Group sessions (sort of)

Clicker group session today, haha! 

Well, not really, just an ordinary bit of clicker playtime with Skye in the field, which many of the other ponies generally find intriguing. So there’s usually one or two of them gathered around to watch.  

Skye following the target in my hands, whilst Elin watches on intrigued.

Although many people don’t see the point, I do enjoy when scientific studies come out with things like, “horses appear to learn by watching.” Everyone says, “yeah, obviously?!” But it isn’t obvious. Not if you want proof. We make many assumptions which turn out to be flawed. Assumptions based on our own human experience. And whilst there is a lot of overlap between mammalian experience (which is very important, especially from an ethical/emotional point of view), we aren’t horses and horses aren’t us. We need to be careful with our assumptions and we need to test them. 

And then sometimes it turns out that the assumptions are fair enough. Like, it seems, with the learning-by-watching thing. And this is always highlighted to me when the other ponies clock my target and toodle over to curiously nose it, wondering if they’ll manage to make treats magically appear like Skye does. They don’t, of course, they’re not mine to treat. But I love that they try it out. 

It also highlights how confident they are compared to Skye. She’s a shy girl. It took months for her to confidently put her nose towards a target. Her confidence comes out with the targeting as it has no negative associations for her. It’s totally new. Whereas I, even just by being on two-legs, am too closely associated with bad experiences from the past. Am a human and humans can be scary, unpredictable, even cruel. How hard do you need to twitch a horse to cause permanent white hairs on the muzzle…? How long does a too-heavy rug or ill-fitting saddle need to be worn to do the same on the top of the withers…? And all that aside, I think she may have always been a gentle and sensitive soul at heart. Not perhaps quite as able to cope with traumatic experiences as someone more bolshy. I’d say she’s no longer scared, but she’s definitely still uncertain and reserved. Shy. 

Skye’s right ear follows the human (me) who’s walked off with the magical target that makes clicks and treats happen.

So we did silly, easy stuff today, as I’ve not had a clicker session with her in maybe a month. She was golden. Perks up as soon as she sees her target. I had my small one, so we did targeting at different heights/places (just to keep that neck moving and reaching), and threw it away for her to follow a fair few times. She even nudged and flipped it over once or twice, so perhaps she’ll spontaneously pick it up one day. Verity was there wanting to figure it out, little Toffee was very keen to touch it, and sweet Ellin was endlessly in John’s face whilst he was filming bits for me. Occasionally she looked towards Skye and I, but we weren’t as interesting as John’s coat or phone. She’s his favourite so it was cute. 

Bit of hamstring stroking when the veg was finished, which Skye stood for for a moment before deciding that I wasn’t doing it quite right. 

The herd then all came down to the gate (a couple were due dinners), and whilst John and I were pausing in the car the gate blew open and they got into the yard. What a party they had! Rounded them all up with the livery owner and again, it was fun to see who amongst them was confidently investigating everything (knocking wheelbarrows over, searching for bits of food, generally causing havoc), and who was just sticking with the crowd (Skye). 

She just wanted to stay with her faves (young Verity and old Nancy), I think to mother/protect them as much as for her own sense of safety. And this is what all the clicker stuff is for, to have a way of training that relies on unforced participation and encouragement of investigative behaviour. To help them get back a bit of confident, nosey, horse-ness (the word “nosey” comes from horses you know). And with that in mind it was excellent timing to then see a small video by Connection Training, about creating learning opportunities for spooky horses. Had a couple of good reminders/ideas on show. 

A lovely little day anyhow. Really good to play clicker with Skye after a little break. I was giggling for most of it, what a pleasure. 

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Back to ponies (almost)

So life has been a bit topsy-turvy this month and, horror, I’ve had to focus on some real-life things rather than ponies. How dull. How grim. 

This will no doubt continue through December. But I’m really hoping I can make a dent in my workload and such, so as to be back to normal come the New Year. I’m missing my horse and human friends too much, and I don’t like leaving them without an extra pair of hands at this time of year. 

Today was a good day though because horse and human friends were available once again. Went down to volunteer and catch-up with everyone. A driving lesson in the middle marred the day (I’ve just had a chest infection or flu or something, yesterday I was so dizzy I kept nearly falling over… today was not a great day for driving) as really I’d have rather had more fresh air and pony time. But still a good day. 

We managed to fit in a tiny clicker session with Diego in which we taught the beginnings of a “crunch”. This is inspired by various people including Intrinzen, Hilary Clayton, and Gillian Higgins, and though it gets called a crunch it’s more like a strong stand pose. The aim is to get a tiny weight-shift backwards, for the abdominals to engage, the haunches to bend somewhat, and the withers to lift. The aim being to strengthen the “withers-up, hind end engaged” posture that let’s horses carry riders comfortably. It’s comparable to the belly scratch/lift that people suggest in so much as you’re working their core muscles in a bid to strengthen them and counteract the effects of a rider’s weight in their back. But for our purposes, even if we never did crunches again, it’s just yet another novel thing to let the horse think about, another opportunity for scratches and chaff, to continue convincing him that the arena can be a nice place. 

I’d tried teaching the beginnings of it before, but to no avail. Today was just a better day for it. We’d not done a clicker session with him for a couple of weeks and they’d been sporadic before that too, so he was very keen to revisit them. There was far less of his grumpiness/frustration which can come out at times and just a sweet keenness to engage. 

I had eyes at a distance to tell me what his body was doing. By his side/haunches, I could only see/sense so much. It was funny when he first made that tiny shift backwards (he was going to back-up to line himself next to my shoulder) and found he was clicked for the thought more than the movement. We could see the cogs whirring and his head go, “wait, what just happened…? How did I get her to click the thing?!” After a few repetitions (with breaks of just walking smartly forward if he got stuck) he was really starting to understand. We even got one “crunch” which seemed like it showed a lot of comprehension as it was so clearly just an engaging of the abdominals and slight lifting of the back, not the beginnings of actual backwards steps. 

We find ourselves saying it again and again, this horse is just too smart. He works things out so quickly, sometimes faster than I can teach them or come up with new ideas. 

It’s a far cry from my beautiful Skye who has so much fear in her history that she really struggles to engage with people. When she does it’s like sunshine. It’s like she wakes up. Such a different experience. From a clicker point of view, the Diego’s of the world are far easier to work with as they’re already busily thinking and keen to interact. The Skye’s of the world, they don’t think humans are safe. She trusts that I’m “not as bad as some”, I think, but she doesn’t yet have that feeling of, “oh it’s you! Let’s do something, yeah?!” 

Anyhow, I popped down after volunteering to say hello and give her a fuss. She’s all fluffy, bless her. Well protected. And still rather rotund. She’s seeming very settled at the moment, more relaxed than ever with her herd. She’s not one that loves human touch, it’s not a given that a fuss will be pleasant for her. But sometimes I manage to do something right. Today I was just stroking and rubbing all over, as much to check for scrapes, etc. as to be affectionate, and she was tolerating it whilst grazing. Then as I was daydreaming and rubbing dried mud off her left hamstrings (the very knotty and tight hamstrings), I realised that she had stopped grazing and was resting her head with her ears flicked backwards to listen to me. We chilled like that for a moment then I foolishly moved onto a different body part and the spell was broken. 

I’ve a friend whose horse will literally shove his backside in your face for a scratch (my old Freddie wasn’t quite as determined, but he has been charmingly similar at times). Scratches really are a primary motivator for him, he’ll work for a scratch in clicker sessions. He actively wants touch, he doesn’t just tolerate it. It makes him really easy to work with! They’re all individuals. 

Anyway, it was lovely to see Skye today and see how merry she is. Her progress is just going to be very slow, which is fine. And though I’ve missed the ponies this autumn it’s perhaps no bad thing that life somewhat got in the way. She’s clearly made good use of this time to settle into her herd even more, and learn that she doesn’t need to be quite so anxious about losing them. 

Oh! In quirky news, that flipped section of her mane still seems to be expanding. So strange. I’m hoping this is part and parcel of the left side of her topline still releasing after her chiro treatment this summer, but who can say? If I get her treated again I’ll ask for more information. 

