You remember the story of belling the cat. We were handed a similar scenario…
The challenge: To put a flymask on a horse who is not halter-trained and is known to be headshy.
The solution: Clicker Training to the rescue!
Crockett is an Appy gelding, part of the PMU rescue herd we are currently helping with. His pale face and light skin require protection from sunburn and the torment of flies. A long-nose flymask is a simple solution, but Crockett was headshy and unhalterable. I clipped on my treat bag and began.
The scene unfolded like clockwork. Crockett’s pasturemates, Gypsy and Betty, abandoned us for the comfort and shade of the loafing shed. No worries about other horses mugging us for treats!
Crockett immediately conncted the audible “click” with the treat that followed. We began racing forward one baby step at a time. I held out the mask. After a minute he checked it out with his muzzle. Click! After several successful repetitions I upped the standard. It was no longer enough just to touch the mask. He got a little frustrated and tossed his head-and happened to rub his head from his eyes to his muzzle along the mask. Click!
We continued on in this fashion. Solidify a step. Add another level of trust. Before too long the mask was on- and so ill-fitting! Off came the mask and I tried another one. Baby steps again, and a few minutes later the new mask was on. Sigh-too small. I rummaged around in the barn and found a few more masks to try.
This glitch was not a frustration, but an opportunity for reinforcement. Each successful masking solidified both my newfound communication with Crockett and his victory over being headshy. I found a mask that fit a little better and sent him off into the herd.
When I finished my sessions with Gyspy and Betty, I walked out to visit with the others. Crockett saw me, pricked up his ears, and threaded his way through his pasture mates to join me. I call that a double success!