Dialogue

“Good training is a dialogue and not a monologue.” – Susan Friedman

 

It’s half-term, so we had a load of kids down for Clear Round jumping at the stables. Ooh, they all did so well. Some lovely, confident, balanced riding emerging which really let’s the ponies just ping merrily over the fences. 

It ended up being a day of clicks and sweetness too. 

One mare improved dramatically when the girl grooming was advised to simply be sweeter with her. Another mare (who has recently become angrier than usual about being groomed and tacked up) was golden for a tiny bit of clicker training (targeting and quiet standing = not a single grumpy expression during all her least favourite parts of the process, girthing and such). And big Diego began the day very defensive and cross, but cheered up no end for a tiny bit of targeting before going out to the field. 

They tell us such a lot, all the time, and it’s worth paying attention. 

 

SPECIES-SPECIFIC 

In addition to the Equine Behaviour & Psychology CPD I recently completed, I also did one on Animal Behaviour & Welfare and another on Cats & Dogs (created by the vet school at the University of Edinburgh). Hurrah for the internet and online learning! Here were a couple of interesting things… 

  1. cats apparently have quite a slim repertoire of calming/appeasement signals (the body language behaviours we perform to maintain non-threatening and harmonious social existences, polite smiling for example). They’ve little need of them, being largely solitary. Makes perfect sense and goes some way to explaining how deadpan cats can seem! Zero shits given. 
  2. dog calming signals are often presented as a ladder or scale of communication, and it’s the same with horses though it has only been catalogued, analysed, and documented recently. Dogs start with things like blinking, licking, yawning, moving away, laying down (“I’m no threat, why are you still upsetting me?!”), then eventually through to more active measures of defence: growling and biting. Elsewhere I saw it put quite succinctly… “Punishing a dog for growling is like removing the batteries from your smoke alarm.” 
  3. in short, if we don’t have warning signals (if we don’t have a dialogue) we’re in danger of misunderstandings. And misunderstandings matter when they occur between fragile humans and strong beasties. 

So arguably the more social/vulnerable the species, the more need for subtle affiliative and non-threatening/calming communication. Horses, being prey herd animals, are all about maintaining harmonious relationships. They perform a lot of behaviour to that end. 

 

RESILIENCE 

Skye had another emotional shift today. I almost spoiled it! But in doing so, revealed a little bit about her growing levels of resilience (psychological ability to “bounce back”). Basic overview… 

Lovely clicker session. Bump into livery owner as I’m finishing up. The field we’re working in, they’re not meant to be in, haha. But someone has discovered an easily knocked down bit of fence. So last night (when they first broke in) she was trying to herd them out and they weren’t for it. She thought, “well I’ll try Skye” and Horse allowed her to slip the headcollar on and lead her out with no problems, then stood quietly whilst the others decided to join (Spot can’t be without his beloved Skye for long!). So I thought, I’ll take that as a prompt to try her in the headcollar again today. 

To recap, Skye has always been fine for leading and you can always “make her” come should you need to. But it’s not about that for me, it’s about the associations, which is why I ditched it for a while. To give her a breather of sorts. 

If you compel her to come by tugging, she shuts down and pulls a pain face (unsure if this is discomfort at the poll, or only the memory of pain). If you tie her up she often panics and pulls, even if the lead is long/loose. If you have her walk with you at liberty (doing some targeting or whatever) she’s golden and merry. If you try exactly the same but with a lead attached, she’s less willing. At some point, something has upset her, and of course it could even be just as simple as no-one has ever really explained light pressure/release to her so pressure = panic/fear. So now, although she is perfectly obliging for 90% of the process, she is instantly unhappy once you put the headcollar on. 

As another aside, memo to self, it’s worth taking photos of the less-than-golden stuff. In the future, it gives you something to reflect on and compare to. 

So, we’d finished all the treats and thus had no formal way of using the clicker, but I thought I’d headcollar and lead her towards the exit of the field, just to see if she showed any difference of feeling. 

She did and she didn’t. Her willingness to move or “come with” diminished as soon as she was on a lead, same as before. She froze a couple of times. Her facial expression was instantly a bit tighter and her posture was instantly a bit more hollow and stressy. 

But, you could “make” her come without resorting to much force if you wanted to and she doesn’t give any trouble for putting the headcollar on. She’s also easier if you have a second horse that she likes, for company. So, to most people, that’s a success and/or manageable. For me, it would be a success if it were just about stubbornness/preference which one must occasionally overrule for the sake of farrier visits, etc. But her face shows us that it isn’t about that, it’s about old fears. 

 

FACIAL EXPRESSIONS FOR COMMUNICATION 

Headcollar face. Widened base of ears, tight muzzle and lips, tense chin and eyes, tense underneck, slightly inverted posture.

She has such an expressive face (and body). And though I know I don’t always read her 100% perfectly, it’s pretty clear when she’s happy and when she’s stressed. If I was walking a dog and it was cowering and flattening its ears and looking up ingratiatingly, I’d not be thinking this was successful leading. Or rather, I’d not be thinking it was the finished article. The signals may be different for horses, but the principle is the same. If she’s stressed, the situation is not working well enough for her. We can do better than that. She might live and work another five to ten years, I’d like for her to not be mildly worried every time a headcollar is put on. 

At about the edges of her comfort zone I removed the headcollar and gave her lots of thigh rubs (more on that in a moment). It took a while for her to relax (we had some head away, pretend sniffing of the the ground, sad faces, just a few of her go-to “calming signals”), but I gave her space and she did begin to release the tension she’d been holding. I put it on again, scratched her thighs, removed it, scratched again, and this time she relaxed further and went back to how she’d been earlier in the afternoon, merry and friendly. “Headcollar doesn’t always equal pulling? Oh, okay, that’s good to know.” 

Evidence of some newfound resilience. We’d had a great session, I’d tested the waters with something, and she’d found it somewhat stressful… but she bounced back and forgave me within 10mins. 

How do I know she bounced back? The newest aforementioned emotional/behavioural shift. 

 

SOLICITATION 

Last time I wrote, Skye had shown an active enjoyment of thigh scratches. Today, she not only enjoyed them she asked for them in standard horse fashion… by swinging her backside up next to me whenever I stopped and stepped away! 

There’s a time and a place, Horse can’t forever be swinging her arse into people, but that really isn’t something that worries me (easily managed). I’m just delighted to see another step towards “normal horseness”. 

First she tolerated human touch because what choice did she have? Suppression. Don’t let yourself feel the thing (fear) because you can’t do anything about it anyway. She wasn’t in total Learned Helplessness, I don’t think, but she certainly “coped” with humans rather than liked them. 

Then she accepted us and our touches, but with some suspicion/caution. 

Then I taught her to say “yes” or “no” to being touched, and it made a huge difference to how she responded to human touch. She could trust that her boundaries would be respected. It wasn’t something to switch off to or fear anymore. It could even be pleasurable. And she quickly extended that sense of comfort to other humans too. 

And now, she’s decided it’s actually really nice and worth seeking out and “oh, maybe I don’t even mind if I’m touched without being officially asked first”. Isn’t that wonderful! She’s soliciting touch from humans. 

It reminds me of the first time my mum’s troubled dog Poppy sidled over to me on the sofa and (eyes fixed firmly on my face because you can’t be too careful!) placed a little paw on my hand (this is what she does to my mum if she wants a fuss). If I try to stroke Poppy without her invitation or awareness (or without it being done in an especially good relaxed moment of clicker or something) she’ll tense up or shoot away with fear. For info, that’s low to middling on the scale of dog calming signals… but Poppy, being poorly socialised as a puppy, didn’t learn to vocalise for a long time and still doesn’t communicate quite like a “normal” dog in that regard. So for her, at first, those low to middling fear responses felt like they could explode all the way to biting without much warning. No smoke alarm, as it were. 

At any rate, it means so much when these traumatised beasties decide to try trusting you. 

 

IT’S ALL BONKERS TO THE HORSES

I’ve written this blog post backwards you know, bloody hell… 

So, before our final friendly scratches was the headcollar experiment (which told me that I need to do a lot more to counter-condition her emotional experience of headcollars and lead-ropes). Before the headcollar experiment was a grazing break whilst I talked to the livery owner. And before that, was the actual clicker session. 

This was another example of her growing confidence. 

“Wearing a delicate gold chain and coming over to target a golden moth” face. How bonkers! Posture relaxed, ears softly alert, head swinging gently as she walks forwards.

I had taken two new things down. A golden metal moth trinket tray and a loop of delicate rose-gold chain. The reasons why will be shared, in due course, on a different blog. 

I used the moth as a target. Would it be scary given it was shiny and hard and cold? No, horse was coming over to target before I was even really ready for her. 

I used the chain as a loop and clicked for putting it over her nose, then up to the eyes, then over the ears, then over the head. A task that you might use when lifting reins over the head in a horse that has to re-learn calm bridling, for example. Eventually she was wearing it as a rather fetching necklace with not a care in the world, and following the golden moth as a target. 

If you want, imaginatively replace the golden chain and moth for any other comparable items. A neck-rope or lariat or breastplate or rug, a tennis ball or cone or tarp or target stick. Because the point is that the objects don’t matter. The associations and training matters. Leather saddles make no more sense to horses (in terms of their intrinsic meaning as objects) than laying your jumper across their back. We use tack mostly, one hopes, for good reasons. But as far as the horse is concerned it’s all just strange human stuff. So it’s up to us to make new objects and experiences as pleasant and safe as possible. 

At this point, I could “lead” Skye best off thin-air, well-timed snacks or scratches, and a golden moth. Or any novel object/target. Anything new I bring is a potential target. But the thing for actually leading her, not so much. Emergency situations aside, the sparkly nonsense “equipment” works better than a lead-rope and headcollar. Because what works is the dialogue and history between us and when I use kit with unpleasant associations from the past I may as well be “talking” cruelly to her. That’s how she sees it. So I need to make sure I take her headcollar up more often, to give her more chances to change her opinions on it. Perhaps I’ll try teaching her to target/follow a folded leadrope, approach it that way. 

 

POSTURE AND PROPRIUS

In other news, today was Day One of “Project Proprius” by Intrinzen. Exciting! The first videos are ones I’d mostly seen when they released teasers a while back, but good to recap. The focus is agility. Because although the research has lead them around to things like +R and zero-coercion, the impetus was, from the start it seems, about creating healthy horses. 

I can’t wait for some of the denser information though. Feel such a wish to deepen my knowledge. Which brings me to two thoughts from recent times… 

  1. when people say they tried +R and it didn’t work. +R is a natural law like gravity. It doesn’t sometimes work and sometimes not. If it actually happens it works. If you didn’t get the desired results, it’s because something else was going on or because you weren’t actually doing +R (you can give treats without it reinforcing the behaviour you’re aiming for very easily, all you need to do is have poor or accidental timing). “We tried reinforcement but it didn’t work. This is an oxymoron.” – Jose Martinez-Dias, PhD. 
  2. eek, when people gleefully say that they “don’t believe the modern science.” Such wilful misunderstanding. You can interpret the findings differently, you can seek out different studies and findings to suit your agenda, you can say you just don’t care, and you can challenge “bad science” (bad methodologies or bad conclusions)… but science itself is a method for gradually finding repeatable, testable, observable truth. It’s not about belief or opinion. When I see people say things like this, I wonder if they realise they sound like flat-earthers. Or if they even know what “science” is. Or if they think that spiritual intuition alone was what created the phone on which they’re sharing such points of view. 

Perhaps people really have “had enough of experts” as I believe one slimy politician said. But I hope not. I love the experts, the more of their thoughts that I can access the happier I am. 

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Behaviour, Psychology, Movement and Motivation

STUDIES 

I can’t sleep for excitement! 

