Structures and patterns

Life would be very dull if you had all the answers. And without answers to search for, what would we do with ourselves? Still, it can be infuriating (in a wonderful way) to get into a topic, learn something tantalising, puzzle over a question, and then discover that no-one yet has a definitive answer for you. Being “new” to science, you kind of assume that your beginner-level questions will have solutions out there. Not always the case. 

And yet, there are some exciting possibilities, and structurally things seem to overlap again and again. 

Of course, I’m an artist. So a lot of the structural patterns and overlap I see may be largely metaphorical. But, one of the benefits of being an artist (of being a human being), is that you can let yourself follow these ideas and see where they lead. And they always lead somewhere interesting. 

The structure I’m thinking about at the moment could be described perhaps as “principles versus rules.” Though that’s not the best way to put it, since I’m using those words casually and scientists seem to use “rule” in a specific way. I hope I’ll be forgiven for hopping between the two uses! Terrible thing to do, I know. 

I remember Sara Wyche (of equine anatomy science) talking about how one can either learn a few principles or learn hundreds of instructions, the former obviously being the more effective solution to understanding a subject. A global view, more than a local one. Which isn’t to say that the local details don’t matter, they absolutely do… but in trying to explain/understand something it is better to see the principles which inform the rules, rather than follow the rules without knowing where they come from. 

 

CORSETMAKING

Two of my “last” corsets.

I once wrote an article on the six (I think it was six) rules of good corsetry. I should have said “principles”, but hey ho, that’s just nitpicking. I opened (actually, I filled) the article with endless caveats about how this was about a general overview, how “good” is subjective, how “good” depends upon the intended function of the piece, how the “rules” are there for breaking, etc. etc. But essentially, the article was about overarching principles, and I remember a friend at the time saying it was wonderful because no-one else had framed things in this way. There had been lots of rules in corsetmaking, but not many guiding principles. Principles can lead you in different directions to rules. 

At that point, contemporary corsetmaking was rediscovering much that had been lost when corsetry gave way to the bra industry, especially during WWI and WWII when the cultural implications of corsetry changed such a lot. 

In rediscovering, we over-engineered. In making expensive items for clients, we hysterically overdid the safety measures. We had to make corsets from multiple layers of sturdy coutil fabrics else they would fall apart and we’d fall from favour and bring the whole industry into disrepute! Or so it seemed. 

When I wrote this article, I hadn’t moved entirely away from coutil, but I still framed it as being about overall function. The rule had been “you must use coutil!” then I and others said “your corset must be strong enough for it’s intended job.” A guiding principle, not a fixed rule. I talked about the fabric (and number of layers) being “strong enough” and “fit for purpose”, and not being over-the-top relative to these factors as then you move away from elegance. To paraphrase William Morris, if it isn’t beautiful or functional don’t have it. We tiptoe a balancing act between beauty and function when we make couture items. And my feeling was that it was better to understand why so many people had this rule about coutil (that it came from a global view that the corset needs to be “strong enough”) so that one could break that rule if appropriate. If we focus on the rules more than the global principles behind them, we can lose sight of the thing that is most relevant. 

 

ROUNDNESS

In horses (in our Western countries, at any rate) the big scandal of the moment is “roundness”. Hundreds of thousands of pounds (or more) is spent on impeccably bred horses for dressage competition, and most of them are then pulled into damaging postures as these shapes result in flashy movement (no doubt fear and pain give a kick of adrenalin, which looks flashy too) from the age of three. I have a friend who has seen inside the biggest “factories” for young dressage horses and it is essentially systematic abuse of disposable animals. 

All the experts call it “false roundness” and campaign against it, and yet it has filtered down into ordinary leisure horse life with sales listings showing horses falsely “on the bit”, sometimes with dramatic pain faces, always moving poorly. We emulate what we see as being successful. 

But all is not lost and there are lots of wonderful people out there promoting healthier shapes/movement. And essentially it comes down to having a global view more than a local one. 

If we look to the local signs of good posture, the things that we’re told matter, we look for the inside hind foot matching up with the footprint of the fore foot. We look for a head which is somewhere near or on the vertical, because we know that a head in the air is bad longterm. 

