It has been a long time since we have had a foal on our property. This summer, we are fostering a foal, Bruce, and his dam, Spyder, for a local rescue. I thought it would be fun to try and clicker train Bruce from the start. Bruce arrived here having had no handling, except for the experience of loading into a trailer, so not entirely a clean slate.
He was rather nervous of humans so, unlike the usual curious foals that will come up to you if you get small and wait, he’d have none of that. I moved Spyder and Bruce into the barn for a short time each day so that I could manage the environment better and set things up for success.
I was not going to follow him around the stall and attempt to touch him like a predator, or grab him and force him to submit to my touch; none of the usual “handle the foal” techniques. He was too young to look at any food I could offer as a positive reward, so I decided to pair the click with a scritch, instead. A “scritch” is a scratch on one of those great places on a horse that gets them to roll their eyes in their heads and get their muzzle moving; it feels good!
But I couldn’t get close enough to Bruce to touch him with my hand, so how was I going to deliver a scritch? I waited by the door of the stall until he looked at me - then I clicked and reached over with the handle end of my driving whip and rubbed him by his withers until I saw that look of ecstasy on his little face. It didn’t take long before I could shorten up the length of the whip between us, and soon I could rub him with just my hand. I did not force the distance to shorten, and if there were signs of him
being anxious about my closeness, I would stand still and wait for the slightest sign of relaxation - then click and scritch.
Within a short time, he was comfortable having me in the stall with him and I began to start to shape the behaviour of “face me and follow me” to get his click and scritch. You do need to be careful not to scritch for too long or it can evolve into mutual grooming, which you do not want. If he offered to groom me, I would stop scratching until he stopped, then click and scritch just a little again to show him which behaviour would be rewarded.
Next, I started to explore the “can I touch you here?” game. All the time I would watch for signs of stress - a tense look on his face, a tight muzzle, a tenseness in his body - and would try to wait where I was until I saw any relaxation in him that I could click and reward with a scritch. If I went too far and caused him to move away, I would wait until he was calm again and try for a little less or a different spot, before returning to the original spot that had caused the fear.
Why was I being so careful to avoid causing fear or frustration during his learning?
Kay Lawrence, an amazing UK clicker trainer and a regular presenter at Clicker Expo, says that, “practicing any emotion - including fear - only makes an animal more likely to experience that emotion, earlier and more strongly, under similar circumstances.” I did not want Bruce to feel fear and have to deal with it every time a human approached him. I wanted him to view a human encounter as a good thing, a pleasant experience to look forward to. All emotions motivate learning and behaviour. A pleasant emotion is just as effective in eliciting behaviour as an unpleasant emotion is.
Kay also says that, “emotions experienced during learning colour the learning process and become embedded into the behaviour.” So, fear will become embedded into the learning process if it is the emotion used to motivate learning and behaviour. Just as easily, we can embed joy and pleasure into the learning process, so that new challenges are faced with eager anticipation rather than fear. Pleasant emotions will create positive emotional responses to all learning opportunities and build trust in the relationship.
Kay also makes the distinction between frustration in learning and engagement. “Engagement” is feeling comfortably challenged. If we, as learners, aren’t challenged, we tend to get bored; if we are faced with too big a challenge, we may become frustrated and quit. Think of Sudoku puzzles. If you start with a hard one, you may get frustrated, not engaged, and quit.
However, by starting with the easier puzzles and experiencing success, we are eager to move up to the next level of difficulty. So while we don’t want to frustrate Bruce, we do need to engage him in the learning process. It will be interesting to see how Bruce’s journey unfolds, and I hope to share the journey with you in future articles.
If anyone is interested in adopting Bruce or Spyder, a three-year-old registered QH mare, please contact me and I will put you in touch with the rescue organization for which I am fostering them.