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.