This past week was Boat Week. The usual blacking of the hull (a job for every two years), but we also managed to paint the cabin. That was unexpected. It was bloody hard work and I don’t know that I’d say it was fun, ha, but I enjoyed the feeling of focus and conviction and single-mindedness that it required. Have done a tiny bit more interior DIY since then, so the boat is currently as homely as it has ever been. Am looking forward to mulled wine warming on the stove and cuddles with a toasty hot cat. 

Again and again and again

“A high frequency of essentially uneventful encounters.”

This is how I described my winter (non-)plans for Skye to John. He thought it funny, thought it sounded like the tag line for a very dull movie. 

I feel like this is what we need to do this winter, go back to basics and really just get her happy. Horses can get physically fit pretty quickly, but if you don’t have settled emotions what’s it worth? 

A friend said the nicest thing about watching me do clicker with the horses… That they were so obviously enthused about it, where normally a horse being worked might look sort of neutral or disinterested. Until you do something they like, of course, like popping a jump if they’re a jumper or hacking if they’re a hacker! At any rate, I was pleased she could see it, could recognise the difference. 

But I do think clicker can become de-motivating like anything else. And, of course, that non-clicker stuff can be motivating. It’s just a method, after all. Another friend and I have big chats back and forth about crazy old horseworld. She’d never seen anyone do clicker with horses until me and though she’s encouraging and thrilled for me I don’t think it’s something she would herself dive into. She’s no need to, I think. She’s one of the people I’d trust most with horses and it’s because she can read them. So she asks quietly, responds attentively, gets in sync and doesn’t push for more than is fair. It’s all body language and energy, but gently done. I think the animals get an intrinsic pleasure from this (the greatest form of +R!, even if the body language itself is a light form of -R), from collaborating. But if you watch clicker people playing with their horses, it’s the same sort of joyful collaboration at work. There are many roads to Rome. But the animal’s contentment and active involvement has to be priority. 

I remember once leading a horse past a mounting block in the spooky corner of a showground. Just passing it quietly again and again. A friend offered to come to his side and push him over to it. He’d have obliged, no doubt, he was the sweetest nature. But I said no thanks, I’ll just circle a few times more. Well he was happy to stand there on the very next pass, having released his tension about it. I thought at the time, “I don’t care where his body is if his mind isn’t also happily there.” I don’t want them to obey, I want them to consent. You can’t dance with someone against their will. 

So the question is, what do we do when stuff isn’t working? I’d say, for the most part (not always, sometimes stuff just needs to happen), stop, reassess, set up better, and try again. Then reward when it works, of course. My sensitive friend who trains using ordinary aids will use a bit more pressure to get forwardness if needed, but she’ll not keep on escalating to get a result or to demand obedience. The pressure is educated, not forceful, which is how +R people aim to use pressure cues too. She often comes out with things like, “if it’s not the day for it, it’s not the day for it.” And she’s had ponies in the past that just weren’t for forcing, so she had to learn other ways. She doesn’t consciously reward by adding anything nice to the situation to make a particular point, but vocal praise and a soft welcoming atmosphere are habit for her. So I think she’s doing a type of +R that revolves around the joy of movement/dancing and which really relies on a very developed sense of feel, but if you were teaching it to someone else you’d probably see it as ordinary -R, because how else can we clearly describe the aids? 

It can all get a bit confusing, untangling different training methodologies. But the bottom line is, always, is the horse happy? 

Are they enjoying or merely tolerating the experience? And what joy can we take in it, if we become aware that they aren’t happy? 

This is one of the reasons why I feel it’s often impossible to judge horsemanship that you don’t see with your own two eyes. “How did the horse feel/respond?” is pretty much the only valid question. This presents a problem though, as we’re not mind-readers and most of us don’t pay enough attention to the things they communicate to us. 

We can spot the obvious things. 

  • Small pony suddenly gets angry about having one particular foot lifted by the tall farrier. Sensible farrier modifies his behaviour and asks for a smaller lift, doesn’t punish the horse for just sharing that its in some discomfort.
  • Horse is sensitive in a particular area, pins its ears and pulls a face, so we slow and soften our grooming and work on gaining the animal’s trust. 
  • Horse struggling with a posture or pain, opens its mouth in a bid to get away from the hands keeping it there, so we go back a few steps, assess everything and try to figure out where the problem is. 

But can we spot and understand the more subtle things? 

  • Horse slightly turns its head away from us, an obvious appeasement/calming signal if we pay attention. “Please be nice!” What do we do here, do we crack on with our plans or do we go back to basics as the animal clearly has some worries about humans?
  • Horse is tied with a chain over its poll so that it learns that it can’t get away by pulling and can only find relative comfort by giving in. This is standard Learned Helplessness but the trainer might see a horse that no longer fights and say, “see, he’s calmed down now.” And the end result, a horse that ties up quietly, might look somewhat the same as a horse who was taught more gently what the pressure meant. Does it matter to us how the result has been achieved? 
  • Horse is free-schooling using pressure/release of the “natural” variety and knows that it will be chased if it doesn’t comply. Comes in with a low head, maybe chewing and licking, maybe rubs its head on its leg as it comes. More calming and stress-reduction signals. To the “natural” person that might be a sign of submission (based on the erroneous belief that horses have dominance hierarchies)… to the clicker person it’s possibly a sign of an individual that feels bullied and is desperately trying to avoid more… to a total novice it might mean the horse has an itchy head. And sometimes the horse does have an itchy head! 

My childhood pony Freddie was used in an NH demo once. Looking back (and I don’t remember it very well), that was an example in which I don’t think NH was as psychologically harsh as it can be because of his robust emotional life. Freddie was irked, but not worried. The other demo horses found it alarming. I fancy they felt, “oh god, how do I make it stop, oh thank goodness…” whereas with Fred I think it was more, “urg how annoying, bloody sod off please, what… run? Fine, there, happy now?! Oh you are, I can stop, brill…” If you’re going to use that kind of pressure/release then let it be with the animals that are least affected by it. The ones that will figure it out, like a puzzle, without going into their FEAR or PANIC systems. It’s not, I think, what I would opt for, but if you have a horse that you expect to operate within a -R system without question and that is emotionally robust enough for the initial round-pen stuff, then maybe it makes sense? 

So I don’t know, I go around and around on these topics, eating up information, experimenting, watching. And all I keep coming back to is that it’s less about method and more about the horse’s emotional life. The methods only matter in as much as how they affect the animal’s emotional (and physical) well-being. And whether they work for us too, of course. 

I am really hoping to get a copy of that new book on calming signals actually. Perhaps I can request it for my birthday, ooh! I’m imaging the author will get some backlash. “Grazing is a sign that they’re calm, they won’t eat when they’re nervous!” Some will some won’t, if you’ve ever experienced a horse stress-eating to self-soothe you’ll know this to be true. 

But it’s like this… we think it’s all more complicated than it is. A human being slightly hunching and making themselves small, fidgeting, fiddling with their hair or pulling at their lips, that’s someone feeling shy or avoiding conflict. We can (I hope!) recognise it in ourselves and others without too much trouble. And we can also recognise how that’s different to a human being standing tall and playing with their hair, or gazing thoughtfully into the distance and tapping at their lips. It’s a layered orchestra of gestures, postures, movements. You don’t just take one thing in isolation. You don’t look only at the ears, or the tail, or the fact that the horse is doing as its told. One horse I know always rubs the right-hand side of its mouth in its leg after being ridden (a little bit sore from the bit). Another does the same movement in a totally different context to communicate a totally different thing (calming signal). 

Some days I can be the shy, avoiding, human and other days I’m brimming with confidence. I can even get shy and small with people I love, if I’ve gone beyond the amount of time that I can comfortably socialise. 

Some days my horse is as calmly confident as can be and on others she looses her mind with worry over leaving the herd. She can even become shy and switched off to things she loves (like her target) if it’s gone on too long. 

