Boomer and Apollo pick up their feet

It’s really starting to cool off here–it’s actually fun to be outside in the afternoon with the horses! The ponies and I had a great weekend.

Boomer and Apollo (the two paint horses in the picture to the left) are doing AWESOME learning how to pick up their front feet for handling and cleaning. I worked with both of them on this on Saturday and again today. Picking up a horse’s foot can be pretty strange or scary for the horse, as you are taking away part their balance.

I try to progress in pretty small steps to help the horse feel confident and successful the whole way. Slow progress at the beginning often means faster progress later on. (These are the steps I use for back feet, picking up the front feet is fairly similar.)

These are both sweet little gelding and it’s fun to see them making progress so fast. I had a couple of sessions with each of them over the summer where we started working with feet, but we hadn’t really done much with it consistently until now.

Today they both let me pick up both front feet about a dozen times each. I could hold each foot for 3-5 seconds and could use the hoof pick to clean all the dirt and grime out. Both stood calm and relaxed and let me hold the foot loosely and move it around.

This was in sharp contrast to Saturday. On Saturday, Boomer kept trying to shake his foot away and had quite poor balance–he was trying to lean on me the whole time. And Apollo, while he would pick up a foot, was pretty unconfident about letting me hold the foot up for any length of time.

It’s amazing to me how fast horses learn with clicker training. Sometimes, literally, overnight. I’ll end a session one day when there are still a lot of rough edges and pieces that need to be taught. I’ll come back the next day and the horse will be far ahead of where we left off in the previous session.

Why this happens, I don’t know. I know some clicker trainers say the horses must stay awake at night, going over their lessons and thinking over what they learned. Whether horses do this or not, I don’t know. Incidentally, parrots are known to do this. In her book Alex and Me, researcher Irene Pepperburg describes taking audio recordings of Alex when he was in his cage at night. In the recording, he could often be heard going over his lessons from the day.

Still, it seems somewhat mysterious to me that performance on a behavior can sometimes improve drastically between sessions. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does enough that trainers take note when it does occur.

Have you ever had this happen in your training? How do you interpret or explain this phenomenon?

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