Romeo paints No. 19

Original art painted by a horse.

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The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward

Installment 2: Wings
Jan 7, 2007

In the first installment DaVinci learned to paint with a brush in his mouth, navigate his pedestal, and follow his target stick like it was magnetized. I would work with him in short sessions, no more than 15 minutes long, one to three times a day. I would use any interaction as a chance to communicate with him. Most of the training occurred while I was cleaning his paddock. I think that kept it informal. The short duration kept the sessions lively and left him entertained.

He also became a motor mouth. He knickers almost every time he hears my voice. Yet in the early sessions I couldn’t touch him without it being against his will. The moment my hand extended toward him he flinched in fear or walked away. It made me want to cry. I was so used to Romeo and Juliet who are professional cuddlers. What happened to him?

Puzzle Pieces
Back to Neuro Linguistic Programming. What does touch mean to him? I betcha it means containment, force, pain. I feel like his behaviors are a puzzle and each day he pulls out a new piece for me to try to fit in to the overall picture of his life. For the most part it looks like he’s been living a horror novel. His reaction to touch makes me even more passionate about how to rewrite his life. As I stand back and watch him he reminds me of a wild bird with his watchfulness and flight readiness.

If his greatest fears are containment, force and pain, I ask myself what will happen if I offer him the opposite. So I ponder what that looks like. Immediately I realize I need to ask him what I want him to do instead of tell him, because telling him probably feels like force. I want him to feel like he can choose to do something I ask rather than force him to do something I tell him to do. Hopefully this will give him freedom and confidence.

I make a conscious decision that when I ask him to do something and he does it—by his choice and without force or restraint—I reward him. This training method, known as positive reinforcement, adds something pleasant to increase behavior by rewarding him with something he views as pleasant. Negative reinforcement removes something to increase behavior, such as releasing the pull of the reins when the horse stops. It tells the horse what to do. Pressure and release is an example of negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is asking rather than telling. DaVinci melts down at the slightest pressure which reinforces my decision to predominately use positive reinforcement.

If Horses Had Wings
By deciding to train DaVinci without having him attached to me by a halter and lead rope or contained in a small area, I’m basically training him as if he is a wild bird. I want to give him the space to fly away if he needs to.

Here Kitty
Oh, to touch the wild bird. In the spirit of free will I decide to let DaVinci choose to touch me instead. I hold up my hand towards him and wait. Each time he touches my hand I mark that moment with a sound and give him a tiny treat. Hopefully he’s starting to associate touch with something pleasant. I wait until his neck accidentally touches my hand and then I reward him profusely. He processes these things quickly and immediately begins leaning his neck into my hand, which I hold still, palm out in the high-five position. He repeats the behavior several times so I create a cue called “kitty” because he looks like a kitten affectionately rubbing its neck on a pant leg or outstretched hand.

I can now hold my hand up and say “kitty” and DaVinci leans his neck into my hand. At this point he’s doing the touching, not me. Eventually he starts to hold his neck against my hand long enough that I can begin to touch him along his neck and shoulders while saying kitty. I know the neighbors think I’m nuts.

Within a few days I’m able to run my hand along his entire back. I begin to touch his legs. He’s not really happy about this so I go back to “kitty.” I really want to get to his feet because his hooves are starting to look rough and he’s forging a bit (where the back hoof hits the front hoof when walking). He’s naturally long-legged and short-bodied but I have a feeling that if his hooves are balanced the forging will lessen.

I experiment with having him target his stick at the walk while I hold the stick at different heights. If I hold it several feet above the ground and he’s relaxed, the forging stops. If he’s excited or distracted he’ll over-stride. If I hold it a few inches above the ground, he forges occasionally, most likely because he’s too heavy on the forehand. I can’t wait to trim his feet.

Focus, Focus
I keep working with DaVinci’s legs without much success. I picture in my mind what I want—to trim his long, out-of-balance hooves. But my focus is on a negative—how bad his hooves are. By bringing this focus with me, it makes him very nervous. Then I realize that I’ve skipped several steps. I want him to willingly give me his hoof. I want his cannon bone resting and relaxed in my hand. I have a feeling DaVinci must view me as some kind of predator (or maybe just a human with a hoof fetish). Every time I work with him I’m staring at his hooves, mainly to determine how to trim them, but also to gauge how much time I’ll have before they’re really overgrown.