The fact that we share the same basic emotional systems in the brain should be reason enough, even if our own anecdotal experiences weren’t, to develop more empathy for our animal friends. 

We need to think about our affect on them and on each other too. The first month with Skye I remember having some free sessions in the arena. At first, she was worried going through the gate. Then when that was all fine and we could walk around quietly, I just unclipped and let her go. Watched and waited. She danced around, worried at the gate, whinnied for other horses. She would let me go up to her and was fine for that in the paddock too, from the start. But I’m quite chill, if your energy was a little bit more “up” or directed at her she’d go. In the arena, it was like she expected to be sent away. So much so that when we began having sessions where I could have her walk alongside or come over at liberty, it was often with some calming signals thrown into the mix as she came. I’d never sent her away, never punished or chased or frightened, but I was a human in an arena which seemed to mean, to her, that I might. When we began lunging it was the same. Her sparkle dimmed instantly. So our focus has shifted, from physical development (which will come later), to emotional robustness and confidence. 

It will make for dull reading, I’m afraid! A high frequency of essentially uneventful encounters. But it gives some sweet moments… 

  • the first time she understood targeting and her entire expression changed. Like she woke up. 
  • how new objects are now possible opportunities for treats rather than scary things to be frightened of. 
  • when she finally began taking a few steps towards me in the field, upon sight of her target. She’s being given the opportunity to make decisions about her participation, and she’s slowly flourishing for it. 
  • the first day I was teaching her to walk into the pool noodle. She was looking away at one point so I tapped her shoulder for attention, she nodded her head around towards me with lightly backwards ears in a quick, “sod off hooman, I’m watching something over there” but did a double-take as she caught the noodle in the corner of her eye. Swiftly turned back to engage with the tasks, licking her lips in anticipation, eyes soft and ears pricked. The fact that this horse is beginning to communicate her opinions, considers humans finally worth communicating with, is wonderful. 
  • the other day I stopped a few metres away in the field to take a photo of her. I didn’t have my target or my clicker in hand. Was assuming she would stand still to give me enough time. But she thought about it, about my appearance in the field, and walked over before I could take the photo. Other horse friends I have will whinney and canter over like it’s nothing. But for Skye, any step in your direction is a big decision. 
  • the fact that some days I’m just not interesting to her. So that on the days when I am I know it’s genuine. 

 Not a great blog post today, I’m just thinking “aloud” really. Think it’s going to be another winter of hibernation-studying, lush times. 

Third time lucky

Today was Skye’s third trim since I’ve known her. And, despite her new separation anxiety, despite stalling in terms of posture progress, despite not really practicing/teaching leg lifting properly (my bad, I was focussing on general confidence and targeting this past month)… she did great. Better, in fact, than her first two trims. 

We’d had to reschedule this trim twice due to Hurricane Ophelia and farrier accidents(!), but in the end that worked out for the best. She’d not have had a good experience at all on the other days we’d meant to do it. 

She still struggled with balance today, especially on those heavy fronts as usual, and had a couple of alarmed moments of just desperately wanting her leg back. But overall vastly improved from before. And all that’s changed is a little bit of clicker confidence and a more varied landscape to live on. 

I brought her in with one of her herd mates, big Velvet, and they were pretty much golden. This is excellent news, as it means (thanks to kind yard owner) that I can bring a horse for company to continue working with Skye whilst working around the separation anxiety for a while. Indeed, she was as relaxed as could be today. Got up onto the yard, popped Velvet into the stable, and had Skye stand with her cone/target for a little groom. Just letting her optimistically nudge the target whilst I got off the worst dry mud, asking her to “touch” every so often and clicking when it was done on cue. It really works to focus her though, to relax her. We’ve only practiced standing with the cone/target once before and she just seems to get it. “Stand here please.” Easy. 

It’s funny timing as on the way in I met someone who knew Skye from before. Told me some stories and asked me if the horse tied up yet, haha! She gets very anxious when she reaches the end of her rope. But standing still in the exact same spot with nothing restraining her, no problem. All these things that we have to re-educate because at some point they’ve been done poorly or gone wrong somehow. This is why I say she’s not for forcing. As soon as you use a moderate bit of force she seems to remember all previous, failed, punishing, uses of force and then you’ve lost her… Lost her focus, her good will, her relaxation. 

Anyway, we chilled by the cone for a bit. She’d look off every so often, watching the world go by, then return to playing with the target or otherwise chilling. Didn’t move one foot, not one step, whilst I curried her body. Then the farrier arrived and we got to work. 

I’m so thankful that he has a quiet and calm manner with the horses. He never argues with her, seems to have endless patience. Absolute gold-dust. She was struggling to remember what to do, so we did her backs first as she finds that easier. I had the cone/target there in view, in a bid to see if it kept her chill. It did at times, and didn’t at others. But it often was useful for getting her focus back on something she considers positive, something that has a high reinforcement history. 

I need to remember that this is one of the benefits of the targeting and of repetition. You might think you’re progressing incredibly slowly (and we are, in many ways), but every single good, reinforcing, experience you can create is sort of “banked” for later. You can cash in on all that confidence when you need to, hopefully. I was thrilled that, despite having not tackled foot-lifting much directly, she was better just for having that reinforcement history of the target and the understanding of what the click means. 

As we went I clicked whenever there was an especially good moment of patience, balance, and relaxation. Farrier probably thought I was crackers. I’d forgotten to prep her carrots so I only had a few big hand-snapped chunks instead of my usual little slivers. This turned out to be a good thing. I was more selective about when I clicked (which seemed to make our communication clearer) and she seemed to benefit from the longer chew time to mull things over and appreciated the value of the click more. It also built in duration as I wasn’t so quick to click. Note to self for future, sometimes less is more. 

So she did great. Better than I could have hoped. Milled around for a bit chatting to people afterwards (everyone always very kind about Skye), then popped her back into the field. Super-chill returning to friends, no anxiety whatsoever. 

So… we have a way of making her anxiety easier to deal with (bring a friend up so that she can practice leaving the herd but not totally alone)… we have increased confidence through the silly clicker things (in particular the targeting)… we have a better understanding that all sorts of things can earn a click, not just nose-bumps… so the next thing is to circle back to where I sort of started and begin doing more for her body. 

What I need is a bit more of a routine. Whether that is to set up some raised poles for every time I see her, to do a certain number of backing-up steps, or to incorporate something else like crunches/wither-lifts, who can say. They’d all be of benefit. I might try the latter next. 1) because I think she really benefits, in terms of confidence, from being in control of her own body, 2) if she can learn how to organise herself into a strong withers-up posture at will, that would help her posture, confidence, and fitness no end, and 3) static crunches won’t churn up the ground over winter! 

But we’ll see. She looked super-rotund again today. She’s been flirting on with the boys which suggests not-pregnant but I do look at her every so often and think, “there has to be something in there…” I think it’s just that her lack of muscle tone following previous foals makes her especially saggy when fat. Time will tell. 

So pleased for her today.  

She’s not for forcing.

A good run of volunteering days this week. Despite having all the rain yesterday! And a very informative week with regards to Skye’s emotional baggage too. 

First, Skye. With the winds and weird air of Hurricane Ophelia on Monday, she did not want to leave the herd. We were having some progress until the herd likewise got het up by the weather and galloped off. They’ve been moved into one of the furthest fields for now, to rest the others, which also showed that Skye’s separation anxiety hasn’t gone, it had just been temporarily alleviated by the fact that when brought onto the yard alone the herd were still within sight. After a certain distance, she gets upset. As a friend put it, “for all she knows a lion has eaten her babies…” 

On Tuesday she was reluctant about leaving the herd, but golden once we got onto the yard. Largely because my friends’ two horses were also there. Horses = safety. We practiced polite standing, anchoring to a cone with a target on top. She did so well. And it’s so interesting learning about how her mind works. After I’d done a bunch of that work I wandered off to help the girls practice some clicker with their ponies. After a few minutes one of my friends suddenly said, “Jenni, look!” Bless Skye’s heart, she was still anchored to her cone, nudging the target every so often. That was heartily rewarded. 

