Goat Diaries: Day 1 – Begin By Breaking the Rules

Goats Not Horses
I’m a horse trainer.  That’s what I know, but here I was with two young goats trying to stay as far away from me as was possible in the space of a stall.   The goats belonged to St Mary’s Convent.  They were raised both for their beautiful cashmere fiber and to be part of a 4-H program.   They had grown up being held in the laps of young children.

The rest of their experience with people was very conventional farm handling. When you needed to move a particular goat into another pen, you grabbed the collar around his neck and propelled him forward as best you could. No wonder they were suspicious of me! They clearly expected to be grabbed and held. The Sister who had raised them very much loved her goats and was wonderfully kind to them. But the handling was done within the constraints of traditional farm management.

These goats had also grown up being fed peanuts and pretzels by children.  No safety rules attached. The herd had gained the nickname of Piranha Goats. That tells it all. Apparently, the children loved having the baby goats jump up and take pretzels out of their mouths. Cute maybe, but these weren’t babies anymore.

I had just discovered that the goats were willing to set aside their suspicion of me for the prize of peanuts.  Gone was their shyness around me.  Suddenly, I had two goats all but in my lap eagerly taking the peanuts from me.  Okay.  That was one hurdle crossed.  Now what?

With horses I would normally begin with targeting. Now that the goats knew food was involved it seemed a reasonable starting point for them, as well. I would also normally begin with protective contact. I would be on one side of a barrier with the horse on the other. And I would be working with only one horse at a time.

Nick target in stall 2.png

I often get emails from people asking for help getting started.  They’ve gone out into the only work space they have – their paddock – and tried to clicker train several horses at once.  That’s a recipe for disaster.  We’ve all seen one horse run another off a hay pile. Now the handler has essentially become the “hay pile” – a hay pile with a particularly tempting stash of carrots hidden in it’s pockets.

If the handler doesn’t get kicked or run over, she runs a high risk of getting one of her horses kicked.  And even if the herd gets along beautifully and doesn’t quarrel over a scarce resource, there’s the problem of sorting out what to do after you click.

Do you feed everybody, even the horse who was doing completely the opposite of what you wanted?  Or do you just feed the horses who were good?  What kind of confusion and frustration are you weaving into your first clicker lessons?

It’s so much better to work one horse at a time.  There are lots of ways to do this.  You may not be able to afford metal round pen panels, but you can make inexpensive wooden panels to create a safe work space for your horse.  You can set these panels up in your paddock, so all the other horses can watch.  A horse who worries about being away from the herd will still have his family nearby.

Maggie in round pen panels.png

These wooden panels are both inexpensive and easy to make.  They provide a good safety barrier for you and your horse.  Note the horse is on the outside.  This gives her more power of choice.  She’s free to leave at any time.  The handler has to become more creative to keep her horse engaged with her.  If her horse does leave, the panels keep her from chasing after her to get her back.

I didn’t do this with the goats.  I began by breaking my own rules.  My work space was their stall.  I had no barrier and two goats – with horns – who were jostling one another to get to the treats. That’s a recipe for chaos, but I didn’t want to stress the goats by separating them.

Instead I took my chair into the stall, set a bucket of hay down in front of it and began. The chair served one of the functions of protective contact. While it didn’t provide me with any protection from them, it did give the goats a sense of safety. They could stay on their platform as far from me as they could get, or they could come see what I had to offer.  I was planted in my chair.  They could see that I wasn’t going to to chase them into a corner or make a sudden move to grab them.

Goat diaries day 1 goats on platform.png

While I watched the goats, they were watching me.


Session 3: 9:30 am




I sat in my chair shelling peanuts (and eating some, as well.) It took almost five minutes for the goats to decide it was safe to check me out. In the end their curiosity coupled with lure of the peanuts proved too much for them. They came over to see what I was doing. Once they realized treats were involved, they were eager to play. And just as it does with horses, their curiosity helped me out. When I held my target (a colored baton that rattled when I shook it) out to them, they reached out to sniff it.

goat diaries day 1 baton2.png

My Target Stick

I was sitting in a chair so I could be at their level. That made it hard for me to get at my pocket after I clicked. Too slow. I didn’t like the lack of a smooth connection between the click and the treats. I’m so used to working with horses I hadn’t factored in the challenge of getting to my pocket.

I was accumulating too many errors – not good, so I ended the session after just a few rounds of targeting. I wanted us all to have a chance to think.

goat diaries day 1 targeting intro Taking Turns.png

Taking Turns: The photos make it seem as though this was a very orderly session, but it felt like chaos to me.  I’m used to introducing one animal at a time to the basics of clicker training.  I was reluctant to separate the goats, so I started with a less than ideal situation.  I quickly realized I needed to change my set up or I was going to accumulate a lot of unwanted behavior along with the target touches.  It was time to stop and rethink what I was doing.  Testing the waters is fine, as long as you don’t stay too long once you realize a change is needed.

Coming Next: Testing the Waters: Dress Rehearsals and Trial Runs