“In less than 10 minutes, using positive reinforcement (clicker training), I had caught the un-catchable mare. As I did the ‘happy dance’ on the way to the barn I suddenly realised that, actually, catching her might have been the easy part. I now had to change the bandage! Oh where is that second pair of hands when you need them!
While the kids stood with their mouths hanging open at the fact that the mare had been voluntarily caught, I topped up my treat pouch up with pony nuts sensing I might be there for a while trying to get a bandage on a mare that was also not keen on being touched…”
Could You Lend Me a Hand – Part 2
Let Me Give You My Hoof
Whilst I’d been in the field with the mare, I had begun to suspect that she didn’t really want to be touched. So my first job, now I’d got her in, had to be finding out how she really felt about touch. I needed to be very sure that she could at least tolerate it before I started work in the vicinity of the kicking end! She confirmed what I thought; at least under these circumstances, touch made her nervous.
The beautiful thing about how I learned clicker training is that it is a step-by-step process. With each step you are checking so many things and you can see if there are steps (or training holes) that need to be filled in before you can progress to your next step. Touch acceptance was clearly a training hole for this little mare and it was a step that needed to be in place to allow me to safely work on her back foot.
When she touched me with her nose I would click and treat, then I would ask if we could meet half way; could I start to approach her with my hand? As we got better at that I began to touch her neck, then click and treat, building up to touching her shoulder, her withers and down her back. By gradually increasing my criterion (the duration of my touch or the proximity to her back leg) in very small steps with each click, she learned incredibly quickly what I needed from her.
She was grasping the process in an amazingly short amount of time and, moreover, was actually enjoying the game. It took only a few minutes before she was giving me her hoof!
Who owns the behaviour?
When I have more time I tend to approach horses with touch acceptance issues in a different way. The difference being that I empower the horse. Instead of me approaching them, I reinforce them for approaching me. The psychological difference this makes is very powerful.
The latter method empowers you – it puts you in control of the thing that makes you afraid. It is that that we can achieve with clicker training. We can put a fearful horse in control of the thing that makes it afraid. The quite astounding outcome of that is that the horse owns the behaviour.
Mutual trust and team work
As I worked my hand on the mare towards her hindquarters, I was clicking her for staying relaxed and calm. If she tensed up, that was my cue from her that I had asked too much of her in that step. Very quickly I could see her beginning to think, “Hey, this is a 2-way conversation!” Our mutual trust started to grow and her rate of learning increased at a phenomenal pace.
Working on a back foot meant we had some logistical puzzles to work out. I needed her to keep her foot off the ground, but I also needed to keep reinforcing her (clicking and treating) for not putting her foot down. That second pair of hands was tempting, but why spoil all the fun we were having being creative! With a little trial and error, and a few giggles, we quickly worked out that, as I held her foot up, I could reach my hand around towards her head and, at the same time, if she bent her neck around she could reach my hand! She could get the treats without me putting her foot down. What great team work!
With good communication we had solved all the puzzles we’d encountered from our starting point to our end goal and in no time at all the wound was cleaned and the new bandage on.
From catching the un-catchable mare, right through touch acceptance to changing the bandage, neither of us had broken into a sweat or said a cross word. In fact, by the end, we were both smiling. When I took the mare back out to her field, she wouldn’t leave me!
The next night when I arrived at the yard, the un‑catchable mare came cantering up the field to the gate whinnying as I drove in to the yard. It was such a different picture to the one we’d started out with the night before. You just would not have known that the last time I saw this mare I had started out hoping for an extra pair of hands to help.
No matter how many times I see a relationship like this established with a horse, where they realise they can communicate with their handler and voice an opinion that counts, it takes my breath away. There is something special that can’t be put in to words about creating a bond with these beautiful animals that is truly based on respect and mutual trust.