The more I know Skye the more I see how humans have messed things up with her. Pressure is often upsetting. She doesn’t really know what pressure/release is. You can’t tie her up and let her figure out how to stand on a yard, for example, if she reaches the end of her rope she gets stressed and keeps pulling. If you pull too much to urge her to walk she plants her feet harder. It’s a natural response for horses to push into pressure (I can’t remember what the official term for it is right now), it’s a human thing that we want them to yield to it. And whilst it might seem like I’d prefer +R most of the time, I do think that domestic horses need to calmly understand pressure/release. It’s our responsibility to them, at the moment. I could die tomorrow and the horse could end up anywhere, and pretty much anywhere she went she’d need to know how to yield to light pressure. 

The -R has perhaps been done clumsily with Skye, or gone into +P far too often and fruitlessly, and who knows whether that was by accident or by design. 

We did pony swaps too. One of my friends did some of the cone targeting with Skye and said, “she’s doing it more for the click than the treat!” We are slowly getting there. Another was holding her later on and commented on how sweet she is. Which just goes to show, this horse is pure honesty. She can give you every end of the spectrum, depending on how you treat her and what situations you put her in (as you’ll read in a moment). It was cute, anyway, as I was teaching the beginnings of clicker to her pony and Skye was watching on curiously as if to say, “why make click? Am just standing here. Click not for me?” 

It’s fun doing clicker with their ponies. They’re both so much bolder than Skye, and actually kind of stroppier even than Diego. They’re just learning how it all works so at the moment it’s a bit over-exciting. But then on another occasion one of them showed us how clever he really is. With one sideways step and a click that was meant to highlight a halt but also captured the sideways… he ended up doing a turn-on-the-forehand with each halt! Too bright! Clicker is good for challenging us to be more observant, for sure. 

Then on Thursday the farrier was meant to come. In the end he cancelled due to injury but it was just as well. Pretty much everyone I trust (who are all wonderful, but who are primarily from a -R background) had advised a “no nonsense, let’s get on with it” approach to getting her away from the herd, and I was half with them since sometimes (medical treatments, etc.) that’s perhaps how it needs to be. And most horses will settle to that, one way or another. It helps for them to know what to expect. We’re going to the yard, end of story. For Skye, I think she’s been pushed around so much it just isn’t going to work like that. She’s made it to 14, after all, without this issue being addressed, and mostly as a field ornament. Force can’t fix separation anxiety, and I’m a touch disappointed in myself for trying. But, hey ho, at least then you can say that you have indeed tried the normal approaches. 

I made her come in alone and it was easy enough. Physically making it happen was never the problem. The trick with her is a deep voice, so that tells us something. But it was utterly pointless. She was so far beyond threshold that my presence meant nothing and all she could think about was where her herd was. I walked her for 45mins and she did calm down a touch (we had some standing up, some striking, panicked whinnying, which did all lessen) but she was still completely disconnected from me. 

Now, does that matter? Perhaps if this was the drill on every visit she’d “get used to it.” But I want more for her than that. When you’ve seen how engaged and connected +R horses can be, you don’t want for them to merely tolerate or switch off to the things you do. You want them to participate. It’s so much more fun. So I’m going to go back to a more careful and slow strategy of bringing her just a short way from the herd, just slightly outside of her comfort zone, working there, then putting her back. Hopefully increasing the distance a little more each time. In the meantime, I’ve got permission to bring out little Nancy (one of Skye’s favourite herd-mates) whenever I need to bring Skye up to the yard. I think that’ll keep her much happier whilst we slowly deal with the separation anxiety, since she’s perfect if there’s another horse there. Aside: I’ve had two horses thus far in my life and they’ve both had little ginger friends. Funny. 

Because here’s the thing… I don’t care if her body is physically where I want it to be if her mind is not. 

My new mantra for Skye, something to keep in mind whenever I slip into impatience: “she’s not for forcing.” 

On the plus side, a friend said yesterday that she looked less plump! And that her back looked flatter. Whether this is a general improvement (from the terrain of her new home) or a momentary improvement (from being engaged and ready to run back to the herd!), who can say. But I am thrilled to see her “use” her body more and more. Her anxious rears showed wonderful hind-end engagement and wither lift, ha. 

Right, on to volunteering. 

We’ve had all the weathers this week. Glorious on Tuesday through to torrential endless rain on Thursday. I continued prepping the fibreglass horse and got as far as having half his tail brushed! What need is there for such a thick tail…? I swear, that’s going to be the longest part of the process. But it’s step two (after the initial scrub down). Clean, brush, plait, and bandage the tail so that I can scrub, sand, and paint the rest of the horse without messing it up again. 

We had two of our regular teenagers down for work experience this week, so that was good too. They’re a good pair, hardworking and they love the animals. I love when Summer ends because I find too many people around a bit overwhelming. It’s also why I like weekdays! But it’s nice to have them all dip in and out every so often during term time or what-not. 

Diego was very good for his clicker this week. He’d been a bit off last week, in general, and at first this week he seemed to not know how he felt about humans. Uncertain coming over in the field and such. But once we got into the arena and reminded him that it was just a fun clicker session he was great. 

Tuesday, very focused and attentive. I was trying to show someone that if you’re teaching polite standing/manners, you might build upon duration slowly. I tried to explain about how if he swings his head into your space you can stand up squarer with arms by your sides, say “stand” if you need to as a reminder, and he’ll go, “oh right yeah” swing his head back forwards and stand perfectly, at which point you click and reward (sometimes a neck scratch, sometimes a treat, or on the yard you’d just scratch and say “good boy”). No need to correct or punish, just remind him of the job you want him to focus on. Alas, I couldn’t demo the head swinging very well as he was so focused on standing with eyes front he was exceeding the duration I’d decided to aim for. Good pony. He tries really hard. 

Wednesday, popped a passenger on board to see if the addition of a person on his back changed how he felt about clicker. After all, it’s because he has (at some point in his life) been soured to work that we’re doing all this silly stuff. Answer, nope! He was as motivated as ever. In fact this day was another high motivation day, he was a tad miffed when we ended it. A big rule for me is to not piss off 600kg animals, but I can only work with what’s in front of me I suppose. Anyway, we exploited that energy to get a couple of trots and a canter depart, and we ended the session on the best trot I’ve yet seen from him. Rhythmic, non-grumpy (important!), forward, and he’d have kept going if we hadn’t stopped him, which is great. We got some backing-up too, in which our passenger could really feel his back lift, so it’s good to know he’s capable of lifting with a weight on his back. He did find it hard, of course, so we got it perfectly the first time and then when we asked again he was reluctant. But he’s just at the beginning of getting fit with his weekend hacks and such, so that’s all fine. 

Thursday, all the rain in the world. So just practiced tacking up as I’d never seen what he was like for that. Brilliant, really. Just like any horse, good if you’re chill, miffed if you’re too sharp with the girth and such. Also used it as an opportunity to practice yielding the haunches to light pressure as he’s better for that on the yard than in the arena. But it’s interesting how he’s been switched off to pressure just as Skye has, but with a very different manifestation of the problem. Which I guess will be down to their very different characters and life experiences. He ignores pressure until it makes him angry, whereas she ignores pressure until it makes her afraid. 

Today I’m mostly resting and reading. Though my rest days are actually much worse for my body than my active days. Watched something just the other day about how the latest thinking is that we should be active 8 hours a day. Walking, squatting, climbing. Hunter gatherers. Even an hour of gym each day isn’t enough to counteract sedentary jobs/lives, the two groups of people have similar rates of “affluent illnesses” later in life. I’m glad to have bumped up to three days volunteering each week, glad to have a bumpy field that I have to walk through to see my horse. The next step is to get a bit more of a routine going on my other days, to get a bit more active still. Am back at my local gym courtesy of a Christmas/birthday present from my mum, so swimming is back on, hurrah! But, much like these horses, I’m not one for forcing. Won’t do a thing unless intrinsically motivated somehow, or unless there’s a good enough external motivation/reward. I’ll muck out for a couple of hours far more readily than I’ll lift weights for 30mins at the gym. You need to exploit your own motivations. 

