It’s tempting to think of horses as big, strong creatures – which they are. But in reality they are just giant squirrels, constantly on the lookout for danger and aware that flight is their best response to anything unusual. So building confidence with every new situation is everything.
A Familiar Feed Dish
Using a familiar feed dish can help if we are working with a shy or timid horse, or one unused to humans. We can use free-shaping to capture the behavior of taking a treat from the feed bucket. If he is not yet interested in eating carrot or apple strips, use handfuls of soaked chaff or whatever bucket-food he is getting, or twists of good quality hay, or freshly plucked long-stemmed grass if you have access to this.
Here is the Thin-slicing for a Possible Training Plan.
- Place the feed dish between you and the horse. The horse’s response will show you how close you can be without causing him to move further away.
- While watching the horse, be careful not to stare directly at him, but to turn a bit sideways to him and observe him discretely with your peripheral vision.
- Wait in a relaxed manner until the horse looks at the feed dish – click and quietly move to the feed dish and toss in a treat. Then immediately move twice as far away as your former position, giving the horse more than the personal bubble size he needs to feel safe enough to approach the feed dish. It’s good if the treat makes a sound when it hits the dish. If the wait time is quite long, take a chair. Sometimes a person sitting in a chair is less threatening than a standing person.
- Wait for the horse to retrieve the treat. If he can’t do it yet, move further away or go do something else and come back later. He’ll usually check the dish while you are away.
- Approach the feed dish until the horse moves away (if he hasn’t already). As soon as the horse stops moving away, stop as well and shift your body sideways so you are not directly facing him. Watch for him (without staring at him) to look at the feed dish – click as soon as he does and quietly move to the food dish and toss in a treat, then glide away again to a distance that respects the horse’s current personal bubble.
- Repeat 10-20 times or as long as the horse shows interest. He will gradually begin to connect the click with the food treat about to be tossed into his dish.
- Each horse is different. Some horses easily shrink the size of the space they need to feel safe and soon approach the dish readily. Others will find it harder to build confidence.
- It’s possible to do this procedure on the other side of a fence from the horse. This is protected contact for us, but it can also make the horse feel safer from his point of view.
- Gradually we can shift the ‘click point’ to wait for a step toward the food dish, then sniffing the food dish. At the same time, we may be able to gradually decrease the distance we have to move away before the horse will retrieve the treat.
- Eventually we can sit in a chair with the bucket near us, then right beside us, then on our lap and the horse will come to retrieve his treat from the bucket.
- From there, we can introduce our hand into the bucket and get him used to the idea that he can pick food off our hand.
- Eventually we can dispense with the bucket.
- It’s essential to work with each horse’s timeline, no matter how long it takes. Each horse is unique. If we give him the time it takes to make up his own mind that approaching the dish (and eventually us) results in good things, he will have a positive outlook to our presence.
The treat has been dropped into the green bowl and now the person will move away just a step or two because the horse is confident enough to come to the bucket as soon as he knows a treat has been put into it.