Food is highly motivating for Ben. Highly. Motivating. When he first came to me one of my first priorities was to establish manners at feeding time. I quickly learned never to carry treats in my pockets.
The winter before last, Carolyn Resnick posted a series on her Uberstreichen exercises and I thought they would make a good winter activity for Ben and I. Her first priority was that your horse stands still while you do a particular flexion exercise, rest, walk quietly around him and repeat the exercise. We never really got to the exercises. My winter activity consisted of having Ben stand still. It was quite a challenge: first, to stand still while I put my hands on his headcollar, then to stand while I walked away, and, even more, while I disappeared from view walking around him. I tried calmly moving Ben back to the spot every time he moved, but we were getting nowhere. So out came some treats.
I was doing this work in my yard, being the only ice free area I had. I put treats in a bucket and left them about ten feet away, on the other side of the electric fence. Ben’s rate of learning speeded up very quickly, to the extent that now, when I am doing in-hand once again, he remembers that command to stand.
However, in the meantime, I tried some clicker training, taking advantage of someone local who could come to show me and thinking that the positive reinforcement approach would help us both through Ben’s often stubbornly dominant resistance. Clicker training involved keeping treats on my person and rewarding often. No matter how often I tried to impose discipline around these treats, Ben developed a horrible snatching habit which could lead to a bite. He became totally fixated on the treats, offering lots of different behaviours in the hope of gaining a treat and losing all that calm responsiveness that had come before.
I didn’t pursue the clicker training. It felt too mechanical, interfering in the real relationship that was between us. (Quite possibly an expert clicker trainer could do it with real “feel”.)
I am left with the dilemma of motivating Ben as I do in-hand work with him. I am keen to do this with consistency; he is a stiff cob, who, thankfully, loves to ride out and I am keen to supple and strengthen his back.
He is also “stiff” in terms of resistance and does not see a lot of point in flexing and lowering his head. Doing so puts my hand close to his mouth and we have had snatch, snatch, snatch, snatch, snatch.
I have gone back to the treats in the bucket situation; and to getting the basics – standing on the spot – before we do much more. This has been an interesting challenge: Ben is asked to stand on a mat and this has brought his head up and some real resistance, which I find very interesting indeed. He runs out either side, right through my barrier of schooling whip. He challenges me to “mean it!”, to use my body, my voice, my energy very clearly and decisively. With all this going on, his mouthing for treats has been a distraction. He is now running into the handle of my whip, or my hand, and is learning to wait as I go to the bucket and learning that he only gets a treat when he turns away from me.
I do not reward with a treat for every effort. I fetch a treat for the extra efforts and this exercise is making me think about what is rewarding for Ben. He is not a horse that is rewarded by strokes, although I use these, or tone of voice, although I use this also. He likes and needs a break, a quiet pause. He is definitely rewarded by treats, but I need to find a place where they are the reward but not the distraction.
I had thought that Ben and I would be walking circles and serpentines in-hand at this stage. No, we are trying to stand still together. With this struggle going on – we both have to learn how to do this together – I console myself with the fact that he still comes up to me in the field when I approach with his headcollar.
Having just put the link on to Carolyn Resnick’s blog, I have read her latest post which talks about training a horse and teaching a horse to enjoy signals to halt, go and more. Well worth a read.