This is a very overdue introduction to the latest member of my horse family. Stella came to my farm in April 2007 from a local horse rescue. She is a large pony (Holsteiner x Welsh), about 13.2 hands and 7 years old. Unlike many rescue horses, I was given good information about her history which indicated that she had moved around from one farm to another without making much progress in her training. Early notes on her by the vet indicate that she would not allow her feet to be handled and that she was difficult. The rescue planned to spend some time training her and then find her a new home. But her training did not progress smoothly and her habits of rearing, pulling back and other undesirable behavior did not change. Because they are conscientious about only placing safe horses, they felt uncomfortable placing her. I had been corresponding with the rescue about possible ways to use clicker training to help her and in the end, I just told them I would take her.
Taking on Stella was my first real experience with a “problem” horse since I started clicker training. All of my own horses have had problems in their training, but this was the first time I knowingly took on a horse that other people had been unable to help. So I was interested to see what the experience would be like, and if the problems were easily solved just by changing to a different teaching format or if I had to be creative and explore new ways to use clicker training. I was told that the biggest issues with Stella were rearing and pulling back when tied. The rescue had tried some basic clicker training with her but when she reared during a free shaping session, they were discouraged.
Horses that rear often respond well to clicker training because rearing often comes from physical issues and/or emotional tension. By slowly building behaviors, encouraging the horse to actively participate in the training process, and giving the horse a voice, a clicker trainer can avoid many of the problems that occur when the horse is being trained in other systems. I was hopeful that by rewarding Stella for right answers, she would start to think more carefully about her choices instead of reacting instinctively and going into a fight or flight response.
As I am writing this, Stella has been here for 9 months. For her daily handling, I really don’t treat her any different than anyone else. She gets turned out with Molly the pony and Buster the mini. I lead her in and out daily, groom her on cross ties on a regular basis and trim her feet when needed. I have done some ground work with her in the ring, starting with front feet on the mat and grown-ups are talking and then progressing to backing, head down, WWYLM, 3 flip 3, back feet on the mat, and some work out on a line walking and trotting in head down. I worked very intensively with her for the first month because I needed to be able to handle her feet and I wanted to get some basic behavior established, and I wanted to get a sense of what I had taken on. Since then, she has been handled, groomed and trimmed regularly. I did quite a bit of ground work until winter came. She has made a lot of progress.
While I wish I had more time to work her right now, I think it is ok for her to have some time to just process what we have done and really settle into the routine and the husbandry behaviors that are part of life. She moved around so much and had so many different handlers, that I think she needed time to settle in here. This spring and summer, I will do more work geared toward riding and driving and see how she does with that. What I want to share now is the basic progression of exercises I used, as well as any information I think might be helpful for someone else in taking on a similar project. The progression I used is not any kind of standard format. I do like to start with Alex’s foundation exercises, but I really let her show me what we needed to work on.
When Stella came, she was supposed to live out 24/7 in our pony field which has a run-in shed. Unfortunately she came during a Nor’easter in April and when she was shivering in the rain on the second day, I brought her in. I was concerned that she would pace or just fuss in a stall since I did not think she was used to being in, but she seems to enjoy coming in and has settled into the daily turnout routine nicely. For me, the advantage of her daily routine is that I get a chance to handle her every day and I have used this time to work on her leading skills and maybe practice a few other things.
In addition to changing her routine (she was out 24/7 at her previous home), I changed her name. I wanted her to have a fresh start. Her registered name is Xena and I wanted her to become less warrior-like. I named her Stellaluna after one of my children’s books about a baby bat that falls into a bird’s nest and is raised by birds. The bat gets along ok but never really fits in. When the birds learn to fly, she really has trouble. Then she meets the bats and realizes that there is nothing wrong with her. She was just in the wrong place. In the end of the book, she is friends with both the bats and the birds. I thought of Stella like that. She was just in the wrong place and hopefully she would fit in on my farm and maybe over time, she would learn to be ok with different people and different kinds of handling.
