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When Tori Learned To Learn

Posted by vwkoch, 20 January 2009 · 123 views

Horse Stories
Animals who are frequently taught “tricks” using reward training will eventually “learn to learn.” They learn to recognize a training session, and they learn that they should try doing various things to see which behaviors will earn them a reward. Their ability to think (in human terms) improves, and they begin to learn very quickly. They actually come to enjoy solving the puzzles set for them in a training session. I remember the day Tori learned to learn, and it was a great experience for both of us.

Tori spent her first three years in a 12x12 pen, so she’s very clumsy, and she doesn’t really know where her rear end is. I spent a lot of time making her do things backwards (backing over poles, up and down hills, into the trailer, etc.) to try to help her get better at guessing where her rear is, and she HAS improved somewhat, although she’ll never be as coordinated as if she’d exercised as a baby. One of the things I taught her was to back into her stall. It was during that training that she learned to think for herself.

We began with me positioning her across the barn aisle perpendicularly to the stall door, so that all she had to do was to back up straight to be in the stall. That part was easy. Then, she had to learn to make a right-angled turn from a position parallel to the stall door. The first time we tried it, she backed straight down the aisle, far past the stall, then gave me her “please don’t make me think --- just tell me what to do” look. With stepwise guidance over several nights, she eventually learned to make the turn, but her method of doing so was to back into the side of the door and kind of bounce off it into the doorway --- not exactly convincing proof that she knew where her rear was in relation to the open door!

Once she learned to turn her rear to the right, we tried it from the other side, and I wasn’t really surprised that we had to start from scratch for her to learn to turn her rear to the left --- although she did learn to do so faster than she’d learned that first turn to the right. When she’d learned the left-hand turn, she needed some reminding to make the right-hand turn again, but eventually, she was backing into the stall from either direction --- still bouncing off the side of the door.

If we were alone at night, I’d turn her loose to go to her stall on her own while I put stuff away, then I’d go open the door, position her to one side or the other, and tell her to do her thing. One night, I opened the door, and she came over to go into the stall front end first. I decided to see what would happen if I kept her from going in forwards but didn’t help her to go in backwards. Since she was facing the stall, she’d have to turn completely around, which was something we’d never tried before that night. To my surprise, when I blocked her entry and said “not that way”, she didn’t give me her “don’t make me think” look. Instead, she gave me a “don’t tell me --- I know I can figure this one out” look. For a few seconds, I could just see the wheels turning in her head, and then she turned completely around and backed into the stall as if she’d done it for years. As she stood just inside the door waiting for her reward, she looked immensely proud of herself --- and I never again saw that “don’t make me think” look. Tori had learned to learn!

Now when she’s loose at night and I open her stall door, all I have to do is call her, and she comes down the aisle and backs into the stall (right turn OR left turn), and she does it better than most drivers back into a parking place. She almost never bounces off the side of the door. She clearly knows where her rear is in relation to the door, and she never even hesitates. She’s got this trick down pat, but she still gets that self-satisfied look on her face each time she performs it. She’s clearly proud of herself, and I’m proud of her, too, but best of all, now that she knows how to learn, she enjoys learning, and she’s good at it! Now, we can both have fun whenever I get an idea for a new trick --- or she gets her own idea. It’s a lesson every horse (and child) should experience. Learning is fun!

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