Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Head Down

Head Down

I was reading a blog the other day, and it was about a horse that would become petrified on the trail. I suggested trying clicker training to teach her horse to put her head down.

It got me to thinking about how incredibly useful the “head down” command has been to us. I only wish I would have known about it years ago when I first started riding Cruiser on the trail. He was the spookiest horse around. I didn’t know it, though. Ellen and I both naively thought he was normal. From then on, we have been amazed that the majority of horses will spook, but not nearly as often as Cruiser used to—and for that matter—still does.

When I started working with Cole, the clicker book suggested teaching your horse to put his head down to relax him. Well, Cole wasn’t spooky, but he sure could use some relaxation. He can be a very rambunctious horse. When he gets excited, his head goes straight up into the air, he prances, jogs and bucks. What he doesn’t want to do is walk.

Since he is a curious horse, he will touch anything I put in front of him. If I click and treat him for touching it, he will touch it over and over again. I got him to lower his head by putting my hand in front of him and lowering it to the ground. I then clicked him for following my hand down. You don’t have to use your hand. My sister is doing it with Dante with her whip handle.

Once he was lowering his head at a standstill, I had him keep his head down for a few moments before clicking him. When he got good at that, we went to head lowering while walking. The next step was to do it for longer periods while walking.

After I had done this enough, all he needed to see was my hand or the whip pointing to the ground, and he would put his head down. He figured that out on his own.

Now, when he is rambunctious, I can point to the ground, and as long as my hand or whip is in position, he will hold his head down—as if his head was tied low to the ground with a rope. We can do it at a standstill or a walk. Since he is hoping to get a treat when I do this, he is very enthusiastic about the game. I do click him for doing this most of the time, but I have him walk longer and longer distances.

Of course, Cole being Cole, this soon morphed to his silly walk. I started clicking him for walking with me with his head down and matching my footsteps. Once he figured that out, he started to lift his legs up high with my steps. I thought he was cute and clicked him for it. (In the clicker world, this is called “capturing” a behavior.) Now, when I point, he drops his head and does his silly walk in time to my footsteps. He loves this game. (This is why when Ellen broke her ankle and could barely walk, Cole matched her steps as she led her home.)

I also taught him to drop his head when I vibrate a rein. This was pretty easy to do, too. I just vibrated the rein until he guessed right. (Clicker horses get that way—they will trial behaviors if they don’t know what you want.) When he dropped his head, I quit vibrating, clicked and treated him. It only took a few times. Now, when he gets silly when I ride him, I ask him to drop his head. I don’t always click him, but I do usually scratch his withers. It also works when he gets distracted in the arena and his head pops up—causing me to lose contact with him. I jiggle the rein, and he puts his head back down.

I honestly don’t know if it relaxed him any like they claimed, but it did get him to settle down. It put him into “seek” mode. I had read about “seek” in Temple Grandin’s book, “Animals in Translation.” It is an incredibly strong emotion. We all have it. It is what makes us want to see what is around the next corner—literally and figuratively. Why do you think we like to check our email, texts or messages? Do you really want to wait until later to see it once you know it is there? What about wanting to know what will happen when we put that coin in the slot machine? I could go on and on with examples.

Anyway, seek can override fear. Animals can only be driven by one strong emotion at a time. Though Cole’s motivations were seldom about fear, it is hard to bounce around at the end of a lead rope if you are concentrating in keeping your head down within a couple of feet of the ground.

“Head down” has simply been the best thing I ever taught Cole. We can ride or lead by anything, and we seldom have any problems at all.

Now, when Ellen saw how well it worked with Cole, Ranger was our next guinea pig. He can be very difficult on the road by the barn—this is about fear. Coming home he is the worst. The tiniest thing will set him off—and he becomes unmanageable—prancing and dancing about. We think that being so close to the barn adds to it. He sees safety so close—he wants to get there as quick as he can.

A few sessions of “head down” and he is a whole different horse. He is still excited, but it is about the prospect of getting a treat. Ranger is a very, very enthusiastic clicker horse.

The next guinea pig—Dante. He doesn’t spook much to begin with—nor is he an exuberant horse. He only gets upset if cars pass him on the right—which ended up with Ellen breaking her ankle last fall. Ellen has been doing “head down” with him, and he does well with it.

She hasn’t led him in traffic, since. I have, but the cars only passed him on the left, and he was fine. Her project is to get him to drop his head when cars pass on the right. As I mentioned, she is using the whip as a cue. She wants him to touch his nose to it when she puts it in front of her. He does it fine when she is in the arena. Right now, she is working on duration. Once the world thaws out, we are going to have some training sessions in the driveway with my car going past, him putting his head down and hopefully, ignoring the car.

Maybe he will learn a silly walk…


Allison B said...

Clicker training has done really well for me and Shy! In fact, the other day, she was rooting around in her grooming bag, grabbed the clicker in her mouth, started clicking it and looking at me! Crazy horse! You have done a lot with clicker training your horses :)

Judi said...

Oh, that must have been adorable. Wait a minute, maybe she was clicking you? She should have given you a treat.

I really like the clicker training because the horses seem to have fun and learn faster.

CG said...

Hell-I found your post via Lytha's blog.
This sounds like a great idea! I need to get one of those clickers, my horse is really trick trainable and I think the clicker would make things even easier.
I wonder if I could use a similar training technique with my dog? He gets a little excited when leashed and passing small yippy dogs- perhaps I could teach him something like "head down" to divert his attention?

CG said...

Ooops, sorry that first word was supposed to be "hello!" :)

Judi said...

Hi CG. Thanks for visiting. Yes, Clicker makes it much easier to teach tricks. They learn a lot faster--and love it.

It might work with your dog. Dogs are super students when it comes to clicker training, but I have tried it with my dog, who is a very good clicker dog, but I just can't get through to her when there is a dog in front of her that she wants to bark at. If your dog is only bad with small yippy dogs, you can work with passing the quiet dogs, and that may transfer to the small dogs. Unfortunately for me, Maggie goes nuts when she sees any dogs at all. Sigh...

Brian said...

That is amazing and quite interesting too!