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. 

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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.

Two sides of a coin

A good couple of days in the world of learning clicker. 

Doing an extra day volunteering this week, so yesterday I had opportunity to practice clicker with two very different characters. Skye, of course, but also big Diego at the stables. 

Diego is a lovely daft character, but pretty coltish (despite his age, 15) and at some point, somehow, someone’s pissed him off with regards to work and pressure/release. He’s been settling in with us these last five months, so we’ve only scratched the surface really. He doesn’t see much point in yielding to pressure or in responding to forwards aids, and when he does eventually respond to increased pressure it’s generally with a bit more energy (to be diplomatic) than you’d like. He’s got no problem bucking or rearing or biting, if he feels like that’s his best option. So we’ve been trying to convince him work (and the arena, and having good manners) can be worthwhile.

What a star though, he’s responding really well to clicker. Today was our fifth session, I think. So far we’ve achieved walking/halting at liberty and on lead-rein (this a horse who will immediately walk away from you if at liberty in the arena), decent manners about standing with his head out of your space and not mugging/nibbling for food, and targeting with his nose. 

All these things a work in progress, of course, but I’m impressed with him, especially his flourishing manners. Then today we were expanding on the targeting. Two targets held by two people, sending him back and forth between them. Just a few sideways steps each way. At a certain distance he found it irksome, but we managed to convince him it wasn’t really too much like “work”. Also had my friend hold him whilst I walked away with a target, then send him to me. Very keen, big walk, and straight for the target. I feel like this is an important step for him, to learn that there is a task to do to get the reward, and the task is disassociated from coming into the handler’s body, or always being near to you. Threw the target to the ground, no problem, he’ll just toodle off to nudge it with his nose. A couple of times I would start an encouraging “good boy…” whilst he was on his way and this is where individual characters become so much fun. Skye takes verbal encouragement as a “yes, you’re on the right track!” sort of thing. Diego takes it as, “oh, there’ll be a treat now!” So my ill-timed “good boys” saw him instantly stop mid-task and turn around to receive his reward. Cheeky sausage. We realised what was happening, laughed, and worked harder to make sure he was doing his bit to earn the treat. He’s a quick learner so I’m needing to up the criteria to keep him interested, but not too much or he no longer feels it’s worth his time. It’s all in adapting the timing and questions to the different personality. 

He’s a funny character. At the moment it’s all about earning the treat. But it’s filtering over to other parts of life. Generally a bit more mannerly about being lead and head-collared, for example. Slightly less angry if you say hello whilst he’s at his net (he gets anxious about his net, but not about clicker, which is interesting). Walking to the arena with more enthusiasm. We all like him a lot, despite his grumpy ways. 

Anyway, he’s gotten targeting so well these past two days that today I also asked him to follow the target a few steps. Got it easy. Then, glory be, broke into a trot to catch up with me and the target faster. Hallelujah! Such a small thing, but we were thrilled. This horse does not trot on request. Not without a lot of effort on the human’s part first. And when he does he never seems especially thrilled about it. But he’ll trot in the field happily enough and trotted when out on a test hack the other day, so there’s something about the arena… Just soured to work and switched off to negative reinforcement. 

Anyway, we got that trot and were delighted. Just a few steps, click, halt, jackpot reward, loads of verbal praise and scratching from both humans. Horse stood there politely, ears pricked, enjoying his sizeable mouthful. Will be trying chaff as our reward next, since this is a horse that needs a mouthful and a good long chew-time to feel like he’s been rewarded. He can begin getting wound up if the reward isn’t big enough, which seems common enough in horses. Unlike dogs they need the chew-time to really register satisfaction. Except for Skye, it seems, who considers even the tiniest morsel rewarding. 

He seemed rather surprised and confused by it all. “All this happiness for five steps of trot? What on earth?!” 

Called it a day there. He’s so bright that I’m imagining he’ll be far more ready to trot next time we work, fingers crossed. And you know, he is such a fast learner and so confident, in a way, that I think the shorter the session the better. Make the point, let him think about it, revisit and build on it the next day. My timing isn’t great yet, so I’m spending about twenty minutes when I could probably achieve the same in ten. But hey ho, that’s fine. Clicker is all about adjusting as you go, but the thinking is to get him doing some “work” type things without feeling like it’s work. Trotting a circle, for example. Then with a passive rider on. Then handing control to the rider. Just generally improving his attitude towards work and human beings. 

