Redundancy in design is something engineers do to make sure something bad doesn't happen. It is how John described my clicker training when I talked to him about trying to teach Boomer many different cues for the same thing. Basically, I'm doing for Boomer what BP didn't do for their exploding oil platform. Zing!
Really though, my main goal is for him to stand calmly all of the time in any situation. Tied, cross tied, or ground tied, I want him to be calm and relaxed. How am I doing this? I am giving him positive reinforcement for lowering his head and I am teaching him to react by coming forward and/or lowering his head when he feels pressure.
Thursday's lesson started in a small turnout paddock (maybe 50x50) with him wearing his Be Nice Halter. We worked on head down from rope pressure which he remembered right away and dropped his head to the ground immediately. Then we worked on targeting the frisbee. Not sure he quite sees the point of that. He would do it once or twice, and clearly understood that the treat comes from touching it, but he got distracted easily when targeting. We also worked on 'back' a few times, but he already knows that cue, so we didn't focus on it too much. We also walked around with the lead rope dragging for a few laps. He got nervous about it once and started to pull back/wouldn't come forward, but he got past that and things were fine.
I tied him to the hitching post and gave him a few quick reminder 'head downs'. Then I groomed him and got to work on head down while I was spraying him with fly spray. That was complicated to orchestrate, but I think it will be a very useful lesson. When I spray his neck, his head shoots straight up, so I am going to fill an empty bottle with water and start working on keeping his head lowered while being sprayed.
He was very good the whole time. He spooked once at something blowing in the wind. It was a spook in place with a snort. I immediately asked him to lower his head and he did right away. After that I just stood around and c/t for him lowering his head below his withers on his own. I got The Click That Teaches and they call this 'behavior shaping'. He did seem to catch on after a few minutes and would sort of look around, left and right, then lower his head. He seemed to be trying to figure out if other things would get the click or just lowering the head. I was very happy with this as he is the kind of horse who can spend hours on high alert.
Interesting aside, when Boomer was in training with Kelly last Fall she worked a lot on his pulling problem. One thing she mentioned that I thought was strange was that he seemed to calm down if she gave him a treat while he was standing there tied up. I was puzzled by this as I didn't give him treats ever at that point. I'm still not sure what the connection was there.
I spent some time doing something a bit more 'Boomer specific'. Because his main bad habit is hitting the end of the rope and pulling, I untied him but left the rope pulled around the post. I had him back up then took the slack out of the rope. He stepped forward right away. Click/Treat. We did this a number of times and sometimes I would jerk the rope hard and fast, so simulate him hitting the end pretty hard. He would sort of tense, jerk his head up and look like he wanted to go backwards, but he always, every single time, stepped forward and lowered his head. Click/Treat!
The Click That Teaches talks about teaching the behavior in as many ways as possible. For instance, with head lowering we have the targeting method where a target is placed on the ground, we have down pressure on the lead rope, hand pressure on the poll, and 'behavior shaping'.
I am really enjoying this training so far and am surprised at how quickly Boomer is catching on. He is food motivated, but prefers to have a variety of treats. He gets bored with the same treat over and over. Today I used one carrot cut up, a handful of small treat nibs, and his pelleted supplements. The time I am spending out at the barn is about half of what I would spend if I were riding or otherwise working him, but I am enjoying it just as much. I think Boomer enjoys it too and hasn't seemed to get bored of it.
I think that some of this is better for me than Boomer. I feel kind of like I am testing the waters and showing myself what he does and doesn't know. So far, I already trust him being tied more than I did yesterday. I feel like he is doing a very good job giving to pressure. I want to keep working on head lowering in response to my hand on his poll. He didn't seem to get that at all. Like, zero reaction. I also want to keep working on targeting. Not sure exactly how it will pay off for us, but The Book seems to think it is important.
Things to work on:
Head down while being sprayed
Head down while tacking up
Head down with poll pressure