Monday, February 02, 2009

The Smart Horse Chronicles

Zip was a baby when I discovered the clicker business. In this photo, Zip, two, was working with a high school student from my English class who wanted to learn clicker training. In the twelve years since, the barn has taken on a festive atmosphere. Some days one might swear a horde of flamenco dancers have gone wild in my barn aisle.

Some horses are quick learners. Some are not. Some are reluctant. Some are afraid of the clicker. Some just aren't interested. Zip is a star.

I bring this up not to blow Zip's horn for him--though granted, he hasn't yet learned to do it for himself--but to report that in my ongoing study of equine behavior, a new wrinkle has appeared.

Now, anyone who's anyone in the animal biz knows that animals have smarts and can be trained to do all sorts of things. They are limited only by the short-sighted humans who pretend to be their trainers. I've taught Zip all sorts of skills from bowing to stretching his own little self after girthing up to line-dancing. He can fetch pretty much anything whether I want him to or not. The barn help has also taught him things, some of which I would prefer they hadn't, but some of which are immensely helpful. The whole sweeping with a broom thing, for instance, keeps his stall doormat shining, but also causes endless conflict over which of us gets to hold the muck fork when I'm trying to pick out his stall with him in it.

But there are also things he's taught himself. The day he showed me he could flip his feed bucket up in the air and catch it upside-down on his rump and on his head was a special moment that had me literally on the floor. It's been a while since he's freelanced, however, so yesterday he really took me by surprise.

It was a small thing, really, by some standards, but huge when you consider the leap of linguistic logic required to accomplish it.

I turn my herd out en mass--open the doors, and out they go. Open them again, and in they come. Another little training endeavor that proved fruitful. But there is always a moment at night turn-out when Zip, in his endless desire to say goodbye to me one more time, blocks the gate so one-eyed Pinky has to shuffle around and wait for clearance. That was the setting for last night's "moment".

I've worked with Zip on not standing on me probably more than any other behavior. So he doesn't. But not standing in the way of the gate was a concept we hadn't really discussed beyond my yelling, "Move your butt!" and cracking the longe whip to make my point. Yesterday Zip, bored, was craving attention, so he spent considerable time standing next to me hoping I'd tell him to do something. What I told him to do was "back off". That's not a cue he knows intact. He does know "back", which he does very well, and he knows "off", meaning as I walk towards him, he moves away from me without touching me but remaining at the same distance from my shoulder. It's a dog command I (but not my Siberian Husky) learned once upon an obedience class. Zip, cued, moved back away from me as I wandered from stall to stall opening the doors and letting the horses out. That, in itself, was surprising. Zip is not known for patience, and as herd leader, he tends to push the others around a little. For him to snap to and stand back was startling. We moved on.

Zip had already had his round of tricks and treats, and I'd sent him out the door, and he was lingering in his usual spot just outside the gate. I had to change Pinky's blanket for one that actually had all its straps intact, which I did with Pinky standing free in the barnyard while I took one off and went in search of another that fit him. All the while, Zip stood blocking the gate from the outside. When I had buckled the last buckle, I turned to Zip and said, "Back off!" And he did. He turned and walked three steps farther into the pasture. It was enough to allow Pinky to get through the gate untraumatized. I figured once is just lucky happenstance, so I tried it again. And again. And each time I said the magic words, he did what I asked. He backed off.

As I closed the gate, gushing kudos at my smart horse, he came to say goodbye one more time. No cookies involved, just a pat on the nose and my undying gratitude for reminding me that while we humans are obsessing on our little lives, the animals are watching, learning, and responding in ways we really need to appreciate.

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