I recently took the deer fencing down. That may not sound like a horse training topic, but it turned out to be a perfect example of one of my favorite training mantras: everything is connected to everything else.
The deer fencing protects a sprawling, low-growing evergreen. I let the deer eat most of my garden, but this tree I protect. Every fall the fencing goes up. And in the spring it comes down. That means taking down the plastic fencing I use and then pulling the metal fence stakes out of the ground. After I had rolled up and put away the fencing, I tackled the fence posts. I took a firm hold of the first stake, expecting it to come easily out of the soft spring ground. It didn’t move. I changed my grip, and it slipped out of the ground. The image of a warm knife cutting through butter came to mind. What was the difference? Simple answer – bone rotations.
As I pulled up the rest of the stakes, it occurred to me that this would be a great way to let people practice the rope handling technique that you use to get a horse to lift his head up from grass. ‘Tis the season when the grass is calling with a Siren’s song to our horses. In traditional training we are taught to fight the grass. The horse MUST NOT drag us to grass. This sometimes keeps clicker trainers from seeing grass for what it is – a wonderfully convenient source of reinforcement. Instead we struggle to keep our horses from plunging their heads down to graze.
No one enjoys being dragged to grass. So how do you change this picture? One answer is to change how you view the grass. Your horse wants it. Great! That means you can use it to reinforce behavior YOU want. Instead of trying to stop him from diving for the grass, you’ll be looking for opportunities to let him graze.
This lesson is connected to something else I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and that’s frames. Here I’m not talking about picture frames, though that’s a good metaphor for them. I’m referring to the mental constructs that George Lakoff describes in his books, “Your Brain’s Politics” and “Don’t Think of an Elephant”.
Whether frames are the kind we hang on a wall or the kind we form around ideas, frames contain things. According to Lakoff, we organize facts within a frame of reference. Facts that fit within a given frame are easily processed. Others bounce off these frames as though they don’t even exist. Either that or we push back against them because they don’t fit comfortably within the frame. There’s no structure, no way to relate to them so the new idea might just as well not exist.
If you’ve always resisted letting your horse have grass during training, the following lesson is a great opportunity to practice expanding your frame to let some new ideas in. The first step is to decide that you’re going to give this approach a try. That’s a lot more inviting than facing another summer-long battle with your horse over access to grass.
You can’t just suddenly declare that the grass is a reinforcer and expect smooth sailing. You need to go through a teaching process for your horse to understand how to behave on grass. I’m going to assume a general understanding of clicker training. If you haven’t yet introduced your horse to the basics of clicker training, you’ll want to do that first. I’ll refer you to my web sites for details (theclickercenter.com and theclickercentercourse.com)
Many of us have to hand-graze our horses to acclimate them to spring grass. This is the perfect opportunity for this lesson. (If you need an easier starting point, you can begin in a paddock and use small piles of hay.) The idea is that you are going to teach your horse to leave food in order to get food.
For this lesson on transforming grass into a useful reinforcer here are the steps:
Begin by taking your horse out to graze. Don’t try to keep him from the grass. (If you are using hay piles scattered around your training space, let him take you to the hay. Don’t resist.) Let him eat for a couple of minutes. As he begins to settle and relax, you can start the lesson.
1.) Use your lead to ask your horse to lift his head up. He may ignore you at first, but do the best you can. This is where the image of pulling fence posts out of the ground becomes handy. If you pull straight up on the lead, you’ll feel as though you are playing tug of war against a team of football players. Your horse’s head won’t budge. Remember when I tried to pull the fence post up with a simple grip, it stayed planted in the ground. But when I coiled my arm around the post like a vine coiling itself around a stake, it came out easily.
So before you head out with your horse, go practice pulling some metal fence posts out of the ground. Test the effect. Take a simple grip and see what happens. If the stake is buried deep into the ground, you won’t be able to pull it out.
Now coil your arm around the stake. You’ll feel it lift out with very little effort. This is the technique you’re going to use on the lead. You’re going to stand directly over the snap so the lead is perpendicular to the ground. As you slide your hand down the lead, let your arm coil around it. You’re now in a position that matches the way you coiled your arm around the metal stake. Think about how you pulled the stake out of the ground. You’ll use the same action with your horse.