Once I stop viewing his feet with worry, we are both able to lighten up. He begins to let me run my hand along his leg, all the way to his hoof, without walking away. I give birth to my new vision of being able to trim his feet without having him tied, free to fly away if he needs to.

Vantage Point
He seems more relaxed standing on his pedestal when I ask for his hoof. The first few times he offers his hoof to me is when he’s on his 9-inch-high pedestal. He willingly offers me each hoof while he stands on his perch. I just wonder if the height factor makes him feel more secure. One of my neighbors suggested that I build a bigger pedestal—like a hydraulic lift at a garage—just for hoof trimming! 

Next I introduce the hoof pick. He sees me walking toward him with an item in my hand and he assumes I’m going to do something to him. I spend several minutes letting him touch the pick and eventually he wields it in his teeth like a paint brush. This amuses him. I now see how valuable it was to encourage him to manipulate objects while learning to paint. It seems to have introduced him to the concept of play. If he thinks he’s playing, he’s not scared. Immediately he seems to brighten at an invitation to play with the hoof pick.

I use the “kitty” cue to ask him to touch the pick to his neck. No go. It’s got to be triggering something. I go back to picking up his hooves and I pretend to rasp them with my hand. He runs away. I’m doing something to him. I go back to picking up his hooves and holding them for a longer duration. Then I introduce the rasping and tapping of the hooves a few days later.

This exercise lasts about two weeks with the addition of the real rasp. He stands long enough for me to get a few rasps in on each hoof. It’s difficult to keep his focus while I’m bent over, holding his hoof between my knees. At this rate it will take a month to rasp his hooves.

Sam to the Rescue
My husband Sam has not spent much time with DaVinci as DaVinci usually bolts whenever a new person appears. We introduce DaVinci, unhaltered and unrestrained, to Sam as the person who dispenses an alfalfa pellet when DaVinci lifts his hoof. As long has his hoof is resting calmly in my hands, a pellet appears in Sam’s hand. If DaVinci pulls away, the pellets go away.

Within a few rounds of lift the hoof, rasp the hoof, stand in place, pellet, DaVinci delivers one of the most effortless hoof-trimming experiences for me. Maybe the month of preparation had something to do with it. AND he walked away without forging.

The “Spunge”
My next goal is to lunge him using positive reinforcement only. I don’t want to wave anything at him to make him move. I don’t want to put him in a round pen and run him around, or send him out. All of that involves pressure. If I put a bird in a round pen and wave my arms at it, it will just fly away. Same for DaVinci. But I do want to introduce the concept of him moving away from me. I turn to my lunge whip.

I tie the end of the whip to the handle so it won’t flap around and get in the way. Then I attach a big yellow sponge to the end opposite the handle. I introduce DaVinci to this new, strange contraption that I affectionately call my “spunge whip.” He’s fascinated by the yellow sponge and begins targeting it right away. I hold it as far as it extends and ask him to target it in a 20-meter circle around me. I draw the tip towards me and he does a perfect reverse, targeting the sponge. It takes a few tries for him to follow the target to the left as he’s really sensitive on that side. So I reward him for stepping away from me toward the target. He’s going towards what he wants, not away from what he doesn’t want.

Fred Astaire
With his new “spunging skills,” DaVinci begins to learn some fancy footwork. One day I stand facing him and cross my left foot over my right. DaVinci does the same thing. I do it again and he mirrors me. I cross over again and this time he crosses his back legs as well. I recognize this as a side pass, something I’d like to encourage. A few hours later I work with him again, and he has it down pat. And he can change direction. He learns to side pass without being touched. I’m thrilled. I feel like we’re dancing.

The next day I work with the side pass and ask him to back. He backs. I ask him forward. He comes forward. I nod. He lowers his head. Soon we have a little routine. Maybe he is so happy to have his feet trimmed that he has to show off his new dancing feet.

My Pegasus
This month has been really eye opening. Working with DaVinci as if he has wings and can take flight at any moment has transformed my way of being with him. I have also seen the amazing value of allowing him to play and amuse himself. I try to create an atmosphere where there is no wrong answer. This seems to give him plenty of incentive to want to be with me instead of flying away.

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© 2004-2007 Cheryl Ward & Sam Sharnik
Last updated January 10, 2009