When a horse is moving well and safely under saddle, these two things do happen in a general way. But… 

…they happen as a consequence of something else more important

Skye was here doing a few bouncy steps of trot (a playful passage, more vertical than forwards), showing off for the other horses. In the top picture she’s “using herself”, in the bottom picture she’s got her head up to whinny at someone. The poll flexion (the amount of bend between the skull and C1) isn’t that much different between them. What changes is the cervicothoracic junction. In one moment it is down, in the other it is lifted. The changing global posture of the spine creates the look of a pretty head position. Creating the head position from the front (using the bit), does not lift and straighten the spine. They won’t straighten and lift if they’re afraid of reaching forward with the mouth, ie: if they’ve been taught to give or back away from the bit/reins/hands. Which, who cares…? Except we should care, because false roundness puts them heavier on the forehand and creates all sorts of jarring on the body, leading to soundness issues and limiting their healthy working life.

The spine appears to lengthen as it goes into a global sort of flexion. The vertebrae somewhat straighten out in the neck and begin to lift between the shoulders. The pelvis tucks under a touch. 

When the pelvis tucks under the hind foot tracks up with the front (conformation/gait allowing). 

When the spine straightens out and lifts, the poll automatically flexes lightly and the head drops a touch, putting it closer to the vertical. 

If fact, the more “up” the withers are, the more horses are inclined to come a touch behind the vertical when showing off, and I think this is part of why there’s a confusion about what it’s safe to ask horses to do with their head position. But the crucial point is that we should sometimes almost not even look at the head and the nose. It’s the wrong place to focus. It doesn’t matter what the head is doing if the withers are down. 

A good global posture gives some of the local markers that we look for. The local markers do not automatically give the good global posture. Quite the opposite. 

If the head is put into position with the bit (even if in front of the vertical), this generally makes the horse cautious of reaching out and so the spine doesn’t straighten and lift. The head can look good, whilst the spine is dropped between the front legs (just as it was when the head was in the air, but now even more of the cervical spine is kinked into a weird shape). Bring the head back even further (approaching rollkur) and the back braces so it feels supported but is in fact now in danger. Think of a brittle structure versus a bridge that is designed to sway slightly. The braced back does not protect itself against concussion. Rollkur horses can have very flat looking backs, but they’re generally angled downhill with their hind legs trailing as the lumbosacral joint can’t tuck under. Everything is “locked” in place. It’s so unhealthy. 

If the horse’s spine is very low slung between those front legs, but it moves with sufficient energy, it can rattle along leaving its forelegs hanging back more than ideal. Now, the hind foot does indeed land where the front one was, but not because of healthy movement. The hind isn’t coming more forward, the fore is hanging back. 

Local markers are important, but not as much as the global picture. 

  • Uphill, not downhill. 
  • Lengthened spine, not shortened spine. 
  • A long frame (a collected frame is less about being “short” and more about being “up”). 
  • More horse in front of the saddle than behind. 

These things are vastly more useful than, “is its head on the vertical?” or “has it yielded to the bit?” or “is it tracking up?” The bigger picture. And underneath it all the one guiding principle (which isn’t an opinion or theory of mine, but which is acknowledged by the entire equine science industry)… avoid kinks in the spine. Kinks = risk to the spinal cord. 

Structures/principles to guide us, rather than lots of smaller rules to confuse us. 

 

FRACTALS 

A couple of the Sapolsky/Stanford lectures that I’ve just watched have been on Chaos Theory and Emergence. The overall notion being that if you code for a growing scale-free pattern (eg: a length which is five times long as it is wide before it bifurcates), then the structure can grow endlessly without each new unit/part requiring its own separate instructions. This could explain how it is that we have such biological complexity, despite not having enough neurons to each individually explain the complexity. Infinite complexity from a simple structural rule. 

He talked about how fractal geometry cannot exist. It’s impossible. And yet, it kind of does. Apparently every cell in our body is no more than five cells away from a blood vessel. How can we fit all those blood vessels? Fractal geometry. Taking up barely any space, whilst simultaneously being everywhere. 

The reason I found this part of the Sapolsky lecturers fascinating is because of Body Worlds. I went to the animal exhibition in Newcastle a couple of years ago, and one of the things that struck me was the blood vessels of a horse’s head. I’m sure it probably didn’t even show every single vessel. And yet, it was like a solid object made of thin red branches twisting through one another. The impression you had was of fullness and I remember being surprised and thinking, “but how can anything else fit?!” The blood seemed to take up all the space, and yet it obviously doesn’t. Fractal geometry might be part of the answer. 

 

BOTTOM-UP SYSTEMS

Sapolsky showed how this fractal structure creates outcomes that we cannot predict, but that sometimes things emerge which seem identical or similar in response to the environmental constraints upon them. No coding required, just automatic physical responses. Emergence. This explains how two entirely different plants could evolve with an almost identical appearance, in different parts of the world. 

It can also describe the distribution of buildings in town-planning. Simple rules about how to relate to your “neighbours” (swarm intelligence) will create town plans which look the same as those which have been agonised over by experts, but with far less effort. 