Good fortune (in the Stoic sense of the word) has given me access to Project Proprius by Intrinzen! I cannot wait to sink my teeth into some learning… For those not in the know, Proprius is basically Intrinzen’s way of collating, distilling, and sharing a boatload of the newest movement and motivation science. With a particular focus on how it pertains to horses, naturally. 

What I always love about Intrinzen is that they’re the first to say, “this is the science, this is how we interpret the science, find your own path.” In a world of “this is how we’ve always done it” and “it worked before” and “tradition”, that’s a refreshing level of flexibility. So I will endeavour to meet the material in the same fashion. With my personal philosophies about horses occasionally stored to one side so that I can engage with the information with as little bias as possible. Let it all simmer and then decide what to do with it. 

It’s going to be so intense. 

I was trying to explain to John why I was so excited. In the end, the only way I could sum it up was to say that there are some other equine/animal courses (both short and university) where I would go into them feeling confident that I had about 70% of the knowledge installed already (including some very outdated and inaccurate bits of horse info which I actually know many degrees still teach). Not enough of a challenge. Whereas with this short educational project by Intrinzen, I reckon I’m going in with (if I’m lucky) about 10% of the knowledge. A challenge! 

I recently did got a CPD certificate in Equine Behaviour and Psychology, for example. I’m glad I did, as it showed me to not undervalue what I’ve studied and learned. But by the end I was mentally re-writing bits where the language was muddy and thinking, “if someone came to this course with no prior experience they’d be hard pushed to figure out some of the information, it could be more clearly explained”… and in doing so I realised that I wasn’t learning, I was just revising. 

So I’m glad I did the CPD, but there was no challenge in it. It was meant to be 70hours of study, but it was actually about 3hours of revision and tests. Proprius will be challenge! It’ll be a shade (or more!) beyond me! I’m so excited. 

 

PONIES

In other news, today was a nice day for ponies. 

Skye once again showed me that working too near to the herd gets her a little anxious (simply because every so often someone will interrupt us or push on her with their body language, they’re all so curious), but that gave us plenty of opportunity to practice walking away from them which was good. At this stage it’s less “training her to walk away” (which I’ve never really done, but thought I might have to eventually do) and more “walking away together because she’d like to click in peace.” That’s a nice shift. 

We did a bit of stuff she knows and enjoys, and I attempted to teach her hip targeting but it wasn’t clicking (as it were). But even so, a big improvement from a couple months ago when I first tried to teach it. Back then she was alarmed about the target (or me) going towards her haunches. Too much prior experience of whips hitting her back end I should think. So I left the idea alone. When I tried it again today she didn’t volunteer movement. Possibly still a bit concerned. But she likewise didn’t display alarm or a wish to get away. Just waited. I think she thought I just wanted stillness. And then she thought, “oh wait, reach for the target with my nose!” and we got some unintentional lateral neck stretches instead. So I think I’ll keep the target for her nose and use my hands or something else as targets for other body parts. To try to make a clearer distinction between the tasks. 

From her right, I saw again today (very clearly) how her upper neck vertebrae are sort of stuck in a permanent curve outwards to the right. Imagine a very shallow backwards “S” viewed from above. That’s her neck. So when she bends around in that direction, all the bend comes from the base of the neck and she makes up the distance by rotating/tilting her head. I could keep on bending her, but (even with pleasant +R) I’d possibly be bending the wrong parts and giving her reason to protect herself by bracing. Proprius might give some insight into these things, but Bowen or more chiro is definitely on the cards for the future. And I’m doing a tiny bit of Masterton bladder meridian stroking every so often. 

Oh, horse got some rose-hips again today, the bush in the boatyard keeps on fruiting. And the herd has moved field again, so that’s another new set of slopes and foodstuffs to negotiate. So pleased that she has this lifestyle. An arena would be useful, for sure, but my livery is otherwise ideal. 

After all that, finished on grooming and scratching as usual. The permission cue is working wonders for Skye. I got a fist-bump and begin curry combing. She grazed. I checked in for a permissive bump a couple of times. When I finally reached her hamstrings the head came up in thought. Asked again and got a bump. Began currying hamstrings and inner thighs. Horse’s lips start wiggling in bliss. And not a tentative wiggle like we’ve previously had, but a comical wiggle in which her lips were so busy that glimpses of teeth were visible, whilst her ears flickered and her head wobbled. I laughed and laughed and told her she was excellent. A few repetitions of requesting permission just to keep on cementing the idea that she has a say in the matter. 

At one point I finish with my curry comb and go stand up front, facing away, just chilling. She thinks, steps forward, and bumps my hand. So I give her withers a rub. And she steps forwards so that my hand slides backwards to her rump. The hamstring scritches begin again! Horse in ecstasy. 

And it’s such a small thing, but such a huge thing. 

 

TURNING POINTS FOR SKYE (SO FAR)… 

  • Day One. Prancing on tiptoes to walking quietly. Just up and down the yard. Horse learns that she’s not in any immediate danger, despite being in a new place and having a human next to her shoulder. She calmed down, outwardly.
  • Targeting, four months later. If I’d really known the value of targeting I’d have made it priority much sooner. It was a lightbulb moment for her. Horse learns that she doesn’t need to simply “react to survive” she can be an active participant in human-activities. She began engaging, in the tiniest of ways, like a normal horse. 
  • Core stabilisers (crunches). Though we’re very new to these, Horse finds them somehow motivating. Every session since introducing crunches, she’s shown a more active interest in me. I hadn’t attempted to really teach recalls (come to call), but her enthusiasm for clicker had her begin coming of her own accord, which has meant I can begin reinforcing it (though not necessarily with clicks/treats every single time, reinforcement is about more than that).
  • Permission cues. We’ve only worked out one rudimentary cue for now (nose bump my fist to let me know you’re happy being touched), and the more she practices it the more she says “yes” when I ask and the less she minds if I forget to ask. Being given some self-determination has given her the confidence to quite quickly relearn to enjoy human touches. We can do more by demanding less. 

There have been other turning points too, of course, but these are the biggest emotional ones so far. I’m so pleased for her, and so excited for myself. It’s been kind of a rubbish 2018 so far. And the end of last year wasn’t great either! But now I’ve done a little CPD, got three months of intense learning to look forward to, the days are getting longer and warmer, and Skye is becoming happier and happier. It’s 2am and I can’t sleep and I am feeling fortunate. 

The obstacle becomes the way

LAST THURSDAY 

The obstacle becomes the way. Marcus Aurelius apparently said that, amongst some other clever things. So, the challenge, the barrier, whatever it may be, in working around or through or past it, becomes a fundamental part of our progress. 

Yesterday, Skye was more het up than usual. Only very slightly. On account of her herd-mates being closer around us than usual. Sometimes they’re all curiosity, which makes clicker in the field a smidge more challenging. Not hard or dangerous, but split-focus doesn’t help either myself or the horse. Still, I suppose that makes it more like a “real life” scenario, so I may as well embrace the distractions and learn what I can. 

It’s almost like a small element of resource guarding. I’m confident it will pass, but it’s interesting to see it even emerge. Somewhat suggests clicker/me is becoming something worth guarding. 

So I was thinking about how to tackle the challenge. These confident ponies aren’t for shooing (ignoring them and walking away works best), though in trying to shoo them I saw another step in Skye’s confidence as she didn’t mind me flapping and waving in her presence. She’s starting to trust I won’t hurt or frighten her. 

So instead we would just walk away a few steps each time we were interrupted, with Skye coming very keenly. And then it dawned on me… 

…the turning point for this horse’s willingness to leave the herd may actually be a wish to temporarily have a break from the herd. 

I’ve just been thinking of her anxiety about leaving them. About getting her comfortable with humans so that we’re not a bad second option. But actually, she’s becoming so keen for her clicker time (and, very occasionally at this stage, even just for some human time) and so irked at being interrupted, that she may well choose to leave the herd in an active bid to have some one-on-one attention. 

I’ve been thinking of tolerance about “going to work”, and she’s suggesting she might even be prepared to consider active enthusiasm towards it. Isn’t that hopeful! 

A shift from “okay, clicker is fine” to “hey, that’s my human, the clicker thing is for me.” It’s a “better problem to have”, if you see what I mean. No-one wants to encourage resource-guarding, but if the horse won’t leave the herd what can you do? Well this makes it seem like she might willingly leave the herd soon (willingness being the crucial difference), out of desire to click and an overall increase in confidence. I should think only a small distance at first, but let’s see. 

In other news… 

Skye, meeting the tripod for the second time and showing far more curiosity and boldness about it.

Tripod progress! First time Skye met the tripod she maintained a safe distance, though looked curiously at it very often. Yesterday she was braver still, surprising me by walking past it much more closely of her own accord and consenting to turn towards it whilst targeting and doing some crunches. At one point I had gone over to check the battery, expecting her to wait for me a few yards away, but she came with. Investigated the tripod/camera a little bit then targeted my closed hand just off to one side of the camera. She seemed curious, but not over threshold, and I hadn’t coaxed, lured, or cued her to approach the tripod (nor have I ever made her target scary things) so I have to assume she did so of her own choice. So pleased for her. 

Crunches. Did a few from both the left and the right. Pony distractions made it hard, but it’s still worth doing. She was better from the right-hand side than the first time we tried it, so that’s good. Still stiff, but more willing and less concerned with swinging her quarters away from you. 

Peek-a-boo and Eye. Did a tiny bit of peek-a-boo, as she still seems to find that more interesting than nose targeting. Transformed it into the beginnings of eye-targeting, by folding the towel into more of a pad and clicking for resting it over her left eye. She was largely fine with this straight away (thanks muchly peek-a-boo game!) though as with all these things I’m slow to teach and she’s slow to volunteer so it’ll be a while before she’s deliberately placing her eye into my hand. Still, I now know that if horse gets a gammy eye I’ll be able to clean it without upsetting her. Excellent. 

In other news, volunteering was lovely as ever. Bit of clicker/hand-feeding the donkey (anything to help him view humans as generally pleasant) who seems to slowly be a little bit less afraid of me/strangers so that’s good. Plus clicker with Diego who was less worried about life than last week but who, even so, is giving us all food for thought re: simple leading. So all I did on this session was walk, halt, walk, halt, rewarding him for politely staying at my shoulder with eyes front, and then some standing around in which I clicked for calm stillness whilst I stroked his neck, face, then repeatedly un/clipped the leadrope, then clicks for letting me gently rattle the headcollar around. Ie: clicks for any acceptance of our being up in his business, for him accepting that hands reaching for his headcollar are nothing to be concerned about. 

He certainly got the idea, but it was a slight shame to even need to do it. It’s not interesting to him, so it devalues the clicker sessions. He got bored quickly and seemed to have a vibe of, “why aren’t we doing something interesting? Bored now…” So at the end we did a little bit of targeting again, which he was happier about. But yeah, lessons in which he is rewarded for simply accepting human stuff don’t interest him. He wants something to do. 

 

THIS THURSDAY 

John got a replacement car sorted yesterday! It took literally 8 hours of waiting around at the dealership (what do they even do there?) but it’s done. So that’s a load off both our minds. And it meant volunteering was on again today, hoorah. 

Felt almost like spring this morning. Brightly sunny with blustery breezes, excellent for mucking out stables. Despite feeling broken after five hours of crappy quality sleep, I enjoyed the work as usual. Dropped off the girl’s rugs that I’d repaired, plus a second riser pad that I’ve made (with a couple shapes/sizes of inserts, “cookies” they would be called in corsetry/lingerie world, though for a rather different purpose!), and did a little bit of clicker with Diego before heading off to see Skye. We’ve realised that if I leave a little bit earlier I can fit in seeing Skye then get picked up by John on his way home, so that may become a more regular system, though it irks me to leave volunteering early. But hey no, anything to help manage the pennies! Public transport is shamefully expensive. Why do I live in the centre of town? 

