Susannah called me in because she wanted to be able to tack up her mare, Fawn, without her horse showing signs of worry.
The first thing that I do is watch the baseline behavior, and then tease apart the components.
Here is how Fawn reacted when Susannah stepped towards her with the pad.
Then I had Susannah approach without the pad.
Then I checked if Fawn was scared of the pad itself. She had no problem approaching it, standing on it and eating near it.
One thing that I noticed was that Fawn was very sensitive to human body language that could be interpreted as move on! Take a look at this video again. Susannah approaches towards the belly behind the girth area.
So, I change that trajectory. I have Susannah walk towards Fawn’s shoulder while holding the pad, feed when Fawn turns towards her, then walk away. Fawn realizes that the pad isn’t something that’s going to be flapped at her to make her move. It’s not a predictor of some other action by Susannah that is uncomfortable. It’s just Susannah walking up to her. And a cookie! Both things that Fawn likes.
I have her do it a couple of more times, until Fawn showed calm yet eager interest in Susannah and the pad.
The next step was to open up the pad when approaching. Susannah did that and Fawn was fine.
Now it was time to swing the pad onto Fawn. I did this. As I was putting the pad on, the mare stepped off. I had a choice of quickly pulling the pad off of her, or letting her walk off. Because Fawn didn’t look fearful or move suddenly with anxiety, I chose the latter. If I had pulled it off, Fawn would have connected that with walking away. As it was, Fawn did a rather lovely walk, then stopped on her own after concluding that it was no big deal.
After Fawn stopped walking, I was able to go right up to her, remove the pad, and try again. It was obvious that letting her walk around with the pad on was a good thing, because this time, she was nonchalant while I put the pad on. I didn’t give Fawn a cookie. There was no need. She was happily and calmly eating. At this point, I wanted putting on the pad to be a neutral activity, which it obviously was!
Now it was Susannah’s turn. What happens first is interesting. Fawn backs up.
Susannah had done the approach and feed only a couple of times, but it was enough so that Fawn inadvertently learned to position herself to get food from Susannah when Fawn saw the saddle pad move towards her.
One rule of training is to always have in mind the end goal, and to increase criteria each and every rep to get there. If you repeat and repeat the same thing, the horse will get frustrated when you want to move on to the next stage. Sometimes they learn quicker than you realize!
In this case, I caught this unwanted behavior early enough to be able to channel it the correct way without much difficulty. Still, as you can see, Fawn is very clued into body language. Fawn noticed when Susannah hesitated and tensed her forearms. I noticed it, too, and was able to direct Susannah to adjust what she did – very slightly – and look at that success!
Here is Fawn’s content face with soft eyes after the training session.
We’ll be doing the same process with the saddle itself. The slower you go, the faster you get there.
(For some background on Fawn, go to this blog.)