THE FIRST MONTH
I keep a training diary and I have daily accounts of what I did with her. I find it helpful to keep notes on her progress, but it is not great reading, so I am going to present her training in sections, each one a month long. There is lots of overlap as most of the behaviors were ongoing projects.
In the first week, I spent quite a bit of time with her, trying to figure out what she did know, what she was comfortable with me doing, and how she reacted to my requests, especially what she did when she got upset. I had been told that her main issues were rearing, pulling back when tied and difficulty in handling her feet. With that in mind, the first work I did with her was at liberty. I started by teaching her to target over the door of her stall. From the very beginning, it was clear that she was busy, anxious, and impatient. She did a lot of pawing during the first targeting sessions and when I started going in the stall with her, she would bump me with her head if she got frustrated. I was trying to keep the rate of reinforcement high but she seemed to be so busy moving that she didn’t get the targeting.
So I decided to spend some time on mat work. Mat work is useful because it gives horses a very concrete behavior with clear criteria. Your foot is either on or not on the mat. I thought it would be a good exercise for her because keeping her front feet on the mat meant she was not rearing. I did the mat work in her field every day at lunchtime for a few weeks. I was using a small piece of plywood and I started with her at liberty for the first week and then introduced doing the work in a halter and lead. When I first switched to using her halter and lead, I had her wear her halter and lead but I did not use them to lead her around. Instead I had her follow a hand target. In the early mat work sessions, she did a lot of pawing. For the most part I ignored the pawing and felt that it was just nervous energy and that she was not sure what to do. I found that by taking her on and off the mat and reinforcing her for targeting my hand in between trips to the mat, she settled down a bit.
During the same time period (the first few weeks), I was also working with her in the evening in her stall. In my first sessions in her stall, I just spent some time getting familiar with how she reacted to being touched in different places, how she felt about grooming, and evaluating how big an issue the foot handling was. My observations and training approach to her major issues were as follows:
ANXIETY OVER HER HEAD: She is very uncomfortable with having her head handled or restricted in any way. A hand on her face is ok, but any attempt to hold her head still for haltering or brushing results in much wiggling and tension. I mixed in handling her head with her mat work. I made a habit of asking her to allow me to put both hands on her face at the same time and clicked her for holding her head still. I might ask her to step on the mat, click for that, take her off and touch her head and click for that. I think the fact that she is uncomfortable having her head restricted is part of her difficulty with tying and it makes it difficult to put on and remove her halter.
I came up with a very specific procedure for haltering and removing the halter. In the beginning, she was usually ok for haltering and even wiggled her head to try and get her head in, but she was in such a rush that I started clicking her for allowing me hold her head a bit steady as I haltered her. Taking the halter off was a bigger issue. SHe would fly back as soon as I started to take it off with varying results. So when I took the halter off, I clicked each baby step as it came over her ears and down her face. At the end, I click her for allowing me to place my hand on the top of her nose above her muzzle and waiting to be released. It really helps her to have a specific procedure for how to do it. After the first few days, she stopped backing up and leaving half way through having her halter removed.
On the subject of her head, she has an odd snapping thing she does with her teeth at times when I work her. I think it is a sign of tension and I am paying attention to when she does it more.
GROOMING AND TOUCHING BODY PARTS: She is ok with being touched and groomed over most of her body, except her hindquarters and back feet. There is something odd about the way she moves her back end and sometimes she has a jerky reaction when I approach or ask her to move over her hind end. It makes me wonder about stifle issues or something else. Viewing her from above, she looks out of alignment in her pelvis or sacrum.
FRIENDLY BUT QUICK TO LEAVE: She is basically very friendly and happy to see me. I am not seeing any signs of aggression or anger towards people. My impression is that she is very quick to react and doesn’t take time to think about anything. She also does not seem to be very body aware. She will turn away from me and bump into the sides of the stall as she moves around. It is not a very big stall but this is still a bit unusual. Turning away from me and moving around the stall is pretty common for her. If she doesn’t want to do what I ask, she will just leave. She does do a lot of circling.
