Updated: Aug 26, 2020
This is Zena's first time laying down from my cue. My goal was to see if my horse, Zena, and I could create a collaborative lay-down behavior 100% at liberty. That means I never touched her during the entire process. Some horses are taught to lay down using whip taps, ropes, leg holding, and more. These techniques lend themselves to being coercive rather than cooperative. There is also more risk of injury and emotional distress involved when the horse is forced.
Where to Begin
I began the process with Zena by reinforcing preliminary behaviors that might lead to laying down. I am a positive reinforcement trainer. In our world that means I use an audible cue to make the behavior then deliver a food reward. Every time Zena offered a lowered head, pawed the ground, or circled and sniffed the ground, I reinforced her. I also gave her the idea to do some of these things, by doing them myself - modeling the desired behavior.
Here's a really important aspect of this training method. You have to give your horse a comfortable place to lie down! We have a sand pit in our round pen that works great and is very enticing to the horses.
I don't have much opportunity to work with Zena on a consistent basis - the trainer's horse gets the least attention yada yada yada. So, over the course of a few week we played with the concept together maybe five or six times. The training for this behavior was pretty random and totally casual.
Setting the Stage
It was very important to make sure Zena had a good experience if and when she took the plunge. So I had these interactions with her in our round pen, where she feels relaxed. When we brought in sand for footing, we left some of the material from the initial dumping spot in place. It's a little too deep to work a horse in, but it's the perfect amount of cushiness to appeal to the horse and motivate them to roll in it.
Making the Connection
We came to a point in the training sequence where we hit a plateau. Zena was strongly mimicking my pawing movements and turning around, another behavior horses often do before rolling, but she wasn't quite putting the entire picture together. Clearly I needed to be more clear! On this particular I came up with a new plan. We did the same preliminary behaviors, then I added a different body position. I bent over and focused more intently on the ground. She watched me very closely and I could see her wheels turning. She pondered for a moment, then immediately bent her knees and brought her hind legs under her. She'd definitely had an ah-ha moment! Of course I immediately reinforced her grand effort to let her know she was correct. Marking and rewarding the behavior stopped the lie-down behavior she was offering in mid-stream, but that was fine and what normally happens. Behaviors are taught in steps, and she had taken a really big step in the right direction. It was more important to reward her effort in that moment than to reach the goal behavior.
I was super pleased and figured we were done for the day at that point. I didn't want to ask any more of her. I wanted to quit on our hugely successful note. However Zena, being the smart cookie she is, had a different idea. She moved away from me and plopped to the ground. She had clearly processed the information and wanted to do the thing she knew I was asking her to do! I was amazed but not completely surprised. This girl is often several steps ahead of me. I was sure happy that I saw it coming and was able to get my phone out of my pocket fast enough to capture this momentous occasion. This is Zena's very first lay down, at liberty. by her own choice. It was pretty darn cool. Oh, and she had never layed down or rolled in the round pen before this moment. This behavior was shaped entirely as a result of our communication via positive reinforcement, modeling, and two beings creating something new and fun together.