Magic Mustang Tamer

Task 02: Conditioned Relaxation

After the behavior is acquired, the animal should be able to stand next to you with or without a panel between and go into the relaxed posture on request. Return to this activity frequently and use it to maintain a calm training environment. You may extend or deepen the relaxation by using additional markers such as sighs, licking/chewing, or slow blinks. Reward the descent into relaxation and keep it on stimulus control so it will be available when you need it. The more you do this, the better things will go.

ALERT: Make safety your first priority. Always have an escape route planned.

Task 2 Subtask 1 Stand with head low and neck straight (“easy”) 10/min

Objective: Assuming a relaxed posture will encourage the animal to be relaxed. Watch a horse at rest to see what true relaxation looks like. The animal stands with its head in front of chest (neck straight) and crest horizontal from withers. We call this posture “Easy”. Later, you can return to this exercise whenever the horse begins to get excited.

The Set-Up: You are safest working through a panel with the horse (especially a tame one) but get quicker results if you can be in the same space as the animal.

Prerequisite Training: The horse has learned to take hay relaxed (T1.2) and understands the bridge (T1.3).

Protocol: Try to stand next to the horse rather than in front of it. This is difficult if you are working through the fence, but do the best you can to not be right in front of the horse. Make sure the treat bag is not near the spot where the horse will be putting its head. The bag is salient and the horse is likely to think the game is putting his nose near the bag.

As soon as you get in place, capture the horse putting its neck in a straight line with its body by bridging and feeding. Don’t let the horse perform the behavior without marking it and bridging it. Help the horse discover that there is a correct location for its nose relative to its own place and without regard for where the trainer is. When the neck is straight, shape the head to be low, ears as low as the withers (or the nose is less than 3 feet off the ground). When the horse is showing the correct response 90% of the time, begin using the verbal request, “Easy”, to cue the horse. Do not encourage the horse to start bobbing by focusing too much on elevation. Straightness is more important.

If you are training through the panel, you can be quite strict about attitude but you must be careful to not drop hay on the ground. If the horse is the least bit aggressive behind the panel, turn away from the horse. Be very black and white about the issue and accept no food aggressive behavior. Turn back after 10 seconds and start over fresh with no hard feelings. Wait for ears to be forward before you start. You may have to turn away 30 times, but the horse wants you to stay and play. A tame horse is more likely to try to mug you for the food.

QC: This task is complete when the horse can perform this behavior at least 10 times in one minute.

What ifs:

  • What if the horse doesn’t lower its head? Feed it lower than you are asking it to have its head.
  • What if I can’t really see when the neck is straight? Orient the horse in line with the sun so that the front feet are standing on the shadow of the hind feet. Then watch the shadow to see when the head is straight. The ears will be symmetrical and the nose will not be visible on the shadow.

Task 2 Subtask 2 “Easy” with duration count-down(10) *

Objective: The horse will never actually relax by head-bobbing into position. We need a continuous relaxation posture. Here we put “easy” on duration.

The Set-Up: The animal knows to perform the desired behavior on cue but only offers it for a moment or two. The animal is relaxed and motivated.

Prerequisite Training: The horse understands the bridge (T1.2). The animal will offer the behavior on cue (T2.1).

Protocol: While the animal is not doing any undesirable behaviors, initiate a countdown from 10 prior to the bridge. Count down fast so the animal has no opportunity to do an undesirable behavior, helping your animal to be successful for at least six repetitions. When the animal is looking expectantly at you as you count, then change your criteria to begin the countdown when the animal is performing the “easy” behavior, count fast to start, but stop immediately if the animal stops performing “easy” by bending neck or turning head. As the animal starts to understand this task, you can slow down the count to about 1 per second. Be strict about starting over after the animal has succeeded three times in a row.

Count DOWN, not up. The reason we count down is to let the animal know when the last one is coming. They will definitely be listening to that final 3-2-1 and will start anticipating the bridge. The countdown also becomes a conditioned reinforcement in itself and will help extend many kinds of behaviors. If English is not your native language, count down in your own language so you don’t get confused.

Later on you can work up to whatever duration you need. The alphabet makes a useful extended set of sounds if you avoid things that rhyme with “D”. If you are practicing for freeze branding you need 40 seconds. Practicing for a blood draw should be at least a minute. Practicing for hoof handling should be at least 20 seconds before you ask them to generalize to do it without the countdown. You know it is really working when the animal hears ”2…1…” and it leans forward to get his treat on the bridge.

QC: This is complete when horse will continue performing the “easy” behavior for a count-down(10) and will do this 3 times in a row (3x) with no errors.

What ifs:

  • What if my animal won’t keep doing the behavior? Just stop and start again when the animal restarts the behavior. If the animal absolutely can’t handle it, you should figure out why and eliminate the distractions.
  • What if my animal just keeps bobbing? First admit that you made a training error and taught the horse something annoying. Feed the horse low so it has to put its head down to get the food.
  • What if the flies are bad and the horse has to stop and bite them? The horse isn’t ready for you to do anything about that so relax the criteria if you need to. Ensure your animal can be successful.

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