Diego was good. A bit more settled again than last week, but he showed me once again that motivation is a puzzle for him. Or rather, puzzles are motivating! 

I still wanted to work on quiet walking at the shoulder, but knew from last week that he finds it boring. I don’t blame him, we had that sorted in session one, but it seems to be a skill he needs to re-learn to be happy about. Anyway he can do it already and so doesn’t consider it interesting or challenging (especially when there are ponies just over the fence that he’d rather look at and poo on the ground that he’d rather sniff). I’d set out a square of cones/poles (him on the outside, me on the inside), hoping that the novel set-up would make it seem like a new task, but he wasn’t fooled. I had him back at liberty since he seemed far more settled than previously, so he told me the job wasn’t interesting by wandering off (poo-sniffing). 

When he came back, I carried on with the same task. And again, after a little while, he sodded off. 

So the next time he came back I did some hip targeting (because it’s one of his newest things and therefore still interesting), and we managed to turn it into a quarter turn-on-the-forehand in each direction. This was better, he wa happier about this. 

Then I decided to try bottom targeting, ha! Primarily because I’m going to run out of are silly things to teach him before he tires of the stuff he already knows… 

So I stood further back and lifted my long target up. He can’t see it right behind his bum, but he can see where it’s pointing and my body language. I bop his tailhead, click, and treat. I do this twice. 

On the third time I pause without touching and he steps thoughtfully backwards.

Three clicks. Horse is ridiculous. I watch so much footage of very proficient people doing clicker with very proficient horses and three clicks to figure something out is bloody smart. 

Screenshot of one of our attempts. Horse begins to try sideways then thinks, pauses, and…

…steps backwards instead. Three clicks to understand that, he really is too clever.

The “problem” is that he really is too bright and when something is too easy, mentally speaking, he has zero motivation for it. Sometimes people think +R is too robotic. All about external motivation. Well, it can be, if used unfeelingly or demandingly. But people interested in +R tend not to be like that anyway. And from the beastie’s point of view, as you go along it becomes less and less about the food and more about the joy of doing stuff, exploring, figuring things out, using your body. I suppose it’s like having a job you love. You expect to get paid and if you never did your joy might die, but the pay isn’t *why* you love it. Internal motivation. And oh dear, that’s such an individual thing. 

Diego is always thinking and without something to keep him occupied he seems to get bored or wound up. That frustration has to eventually go somewhere. How to keep his brain happy when he’s both working and living? Maybe some hanging carrots or a treat ball or such for his stable? And maybe with the clicker I should look into more cognitive tasks like identifying pictures or placing objects in boxes, silly things like that? Anything to help him love life and thus be more amenable to all the things we humans ask him to do. Hmm, will think on and brainstorm with the stables peeps. 

After Diego, on to my lovely Skye. A far more gentle prospect! She puts finding harmony above self-preservation. When Diego struggles it shows in threats and nips. When Skye struggles it shows in calming signals. It’s funny, she’s probably the far more “troubled” of the two, but her individual character is so much more about chilling that she’s far easier to deal with. Well, unless she gets upset. A panicking horse is always a challenge. But that’s a rare thing and she gives you plenty warning, so it is generally human-error. If Deigo is pushed too far, he will retaliate. If Skye is pushed too far, she will run away. 

Anyway, I began with giving her an opportunity to come to call. 

Skye has recently had another little turning point, in that she will usually show some interest in coming over to say hello these days. Sometimes she’s body-blocked by other horses, sometimes she’s encouraged by their curiosity, sometimes she just comes of her own accord when I say hello. It’s all very tentative still, but it’s important. It started once she understood targeting. I was suddenly more predictable to her, safer to spend time with. Then it got better again when we began crunches. I think because she finds that they feel good. Maybe I should write up a post about her “turning points”. 

On this day, little filly Verity wanted to say hello. Which gave Skye the encouragement to walk the biggest distance she yet has, as far as choosing to interact with humans is concerned. 

What a cutie little Verity is.

Hiya!

And a target and a click just before she reaches me, to consistently encourage her to stop just a few feet away. Recalls are brilliant and beautiful, but being large animals horses do need to be taught about safe distances. Skye recalls at walk for now, and maybe she always will. But should she ever choose to express excitement and canter or gallop over, I’d want her to have “stop a few feet away” as a default setting. Just part of the routine.

She was a sparkly diamond today. The herd were over the stream and on a patch of ground that drains better, so once we’d said hello we did some follow-the-target. Basically it was an excuse to get a nice swinging walk going without mud to hinder us, to suggest perhaps the tiniest trot or prance, and to “lead” her to the edges of her comfort zone re: leaving the herd. 

The first part of the task was achieved. Lovely walking pace. And like I began thinking last week, the “obstacle” (the herd) is becoming the way. Where she previously wanted to stick with them for safety (and, I believe, to look after her sick friend Nancy), she now wants to walk away from them (to a point) so that she can have her clicker-time in peace. This is very good progress. A long way to go but I’m just thrilled at the huge reduction in her fear and anxiety levels. 

The second aspect of the task didn’t work out. I don’t blame her, I’d not want to trot on spongy ground either, especially not when unfit and lacking good posture. But it was cute, even so, to see her response to my “trotting” on the spot. Slight surprise (a tiny flicker of, “oh no! Is she going to force me?!”) and then, “oh no it’s fine, just ignore the hooman and carry on walking, she’ll stop soon enough…” We did get some 180 changes of direction. Not with much power or posture, but with commitment to the task, so that was actually pretty good. 

Part three, exploring the edges of her comfort zone, went really well. She came with me much further from the herd than I’d have hoped for and when she reached points where she thought it maybe far enough she wasn’t concerned, just communicative. A couple of times I waited and encouraged, and she did indeed think it through then come a few steps further. Then on the last such occasion she had more patience for waiting than I did and I had to concede that this was a border. 

What a cute little mountain goat!

But, it wasn’t an emotional border. It was purely practical! It was at the edge of the stream which she didn’t much fancy crossing. Cold and wet, not quite worth it for a bit of carrot. But she did follow the target much further than expected, mountain-goating on the muddy bankside, before taking a delicate drink of cool water and then looking cutely at me like, “why are you in the stream hooman, is cold?” 

I asked for one last reach for the target, gave the biggest chunk of carrot to end, and then hopped back up on her side of the stream (placing a hand on her shoulder to balance, a simple level of mutual comfort which I think is really important) and invited her to turn around for a fuss. 

She did, I held out my fist for permission, she nose-bumped it, and then I began curry combing. She straight away began walking forward though and I thought, “okay, she’s not interested today unless there’s carrot, that’s fair enough” but it wasn’t so. She walked forward just to get my hand in the desired place for rubbing. 

That’s new for this horse. And oh, isn’t it the tiny things that make your heart swell? A horse who, six months ago, would either be skittish for grooming or would mentally check-out to survive it can now be an active part of the process… that’s a lovely change in emotional state. 

 

The photo I took today, of her on the bankside… what struck me about it (apart from her funny position) is how normal she looks. A soft, happy, expression. She doesn’t feel a need to calm either of us with her body language, doesn’t feel a need to leave the situation, doesn’t feel a pressure to “obey the human or else!” Just looking at me sweetly like, “what next?” 

Crunches seven and eight, plus general friendliness

SUNDAY 

A friend dropped me off at Skye and the timing of my train back was such that I had 1.5hrs to kill in the field, bit more than usual. 

What did we even do today, I’m struggling to remember… Ah yes, a few small recalls for the #forcefreefebruary project that Horse Charming are running on Facebook. And a few crunches (session seven). Not many though, as I decided to try asking from her right-hand side and this is more challenging for her. She tried though. 

Right from the start, if I walked around to Skye’s right-hand side at about hip level she would swing her quarters away to turn and bring me back into clearer view. Unsure if she’s nervous of that side, has an eye-sight issue (I don’t think she does, but you never know), or if she feels more vulnerable since she struggles to bend in that direction. I think it’s mostly the latter. 

So we did a few core stabilisers, but it was a harder ask. Taking her treat was harder still. I tried to get a bit of video, but I don’t think it shows what I saw very well. It was as though the upper neck vertebrae were permanently a bit curved to the left and just would not (could not) bend gently to the right. To take her treat I would step forwards from her hip and reach my hand out, but she still has to reach around to me in this position. In doing so, the base of her neck would bend, her poll would flex, and she would rotate/tilt her head, but she could not bend through maybe C2 to C4. I think this is why the rotation, it was the only way she could reach far enough. 

Curiously, the cut-off point (in terms of where it seemed the stiffness begins) seems to correspond to the current location of the mane flip. 

In short, she could do with a Bowen session, bless her! As soon as she’s happy leaving the herd again, that will be on the To Do list. She’s getting happier with humans all the time, so I think that aspect of it would be fine. 

She also seems slightly sore in this area. When we’d finished with our clicker tasks I walked back to the yard to fetch my rubber curry comb as she’s begun shedding a tiny bit. We worked on some friendly grooming and permission cues, and she seemed happy with the whole thing. Until I reached that part of her neck on the right-hand side. There, she would pull away and walk off pretty instantaneously. 

A good visit though. Lots of friendliness, some walking together, some recalls, stuff discovered… 

As I was walking up the road to leave, all the horses got the wind up their arses and began galloping around. I could only see them in the distance, but it was a joy. Skye was doing her Lloyds TSB thing with little Verity sticking to her like a shadow. The ground isn’t muddy but it is spongy, not very conducive to active walks or such. So I was pleased to see them having a run and getting some exercise. 

 

MONDAY 

Beautiful sunshine today. I was accompanied to see Skye by a couple of my friends this afternoon. One of whom Skye has previously pegged as “a Professional” and who she normally eyes somewhat suspiciously. She doesn’t see her often though, and I want to use this friend as a fashion model later in the year (alongside the horse), so we’ve thought that we should take every opportunity to get them acquainted and on friendly terms. 

Well today the horse was an absolute sweetheart. 

We got to the field and I asked the girls to hang back a little bit. They stood chatting, whilst I wandered around near to the horse taking photographs on my Fuji. This is Skye’s first introduction to the Fuji, and she didn’t especially mind it. Oddly, she found it less concerning than when I hold up a camera-phone. 

So, there’s me pratting around taking photos whilst the girls entertain themselves in the distance and Skye watches me curiously. Eventually I approach and ask if she’d like to come, but the answer is, “am bit snoozy hooman, let’s not do stuff.” I go over and give her a bit of a fuss. Her eyes are half-closed and her coat is all warm from the low sunshine. She’s very mellow. I later explain to my Professional/model friend that this light is perfect, called “the golden hour” by photographers, and that if we had a happy Skye like today we’ll have a wonderful time on shoot later in the year. 

I do need to take my camera down more often. Practice photographing a black horse against pale skies (urg, what a pain). And practice angles/views, in a bid to have an idea of flattering compositions for the proper pics. 

Anyway, after a bit of fussing and a few half-hearted crunches (session eight, barely, snoozy horse!), I thought I’d step away from her to take a couple of pictures with the sunshine and the trees behind her. Try to get a silhouette shot perhaps, try to outline those whiskers and eyelashes with golden sunlight. As she hadn’t been interested in coming to call I’d thought she’d probably stay put and I could easily enough get the distance needed for pics. 

Beatrice’s blue eye.

I had my big lens on (which is actually my favourite). I love it because of the distance it requires. It means I’m not up in my subject’s space and can often be so unobtrusive that they begin to forget I’m there. Since I like images that have a sense of narrative or naturalness, this is useful. Indeed, I got a lot of unnoticed snaps of my friends, which I’m hoping will have helped the “model” to feel that being photographed is not so scary. Baby steps. I’m trying to work on camera confidence for both the horse and the human! 