FRONT FEET: She will allow me to handle her front feet in a minimal way, but she clearly is not comfortable with it as she keeps tension in her leg even after picking it up. She will either try to take it out of my hand by pawing or she will lean into me and throw her front end around to get me to let go. When she does this, it feels like a strategy that she has practiced many times before and that has worked well for her. I am trying to click before she gets to this point which means my foot training right now is really just focused on teaching her to pick up her feet when I ask, and not on holding them up. She is clearly very uncomfortable with drawing her front feet forward and stiffens them, leans and then yanks them back. It feels like she doesn’t know how to balance so she locks up and then is even more uncomfortable.
I spent some time clicking her for picking up her front feet. The first week I just had sessions where I picked up each foot multiple times and put it right back down, rewarding each effort. Sometimes I had to start by clicking weight shifts but she caught on to picking them up pretty quickly. The real problem was that she didn’t want to hold her foot up or let me do anything once it was up. So I started clicking her for allowing me to move her front feet around while they were lifted. I did little circles and wiggled them back and forth. I experimented with drawing them forward and setting them down in different positions. I was trying to encourage her to relax and just let me move them around. This did help and she got more comfortable with me moving them and I still remember the day she actually picked up a foot and relaxed it as a dead weight in my hand. The one area where I was not seeing much success was drawing them forward.
HIND FEET: She does not want to pick up her back feet and will both keep moving her quarters away so I cannot get to her hind feet, or she will push into me with her quarters so I cannot get to her feet. Again, both strategies feel like she has practiced them many times before. Once I get her hind foot up, she will try to wiggle it away from me. I found that I could stabilize her leg against the side of my calf and she learned that was a clickable moment. Stabilizing it there also seemed to help with her balance. At this point I am not trying to pick out her feet but I will take my hand and brush it against her sole a few times before putting the foot down.
As noted before, she does some odd things with her back feet when I ask her to pick them up. She moves them in a jerky fashion and sometimes she seems like her stifle catches. I don’t get the impression she is trying to kick. It feels more like she is anticipating something or just has some physical issue.
GROWN-UPS ARE TALKING: I started this to give her a “default.html” behavior between mat sessions or when she got anxious. She is actually pretty good at it and picked up on my posture and arm position as the cue right away.
HEAD DOWN: I expected head down to be a key behavior with her. She is clearly anxious and head down is a great behavior to teach horses that rear. But I found that head down triggered a lot of pawing with her and seemed to make her more anxious. I did not want her incorporate pawing into head down and I did not feel she would respond well to being asked to back when she pawed. I was worried that might trigger the rearing, so I just left this for now.
For the first two weeks while I was collecting information and doing some initial work, I did not see any rearing. But two weeks after she came, I met the rearing pony. I was working in her stall, grooming her and asking her to pick up her feet. At this stage she was still circling and moving away from me when I asked for something she did not want to do. I asked her to pick up her left front foot and she did, but when I asked her to draw it forward a bit, she leaned it to me, twisted and turned to move away and make a circle. I did let go of her foot but I blocked her from making her circle. I didn’t make her keep her foot up but I did not want her to continue this behavior pattern of pushing, yanking and turning so I just stood up and stood in her way. I thought it was time I interrupted the cycle of just leaving. I didn’t care if she wanted to put the foot back down, but I wanted to encourage her to stay with me. She stopped and I asked again for the front foot and she picked it up and then reared straight up on her back legs.
Even though she is a pony, she is quite tall when she stands like that and self-preservation kicked in. I moved away and had moved to the front of her stall when she reared again. She came down and I just went back to asking her to lift her foot. She had been doing that well for at least a week and it had been highly reinforced. The whole rearing thing just felt like it needed to be ignored. I wanted her to see that I was just going to keep steadily working along and not get caught up in her emotions. I was certainly paying attention and willing to back off and leave her if she did it again, but at the moment, it really felt like she reared because that had worked in the past to get people to back off. I thought the best thing to do would be to show her that I got the message and I would not ask for quite the same thing again, but that we were going to keep working on something to do with her feet. Surprisingly enough, she was really good for the rest of the session.
