Saturday, October 26, 2013

Forrest is a Genius

You may recall that when we first brought Rock home, I equated him to Forrest Gump.  He moved slow, was very sweet, but he could run when he needed to.  He seemed to be missing a few screws, but now I know he was just taking it all in, learning the layout of the land, and figuring out his place in an already established herd with new humans who have different behaviors and expectations from where he's been before.

I'm putting in at least half an hour every day working on teaching Gabbrielle to hold still and relax when something terrifies her.  I want her to start using the thinking side of her brain.  I've been desensitizing her to a plastic bag on a stick off and on over the past six years, and she has never tolerated letting me rub it on her body.  All of my other horses got over their worries and now trust me to touch them with the crinkling bag.  All of my other horses have learned to spook in place.

I've had several cowboys tell me that they just tie grocery bags to the stall railings and leave them there for several days.  The horses learn that if they want to eat, they have to go near the bags, and eventually they don't even notice them.  That's not an option for me because Rock and Bombay will ingest them.  Also, I'm trying to teach the horses of the proper way to react.  I'm not just trying to desensitize them to plastic bags.

So, today Gabbrielle made progress with following the bag, standing still and facing the bag while I waved it, beat it on the ground, and spun it in circles.  She would touch it with her nose if I placed it in front of her nose, but then she pulled back on the lead rope.  Rock saw what was going on and came over to volunteer to set an example for her.  He stood still and relaxed when I showed Gabbrielle that I could rub the bag all over his head and body and he didn't care.  Her eyes bulged out of her head in disbelief.  Rock even let me rub his ears with it.  He used to jerk his head away if I pet him behind his ears.

When the bag was on the side of Rock's face, he turned his head and pushed it up against Gabbrielle's face and she ran away, or at least as far as she could get on the end of the lead rope.  He watched while she repeatedly ran backwards after touching the bag with her nose.  I had to follow her with the bag in her face until she stopped backing up, then I could pull the bag away and let her relax.  Rock decided he was going to help in a new way.  He very deliberately walked around to Gabbrielle's hind end and blocked her from backing up.

I don't think this was a coincidence.  This was an intentional act with a function in mind.  I wondered if Rock may have been a cow horse at one time.  With him behind her, I progressed to holding the bag off to each side of her head and bringing it in closer.  Gabbrielle turned her head and poked the bag with her nose, and I removed the stimulus.  She was like, "Wow!  That scary thing goes away each time I touch my nose to it."

We got into a rhythm in which I brought the bag to one side of her face, she poked it away with her nose, and I swung it down by her feet, then up to the opposite side of her face, and she poked it with her nose, back and forth, back and forth.  She never totally relaxed, but I gave her credit for not blowing up or trying to run sideways as soon as she saw the bag coming at the side of her face.  I think she'll get there.  I just have to keep the sessions short, but often and consistent.

After having Rock help me train the other horses and having him try to help me tighten down the brackets on the feed barrels, his I.Q. has risen at least 100 points in my eyes since those days when I called him Forrest.  Lately, I've been calling him "Rock 'n Roll" because he keeps things moving along to the beat of his own drummer.


Snipe said...

It sounds like Rock is a smart fellow, and quite an interesting individual.

Dreaming said...

He is a rock star! What a cool headed dude!

Laura Lee Evans said...

I so enjoy reading what other people do with their horses. Sounds like good progress! And what a smarty pants Rock is. Rosie likes to help me free lunge sometimes :) the rest of the horses are running around the arena and she comes to the middle with me and helps drive them around. I think these horses are ever so much smarter than sometimes given credit for. Happy training!!

Allison B said...

How cool! Rock is one smart horse :)

BrownEyed Cowgirl said...

I am a firm believer in that horses can learn from watching one another and induce behavior modification when repeated training techniques fail. It's one of the reasons I use my broke horses so often when training.