There are potentially broader, even political, implications. Sapolsky predicts that future revolutions will occur without violence as people will have understood the power of bottom-up influence. That we won’t need “an authority” to make decisions and that the new generations are going to be the first to truly understand this. He didn’t get this far, but it sounds like he’s describing a certain vision of an anarchist society, everyone adhering to a very simple set of rules and thus not needing rules applied from above. It reminded me of Lucy Rees describing feral horses as anarchists. That they don’t have dominant leaders, they don’t even have democratic leaders, they simply co-habit and share duties and share “leadership”, in the way that you do with your friends or co-workers (if lucky enough to have that sort of working environment), taking it in turns to suggest things, to nurture, to support, to stand back, to spend time together and apart. 

 

FRAMES OF THINKING 

All of this also put me in mind of the “frames” that describe political leaning in America. I can’t remember the author, but it essentially came down to this: your notion of an ideal family generally informs your political bent. And beyond. 

  1. If your ideal family has an authority figure who keeps everyone on the straight and narrow (sounds like much religion, too), who teaches those lower down right from wrong, then you’re more likely to be right wing. More likely to be in favour of punishment, more likely to see anything except strict parenting as dangerously lax, more likely to fear outside influence. This is the Strict Father frame. This is people outraged by strangers hundreds of miles away having abortions. Hierarchy is a needed part of society. 
  2. If your ideal family has no authority figure, is about guidance rather than control, and about discovering empathetic principles which let you decide (for yourself) what right and wrong is, you are more likely to be left wing. More likely to favour rehabilitation and understanding over punishment, more likely to see strict parenting as harmful, more likely to feel at ease with shades of grey. This is the Nurturant Family frame. This is people saying, “live and let live.” Hierarchy is secondary (if needed at all) to equity and co-operation. 

Many people can code-switch, of course, but for those who are firmly of one view or the other it can be hard to find (or even understand) middle ground. The two perspectives are so opposite to one another. I always quip that us very leftie sorts can tolerate anything except a lack of tolerance. 

People who could vote Labour then vote Conservative next time confuse me. I was definitely brought up within a nurturant model and I had such a happy childhood (and consider myself moral enough) that it’s a model I’m happy to see repeated. It’s how I try to interact with people and animals. Guidance rather than control. Picking your battles (if battles there must be). Trusting that your peers, family, friends, and animals can come to their own moral, empathetic, and intelligent conclusions. It’s not always that easy, and when I really lose patience I sometimes want to fall into the “do as you’re told!” Strict Father model… Especially with people I’m close to, people I’m largely on the same page with, as you think, “you should know better!” I’ve often found, the more you have in common the harder it is to accept differences of opinion. But, you must. 

Still, it’s hard to always live by the codes of the nurturant family model. If someone is spouting racist or homophobic opinions, how do you avoid confrontation (which convinces no-one), remain passive, and also keep a supportive and forgiving mindset for the possibility of a day when they’ll be willing to explore other belief systems? That day may never come. Especially as people get older. Oh well, they do say that children are the future, ha. 

The author noted that, hard though it may be, the important thing about these “frames” is that the language used is different in each and if you use the language of one you “activate” that framework. If you’re trying to reach people who are pro the death penalty, you can’t use their own language when discussing it. “Evil” etc. You need to use language from the other frame, nurturant empathetic language, to have any chance of getting them to see your point of view. 

There have been brain scan studies on them/us thinking in which you can change which areas of the brain fire (ie: parts connected to fear or parts connected to thinking), simply by asking certain questions prior to showing pictures of human faces. If you ask the subject something like, “do you think these people like the theatre?” then all of a sudden they’re engaging the thinking brain rather than the fearful brain. As easily as that. One simple question. Language can shape our reality. 

 

AMBIGUITY 

A quick and dirty poll of a few people on my Instagram.

Back to Sapolsky, in one lecture he was talking about the genetics of political leaning. Are there genes which control this? Apparently the closest they’ve found, thus far, is genes which code for dis/comfort with ambiguity. Isn’t that interesting, given the ideas of family structures noted above…

Those who are genetically predisposed to find ambiguity uncomfortable are more likely to be right-wing. 

Those who are genetically predisposed to find ambiguity comfortable are more likely to be left-wing. 

But of course, it isn’t that reductive, your genes aren’t your destiny. Even so, worth thinking about. Especially, again, as I think we lose patience with ambiguity as we get older. 