Now for Skye. Went to her yesterday after Diego. And went to the last Gillian Higgins talk in Kidderminster in the evening, so it was a busy day. She was far happier about the new horses but still in “herd protector” mode, so I just did some targeting in the field. Awkward with other horses wanting to get involved, but that’s fine. Imagine if Skye had just a smidge of their bravado about novel objects, ha. I couldn’t put my targets down without the other ponies trying to pick them up. I’m sure they learn by watching. Big Velvet was at very keen to touch and pick up the targets. “I can do it too see, treat now please.” Sorry pony, you’re not mine to treat. 

Skye loves her targets. I’ve made three, all similar-but-different, and as soon as she sees them she begins toodling over. When I finish, she follows me for more. Motivation. Confidence. Optimism. It’s lovely to see it begin to emerge. And that’s a nice illustration of the treat being just a way in. If all she wanted was treats, she’d have been walking to me in the field from Day One, as I have always had a slice of carrot ready to catch her. But she never began walking towards me until she understood targeting. It’s the confidence that comes with knowing and understanding and enjoying the game that has helped her. 

Skye is another one that, somehow at some point, has been upset with regards to ordinary horsemanship. Pressure cues do not have to be aversive. But here we have two horses (and many more in the world) who consider them so, no matter how light you are about it. Their responses are very different though. Skye is from the FEAR system, and I feel like Diego’s is from the RAGE system, but I’m still getting to know him. Lift a whip to Skye and she either braces and runs off (on the lunge) or drops her head and does as you ask but gives strong calming signals at the same time. “I’m being good, please be nice!” Another reason why I wanted to try +R and targeting in particular. 

So yesterday, after some preliminary stuff that she enjoys, I thought I’d make a start on haunches-targeting. She’s not as fast a learner as Diego. She’s too afraid of volunteering ideas or movement. She expects to always be aggressively sent away. Her reflex, if I lift an object to her hip (even her friendly target stick) is to swing away. But not in a nice calm communicative yield (which would be useful), more a fearful, bracing, defensive move. So I thought the first thing to establish, before I ultimately try shaping a haunches-in, is standing still whilst the target touches the hip. And we got there pretty swiftly. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to hold it just a tiny bit away from her hip and she’ll think, “hang on, every time this touches me I get a click but it isn’t touching me, it’s just hovering there… I’ll bump it…” Maybe not, maybe we’ll have to try a different way, but this is my current thinking. With someone like Diego you might use “accidental” bumping instead, putting the target in his way, walking him on, and capturing/clicking the bump. But with Skye and her fear levels, she’s not going to accidentally bump the target, oh no… 

Two such different but lovely characters. And whether using clicker or traditional, the rule that they’re all individuals certainly applies. I’m learning to be much more ready to change my plans, and much faster to call it a day at good moments in a session. Thrilled with both horses, wish I had more to play with! 

“I have the target… is it worth your time?”

So, the last time I wrote Skye had finally understood targeting with her nose. And it’s like a little light has lit up inside her. It really feels like just the beginning though (which it is). She’s gone from, “well this human isn’t too scary, in fact she’s quite nice, so I’ll be polite and do as I’m asked” to “oh! She wants my opinions! Oh, I didn’t realise I was allowed to share!” 

I always say, I don’t have a problem with pressure cues. Learning more and more about +R world, you find some people who are militantly against any “aversives”, but who have their ideas of what that means without actually asking each horse. If a horse moves off in a rush as soon as you hold a whip because they’ve experienced being hit and found it upsetting, that whip is aversive. If the whip has been used almost like a target or cue, just waiting until the desired answer is given, then surely it isn’t aversive? Manolo Mendez uses bamboo canes, but his use of them appears to be anything but aversive. The object, in and of itself, is just an object. So at this stage, I don’t see all “standard horse world aversives” as automatically always aversive. But, it’s certainly true that they are commonly misused. And what do you do if you’ve a horse who no longer responds to pressure, or who is disproportionately upset by it? Who is either switched off or overly sensitised? That’s one of the reasons I like the clicker ethos. Give them something to work towards rather than away from. 

I was reading about Panksepp again the other day. I really need to go into more detail on it, it’s fascinating. Short version… 

All mammalian brains have seven emotional systems. Pathways in the brain. 