Right, enough writing. 

Reasons to love clicker…

Reasons to love clicker (both frivolous and serious)…

  1. The horses love it. Who wouldn’t love puzzles and rewards, if sweetly and encouragingly done? 
  2. The click has become a secondary reinforcer for me! When I hear it I feel happy. It’s only associated with good things, with success and progress. If I have a few days without doing any clicker I begin to miss it. 
  3. By definition you spend your time looking for the good moments to mark. You see the glass half full, always, and the horse likewise becomes more optimistic.
  4. +R taps into the SEEKING, PLAY, and CARE systems. It avoids the FEAR, PANIC, and RAGE systems. Thus it creates a better learning environment and avoids human-created problems. 
  5. The puzzle/SEEKING aspect of it enriches the lives of domesticated horses. Makes up for the lack of variety they may have in their everyday lives. 
  6. It makes the horses more honest. They share their thoughts more. They offer movement more readily. They start using their cognitive abilities more. Whether this is a good or bad thing will depend upon your point of view! 
  7. +P people think you’re nuts and a lost cause. But when they think you’re a lost cause they tend to leave you alone, so that’s fine. 
  8. But it works. Beautifully. 
  9. Target trained horses get braver. 
  10. Humans start seeing everything as a target! Or the target as a route into all sorts of other tasks. They become more creative because they have to. Tonight my friend’s clever pony, who is brand new to clicker, was being asked to walk and halt neatly at her shoulder, to earn the click. But on the first go he also took a bit of a step out with his haunches. Soon enough he was doing a half turn-on-the-forehand at every halt as he thought this was the answer! How to explain that we just want a straight halt without going to normal methods? When doing +R you would avoid physically pushing the horse into position or otherwise confusing the issue by using -R or +P to correct him… So how to do it? Use a fence or tree or human or arena wall. Horse will halt straight because he has to, but completely devoid of force or confusion. Click, job done. 
  11. Shorter version: +R gets you thinking in terms of side effects. How to use the environment or movement to get to the thing you want, then capture the moment with a click. 
  12. Which is to say, CLARITY! The click is a super-clear bridge/marker which pinpoints exactly the behaviour you’d like to develop. How nice that must be for horses, who usually have to figure stuff out through trial and error and who will be easily demotivated from trying if the handler isn’t bang on and really consistent with their pressure/release. 
  13. Clicker horses ask for more at the end of a session. They light up when they see their targets. And they begin to work for the click more than the reward. Dopamine soon spikes when the puzzle is cued, not when the reward is given. The primary reinforcer of food is one way in, but they get emotionally invested for it’s own sake. PLAY. When you see the enthusiasm of +R horses it’s hard to imagine not having that joyful communication. 
  14. It works for all mammals! Which is to say, despite our differences, it shows us our fundamental kinship. 

 

 

 

Strength

Horse has her ears on the herd behind her and I’m smiling like a loon because she’s got so much confidence and enthusiasm on this day.

Skye did so well this week. 

Now that she’s realised I want her participation and opinion, I rather think she’s going to start exploring the boundaries of our relationship. Which was always expected and I’m so pleased about it. What “a lovely problem to have”, as Karen Rohlf always seems to say. Targeting really was the lightbulb moment for this horse. 

She’s a far cry from the anxious and tense beastie I first knew. And with each step towards greater confidence I’ll think, “now she’s settled. No, now she’s settled…” and so on and so forth. 

Moments of note include a hack-in-hand in which she was quite looky but far more sticky than usual. And when she would stick, she would just look at me. Trying to communicate something but I couldn’t tell what. Feet a bit sore? Bored? Wanting to be back with the herd? Wanting a target or treat? 

In the end I realised that, whatever the cause, I also wasn’t doing my bit to make it engaging enough for her. I’d brought one of my targets-on-a-stick to see if I could encourage her to keep reaching FDO when going into a halt. She’ll usually drop her back into a halt, which won’t help develop her hindquarters or overall posture. Partly I’m sure she does this because it’s habit now. But also it’s just because as soon as you stop walking she wants to get her head up and have a good look around. With the target to focus her attention, we have a bit more success keeping her head out of the sky. 

Anyway, I ended up not focusing on transitions, but just on a big swinging walk instead. When she’s keen and curious she does her big walk as default, but for whatever reason it wasn’t happening that day. Popped the target in front of her and she just locks onto it. It’s kind of like keen jumping horses who lock onto their jump and have that sense of single-minded purpose about them. She does so well when she has something purposeful to concentrate on. Gets distracted easily, which I fully empathise with. Haha, it’s just occurred to me, the way she looks at everything on a walk is the way I look at everything except the road when in a car! Though that’s changing now that I’m learning to drive. She’s a curious beastie and I love her for it. 

So we got some big walk and I occasionally clicked/treated as we went (treating on the move not being something I’ve seen people do, but it seemed worth a try in this particular instance). 

It did dawn on me though that most of our clicker work thus far has been at stand or going into a halt. Not all of it, but most. It felt like that was what she needed at the time, to just learn what the clicker means. So memo to self, I can begin rewarding forwardness now too. 

Then yesterday was another lovely moment. 

A few of us were meant to be hacking (me and Skye walking, naturally) but we were all running late and in the end the timing wasn’t going to work for me. So I arrived at the yard thinking to just practice polite standing. Skye is a fidget and though she had been improving very quickly at the old yard here she’s been too anxious about the herd here to settle for standing and, naughty me, I haven’t prioritised training it. We’ve the farrier coming tomorrow, bless his heart, she’s probably not going to stand very well. She really struggles lifting those front feet still, due to the poor posture. 

Anyway, that was the plan. Practice something useful and basic. But nope. 

Fetched Skye from the field… 

(Aside: I stood the furthest away yet and held the target out to invite her in. She thought about it for a while, then toodled over. The other ponies were on the move and getting between us, but she had made her decision. She knows if she comes over to play target she’s most likely going to be caught and taken from the herd, so I love that we’re developing this way of asking permission and assessing her mood on any given day.)

…and found that she had a lovely sense of energy about her. Not a day for standing. 

Decided to introduce the pool noodle that I had just collected from my post at home. Have been inspired by Intrinzen (again) in this regard, though I feel slightly bad/naughty for exploring things in a different way to them. I imagine I’ll explore my own versions and then think, “oh yeah, there’s a reason they do it that way around…” but for now I’m trying to not worry about following things too closely, whoever the source inspiration. It’s all just opportunities for Skye and I to figure each other out, at this stage. 

She shied at it just the once (and that was just because she didn’t see it before it was right near her), then began exploring it with her nose. As she’s so keen on nose-targeting now (and since that had taken so long to teach) I had expected touching the noodle with her forelegs to be very slow progress. Doubly-so, since she is so heavy on the forehand and does struggle in that regard. 

Began by walking/turning her so that she would bump the noodle with her cannon or knee, and click/capture that moment. She kept defaulting to exploring with her nose, but we had about three mini-lightbulb moments where she deliberately lifted a leg. Two of those times it continued into pawing, which I don’t really want to encourage, but my goodness, I hadn’t expected any sort of understanding in the first session! 

It just goes to show how much her confidence has grown from the targeting. “Oh, you want me to try things out? I can choose what to do with my own body?! Yeah, alright then, let’s play…” She wasn’t worried by the noodle, wasn’t afraid of getting it wrong, and was quite focused but we’ve none of your frozen watchfulness here. I’m so pleased for her. 

Skye, a couple of days after she came to me. What a worried soul.

After the lightbulb moments I unclipped her to let her graze and think about it all. I was chatting with a friend anyway (about what I’m looking for in Skye before putting someone on her back), so it was nice timing. In this time she got a bit more energy, since the horses had come nearer to the gate and one in particular (a new cob gelding who quite likes a scrap) was standing around in such a way that Skye clearly felt she needed to show off how amazing and powerful she was. She had some lovely trot moments with her ribs expanded, back flat, withers up, poll flexed, hind legs concertina-folded… all the beautiful uphill qualities that you wish you could create at will in any ridden horse. But more and more of these moments than she was capable of just a month or so ago, where she’d manage one or two strides and then fatigue. Since I’ve not done much to help exercise her body in all that time the change is purely as a result of the new home. Varied landscape, diet, herd life to inspire playfulness, and positive human interactions to inspire confidence. 

