Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Smart Horse Chronicles, continued

Zip has not, as yet, reached this point.

I didn't plan on posting again today. I've been accused of being an erratic blogger, and I wouldn't want to do anything to ruin that reputation. But Zip isn't done yet, and I feel compelled to let him have his day.

To recap, Zip is using the endless bad weather as an opportunity for sharing what he's learned that I didn't teach him. That I didn't know about. That I am not entirely happy with. Today's episode falls into that last category.

Many of the gates around the farm are kept closed by a chain that I've attached to the gate with a quick link and simply loop over the gatepost. The really important ones--the ones that keep the horses off the lawn and out of the woods and the neighbor's carrot patch, for instance--are securely latched with slide bolts or other horse-proof devices. But the unimportant ones have the chain arrangement that I adopted so I could open and close the gates from the back of a horse. Laziness is the Mother of Invention.

Yesterday, Zip informed me that he'd figured out how to chain verbal commands into new commands with new, chained behaviors attached. Very many "Wow!" moments ensued. Today I'd planned on spending more time with him as a participant observer. But it snowed. It got cold again, and little flakes came down to dampen my resolve. So instead, I had breakfast with a friend, then rushed home to throw the horses out before they had too much time to muck up their stalls. Zip was not pleased.

The usual routine would have the Big Spotted Horse walking out to the pasture without fanfare. The new routine has involved a lot of trick behavior on his part to elicit both cookies and delay of the inevitable on my part. So his first move after I opened by throwing the stall guard down and issuing the "get out of there" command was to not "get out of there", but to stand there and do tricks in his stall.

Ignored, he opted to walk to the tackroom door where he knows both the clicker and the cookies live. Ignored again, he gave up the game and headed on outside. Fear of not being first at the bale feeder is no longer a driving force for him, which has resulted in much slower responses to the "move your butt" cue on turnout.

I'd pretty much figured we were done for the morning, and closed the gate with both the looped chain over the post and the clipped chain lower down that keeps Duke from pushing the gate open just far enough to squeeze through. Zip waited till I was done with the latching business before he showed me his new leap of learning. Using his prehensile upper lip--a trick I'm pretty sure he learned from Rat when Zip was still an impressionable foal--Zip got under the chain and very neatly lifted. I didn't give him enough time to remove it entirely as this is not a behavior I care to reinforce. I've already had the thrill of finding Zip and Rat grazing their way around the outside of the fence perimeter, and it's not one I care to relive.

I petted him, told him he was wonderful, all the while gently pushing his nose away from the chain and the chain back onto the post. He smiled (yes, he did), then dropped his head and grabbed the lower chain with his lips.

He can't unlatch that, not because he can't figure it out, but because I cleverly position the clip on the inside of the gate where he can't reach it. But my startlement was none the less total by his demonstration that he knows about the chain, gets the concept, and if he was left to his own devices, could probably figure out how to completely unlatch and open that gate. I guarantee, this was not in our lesson plan at any time in the past 12 years.

Today, however, Zip was not alone in his exhibitionism, and that bears note as well. It's long been argued that horses do not learn from each other. I know they do. I've watched Zip learn to lick a particular spot on the wall outside his stall after meals after watching his mother in the next stall do it. I've also watched Dakota, who has had almost no trick-training at all, pick up a fork-shaped branchlet from the corner of his stall and use it to sweep the floor after having spent three years watching Zip being rewarded for that behavior. I've watched Duke pick up a wisk broom and follow behind me while I swept the aisle, sweeping as he went. You can't tell me they don't learn by imitation.

But Pinky the One-Eyed Wonder Horse has never shown a proclivity for such silliness. He came with two tricks--kisses and a semblance of a bow--and he's stuck to those for 12 years. Imagine my surprise when he turned on his way out and lipped the chain on the gate in imitation of Zip.

So the chronicle continues. The horses seem determined to demonstrate to me that they are smarter than I suspected. I'm sure they're not done yet. I only hope their demonstrations don't eventually lead to behaviors that will net them a Hollywood contract. I don't think I can handle being "Zip's Handler" for minimum cookies per hour.

No comments: