I posted a video on Instagram from my lovely training with Vidar yesterday. He gave me the gift of laying down on cue for the first time, which to me is one of the most pure and beautiful gifts you can ever get from a horse.
I was not even planning to go out and work with him, but he was right outside the (open) stable when I went out to check the mailbox. So I walked over to say hi and I happened to have treats in my pocket. He invited me in to the stable and started offering behaviors. Horses have a habit of presenting gifts when we least expect it!
I did not plan for him to actually lay down when I introduced this trick to him, my goal was only to plant a seed in his mind for the future. I wanted him to grasp the downward-thinking and start understanding my wish for him to be close to the ground. But Vidar obviously wanted to do more than just think about it, he wanted to DO it! And I got some comments asking how I got him to understand what I wanted him to do, so I thought that I could share that in this blog post.
I have taught several horses to lay down before but they have all been ponies, Vidar is the first big horse that I’ve done this with. I have tried several different techniques through the years (none of them have included ropes or anything abusive, though) but this time I wanted no shortcuts. No force, no tools, no pressure. With previous horses I have sometimes used the bowing as a shortcut, but this time I wanted to start from zero and not rush things at all.
By not using shortcuts or going in and helping out physically (like using my hands to help him bow or touch his legs) I wanted to make sure that Vidar wanted to lay down. I wanted to make sure that it was his choice to lay down. And by not using tools or shortcuts or pressure I wanted to test myself as a trainer. I wanted to earn this trick even if it would take 10 years before he was ready. With this method I have proven to myself that I really can communicate with my horses without the need for tools or pressure.
But the hard part is not to get them to understand what I want from them, because horses are very smart. Much smarter than we give them credit for! No, the hard part is to get them to WANT to do what I’m asking. Like my previous blog post said:
”You can force the body but never force the mind.”
By using tools and shortcuts you can get the body to where you want it to be. But I wanted his brain to lay down, not his body. Please click the link above to read my other blog post if you can’t make sense of what I’m saying.
So now that you understand WHY I chose to teach him this way I will explain how we actually did it. First I really encourage you to go out and look at horses. Look at what they’re doing right before they lay down. My horses usually lower their heads, start circling and step in with their hind legs under their bellies. They might paw the ground, swish their tails and look for the right spot to lay down on.
I try to use their own behavior when I teach them to lay down and that’s why I started with one of my favorite behaviors/tricks which is head down. Such a simple thing that really helps with a lot of things, including laying down. I taught him to put his head all the way to the ground when I touched his withers/shoulder/neck.
The next step was to get the hind legs in under his belly. After he got that, I could point at them and he would start stepping in (like in the mountain goat trick).
After that I taught him the circling part. And the typical ”laying down-circles” are very different from just walking in a normal circle. The hind end swings away and it almost looks like the horse is doing a western spin at a walk. That was what I wanted him to do and I rewared every time he did that characteristic hind swing circle thing, hoping that it would help him understand what I was after.
So after doing these three steps separately I started to teach him how to combine the behaviors into one. And what did I have then?
A horse that put his head down, stepped in under his belly and did the typical ”laying-down-circles”. And that is about 90% of the finished trick! The ‘only’ thing left was the actual laying down which I figured would take a long time. But he surprised me yesterday by completing the trick all by himself and I couldn’t be prouder! ❤️ Thank you Vidar for this beautiful gift.