While I was a bit shaken by the whole incident, in some ways it was good to get it over with. I had been working with her, knowing her background, but not seeing any big issues other than it just seemed like no one had every taken enough time to teach her some basic behaviors. She just seemed so clueless about working with people. She would bump into me when leading if something surprised her, she had terrible balance for foot handing and she didn’t have any understanding of giving to pressure. Now at least I knew what I was dealing with and to me it felt like the rearing was just a strategy she had learned that worked to get her out of situations she did not like.
By then end of the first month, we had made some big breakthroughs. Her mat work was better. I could park her on the mat and walk around and pat her a bit while she stood with her front feet on the mat, so I was getting some duration. I could pick up and rasp all 4 feet lightly from the bottom. I had starting taking her up to the ring to work and she was doing her mat work up there. I had walked her into the main barn and done her mat work there. I have two barns, the main one has 4 stalls, the tack room and wash stall. Then I have a little shed-row barn with 3 stalls which is where she was living. Taking her into the main barn was a new experience and she was not too sure about it. But most importantly, I felt like she was starting to stop and think about things a little. There were clearly moments especially with her hind foot handling where she started to move away and then caught herself.
THE SECOND MONTH
I started training some new behaviors. I worked on putting her back feet on the mat and some basic leading and groundwork in the ring. The groundwork in the ring showed me that she probably did have some body issues. When I asked her for a baby give to the left, or to target left, she seemed unable to come around very far and she tipped her head in an odd way. She had no understanding of bend or moving sideways, which is what I would have expected, but she would get anxious and did a lot of head shaking and spinning around with her hips if I tried to ask for any hint of lateral work. She felt totally locked in her shoulders which was not surprising considering how she was about picking up her feet.
Here is the rundown on what I was doing with her:
BASIC GROOMING: I could groom her in her stall and I started bringing her into the wash stall and clicking her for standing still while I groomed her there. She was not tied at this point.
FOOT HANDLING: I am continuing to work on picking up her feet and teaching her to allow me to rasp them. At some point in the second month, I started to be able to bring her hinds forward and rasp from the top. I was still doing her front feet from the bottom. Her left hind continues to be difficult and she sometimes kicks out at me. This is the foot with the terrible flare and it makes me wonder if there is something physical going on that causes the foot to grow out of balance and makes it difficult for her to bend her leg.
MAT WORK: I started asking for more from the mat work. I really wanted to get rid of the pawing and I changed my criteria a bit. Now she had to walk on the mat and put one foot down with no pawing if she wanted to get clicked. She loves to put one foot on and then take it off and put the other one on, or she will just pick up one foot and then the other. It makes the timing tricky for when to click. Eventually I just focused on clicking for one foot down and if she lifted it after the click (which she did a lot), I dawdled with my food delivery so that I fed her when the foot was down again. She is quick to pick her feet up and down so this was not really a question of waiting a long period of time. It was more that her foot was going up and down and I made sure that I clicked when the foot was down AND I fed when the foot was down. This did make a difference.
I introduced back feet on the mat. Sometimes horses get too fixated on standing on the mat with their front feet so I like to do some other things with the mat so they realize there are other possibilities. She did get a bit frustrated by this but I kept the rate of reinforcement high by chaining together a few behaviors that could earn reinforcement. I might click for front feet on the mat, click for coming forward off the mat, click for a hind foot on the mat, click for coming forward or back as requested. What I am really trying to teach her to do is to pay attention to what I want, instead of being fixated on knowing the right answer. While I value independent thinking, at this point I want her to slow down and listen to ME. This is a good exercise to start that mental shift.
HALTS: I started taking her up to the ring and walking her around. First I just wanted to show her the space we would work in and make sure she was comfortable up there. So we just walked around a bit. Then I started clicking her for stopping next to me without turning and putting her quarters out. She has a habit of spinning around when I stop.
BABY GIVES: I started baby gives by halting her and sliding down the rope, asking her to soften and take her head toward me. To the right she was pretty good. To the left she would dive down and snap at me. She has a nervous habit of snapping her teeth and she does this a lot when I do baby gives. I experimented with sliding to different points of contact and using a target to see if that would help and she did improve but her gives to the left still look odd and she finds them difficult.