When I hooked her back onto me to see if she’d had any thoughts about the noodle, it was without a lead line which was telling. I think my handling of the lead isn’t good enough for it to not get in the way at the moment as she was markedly better without it. Perhaps it’s partly psychological, and the presence of the lead slightly switches her off. Either way, she hooked onto me, locked onto the noodle, and we had some lovely big walking, knocking the noodle with her forelegs on nearly every stride. Well done horse! 

And just last month, on the day where she finally understood targeting. What a happy and curious little thing she can be.

It’s no-where near a proper Panther Walk (it’s really just a walk with a noodle in the way, right now) and I think part of the reason for that is that I should go back a step if that’s my aim. She needs to be able to organise herself into a better static posture if she’s going to reach out with her forelegs. Now that she’s shown me that she’s beginning to understand the concept of “figuring out how to get the click” (it’s not just about using your nose!) I might try teaching crunches. But anyway, I’m thrilled. She’s engaging in the work with confidence and enthusiasm. What a delight. 

Heartily rewarded all that and got a bit of video, then let her have a graze and a think again. She showed off some more for the horses, beautiful moments of posture and beautiful moments of navigating the un-level bits of terrain. She’s getting so much more sure-footed. I’ve not noticed her drag a toe in about a month. 

Called her name to see if she would hook on again (many horsey distractions, after all!) and she turned and came over directly to me with the showiest moves I’ve ever seen from her. The weight all behind, the withers up, the forefeet floating their way back to the ground. Stopped a polite distance away, all very safe, but oh what enthusiasm! She was clearly feeling pretty fabulous and strong. 

Clicked and rewarded this display of strength and posture very heartily. Absolutely thrilled. She settled politely as I took off her cavesson and waited nicely as we opened the gate. Then watched her climb up the slope, through the gate, and take off at a powerful gallop (proper opening credits of the 1970s version of “Black Beauty” sort of stuff) across the field to run with the herd. A lovely, sustained, big, rhythmic gallop. It was a delight to see. The yard manager tells me that she canters a lot, with her little ginger friend Nancy in particular. I’m so pleased. 

And it’s so funny that a horse with such poor static posture can, none the less, create these moments of power and fluidity. If motivated. That’s the main thing I’m taking from all the wonderful inspiration from Intrinzen and others online… that the healthiest approach to movement is one that utilises novelty and purpose. Variety and motivation. 

I do really hope that one day we manage to return her body to something like its original strength and shape. She has so much spirit that when I got her I thought it would be a question of a small amount of settling and trust, but mostly just about getting the exercise right to help her body. Well it turned out there was a lot more emotional trauma there than I’d realised, hidden beneath her spirited exterior. She quickly learned that, as far as humans go, I wasn’t one that was likely to frighten or hurt her… but that’s not exactly how you’d describe a healthy friendship is it? Merely the absence of fear. Now she’s starting to go a step beyond that, into realising that not only is she safe but she can actively participate and have fun too. That’s more like a friendship. And being more like a true friendship, we’re not always going to have the same ideas and I can’t expect to constantly push my ideas upon her or overrule her. But if she trusts me and I respect her, we’ll be golden. 

Permissiveness

I’ve just read about a study done with dogs to see if the “extra information” of a “no” signal (just something mild like a tone that they come to learn means “that’s not the right answer”) helps them learn more effectively. 

The answer was a conclusive no. The dogs that had that extra information were less than half as successful as the ones who only received positive reinforcement. 

The article likened it to doing a puzzle. You’d fair lose heart if each incorrect option you tried was highlighted. You’d lose enthusiasm, optimism, confidence… Your SEEKING system would be switched off. And maybe in horse world that’s what people want. Animals that are slightly switched off so they don’t volunteer ideas or opinions. But it makes no sense to me. It’s harder to teach a horse not to bite than it is to teach it to focus on politely standing with eyes front. It’s easier to teach the things you do want, than things you don’t. It’s easier to use your brain to teach incompatible behaviours (horse can’t bite you if his head is elsewhere) than to punish and stop the undesired behaviour as it happens with actual long-lasting success. It’s easier to address why things are happening in the first place than to try to punish them once they do. 

People think +R is “soft” in a bad way. That it’s too permissive, that animals “get away with” things (what a troublesome phrase that is). But the truth is +P is permissive. It is permissive towards yourself. 

Humans punish through fear, annoyance, anger, anxiety… Rarely as a training method and rarely in a considered way. And, even if they did and even if it were the mildest form of “no” you could possibly imagine, it still isn’t a very effective training method, as seen in the study above. If you ever want your horse to confidently offer extended strides, to trust your hands, to take to jumping, to boldly hack out past all manner of spooky things, you’re going to want it to be confident trying stuff out. 

We’ve all gone to +P in the heat of the moment. We lose control of ourselves. We permit ourselves to behave in a less than upright fashion. And in a true emergency sure, you do whatever you have to. But how can we expect a horse to manage its emotions if we can’t do the same? +R has principles and rules, it requires focus and a level of self-discipline. Taking the moral high ground and thinking in terms of proven training methods when a 500kg animal has pulled a threatening face at you, that can require a lot of self-control. But we know, the science has proven, that effective training stays outside of the RAGE system, for both handler and animal. So don’t piss off your sodding horse! 

Don’t be rough with the girth. Don’t be grabby with lifting feet. Don’t ask for more than they can physically do with comfort and confidence, at any given moment. Don’t be walloping them for looking sideways at you. Don’t change a confident horse into one that flinches if you move your hand towards it. Don’t be reinforcing potentially dangerous behaviour (like biting) by rewarding it with attention (because let’s be clear, what you consider a punishing bop on the nose might just be the playful attention the horse wants). And don’t be creating fearful or shut down horses by over-riding all the things they’re telling you and micro-managing all their responses. 

Humans… we’re so quick to punish a horse and so slow to control our own tempers. 

We really should hold ourselves to a higher standard, and be more tolerant of the horses as they try to figure out what on earth we humans are about. 

Pursuit = Happiness

This week in horses… 

 

MONDAY

Had a short and very sweet session with Skye, in the field. She’s always so keen these days, when she sees her target. It’s the button for her human vending machine! I don’t want to get stuck on targeting of course, but I do really appreciate that we now have this way of asking if she wants to work. And her flourishing confidence is delightful. 

Today she seemed to have finally allowed the two new horses into the herd. Not near her, but finally amongst everyone. So she’s less distracted by that now. I expect she’ll still have anxiety leaving the herd so with the targeting I’m just gradually stretching the number of steps we can take away from her friends. Today though, decided to try teaching head-lowering using the target. 

She’ll follow the target low, high, to the side, so that’s fine. Inspired by a youtube video I tried sort of hijacking the movement/behaviour and have realised that this is one of the values of targeting. So rested my hand lightly on her poll. No real pressure, just resting there. Then hold the target low. Click as she drops her head to reach for it, but before she touches it. Ie: as soon as there’s any downwards motion. Repeat. Then see if you can get the head-lowering just from the hand-on-poll cue. Which we did! Clever pony. It wasn’t super neat (she was more motivated by the treats today than usual, perhaps because I’d gone back to carrots), but a good start in terms of understanding. 

 

TUESDAY

What a good day for horses. 

Diego was super-keen to click today. Lovely nickers and whinnies from the field. “Playtime?” Not yet, big pony. Finally got round to him in the afternoon and he was great. A bit over-keen, and annoyed when we’d finished as he clearly wanted more opportunities for snacks, but he’s really quite bright. Remembers his lessons well, builds upon them swiftly. 

