Joy and engaging Skye’s brain (and my own!)

I was so full of happiness last night. 

The past two days have been glorious. Lovely times volunteering. Quiet company and brisk weather, now that autumn is here. 

Each day I saw Skye afterwards, and each day she was a delight. The penny has dropped with targeting! 

I had been targeting with handheld objects and found that it wasn’t clear enough. She didn’t quite understand how it was any different to just reaching for my treat hand directly. Since I don’t want to teach a gentle and polite horse to mug, I thought I’d best try something else. It’s all in the timing and clarity. The horse has be allowed to figure out, by investigating you without reprimand or micromanagement (you’ve got to hold your nerve, chill, step quietly out of the way if needs-be, and basically let them get bored or trying to mug you!), that coming into your space/body does not result in clicks/treats. You even need to deliver the treat at arm’s length, to reinforce the idea that they keep their head (and teeth!) out of your space, when clicker training is happening. But so, it then follows that it needs to be super-clear to the horse whether they’re rewarded for reaching towards you or the target. 

So I made a soft string pom-pom and attached it to an extendable pointer. I thought, the pointer is thin enough that there’s a clear visual difference/distance between my hand and the pom-pom. And it worked! Horse puzzled it out on Wednesday, then showed that it had really stuck on Thursday. 

So proud of her. My favourite video clip isn’t even the one where she’s getting it right. It’s the one where she’s getting it wrong and you can see the cogs whirring in her brain. She touches it here, touches it there, turns into me like, “hooman, how make treat appear?” with her flippity-floppity flickering thinking-ears and curious happy little face. 

Targeting might seem like a nothing of an achievement, but it’s another bit of confidence-building for her. And improvement of “feel” for me. And lord, imagine if she ever had to be on boring old box rest, would be nice to have options for engaging her brain. 

Novel objects don’t have to be scary. Yesterday I was sort of swinging the target up and in front of us, when moving it from one side to the other (I was seeing if she could still figure it out when the target was in trickier places to reach, and she did!)… And although it illicited a couple of reflex flinches she wasn’t switched off or alarmed at all, just curious, and she didn’t merely tolerate it (no enforced habituation or flooding here). She engaged with it. Followed it because good things happen. So happy for her. Novel objects can be a source of fun. 

As a horse, she already knows this. Out in the field she has no problem with new things and new experiences. She’s a perfect horse. But when humans are around, oh my. Think about all the novel objects they experience when humans get involved… and whether their experience of those novel objects will be pleasant or alarming… and what the common denominator is. So it’s nice to have a way (aside from the simple, quiet, passage of time, which is also a big part of it) to encourage her to feel curious and confident in new situations and environments. Or, more precisely, old situations that she may not have had a good time with. 

Other things learned this week: Skye does not like kale. And brussel sprouts are okay, but nowhere near as motivating as fibre cubes (which are somewhat on a par with carrots). She likes apples, but I’d say they’re a step down from carrots still. Twigs are a favourite, but when browsing rather than as a reward I’d say. 

What a joy though. She’s ever more settled and the anxiety about leaving her lovely new herd has lessened hugely. She still gets sticky feet coming in, but less and less so. When I turned her back out on Wednesday, she didn’t take more than a few walk steps before putting her head down to eat. Previously, she’d galloped off in desperation to be back with the herd. I think she’s beginning to trust that she’s here to stay. 

Yesterday, the herd were completely out of sight so she was keen to find them, but still far more chill about it all than before. We watched her trot off whinnying and were intrigued that we couldn’t figure out where they were either. She went over a rise in the ground and didn’t appear again. So we followed (with my friend’s pony Basil, who likewise is super-chill now, and hadn’t seen any need to immediately run off to his new friends), and found them in another little wooded area that we didn’t even know they had access to. Good coverage above, lots of skinny trees to weave between and under, fallen branches to pick over, lots to nibble… their new home is absolute horsey heaven. I was so happy I could have laid down and cried for joy. 

 
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