Anyhow, I stepped away from Skye and she decided to follow. Took a photo as we went, but wanted more distance. Stepped away again and she followed again. So then I gave up, slung the camera over my shoulder, got my clicker out, and saw if she’d come with me over to the girls. And she did! Very sweetly. We got as far as a bolshy coloured cob mare, who Skye nipped on the bum, and then the mare moved on and demanded scratches from the humans. So Skye stopped where she was to graze and I joined the rest of them for chat and a couple more pictures. Got one very sweet one, in particular, of the “model” with the coloured cob, foreheads together, smiling expressions. This bodes well for our photoshoot. 

Bit of chat then said, “let’s go see Skye.” Went over and asked if she’d like to engage by offering my head-band as a target. Yep. Responded to her name, ceased grazing (after one last mouthful of grass, naturally), played targeting. Bit of that, then bit of peek-a-boo (best she’s yet done, putting her head down towards it, covering her eyes, very happy and chill), and pony was relaxed and pleasant throughout. My friend L said she was looking very comfortable with me, even more so than last time she’d seen us, which was lovely to hear. 

I then had the Professional have a go, handing her the clicker and the tea-towel. It was less clear, as you’d expect, but really very promising. The last (and indeed, first) time I had this friend try clicker with Skye (and she’d never done clicker before) the horse had found it a bit much. Wanting to engage, but het up about it being with the Professional and het up about the timing/clicking being a bit different. 

But today was quite lovely. Horse merrily engaged with her and the tea-towel and the clicks ended up being more just about that than about any specific move or task. The Professional was laughing, the horse was happy, it was all very good and promising. 

Skye and the Professional, making friends. Skye is perhaps realising this is a *nice* horse-professional.

I then had her just fuss and engage with Skye, going all around her body and running her hands about. I did targeting at front, to give her something to focus on but it probably wasn’t even needed. Horse didn’t mind the Professional going around her at all. Sometimes she turned her head around to investigate and I clicked that too. I don’t think I would carry on clicking for “investigating a human” as it could encourage foraging/mugging. But for today, for now, it seemed worth encouraging her in her confident Professional interactions. 

The Professional was also kind and useful in her feedback. Said that Skye was looking more in proportion (that neck has relaxed a lot) and not actually as plump as she appears! I would like her to lose a bit before spring, but she’s constantly moving, self-selecting a variety of forage, and you can feel her ribs, so we think she’ll be okay. She just looks worse because it’s a grass belly, she’s got winter fluff, and not much abdominal tone. But anyway, overall proportions improving. Neck looking a bit longer. In short, the slightly bumpy landscape, varied food sources, and mental decompression is doing wonders for her body. Very pleased. Will give her a better starting point for actual exercise, once she’s emotionally ready. 

They asked to see a few crunches and we did about three before the horse once again said, “am snoozy though hooman…” So we laughed and left it there. But they said they could see what was happening at a small distance, which was good. They could probably see more than me, stood at pony’s backside. 

Oh, and then it got funny! Skye was targeting my headband and I was being daft, almost putting it over her nose like a noseband. L laughingly said about having it over her ears soon! So then I began clicking for rubbing it near her ears, eventually hanging it over the left ear and clicking whilst I left it there. Horse did not mind at all, probably thought it the easiest clicks she’s ever got. 

I then finished on the beginnings of a head cuddle, of sorts. I should note, if teaching new things one shouldn’t really bounce around between tasks during one session. But sometimes you just do what feels right and it works out. So anyway, I put my right arm under her head to stroke/hold her cheek or nose on the other side (like you’d do for bridling, but more affectionate), and clicked for the acceptance of that or for her bringing her head into me during it. It was cute. Something potentially useful for a photoshoot. And it was fun to show how she doesn’t mind the clicker sound either, you can click with the clicker resting on her head and it’s all fine. Well done handsome pony. 

But the best thing was that she then hung around with us for a bit of a chill. The girls chatted whilst I scratched Skye’s withers, pausing every so often to ask permission again (a closed fist for her to target with her nose). She gave me permission three or four times and got a little bit blissful for the scratches. Then she didn’t bump my hand so I stopped, but just went up by her head instead and whilst we all chatted quietly she just stayed there, touched me with her head again and began closing her eyes with her lower lip flopping, letting me stroke her jaw gently. It was a lovely peaceful moment and, because of the time, we actually had to end it before she did. Most of our other interactions has seen this horse end things before I did, in terms of hanging around once clicker has finished. 

So it was a beautiful session. I was so pleased for the horse that humans are becoming more and more appealing to her, and that she trust me enough today to enjoy my having a camera and bringing other people into the mix. She’s starting to give me lovely moments of connection. A gift of a day. 

We then went on to L’s yard to see her and C’s ponies. The Professional was being, well, a professional. Teaching and riding. Lovely to see them both going so well though, two very happy ponies who are only getting better and better in their work, posture, and attitude. So pleased. C’s pony was doing some gridwork which included a tall-ish skinny that C would previously have been nervous of. But pony popped them again and again, then came down to a walk at the end like, “just another day at the office”, head low, gait swinging, as unconcerned as could be. This the pony who used to rush fences with his head in the air, who was afraid of human hands at the other end of the reins. L’s cob was schooled by the Professional and went like a dream. Happy little face as he figured out what her quiet and patient requests meant, then his movement and posture just improved and improved, getting into that lovely long frame that you need and springing along with some gorgeous cadence to his trot. It was a real pleasure to see. 

An excellent day. 

 

TUESDAY 

John’s car broke down yesterday though, so it wasn’t a perfect day from his point of view. A £400 repair, so the garage say. He’s having a breakdown about it. Which means that my day tomorrow is not going to be volunteering as usual, it’s going to be work at home. But that’s fine. I have a project I’d like to do this year, for my corsetry, which actually incorporates my work with Skye. This post might have given you a clue… So I should really do some more prep towards that, and think about how I’m going to share it with my audience. 

Crunches, sessions five and six, plus other notes from the week

MONDAY 

Due to “life” I hadn’t seen Skye for two weeks when we popped down on Monday. And oh, what a change. The past few sessions, when I’d begun core stabilisers with her, she’d been thrilled about it all. Really starting to open up and engage. Moments of mutual grooming, following me to ask for more, coming a few steps when called, lots of chilled and enthusiastic vibes. 

But during the gap she seemed to have decided to be suspicious of humans again. I’ve no real idea why! She was wormed by the livery owner and I sadly couldn’t be there. I’m told this went not great but not terribly either, and I trust that the owner will have done a brilliant job. Mind you, “not great” is possibly enough, at this stage of Skye’s fragile trust in humans, to give us a small step backwards. Not a problem though. 

The session just became about engagement. Do you want to take part? Can you relax? Can you trust that this is only a normal clicker session? 

At first she was mentally stuck, which manifest itself as being physically stuck. She literally would not move those feet or take a step towards me. Lots of turning her head away (calming signals), uncertainty about targeting, lots of stressed facial expressions. 

Once she did move her feet (prompted by another horse) it was away from me. And at first I thought she looked lame! But later she was moving fine, so I think it was just the spongy grass pulling at her feet (it certainly always makes my “gait” look even worse than it is!). 

So we took things very slow, went in for a bit of clicker, moved away for a bit, back and forth like this to keep the emotional pressure low but to give her opportunities to engage. And by the end she was vastly better. Still not happy, like she had been last time I saw her, but not tense either. 

This is okay though. It’s the nature of the beast, as it were. Anyone who has been traumatised will have their moments. Progress isn’t a straight line into the heavens. And gentle, emotional progress with horses can be like watching paint dry. But so it has to be. You can’t force the issue. 

 

TUESDAY

Tax return. Urg. But then I played with some visuals for a project John might be doing (jazz) and some fashion photo editing (from when my friend Marianne and I shot corsetry in my boatyard!). No horses or fresh air today, sadly. 

 

WEDNESDAY 

Back to volunteering, which was lovely. Just the morning though, as then I hopped on the train to see Skye. 

Lovely velvety fluffy Skye is often very muddy. Which I’m thrilled about actually, it’s natural behaviour and indicates a horse comfortable getting up and down. But I’d never seen her lay down or roll. Until today. 

Ploughing my way across the field as I reached their fence I spotted her having a merry old roll. Then she spotted me. Sat looking with ears pricked for a moment, deciding what to do, then hopped up to her feet before I could get my phone out for a sneaky video. 

I was carrying a bag-for-life, which obviously I don’t normally have, so she stayed standing and watching me for a bit. After Monday this seemed vigilant but better. Not at all stressed or sore or unhappy, just cautious. I popped my bag down and got out my tripod and zoom recorder as I’d thought, since I had no helper, I would try filming our session this way. And also because it’s another new thing for her to experience (valuable) and I would like to get her comfortable with tripods and cameras and such if I can. 

She continued watching as I set it up, then turned around and walked off. That’s new. So I know she’s still feeling a bit wary, for whatever reason. I set the camera recording and walk over to begin. The video clips are so cute, she looks over at the weird tripod again and again. The other ponies do too, but they’re far less shocked than Skye is. Some of them are positively bolshy and I do wonder at one point if my camera is going to be eaten. But no, it survives, it doesn’t even get pushed over onto the wet ground. 

I was a bad trainer this day as I had no real plan. Well, I suppose the plan (aside from introducing the tripod/camera) was to just see how she felt. Offer her different activities and see if she would happily engage in any of them. 

So we did a bit of targeting, a bit of peek-a-boo, three very short crunches sessions, and some general stroking. All with gaps in-between to give her time to think and lots of options about whether to be involved. 

Her trust in me (in humans) is a fragile thing at this stage. It had begun flourishing when we started the crunches a few weeks ago. But it isn’t yet resilient enough to suffer aversive events easily, so perhaps the worming shook her a tiny bit. We need a bigger balance in the “trust account”. Can’t press upon horses’ good natures by only make withdrawals… We have to give them cause to trust us. And no-one more so, it seems, than Skye. 

Anyway, observations from today. 

Skye was mostly looking at the tripod. But as soon as I picked up my phone to take a snap, she turned her attention/ears onto me. So I didn’t get the ears-pricked view I was expecting, haha.

The distraction of the tripod meant she wasn’t super-focused. We also had nosey ponies to contend with (nosier than normal). But even so, she did great. Looking back on the video she was actually quite interested. It just felt like a step backwards in comparison to how very enthusiastically engaged she was three weeks back. 

With peek-a-boo, I missed a few clickable moments and didn’t give her quite enough time to make the decision herself (to put her head/eyes under the tea-towel). The video makes it seem as though if I’d paused a moment longer and been more still, she’d have been more willing to do the task. I need to give her time to come to me, rather than trying to meet her halfway. 

I think crunches are now her favourite thing, instead of targeting! I’d begun to think this before. A couple of times (today and other days), a curious bit of communication has gone like so… We do some crunches. I step to the front and pull back a bit, to give her a breather if she should want. Mostly, at this stage, to be sure that she is still interested in trying them. And on those occasions, she has sometimes paused, nosed me, looked all the way around to the side I was stood on (so that her nose almost touches her own hip), and nodded her head once in that direction before turning around to look at me again. She’s not biting or nudging at her belly, it doesn’t seem to be an indicator of discomfort. So I am finding it very curious. I don’t want to anthropomorphise or otherwise mis-read the behaviour. But it’s almost like a, “hooman, get back there please, more crunches to do.” 

Question: has their been any studies done on whether horses (or other non-human animals) will nod at something as a quadruped version of pointing? 

I’m sure I’ve read a study where animals will look pointedly between the person and the thing that they’re trying to get the person to pay attention to. And if we saw that with our dogs we’d not be surprised. Even so, I’d like to know or see a little more before I interpret it that way. Except to say, for now, that this little pointed head nod has never occurred in any other circumstance and crunches seem, for now, to be the time when she’s most interested in clicker. 