In the past you may have had to yank, tug, and plead to get your horse to “come up for air”. Now suddenly his head is popping up. It can’t be this easy!
Even if your horse feels as though he’s one of those stakes that is well and truly cemented into the ground, you’ll still be able to pry his head up with considerably less effort than you would have had to use in the past. As his head begins to lift, be ready for the next step in this lesson.
2.) As soon as he starts to lift his head, click and offer him a treat.
3.) Keeping the lead fairly short, fold your hands together at your waist. This base position is part of a lesson I call “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. With both hands folded together, if your horse tries to pull down to get to the grass, you’ll be able to anchor the lead to your body. It’s surprising how solid you can be in this position. From your horse’s point of view, it’s as though he’s tied to a well anchored post.
This only works if you have a fairly short lead so he can’t get too far down to the grass. If your lead is too long, you’ll lose your leverage advantage.
Your horse is going to try and drop his head back down to the grass. With your hands anchoring the lead, you are essentially holding him as if he was tied to a post. As soon as he stops trying to pull down (even for an instant), click. Offer him a treat, and then anchor your hands again to your waist.
Repeat this several times and then, click, give him his treat and let him drop his head down to eat grass.
Let him graze a little, then again, standing directly over the snap, coil your arm around the lead. When you’re in position, rotate your arm so the “stake pops out of the ground”. As your horse lifts his head up, click and treat, then anchor your lead by standing in “grown-ups”. Remember that means you’ll have both hands held together at your waist, and the lead will be short.
As soon as he stops pulling down, again you’ll click and treat. Repeat this part of the pattern several times. Release him to the grass when you see a noticeable improvement in his behavior. The behavior you’re heading towards is his side of the “grown-ups” picture. That means he’s standing beside you with slack in the lead. His head is about level with his chest and he’s looking straight ahead. In other words he looks like a settled, well-mannered horse standing politely beside you. If a friend were with you, the “grown-ups” could talk, and your horse would be waiting patiently beside you.
Instead of fighting the grass, you are now using it to reinforce the behavior you want. When you ask him to lift his head, your horse will begin to come up faster. Instead of trying to dive back down to eat grass, he’ll shift on his own into “grown-ups”. He knows he’s going to get reinforced for standing beside you with his head up. And he also knows you’re going to let him eat more grass. Instead of being anxious about getting to the grass, now he can relax and stand beside you keeping slack in the lead.
Once he’s coming up readily, you can ask him to walk a few steps to get to another patch of grass. At first, just go a couple of steps, then stop. People tend to want to keep going once they have a horse in motion, but this can undo the good work you’ve been establishing. Go too far and the Siren’s call of the grass may overwhelm your horse. So go just a couple of steps, stop and ask for grown-ups. As soon as he settles, which means he’s able to keep slack in the line because he’s not trying to go down for the grass, click, and let him graze.
You can turn this into a game in which you are helping him find the best grass. From his point of view, you’ll probably be an incompetent grass hunter. We humans seem to be drawn to the grass that our horses don’t want to eat. We pick the long, extra green grass. They want the stubby weeds. But even if we take them to less than ideal spots, they do seem to understand that we’re on their side. We’re trying to find them good grass. It’s a great way to build a deep connection with your equine partner.
As you expand this basic lesson, you’ll be able train on grass without it becoming a distraction. In fact, when your horse does something you especially like, you’ll be able to thank him by letting him graze. What was once a major distraction will be instead a handy reinforcer. Leaving the grass will no longer be a problem. Your horse knows he’s going to be able to graze again. When you’re ready to move on, he’ll come away from the grass without a fuss. Your horse will be relaxed and ready for more work, and you’ll have a great new way to say you for a job well done!
You’ve learned how to do this because everything is connected to everything else. Pulling up garden stakes has taught you the skill needed for asking a horse to come away from grass. You’ve also learned that you can change long-held habits of thought. Instead of pushing against the grass and fighting your horse over every mouthful he snatches, you’ve found a way to transform it into a reinforcer. That’s a great way to begin transforming other habits of thought that get in the way of creating a positive connection with your horse.
Happy grazing everyone!