I’m fortunate, this snowy winter, to be boarding at a farm that has an indoor. After riding we take a pitchfork and scoop up any manure that our horses have left. This maintains the good footing in the ring, and is the polite thing to do.
It can be awkward to lead your horse over to the offending piles, use the pitchfork, and then walk it over to the manure bucket. I thought it’d be much easier to teach Tonka to stand while I did the task without the tangle of reins or the worry that he’d jostle me and that I’d drop the manure. So I taught Tonka to stay. Just like a dog. Why not?
As with all training, first I thought through exactly what the end behavior would be. In this case, I wanted my horse to stand calmly while I walked away and walked back. He had to stand while I was as far away as the other end of the ring. I would be walking behind, in front and to his side – and each of these positions would need to be trained – animals don’t generalize – for example, you might think that you trained your dog to “stay” but actually you only trained her to stay while you were five feet away and in front of her, while in your kitchen. Move to the hallway, and she no longer knows what stay means!
I thought through what the cue would be. I wanted to have the option of using either a verbal stay or a tactile signal. That physical cue would be two taps to his forehead – distinct and different than any other touches that I might do. In the future, I’ll extend this training to outside of the ring. How useful it will to be, while on the trail, to be able to get off, say stay, and do something like move a branch off of the path. How useful, somewhere noisy or chaotic, to be able to tap his forehead and have him stand still.
I taught the stay with the clicker and treats (mostly carrot coins and apple slices, but sometimes homemade cookies or peppermints.) At first, I walk one step away, and click and feed before he can move. Two steps. Click and feed. A step to the side. Click and feed. The click tells him exactly what he is doing right – all four feet on the ground, weight square over them. Calm. The treat makes the behavior rewarding and worth doing again. The click ends the behavior. If he moves after it, no problem. He still gets the treat. I build duration. I step away, count to three, he remains standing, I click and treat. If he moves, no matter, there’s no click. We try again. There’s nothing to punish, no reason to scare him back into position with a threatening rope or a harsh word. The training is quiet. The horse is relaxed.
It takes time.
But now when I say stay, or tap Tonka on his forehead, I can walk away.
If a horse is in a stay, then why not teach the come? Once again I had to think through the behavior and the cue. I want Tonka to walk calmly towards me. I want him to start when I say come (I also have a hand signal – I like the option of one or the other.) I started from only a step away. He moves towards me, click and treat. Then two steps, and then more.
Here he is, responding to come.
Good boy, Tonka!
I am now taking clients for training. Email me if interested.