Perhaps because it feels good? Perhaps because it’s an autonomous movement? Perhaps because she is making a small effort right now and it’s easier than targeting? No, that can’t be it. And it can’t be because she prefers me at her side than her head as, before crunches, she really didn’t. Hmm, they’re such interesting beasties. 

What a cute surprised face. This is as close as she got the to tripod/camera.

So, targeting, crunches, peek-a-boo, general chilling, scratching the other ponies… Oh yes, consent cues. 

Perhaps unnecessary for the majority of well-socialised un-traumatised animals, consent cues are, even so, being used more and more in the general husbandry of various beasties. And when you do have an upset animal who doesn’t trust what humans might do to her, they definitely seem worth a shot. 

You know if you approach a horse for grooming or mounting or whatever, and you give a soft hello and a polite little shoulder rub before you start? It’s kind of just a formalised version of that. You set up a sequence. This thing is always followed by that thing. So for Skye I’ve been slowly trying to add it into the way I talk with her, like this… 

I hold out my closed fist. She bumps it with her nose. I touch her for a stroke or a scratch. I then move my hand away and re-present the fist. In short, *she cues you*. After two or three repetitions she understands the sequence. “Touching the human’s fist means she’ll touch me.” And it’s fascinating seeing her figure this out. Because then once she’s got it in her head she will be choosy about whether to touch your fist or not. When she doesn’t I can say, “okey doke, I can see it makes you uncomfortable right now, I’ll move away.” And she’ll then either graze in a relieved way or mull it over before deciding to engage with you again. 

Very interesting though. If I think back, we’ve had three notable moments since meeting where she actively/obviously enjoyed being touched by me. I think almost every other moment has been either neutral or mildly aversive. So the counter-conditioning continues. 

Another interesting moment from Wednesday was that whilst herd-watching I saw Skye do a poo which Spot immediately decided to “mark”! Oh dear, he is rather obsessed with her, thinks he’s a damn stallion. Marched over very purposefully and did a poo right on top of hers. 

Despite being a bit plump, she’s still less “upside down” in her posture than she used to be, so I’m taking that as a success. Her resting neck/head height seems lower than it used to be too, as though her topline has released a bit.

As it stands, this unrequited romance may come to a momentary end anyhow, as I’ve asked the livery owner to try Skye in the “skinny” fields with some of her horses. This winter has not been cold enough, they’ve loads of food there (which is great, and the variety is very important, I’d be far more alarmed if she was fat on clover), and she’s just not gotten any slimmer. Huge grass belly. And we’re not doing much exercise right now. So fingers crossed she’ll be welcomed into the other group and will shed a few inches before spring. 

 

THURSDAY 

Volunteering again, naturally. A colder day with a biting wind. But merry enough. 

Diego was a curious case on this day. I’d not seen him for two weeks and you never know what you’ll get after a gap with horses. He was very conflicted about coming in from the field. Very concerned about having a lead rope clipped on or having your hand go near his face. Flinchy and toothy again. Even worried about having you stand at his left shoulder. Unfortunately he seems to be generalising that people with lead-ropes = bad times. Which is curious. I’ve never had a problem leading this horse so what’s going on? 

I didn’t go see Skye afterwards sadly as I ended up with a lot of stuff to carry! 

The girls have some rugs (from their own ponies) that I’m going to repair and those things are heavy. I did some sewing whilst on the yard too though. Our saddle-fitter had recently advised front risers for a couple of the ponies who don’t have much in the way of topline behind the shoulder. But money is tight. So she then said, “well if anyone can sew make some pads or something out of gamgee.” So that’s what I’ve done. 

Less to alter the balance, and more to just cushion out the area behind the scapula, where a couple of the horses are lacking muscle.

Found some damaged old bits of gamgee and a damaged but thick numnah and got to work making a front riser for one of our newest residents, Lady. The way I’ve done it is to add pockets to the front with thick pads that can be inserted. Without the pads, you would have about 5-10mm cushioning once under saddle (slightly more to the front than back). With the pads, you would have about 10-20mm cushioning at the front end, behind the scapula, in that empty space where muscle needs a chance to grow. But muscle can’t grow if it’s compressed firmly by a saddle and a rider. Who knows if this will help, but fingers crossed, and since the saddle-fitter advised it it’s definitely worth a try. 

I’ve also brought home the scraps to try to make a second pad-with-pockets (for whoever may need it), and some extra pads. I’m hoping I’ll have enough to make a couple of shapes/sizes, so that the stables can mix-and-match as per the horses’ requirements. Bloody hard work sewing in the cold though, I always hate that. Got through many cups of tea in a bid to keep myself and my hands warm but then of course that just meant that I needed a wee, haha. I was speed-stitching 20mins before closing in an effort to get this first pad finished so that they can use it, whilst crossing my legs and powering through! The glamorous stitching life of a corsetmaker. 

So my bags were quite heavy coming home. Nearly pulled my arms out. 

 

FRIDAY 

I’ve borrowed a book about how horses learn, it’s over ten years old now. I’ve only flicked through so far and, as with most things, there’s stuff to take and stuff that is outdated or unintentionally misleading. Which isn’t a criticism of the author at all (she’s massively educated and this is a wonderful book written for regular horse-owners), it’s just that time moves on and using older elements of horse-world language can be problematic. 

There were some references to “bossy” horses, that a horse following behind is driving you, which puts them higher up the hierarchy. Let’s repeat it kids, normal horse behaviour does not (as a rule) give this sort of bullying behaviour. Happy horses follow each other sweetly. The studies have been updated. Actual feral and wild horses have been monitored. Attention has been paid to their affiliative actions, not just their dominant ones. Happy herds don’t have linear, fixed, clear hierarchies. “Bossy” horses and hierarchies may well exist in domestic horses and so it is worth being aware of… but only, I feel, if taught with the caveat that hierarchies come from the stresses of domestication. Instead of presenting bossiness/dominance/bullying behaviour as a normal part of horse society. And I’m sure the author deals with management-caused behaviour issues all the time, so she’ll know how to minimise these things. 

There are also many instances of calling horses “naughty”. I’m not saying animals can’t be naughty or cheeky or whatever. But it’s a problematic label. It doesn’t describe what’s actually happening. It let’s us very easily brush things off as naughtiness. It stops us from looking for other explanations. And if a “naughty” pony suddenly becomes “naughtier”, it’s far too easy for us to consider it nothing more than a new expression of their personality. It’s not that these words are always wrong, it’s that they give us too easy a way to excuse or disregard what animals are trying to tell us with their behaviour. 

Very interestingly though, her website refers to “learned misbehaviour, or ‘naughtiness'” (my emphasis). Learned misbehaviour strikes me as a far more useful term. It’s let’s us search for potential contributing factors to poor behaviour (which is no less a courtesy than we would offer troubled people!) rather than attribute the animal with some sort of innate quality of goodness or badness. We’re none of us born evil. People are updating their knowledge and language all the time, which is such a positive thing. 

Another blip was in using the word “reward” to mean “reinforcing”. A reward, technically, is something pleasant, something desirable, normally something added to the situation. Behaviour can be reinforced by both relief and reward. Sometimes it might be hard to distinguish which is happening. But we need to be aware that they aren’t the same thing else you get into this old notion of “the release is the reward” which can cover a multitude of sins. +R and -R aren’t the same thing and only one of them can be escalated into inadvertent punishment/violence. If we push an animal with pressure and it isn’t working… then we escalate the pressure… and we alarm or upset or hurt the animal… when they finally get it “right” and we release the pressure what they’re experiencing is not a reward. It is relief. And I’m not saying that’s always the worst thing in the world. We can all learn very effectively through -R (removal-reinforcement). But I do think we need to be aware of this. We can’t call things “rewards” if what the learner is experiencing is relief from unpleasant experiences/feelings. 

But I’m looking forward to reading more as it seems an overall good and knowledgable book. I’m only noting these things for my own learning/revision, to continue getting a handle on the topic. 

I’m especially enjoying her little anecdotes! So many instances of owners describing a behavioural/training problem which isn’t a problem at all, just a question of management or environment. My current fave was about a shorter gentleman who was towered over by his 17hh horse. He reported the horse being difficult to bridle, lifting its head away from him all the time. What it actually was, was that the man was slow to get the bridle on. So the horse would be dutifully and politely holding its head low down (which requires muscular effort), and eventually get tired and let its head drift back to neutral. Meanwhile, your man hadn’t yet managed to get the bridle on and his horse’s neutral head-carriage was “high” to him. The horse wasn’t being bad at all, the owner just wasn’t practiced at bridling and hadn’t accounted for the height difference making things tough for the horse. Solution? A mounting block. 

What a cracking little story. But it seems so common. Horses are so obliging that when they suddenly aren’t we too often blame them for it before looking to the environment (or ourselves) for the true cause. Reading between the lines, the behaviourists I respect seem to be spending most of their time pointing out factors like that rather than training issues. If we could all cultivate just a bit more empathy and imagination I’m sure we’d side-step many issues before they even occurred. Antecedent arrangements, essentially. 

She does also state unequivocally (as basically all qualified animal behaviourists do) that punishment is never advised. Too many risks, too much fall-out, too easy to get wrong, not a valid training method. A last-resort, for emergencies only. 

It’s curious that horse world is so far behind all the other realms of animal (and human) behaviour and psychology. 

 

Crunches, Session Four

Though you know poll flexion isn’t a big aim for me (all the anatomy and expert advice explains that it is a consequence more than a cause of good movement), it’s good to use treat delivery to every-so-often assess how/where she can bend/flex comfortably.

Session Four was a lovely one. 

Horse carried on grazing as we walked over, though she’d raised her head for a few looks, and then when we paused she took it upon herself to toodle over very keenly. 

She’s getting better and better for this and though I know I’ll probably have to take her from her herd before she’s truly ready (which is a shame) I’m glad she’s building confidence so well at the moment. It will help. 

For the past three visits, I’d only done core stabilisers followed by a tiny bit of targeting (when she’s seemed tired of the crunches but wanting more opportunities for rewards). So I thought yesterday, she’ll have a fair expectation that we’ll be doing more of the same. So when she sees me, what will she be thinking? “Ooh yay, crunch and carrot time?” Or, “ahhh, I want carrots but am not a fan of the job involved, unsure how to feel…” 

Turns out I think she’s enjoying the crunches, as she toodled over very sweetly indeed. She has such an expressive face. 

Ah, now here’s a fun thing! 

Before we left the boat I noticed that John’s old zoom recorder (a portable video/audio recorder with decent mic, which he would use for recording his drum practice or gigs) was in the bin. Me… 

“Oh, is it totally broken now?” 

“Doesn’t work.” 

“Like, at all?” 

I thought it daft to be throwing away a piece of kit like that, if it had any functionality left, and it transpired that it does work enough to be useful to me. Yay! I’d wanted to get myself a cheap go-pro-esque type thing at some point this year, but money is tight, so this is a lovely little surprise. Tried it out today and though the wind caught most of my words, you can hear the click cleanly which is all I really need to be able to assess my practice. Geeky fun times. I need to try to get myself one of those gorilla tripods now, the mini ones that you can wrap around a tree branch. Although, I suppose I could even use a real tripod, since I’ve got one or two… Hmm… 

So, today John recorded Skye and I working, and got just over 6mins of footage. A good length of time, I think, for a horse still new to this idea of posturing at will. 

Things I liked about the video. 