Ambiguity (nuance) around right and wrong is a key feature of the nurturant social model. It’s a harder one to navigate as there are few (if any) set answers. Few (if any) absolutes. And certainly we leftie sorts can tie ourselves up in knots, trying to grapple with nuance. This is definitely true in the clicker world. And it is worthwhile to explore these fine details, of course, but it can cause its own problems. In-fighting, squabbling about details, and all the while the people from the Strict Father model have no problem cracking on with their dramatic assertions and truisms. Sometimes, perhaps, we nurturant sorts need to be less nuanced and just say, “this is generally good and this is generally bad, and sometimes it’s okay to operate in generalities.” 

A friend and I have many talks about empathy. How to encourage and nurture it. But perhaps this was only a preliminary question. Perhaps the bigger one is how to encourage and nurture comfort with ambiguity. 

 

DETAILS FROM THE WEEK 

So that was me last week, thinking about structures/principles. I also had a lovely day volunteering (more tiny clicker sessions with the beasties that might benefit from it), some lovely moments with Skye, and new doggo Luna continues to settle in. She’s started now to sometimes curl up right next to me in the bed, with her head resting on my thigh. Sweet girl. I may jinx it, but she’s good sleeping through the night now, knows the routine, and has a healthy appetite. Starting to feel more sleek and healthy, and shows good enthusiasm for hopping in the car and going exploring. 

Luna, enjoying a fuss.

We took her to Sutton Park last week and again last night (ah, I love that place, we saw the Exmoors and they just make me so happy) and she was golden. A bit shell-shocked at the various dogs who came up to sniff her (Luna’s fear response is tonic immobility), especially the entire male who quite liked her (sorry bonnie lad, she’s been “fixed”!), but very good and even had some more practice time off the lead. Well, with the lead dropped and dragging behind her. What’s funny is if she steps on it herself she jars herself, stops walking, and looks back at us like, “you said stop?” 

I’m one of those clicker people who doesn’t worry about light pressure/release training. I understand the wish to do everything with +R, and I’m careful because to be honest most of us aren’t very good at -R anyway. People ask too much, or too harshly, or don’t release pressure at the right moment, or don’t know what they’re asking, or use it on scared animals, or escalate to punishment, or use it without considering alternatives, or treat it like a physical power thing rather than an educational thing… But lightly done, more like guiding than insisting, I think it’s fine. And so Luna has learned that if we stop walking and she reaches the end of her lead, she needs to stand and wait and after the line has softened for a while we’ll begin walking again. 

But, therein is one of the limitations of -R, this doesn’t teach her how to stop or wait or come back when the lead isn’t there. It certainly doesn’t give her a motivation to do any of those things. But she’s becoming more and more part of the family, knows that the boat is home, looks for us if we disappear from view, all those good things from which to build. 

 

EDUCATION

There’s a distance learning course I want to do (have wanted to do for two years now) and, if everything pans out, I’ll hopefully be able to purchase it next month. Finally! I’ve had something like three or more instances of thinking, “cash flow, hurray, I can do that course!” only for something to throw a spanner in the works. It’s not even an expensive course, I’ve just been utterly skint since taking my corsetmaking part-time. Well, and now I’ve somewhat officially said that the corsetry is no longer my focus. I might still embellish stuff every so often, but I’m not going to be viewing it as either a source of income or my driving passion in life, as it hasn’t been either of those things for nearly two years. 

Most of my free time is currently spent studying. When a cat isn’t demanding cuddles, at any rate. But ooh, I want to learn more…

Practically, making an announcement hasn’t changed much. I’m not doing a closing sale, and I downsized most of my equipment when I left the studio in 2016. But I feel better for having said it. People seemed to expect that I’d begin taking orders again soon, things like that, and it felt like an ever-present pressure that I didn’t want. And if you don’t want a pressure, and it’s in your life for no valid reason, and it’s eating up cognitive and emotional resources which would be better spent elsewhere, why not let it go? So I have. 

 
I’ve got a couple of things to finish up (which will no doubt take longer than it should) and I have to edit the website (maybe make it an archive of sorts, or maybe kill it entirely, who knows), and I’m sure that once I’ve done that and washed my hands of it all I’ll want to finish something for a photoshoot, haha. 

