Monday, December 17, 2007

Winter Break: Trick Training!

Today's much-dreaded trip to the supermarket for "a few items" that ran, as usual, into a tab three digits strong, yielded more than just a few blackberries for my morning oatmeal. I ran into a dear friend and during our conversation was struck by a thought that I felt the need to share.

My friend, you see, had just dropped off her young teenaged daughter (and avid rider) at the barn to work her new dressage horse. As we chatted, she mentioned that the horse was beginning to show his true colors as a bit of a slacker. He'd begun, she said, to get a little snotty about work after he'd had a couple of days off. The weather in the Northeast being what it's been--crappy--for a couple of weeks, he's had ample opportunity to visit upon his new owners a bit of his testy attitude.

I thought about it, remembered admiring his willing and workmanlike attitude, and suggested that maybe it wasn't a glitch in his makeup, but a loud complaint about the same thing we're all complaining about: It's DAMNED COLD OUT THERE! New Jersey isn't known for frigid weather. We're mild types who like our winters above freezing and the snow minimal.

My friend assured me that the girl wasn't working him hard, but I asked the obvious follow-up: Has he been blanketed? I already know that he's been stalled for the most part since the bleakness set upon us. That's the routine at the barn where he's being kept. "So," I said, "he's been toasty warm in his nice blanket, then Sarah comes along, rips it off him, saddles up and tells him he's got to work." My friend definitely looked perplexed by that thought. "And you wonder why he's a little testy?"

The general rule, as I explained to her, is that once the temperature drops below 40 degrees Farenheit, horses find breathing hard to be uncomfortable at best. We've been hitting the mid-20's consistently lately. In addition, a horse standing around in a stall isn't giving his muscles much of a workout (unlike my guys who are on turnout whenever they can navigate the snow and ice and keep warm jogging around each other at the bale feeder), so they're cold when he's taken out. Cold muscles, cold air, no blanket . . . sheesh! I'd be complaining too!

Oh, I know that working cowhorses aren't allowed days off for bad weather, but we're talking high-toned, thin-blooded show horses now. So what's a horse person to do when the temps drop and the snow falls?

Trick train! If you've been reading this blog or my other published ramblings for a while, you're probably familiar with my deep and abiding love of the clicker and its many powers. Bad weather days are a great opportunity to bond with your horse and give him something new to think about. Visit the local pet emporium and pick up a few clickers (they tend to go through the wash in pockets and don't click well afterwards, so multiples are a good idea), then visit the supermarket for a cheap bag of something crunchy. I like frosted mini shredded wheat. My horses love it, it's easy to pocket, and it's quickly consumed so they don't spend time focusing on the reward instead of the lesson.

Even the worst weather day can be fun, assuming you have a sheltered area in which to play. The barn aisle, a stall, a shed . . . someplace where you're able to relax and be a little comfy will do fine.

What can you teach? Well, Zip has learned to retrieve anything I drop, make a funny face, back up, turn around, move his body at the point of a finger, sweep the mat in front of his stall door, stretch into a bow, and lift and hold up each of his feet. Pokey has a lovely smile. Leo can say "please" loudly by flapping his lips. Pinky begs and gives kisses. Duke will back up, spin in a circle, smile and bow all in sequence for a single reward. Only Dakota is struggling with the whole concept of silly behavior for pay. Eventually I'll have him doing something fun against his better judgment.

Just remember that you need to start by teaching your horse what the stimulus-reward thing is all about. The book says to begin by sticking something intriguing in his face and waiting for him to touch it with his nose. When he does, you click, give him his treat, and make a huge fuss. After a few trials, he'll get the picture that doing what you are asking will get him a reward. Once he's got that, you're limited only by your imagination and his essential horse-ness.

So put on your thermal undies and warm boots and go spend ten minutes with your horse. I guarantee that you will have a new appreciation for his intelligence (and he for your idiocy), and that you'll find one thing leads to another until you've got a repertoire of chained behaviors that would make Ringling Brothers proud.

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