Fun and Games with Winnie

How Did You Teach That?

We own three (count ‘em, THREE) floor pianos! One is on a 4’x

By: Fun and Games with Winnie |

We own three (count ‘em, THREE) floor pianos! One is on a 4’x6’ piece of plywood and covered with mylar (a drawing film) with the hopes that this covering will protect the plastic surface of the piano, BECAUSE all three pianos were purchased for the horses. Horses are big. Horses are strong. Horses can make mincemeat of a light-weight, portable, plastic floor piano.

The second floor piano has both ends curved around a 3’x4.5’ plywood which is mounted on the east wall of the arena, about nose height (horse’s nose…). Over an octave is visible with no protective covering on it.

The third floor piano lives in the house. Humans and Vizslas have played it over the years.

Within six months of purchasing the first floor piano a friend added wooden notes which are hinged to the wood at the bottom of the plywood, below the notes. The wooden keys were yet another attempt to keep the horses from ripping the piano with their teeth. We’ve never presented the piano to their feet!

We didn’t have a great deal of success with this BIG version. It now resides in the garage and hasn’t been touched for at least six years.

Piano number two was quickly followed by a totally wooden piano manufactured by Bill. It has three keys (middle C, D and E) and is attached to a small keyboard. The number of children’s songs that have C, D, and E in them is amazing. The horses sort of learned how to play the first three notes of “Three Blind Mice”.

Back to the abbreviated floor piano on the arena wall. I’ve introduced this piano at liberty to each of the horses, emphasizing the word, “Gentle”!!!! So far not one of them has created a sound with his or her nose.

Two days ago I tried yet another approach. I was riding Zelador and I steered him to the piano. He looked at it. Click/Treat! We walked a small circle and returned to the piano. I said, “Touch” and he put his nose on it. Click/Treat. Another mesmerizing circle. After a few more presentations to the piano I moved on to other things.

Today I rode Zelador to the wall piano. On our second attempt he placed his nose near the bottom and dragged it up towards the top, a distance of about 18”. The piano made a sound!!!! CLICK/TREAT!!!

We walked our circle and returned to the piano. Success again.

Another walk. Back at the piano Zelador’s nose touched one of the black keys. This floor piano has an interesting feature. When the piano is in the “demo” mode and you touch a black key, you’ll hear a song. There’s a different song for each black key. SO…when Zelador’s nose brushed against the black key a song began to play. No single note this time! The song lasted about 60 seconds and Zelador received tons of praise. We took a slightly bigger walk (because the song lasted so long), then returned to the piano. He played the black note again. The same black note. We heard “Auld Lang Syne” a second time. The black note that plays this song is above the number “3” on the keyboard. Bill pointed out, “Zelador likes the number 3.” We circled and, you guessed it, Zelador activated “Old Lang Syne” a third time.

We left the piano and walked away. When we finished our circle in front of the piano I positioned him further to the right, with the number 3 a bit out of his range. Zelador happily touched a black note and we heard a new song, “Edelweiss”, Yippee.

In summation: people often ask, “How long did it take you to teach that?” I bite my tongue, force myself to smile and explain, “I find the interesting question is, ‘How did you teach that.’” If the people are still talking to me I add, “I have noticed over the years that it’s best to approach the horse without an agenda or timeline. If you decide you’re going to teach something in three days the chances are your approach becomes a bit different and the horse picks up on your “purpose”. AND, things don’t go all that well. On the other hand, if I present something to the horse and have no timeline we both enjoy the experience and, surprisingly, the horse often learns the thing quite quickly. With that being said, it took one horse two years to learn the Big Smile. It took Kye six months to ring the sleigh bells. I’ve occasionally presented the wall piano at liberty to each of the horses during the last five years.

AND!!!!!! I’ve had a request from my riding instructor, Alex, to teach one of the horses to poop in a muck out bucket. Well, wouldn’t you know, Bill told me this morning that, “You have to watch out when you’re mucking Spring Song’s stall when she’s in there. She backs into the bucket and piddles into it. Invariably she also bumps the bucket and spills some of the poop.” I instantly said, “You have been praising her, RIGHT???”

He said, “Yes, I praise her.”

So, on the one hand we have horses that are systematically, logically, bit by bit being taught something. On the other hand there’s Spring Song who’s been listening to the conversations in the barn and teaching herself how to do Alex’s ultimate trick!

P.S. Got to get this muck out bucket stuff on film!