WWYLM: Her work on the halt has evolved into the pre-WWYLM game so I started WWYLM with her. I wanted her to start softening and bending and release some of that tension. She was really blocked in her shoulders and just pushed against me so I broke that piece out as follows:
I did this work in a stall because I thought the smaller space would make her less likely to spin out her quarters and back up. I wanted her to think of other possibilities. I had her stand and I slid up the lead to ask for a baby give. I put my other hand on her shoulder. Then I waited and clicked any movement of the shoulder or even the front leg. I did not release after the baby give but just left that hand in position. Its job was to keep her head and neck in position with a slight bend. This helped set her up to think of moving her shoulder out. The hand on the shoulder was not to push her out, it was just to give me feedback. I did put a little intent into my position by thinking about sideways.
I worked on this on both sides for several days in a row and it was really interesting to see what she came up with and how it developed. She picked up quickly that I wanted her to do something with her inside foot very quickly and at one point she was picking it up and crossing it nicely over the other foot while standing still. Initially I had experimented around a bit with doing this exercise while moving and found that it worked better standing still. She was very quick to push her hips out and plant her front feet, locking her shoulders, which then made it hard for her to move them. By working at a halt, she was more evenly balanced and I could get her shoulders to free up.
Once she had the idea in the stall, I repeated the exercise in the ring and then incorporated it into WWYLM. I would work the WWYLM pattern as usual but if I slid up the lead rope and she braced against me, I would stop her, shift her slightly out and then go again. Over time, I got so that I could adjust her without stopping and she started to show an early version of lateral work. One concern I had is that she often flipped her head as she stopped after I click. I hoped that I was not inadvertently reinforcing that behavior as it did occur between the click and treat.
CROSS-TYING: I slowly proceeded along with teaching her to cross tie in my wash stall. First I groomed her in there in her halter and lead. Then I looped a longer line through one of my cross tie rings and back to my hand so that she was “tied” on one side and I had the lead on the other. Eventually I tied her on one side and ran through the loop on the other side and after that I felt confident tying her. This is similar to a TTEAM approach to teaching a horse to tie. My cross ties are stretchy so they have some give and horses usually are ok with them, even if they get startled and pull back. She seemed ok with the whole thing and I started to work on clicking her for standing for grooming without moving or pawing.
TARGETING: I continued to do some targeting using a yellow dog toy. I want her to follow it around and find it if I put it on the floor or hold it by her side. She is getting better at it. I was hoping some target work would help her learn to use her neck correctly, especially bending to the left.
RESETS AND BACKING: I worked a bit on these in the ring as I needed a way to displace her head and back her up when she spins out and circles around me. Resets are also helpful for positioning during the mat work. She does not like feeling blocked so I have to think carefully about redirecting the energy instead of blocking it. I did them very carefully and clicked any response on her part. I worked on backing because I wanted her to see backing as a positive thing and I wanted her to be comfortable going back. Horses sometimes rear because they get stuck and if she knew how to back freely, it might make her less likely to rear.
In the third month, I continued with the same work from the last two months. She made some significant improvements and I figured out some new strategies for some issues that were still causing trouble.
FRONT FEET: I was working on teaching her to allow me to bend the joints in her front legs and move them slightly forward. I started by manipulating her legs in different ways and clicking her for allowing me to move them. When I first started working with her feet, she kept a lot of tension in them and would try to move them while I was working on them. She improved to the point where she would allow me to pick them up if I held them still, but she was still tight. Then she started to relax as long as I kept each foot in a certain position, but she would tense up if I moved the foot or changed position. So now I was trying to get her more comfortable with her leg being held in different positions. My goal was to be able to put her foot forward on to the hoof jack for rasping. By the end of the third month, she was sometimes picking her feet up as I bent down to ask.
