This is Beansy Payne’s second blog about Orion’s training in Cornwall during the winter and early spring of 2014 – 15. I love the way she is so honest about the setbacks and breakthroughs involved. I also love the fact that Jon and Beansy aren’t giving Orion a ‘one size fits all’ education. We’re keen to make progress, but at the same time we’re prepared to take as long as it takes.
Domesticated life is challenging for Orion and, as a result, it’s often difficult for us to make sure we always do right by him. We’ve never come across a pony that responds in quite the same way as he does. He’s super-sensitive, incredibly flighty and very much likes to control situations, and that can create problems when he interacts with people. We’ve had to be flexible and imaginative in our training methods, so he’s teaching us a lot as well.
Sometimes it’s hard to see progress and we begin to doubt ourselves, but then there’s that special moment when a breakthrough occurs, and we realise that we really are going forwards!
For instance, today Orion was asleep in his stable and I was able to muck out the loose box next door before going into the stable with him to take a photograph. He didn’t worry about me at all. He stayed lying down and then slowly and calmly got up before walking towards me for a rub his forehead. It did bring a little tear to my eye as I realised he truly was beginning to trust us.
Since my last blog entry, I’ve been clicker training Orion. This is based on positive reinforcement through a simple method of using a ‘click’ to mark a desired behaviour and then offering a reward. For Orion this is a food reward. I have a little shoulder bag that sits at about my hip height, and have lots of pony nuts in it. The success of clicker training is all in the timing. Orion never looks to ‘mug’ me he never even puts his nose near the bag where the food is instead, he quietly looks to seek out what it is I’m asking of him.
Orion was the perfect candidate for clicker training as he was quick to want to avoid human contact and really only looked to engage with us when he was out of his comfort zone. By introducing clicker training, he had the motivation of food. Yes, the cynics would say it was cupboard love and to begin with, of course, it was. But over time, as we’ve shaped his behaviour, this training has given him confidence in us. I don’t think Orion lacks confidence in general; I actually think quite the opposite. It’s only when he’s with humans that he lacks confidence.
At first, I target trained him to the head collar. I chose to use this because he doesn’t really have a positive association with it. (He has a history of pulling away, and I guess he feels trapped by it.) I held out the head collar and, when he touched it, I clicked and then reached into the bag and gave him a reward. Orion is very quick to learn, and in no time at all he was looking for the head collar in order to receive his treat. I was even able to hang it on the wall and he’d still go and touch it before returning for his treat.
We’ve now moved onto rope work. I ask him to stand, and then I touch his body with the rope. He used to hate people behind him, but I can now stand behind him and touch his bottom with the rope without him looking to move off. We’re also shaping how we use the clicker for this: he waits for two or three clicks before he receives the reward and so he learns to ‘hold’ the desired behaviour. It’s all about gaining his trust in us with a kind and sympathetic approach. We’re not afraid to alter our methods and ideas as we develop with Orion after all, every pony is different.
We still have to move very slowly near Orion, ensure the children or visitors don’t alarm him and continue to work around him in a way that he can cope with. He will still pull away or have a ‘meltdown’ if frightened. He tends to react first and think later. However, when we look back at how he was when he first arrived, we can see how much progress we’ve made. He’s definitely earned his spring holiday with his sisters on Exmoor!