Anyway. I shan’t say any more about this course incase something else happens to prevent me from doing it. But fingers crossed. The Intrinzen project, which I was very fortunate to be part of, is coming to a close soon and whilst I intend to work my way through it all again (let more ideas and information on movement seep into my brain), I would like something else new to sink my teeth into. The couple of CPDs I did at the beginning of the year seem a faint memory, but I do recall that they were very good for my sense of having a handle on the topics as they were so easy (animal behaviour, learning theory, welfare)… so I’d like to go deeper. And whilst you don’t need qualifications to be knowledgable or skilled or to function/contribute at even the highest levels (example: corsetry), it certainly doesn’t hurt. That said, I’m picky. And the subject matter of this course isn’t currently taught as part of most equine science diplomas or degrees. Indeed, those university courses seem (for the most part) to teach very outdate information on learning theory and behaviour. And yet they generally cost more than ten or twenty times what this little course does. Such is the establishment. 

Anyway, fingers crossed. I need to have a purpose, opportunities for flow. Something to learn. 

 

CREATIVITY 

Which brings me back to Sapolsky again. He was talking about neural networks, categorisation, parallel processing, all those clever things the brain can do. And he posited that individual differences in network could be what accounts for creativity and originality. No two people will have the same networks. No two people will access those networks in the same way. And so when we talk about “making connections” when learning or creating, we perhaps literally do mean “connections” in the sense that it’s all about how neurons interact. 

Isn’t that a wonderful thought? The scientific method is there to test hypotheses, and brilliant and useful it is for keeping us on track. The earth isn’t flat, after all. My iPad let’s me type things because of science, not pixie dust or my intuition. Scientific method let’s us find “truth”, as far as we are able to see it. But the clever people like Sapolsky and Goodall and Rees and Panksepp, and the artists too, they’re making unique connections which spark the ideas worth study. 

Making intuitive connections and links and overlaps between things makes me very happy. And perhaps sometimes those connections are metaphor more than equivalence. But that’s an inherent part of being human and a wonderful route into further understanding. 

I want more opportunities to make connections, to push what I know, and to contribute something new (if possible). I probably will never again accomplish the latter in anything accept corsetry (unless if I fall in love with another niche craft-based topic that’s waiting for a new wave of makers)… but even if all I do is create ideas that are new to *me* I’ll still feel fulfilled, I think. 

 

AMBITION 

My hopes for Skye are very modest by most people’s standards, I’m sure. And I’m positive that her ambitions for herself (could a horse be even said to have any) extend as far as “living a natural life” and that’s all. A horse just wants to be a horse. Eat, keep good company, express their natural horse behaviours, prance sometimes. Being in domestic life she can’t express all of them, of course. Her herd structure changes in ways that it wouldn’t in “the wild”, she doesn’t have a stallion or two, doesn’t have a baby each year, doesn’t have as much freedom to roam. But the fundamentals… grazing, browsing, allogrooming, moving, playing… they’re all there. She is excellent at being a horse. 

For her benefit, that (plus routine healthcare and handling) is all I really want for her. Anything else is a bonus. 

For my benefit, I’d love if she got as far as hacking as it’s the most fun. And I’d love to continue playing around with clicker to see what else we can learn together. But her wellbeing and willingness have to come before that. And they are coming along, beautifully. 

But even I have days where my ambition is not matched up with her interest or confidence or willingness. Yesterday it was our interest levels which were mismatched. She’d been dozing when I got her and just wanted to graze. So in the end we just did targeting with the plastic bag still attached. Continued practicing foot lifting. Tiny things. And days like this, where nothing dramatically new or exciting happens, are the days where I need to remember the value of a high reinforcement history… the value of a higher rate of reinforcement but also (conversely) a variable rate of reinforcement (because with the targeting, this is now what she responds best to and needs for further development)… the value of piggybacking other experiences onto something she’s confident with (targeting)… the value of just being around horses and enjoying their company. 

At any rate, we took some small steps yesterday. I had my livery owner on the mounting block, fussing Skye, moving around, stepping up and down, reaching over her back, and Skye was cautious of the block but a little bit improved. And what helped was targeting. Asking her to step forward for the target as opposed to making it about the block (which she has bad associations with). She did well. Lots more of that required. It may well be that we get her happy and confident with saddling and mounting and she still tells us that riding is not for her, that there’s a physical reason or more emotional trauma to deal with. And that would be fine. But we’ll never know if we don’t go the slow route and get her happy with each step. 

Dossing around on the grass, I decided to touch and rub her body with the plastic bag/target-stick. This is something that, in isolation, doesn’t tell you much. How has it been achieved, that’s the part that matters. 

 

EMOTIONS AND RESPONSES 

Skye and the plastic bag. If you see a demo with a horse not running away from things like plastic bags, it’s worth watching to see what the horse’s body and face are doing. Does the animal look tense? Relaxed? What does relaxation look like? Are they paying attention to other things or standing eerily still? Will they seek out the object themselves, or are they just “accepting” something done to them? How it was taught is arguably much more important than the outcome, as the horse’s underlying emotional state is what matters most if you value safety.

