Monday, April 23, 2012

Pony see, pony do

 Growing up every horse we had always clipped wonderfully. And by wonderfully I mean, ground tied, rope hanging around their neck, head willing held whatever level needed next to the telephone pole, with a huge set of clippers made for body clipping. This was how my Mother clipped her horses then, and this is still how we do it today (but with barns, and better clippers). Now you may think that we spent weeks and weeks teaching every single horse over the years to clip in such a nice manner, but it actually was achieved very simply but just tying/holding every single new horse we purchased right next to every horse that was really good for clipping while we clipped before turning the clipper on the new horse. Using observational learning or put it simply the concept of Pony See Pony Do (so much better than the monkey).

Think about as it if you had lived a  average horse's life, (only experienced normal horsey things; grass, stalls, trees) you too would probably think that a loud buzzing clipper near your face could only mean that person in charge of it was trying to kill you. But if you were allowed to see other people face the clippers who were not afraid of it, you probably would feel much better about allowing it near your face. Foals learn by watching their mothers, you learned to cook by watching your mother. Learning from others is natural and basic means of survival. So why not use this survival instinct to your advantage when training?

Around here I use this type of training with every single horse that comes through the door. Just last week I once again witnessed the awesome power of observational learning with Fancy.

Fancy came here at 6, broke as a 3 year old, then never handled, and this is her story of how she learned to be caught in open pasture.
Day 1: Slightly resistant to being caught in the stall.
Day 2: More willing to caught in the stall, was let out with other horses.
Day 3: Did not want to be caught in open pasture, forcing a 2 hour chase by lawn mower (yes I said lawn mower, and no she was never in any danger, just kept moving at a slow and steady pace), was unwilling touched at the end.
Day 4: The moment Fancy sees me she takes off, I go out and just catch my horses, who will come when called, and always stand for as long as it takes to get the cookie they get after getting their halters on. Ignoring her, I tie them and start grooming. She follows and watches, and eventually stands for brushing, using 3 cookies she is caught within 10 minutes.
Day 5: She runs away, I catch my horses, not wanting to be left out Fancy follows, and is caught as soon as I finish tying my own.
Day 6: She turns away but chooses to stay, I halter my own horses, then proceed to Fancy, she grudgingly accepts the halter.
Day 7: She turns and faces me as I approach, and is willing caught after my horses.
Day 8: She is over by the arena when I step outside(100 yards out), and she trots over and insists on being caught before Charlie.
Day 9: She had been perfect so far ever since.

Now lets break down what happened.
Fancy was in a new environment, her only sources of companionship were my horses. Over time by seeing over that over that my horses (all the horses in her environment) where happy to be caught, and even looked forward to it, Fancy eventually decided that she too could and should be happy about caught. Depending on how she is reintroduced in her home environment she should maintain her willingness to be caught. However if she were immediately turned out with other horses who ran away she would probably revert back to her previous behavior.

Making observational learning work for you.
The only tools you need to use this method is one or more really good role model horses who do exactly what you want the new horse to do perfectly every time. Over the years I've used this approach for clipping, grooming, trailering, tying, bathing, saddling, hoof trimming, you name it. I so believe in observational learning that I show every new horse how it is done by first doing it to my own horses and letting them watch. After watching two other horses sleep while being saddled you would be amazed at how well the new guy can take it. Don't let not having a model citizen in your herd stop you. Most boarding barns have a few model citizens you could ask to borrow for a few hours, or talk with your horse friends and see about setting up some time to work together work on your problems or show your new horse how it is done.   


  1. Hmmm. From her run, Pandora watches me lead Pan all over the pasture and make him behave, then work in hand in the round pen. She watches Diego's histrionics, then sees when he finally gives up and stands still to be petted before he is released. Maybe it's no coincidence that she is steadily becoming more attentive and respectful.

    1. Yes, good role models will improve any horse, while bad role models can also make a good horse go bad. When Pie was in a herd of 18 who all had less then stellar manners she slowly over the course of a year there got just a wee bit naughty at times for my standards, but I also know that she was very spoiled and not handled properly when I was not around because she was the only horse (out of all 18 who belonged to them)that they could reliably enjoy and do anything with.