 

  • she seems very engaged in the idea. 
  • she turns her attention to me whenever I suggest the posture, but otherwise has a soft expression, ears and eyes relaxed, not hyper-aware or overly-focused. Just a calm type of concentration. 
  • she doesn’t seem to find my small touches aversive. After one particular posture, I run my hand along her back and over her rump as I move back into position, and she doesn’t batt an eyelid. Not at all concerned. This is good progress. 
  • I’m clicking every tiny try, some of which aren’t even visible on camera and some of which seem to capture the “wrong” moment. But at this stage I don’t mind. I’m remembering the Intrinzen e-book’s suggestion that in the beginning you click for anything you feel happening, no matter how tiny, to build confidence and enthusiasm. So I’m glad that I’m clicking readily. 
Every tiny try. Here, it looks like her chest protrudes forwards less. Which obviously isn’t a detail I can really see when I’m suggesting posture from by her backside. Okay, why would the chest/sternum protrude…? Partly because the ribcage (which the sternum is like the “bottom” of) isn’t being suspended high between the forelegs. It’s hanging low through lack of muscle tone. When she engages her thoracic sling and core muscles, even just slightly, the ribcage pulls upwards/backwards between her shoulders. This is what we want to encourage with the core stabilisers. And then, later for this mare, support with just forward swinging walks to gently exercise the other supporting structures at the base of the neck. Up the withers.
  • when delivering the piece of carrot, I step forwards. She turns her head to take it, politely, then “resets” herself back to neutral. She confidently knows the how this task works now. 
  • I’m staying on her left side where she’s most comfortable, but slightly adjusting my position on nearly every crunch. Just a bit more to the side or the back or the front… She gets what I’m asking regardless (I think she maybe even did better when I was further away, at the side). 
  • until I move to face her head. This position is generally associated with finishing or starting, not actually “doing”. And what I liked about this is that she happily begins nudging me. Not quite in a “muggy” way, because she goes for the clicker hand more than the treat pocket. Reaches past the treat pocket to deliberately nudge the clicker hand. And I think that’s cute. It seemed like a request for more of the task, as opposed to more of the treats. When she gets a bit towards threshold, she sometimes does nudge my pockets, like any pony can. As she’s only just starting to open up, she’s only just really starting to show this investigative behaviour, which is great. It shows confidence and gives me more opportunities to teach her what works (“manners”, for all practical purposes). But sometimes, when she’s more about the task or game than the food, she nudges my clicker hand. So I loved that. 
  • a section of the video shows her in a pretty good standing posture when in-between stabilisers. That’s new. She’s naturally ended up somewhat square, with her withers higher than usual, her forelegs more vertical (rather than leaning over them), and her neck seeming to be (due to the higher withers/spine) reaching out from a better position than usual. It’s like the ribcage has slightly lifted upwards and backwards (as it should) as the angle of her shoulder looks less steep and her sternum seems less far forward between her shoulders. If I watch from start to finish, she begins with her neck very low slung and there’s a point a couple of minutes in where it’s suddenly set onto her body in a far more functional and pleasing sort of way. This is promising. 
  • towards the end, one of the other ponies comes over (reminding me of Catherine d’Burgh, “I must have my share of the conversation!”) and sends her on. She begrudgingly moves off, makes to eat some grass like, “what, I’m not doing anything, just minding my own business.” I get out of the way, then call her over. And she comes very gladly. Chooses to re-engage, once again. 
During session three, I had a couple of moments where it seemed like her neutral posture as a bit more “up”. Only a vague sense though, on account of the fact that her withers seemed higher relative to my eyeline, haha. The video from session four seems to support this idea. Lots of the moments in-between efforts showed better neutral posture than she normally adopts. This is hopeful.

 

Things I didn’t love. 

  •  once she re-engaged she was none-the-less a little distracted, and that’s where I should have ended it. I think I asked for three more crunches, but hey ho, you get better at judging these things the more you do. 
  • my timing on the crunches. Because I’m trying to be quick and encouraging, I’ll sometimes be clicking for a flicker of muscle or a shift in weight, which ends up finishing as a bigger “undesirable” move, like a head-fling or hollowed back. Sooner or later I’ll have to get pickier, or figure out how best to explain what we’re aiming for. It’s all a work in progress. 
  • fusses. I need to perhaps more carefully pair little strokes with treat delivery, so that the treat is helping counter-condition what human touch means to her. And I also need to be faster to back off with the fusses when she shows small calming signals. 

 

 

Excellent session, overall. 

We did a tiny bit of targeting at the end as she wanted more, but I think it just frustrated her slightly. All I had by that point as a bit of lettuce, which she told me was worthless, ha. We were targeting my headband actually, as I’d forgotten to bring anything else, but it shows that she’s generalised the idea quite nicely. 

 What a tense beastie she was. These pics aren’t a fair or complete comparison, obviously. But good things to be pleased about include… 

The shape of her neck has changed. Her neck now is undermuscled, but not consistently inverted. It now looks longer along the top than the bottom, where before the bowed underline of her neck gave a different overall impression. 

She generally has her hind legs a bit more under here these days. And, fingers crossed, that’s only going to get better with exercise. 

Emotional change. She’s vastly more comfortable now. But I’m going to have to be careful stretching her comfort zone. 

Her back isn’t much flatter yet, nor her belly much more toned, but… her overall balance front-to-back has improved as her withers are higher now. In the June 2017 picture, they’re actually lower then her backside, imagine that. 

Her sternum is protruding a little less. 

Her weight is more evenly spread over all four feet. She’s stood herself a little closer to square. 

Her mane flip has moved and I still don’t know what this really means… but I’m hoping it’s a positive thing and a stepping stone to fewer restrictions in her spine. 

Horse is doing well. Hopefully she’ll continue to trust me, believe that the activities I suggest are going to be fun and feel good. I do think it would be useful to establish consent/stop cues from her, so I’ll look into that or think about ways of slowly building it into what we already do. 

 

Crunches, Session Three

FLINCHY

Volunteering was good yesterday. Amongst general work, did three or four super-short clicker sessions with Diego in a bid to get him unflinchy. He occasionally goes a bit headshy and it’s a very particular context. Forehead rub… fine, lovely. Start politely at the shoulder and gently scratch your way up to his cheek… that’s okay. Reaching directly up for the headcollar or to clip a lead on… occasionally flinchy. Which can then turn into face-pulling as he tells you he’s unhappy, which then starts a disagreement as people think he might bite. So, my thinking was, if horse doesn’t flinch in the first place it’ll never get that far. 

But he sadly wasn’t for persuading on this occasion. He figured out what I wanted easily enough, he’s very very bright after all. But a raised hand was too worrying for him. We got as far as not flinching or face-pulling, but he didn’t like my hand there and didn’t want me to reach for his headcollar. I could do it, but the whole point was to wait for him to relax and bring his cheek towards my hand, and he just could not let go of his anxiety. 

It was a shame as this isn’t an all-the-time problem, it just pops up sometimes. Will see how he’s feeling about it next week, he may have decided he can trust us again. 

 

CRUNCHY

This is from Session One, but I love the look of “ooh, I did it!” that she has.

Was dropped off at Skye’s and we did our third session of crunches. She did brilliantly, though a bit less focused on the crunches today. Possibly because I had different treats to usual, possibly because the ground had gone muddy (which made everything hard), possibly because it was two days in a row, possibly because she would have preferred something else. Though it’s a +R activity, and though it really needs to be done three or four times a week to have a physical effect, I need to remember to not drill it. Remember that if we have a day where she’s just not for crunches, that we should do something else. Have the trusty tea towel on standby, haha! Or teach something else entirely. Even if it’s just “can you follow the target all the way to the gate?” That would be no bad thing to attempt right now. Ah, I wish I could get down there every single day. 

She walked with me again quite a bit. I do think part of the recent change is that, bless her heart, one of the other horses was put down recently. 

 

PROTECTOR 

Sweet little gingernut Nancy. Skye loved her. 

Nancy was old and had apparently suffered various ailments over the last few years. Then recently, her character changed too, from gentle to perpetually grumpy. I believe this was when the decision was made that it would be kinder to let her go. 

We would see Nancy and Skye together very often. If Nancy went, Skye would often follow. And I remember times where I would be in the field presenting a target for Skye to come to, but she would pause first to check in with Nancy. A little touching of the noses, a sharing of breath, a searching glance to make sure no-one was going to come in and push her chestnut friend around. Just making sure everything was okay before giving her attention to something else. 

Now Nancy is no longer there, and whilst other factors are also at play it somewhat coincides with Skye being more willing to engage. 

What will be interesting is how she feels the next time I ask her to leave the field. I’m expecting it to be something that we have to do very gradually (save emergencies, medical care, etc.). But I really shouldn’t have any expectations. She may surprise me. 

After all, the separation anxiety didn’t exist until we came to this livery. I think perhaps she’d had it in her last home (I’m told she was “bonded” to a gelding there), but I’m unsure. And it emerged here again perhaps for a number of reasons. I do wonder if one of those reasons was her desire to care for Nancy. She struck us all, very quickly upon knowing her, as a very maternal mare. A protector. She protected Monty a little bit, until we moved yards and there was someone more in need of protection (Nancy). It shows her character in a beautiful light. I bet she was a wonderful mother. 

 

POSTURES 

I wrote on my Instagram about browsing and grazing, as Skye inspired me with her poses yesterday. Will copy/paste and expand upon it here. 

Right from Session One of the core stabilisers, it has seemed as though her posture was the tiniest fraction more “up” immediately afterwards. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s like doing a few hip flexor stretches, squats, etc., and 5mins later discovering you’re standing taller. But it’s pleasing to see. Fingers crossed that continues. 

I think my favourite thing about the Intrinzen approach re: bodywork is that their overarching posture goal is to get the withers up. It’s the main goal of everyone good, it seems, though for some reason it doesn’t get filtered down to your average rider and average horse. I don’t know why. Perhaps because it isn’t as clearly visible as the changes that we can forcibly make to their outline? Anyway, for a healthy ridden horse, this is everything. And it’s pretty easy to create conditions where it happens of its own accord. 

  • Raised walk poles on a loose rein or unridden, as per Gillian Higgins (GH). Super easy. 
  • Going over one raised pole as slowly as possible, as per Jec Ballou. Also super easy. 
  • Belly/thorax lifts, ref. Dr. Hilary Clayton and GH. Though the point of the +R Intrinzen core stabilisers (crunches) is to create a similar sort of lift that the horse owns entirely for itself (ie: not a reflex or enforced move) for the very good reason that they’re trying to achieve many things to do with the nervous system, not just muscle engagement. 
  • Riding forward (never pulling back) with a long horizontal neck and using transitions to get the pelvis tucking and, by extension, the forehand lifting. 
  • Pedestal work. Including feeding from on a pedestal, so as to stretch the topline and open up the vertebrae. 

There are different nuances of opinion with regards to how best support the lower neck vertebrae, which is a crucial part of lifting the withers, and I’m still trying to pick it all apart. But I suppose practically speaking, there’s little need to? Okay, short version… 

For some, it’s all about engaging the thoracic sling. The ventral serratus, etc. 

For others, it’s more about gently working the longus colli and scalenus, which are much deeper in the body and which rely on Long Slow Distance work. 

Both groups are hoping to lift the withers and thus lighten the forehand. Since Sharon May-Davis’ (SMD) dissections all seem to point to the idea that the elbows of all ridden horses develop arthritis, it’s no bad aim to get horses springier and lighter on their forehands… Better able to protect themselves from the concussive shock of moving whilst carrying extra weight (rider/tack), from the subsequent cavitation of joint fluid that she thinks may be causing the problem. 

So your first camp might be all about crunches and canter departs and such, regardless of length in the neck. And your second camp might be all about long postures and gradual development, regardless of plyometric power. Since, as far as I can tell, both of these camps have merit (and I think it’s more about degree of focus than blanket dismissal of either idea) I don’t see the harm in attempting to combine the two. The second aim happens almost by accident, if the environment allows for it… 

 

BROWSING 

Browsing. Naturally, horses will browse for around 20% of their time. When doing so, they tend to stand more square, engage their abdominals a bit, and the reaching/horizontal posture of the neck gently works the longus colli and scalenus muscles which sit like a hammock beneath the base of the neck (ref. Sharon May-Davis).