I have been experimenting with doing some muscle, gentle manipulations of her shoulders. She is quite odd about it and when I ran my hand down the front of her shoulder blade, she stiffened and rocked back on her heels. She did something similar once before when I took her in the wash stall. She spooked a bit and rocked back, stiffening her front feet, and rocking back so far that her toes were actually off the ground. She was stuck there until I asked her to come forward to a target. I had never seen anything quite like it as she seemed to get stuck in a startle position.
WWYLM: I was getting better bend and a bit of duration. I found that I could just click for her positioning her head slightly toward me and she will move forward better without stalling out. She still had trouble going left and left generates a lot of head tossing.
TARGETING: One day I decided to do something fun and taught her to push a playground ball with her nose. She caught on quickly and really liked it.
HEAD LOWERING: I played with head lowering again. This time I had her follow a target down and clicked her for dropping her head down toward the target. I wanted to be sure to click the drop of the head without pawing so I clicked early and often. Once she was getting the idea, I started adding in a lead cue. She picked up on this pretty quickly.
MAT WORK: I was still working on front feet on the mat, adding in more duration and once she started to understand head lowering from a lead cue, I started asking for head lowering on the mat. I continued to work on back feet on the mat. She sometimes backs up on me or circles around me to avoid the mat. She seems very uncomfortable with the idea of putting her back feet on anything.
GROUND WORK: In both the ground work and the mat work, she iwas still showing some odd behaviors and tension. She would sometimes back up and I had just been allowing this. She often throws her head up and around when I click for work in WWYLM and sometimes she pops up a bit in front. I was getting the feeling that she stops so suddenly for the click that she runs into herself. I have been ignoring any rearing or popping up in front. One day she went back and I tried to ask her to come forward and she reared up and she tipped over on her side. I found the incident shocking but she got up and went right back to putting her feet on the mat. Thinking about it later, I think she just lost her balance because I was still using the lead to direct her when she went up. When I let go is when she tipped over.
I was still keeping her on a pretty high rate of reinforcement for baby gives, WWYLM, and other groundwork as she is easily distracted and seems to tune me out if she goes too long without a click. She is busy so I am trying to keep her busy. She has become better at bending and offering to arc around me at times.
HIND FEET: I saw a big improvement in her hind foot handling. I was able to pick out and rasp her hind feet from the bottom. She is building some duration in this too.
She improved a lot in all areas. I continued with most of the other exercises from previous months, working on building duration and adding new layers to each one. Her mat work was improving and I have found a structure to our training sessions that seems to work out. I have found that she does best if I do just a few sets of something and then move on, unless I am starting something brand new. In that case, I might work for a longer period until I felt she had a little understanding of the new exercise. She seems happy to come out and work although the flies and heat have been an issue.
GROUNDWORK: I started asking her to do little circles around me out on the end of the lead. I used a dressage whip for forward and she doesn’t seem to be upset by the whip. This baby form of lunging seems to be tapping into some past history as I am seeing a return of the head shaking and some popping up in front and little rears when she stops or when I click. I decided to try and encourage her to drop her head when she is working out on the line to see if that would help her relax and make her less likely to rear. I set her up by doing head lowering at a halt and then asking for forward.
For anyone reading this who is working on head lowering, I am sort of “breaking the rules” here. When I first teach head lowering, I do follow Alex’s guidelines which state that head lowering is not a forward moving exercise. Normally I get a horse really solid at head lowering and able to hold it for a short duration before I take it into motion. Stella is the first horse where I did things a little differently and I taught her head lowering at a walk before it was really solid at a halt. One reason is that I thought it would be useful at the walk and her big issue was pawing, not barging or trying to walk off. I thought that any way that I could reinforce head lowering without pawing would be helpful. If she is walking, she is not pawing. I still was not sure I wanted to deal with the pawing in head lowering at the halt directly, so I was approaching the problem from different angles, trying to build an understanding of head lowering in different ways. My hope was that she would get to love head lowering so much that the urge to paw would decrease and she would get to the point where I could interrupt the pawing in head down at the halt without creating an emotional meltdown.
