using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people


Zan's Story: The Christmas Card

(December 2003)



Tonight I was snoozing in the barn when my Katie, my human mom came out to give us all our bedtime snacks. She comes out every night and gives me a nice pile of hay and a carrot and tells me how special I am.  Some nights she takes me out in the aisle and we play games. I love to play games. She says “good” when I do the right thing and then I get a treat. My favorite treats are carrots. She cuts them up into little tiny pieces and I get a piece every time I hear that sound. 


Tonight she told me we were starting something new.  She had a handkerchief which she held up to my nose. I took a sniff as it was something new and Katie said “good” and gave me a carrot. Soon I was touching it as fast as she would let me.  But then I touched it and nothing happened!  Luckily for me, I knew that I should just keep trying. I pushed it hard, she said “good” and gave me a treat! We played for a few more minutes and I figured out that I was supposed to hold onto the handkerchief. That was easy as I love to use my mouth to play with things.  Then she put me back in my stall and I got a big pile of carrots in my feed bin. Yummy!


The next night I got to do the same thing although this time she taught me to hold onto the handkerchief longer and then give it to her. She started out by having me hold the handkerchief and saying “good” when she took it back. Then I got my treat. Good thing she took the handkerchief out of my mouth as I wasn’t sure how to eat with it in there. I did try to eat the handkerchief a few times, but Katie told me that was a bad idea and pulled it out. She told me she didn’t want to have to call the vet and explain why her horse had eaten a handkerchief. Apparently my mom tried to eat a popsicle stick once and she has been careful since then. But that’s another story…


Once I was holding the handkerchief she would wait a little longer each time until I was willing to hold it for longer and longer. Sometimes I dropped it, oops..Sometimes I threw it around. That was fun, but I didn’t get a carrot..oops.  Once I was pretty good at holding it, she started moving around and putting the handkerchief in different places. Sometimes it was on the floor, sometimes in her hand or on the bench. Sometimes she moved before I could give it to her and I had to move my head or walk over to her.  Sometimes she even threw it so I had to walk over to get it. I had a lot of fun and earned lots of treats. Every time I got confused (which did happen), she made it a bit easier and then I got excited about the game again.


The next night she told me we were going to add something new. She got out my box. I love to stand on my box. This was the first trick I learned when I was little.  My box is a heavy wooden platform about 6 inches high. It is very stable so I can stand on it with my two front feet and enjoy the view. I like to bang on it and paw it too. Sometimes I try to eat it, but I only get carrots for standing on it, so that’s usually what I do.


We practiced getting on and off the box a few times. I get clicked (which means she said “good” and gave me a carrot) for getting on my box, and then I get clicked for getting off my box. Sometimes I even get clicked for standing next to my box and waiting to be asked to get on.  After I figured out she just wanted me to stand on the box, she asked me to take the handkerchief. That was easy. So now I am standing in the aisle on my box, holding a handkerchief.  Sometimes I think Katie has some strange ideas!


The next couple of nights we didn’t get to play. She took Willy and Rosie out instead. I wished I got to go out, but it was ok as I can watch them over my stall door. Willy gets to stand on the box too.  Willy has lots of tricks. I watched him draw pictures with markers, practice Spanish Walk and play games with balls and cones. Willy has a lot of toys. Some day I’ll learn how to play with them all too.


The next time I came out, Katie had moved the box over near the wall. She had me stand on it and gave me the handkerchief again. This was easy. Then she hooked the handkerchief on a hook on the wall.  I tried to pick it up but it was stuck. She clicked me anyway and retied it so it would come off easier. After a while I got pretty good at taking it off the hook. I had to lift it up off the hook instead of just yanking on it. Sometimes it would get stuck and I would start to pull REAL hard. Katie always came and helped me. She would say “sorry” and then put it back on so it was easier.  But you know what, I could tell she was getting frustrated too as it wasn’t quite working out how she had planned. So she gave me a big hug and put me back in my stall with my big pile of carrots. I always get a big treat at the end of the session, just so I know playtime is over and that I’ve done a good job.


Would you believe it? Now she wants me to hold a red and white stocking. It has just a tiny tab at the top. I tried to grab it in the middle, but she said “no, it wouldn’t look right.” That tab sure is small and it tastes kind of fuzzy. Yuck! Oh well, I did my best. She tried hanging the stocking on the hook on the wall, but I kept ripping the tab off when I took it down. Then Katie gave me lots of clicks and treats for trying anyway and then put me away. She said, “back to the drawing board,” as she left. What does that mean? Will I get to draw pictures like Willy?