I keep returning to polite standing, and today we got up to 6 seconds of head-forward-polite-standing before clicking/rewarding. We began teaching head-lowering, which I think he’ll pick up quickly once I’ve repeated it a couple of times. But since he’d been so keen to come in my main focus was energy. Would we be able to get a trot? Last week we’d gotten two tiny trots (in pursuit of a target) and I’d ended each session there to really make it clear that’s what we wanted, a willing trot. Today it felt like he might give it more readily… 

And he did! We had three different trot moments, the first being the most eager yet relaxed, displaying the most understanding. The second was more reluctant, I’d asked a couple of times before I got it. He clearly felt once was enough, so maybe it’s harder for him than I realise. Then, before the third and final trot, we actually had a beautiful canter depart from walk! Very uphill, very effortful. I don’t want canter at this stage (we always have to keep in mind the job he is ultimately here for), and I don’t want attitude (which he still has at times, about moving when asked by a human), but how good to know that we’re beginning to have a way of generating that energy without escalating the pressure/release. 

Ultimately, I’m hoping that we can have nice, calm, trot circles in our clicker sessions. Then the same with a passenger on board. And then the same with the passenger becoming a rider. Just gradually change his opinion on work. He’s doing great so far, it’s very pleasing. 

We also spent some time today trying to counter-condition the scary clippers for a few of the ponies. They all did really well. We didn’t want to push it, but with what we did ask each pony improved during the day. Same again tomorrow. 

Then on to see Skye, Basil and Monty after volunteering. What good horses. Skye was reluctant to leave the herd, but not anxious this time. Indeed, the herd was a bit more scattered already, with the two new bays allowed amongst them, so in general I think she’s settled a bit more. One of the young fillies, pretty dun Ellin, realised ponies were leaving and galloped up and down and in front of us, trying to get them to stay. If ever an excuse for horses to prance or fret or bolt… but no, Skye had realised by this point that we were leaving the field and that was all there is to it. She has the farrier due in a week or so, so she’s going to have to leave the field when told, sometimes. 

Anyway, we went for a little walk around the big riding field. My friends with Basil and Monty will be moving yards soon (somewhere with more facilities for winter), which makes me sad. But it’s an incentive to get out on the roads again, to meet up with them on hacks. At any rate, I’m trying to make use of their presence before they go, as Skye does find everything a bit easier with them there as a safety net. 

So we went around the field and she loved it! A very keen bean. Did her big walk that I struggle to keep up with. Relaxed into it as we went around and Baz was a superstar too, very chill. 

Was so pleased with Skye though. I’d been thinking it might be another month before she stopped displaying anxiety away from the herd, but in fact today she showed no outward anxiety at all. And once out, she thoroughly enjoyed herself. 

So a very good day for horses. Asked only small questions of each of them (small, but important, questions) and they all did splendidly. Am pleased. 

 

WEDNESDAY 

Absolutely shattered by the time I got home, but what a pleasing day. 

Diego was more chill and I imagine he may have been a bit tired after the exploits of Tuesday. He’s a solid looking lad, but maybe he just doesn’t feel very fit yet. The hacking he’s getting will really help. Anyway, his less excitable vibe made for some lovely manners today, both during clicker and the rest of the time. Added two more ideas to clicker today. 

First, yielding the haunches to light pressure. And I think I need to be lighter still, actually. He’s so switched off to pressure aids that I think I need to ask as quietly as possible and just wait and wait and wait until he offers the movement. Then “click!” Capture that moment, praise heavily, convince him responding to pressure cues is worthwhile. So today we made a start, but I think I expected too much too soon and it reminded him too much of work. 

Secondly, we lined him up to the mounting block and worked on just standing there whilst my friend stood on it, leaned on him, stroked him, etc. I believe he’s actually alright for mounting, but it doesn’t hurt to practice patience. 

Did all our usual things too, and managed to increase our “quiet standing” from 6 seconds to 10. He was really very polite today. And on the couple of occasions when he did nibble at my jumper it was almost like he was on autopilot… didn’t have any real reason or intent, just made a half-hearted attempt at getting attention by nibbling out of habit. But as said, that habit is started to fade already, so I’m hopeful that soon he’ll realise it’s pointless. Doesn’t get him anything. Not treats, not physical play, not verbal attention, nothing. And he kind of loves human attention. So that’s a way in. 

On to Skye after volunteering and she was a superstar. As soon as you lower your expectations they exceed them, don’t they. 

Accompanied Monty and Basil for a hack (Skye in-hand, them ridden), and she rose to every challenge. First, leaving the field. This was done with zero sticky feet and no signs of anxiety. She seemed keen. Think Tuesday reminded her that leaving the safety of home-field can be fun sometimes. Then needed to get some borrowed high vis bits on her. Not thrilled at having me around her feet (the right fore in particular, as ever), but very obliging and not at all spooky about the gear. On the contrary, the first thing I did was “target” some high vis brushing boots and she was like, “ooh, new thing to touch!” Zero hesitation. So she’s starting to expand the concept/cue of targeting beyond just the actual targets I’ve made, which is wonderful. 

Then we went out on the road and she was brilliant. A bit fresh, a bit looky, but very keen and curious. Once she got going her big walk meant we had to mostly take the lead, which is always very promising. She snorted at many dragons. “Hooman, there’s a dragon with headlights, why you not concerned…? And there’s another smaller dragon, being walked by a strange hooman… And I’m sure there are dragons in this hedgerow too! Hooman, why you no look at the dragons?” She must think me very inattentive. But she relaxed into it beautifully and returned to the yard politely, no worry about where her herd was. 

Back on the yard I did a tiny bit of targeting to use up my apple slices. High vis items again, yep. Hanging flower pot, no trouble. The danger of targeting non-targets is that they then might keep offering the behaviour though, which my cute beastie did. “Flower pot? Hooman, flower pot? Make click now please.” They soon realise clicker time is over though. 

And then lastly, back out to the field. Very dark by now, and we had to pick our way around a new gate that’s being built. Easy peasy. But oh, the herd had moved and she couldn’t see them! Was this an issue? Nope. She looked into the distance intently, but waited politely for me to remove her cavesson. Paused, then trotted off to find them. A far cry from a month ago when she got so concerned about losing her new herd that she span around me. Sometimes, time really is all it takes. 

Thrilled for her. 

 

THURSDAY 

What another lovely day for ponies. Absolutely shattered though, it’s been a productive week. 

At volunteering, we decided to try a clicker session with Diego whilst another pony was in the arena. So my friend had pretty little Tilly out whilst I worked D. He did great, concentration was no problem. He would look over to her every so often curiously, but it was very easy to get his attention again. We increased our polite standing/waiting to 16seconds and in general his manners were beautiful, in the arena, in the field, at the gate, at his net for grooming, and in his stable. Zero nibbling or face-pulling this day. It’s given no attention so it’s starting to fade. 

Got a few trots on the lead-rein. They were very low effort, but they were there at least! The first is always the most keen and he has moments of “oh, I’d really rather not…” but he’s starting to consent when asked, starting to say, “well, okay then, if you say so…” which is what we need if he’s going to be a safe riding school horse. 

So increased patience, nice manners, excellent concentration, willing trots, plus all the usual stuff. He did great. 

Long-lined Buster and Apollo in the afternoon. B more worried than last week, tucked his head rather than took the contact forward, didn’t give me much in that outside rein at all. A quiet mouth, but a braced poll. We’ll persist. Apollo, who I hadn’t long-lined before, was surprisingly good. He can invert and head-toss under saddle, but on the long-lines he strides out and takes that contact forwards beautifully. Fills up the outside rein, stays true to the line you set him on, halts calmly and promptly. I was so pleasantly surprised at how good he was. He’s a wonderful character.

Exhausted by the time we got to our own ponies, but had another lovely walk out on the road. A bit longer this time and overlapped with rush hour so there was a lot of traffic towards the end, but traffic doesn’t worry Skye. The idiot child rushing past too close on his low bicycle did. He was kicking leaves up with his feet, spooked a friend’s horse, then spooked Skye, who almost spun into the road. Thankfully she does have a pretty consistent pattern to her spooks. They’re over as quick as they begin, she’s very easy to get back down to earth. And she does have them less-and-less with time, but these roads are new to us. 

