Fancy started her time at PAA with some major behavioural issues. Two years later, she is going to her new home as a well-trained young horse who accepts handling and no longer feels the need to respond to people aggressively.
“Fixing” Fancy — a Prairie Animal Assistance Success Story
4 minute video- trick highlights
Fancy was a beautiful little horse who had an unfortunate start to life. While pregnant with Fancy, her mom was part of a group of horses who were seized by the SPCA due to abuse, neglect and starvation. Unfortunately, in our area, horses seized by the SPCA go to a meat auction. Fancy’s mom was rescued from the meat auction and put in a nice pasture with about a dozen other horses. Fancy was severely malnourished before birth and not well socialized with humans after birth. There is also a good chance that Fancy is inbred. The horse that may be her father is also her brother, so she had several strikes against her.
When I went to pick up little Fancy from the pasture, her only previous contact with humans was her mom’s owner trying to stuff a halter on her earlier that day. Needless to say, they reported that it didn’t go well and that the little horse was a kicker and a biter.
I managed to get the little horse into the trailer fairly quickly by teaching her how to eat oats out of my hand and rewarding for small steps toward the trailer. She followed me into the trailer easily, making no attempts to kick or bite me. Although she learned to follow oats, and I was also able to unload her into the arena and then get her to follow me into a stall, I wasn’t able to touch her initially without her threatening to kick.
I usually use plain hay pellets as training treats, but little Fancy didn’t realize that those were edible yet, so I had to continue to use small amounts of oats as reinforcement for behaviour I liked and wanted her to repeat again. While in the stall, I first worked on coming to me when called. I would move to different locations around 3 sides of the stall and whenever she would come close, I would click the clicker and immediately present a few oats to eat out of my hand. At first I had to stand at each spot outside the stall for awhile, but I just stayed still and quiet and as soon as she came to investigate I would click the clicker and present the oats. Very soon, she started to come very quickly toward wherever I moved on the side of the stall and I began to add the cue “come” when I was sure she was coming toward me and she was doing it with polite ears and a relaxed body.
Next, I opened the stall and closed off a small section of the barn isle. I would walk to one end of the aisle and wait and as soon as she came over to me, I would click and put a few oats on the ground for her and then move to the other end of the aisle. Within minutes, she was reliably coming when I called her in the confined space.
The next thing I did was to teach her to walk beside me. I used a similar method to the way most dogs are taught to “heel”. First, I stood beside her and clicked and treated (c/t) for standing still with polite ears, and a relaxed body. Then I took just a step forward and when she made any forward motion at all, I c/t. It only took about 5 minutes and she was walking politely beside me up and down the isle and stopping when I stopped. I took her into the arena to let her run around for awhile if she wanted to, but after an initial romp around to investigate, she came up beside me and seemed to want to do more training. I want to emphasize that she didn’t want to be touched and I did not touch her at all during this process. I didn’t have any issues with her mugging me to try to get treats because her behaviour had never been reinforced with food when doing anything that wasn’t polite, I always handed her the treat the same way, and she never got a treat without hearing the click first, so she wasn’t looking for anything if she didn’t hear the click. I also kept the rate of reinforcement high enough that she wouldn’t get frustrated and try to grab at the treats.
With clicker training, you do reinforce often and there are a lot of treats coming quickly when teaching a new behaviour. Even with a very experienced horse who responds to a lot of commands/cues, I reinforce just as frequently when teaching something new. However, I like to teach horses early on some behaviours that I can quickly build up duration with so that they don’t think they will be getting a c/t every few seconds at all times. One of the duration behaviours that is easy to teach is stand still and stay, so over the next few days, I worked on teaching Fancy to stay and eventually taught her, by building it up with baby steps that she would sometimes have to wait for awhile before getting a c/t. I continued to work on coming when called and walking beside me, all without touching her or using any ropes or a halter.
Fancy needed to learn to wear a halter, but I didn’t want to use the old school type of training that I learned to do when I first started to train, so on day 3, I decided to start teaching her to put on a halter (as opposed to halter “breaking”). I started in a stall and first called her to me in a few different spots in the stall and c/t for that. Then I held out the halter and when she sniffed it, I c/t. I kept moving to different spots in the stall and holding out the halter. It only took a few repititions for her to figure out that all she had to do was come to me and touch the halter with her nose and I would c/t. I also started to hold the halter near her ears and neck and face and as long as she stayed still and relaxed, I would c/t.
The next training session, after quickly going over what we had done earlier, I started to make things a bit harder. I held out the halter with the nose piece open in a circular shape and only c/t if she touched that part of the halter with her nose. I started to hand her the treats through the circle so that she had to put her nose into the halter a little bit to get her oats (just a few pieces of oats at a time — only a taste). After 3 or 4 minutes, she was eagerly coming up to me with her head low and sticking her own nose through the hole into the halter. I started to increase the amount of time she would hold still with her nose it as well as starting to touch her briefly on the side of the neck before c/t. This was all accomplished without any pressure or making her stressed and threatening to kick or bite.