I remember at the dissection last year, that Sharon explained (and even demoed, haha) the way in which the side-to-side movements of a horse when browsing not only help the deep, cybernetic muscles at the base of the neck… those movements also ripple through the entire body in a way that gently promotes evenness/symmetry. 

She often suggests “hay high” to her clients as a way of exploiting these browsing benefits. Sometimes people consider this controversial. After all, we were always taught that horses are grazing animals and thus haynets were the devil. But the point is in how much browsing to grazing, at what heights, in what environments/conditions, for what horse. “High” might just be between knee or chest height. 100% of hay provided above this height would obviously be a bad idea. 

Something that I think would benefit Skye is pedestal work. Front legs on a raised platform, neck and head reaching downwards. If she were a stabled horse who got hay or bucket feeds, I’d incorporate it then. Something to encourage her to, once a day, open up those vertebrae and engage her core. As it stands, I’m very happy that she gets to browse, free choice, whenever she likes in the field. Not least because all those tree roots and brambles are the only thing keeping this watery field from turning to pure mud right now! So much rain this winter. 

But yes, once she’s merrily leaving the herd again (and once the land is a bit drier perhaps) I’m hoping to find or make a platform for some pedestal work. 

And in these pictures from yesterday, you can see how she’s closer to square when browsing than grazing. Her weight is more evenly spread over her four feet. And the length through her neck is lovely. 

It’s not a cure-all, she still just needs exercise and some rehab work. But it’s great when the landscape supports rather than hinders your objectives. Likewise, if your land has wooded areas, logs on the ground, brambles and stones to step over, varied slopes and footings, the horse will be getting a lot of information to aid with its proprioception anyhow. Lots of opportunities to be functional, in the truest sense. 

 

GRAZING 

Grazing. The ribcage drops between the forelegs (slackened ventral serratus, amongst other things) and the legs “split” to bring the body closer to the ground. Skye doesn’t seem to have a preferential stance for this, which so a good (though kind of surprising) thing.

Horses are mostly (but not always) grazing, which means a dropped thorax. Down through the withers. And yet we need them more up through the withers, if we’re going to ride without harming them. 

Having the head super-low does pull on the ligaments such that the back is lifted. But it also drops the withers. So we want something in the middle. 

My sketch below makes the deep muscles (longus colli, scalenus) look far more substantial than they are. Unless exercised (long, slow, distance…), they’ve little chance of supporting the base of the neck when under saddle. Instead, a horse ridden with a rider-imposed “contact” may tense the big movement muscles of the neck and hide above/behind the bit or lean heavily onto it. Poll flexion isn’t an indicator of whether the cervico-thoracic junction is working well or not, as we can make poll flexion happen regardless. And, when we make it happen, it nearly always goes hand-in-hand with a dropped wither and overbent base-of-neck. Because, quite simply, if you pull back on a branch with a crack halfway down it, the crack will give before anything else does. The base of the neck, where it joins into the body, is very vulnerable in the domestic horse due to their missing nuchal lamella from C5 to C7 (ref. SMD). It is always the first part of the neck to buckle under a firm hand or short rein. 

As Dr. Deb Bennett (DB) says… “In the normal position for riding, the line of the rein cuts far above the dipping curve which forms the base of the neck. Anytime the rider pulls on the reins, he will therefore oppose the muscles that raise the base of the neck […] In other words, pulling back on the reins makes the base of the neck sag and sink.” 

When the base of the neck sinks, shock/forces through the forelegs are not well absorbed which sooner or later = discomfort or lameness. Not to mention problems with the neck and back themselves. On the SMD dissection, someone (I wish I remember who) shared the insight that “if you’re riding the back you’re riding the neck.” All the back muscles run into the base of the neck, and their function is compromised by the aforementioned missing lamella. Helping them straighten out those vertebrae and lift them between the shoulders should be priority number one if we plan to sit on a horse’s back. 

The longus colli and scalenus are small and deep. They have no chance against the leverage of reins or big movement muscles. Ridden horses need length in the neck.

DB also says that this is why “contact” is impossible to quantify. You cannot have more force in your hand than the opposing force provided by these deep muscles. Which basically means, we cannot set the contact or have any sense of fixedness or backwardness in our hands, the horse must do it himself. I mean really, we should all just cut our hands off, haha. 

 
Perhaps more practical than maiming would be to encourage people to look, when assessing movement under saddle or on the lunge, at the withers rather than the head or hind legs. Start there. 

Solution: ride with as long a neck as possible, aiming to think/feel “uphill” through the withers, and make downwards transitions off your seat, not your hands. Remember that poll flexion is worthless/harmful if the withers are down. Only take as much contact as you’re given by the horse. They should “seek” the bit, not yield to it. Give horses some access to food everyday at about chest height. And encourage them to walk forwards as much as possible (whether through exercise or management/lifestyle). 

Aims for us all to aspire to! 

Crunches, Session Two

Lovely day of sunshine, people and ponies. 

Tack room arranging at volunteering, which was actually very satisfying. Then on to see Skye in such a blue and sunny day that it felt like spring had come early. 

Skye, about to receive a piece of carrot for a job well done. It’s less about the food and more about what the structure of +R allows for… Active participation, a voice, enthusiasm, and a human who behaves reliably and predictably. This pic is from Crunch Session One. 

These core stabilisers are meant to work best, so the wisdom goes, if done three or four times per week (preferably the latter), for short sessions of no more than 10minutes. I’m thinking for the rest of January that I’ll be able to do three per week and so far, only two sessions in, Skye is determining the length of time. Session One was about 5mins, and today was maybe pushing 10mins. 

I think the ability to say, “done enough for now!” and actually be listened to will be very valuable for her. How can I expect her to trust me with her body if I don’t demonstrate my trustworthiness? Unlike an unspoiled youngster, she isn’t going to give me her body just out of curiosity to be involved in the new things the human is presenting. She’s learned too firmly that humans aren’t to be entirely trusted. This is now changing for the better, which is wonderful to see. 

She now consistently comes the last couple metres to meet me whenever I turn up. And today when I walked off to suggest we stand somewhere else (the footing isn’t the easiest for this exercise right now), she followed happily. Such important progress for this horse. But I need to not get carried away. She needs to come away from the herd sometime soon for another vaccination and who knows if she’ll be happy with that idea. 

Today I made myself focus on asking for the posture/movement without touch. I think her attitude about Session One was one of active participation and thinking, but I’m also aware that I used touch in nearly every “crunch”, in a bid to draw her attention to her abdomen and hindquarters. I think this is fine, expect that she’s still going through the process of finding human touch acceptable rather than aversive, so I don’t want to rely on having my hands on her incase it seems too much like a command rather than a request. 

So today we were hands-free and she did just as well. I’m so impressed by how quickly she’s getting the idea. Though I suppose I shouldn’t be. It’s not that she’s brighter than average or that I thought her dim before… it’s just what seems to happen when you use +R to encourage participation. They become active in their own learning and keen to figure stuff out. They bother offering ideas. So of course she would respond to my body language/positioning… And of course, so long as I clicked fast enough, she would grasp that it was about the weight-shift and muscle engagement. It makes perfect sense. And yet, it seems kind of like magic. 

I was on her left-hand side again today (which she’s always tolerated better than her right, so I’m starting here), same as I was in Session One. 

After a fair few efforts she eventually decided that it was getting hard now and she’d rather do something else. So we did. Walked on a few steps and got her tea-towel out! She’s so funny. 

And, as last time, she stuck around for a few strokes and scratches once the clicker was put away (though she was miffed the session had ended). This is very new for her. Then commenced browsing with my arm draped over her back and my head resting on her sun-warmed coat whilst I watched some other ponies. Even that (standing around instead of immediately taking herself away from the humans once clicker is done) is a huge step forward for her. 

I had a bit of time to kill for the train, so I stayed to enjoy the sunshine and watch the herd. I had wandered off with my back to the sunshine and Skye, then laughed to find that a long-faced shadow was approaching from behind. She was wondering if I had more treats, naturally, but imagine that. Walking up to a human… hoping for treats or fusses… like a normal horse! It was also sweet to look backwards as I was leaving the field and discover that her head was up watching me. I think I may be finally making the transition from “tolerated two-leg” to “intriguing two-leg”. 

Today’s rewards were carrot pieces and a few strawberries, which she found interesting. But I also relaxed with her whilst she broke off twigs to chew and grass to graze. I love that they have variety on that land. Like a weirdo, I also took a photograph of a poo she did as it was just so healthy looking, haha! 

A friend said today that it’ll be nice once I can accompany them hacking on her. I’m expecting nothing. If all I do with her is learn to be a good communicator with the clicker and to help her have a happier life, then that’ll be reward enough. But who knows? Possibilities are starting to open up, as her character does likewise. She has the potential to be emotionally balanced and physically strong. It’s a big task, but you never know. 

Crunches with Skye ❤️

When reinforcing between crunch attempts, I delivered the carrot piece in a FDO sort of posture, to keep releasing those neck muscles. If you’re going to interrupt the thing you’re teaching, you may as well make the interruption doubly useful. 

A funny thing about clicker (or I suppose, any teaching method) is how much you have to rely on feel when you’re doing it and analysis/study when you’re not. I’m finding video the most helpful (especially when the sound actually works on my phone, good lord) as of course clicker is all about timing. 

When you get into tasks such as body movements (as opposed to things like targeting, where it’s pretty easy to “see” the moment to click), there’s such a lot to pay attention to. I guess there always is. But if you’re riding using classic aids, for example, everything is changing moment-to-moment in a diaphanous sort of way, a bit better, a bit worse, and finding the comfortable, effortless moments is what you live for. I imagine those moments feel great to the horse too, carrying someone without discomfort, and possibly even feeling able to move better than they knew they could. It’s a lovely thing to experience, the basics of balance and power. 

With clicker though, you’re often interrupting the process by marking the best moments. It’s all about stepping stones. Choosing what to mark. Being aware of what else you may be marking at the same time. Being clear and consistent enough that the horse understands you mean this thing not that thing. You have to be decisive and the more you do the more you care about every fraction of a second with your timing of the click. 

Today Skye and I made our first attempt at crunches. But wait, I’ll go back a step. 

The ground was somewhat frozen which was useful as John forgot his change of footwear and waterproof trousers. He was cameraman for me, kind boy. It really is so useful. Though next time I’ll ask him to stand more to our side. As we picked our way slowly across the paddock, I called her name. She doesn’t come to call over any great distance yet, but I keep calling so that one day she might decide it’s worth doing. She did, however, lift her head a couple of times to look over. And once a certain distance away (about 5 metres?) she walked over as she nearly always does these days. They’re tiny steps, but they matter. 

Very food motivated today. She didn’t mind John’s presence, was better about the extra person than she sometimes can be. But I think, actually, it was still a tiny stressor for her as it’s only when others are around (or sometimes when my timing is off, which thankfully doesn’t happen too often) that she gets het up about the food on offer. 

Anyway, keen for carrots. Now that she’s coming out of her shell I’m adding in more bits of polite standing, to retain her lovely manners. 