 

  • SEEKING
  • CARE
  • PLAY
  • LUST
  • FEAR
  • PANIC 
  • RAGE 

 

If those pathways are lit up frequently, the connection between stimulus and response becomes strengthened. If we’re training animals, or maintaining human relationships, or working with customers, we need to consider which pathways we’re lighting up. 

 

  • SEEKING: finding food, shelter, company, other resources. Combined with PLAY, I suppose this is where the state of “flow” comes from. Once all your needs are met, you still have the need to seek, so you seek ideas, information, newness, answers to puzzles. 
  • CARE: affection and safety. Familial relationships. Friendship. Mutual grooming. The giving of food/milk. The sharing of resources. Nurture. 
  • PLAY: joy. Physical activity for its own sake. Again, when all your needs have been met you have room for PLAY. 
  • LUST: I mean, obvious enough. 
  • FEAR: freeze or flight. Fear tends to be silent. 
  • PANIC: grief/loss. Where are my friends? Where is my baby/mother? Panic has shrill whinnies attached to it as it’s worth the risk of making noise to find your lost loved ones. 
  • RAGE: when expectations aren’t met or a fight is brought to you. This is when “fight” may come into it, FEAR doesn’t really have a fight component. Since we’re a fifth the size of horses, we really want to avoid switching this pathway on. It does nothing to help us. In feral horses, RAGE is rarely seen. Since their default setting is to collaborate and co-operate, when does it happen that their expectations aren’t met? Not often. Feral horses show no solid hierarchy, no leaders, no dominance. The work of Panksepp (and Lucy Rees and many others) supports this. So no wonder some of them display RAGE when we try to boss them around. 

 

So which pathways are lit up in the horses we meet? And in ourselves? Imagine where the wires can get crossed. 

Say a horse is getting a scratch and it goes in to scratch the human in return. The CARE system has kicked in, obviously. But horse teeth are big and bruising. And perhaps the human has a FEAR or RAGE response and aggressively punishes the horse for biting. It’s hard to keep your cool and simply side-step the teeth (which is what animals do to teach their youngsters about appropriate use of teeth, simply disengage from the activity when the youngster transgresses), but as the apparently more intelligent species that’s our responsibility. We can teach it through the same basic method, to ignore it. To let the undesired behaviour go through “extinction”. And what a shame it would be to spoil a moment of CARE. Pathways become strengthened. If you’re the person that gives the horse a good scratch every time you see each other, you’re the person that horse starts nickering to see. Bonds strengthen, the animal’s willingness increases. 

If someone has really hammered home the point with Skye that lunging means just running on a circle until you’re allowed to stop (which I reckon someone has, at some point), then they’ve done effective training because now that poor horse doesn’t see lunging as something positive at all. It taps instantly into those FEAR pathways, as they’ve been strengthened. How much easier my life would be if they hadn’t! She was the same at first about being free in an arena. “Must run, get chased if I don’t run! Must follow when told to, get chased if I don’t follow!” 

We also know she’s had a couple of foals in her time. And now, at the new grazing where there are two young fillies, she’s suddenly displaying a separation anxiety that she hadn’t shown before. From the human point of view, another “problem” to deal with. But from Skye’s point of view, the presence of babies is possibly firing up those PANIC pathways from when her own babas will have been weaned. That’s a sad thing. Which I suppose brings me round to our three sessions since I last wrote. 

 

SESSION ONE 

I took my headcollar and target out to the field, and we just did some work there. This was our first session since she had her light-bulb moment about targeting. It was also the first time that she’d properly engaged with being caught, rather than just passively allowing it. She’s always been golden for catching, so long as you were a quiet sort of person, but wouldn’t come to call. Obliging and sweet, but telling you something in her absence of forward motion. This day, I found them dozing under some trees and stepped up a couple of metres from her off hind. Laughed, called her name, and she perked up, looked at me, swung around and stepped forward. Uh, my heart. We ask so much of horses, but it’s the tiny things that get you. 

Head-collar and lead her out of the trees. She came eagerly. To a point. Happy to leave the herd, vast improvement there, but not beyond a certain distance. I thought, “no worries, this is why I brought my target” and got to work. Horse was so keen to show off her targeting skills! PLAY. I ditched the lead rope after a while,  it wasn’t needed. The rest of the herd meandered over, some of them very curious about the target (ah, how easier horses are when they’ve not been made afraid), but Skye just ignored them getting in the way and came with me, free, over the stream to continue our game. She got the hang of both touching and following the target. 