I could see from her behaviour with other people who would try to pet her whether she was ready for it or not that it wouldn’t take much to push her to react aggressively. In several sessions in one day, she was reliably standing still, putting her own nose in the halter and letting me reach around her neck and fasten it. I took it on and off many times in the next few days. I also started to work on getting her to lift her feet so they could be trimmed eventually. I could have just pushed it and had a battle of wills with her and made her do it, but I had worked with her sister who came to our program after being rescued from the meat auction. Fancy’s sister was initially purchased from the auction by a neighbor who tried to train her using a lot of pressure. “Harley” didn’t react well and the neighbor didn’t want her anymore, so she ended up at PAA. Besides the fact that I believe in teaching horses and not breaking them, I knew Fancy had a similar temperament to her sister Harley and decided to teach her to lift her feet in a totally hands-off stress free manner. So, here is what I did…
Fancy already had learned how to learn. She knew there were many different things she could do to earn reinforcement, so getting her to realize what she was doing that was making me click wasn’t difficult. I started her foot lifting training in a stall. I stayed outside the stall and intially, whenever she moved her left front foot at all, for any reason, I would c/t. In just a few reps, she understood that I was clicking for something to do with that foot and she began to try stuff with it. I only rewarded movements with backward motion because I didn’t want her to bring it forward. Taking an ill-tempered little horse and teaching her to kick me, would have been kinda dumb <smile>.
Anyhow, I gradually began to select and only c/t her responses in which she lifted her foot in a backward motion a tiny bit off the ground. Slowly, over a period of days, I began to click for higher and higher backward lifts. In 4 or 5 days, she was lifting her own foot off the ground and holding it about 5 seconds or so. I started to give her the verbal cue “two”. (I give a separate number to each foot). I began to slowly increase that amount of time as well as starting to shape her to lift her other front foot. Concurrently, I began teaching her to hold her foot in different locations and with me starting to touch it. She would get c/t for holding still and continuing to hold her foot up as I touched it for longer and longer periods of time and eventually began to get her used to me picking out the bottom.
We had the farrier out while I was in the middle of teaching her to lift her feet, so she wasn’t really ready to be done, but we tried it anyhow to see what she would do. It was my idea that since she wasn’t really trained to hold up all of her feet for a long enough time to have them trimmed, that I would try to use classical conditioning rather than operant conditioning while the farrier was working with her feet. When an animal is very anxious, they often are not in a state in which they are able to think or learn effectively. In this state, an animal wouldn’t be able to perform known commands or cues or learn new ones, but they are able to make emotional associations and I wanted the emotional association of the farrier to be “happy thoughts associated with eating” rather than fear because someone she didn’t know was messing with her feet in a different way and for a longer time than she was used to. I had also read a research study in which the author asserted that horses cannot physiologically have a major freak out while they are eating. I just kept on feeding Fancy hay pellets (she ate them by that time) while the farrier worked on her and she stood perfectly still and didn’t attempt to kick or bite and he easily trimmed all four hooves. Do I think she learned a ton from a training standpoint? Maybe not, but she didn’t freak out, she stayed relaxed the whole time and hopefully will make the emotional connection of farrier = food = easy = happy thoughts. It was worth a try and it seemed to work. She also got a lot of positive reinforcement for standing still while a stranger touched her. This is a horse that bit and kicked other people many times during the time she stayed here, especially in the early stages.
I didn’t use any pressure to teach Fancy, other than eye contact and moving my body toward her at times. All the behaviours I taught her were shaped. Before ever having a lead rope on, she had already learned how to walk beside me. Before having me touch her feet, she learned how to lift them on her own. Before I brushed her mane, she learned to bring her head up to the brush and move her own head to comb her hair. She was in control of the process and it greatly reduced her anxiety and the need for a “dominance battle”. Then when she was comfortable with that, I started to brush her conventionally without issue. She learned a lot of tricks during her stay here and although a few were just for fun, most of them had a practical application behind them.
She needed eye ointment for an infection before she was comfortable with having her face handled, so I taught her in a stall to touch my hand with her eye. When she was good at that, I was easily able to apply the ointment and have her remain relaxed. I was able to treat a cut on her ear by teaching her to target my hand with her ear and teaching her to stay still with her face in my hand so I could take stitches out of her cheek was taught in a similar manner. Almost all of her “tricks” were taught with a purpose behind them and also to keep her busy, exercised, and happy.
For example, I shaped her to walk up to a shallow container filled with a water/ thrush treament mix and to put her own back foot into it and hold it there. I also taught her to open her mouth so I could look into it. She also learned to take a water bottle, hold it and tip her head back to drink as a way to get her prepared to stand still and open her mouth for dewormer.
I videotaped a few of Fancy’s (mostly) useful tricks before she went to live in her new home. Good luck Fancy!