Most desensitisation in horseworld relies on strong -R. A scary thing is presented or applied and when the horse responds in the desired way the aversive is removed. So for de-spooking, it generally goes that people present something a bit new/scary, the horse is mildly alarmed, it fidgets or tries to get away, and when it stops fidgeting and goes still the human removes the scary thing. The process is repeated many times. The horse learns through operant conditioning that stillness makes the scary thing stop. 

Flooding is a next level version, in which even when the horse goes still the scary thing is not removed. This is common in certain “horsemanship” demos. They say, “he’s accepted it now.” What’s actually happening is tonic immobility. Flight, fight or freeze. Women can freeze when they’re attacked. Some small animals freeze if you grab them or flip them over onto their backs. My mum used to freeze if she panicked when trying to learn to swim. It’s arguably the least useful way of dealing with a threat. Freezing and hoping you’ll stop warranting the predator’s attention. I suppose it works quite well for mice, if a cat gets them, since cats lose interest when their prey doesn’t struggle or run away. 

Perhaps some animals figure out, “oh, it didn’t kill me, that’s fine then…” But for the most part I’m not convinced flooding or forced desensitisation is ever a suitable approach for a species without shared language. At least with humans you could say, “okay, you’re scared of spiders, but if we lock you in this room of spiders you might come out as a survivor and thus you’ll know what you can deal with.” The human can the decide whether to consent or not. It’s a dodgy strategy, even then, but at least there’s that baseline understanding. 

Anyway, the point is that a lack of visible response to something does not necessarily mean the individual is confident or happy with that thing. They may just be suppressing their feelings. Horses are, sadly, excellent at suppression. Until it’s no longer possible, of course, and they explode “out of nowhere.” 

The +R way of dealing with a scary stimulus is to use SD (systematic desensitisation) or CC (counter-conditioning). Ie: pairing the scary thing with food, starting at levels where the scary thing isn’t actually scary at all (eg: it’s on the other side of the yard, gradually coming closer, done over many sessions). 

Skye has begun opting to put her hinds on the mat more readily, so I’ve been gently rocking and target-stretching her here. It really challenges her balance, which is wonderful. She will do mat work now not because I taught it with +R or insisted on it with -R, but because we addressed other happiness/confidence issues and let the mat be a matter of habituation.

The “neutral” way of dealing with scary things would be habituation, and this is actually my favourite approach. Let the horse do it for itself. Chuck the scary thing in a field (if safe) and let the horse investigate in their own sweet time. Their flight distance will lessen, they’ll realise the thing is no threat and not worth expending energy on. They might even play with it a bit. We seem to expect horses to lose their shit over all sorts of things, but pop them in a field next to a railway and they quickly realise noisy trains booming past are no problem. Habituation. Often, well-meant human intervention creates more of a fear response than just leaving the animal to it. We see a bit of a spook and come out with things like, “he’s not scared, he needs to learn!” before forcibly dragging the animal over to the scary thing and making the situation ten times worse. What could have been a non-issue, something the horse would habituate to of their own accord, is now something that will take work to fix. 

In rubbing Skye with the plastic bag (something that would have been unthinkable a year ago), the only prep she’d had was seeing it loose in the field (the wind had blown it in), investigating it herself, and then incorporating it into 5mins of nose targeting. Last year she would spook if you put a bag onto the floor, nevermind touch her with it. And what’s changed? 

I didn’t force her to interact with scary things. I didn’t do that until she froze (flooding). I didn’t CC plastic bags. Or SD them. I just took a chance as I thought she’d be comfortable with it and she was. And that’s thanks to clicker, once again. 

In clicker, things generally turn out well. They pretty much always turn out well. There isn’t really anything to fear. 

The human is always looking for things to mark/reinforce. They are avoiding situations/environments where things could go badly wrong. They never apply +P. The worst that happens is stuff isn’t working and you drop back a step to do some easy confidence-boosting stuff. 

In a clicker session, the outcome should always be good for the learner. And when outcomes are always good, one becomes more optimistic. 

On this day, I folded part of the mat to see what Skye thought of the deeper surface. She wasn’t especially concerned. Habituation and generalisation. Then, I think on the same day, she accidentally pushed the mat with her foot whilst stood next to it and it skittered across the yard. She had a (rather agile) mini-spook, then stopped and looked and assessed the situation. Two minutes later, she walked back onto the mat when I asked her to. That, to me, is a huge lift in psychological resilience and bodily confidence. I’m not a daredevil, I’ve no interest in sitting on horses who lose their minds on a frequent basis! I’m confident with and on horses (though I’ve not ridden in over a year now) because I don’t put myself in situations where there’s a very high chance of stuff going squiffy. Why would you? 