After a while she did switch off a bit and I realised I’d drilled the targeting too much. It’s meant to be for confidence-building, not control. And it doesn’t matter if you’re using treats, you can still demotivate with +R. Memo to self, there. 

So I asked for back-up up a slight slope (she’s getting very good now, the lines are straighter and she moves in proper diagonal pairs, and will go for much longer, very good for posture and proprioception), and called it a day. Took her headcollar off, gave her a fuss, and wondered off. Horse followed. More playtime? My heart. Hung around with the herd for a bit and gave her a few more strokes before leaving. 

 

SESSION TWO

Went down with my friends, so we had all three horses on the yard. The girls were going to ride and I was doing my usual silly stuff. Horse again more keen to be caught, and happy to follow us in from the field this time. Excited to show off her targeting again and I had the mat out for her to continue getting used to. She’s never been spooky of it, just assumed it was stepping over rather than on. But oh, she stepped backwards this day and got it caught behind her fetlock. Alarm! FEAR system engaged! Spun around and bolted off the short distance to our yard owner for a fuss. CARE. Now that’s new. She’s starting to see all humans as pleasant things, not just the quiet one that gives her treats. Galloped over to the girls the other day too, wish I’d seen that. Season change, they’re all full of beans right now. 

So, the session continued well enough. I put the mat away and continued targeting, trying to get her comfortable again. She settled, but slightly disengaged, and when we followed the girls over the little bridge and into the current riding-field she became reluctant again. PANIC system engaged. Like the other day, fine leaving the babies in the herd… to a point. I unclipped her lead to see what she was thinking and, no surprise, once she realised she was free she galloped back to the yard to be nearer to the herd. Walked back over laughing and found her getting another fuss from the yard owner. The panic over, because she was near enough to the babies. Did some very easy targeting and then put her back in the field. Expected her to run off desperately, but instead she turned around for nuzzles as if to say, “sorry, just want to be near babies…” That’s fine bonnie lass, we’ll work at your pace. 

 

 

SESSION THREE

This day was wonderful. The girls had their horses on the yard and the herd wasn’t far away, so Skye had nothing to upset her. Did targeting, good, fine. Reluctant to go to the area where she’d had her fright the day before. Isn’t it always true that the less you ask the more you get? 

She’s so keen on targeting, that I’ve realised I can use it as an invitation in itself. “Would you like to work? Would you trust me this bit further?” 

Studies on dopamine have found that once a task is understood dopamine-spikes occur upon being cued or challenged, not upon receiving a reward. The treats are the way in, but once established the horse is motivated by the game/task itself. We know it ourselves, anticipation is the thing. Variable rates of reward too. If you always get a prize, you stop being motivated to play. Online gambling companies know this! And I feel this is why plenty of quiet, traditional, horsepeople have happy horses. They might not actively use the science of +R or the method of clicker, but they have empathy with their beasts, give them challenges that are intrinsically enjoyable (running, jumping), and build their confidence and abilities slowly. 

So I sat on the mounting block a few paces away, target held casually, chatting to her sweetly. She responds to her name now. Takes it as a, “time to focus” cue. Stood there looking at me like, “oh, there’s no lead, she’s stopped trying to make me go over there, good. But hmm, the target, that’s fun… Maybe I could go over for a moment.” Could see the cogs whirring. Then she meandered over, straight to her target, to get a click. What a sweet horse. 

Played with holding the target in different places (which she’s really got now), then throwing it on the ground. This presented a bit more of a challenge (“but you’re not holding it? Confusion…”), but she got there. 

And this, the spooky flinchy horse who kicks into FEAR and freezes with legs splayed… did she care that I was throwing the target through the air onto the ground? No. It’s her target, why would she worry? It’s only ever meant good things. And this is what I mean when I’m thinking aloud about aversives not always being aversive, and rewards not always being rewarding. It’s an object on the end of a stick, could quite easily be used as a whip or to frighten her away. It doesn’t mean anything until it’s been experienced through the filter of one of the emotional brain systems. My hope for Skye is that we can create confident experiences of PLAY and SEEKING so that new objects are approached with positivity. And hopefully counter-condition old objects, to soften their aversive power. She already has the curiosity, for sure. Bold hacking horse of the future, if we’re lucky. 