The brambles and frozen ground occasionally made work awkward, but she did so well today, I was so impressed. Overall thoughts on the crunches… 

  • sometimes the video didn’t seem to show much happening and yet I had chosen to click. But at the time I remember thinking, “wow, that’s a huge effort from this angle.” For example, about three times I saw the muscles either side of her withers fill out in a very obvious way. But the camera did not. 
  • the video revealed to me that she was weight shifting more than I had realised at times. The weight-shift is a thing that in person you underestimate, but then see quite clearly in video stills. 
  • a few times I thought she was fidgeting with her feet to either follow me or because I’d clicked poorly and reinforced it, but then in the video it seemed to be more that she was just trying to organise herself. 
  • she was sometimes using her head/neck to help force the weight-shift which isn’t what you’d aim for but is acceptable for now, I think. So long as I mostly wait for muscle engagement and click that. 
  • she told me when she’d done enough (about 5mins in, which is a good length of time for this exercise I think), by disengaging and turning towards me. 
  • she hung around afterwards for a tiny bit of tea-towel targeting with John holding and waving the towel. I wanted him holding it as a confidence-building opportunity. She’s so funny. We saw a very long neck as she didn’t really want to take that last step towards him. But he was waving the towel and she was nodding her head and lipping at it. It’s like people buying toys for their cats (or kids I guess!) and then the cat is like, “ooh packaging, thanks!” She loves that tea-towel. 

Anatomy of our best example (touching the abdominals)… 

Up the withers! Before the crunch (top pic) you can see my laser vision showing how her back sits relative to a horizontal line. She’s at a three-quarters angle to the camera so it’s not a great example, but it still illustrates the postural changes during the exercise. Pre-crunch, her withers are below her point of croup and the back is quite curved. During the crunch (bottom pic) her withers are now raised above the level of the point of croup and the negative space inbetween the pink line and the back has lessened. The back appears flatter as she is lifting her withers (which actually means lifting the entire chest between her shoulders), engaging her abdominals (which helps shore up the sides, that feeling as a rider where their ribcage seems to expand to meet your legs), and flexing her hips (tucking her pelvis under, like at the beginning of a canter stride or jump).

This example is a dramatic looking one because she started by raising her head. So the top image in the next set of pics is when she was trying that out and the bottom is when she reorganised herself so that she could do a proper weight-shift with lovely muscular effort. How it goes in the video… 

  1. she’s merrily accepting a treat from the previous attempt. Nice soft expression. 
  2. I put my hand into her coat on her ribs (so velvety, so fluffy!) and as I begin to slide it backwards along her ribs she turns her attention to me and lifts her head, thinking of what to do. My hand is on her abdominal obliques, pretty much. 
  3. she flings her head back, either because I’ve bridged that movement accidentally or because she’s by now figured out that shifting her bodyweight backwards is part of what gets the click and this is an easier way of doing it.
  4. so I ignore that and she then begins to rearrange her forelegs. At the time I thought it was fidgeting, but now I think it shows understanding. She was putting herself into a bit of a better position to be able to pull up through the withers. 
  5. as the left foreleg becomes weight bearing again, she pushes her body backwards onto her hinds and lifts through her thoracic spine (whilst also repositioning her right leg to make things easier). Her back flattens (opening up of the spinous processes) and although it is not done with an entirely relaxed underneck I’ll for sure take it at this stage. Excellent effort. 
  6. unnoticed at the time, her hind legs also change angle showing that they’re taking more weight and that her pelvis is tucking under slightly (which you can see in the angle of her backside too). Crunchity crunch! And whilst receiving her carrot and going into the next crunch attempt, her legs stay in this position, slightly gathered up beneath her. I think that shows a lot of intelligence and thoughtfulness. 

I should perhaps note that Intrinzen, who pioneered this way of using +R to help horses rediscover healthy posture, avoid the term “crunch” now as it can give the wrong impression. Anyway, horse has a long body and a weak core, any exercise to encourage use of those core muscles will be good, whatever we call it. A rule that applies to me also, and yet I’m less interested in my own fitness than hers [shrug]. We’re all contradictions. I’m looking forward to when she will happily leave the herd again so that we can go walking, get some light but beneficial exercise that way. I do think that a forwards walk with a long swinging neck will be so useful in conjunction with things like the crunches. Have to go at her pace though, emotionally speaking. 

I can’t upload video to WordPress (I’m not paying for the privilege!), so I’ve put some vertical lines on the stills this time, to help see what’s going on. And it’s the thought I started this post with, about just going on “feel” at the time but then assessing the details afterwards to get a richer picture. One detail is that I’m looking at her back. Ideally it might be better if I was just “watching” her with a soft peripheral vision. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Pink vertical lines… 
 
The first line is anchored to her shoulder/chest when stood hollow (top). You can see how her forelegs have straightened up during the crunch/posture (bottom). And whilst her neck isn’t reaching/relaxed she has dropped it relative to the way she began the attempt. You can see that the effort in the crunch is coming from her body more than her neck. Look at that ear, keeping her attention on the odd human. She’s really starting to see the clicker time as a dialogue, which is wonderful progress. 
 
The second line is anchored to a tree in the background (to make sure the two snaps are lined up properly). You can see that she’s put her left foreleg a bit more underneath herself medially (it was a bit lateral, out to the side), and then is pushing against the ground to help lift her torso between her forelegs. This line also shows how much of a weight-shift has happened and if you look at the line of the back you can see how it was lifted and filled out quite nicely. Her legs are more underneath herself and her abdomen is more compressed looking. You can sort of see how her chest has pulled back slightly, between her shoulders. It’s normally quite far forward from those weak thoracic sling muscles… and possibly weak longus coil and scalenus muscles, or possibly even faulty attachment sites to the lower cervical vertebrae (Sharon May-Davis’ research shows it to be so prevalent that I can’t really look at a part-TB who struggles with posture without wondering…). 
 
The third line is anchored to a twig growing in the ground! It again shows the weight-shift, but it also helps you see how her hind legs are sloping to allow for it. If you look at the shape of her glutes after this third line, the slope is steeper in the crunching pic as she has tucked her pelvis. Core engagement!
 
At other times I was playing with touching different parts of her body. Some touches got no discernible response and at this stage I think it’s because she’s having to figure out what I’m suggesting. Maybe once she understands the whole idea of being clicked for a posture she’ll give it more readily and I’ll be able to draw attention to other ideas/areas of the body whilst she does it. Anyway, one of our other better attempts involved me sliding my hand along her back (the thoracolumbar fascia, towards the loins). 
 
She again “fidgeted” and I think we had stepped backwards before getting the posture. But I think it was again just her way of trying to organise her body to be able to do the thing, and trying to figure out if I’m asking her to step backwards or what. 
 
The reason I liked so many of today’s attempts was the filling out of the back, the tucking of the pelvis, and the slope of the hind legs. 
 
Okay, when else do these things happen… Taking off for a jump. Levade (extreme version of a collected weight-shift) and school halt (in the classical/academic world). Setting up to play/run or showing off for other horses. A balanced canter. 
 
What I think I especially appreciated about today’s session, and the idea of +R postures/movement in general, is that she wasn’t in a position where she needed to protect herself. 
 
She’s not fit, hasn’t been “in work” for years, somewhere along the line has injured herself, is very heavy on those front legs, and very worried if you do ordinary things like lunging or poles as she has bad associations/memories. If I wanted to get her hip flexors working and decided to use say canter or jumping as the method, even riderless, and “made” it happen, she’d not really give me her body. She’d protect herself, and she’d have every reason to do so. She might canter a circle, she might go over some poles, and I might be able to set her head such that it looked almost right… But would she really be “using” her body in a confident, healthy, way? 
 
But in this clicker context, she volunteered such a lot of muscle engagement and put herself into poses that I’d thought we’d struggle to find. Not often, not perfectly, but still… I for sure didn’t think she’d poof up around the withers at all on Day One. But it was pretty much the first thing I saw, flickering muscles and lifting around the withers. Didn’t think she’d put her hind legs underneath herself to weight bear. Didn’t think she’d rearrange her fore legs to put effort into the posture. Didn’t think I’d be able to explain what I wanted without alarming her. 
 
She’s got that old scar to the left hind cannon. That muscle damage (hollow area, about the size of a 50p piece) to her left hamstring. Tight muscles along her topline. Slack muscles along her belly. A knot in her right ECR muscle (upper foreleg), and they’re overdeveloped in general from being so heavy on them. Some sort of slack or damage to her thoracic sling muscles (her default posture is very low between those forelegs). And she was worse when I first had her, with those bulging sternocephalic and hefty brachiocephalic muscles. 
 
If she had been in pain or uncomfortable or pushed, she’d have protected herself and said, “no thanks” (as she eventually did once she got tired) because in a clicker context they know that they’re allowed to. But she didn’t say no. She said “yes” to weight shifts, to muscle engagement, to figuring it out, to trusting me stood by her backside, to John standing nearby… 
 
So this gives me confidence that, squiffy though her posture may be, she has the potential to rediscover a healthier way of carrying herself. That would be a lovely thing. For the horse to really enjoy moving and to carry herself proudly, and to know that her humans appreciate it. 
 
 

 

Transitions and Cognitive Dissonance

When learning something new, if aspects of it contradict things you felt you knew you can experience discomfort. Cognitive dissonance. This seems to be very common in horseworld, as we catch up with the rest of the animal care/training industry. 

I really appreciate when horsepeople who have gone through these transitions leave evidence of it up to see. Perhaps they should remove it, so as to not spread mixed messages, but as someone paying attention to the process that horseworld is going through it’s kind of fascinating. 

Examples I’ve seen recently include things like this… Trying to marry the current science of motivation with outdated ideas of herd hierarchy and dominance… Applying aversive pressure and clicking on the release of the pressure (a mix of -R and +R that risks souring or confusing the horse)… Instructing on the importance of praising the horse’s good choices, whilst training it with NH in such a way that it doesn’t actually have a real choice… And transitioning to +R but avoiding the use of a clicker as a bridge (as though a clicker is too much like the trappings of loopy, frivolous, unserious horsemanship), before ultimately settling on it because it’s just actually really useful. 

And these are examples by people I hugely admire. People that have dedicated huge parts of their lives to studying and improving, constantly trying to find the best way to work with horses and exploring many paths as they go. 

Anyway, I thought it was funny because I discovered one of my own transitional hiccups the other day. 

This all very much depends on the details of any given circumstance, it’s not a blanket rule… but here’s the example. 

With pushy -R, the release of pressure (and more broadly, the cessation of “work”) is the “reward”. It isn’t actually a reward at all, technically, but it’s what the horse is working towards so people use this word. 

For the end of work to be a reward, the work must be either unpleasant or tiring (if people are unhappy or overworked/stressed in their own human jobs then it would make sense they’d think of it in these terms, I guess). Or there must be something else you’d rather do. Or you must have done enough to feel satisfied. Otherwise you wouldn’t want it to end. 

I always have an “ask little” approach, always have (even before learning about +R, emotions, etc.). And I think that’s still valid. Don’t push, make sure to set them up for success, end on a high note. 

But there’s a tipping point, for some individuals in some circumstances on some days. A tipping point, where ending early might not make as much sense. 

We finish there to say, “well done! That was it! You can rest now.” And that’s valid most of the time. But it is mostly valid because of the underlying assumption that what we’re doing with the horse is “work” and we believe that work is inherently undesirable. 

Maybe though, on this day, the horse doesn’t consider it “work”? Maybe, you’ve got a work-sour horse like Diego, who doesn’t always enjoy the arena, who gives you lots of signs of conflict about going there, staying there, even perhaps about coming in from the field or being groomed or tacked up or whatever it might be (all the things associated with work). But maybe, on this day, he strides out to the arena with a swinging pace and pricked ears. Maybe he thinks it’s fun. Maybe he gives you everything you ask for with enthusiasm. Maybe he gives you more than you expected. Maybe, the moment you choose to “end on a high note” is him just getting started. Maybe ending the session early is a sad thing for that horse on that day. 

When the “work” is rewarding and kept within their comfort zone (and just occasionally hovering around the edges of it), perhaps ending the session isn’t the “reward” that it would have been when you were using pushier methods? 

So I thought it was funny that even I (someone very soft) would discover sneaky ways in which old ideas were still influencing my horsemanship decisions. But I don’t feel so bad about it, because I see evidence of the same in most of my +R heroes. Transitional moments where we all fall into old habits/beliefs.