When training equines, I use a technique called ‘shaping’ to alter the animals behaviour. It involves pushing the animal to the edge of their comfort zone and then slowly and steadily pushing the boundary further by using positive reinforcement. For example, when teaching an animal to pick up their feet, I will first just keep my hand on their shoulder until they relax, then gradually work my way down the leg, rewarding them every time they relax at the next step. The time spent will increase slowly too, until eventually you can hold your hand on their hoof for several seconds with them nice and relaxed.
When you start a new session with an animal you will normally need to start a few steps up the shaping plan than where you left off. This eases the animal back in to work slowly and allows them to remember what they learnt on the previous session.
This morning I decided to start by working with Margherite again as she was my superstar yesterday, and I was hoping she would set me up with a good start to the day! She did not disappoint. I thought that I may have quite a lot of trouble catching her in the field as she only learnt to be caught in an open space for the first time yesterday, however I caught her very quickly and she happily allowed me to lead her back to the stable. I decided today to work on teaching her to lift her feet. I started by grooming her again to allow her to settle down with me and she stood like a little lamb whilst I groomed all over her body, her mane and her tail, she even allowed me to groom the ticklish areas like her belly and legs without any fuss! I started using my shaping plan to work my way down her front legs first and then her hinds. I had to teach her that she only got rewarded when she stood still, as to begin with she spent a lot of time stamping her front feet, thankfully she was much better behaved with her back legs and by the end of the training session I was able to rest my hand on all four hooves as well as touching down the front, back, inside and outside of all four legs. Later in the day I again caught Margherite for a second hoof lesson with her. By the end of the training session I was able to pick up all four feet and touch them with the hoof pick. Although there is still a lot of work to do before she could even consider seeing the farrier, she is well on her way and doing fantastically.
Biclo also had two training sessions today and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could also very quickly catch him in the field and lead him without bother to the stable. Like all little boys, as Biclo finds his feet he is starting to become a cheeky little monkey! He keeps checking my coat and hands and boots (randomly!) to see if I have treats for him, and when I want him to stand still and learn, all he does is fidget and constantly get distracted by whatever is passing the door! Be it the other mules, a bit of straw blowing in the wind or even a bird flying past! So as well as trying to teach Biclo to concentrate long enough to learn to have his feet touched or his belly groomed, I am also having to constantly remind him of his manners, and push him back out of my space and off my toes! Despite the distractions he is progressing steadily, he also allowed me to groom his body, belly, head and rump, and again allowed me to look in his mouth, ears and eyes to prepare him for vet visits. By the end of the day, Biclo had allowed me to stroke his fetlocks on his back legs and his hooves on his fronts, he has a tendency to snatch his front feet up every time his knees are touched, so I had to spend a bit of time teaching him to keep his feet on the ground.
Now on to the tricky three!! I have at least today learnt their names – the foal is named Irene, the big black mare who jumped the stable door is called Lidia, and the big brown mare who jumped the five-bar gate is called Magda.
Magda and Lidia, as I reported yesterday, are inseparable. Although yesterday Magda initially took the lead and appeared to be the braver of the two, today she let her bravado down and spent the day hiding behind her friend Lidia.
After the commotion of yesterday with the pair of them jumping back in to the field together, I expected to have real troubles with them today, but they were much better than expected.
Since there is no area at isolation safe or suitable to work with them on a one-to-one basis I have decided to just work with them in the field and keep the pressure off them. The first session I had with them this morning I was able to get within 4 metres of Lidia, by throwing her bits of bread and coaxing her in closer and closer to me. Magda wasn’t too far behind, neither was Irene, although Irene does hide behind Margherita a lot of the time. In the afternoon I spent over an hour just quietly walking around the field with Magda, Lidia and Irene to try and get them to accept my presence. Using approach and retreat techniques as well as titbits every now and then I managed to get Lidia to pick bread up off the floor about 2 metres away from me. My dream is by the end of the week she may even take some bread out of my hand, although I fear this may just be a step too far for her still. Magda made it to within 5 metres of me, which is progress, but she still has such a long way to go before she is even comfortable being around me.
I managed to separate Irene off from the heard and I worked with her in the stable for about an hour. Within 5 minutes she had approached me and sniffed my hand – this same action had taken her an hour the day before. Although she is nervous, she is also quick to show her fighting side, I am unsure as to whether some of this is learnt behaviour, or whether she is just trying all the tricks in the book, as she shows very little fear reaction before her ears go back and she lunges or swings in my direction. She is quick to rush towards me in the stable too and try and get past me to the door. I spent the whole session with her teaching her that her kicking and biting and threatening behaviour does not get a response and that to get me to take the pressure off her and to get me to move away she must just stand quietly. She did very well in what was a tiring session for us both and by the end of it I had managed to just touch her neck.
I am so pleased that the mules are all starting to trust me a little bit. Although these things take time, it is nice to see that progress is being made and that all 5 mules are choosing to work so hard for me.
Positive energy and emotional moments - Day 4
Baby steps in the right direction - Day 3
Shaping behaviour - Day 2
A little victory and a small step of progress - Day 1
Colleferro donkeys safely home at last
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