cassidy.  I had images of him swallowing it and having to make a trip to the vet. 

This morning, I found him with a 6'  wooden post that once was attached to a wooden base. It’s a Horseback archery track marking post. How he got it apart is beyond me but he was dragging the post along in his mouth. There were nails sticking out and luckily , he didn't injure himself  in the process before I got it away from him.That was another task.. he didn’t want to “drop” it. 

Curiosity and natural playfulness is a characteristic that I tend to like in a horse however, I do worry that in Otto's case, he is not mentally stimulated enough. 

 Finding an outlet for this was part of the inspiration to start clicker training with the eventual goal to trick train him. I saw how easily he was willing to go chase a ball when I tossed it (still need to work on retrieval) and decided he probably has a natural talent for trick training. 

Our clicker training sessions have been brief and slightly sporadic since daylight is a bit of an issue yet but we have been doing a few things. 

(I wish I had photos  to share but it's too much to  handle the targeting stick, the clicker, the treats, and pay attention.. One of these days, I will talk T into doing photography duties..  for now you 'll just have to use your best imagination!)

There are three fundamentals for clicker training that I am starting with.  From everything I have read, the rest is built from these basic skills.
1.       Targeting
2.       Backing  (for respect for space)
3.       Head Lowering (calm down cue)

The first step was teaching Otto about Targeting.  This basically means having him touch a target item with his nose. A target can be practically anything, such as a cone, a dressage whip with a foam end, a Frisbee, even something as simple as a glove or the lid off of a container of some kind. My main target is a 3 foot piece of Pex plastic tubing used for water pipes in homes. At the end of it, I attached a 6 inch piece of pipe insulation foam and duct taped it to the end of the PEX to secure it. 

I chose this for two reasons. One of my eventual goals for Otto is to teach him to bow. The stick allows me to teach him to reach down for the Target without me having to be a contortionist. The other reason was that it was easy to find at the local Home Depot. I think I spent about $5 dollars. I could have used a dressage whip but I wanted something that was a bit more substantial, in the event I had to hit him over the head with it.. 

Just teasing:) 

He has figured out Targeting pretty quickly but he does try to cheat . He will try to get away with just touching the handle part of the target instead of the end of it.  I want to direct where he is targeting to,  so to clarify things for him I have to make sure I am positioning myself so touching the end of the target is the easiest option. This is easier said then done when he keeps getting closer to try to get the treats. Ideally I would have a stall and be on the outside of the stall but I don't so I am just doing it in the corral.  I have also started to experiment with different types of targets to help him generalize the behavior to different objects. Hopefully these tweaks will help him understand which part of the Target I want him to orient to. He is getting it but his tendency is to rush. 

Backing- To ask for this , I am supposed  to stand facing him so my left hand is where the lead rope connects to the halter and the right hand can move touch or move towards the point of his shoulder. My right hand doesn’t push the horse back, but it’s just a touch cue at the shoulder. Then I am supposed to wait for him to respond with even the slightest shift of weight. As soon as he does, I am supposed to give slack in the lead,  click and treat. Seems simple enough bit we are kind of struggling with this.  He is too busy trying to reach around and get his reward while he is backing at the same time . There just doesn’t seem to be a clear moment where he responds and I click. He is  kind of doing his own thing and not paying attention to what I am asking, so he can get to the treat. 

So now, I am I instead  working on the food delivery with targeting first.  I click him for coming forward to touch the target, but I have to back him to get his treat. In other words, instead of holding my hand in close to my body to treat , I put my hand closer into his chest so he has to physically back up to get to the treat. He has a pretty flexible neck so it’s tricky! The idea is that he learns the body language that accompanies backing without even realizing he is having a “lesson”. At that point I can turn in to ask for backing and he already knows what I want.

So what seems like two pretty simple tasks is presenting other unexpected “sub-module’s of training opportunities and teaching me a lot about Otto’s learning patterns in the process.

Last but not least: Lowering of the Head: 
This third fundamental of lowering of the head is especially of interest and importance to me because it  helps to resolve rearing tendencies, which Otto has,  and  pulling back when tied. (he hasn’t been tied yet so this isn’t currently an issue.. ) Teaching the lowering of the head is actually building from the targeting, once again. The next step is to move onto cueing for it by using poll pressure, and then eventually I will use what is called the shaping method. Basically, to use this method, all I have to do is observe and wait for his head to dip down, even a little to start, then click and reward.  There is no triggering of the behavior at all. As I selectively reinforce him for dropping his head, he will eventually begin to keep his head down more and more. Well, that is the idea anyways. Considering that he runs around with his nose in the air and looks like a cow elk (hope he grows out of this weird habit!) I am thinking this will be a key foundation to teach the young whippersnapper!
So far our progress is slow but I have already been able to get him to touch the target when it is at a low , close to the ground position. It seems finding the target when it is low is a bit more challenging so we are taking it slowly. Start high, and slowing move the target lower and lower. If he starts to lose it and no longer will bump the target in a low position, I move it back up to where I know he will.

I am hoping in the coming months I can use this Clicker training to acclimate him to the clippers and spray bottles without much worry for him. 

Clicker sessions are usually short, maybe only 5-10 minutes at the most. 
Short sessions like that don't really solve his overall boredom issue . I can’t be out there for hours a day working on these games to keep him occupied so we are working on coming up with some pasture modification to provide him with additional, safe entertainment. 

At first I was checking into toys for horses on line but found that most of what is available online is either a ball, which he already has,  or toys more geared toward the stalled horse that is bored like the treat dispenser on a rope toys. None of these will really work for a horse in a pasture.

Here is a list of things I am working on putting together.
  • 1.       Plastic barrels filled with rocks to make noise as they roll . He hasn’t shown much interest in this and can’t quite figure out how to push it along. I used to have a Warmblood colt that loved pushing the barrel and then he would leap over it as it was rolling away. He was a trickster too!
  • 2.       Milk jug hung on rope filled with water or stones- hanging from the rafter in the shed. It’s another noise maker.
  • 3.       Carrot contraption- this is like a plastic tub of some kind (like an ice cream tub) with holes all around the perimeter. The tub is hung on a rope and carrots stick out of the holes.  Otto doesn’t like carrots yet.. this might be something for down the road.
  • 4.       High way cones are always a hit. Not saying where to obtain these… I actually found a set of 6 small ones in multiple colors at Walmart for pretty cheap.. but ….I am sure you can be creative..
  • 5.       Grain bags , pieces of tarp or burplap sacks- Otto loves playing with an old towel or tarp but I don’t feel comfortable leaving something like out there in the pasture , fearing he might ingest it..
  • 6.       Stuffed animals tied together with rope  so Otto can grab the rope and toss it or just drag it around, which seems to be his preference. 
So dear readers, if you have any more ideas you would like to share.. comment on!!
Thanks for reading!

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