Sunday, February 19, 2012

To Treat or Not to Treat...

During the past three weeks when Starbuck and I haven't been able to do much training, I've been thinking a lot about motivation.  We've been doing lots of fun stuff like grazing walks, letting her loose with her friends to run in a nearby field, equine massage and I've also been giving her extra rations of hay and alfalfa to keep her calories up for those cold winter nights.  One of the things I've done ever since the beginning with her is to hold the halter up but wait for her to take the responsibility for putting it on and lately she takes less time than ever to  stop mouthing it and stick her nose into it.

So this week when it finally dried out enough to do a little work, I decided to try something which I've never done before- start using treats to reinforce her training.  Lots of trainers I respect- Julie Goodnight is one- reject the idea of giving treats as a habit which undermines the human's "herd position" since apparently the horse can view it as "taking" the food from the person.  In the beginning way back in August I tried using treats to teach Starbuck to lift her hooves, but she got so pushy I swore off them and have been a little strict about not hand feeding her anything ever since then.

But there are also plenty of trainers, for example Linda Tellington Jones- who use treats both to reward a horse for performing a certain action or to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, overriding the "fight or flight" instinct.  And I feel like I've done a fairly good job (although we still need to work on it) of establishing  respect for my space, so I figured I might as well give it a try and see how it went.

To make sure she doesn't get pushy, what I'm rewarding her with treats for at the moment is ground-tying.  So I tell her to "wait" and put my hand up in a "stop" gesture, then walk off.  If she keeps all four feet on the ground the whole time, she gets a couple of carrot rounds, a handful of grain or I cue to her that she can graze on a particularly lush patch of grass.  It took about an hour for her to get the picture and not just follow me around but after that it seems to be working pretty well!  She's definitely more focused on me when we're working and is obviously way happier to see me-- today she downright whinnied at me when she saw me coming.  We'll see how it goes and I'll keep you posted...

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