The next night she came out and told me she had a new plan. She took a piece of red cotton fabric and tied it through the loop and made a big knot.  Then she hooked that on the wall and asked me to get it. Wow…this was easy and tasted much better too. Of course, after a few attempts I got the knot all soggy and slimy so it didn’t work so well. Turns out she was thinking ahead as she had lots of pieces of red cotton and she just replaced it with a new one. 


A few nights later she came out with a whole pile of pretty stuff. She had more stockings and ribbons and some red and green decorations. She started decorating the big door next to my stall. I tried to help her by reaching out over the door and grabbing the pretty green garland as she put it up, but that just made her move it farther away. Sigh..no one lets me help with anything.


Then she hung up a lot of stockings all in a row. They all had letters on them. She told me there was one for each horse and that mine was in the middle. She showed me that it said “ZAN” in big black letters.  I can’t read, but I believed her.  Then she stood back and took a picture of the door. Katie is hard to understand sometimes.  


But then I got to come out.  She moved my box over in front of my stocking and asked me to step on it.  I liked doing that because now I could reach all the stockings and I started to try and take one off the wall.  “Wait, wait” she said and took the stocking out of my mouth.  “That’s not yours,” she said as she pointed to a different one. Oh, I had grabbed the one next to mine, so I took mine off instead. I got a click and treat and a big pat.  We played this game for a while until I got pretty good at taking the stocking off the wall.  Sometimes I didn’t even get to take it all the way down before she clicked. I liked taking it down better. Sometimes I would take it down and then wave it all around before I gave it to her. Sometimes I would get so excited waving it that I would drop if before she took it from me. Then I didn’t get a carrot, oops.. I was really enjoying myself but then it was time to stop.


I was so happy we got to play the same game again the next night. This time she decorated the wall and only put up my stocking. After I was pretty good at standing on the box and giving her my stocking, she took me off the box and led me down to the other end of the barn. I was sad as I thought the game was over. But I got a click and treat for going with her, so I was hoping we might have another game to play.


When we got to the end of the aisle, she turned me around and told me to go get on my box. I marched right off down the aisle and stepped up. We had practiced this before when I learned to get on my box last summer. I heard her click, but I was already busy getting my stocking. She came up and gave me my treat and told me what a good boy I was.  We got to play this game a whole bunch of times until I was really good at it.


The next night I was hoping to play again and we did.  This time she had all the stockings up and she was holding her camera. She had me step on the box and get my stocking until she was sure I remembered what I was supposed to do. Then instead of standing next to me to take the stocking, she backed up and looked at me through the camera.  She took a lot of pictures. Sometimes I was holding the stocking, sometimes I was dropping it, sometimes I was just looking around.  If she didn’t click and treat me quick enough, I would start to work on the other stockings. Once I got three of them down before she moved me away. This was great fun. 


She didn’t seem to care too much what I did as long as I was on my box and had my nose near the stocking, but she did tell me it would help if I didn’t take all the decorations down. She told me she was checking to see how the picture would look so it was ok for me to do what I wanted. I did get a click and treat when my nose was on the stocking or when I picked it up.  But then she put me in my stall and told me she would be right back.  I didn’t get my big pile of carrots so I knew something more would happen.


I saw her go and get Willy’s big black feed tub and put it down at the end of the aisle. Then she went in the tack room and I hear the chop, chop of carrots on the chopping board. Oh good, more carrots for me! 


She came and took me out again and led me down the end of the aisle and dumped a pile of carrots in the bin. Then while I was eating, she ran down and stood near the box. What?  Oh well, I ate my carrots and then turned around and she was pointing at the box, so I went down and stood on it. Click! Oh this is the same game we played before, just with carrots at both ends. After I got my carrot on the box, she asked me to touch the stocking by pointing at it.  Click and treat. After that she led me off the box and back down to the bucket where she dumped more carrots in it. Yummy!


We played this game about 10 times. I got so fast that I would eat my carrots in the bucket and zoom back to the box so I could grab my stocking before she could get in position to take my picture.  Sometimes I was in such a hurry that I didn’t even eat all the carrots in the bin before I went to the box. If she didn’t click me right away for touching the stocking, I would wave it around and throw it. She was pretty slow about taking it from me. I guess the camera distracted her.  Sometimes she got so distracted looking at the camera that I would start to take the decorations down while I was waiting for her. Finally she gave me a pat and told me we were done.


The next day she showed me my picture.  She told me she was going to make it into a Christmas card and I was the star!  I thought I looked great, but I was sad we didn’t get to play the game anymore. Luckily, she had lots of new games for me and I’ll tell you about them later.


Here is the Christmas card:




The next story is The Tarp.





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