Teaching Picasso some manners

10 02 2009

So I visited a great trainer this weekend. Her name is Robin Gates. She is down in Sonoma County. Robin does liberty training and uses Carolyn Resnick’s method, since they have been close friends for years. I had sent Robin some clips of horses I have worked with in order to get some feedback on my technique. We discussed some of the overarching philosophy of her training and how to properly apply it. We mainly discussed my dear Picasso. It seems I have let him become a wee bit disrespectful.

As I sit and reflect on Robin’s advice, I realize I let Picasso do some things I would never accept from a client’s horse. In one clip, you can see Picasso “herding” me. I would not allow another horse to do that, but I guess in my attempt to get my horse to LOVE me, I let him get away with some naughty things. Now I am tasked with fixing this pattern.

So Robin gave me some great advice and some great tasks. The first was to teach Picasso the “head up” and “head down” cues. Basically, while he is eating something (hay, grass, grain) I should be able to control when he eats and when he doesn’t. This is the first lesson a horse learns from his mom or from the herd. My task was to say “Head up!” If Picasso did not respond, I should say it again and this time give him a tap somewhere (I chose his withers) to get his head to pop up. If it came up, I should praise and then give him the head down cue and pull his head down by the halter. In this way, Picasso will learn “head up” means bring your head up; “head down” means bring your head down. Also, I am not to use the lead line in any way to direct his head.

Because Picasso is a piggy, I had to chose how hard the tap should be. I felt it needed to be a medium sized tap. Hard enough to get that head up, but not so hard he flipped down. So I brought Picasso over to some nice, juicy grass. He thought…… well he thought of nothing but the grass. All other things on earth disappeared as he wrapped his lips around that first mouthful of juicy, grassiness. I let him get all situated with a snort full of grass. As he was merrily munching away, I made sure my lead rope was slack, stepped next to his withers and said “Head up!” Nothing…… So I said it again and this time followed it with a whack with the end of my lead rope at his withers.

Whoa! His head came up in total shock. He took a few steps backward and just looked at me. “What the hell was that for?” Okay, maybe that was a wee bit hard. I said “Good boy” and before he could get his head back down (which he was half way through doing anyway) I grabbed his halter and gently pulled his head down saying “Head down.”

Okay, now I needed to do it again, but this time with a bit less enthusiasm. I layed the lead rope over his back to assure myself I wouldn’t pull on it. I let Picasso get delirious with the grass again and then I said “Head up.” I followed it with a tap with my hand to his withers. His head came up again like it was spring loaded. He took one step away from me, probably hoping that I would leave him alone if he moved. He started to drop his head, so I grabbed his halter again and pulled down saying “Head down.” He learned that cue very quickly.. Go figure………

I siddled up to his withers again, rubbing his back, and cooing to him. I then said “Head up,” waiting to see if he would bring his head up without the tap. He brought it up, but only about halfway. He appeared to be weighing his choices. “If I don’t bring it up, I get a tap; but what will happen if I do bring it up?” He knew I would tap him if he didn’t do it, so about halfway up his eye was on me, waiting to see what I would do. He then brought it all the way up. I said “Good,” and quickly took him by the halter and said “Head down.”

In an effort to give him a break and let him forget I was there again, I then took my shedding brush and proceeded to “de-mud” my not-so-grey grey horse. I groomed him for a bit and then wanted to see if he would still bring his head up. I said “Head up.” Picasso immediately and efficiently brought his head up. Once up, he started to go down. I said “Uh uh.” He kept it up for a few seconds. I was trying to get him to realize the command is “Keep your head up until I say head down.” I then said “Good boy.” “Good boy” for Picasso seems to mean “You’re done.” So again he tried to drop his head. I said “Uh uh.” He kept it up a few more seconds. I then grabbed his halter and said “Head down.”

Over the course of maybe 20 minutes, we did this dance a few more times. By the end, I could say “Head up” and his head would come up. When I said “Good boy,” he would still try to drop, but I would then say “Uh uh” and he would keep it up. I then said “Head down” and he needed no encouragement to drop his head back into grass heaven.