Playing Fetch

Introduction

Some horses easily walk along carrying something in their mouth. Other horses find this a foreign concept. For such horses we must work through a series of slices to build up a new skill. My horse, Boots, has never worn a bit for riding, so walking with something in her mouth was a truly new experience.

Some horses learn this quickly at liberty. Others gain security by being on halter and lead (kept loose) so we can give more guidance as we walk along together.

This is only a possible training plan – each person/horse partnership must tweak the ideas to suit their situation – Individual Education Plans are different for each horse.

Aim

On request, the horse moves to an item we have tossed away, picks it up and returns it to us.

Prerequisites

  • 1. The horse understands the task of picking items up off the ground and handing them to you. (See Number 73 in the Blog Contents List for the detailed Training Plan).

#224 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Things Up. https://youtu.be/gis3PF7OLlM

#255 HorseGym with Boots: Picking up Cones. https://youtu.be/pHAPExzdUPk

  • 2. Horse and handler are comfortable going for walks together.

Videos

#231 HorseGym with Boots: Picking Up Bell. https://youtu.be/x_Jk570Pnlc

Short clip showing combining PICK UP with WALK TOWARD ME.

#234 HorseGym with Boots: Playing Fetch. https://youtu.be/9L8xszYARaM

Clip showing the various slices of the Training Plan.

Materials and Environment

  • A venue where the horse is able to relax. Ideally he can see his buddies but they can’t interfere.
  • Places to walk together.
  • Horse is not hungry.
  • Lightweight items easy for the horse to hold.
  • Halter and lead to go for walks.

Notes

  1. With this exercise, we are chaining a whole series of tasks together to build a new skill: 1) pick up, 2) walk holding the item, 3) release the item into the handler’s hand without dropping it, 4) turn holding the item, 5) move toward the item when it is thrown out and pick it up, 6) turn to walk back to deliver the item to the handler.
  2. Several repeats one after the other, of the slice you are currently working on, is usually plenty. A little bit often builds an enduring habit and the horse will be willing to take part next time you bring out your item(s). If we turn it into a drill, we usually lose the horse’s willingness to engage again.
  3. Each time you click, remove the item behind you to take it ‘out of play’. It will then be obvious to him when you preset the item into view again.
  4. Some horses quickly progress through the early slices as soon as you start. Others need a great deal of patience over may days of mini-sessions.
  5. Any time the horse loses confidence, go back to what he can do confidently and gradually work forward again. Horses instantly pick up any emotion of frustration or annoyance or anger, so be sure to practice emotional neutrality except for gleeful celebration when things go well.
  6. A horse can’t be ‘wrong’ until we have carefully taught him what we want in a way that he can understand and does not make him anxious.

Slices

  1. Take your horse for a walk and occasionally halt and ask him to take the item out of your hand, hold it for x number of seconds (starting with one second) before asking him to release it back to your hand; click&treat.
  2. While taking your horse for walks, occasionally ask him to hold, then carry the item for one step, then release it to your hand. With some horses this slice may take many, many repeats. If he drops it, have zero reaction, pick it up and try again, asking for it back BEFORE he drops it, even if so far you haven’t been able to walk one step ­– i.e., return to Slice 1 for a while.
  3. Once you have a single step and it is good 90% of the time, ask for two steps, and so one, adding one step at a time over as many sessions as it takes to maintain the horse’s willingness to try again. It’s easy to rush these early slices. To build a confident, lasting behavior, we do a little bit often over many days, weeks, months, depending on your horse.
  4. Gradually add more steps, one at a time, before asking for the item back. If he drops it, ignore it with zero reaction, pick it up and go back to what the horse can do confidently. Slowly work forward again from that point.
  5. Once he will walk beside you carrying the item for 15-20 steps, we’ll change a parameter* by slowly walk backwards so the horse turns and walks toward us, hopefully still carrying his item. Have a big celebration the first time he turns without dropping it.
  6. When he can reliably hold the item as he walks with you, turns toward you as you walk backwards, and walks toward you, we can add the ‘picking up’ part. We use the ‘pick’ signals we taught as in video clip #224. Ask him to pick  the item up and walk along holding it. Because we’ve changed a parameter (please pick it up first), we again click&treat for one step walking, and as before, build up to numerous steps gradually.
  7. Fetch: when he picks it up readily and walks with it, start to toss it a wee bit further away. Go to him as he picks it up, receive it from him and click&treat right away.
  8. When 7 above is good, after you toss the item away, walk into a position that makes it easy for him to walk toward you after he’s picked it up; accept it from him; click&treat. Gradually position yourself a bit further away ( and eventually at different angles to him) so he takes two steps, three steps, and so on to deliver the item back to you. When you change the angle note how well he can orientate himself to deliver the item to you.
  9. Once the horse understands that the task is to fetch the item and return it to you, wherever you are, toss out the item and stay where you are so the horse picks it up and turns to bring it back to you.
  10. Some horses will get into this game with enthusiasm. Others will do it in a sedate manner to earn their click&treat.

Generalizations

  1. Use a variety of item that are easy for the horse to carry.
  2. Play in a variety of venues.
  3. Add variety like walking over rails, backing up, or weaving while carrying an item.

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