Dark gray clouds fat with snow towered over Wild Horse Plains and the Flathead this morning, but there were only blue skies above our valley, and the temperature was in the 50s — downright balmy for January. There was a wind of course — there always is when warm weather systems collide over our high valley — and Joe asked me if I really wanted to work the horses today just as the tarp ripped off our wood pile and rolled across the driveway like a tumbleweed in a blizzard.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll ride Senorita. It’s time I add wind to her training obstacles.”
Senorita spooks on gusty days when the grass quivers and leaves are swept into tiny cyclones, but she was raised in the Dakotas where all-out straight-line gale-force winds didn’t seem to faze her. I thought she might keep it together on a really windy day better than a gusty one.
I’d been reading lately about a training term called “Overshadowing,” and I wondered if I could incorporate the idea into today’s ride. According to Equitation Science International at www.esi-education.com, overshadowing is a training technique used to habituate horses to aversive objects or situations. When a horse receives two stimuli at one time, one of them will overshadow the other. The idea is to pair the aversive stimulus with a well-trained task or cue, being sure to keep the aversive stimulus at a low level which doesn’t over-ride the well-trained task. In other words, the positive stimulus is stronger or “overshadows” the aversive stimulus.
I wasn’t sure if the wind was at a low enough level, but she was certainly used to it after standing in the pasture with it howling around her ears.
The other training technique which I’ve used on Senorita since she was born is counter-conditioning. Habituating with counter-conditioning means adding simple positive reinforcement (usually food) to the aversive stimulus so that the aversive stimulus actually becomes a cue which signals that a treat is coming.
Think of the sound of crackling plastic. If you treat a horse immediately after it hears crackling plastic, it won’t take long before you have a horse who is completely not afraid of the sound. I’ve used counter-conditioning to habituate horses to all kinds of things: flapping tarps, ATVS, trains, motorcycles, etc.
Although I use R+ with a Bridging Signal when teaching specific tasks, I’ve found that counter-conditioning using feeding at opportune times is equally effective.
As usual, Senorita was a doll to catch. Joe parked the truck fifty feet from the fence where the rest of the herd could watch, and I “parked” Senorita about twenty feet behind the truck next to the concrete block which I use as a mounting block.
I have been using +RwBS to teach her to stand untied near the block while I tack her up, but the last few times I did it, she seemed as though she had the task down pat. So this morning I tried something new for her — a feedbag. She has never worn a feedbag or a grazing mask before — none of our horses have. Friends of ours use both on camping trips, so when someone we knew was clearing out their tack room and needed a new home for a couple of old canvas feedbags, I thought I’d start using them to get our horses used to the idea of something hanging over their noses. An empty feedbag should be in aversive. But I imagined having oats in it would be counter-conditioning. I didn’t know what Senorita would think of it, but I thought it was a good time to try since she’d already learned to stand still during tacking up.
Well, the feedbag was a non-issue. She loved it. Oats on demand — what a concept! I put the bag on her, let her have a mouthful, took it off, and repeated three times before I was sure that she was cool with it. I left her to get her tack out of the truck and almost had her saddled when I saw that Joe needed help back at the gate.
A bag of oats had spilled in the back of Joe’s truck, so he thought it was a good idea to catch Daisy, too, and let her stand at the truck to clean up the mess. Only Daisy is at the bottom of the pecking order and he needed someone to shoo the piranhas away from the gate so he could lead her through. I unsaddled Senorita, left her untied at the block with the feedbag on her face, and went to help him.
Test time, right? Senorita passed with flying colors: she didn’t move an inch. It don’t think she was even aware of anything but the oats in the feedbag. What’s more, when I got back and saddled her again and the blanket flew off her back in the wind two times, she didn’t even flinch.
As soon as she was tacked up, the feedbag came off, the bridle went on, and I mounted. We stood there for awhile (I always reinforce standing still for mounting and dismounting.) She didn’t seem bothered by the wind. And then we started off in circles around the field. The wind was flapping things around, but that didn’t bother her. At first there were only two things that bothered her: the frozen ground had thawed in patches giving us very slippery footing and the dogs had been digging great big holes in the pasture. They had been sprayed by skunks a few times recently and judging by the size of a few of the holes, the dogs had been tunneling after whole skunk families.
Senorita wasn’t happy with either the slippery footing or the gaping black holes. She had to concentrate on where to walk, so I gave her slack and let her pick her way through the pasture. Giving a spirited horse slack on a windy day made me feel a little uneasy, but I tried to relax and place my trust in her. The key thing was that the aversive stimuli of holes and slippery footing were, in and of themselves, not aversive enough to bother her MORE than what I was asking her to do.
That changed, though, after a few passes around the field, when she also began to be bothered by Daisy who was happily vacuuming outs out of the back of Joe’s truck. Daisy used to be top mare when Senorita was young and they’ve always been close. But with time, Senorita has taken Daisy’s place. Having Daisy eating out of the truck while she worked was highly distracting to Senorita. The combination of concentrating on her footing and trying to work herself closer to the truck every time we passed it in a circle was all Senorita could focus on. At this point, there were too many aversive stimuli going on to be overshadowed by the tasks she knew. We were approaching a line which I knew would be too much to cross to keep our session positive.
I decided it was time to bring down the stimuli a bit. I asked Joe to lead Daisy away from the truck and out onto the gravel road where we had better footing. Senorita and I followed and finished our session with a relaxing walk with Daisy.
All-in-all, it was a successful training session: we had incorporated overshadowing wind, poor footing, big holes, and an eating distraction, all while Senorita responded lightly to her cues and completed what she was asked to do.