FRONT FEET: Instead of using the hoof jack, I was bringing a front foot forward and resting it on my leg, just positioned against the side of my calf. This is similar to how I taught her to “park” her back feet when she lifted them up. She seems ok with this. It is a bit awkward but I can now rasp a bit from the top which is good as she has some flaring.
HEAD LOWERING: I was now focusing more on head lowering. I experimented a bit with asking for it in her stall. I thought she might be more settled there and less likely to paw. She clearly knew I was clicking something about her feet and would keep her feet in odd positions (one forward, one back) if I clicked for dropping her head when she was positioned like that.
3 FLIP 3: WWYLM evolved winto 3 flip 3. I was focusing a bit more on getting a clean hip instead of just bend. She gets a bit stuck sometimes when I do this but she did seem to be getting the idea. I just do it two or three times in each session.
This month she continued to improve and I decided it was time to figure out if there were any ongoing physical issues that were preventing her from making progress. I had her hind feet x-rayed as they seem to grow with big outside flares. They had improved significantly with regular trimming but I was concerned that the coffin bone was tipped and I wanted to make sure I was trimming her correctly. We had to sedate her for the x-ray as she was willing to put a foot on the x-ray box, but not willing to put weight on it. Her x-rays showed some bony changes and some crookedness in her legs but nothing that would explain the flaring.
I also had someone come out and do some body work (osteopathy and Equine Touch) on her. She was out of alignment in various ways but her spine was not as bad as I expected. She had some issues with her neck which would explain her difficulty bending left and she was tight in her shoulders. She was great for the body work and seemed to like some of it.
After she was treated, I saw a significant improvement in how she was when I worked her in hand. A lot of her stickiness and resistance disappeared and she seemed more comfortable in her body. I think she needs more sessions to resolve some of her issues, but it was a good first step. Interestingly enough, within a few weeks of this session, I saw her lying down in the field one day. At first I was worried, but upon approaching her, it was clear she was just sunbathing. This was the first time I ever saw her lie down, or even stay still. She is turned out with two other ponies and while I sometimes see the other two standing quietly in the field, Stella is always moving. She is usually looking for grass or vacuuming up the last bits of hay. She just doesn’t stand still. I do know she lies down in her stall at night but I had never seen her rest in the field. Since then, I have seen her down one other time. I would like to think that she is feeling more comfortable and feels it is safe to lie down.
LUNGING: I am continuing to do a baby form of lungeing. I started this as groundwork, just letting her go out on the end of the lead in a small circle. I started this because I wanted a way of evaluating dhow she was moving and I also wanted for her to have an activity that was more forward directed. I experimented a bit with sending her up into the trot and this usually led to wild trotting, maybe cantering and a lot of unbalanced and tense motion. So I decided to teach her to drop her head, hoping that it would promote relaxation and give her something to focus on.
She was pretty good at head lowering at a halt by now and last month I had started to ask for head lowering at the walk, so now I started to see if I could get head lowering at a trot. I tried clicking for moments when she dropped her head a bit at the trot, but her success rate was too low and she seemed to get more and more frantic the longer she trotted. So I have started asking for head lowering at the walk and then asking for trot. Initially I clicked for the trot transition but then I started clicking for those transitions where she keeps her head down. It doesn’t have to be all the way down and she doesn’t have to go all the way into the trot. If I see any increased activity or thought of more forward and her head stays down, I click. This is one of those times where I find it helpful to have one behavior that I reinforce a lot (head lowering) and I just slowly add in requests for the second behavior (trot). What often happens is that you get a moment where the horse starts the second behavior before ending the first behavior and that is what you click.
I was continuing to work on some of the other behaviors, but there are others that she does well and while I still click them at times, I do not spend much actual training time on them. She has become great about leading, standing on the cross-ties, picking out her feet, and removing her halter. I finally got her front feet up on the hoof jack. I have to be careful about keeping the time short and how I position her leg, but she would allow me to do some rasping from the top.
