My young grey mare Maypearl looks like a benevolent little porcelain unicorn, but she has fearsome intellective powers, which powers she unfortunately inclines toward the service of evil. Her practical jokes include bucking me off, terrorizing the other mares, throwing her rubber feed pan in the air, kicking down stall boards, and, the latest addition to her repertoire: refusing to be caught.
Yesterday when I went to get her, I was relieved when she came sauntering right up to the gate. I held out the halter. She accommodatingly stuck her nose right in. It wasn’t until I reached around to buckle it that I espied the red glint in her eye. I made haste, but it was too late; young Mape had executed an exquisite pirouette at the last possible moment and was galloping off, bucking and chuckling, before I even knew I’d been suckered.
As I jumped up and down on the halter that for the umpteenth time that week contained no gray mare, it began to dawn on me that Maypearl’s imp of the perverse had gone unchecked for far too long. Her idle genius had become a torment to all. She needed a little more stimulation in her life. OK, a lot more.
Toward this end I decided to teach her how to play catch, since she is obviously the sort of horse who can appreciate pure sport.
I’m big on operant conditioning to teach critters to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing on their own in a million years. Say I want the horse to “count” to 5 with her right front leg. I assume a neutral posture and wait around until she inadvertently performs the first part of the behavior — say, she stomps her foot to shake off a fly. The second she moves that leg — it doesn’t matter why she moves it, just that she moves it period — I make a little clicking noise. The noise “marks” the moment that the horse displays the desired behavior, and — this is the key part — signals that I will be producing a handful of food forthwith as a reward.
This noise/reward dealio motivates the animal to reproduce the precise marked behavior in future. The horse will be counting like mad in no time.
By stringing together incremental behaviors, I can get complex ones. I become a vending machine, wherein the coin of the realm is the desired behavior, and the reward is a handful of organic flax flakes. After the first phase of the behavior is 100% down, I add a new criterion, then another, until the horse is dancing the lambada on the head of a pin.
As an organic hippie dippie new age spinster aunt, I am fond of operant conditioning because it involves no force, no fear, no negative reinforcement of any kind. The only consequence of not doing it “right” is no handful of organic flax flakes. The horse can walk away any time she wants, game over.
Yesterday’s episode: I entered the paddock containing Maypearl and produced a soccer ball. Maypearl, who acutely perceived that I carried no halter, consented to wander over and eyeball the unfamiliar object. The moment she looked at the ball I made the noise that tells her she did something right, and she got a handful of organic flax flakes. Repeat. In a minute or two, Maypearl was associating the ball with the flakes.
So I upped the ante; now she had to take a step toward the soccer ball to get the flakes, which she figured out once I started rewarding her for inadvertently shifting her weight toward it. Then she had to bonk the soccer ball with her nose, then she had to roll it a foot, then two feet, etc, you get the picture, until we’re rolling it back and forth. It is enjoyable for both parties. It also draws a crowd, because horse people don’t train like this, and they come over to laugh at me, but they’re always amazed that a horse can be taught to toss you a soccer ball in 20 minutes flat.
This is no big whoop; you can teach any animal or human pretty much anything you want if you reward them with sufficient whatever-it-is-they-value: organic flax flakes, Porsches, bacon. I have a golden retriever who will do my taxes for a Cheeto.
Back in the paddock, my old mare Stella was loafing under a tree. I confess I had not fully appreciated Stella as a thinker prior to this episode. I had used operant conditioning to teach her not to kick me in the face when I clean her hind feet, but that’s as far as I’d taken it. She had certainly never seen a soccer ball before.
Anyway, I noticed that Stella had been observing with keen interest Maypearl and these strange soccer ball proceedings. Before long an interesting thing happened. After studying us for about 20 minutes, Stella strolled purposefully onto the field, pinned her ears at Maypearl to get her out of the way, bonked the ball with her nose for the first time in her life, and presented herself forthwith for her handful of flakes. Zounds! I said. Operant conditioning-by-proxy!
I don’t know if you have to be a horse person to understand how remarkable this is.
Probably you do.