In which we banish boredom by teaching silly tricks with the dogs' toys

The question arose on Facebook:  
How do you keep a horse on stall rest from going crazy with boredom?

I cannot answer how everyone can keep a confined horse entertained, but I'm happy to share the techniques that are working for Fiddle while she is on the DL.

1.  Stall and paddock, not just stall rest.  The paddock attached to Fee's 12x12 stall is about 24'x24', and the footing is mostly gravel.  That gives her enough room to walk around, but not enough room to invite a good gallop.*

2.  *Quietex as needed.  When the world is just so very interesting that the Dragon feels obligated to state her opinion, such as when the public works crew fills pot holes on our road, it's time to use a little chemistry.  I definitely approve of pot hole repair, but Fiddle does not.  She got a dose of Quietex every day while the crew was working.

Apparently the Quietex gives her diarrhea (who knew?) so I tapered off the dose when the road work moved elsewhere.

3. A teeny corral set up in the yard or pasture.  This is her "home-away-from-home" in camp, so she's accustomed to being confined in it.  A few hours in the corral each morning gives her fresh grass (in small amounts) and fresh scenery.


I move the corral a few feet every night so she will have new grass and slightly different scenery in the morning.


4.  Hand walking, which is not just marching around the pasture and dodging the inevitable goats.  Sometimes I dawdle for a few strides, sometimes I walk very fast, sometimes I point to a clump of grass and tell her to take a bite.  Keep your eyes on me, mare.

We are currently walking 10 minutes per day (doctor's orders) to rehab the injured tissue, but my attention is also on the recreation value of a walk:  interesting is better for both of us!

5.  Endless low-grade hay in a slow feeder.  The hay is intended as entertainment, not nutrition.

This is supplemented with teeny little beet pulp meals twice daily.  Again, this is meant as entertainment, not food.  She gets no grain right now (her grain supplement is pretty minimal anyhow), just a scoop of vitamins and some flax seed and salt mixed with her beetpulp.

 It's not great food (she is very clear when explaining this to me), but it's something different to do.

6.  Visits from friends.
Chickens are intriguing.  Foxie Loxie is annoying.
Any distraction is welcome.

Fiddle doesn't crave the company of most horses, but she likes certain people and all cats. The small dog is slightly annoying, but his manners are improving and the Dragon appreciates improvement.


7.  The radio is tuned to a local public classical music station.  I put the music on for my own benefit, but the chicks and turkeys seemed to like it, and right now it gives Fiddle something to listen to besides the Coyote Tabernacle Choir rehearsals at night and the marijuana farmers' tractor every morning.


8.  Daily grooming sessions.  

Again with dogs in the background.  A few years ago, the dogs were not safe
hanging around near the Dragon but she has mellowed quite a bit.

Fiddle doesn't get very dirty or muddy while confined, but she is starting to shed her winter coat (finally!) and appreciates the attention.  I use these opportunities to actively battle the thrush that she, along with every  horse in the entire Swampland, shows in her feet this time of year.

In prior years, I have kept Fiddle in shoes and full pads all year, but her vet suggested an experimental switch to rim pads for winter.  Her soles are normally quite tender, and even more so when the pads were first removed, but the rims keep her feet a little further away from rocky roads and trails, and seem to be adequate for the minimal work she does in the worst part of winter.

Of course, this year she is doing nothing, so we plan to remove the rear shoes soon to see how she fares with that.


9.  Trick training.  

I taught Fiddle a few tricks many years ago.  These were mostly variations on carrot stretching, but they are fun, and give her an opportunity to earn some cookies and attention, especially when strangers come to visit.

Confronted with a long rehab, I decided that she needed to learn some truly useless tricks.  These would give us some communication practice, and keep her mind engaged and focused on me and my silly requests.

I like to use clicker training techniques without the clicker.  Not because I dislike clickers, but rather because I am phenomenally lazy and hate to carry stuff around.  So I use my words to praise and bridge the behavior with the cookie.  Words are also useful because I can tell her that she's doing some correct stuff but not all the correct things, so I can encourage her without handing over a cookie every time.  My words can also tell her that she's on the wrong track.

A clicker is only good at communicating one message:  YES, THAT THING YOU JUST DID IS PERFECT.  Mel has a nice blog post about clicker training, if you're interested.

There are also a billion youtube videos, so go crazy with those.

We started by sharpening a "targeting" trick, first using a rubber duckie.

Fiddle is a very NON-oral horse.  She likes to eat, and she sometimes likes to lick my hand, but she isn't very mouthy otherwise.  That makes teaching a trick like "take the duckie" more challenging.

Fortunately, my horse humors a lot of my weird ideas and this was obviously another one of those.




Please note in the video that Fiddle isn't wearing a halter or rope of any kind.  She has hay and beetpulp in that pen with her, and if she didn't want to participate, she could just turn her back and leave.  However, she likes cookies and she likes attention, so she chooses to play my bizarre little games.

Adapting the duckie trick to a new object gave us a challenge:  Changing some old, deeply-ingrained training.

When I first got Fiddle, she was a confirmed biter.  I took John Lyons' advice about biting horses, and made her think that biting me was the worst mistake of her life.

She absolutely believes in the very heart of her soul that if she ever bites me (or any other human) again, the End Of The World will happen, and it will be her fault.

So, if I want her to "fetch the frisbee" (because doesn't everyone need a Dragon who fetches a frisbee?) I need to modify her understanding of what she may--and may not--touch with her mouth.

She was reluctant to bite the duckie at first, but the praise was very clear, and cookies are a good motivator, and the duckie doesn't feel or taste anything like a person.

It took a lot longer to convince her that the flexible dog frisbee was not part of me or my clothing.

You can see in the video that she is reluctant to bite the frisbee.  She even licks my hand a couple of times to reassure herself about where I've put my body, so she doesn't accidentally cause the end of the world.




At first, I would reward her for touching the frisbee (target) with her nose.  Then she had to open her mouth while touching it.  Then she started licking it, and finally in the last two days, she started grabbing it with her teeth to pull on it briefly before dropping it.

She doesn't yet like to grab it if I'm not holding it--she was similarly reluctant with the duckie.

So for now, we are practicing first with me holding the frisbee, and then propping it up against the fence or in her feeder and asking her to take it.  She isn't quite a frisbee dog, but I'm in no hurry.


This truly is a useless trick, and I don't care if she ever learns to fetch a frisbee.  The exercise is more about communication and much less about accomplishment.

10. Patience. It's very important--and very difficult--for me to be patient with Fiddle's rehab schedule.  But it's vital that I don't try to rush the process.  That's why I'm so thankful for my friends

A Chorus Line of Usual Suspects in our Understory T-Shirts!
The new "dressage" shirt design is made from a photo of Dory.

Photo op, then back to work

and for the horses of Fish Creek Farm

Not Fiddle's ears!  Ariana has been carrying me on trails and in lessons lately.

More about this cute little gelding in an upcoming post.  Stay tuned!

who are keeping me busy this winter so Fiddle can heal up completely.

It's a long slow winter.  Winter is always long and slow.  But keeping my mare happy will help her heal.

And that's the important thing.




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