Back at the yard she wanted to target everything. My friends commented on how happy her face is these days, far less worried looking. A switch flipped when she understood targeting. Now, everything is an opportunity for clicks and treats. She’s realised she can ask for nice things, not just worry about being bossed around by nasty humans. One of my friends was like, “will she target me?!” and leaned forward. I tapped her forehead and said , “Skye, touch!” Skye thought about it, reached forward, and lipped her forehead. So cute! My friend was almost crying with giggles, it was hilarious. I’m going to have to spend more time teaching basic stand though. Now that Skye has understood a bit more about clicker she’s getting more keen (like D was right from the start), so I need to reinforce politeness now that I’ve finally gotten the enthusiasm. I think the nice thing about clicker is that whilst yes, you can definitely get stuff wrong and create problems for yourself and you can definitely abuse its effectiveness (same as any horsemanship method), it gives a lot of space for adjustment as you go. The bridge of the click means you can very exactly pin-point what you want. Far more precisely than praise/rewards alone. And once they understand that you have such a clear way of communicating, in both directions. 

Superstar beasties. 

 

FRIDAY

Today I worked (pretty corsetry from the boat with assistant Holly), so no ponies. But a rest day is probably no bad thing. Doing three days volunteering each week is actually wonderful. I’m feeling stronger for the extra work, especially in my posture, but it is an adjustment. 

Went to the cafe to use their wifi after work. Watched a bunch more videos by Shawna Karrash, whose approach to horses I really enjoy. Especially liked ones about the emotional value of teaching targeting, the benefits of trick training, and how to deal with bitey horses. Sadly youtube’s other suggested videos were largely about how to command “respect” from your horse by dominating them. Bloody keywords. 

 

HOYS on Sunday, might see if I’ve any spare pennies for shopping. Might spend tomorrow studying. 

Continuum

Yesterday was another good horse day. This time I got to experience three different characters. Skye and Diego again, plus Buster who I used to ride and lunge at the stables. There’s something lovely about going between three such different personalities in one day. Not least because with the new need for slower emotional development in Skye, my work with her has become a bit samey. Which is as it needs to be, right now, but it means that I do really appreciate having other animals to work with too, to keep me engaged in a variety of things.

First, clicker with Diego. Well, before that even, headcollar and leading out to the field for us to muck out, and he was the most mannerly I’ve ever known him. Normally in the morning he can be a bit anxious or sometimes aggressive, as he’s had to wait a short while before new haylage. Anyway, he was lush in the session later. Continued building on the targeting and following-the-target. Some lines of raised poles were up in the arena and D swerved these like, “hang on, you’re trying to trick me!” He’ll merrily follow you over one raised pole, or raised poles that aren’t in a line, but this seemed to remind him of “work”. Laughed, set him up more carefully, and he went over them fine. A bit clumsy with his front feet, but that’s precisely why we try to add a few raised poles into every session, get the thoracic sling working and the proprioception improved. Make his life easier, when it comes to carrying a rider.

Used chaff as his reward yesterday and this worked much better. He found it less stimulating than pony nuts, so it was a little less motivating. But motivating enough that if we kept the questions just within his comfort zone and only ever-so-slightly outside of it that he was a happy bunny. The longer chew time was definitely important for him, so that’s good to know. And I’m trying to be more conscious of teaching paired behaviours. Eg: following a targetΒ and standing politely. Making sure that he understands there is an appropriate time for each. Did some more A-to-B with a friend and got him latching onto her target for following too. Teaching him that it’s not just humans with treats that are worth co-operating with. Humans in general are worth being polite and willing for. His destiny is as a riding-school horse, so we really need to focus on his attitude.

Got a little bit of trot again! Which had been my main hope for the session, so that was good. Few more steps than the day before (ie: subtly increased criteria), then called it a day there. Heavy praise. At this stage he’s in it for the treat, but it’s definitely beginning to transfer over into other praise. He’s starting to enjoy a scratch, rub, and pleasant word a bit more. Especially likes a scratch on the top of his neck, in front of the withers, and on his bum. Actively sought out the latter, once he realised it was a possibility. And again, this is part of our focus. He’s not going to be getting clicks/treats during the lessons on a weekend, and that’s the job he came here for. But if we can get him happily working for any type of praise, with perhaps the odd clicker session here and there to keep him sweet, then hopefully that would make for a more obliging lesson horse.

After D, I was tasked with long-lining Buster whilst my friend lunged Lady. B is an absolute superstar. I’d not done anything with him in months so I’d forgotten how obliging he is. What a different character to Diego. We didn’t know for sure if he’d ever long-lined, but he was golden. Just needs some extra walk and halt work on straight lines for a while, after his McTimoney session this week.

The chiro was talking us through his sore bits and the neck was the main issue. Talking through his brachiocephalic she said, “which would happen if he’s tucking behind the contact” and we were like, yeah he does do that. He can worry about his mouth at times, you see, and his go-to options (like most horses) is to either bear down onto the bit (which then seems strong to the rider) or to hide behind it (which seems light, but then he ends up squishing his parotid gland and airways, not ideal). So with the long-lining, I was told to just focus on keeping him happy with the hands. And this is what I mean about horses being far too generous. He worries about his mouth, but never questions being bridled. Ever. He’s no idea what I’ll do with him (even the best riders, a category which I’m not part of, can lose their balance and accidentally yank on a rein), but he merrily cracks on with his work and always does his best.

Anyway, he did beautifully. He trickled into the halts at first, uncertain whether to push through my hand or yield to the request (which was given verbally too, of course), but improved massively even just in the one session. Opened his mouth ever so slightly once or twice at the beginning, then it went quiet as he realised I would never pull backwards more than squeeze of a few mm to make a request. And he’s a joy, the lighter you are the sweeter he goes. We had a few moments where he began taking the contact forward just a touch, and working into the outside rein nicely. But I haven’t long-lined in years you know, and it did remind me of how much I rely on leg rather than hand for steering. A moment of lost concentration and we wibbled off our lines. He’s very responsive really, absolute gold-dust that pony. So we’ll see how he goes over a few weeks and hopefully the walk work will be good for his general posture too.

Then on to Skye, after volunteering. Same routine as a couple days prior. I’m keeping everything low-key at the moment for her, just letting her settle. Stuck around to walk with the herd for a bit afterwards, enjoying the evening sunshine. They’re all becoming less interested in my targets now, letting us get on without too much interruption. Skye is still protecting them from the new horses. She seemed especially stuck to Velvet yesterday. It’s funny how she swaps between them. But in general, she seems to normally be found near Velvet, Verity, and Nancy.

They were all such delightful characters yesterday. And they demand different things from you. No-one can help but love Buster, he’s a diamond. How could you not love someone so kind? Buster lives inside the CARE system, everyone’s a friend.

Diego, it’s easy not to love him. He’ll pull a face if you’re in his space uninvited, even bite if he considers you a threat to his haynet, and he doesn’t give you his body quite so willingly. He has learned to easily slip into the RAGE system, which isn’t nice or safe, and he has a strong sense of autonomy. But he is having more and more moments of being pleasant and polite and enthusiastic and affiliative which are a joy to see, and his cheeky character is really quite comical.

Skye, well. She’s so gentle and quiet, once she feels safe. You feel that she’s been put (by humans, always humans) in situations where self-preservation were top of the agenda. She’s been afraid, too often, and quickly goes to the FEAR system. Sometimes it is very very subtle and people might think she isn’t actively afraid, but it’s still firing up pathways from when she previously was, so it still needs addressing. And now she’s shown us this separation anxiety too, which is straight from the PANIC system. She’s a perfect horse, would do wonderfully in the wild, but for a safe and happy life in domestication she needs to learn some emotional self-carriage, and that has been emerging these past few months. I love Skye for her honesty, her gentleness, and for the cute, surprised look on her face when she discovers that something the weird human is doing could actually be fun.

What a joy these animals are.