I’m not one for errorless learning, though I understand the reasoning behind it. I think that sometimes taking chances and trying for things that don’t work out allows the learner to build resilience. To learn how to bounce back. But say perhaps 90% of your interactions have beautifully good outcomes and 10% go a bit squiffy but only in small ways… that’s enough for me. Pony gets over the squiffy stuff, builds resilience, becomes/stays optimistic. 

So it’s telling that, in coming to believe life is safe and interesting rather than unpredictable and frightening, Skye has developed a general acceptance of new and novel experiences. I can present her with almost anything and she views it as, “oh, another funny human thing, click please?” The objects where that newfound confidence doesn’t apply, are the objects that she’s got history with… the saddle, the mounting block, the bit… I’m sure trailers would be the same. And those things will take more in the way of CC to heal. 

It would be kind of nice to have a blank canvas. An untouched horse who has never learned to fear all our funny human things. People think of untouched horses as difficult, but when you meet them they’re the most confident and curious and mannerly. They have their herd education, so they appreciate personal space. They have energy and spritely-ness, so you don’t need to harass them to move. They have a nosey thirst for new experiences, so they enjoy the learning opportunities you offer. 

But, I love Skye. To be fair, I love them all. I love every step towards softness and self-confidence that she takes. It’s a big deal to her and there’s no way she’d have improved without some very gentle and appetitive education to redress the balance. Filling up that “trust account”, slowly slowly, and so the days where I think nothing has happened are just as important as the days when we have noticeable steps forwards. 

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Participation

 
WEDNESDAY  

 

FRIENDS 

Luna was excited to arrive at the yard today. She’s been with us just over a week now, and it’s sweet to see her gradually relax into her new life. She loves hopping into the car, loves going to places she knows, basically she likes to have enough predictability. Which I think is true of us all, to different degrees. She’s becoming a friend, very slowly. And ultimately, that’s what I want before I want anything else, with all the animals I know. Human friends are great, but animal friends are so much truer. 

Likewise, the feeling of friendship that Skye is starting to give is so lovely and peaceful. She’s starting to be interested in what I have to suggest. Maybe we’ll never get “there” in terms of riding and such, but it would be a treat if we did because I just think we could have so much fun exploring the world together. It’s a bit like Poppy at home actually! I hadn’t thought of it like this before. But little Poppy, for all she’s progressed hugely, is still so terrified of things like being on a lead and in the car that her trust and love of her humans (me and mum) can’t overpower the fear. We keep saying, “ah little ‘un, it’s a shame we can’t just explain this to you, but going for a walk is so much fun! You’re missing out.” She’s perfectly happy at home, they have a huge garden and a pond for her to play in, but wouldn’t it be nice if she could also enjoy new places. And I feel somewhat the same for Skye. I know she loves curiously exploring, it’s only been residual fears and physical issues that have stopped her. But then, this is why I chose this livery yard. 61 acres of undulating terrain and varied foliage has let her satisfy some of that need to explore and keep physically fit, even whilst she hasn’t been ready to go out onto the roads. 

At any rate, I really do think she’ll be ready soon. Just waiting for a suitable moment (preferably when this heat wave is over, I’m struggling during the daylight hours!). 

 

FEET

Our ongoing issue of balance and fear re: lifting feet took a step forwards today. I was so pleased. 

If I can make sure it’s still enough, I might try folding one part of the mat over double, see what she makes of that.

She’d spent some time with her fronts on the mat and I asked for the left hind. She turned her neck to look at me a few times, thought about what I must be after, then began offering moments of lightening and lifting that foot. 

True participation on this matter, for the first time ever. A subtle change, but the nuance matters to me. It was never as much a behaviour challenge as a physical one and just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Poor posture and tapping poles doesn’t look as dramatic as something like obvious wobblers or lameness or whatever, so we can too easily explain away reluctance by attributing it to character (eg: laziness) or (bad) behaviour. But we wouldn’t explain away a broken leg like that. Or a visible saddle sore. Or a bleeding mouth. And the more I learn about proprioception and the nervous system limiting the body to keep it safe… Did you know that? That the brain can reduce access to physical ability if it perceives a threat, in a way that standard biomechanics models don’t account for? Anyway, the more I learn the more I’m convinced that if I have to force her to do a move it isn’t going to be done in a safe/healthy way. If she feels in any way coerced, she’ll make the move whilst still bracing or she’ll make the move using the “wrong” muscles and patterns of movement. 