Finished the session by getting a traffic cone out and putting the target in the top of it. What a star this horse is. She’s so pleased with herself. Moved the cone around and worked on just having her stand and wait until I’d moved it, then cueing her to “touch”. Worked on having myself positioned in various places so that she can begin to understand that she can go to the target even if that means going away from me. She did so well. 

Oh, but I tell a lie, that isn’t where we finished it. Skye has become worse for lifting her feet since moving to the new yard, so I had a friend hold her. We were getting no-where fast and I thought, “you know what, instead of picking out her feet half-well, I should really go more slowly and clicker this to help her be calm about it.” So the friend held/rewarded her and I clicked for being allowed to run my hands down her legs without her moving. It’s a small start, but she improved for it, so will do more of that. The friend also reported that Skye had turned to her for a fuss for the first time ever. Humans are nice now. 

 

OVERVIEW

It’s a shame that we have the new challenge of separation anxiety, but I’m not surprised by it. I’m more surprised that she hadn’t had this problem on the last yard. 

Her targeting is coming on beautifully though. And this is where I need to start being more creative. It was surprisingly hard teaching her to target. I think because she’d never been encouraged to offer behaviours before. Had most likely been punished for doing so. Once she realised I wanted her participation she lit up and it was a joy to see. But I am imagining that the next thing I teach her will likewise be a surprise to her. 

I’ve a few options to try and have made a couple of new string targets to play with. Targeting A to B at ever greater distances… Targeting different objects… Picking a target up… Targeting with different body parts…

This last one, in particular, is something I’m keen on. A withers-target or “crunch” would be very useful. With the separation anxiety, her exercise has been harder to keep up, and I really want to help her posture. Withers-up would help no end and if she took to it with the same enthusiasm as targeting she’d be golden. 

But you know, good days are followed by bad days, and the more you expect to get the worse it goes! So I’m going to try to be super chill with each session and really let her choose her level of involvement. Having seen her response to targeting, I think letting her choose to participate (or not) will do wonders for her overall sense of confidence and calm. And ultimately, that’s the starting point I need. 

 

 

Joy and engaging Skye’s brain (and my own!)

I was so full of happiness last night. 

The past two days have been glorious. Lovely times volunteering. Quiet company and brisk weather, now that autumn is here. 

Each day I saw Skye afterwards, and each day she was a delight. The penny has dropped with targeting! 

I had been targeting with handheld objects and found that it wasn’t clear enough. She didn’t quite understand how it was any different to just reaching for my treat hand directly. Since I don’t want to teach a gentle and polite horse to mug, I thought I’d best try something else. It’s all in the timing and clarity. The horse has be allowed to figure out, by investigating you without reprimand or micromanagement (you’ve got to hold your nerve, chill, step quietly out of the way if needs-be, and basically let them get bored or trying to mug you!), that coming into your space/body does not result in clicks/treats. You even need to deliver the treat at arm’s length, to reinforce the idea that they keep their head (and teeth!) out of your space, when clicker training is happening. But so, it then follows that it needs to be super-clear to the horse whether they’re rewarded for reaching towards you or the target. 

So I made a soft string pom-pom and attached it to an extendable pointer. I thought, the pointer is thin enough that there’s a clear visual difference/distance between my hand and the pom-pom. And it worked! Horse puzzled it out on Wednesday, then showed that it had really stuck on Thursday. 

So proud of her. My favourite video clip isn’t even the one where she’s getting it right. It’s the one where she’s getting it wrong and you can see the cogs whirring in her brain. She touches it here, touches it there, turns into me like, “hooman, how make treat appear?” with her flippity-floppity flickering thinking-ears and curious happy little face. 

Targeting might seem like a nothing of an achievement, but it’s another bit of confidence-building for her. And improvement of “feel” for me. And lord, imagine if she ever had to be on boring old box rest, would be nice to have options for engaging her brain. 

Novel objects don’t have to be scary. Yesterday I was sort of swinging the target up and in front of us, when moving it from one side to the other (I was seeing if she could still figure it out when the target was in trickier places to reach, and she did!)… And although it illicited a couple of reflex flinches she wasn’t switched off or alarmed at all, just curious, and she didn’t merely tolerate it (no enforced habituation or flooding here). She engaged with it. Followed it because good things happen. So happy for her. Novel objects can be a source of fun. 

