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Horse herd-bound only when not being ridden

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  • Horse herd-bound only when not being ridden

    I tried to Google an answer to this already, but most answers seem to address horses who are herd-bound when being ridden.

    My horse calls for his buddies only when I am grooming/ tacking him up in the barn, where he can't see any other horses. He's fine once I'm riding. I was thinking of just stuffing his face with treats when I'm grooming him so he begins to realize that being alone in the barn isn't a bad thing. Does anyone have any other suggestions?

    TIA!

  • #2
    You have to be careful that you're not actually rewarding the behavior you want him to stop. He screams, you give treat and pretty soon he thinks scream = treat.

    You need to distract him and have him centered on you, thus thinking less about his buddies. Do you talk to him? Have you taught him any tricks? I know a number of people here on CoTH have done clicker training with their horses with much success.

    I'd also work with another barnmate and their horse. Put yours wherever you tack up, like normal. Have other horse in the aisleway. Have other horse leave barn. Praise your horse if he makes no noise or gets upset when his friend leaves the barn. If he fusses, bring other horse back, rinse and repeat. This may need several sessions to really sink in (and keep the sessions short - no more than 10-15 min). Make sure you talk to him in a soothing voice. Reward even for a few seconds of good behavior.
    ~~ How do you catch a loose horse? Make a noise like a carrot! - British Cavalry joke ~~

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    • #3
      I'm a clicker trainer, but recognize that it's very hard to address anxiety/fear using treats, so while I still shovel treats when my horses are upset I suspect that any improvement has more to do with habituation than the treats.

      That said, we can't really punish or reward emotional states such as fear, so any treats (or aversives) are much more likely to be classically conditioned to the fearful stimulus than to the emotional state.

      I think the best approach to separation anxiety is gradual habituation. IOW, take the horse out away from his buddies until he just barely starts to worry, let him stay there until he's calm (feed treats to help associate good things with being separated), take him a little further, let him calm down, then a little further.... The more often this can be repeated, the sooner they'll habituate.

      I have a spooky horse who spends a lot of time looking for danger even though he's been clicker trained since he was a foal. He actually very much likes people, and likes to "work", but that doesn't change the fact that he worries about his safety. But, he makes progress every day. Not that he isn't still alert and looking for danger, but he just habituates to new things and new environments much faster than he used to.

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      • #4
        Here's what's going on: He's not being insecure and herd-bound when you are riding because you are being his leader/herd when he is under saddle. He has been trained to focus on you and find peace with you.

        He does not have the same degree of training and trust on the ground, so he feels lost and looks for his herd to reassure him.

        The solution is to ask this horse for the same level of attention on the ground as you require under saddle.

        To do this, you need some ground work, or, really the philosophy that you will direct his feet and, it follows, his attention. The grooming hand is just what's going on. It's not important, or shouldn't be. It will be easiest to teach him to move as you direct while he is away from the herd and wanting to attend to them rather than you. What I mean is that although you ultimately want him to stand still, that "movement" of his feet doesn't require enough of his attention in order to make the point that you are in charge of him while he is in hand and that his mind needs to be on you.

        If I were mine, I'd put on a rope halter and do some ground work with him somewhere away from the herd. I'd bring my grooming box. When I had gained his attention by asking him to move with lightness and precision, I'd then ask him to hold still while I groomed him. Don't tie him; hold the lead in your hand. That lets him know that he is still "with you" and you are not merely doing things to his body while he's tied to an unresponsive wall. Think how hard that is for a flight animal!


        While you are grooming him, the hand on the lead rope is in charge of his feet and his mind. Starting out, I'd settle for this horse not moving his feet. I also would not let him make any noise. That means I'd watch and feel for where his attention was. He might be allowed to raise his head or look in the direction of his herd. But if he made a noise or moved a foot, I'd "intervene" and do as much as I needed to in order to get his feet under my control. When I had that back (maybe I ask for some steps of turn on the forehand, or backing one step and stepping forward one step, or a walking leg yield from both sides), I'd ask him to stop his feet. When he was still, head lowered and his attention back on me, I'd resume grooming. I'd repeat this sequence as needed-- anytime his mind wanders at all, I give him a job to do for me. Pretty soon, if he so much as raises his head and looks over at the herd, my picking up my hand with the lead rope brings his attention back to me. He never moves his feet or needs a larger correction.