MAT WORK: I was still playing with back feet on the mat. She is pretty solid about putting her front feet on. I had her step up on my raised platform and she was ok about that. For the back feet, I have changed my strategy and I now ask her to halt and place the mat underneath her. Then I ask her to come forward. This eliminates her frustration over not being asked to put her front feet on the mat which is the easy answer and it allows me to direct her by coming forward. Previously I had either walked her over the mat, sometimes clicking for front feet, but then asking her to walk forward off the mat, or I had tried backing her on to the mat. I don’t seem to have much control of her hips in backing. She did ok if we are just working in the ring but she would work hard to avoid putting a foot on the mat if I backed her toward it. I thought by now she would have figured out that putting a foot on it was good, but she was still reluctant.
The new setup seems to be working much better and I am just working on one foot at a time. Like the front feet, the challenge is to get her to put her foot on the mat and leave it there. She is quick to take her foot off as soon as I click. But she is clearly getting the idea.
POLES: Because she seems to not always pay attention to where her feet are, I thought it would be good to do some pole work, just walking over random poles. She was ok with this. Then I made a jumble of poles in a star, similar to how it is done in the TTEAM exercises. I walked her over some poles that were sticking out and she was ok with that. But as soon as I asked her to come through in a slightly different way, she reared right up. I was quite surprised because she was working on a soft lead and I was just standing waiting for her to follow me. I interpreted the rear to mean she was saying it was too hard so I took her around a different way and then she was fine. I had not had her rear in a while and I thought we were past that, but I was pleased by how quickly she went back to following me as soon as I chose a different route.
WWYLM AND 3 FLIP 3: She is now doing circles in WWYLM and getting some nice lateral work out of 3 flip 3. I am pleased except she does still toss her head at times and when I click, she stops abruptly and sometimes hops a bit in front. I still think she seems to stop so suddenly that she crashes into herself. So I was trying to think of ways to address this. I know that food delivery can be used to shape behaviors between the click and treat and I do a lot of asking the horse to back up or rock back as I offer the food. But in her case, I thought rocking her back might make her more likely to pop up, so instead I presented the food forward. The idea was that by feeding her out in front of her, I would encourage her to still be thinking forward as she halted and this would ground her front feet. I would eventually like her to stop in good balance and not on her forehand, but this worked really well. I was careful not to be food luring so I added in targeting my fist to get her to come forward the first few times until she figured it out and then her behavior after the click improved significantly.
By the end of the fifth month, the weather was getting bad and I was running out of time. So since then, she has had a few months with minimal activity. What is nice is that I did enough work over the summer and fall, that she does not have any urgent issues that need to be addressed. I can do all her usual handling, grooming, and trimming without any major problems. If something minor comes up, I can usually fix it within the same session. I have continued to focus on head lowering and have started teaching her to fetch. I routinely lead her from both sides so that I can ask for a little bend or softness as we go in and out from the barn to the field. If I have time, I take her up to the ring and we review some of the exercises she was doing. In the spring, I will have to decide what direction to go with her. I have my doubts about her suitability as a child’s pony without a lot of work and I do not have time for that right now. But I could teach her some liberty work or she could learn to drive.
She has been a great project for me. From the very beginning she was friendly and interested in what I was doing. For the first few weeks, I treated her very carefully as she came with so much bad press. But within the first few weeks, I was comfortable with her and just handling her as I would any other clicker training project. I wanted to write up her story because I think it is important to share these clicker success stories, and also because I wanted to show how I was able to resolve her behavior issues by just picking away at them a little bit at a time.
So that’s where Stella is now. She has proven to be a smart and willing student. I still hope to see her become more relaxed and confident in her work, but I think she understands that I am willing to take the time to work through things and that coming out to play can be fun.
It’s been a long time since I wrote this! Stella is still here and continues to do well. I made the decision not to continue with her training for riding as I believe she has physical issues that make it uncomfortable. I also didn’t want to risk passing her along to someone else, so she has remained here as a friend to Molly and Buster, demo pony, and occasional school pony. She has turned out to be an excellent teacher for new students who are interested in clicker training as she is very bright and enthusiastic, but her small size and sensitivity make her less likely to overwhelm people. She’s a had a few health issues over the years, but we have managed to get through them all, often with help from clicker training.