where I describe how we learned the back crunch today.
Maymun became a stretch mouse this evening - he learned the back crunch.
I haven't worked on this exercise with a new horse for more than ten years, and at first it felt like I had lost the ability to do it: The foaly either just pawed, or if he set a frontleg forwards, he immediately set a hindleg forwards as well. Also, I cannot withhold a reward when the horse tries something, it just doesn't feel good and makes me feel so sorry for the poor little darling when he is trying his best but just hasn't understood it, yet. Accordingly, when he set a hindleg forwards, I could not simply correct it and then ask again. So after each movement of a hindleg, I asked for a step backwards and immediately rewarded that. Technically speaking, this could mean that it makes no difference for the horse whether he moves the hindlegs of not, because moving them gets him a reward as well, although with an intermediate step back. However, this does not seem to be how the foaly's mind works. Instead, he seems to be so eager to do well. So we were able to learn the back crunch in one session despite me being not as efficient as I could possibly be.
One thing that worked particularly well for us is when I kneeled down in front of him (next to where he is supposed to put his hooves) and fed him close to the ground. This reduced the pawing and made him put the fronthooves down, which he obviously had to do if he wanted to reach his reward. I immediately offered this reward after he lifted the leg, so when I was standing he could reach it while still pawing, but when I was kneeling he could only reach it after he had stopped pawing.
I also rewarded any action of the frontlegs, no matter which leg he lifted or what he did with it. If he lifted the same leg five times in a row and put it down at the exact same location where it had been standing before, this got him a reward as well. This is because the most important thing was to make him feel confident that doing anything with the frontlegs is a good thing. I think if I had been more specific and just rewarded the "correct" leg or action, this would have made him feel insecure and either stop trying or get all messy with desperate attempts of doing it right. Therefore, I made sure to communicate that everything is right, as long as he is trying.
Generally speaking, for me the important thing about this training experience was that it works well to be very liberal in my criteria, and put more emphasis on the horse's confidence instead of technical correctness. This makes him experiment instead of shutting down, so it is much easier to get the intended movement, which I can then reward a million times more enthusiastically than the others, so the horse still understands what I want although I reward almost everything. In consequence, after I had squealed "Oh, see how loooong the mouse is!
" and given many rewards in a row in response to him really stretching, it seemed like a lever switched in his little head. From then on he just tried to get longer and longer and longer, and later he offered this whenever I came close to him in between the exercises that I did with the others when TitSumJo joined in. I did not even need to correct the hindlegs anymore, because if he accidentally made a step with them, he immediately added two steps with the frontlegs all by himself. He seemed to completely understand the concept of “get as long as possible”, instead of only the low-level actions of “move a leg”. For us it is just so important to create an open atmosphere to encourage experimenting, and then the rest will come all by itself.