        That's all there is to it-- asking for as much focus on you in hand as you regularly demand under saddle, and figuring out a way of teaching him in hand that you require all of his attention.

        The problem with feeding cookies is that you aren't quite answering his problem-- you are a distraction, but you don't provide actual security nor capture his mind completely.

        You are not trying to control (or even care about) his emotional state; you can't legislate that. But you can occupy his mind and help him to discover that when he's "on the job" he feels OK about things.

        Clicker training is a fine way to get this; in fact any form of training that lets you put your horse's focus where you want it is fine.

        But the ability to direct the horse's mind to a job at hand is the basic training task that I think you need. After all, horses doing calculus problems don't have any bandwidth left over for feeling sorry for themselves or longing for their buddies.
        The armchair saddler
        Politically Pro-Cat

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        • #5
          Once when I was ill for some months my horse was out with the bro-clan. When we started back up he was screaming. It was a little unnerving. Normally he’s the boss of turnout and they stand at the gate while he walks off like he could care less.

          I have used clicker training, but he wasn’t super present for that, so I started making it a real pleasure to see me. Long walks on the beach...just kidding. I’d just feed him, groom him and make it a regular routine to expect me. I use Buck Brannaman approach and do some focused ground work and after a while he left them at the gate and ignored their plaintive whinnies.

          If the habit if work is a pleasure, it they nicker and come when called, that means you are doing something right.

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          • #6
            I agree more ground work out of sight of the horses until the relationship on the ground is as good as in the saddle.

            I'd also consider hanging a hay net while you groom.

            There are so many levels of this behavior. Some horses will call and act out but not really be that worried. Others are really upset when they are alone, though they may not show it as much.

            I do a lot of clicker training and it is effective in getting a horse over a small amount of worry or teaching them to overcome their worry. But I have found that when a horse is seriously anxious or wound up, they will ignore the treat and the cue. That is the limit of clicker training.

            Clicker training is ultimately play (in a good way), but if the horse isn't feeling playful, the game won't work.

            If a hay net is enough to distract your boy, he isn't really that worried.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Scribbler View Post

              I do a lot of clicker training and it is effective in getting a horse over a small amount of worry or teaching them to overcome their worry. But I have found that when a horse is seriously anxious or wound up, they will ignore the treat and the cue. That is the limit of clicker training.
              Agree. It's just too difficult to up the reward value enough to overcome fear using CT (and often too easy to up it with pressure and release). So if we want to stick with CT we lower the criteria, but if we go to P&R sometimes we wish we'd known enough to lower the criteria instead!

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              • #8
                Does he only call, or are there other unwanted behaviours?
                Freeing worms from cans everywhere!

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                • #9
                  I use positive reinforcement (clicker training) extensively though not exclusively with my horse. In a situation where the horse is distracted, worried or excited or whatever, I think the ticket is to ask for a different behavior. Two incompatible behaviors cannot exist at the same time. If your horse is targeting a cone he is not screaming for his buddies, if horse is yielding his haunches as you work him in a rope halter he is not screaming for his buddies. Either way the replacement behavior will have to be trained up in a lower stress situation. And trained well so that his response to your cue is automatic. I think standing still is hard on a worried horse because they aren’t being directed to do something and have time to work themselves up. I prefer R+ for these types of situations as done well the horse starts volunteering for the desired behavior. I’d use cones. Probably start by having a line of cones in aisle and walk to each cone target and treat, increasing duration of “ho” at each cone, decreasing number of cones, until there is one cone or target just at grooming area. Now if your horse isn’t already clicker trained this would take quite a bit of time to set up for. If that’s the case I might try teaching him to target and then put him in grooming area and ask him to target there. Better to feed treats as a reward for a simple task than to just stuff his face in hopes of distracting him.

                  Regardless of wether you decide to use negative reinforcement (pressure and release) or positive reinforcement (clicker training), I would absolutely NOT allow horse to continue practicing this unwanted behavior. Groom and tack him up somewhere else he is comfortable so he doesn’t turn this bad behavior into a bad HABIT or vice.

                  Best of luck!

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