Recently I was reminded of the power of cues. They are extremely powerful and horses can distinguish so much detail in a cue.
When my farmer was headed out for the days with his team they would start the tractors (red tractors) in the morning and then him and the farm hands would head for breakfast leaving the tractors to warm up. This was a great opportunity for some training time.
Often the tractors would have equipment attached to them as well so it was great for getting horses used to traffic in a controlled way. We would visit with the tractors and play target games. There were often 5 tractors to choose from and often we would visit all if them (we built up gradually to be able to do this).
Then we moved to a new place and were no longer exposed to the tractors in that way. We would pass them on occasion, but we didn’t play target games anymore and he never showed an interest in the tractors, though Brody always remained very relaxed around them…..until one night Brody and I were working on leaving and coming back to the new yard. There were red tractors doing some slurry spreading from the farm across the road. We were standing waiting for a tractor to come along the road and it disappeared in to the farm across the road. Brody set off to follow the tractor.
He had never done this before with any tractors we encountered, and had never shown an interest in going in to the neighbours farm. So i tried to explain that we couldn’t just follow tractors or rock on to someone else’s farm. He calmed down a bit…..and then another red tractor appeared and he set off to follow it again. We had another conversation about not following random red tractors.
Then tractor number 3 appears and Brody was SO insistent on following this one he almost dragged me. As the tractor went past a noticed a transfer on the side that I recognised instantly…..these were my farmers tractors!! And the 3rd tractor was the one my farmer drove.
Brody was not only able to discriminate between tractors and HIS tractors, but he could also distinguish the tractor the farmer drove (he loves the farmer).
Cues are powerful, and the detail of cues matter hugely. That means that when we are cuing a behaviour we have to be very careful about the detail. If we start messing with the detail and it differs every time we cue the behaviour then we are actually teaching a class of cues rather than a single cue.
And when the horses start offering other behaviours perhaps our cue was not as clean as we have taught the horse to read.