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Bruce, The Rescue Foal, Learns To Lead

The story and training of Bruce continues this month. With haying season upon us, I have had very little time to work with the rescued mares and foals. However, I did teach them how to put on their halters. Yes, THEY put on their halters.

All I do is hold the halters up in front of them and they stick their heads in. This is a far cry from the hard-to-catch, fearful mares that arrived here. Bruce had only had minimal work as well. It had been a good stretch of time since they’d been played with, so I was curious as to how well they remembered their lessons.

The power of clicker training never ceases to amaze me. In my pre-clicker days, there would have been no way I could have spent as little time as I had with these mares and even hope to have them respond as they did... they both came right up, away from grass, and offered to put on their halters! As for Bruce, who had only been clicked for being touched (and rewarded with a scritch, not even any food yet), he happily came up to be touched and was clicked and then rewarded with a lip-curling scritch.

So what to do with Bruce now? It had been a bit of a chore getting him from the pen to the pasture when we moved them down as he is a curious, self-assured guy - he would wander off , get distracted and really not seem too worried about mom. Seeing as he will soon be weaned, I thought leading or, more accurately, “following a feel” would be a good place to start.

With clicker training, we like to break things down into “easy to be right” steps. I had just started Bruce on targeting his nose to my fist in the stall. This is, or can be, a precursor to leading. I presented my fist to him and he touched it without hesitation. Click and treat (scritch). What a clever boy! I repeated this several times to make sure he understood and then moved my fist so he had to move to touch it. Bruce caught on right away and was happy to follow me away from his dam. Now this is a great start on leading and giving to the traditional “pressure” idea that most of us associate with leading.

But you might be wondering how touching and following a fist can teach giving to pressure. Have you ever tried to learn to do something without some help or guidance that you are on the right track? Imagine trying to do a jigsaw puzzle when there is no picture on the box to give you a hint. Some of us find this kind of learning (Free Shaping) frustrating and mentally tiring. On the other end of the learning spectrum is Directed Learning, which is like driving your car and following someone else to a new place, but you don’t remember how you got there - you are sort of on autopilot, only part of the brain is working. The learner in this case is highly dependent on the teacher.

Free Shaping and Directed Learning are at opposite ends of the learning continuum. In clicker training, while we do use each of these techniques, we often use Guided Learning (in the middle of the learning continuum) with the goal to produce an animal that has the tools to problem-solve and generalize using the skills it has learned.

My next step in teaching Bruce to “lead” was to put my hand on his shoulder close to me with very light pressure. I would then quickly pair it with my “fist target” placed so that he would shift his weight away from the light pressure of my hand to go touch my fist; I would click and scritch, often before he actually touched my fist (because even the slightest movement toward my fist target was a “step” in the right direction). He quickly figured out that the light pressure on his shoulder (we are talking just the weight of my hand) meant he should move, which also earned him a click and treat (scritch). If he had trouble understanding, I would add in my fist cue, so as to give him a bit of directed learning and not just leave him there trying to put the puzzle together with no picture!

Yes, I could have just placed my hand on his shoulder and waited for him to figure things out, but this little bit of directed learning gave him the opportunity to be right sooner. I then added in a rope around the base of his neck and using the same target, my fist cue, combined with a slight pressure on the rope, got him to follow the feel of the rope around his neck. If he hesitated in moving away from the pressure of the rope, I would maintain that same pressure (NOT add more pressure) but also add in the target cue.

This way, he quickly figured out to move from a very gentle pressure. He had learned how to give to pressure without all the thrashing and pulling that usually comes with teaching a foal to lead. When we do add in the halter, we will also still use the target fist cue to help him generalize that light pressure anywhere on his body means give to it. The pairing of the cues will allow him the chance to be right more often and become confident in his ability to learn and understand what is being asked of him, without the fear factor that so many horses experience during training. Bruce will be a thinking horse that will know how to deal with pressure... the light-as-a-feather pressure you should only ever have to use to get the desired response.

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