Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The blurry line between brilliance and laziness (and gluttony)

I have a high opinion of the mind of the mustang. Feral animals that they are, they exploit humans for what they need while maintaining a degree of stubborn independence that their coddled domestic brothers and sisters wouldn’t dare.
Exhibit A: the arena trail course. Seeing a tarp on the ground, the mustang approaches, sniffs, then chooses a different path. A tarp, unlike the creek it is meant to suggest, does not have limitless edges. Ergo, the mustang need not expend the additional effort of walking over it. He simply walks around it. He isn’t afraid of it; he just doesn’t see why it is so important to do the task a certain way when another way gives the same end result. This is also true of freestanding “practice” gates, cavaletti, traffic cones and ground-pole mazes.
It was especially true of the pedestal box. The pedestal is even smaller than a tarp. It’s small enough to be awkwardly stepped over or around, or bulldozed through. In a pinch, it might be jumped.
So here’s what I did. I filled the kangaroo pocket of my Klickitat sweatshirt with roughly five pounds of carrots. First, I put Blue on one side of the pedestal and me on the other. I held out the carrot to persuade him forward. But, as Blue pointed out with his nose, there was a pedestal between us. (And when I say “us,” I really mean Blue and the carrot. I was primarily a sentient carrot-holding device throughout.) He started going around the pedestal the same way he went around the tarp, still reaching for the carrot. I kept moving. Kept the pedestal between us. Blue stopped and pivoted like a cutter locking onto a calf. Coming around the other side of the pedestal, walking and reaching, craning his neck. The sentient carrot-holding device matched him move for move, step for step. Faster and faster Blue went, circling the pedestal like a demented carousel horse.
Clearly, this tactic was not working.
I needed to break down the process into tiny, digestible lessons.
Lesson 1: Apply hoof to pedestal.
I was not sure which hoof to start with. The ugly hoof (the white one featured in many blog posts this winter), is on his dominant side. On the other hand, that leg is also mildly crooked compared to the other. Do I really want to load it with Blue’s full forehand weight as he pulls himself up? I decided on the opposite, black hoof. Just in case. And hey, maybe it will strengthen his right side.
I pick up the hoof and put it toward the middle of the pedestal. When he keeps it there, he receives a carrot. If he removes it without permission, no carrot. I establish “hoof on box = carrot” as our training foundation. “Hoof on box” is easier than “chase mom around like demented carousel horse,” so this lesson sinks in pretty fast.
Lesson 2: Shift weight to hoof on box.
This is, of course, the much harder idea. After a quick lunging to give him a break from the mental and physical gymnastics of the pedestal, we return lesson 1. Blue puts his foot on the pedestal and receives one carrot.
In some ways, trick training is like hosting a game show. And now, Blue, would you like to keep that one delicious carrot or move on to the Lightning Round for the chance to earn a second—or even a third!—delicious carrot? I make my most convincing kissing and clicking noises.
He is clearly confused. His foot is on the pedestal, but the carrot is now just out of reach. His neck and lips stretch forward, his eyes narrowed in effort, his head tilting on way then the other, needing just an inch or two more to reach the tasty, tasty carrot. But it is no use; the carrot remains stubbornly out of reach. Irritated, he straightens up again and looks off into the middle distance, purposefully ignoring the carrot, hoping it will put its guard down long enough that he can pounce. He licks his lips in anticipation, still looking away, as if he is just fascinated with the empty arena. But the pull of the carrot is too powerful. He shifts his weight forward toward the carrot. Is foot is too far forward on the box. As he shifts his weight, the whole thing tips forward and he ends up straddling the upended box with his front legs.
He looks so completely ridiculous that I give him a pity carrot.
He does variations of this maneuver two or three more times when I realize the communication breakdown we’re having. With me on the ground, the carrot is rarely above eye-level. Blue doesn’t feel the need to climb up on the box with the carrot so near to the ground. He would rather go through the box than over it. I drag over the mounting block, place it a couple feet from the pedestal. I put Blue on the opposite side, lift his hoof onto the middle of the box, give him a bite of carrot, and climb the three steps of the mounting block. I hold the carrot above both of our heads, occasionally bringing it down where he can sniff and touch it, then bringing it back up.
Blue is again craning his neck, extending his mobile lips, sticking out is tongue. “If only… I were just… a bit… taller,” he grinds out through labored breaths.
And then he gets it. Lightbulbs go off. He lifts onto the box, his other foot dangling in the air next to it. This is a carrot-worthy accomplishment, and I feel guilty that I’m down to my list two finger-sized pieces. They don’t seem like a big enough reward for such a watershed moment. I leave Blue in the arena to ponder what he’s just done while I go get more carrots.
When I get back, he is blissfully rolling in the sandy arena footing. At the sound of me at the gate, he bolts upright, gives a spectacular leaping/bucking fart, and comes running to meet me. I am the carrot fairy.
He follows me over to the pedestal, I put his black foot on it, climb the mounting block and repeat. This time, both front feet end up solidly on the box. The next time, I do it without the mounting block, with just a carrot and a lively “hup!”
This is, of course, the condensed version of the story. This happened over the course of two nights of fairly intensive work for both of us. Blue showed great focus if not determination. He never got flustered, which I hope means that I wasn’t pushing too hard.
This time of year, when it is too dark to ride outdoors after work and often too wet to ride out on the weekends, it is nice to have some little projects like this. We do endless circles in the arena, but sometimes I want something different. Making a mini arena-trail course is a great way to keep my horse using his brain and to work on real-world skills at times when the real world isn’t readily available.


  1. love your descriptions! My horse is very similar, wondering why I am asking him to do things he could easily step over/avoid. Good job and much patience, now Blue does a fun trick, which is also a good trust exercise. Hmm, I need to build a box to teach my own demented carousel horse...

  2. Yay for you!

    Uh, can I make you crazy-jealous?


  3. I think he would have willingly done the pedestal at Elbe without all the histrionics because there are two smaller steps (not one big one) and it is big enough for the handler to lead the way. Too bad that ride is no more—I would have liked to try it!