As a horse, she already knows this. Out in the field she has no problem with new things and new experiences. She’s a perfect horse. But when humans are around, oh my. Think about all the novel objects they experience when humans get involved… and whether their experience of those novel objects will be pleasant or alarming… and what the common denominator is. So it’s nice to have a way (aside from the simple, quiet, passage of time, which is also a big part of it) to encourage her to feel curious and confident in new situations and environments. Or, more precisely, old situations that she may not have had a good time with. 

Other things learned this week: Skye does not like kale. And brussel sprouts are okay, but nowhere near as motivating as fibre cubes (which are somewhat on a par with carrots). She likes apples, but I’d say they’re a step down from carrots still. Twigs are a favourite, but when browsing rather than as a reward I’d say. 

What a joy though. She’s ever more settled and the anxiety about leaving her lovely new herd has lessened hugely. She still gets sticky feet coming in, but less and less so. When I turned her back out on Wednesday, she didn’t take more than a few walk steps before putting her head down to eat. Previously, she’d galloped off in desperation to be back with the herd. I think she’s beginning to trust that she’s here to stay. 

Yesterday, the herd were completely out of sight so she was keen to find them, but still far more chill about it all than before. We watched her trot off whinnying and were intrigued that we couldn’t figure out where they were either. She went over a rise in the ground and didn’t appear again. So we followed (with my friend’s pony Basil, who likewise is super-chill now, and hadn’t seen any need to immediately run off to his new friends), and found them in another little wooded area that we didn’t even know they had access to. Good coverage above, lots of skinny trees to weave between and under, fallen branches to pick over, lots to nibble… their new home is absolute horsey heaven. I was so happy I could have laid down and cried for joy. 

 

Peace

My calm horse is back! 

Or perhaps I am back… 

I hadn’t realised how agitated I’d gotten by the end of August. With the summer pony camps at volunteering and the conference in corsetry world (which I didn’t attend this year, but which means meeting up with all the international friends who are visiting the country for it), and visiting home, and visiting friends, and trying to fit in loads of time with John before his trip to Nashville, and with Amanda before she moved away, and so on and so on, I hadn’t had a single solitary day to myself. Not a proper one. I pushed through because I love all those people and had to make use of the chance to see them, but my goodness, I don’t do well if I don’t have regular time to quietly recharge. 

I hadn’t realised I was as wound up as I was. But bopping Skye on the nose for “playing up” when anxious was out of character enough to give me pause last week. It stopped her in that moment, but it didn’t help overall. And so when I was pondering over the weekend, “how come Skye is taking longer to settle to work here than she did in the last place?” the only out-of-the-ordinary aspect I could think of was my mood. 

She’s shown me before that she’s more perceptive of my moods than I am myself. And I mean I’m talking only a very subtle agitation, nothing that other human beings had picked up and not something that I was fully conscious of at first. And so these past two days when I’ve been feeling much more peaceful, she’s magically begun to calm down too. We know it about horses, that they respond to your energy, but sometimes I’m still surprised by how subtle that can really be. 

Anyway, I’m thrilled, and fingers crossed it continues.

On Wednesday, she made a half-hearted attempt at not being caught. Clicked and gave her her treat, but I’d taken my bridle instead of headcollar/rope and when I went to put the reins over her head she swung away. I gently got a bit of mane at the withers, gave my halt cue a lot, and followed her until she stopped moving. Bridled okay, then planted her feet about leaving the field. Told my friend to go on without me, that this wasn’t a discussion horse and I needed to have today, if she felt that strongly about it, and did some target training in the field instead. 

I’ve realised that I think I need a target on a stick. I’ve been just using hand-held objects (yesterday was a dandy brush) and I think the reason she’s finding targeting a bit over-stimulating is that she isn’t really seeing the difference between something close to my hand and my hand itself. I’ll need to target something at a distance from my hand/body, if I’m going to preserve her good manners around food. 

After a while going between that and general stroking/grooming, I noticed a flap of skin on her left fore coronet band. Because of the texture of the flesh there it looked a bit alarming, but I’ve been told to treat it like any other cut and by yesterday it had already sealed over. Anyway, I decided that we really should go up to the “yard” to see if my friend had any antiseptic spray (I need to add to my horsey kit), so we did need to have the sticky feet conversation in the end. Horse reluctant, but relented eventually. 

