Thursday, April 2, 2009

Persuasion & Persistence with Plastic

The other night I was laying fresh shavings in the stalls and threw the empty shavings bags out onto the ground. All three horses were kicking the bags around, sniffing them, and shaking them with their teeth. However, once I picked up those bags, they suddenly morphed into monsters because they were out of the horses' control.

All three horses ran from me and the bags, and I just kept calmly following them everywhere they went. I started shaking the bags to make them rattle, and the horses ran even faster. Once they realized that it was harder work to run from the bags than it was to hold still, I approached each horse with my hand outstretched and petted it while holding the bags in my other hand. They eyed the bags nervously, but let me pet them with my bare hand.

If I dropped the bags on the ground, Bombay and Gabbrielle immediately ran up and started playing with them. If I picked up the bags, they retreated. I was bringing life into the bags, and that terrified them.

Lostine was the first to hold still and let me rub the bags all over her body. She knew I'd leave her alone after that, because that meant that she accepted them as nothing to fear, which was my goal. Bombay let me touch his face, neck and front legs with them, but he'd twitch his muscles as if shaking off a fly. As soon as I moved the bags further back on his body, he ran.

Gabbrielle played a game of staying as far away from me as she could while still staying close to her herd. She tried hiding behind the other horses. The horses knew that I was only interested in Gabbrielle, so they'd hold still while I followed Gabbrielle in circles around them. She kept ducking underneath Lostine's neck to get away from me.

Nothing was really working with Gabbrielle, so I broke it down into smaller steps. If Gabbrielle looked back at me and the bags, I stopped following her. She then learned to turn and face me when I followed her with the bags, because that would stop me from following her. I then turned and walked away with the bags in my hand, and she followed me. We never got to the point where I could touch her with the bags. She was only willing to touch the bags herself. She had to be in complete control.

Of course I know that when desensitizing horses to new objects, you should move the objects away and let the horse follow or approach, but these are not new objects. I've been using that desensitization technique of walking away from the horses with plastic bags for years, and Bombay and Gabbrielle haven't progressed to the point of allowing me to rub the bags all over them while they hold still. Rubbing plastic bags over their bodies is no different from me putting a blanket on them, drying them off after a bath with a towel, or grooming them. There is no reason for them to fear it. Of course there's no purpose to rubbing plastic bags on my horses' bodies other than to help them not freak out if the wind blows a bag or piece of trash into them while we are riding.

Last summer I had a scary incident when I was working with Bombay while he was tied to my trailer at the Fairgrounds. A big whirlwind came up from behind him blowing a bunch of trash in circles at his feet. He reared up and almost came down on top of me. I'm sure my neighbors think I am mindlessly teasing and torturing my horses by shaking plastic bags at them, but I consider it all one more step toward saving my own life.

All the books I've read that talk about desensitizing to plastic bags say it takes hours or even several sessions to get to the point where the horse allows you to rub the plastic bags on their bodies. For me, it's been years. All three horses have tolerated having me drape plastic tarps over their backs. What's so different about plastic bags?

I found this picture from last August. I do have to say that Bombay is doing considerably better. He's not nearly as tensed up now when a bring a plastic bag near him, so we are making progress -- slow as it may be.

In this picture he does have his hind foot cocked, which is a sign of relaxation, but the rest of him is tense and ready to explode. The other night he was relaxed with his head lowered and his hind foot cocked, but shook his muscles if the bags touched him, and moved away if I attempted to touch him with them behind his withers. Last year I couldn't touch him with the bags at all. I had to set them on the ground and wait for him to sniff them.

Although, when I say it has taken years, I admit that these sessions have been few and far between. I always get started on reaching some goal with the horses, and then get derailed by the weather or something else that is competing for my time. As you can see from the picture below, I had to put my bicycling on hold.


Katharine Swan said...

Do you have them tied when you drape the tarps over their backs? If so, that might explain why they're okay with tarps but not with shavings bags. Taking choice out of the equation tends to make them learn much more quickly.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Katharine - That's a good point. I've done plastic bag training with them both tied and not tied. The tarp training was all done without them tied.

HorseOfCourse said...

Hi NuzzMuzz!
I love to get insight into other parts of the horse world.
Do you mind if I ask a question?
I understand that desensitization is a normal thing to do in the US? As I am not familiar with it (it is not practised here) I wonder: even if you train with plastic bags at home, won't the horse react on them in a different setting anyhow?
Is the aim to eliminate a reaction, or is it to reduce it?
BR from the Northern curious corner, and have a nice weekend!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

HorseOfCourse - There are some who swear by desensitization and others who feel it just causes more problems. The mounted possee use desensitization exercises and their horses can walk in parades and work in the middle of riots, so I believe it is worth the try. My goal is to expose the horses to as much as possible and to teach them to spook in place. Horses are always going to spook, but if you can reduce it down to a jump or flinch as opposed to rearing and bolting, you and your horse will be a lot safer.

HorseOfCourse said...

Oh, didn't think of police horses.
Get that one. Sounds logical. Thanks!

Marilena said...

bmbay s a very lovely horse! :) my favorite horse of all time is Seattle Slew:)

The Mane Point said...

Wow. We're working with bikes and also plastic bags this week too.

Getting ready for surprises on the trails.



Pony Girl said...

This was a great post. It makes such common sense, these methods. But it is interesting how different each horse reacts to them.
Something about plastic bags are scary. They are very light and airy, I wonder what they look like to the horse's vision? Tarps are much larger and heavier, move slower perhaps?

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Looks like you put your bicycling 'on ice'. Get it? hehe

Gosh! I just don't know what it is about those grocery store plastic bags, but Baby Doll is the same way.
Today I was up at the barn and had a bread bag filled with carrots and a handful of rolled oats as a treat for my mare. I swung the bag up and crinkled it, shook it...and nothing.

I also have a blue tarp Ikea bag that I used to use to carry her hay out to the smaller paddock...and I could rub it on her back, shake it, anything, and barely any reaction at all.

But if I bring a white plastic grocery bag....Whew! Everything is somehow different and she is light on her feet and spooky. What's up with that?!