I’m having a conversation in my own head about obedience versus autonomy. I think it’s to do with thresholds. I want her to share her opinions and, more importantly, I want to be worth sharing opinions with. No point her telling me stuff if I always override it anyway. But we need to have some basic “obedience” (for want of a better word), incase of emergency or general healthcare. So I’d say it’s about choosing your moments. I want to be fair in what I ask so that when I insist the horse says, “I mean, I’m not sure, but if you say so…” 

Anyway, she was distracted on the yard and kept spinning around to face the herd on the walk up, but far less anxious than she had been the week before. Felt like a step forward. 

Then Thursday (yesterday), she was golden. Perfect to catch and bridle (and the only reason for the latter is that I felt she might as well carry a bit if we’re stepping backwards to just walking/halting for relaxation for a while), sticky feet leaving the field but far more obliging about changing her mind this time. An angel to lead to the yard (and oh, bonus points, we had to go a route we’ve never been before, through a very overgrown field with a housing estate on the edge), and though she was a bit agitated once on the yard she settled beautifully for walking in a circle, with halts every so often as a treat/communication opportunity. 

I’m sure she’s settled a bit for the simple passage of time but, as I said at the beginning, I reckon my vibe has a lot to do with it as well. 

Not only was I feeling peaceful, I also remembered something so basic that I wonder how I ever forgot it… 

When in doubt, just walk and breathe. 

It does wonders for Skye and despite the usual distractions (one of the colts was over the fence and making very sweet faces at Skye but ooh, she pinned her ears every time we went past him…) she settled perfectly. Felt like the same horse again! Felt like she was “with me” and willing to trust my suggestions. She was so good that we did a load of backing-up uphill too. Challenging, but she really focused on it. Also attempted targeting a cone, which revealed that she really hasn’t understood the concept. Hence needing to try something on the end of a stick. I’ve got an extendable pointer (it actually has a magnet on the end for picking up pins! Seamstress life…), perhaps I should cellotape something colourful to it and a clicker on the other end! 

Back to the field, she was golden again. A little bit keen (big walk), but well behaved. Trotted off keenly to her friends, but had stood well enough for unbridling. 

I sat under a tree to herd watch for a while. It was made challenging by one of the young fillies coming over to investigate and planting herself directly in front of me. She had a good old sniff and nose and mouth of everything, including the bridle slung over my arm. How much easier horses are before human beings give them a reason not to trust us. The youngsters are a joy. 

I need to spend more time herd watching, it’s such a delight. So peaceful. 

The other filly, a yellow dun, has a little mouse dun Shetland shadow, which she routinely torments when she feels like playing. The dun filly is one of my favourites in that field, so curious and sweet. She always comes up to you and has a big sniff of your face and breath. Those two stick together like glue. Except every so often when the Shetland tries to boss around one of the bigger horses. Apparently she often gets away with it, but Skye has put her in her place a couple of times. 

The big black gypsy mare is quite queen-like. She and Skye seem to be fine with one another, a mutual respect perhaps. But she’ll drive the others in the direction she wants to go often enough. 

The others were all just milling about eating. I’d wondered if I’d see Skye make a beeline for any of them in particular. If there was a specific reason she wanted to stay in the field, if she’d adopted one of the youngsters or something (she is quite maternal, horses like her). But I’ve never yet seen her actively seek someone out (except that one time that she galloped after Monty when he ignored her), it’s always the other way around. Yesterday, she didn’t want to go to a particular horse, she just wanted to be in the group. 

But oh, here’s a thing, I’m thrilled each time I see Skye do something that she wasn’t doing in her last home. Things that she couldn’t do, because the paddock was just flat grass and clover. Last night, I was delighted to see her pawing at flat thistle plants in order to squish them and rip them up from the ground for more comfortable eating. Clever horse. Varied food! Varied movement! She definitely still needs “work” to help correct her posture and build fitness, but on a landscape like this I feel like the work I do to help her will be maintained far more easily. It’s the difference between having a desk job and being a dog walker. Both of those individuals might go to the gym three times a week, but which one is going to have the best overall health? 

Two of the girls had gone for a hack, so walking back to the yard I collected some thistleheads and blackberries for their ponies. Basil not a fan! He mustn’t have a sweet tooth. I’m so pleased for our horses. Aside from Skye’s returned anxiety about work, they’re all thriving for the new environment.