By contrast, if she does it herself we’re golden and reasonably safe. 

But, if they won’t lift a leg no matter how you encourage or reinforce it, what to do? We had to play a long waiting game in which she got other bits of therapy and exercise and emotional change. Trying to come at the problem sideways. And it seems to be working. I was really pleasantly surprised at her willingness to finally give hoof lifting a go under her own steam and without anxiety. It reveals so much. 

 

CONSENT CUES

I’m of the understanding that good feet come more from diet than topical treatments. Even so, I’ve seen pine tar spray have a really beneficial effect on hoof texture. The ground is so dry (we’re in the middle of a heat wave) that everyone is suffering slightly, so yesterday I thought I’d recommence spraying Skye’s feet. 

We did this last summer too, the first couple of months I had her. So she’s experienced it before and didn’t give much response to it at the time. But a lack of response isn’t always the same thing as honest-to-god acceptance, and when I sprayed her yesterday (at liberty on the yard) she wasn’t frightened as such, but she decided to walk off in quite a decisive manner. Okay, good communication/information. So I added a consent cue to the process and this let her feel comfortable enough to signal when it was okay for me to continue. 

It’s essentially the same as what I used to let her know that she had a say about being touched (a process which did more good in three 5min sessions than six months of generally nice handling had…). It goes like this. I presented the bottle and asked if she could touch it. Yes. I then spritzed a hoof once. So now she’s an idea that touch = spritz. And she’s practiced enough in clicker and the idea of this two-way communication that she makes these connections quickly. I asked a second time, and again we spritzed. Ask a third, and there’s a moment of hesitancy as she realises touch definitely does equal spritz and, “ooh, what should I do…?” She thinks it over and touches the bottle. And we carry on in this way doing all four feet without moving from the spot or fidgeting or otherwise saying “no.” She’s a clever horse. I’m sure I’m very slow on the uptake at times, but now that she knows I try to listen she goes to the trouble of sharing so much more. It really does feel like a conversation at times, and that’s not a feeling that you get from many horses. They often don’t bother “talking” to you. They don’t think you’ll listen. 

 

 

THURSDAY 

 

VOLUNTEERING 

Keying the surface of a fibreglass horse.

Lovely day, as ever. Everything is higgledy-piggledy with the routine at the moment as we’re demolishing/building stables, so loads of our horses are out at summer grazing. It’s also summer holidays, so we’ve more help than usual. This meant fewer stables to muck, which left me with time and energy to carry on sanding the old fibreglass horse (tack display item), that I’ll be painting anatomy on. I’m thinking skeleton on one side and muscles on the other, but the skeleton side might also have ligaments and digestive system, to make it more interesting and educational. We’ll see. Lots of prep to do first. The horse is even missing an ear and lower jaw! He also has a broken leg, but we have the actual part to somehow stick back in place. 

Little curious Florence in the background.

Took Luna with me today, her first day coming along. She was golden. Afraid, but far bolder than she was when we first got her. And couldn’t have cared less about our free roaming sheep and goats, though they for sure found her interesting! The little kid was considering a headbutt! Nothing happened though. 

At spells whilst I was working, Luna was curled up in the dark safety of the chicken pen (not currently housing chickens, of course!). Happy enough. Keen to return there as needed. But, bless her heart, each time I got her out she wagged her tail and looked at me very sweetly. First time she’s wagged her tail! I felt bad that it was a “why did you leave me?” wag, but glad that she’s starting to see me as a safe place. 

 

CLICKER FOR EMOTIONS 

Clicker is just a way of teaching. But it goes naturally hand-in-hand with so many other behavioural considerations that one of its biggest strengths is arguably its ability to affect emotions. 

I was kindly asked today to play around with three of our beasties, in a bid to help them with issues that seem quite stuck. Nothing hard then, haha. So today I briefly said hello to each and did some super-basic “getting to know you” clicker. What a range of characters. I know them all, but I’ve only spent any real time with one of them. And you learn something new about each individual beastie when you initiate clicker. 

 

DONKEY – FEAR OF HUMANS

First up was the donkey, Snowy. He’s been with us a year and a half now and although he’s settled a lot (he knows the drill, knows the routine, has pony friends and knows his stable contains hay) he’s still largely petrified of humans and human things. Every so often he gives us glimmers of optimism, by accepting a carrot from a hand or by letting someone he sees a lot catch him easily… but for the most part, people are not a good thing, in his mind. They’re very scary and to be avoided. It’s always a shame to see animals (or people) with this level of fear, because the longer one stays in fear and anxiety the more one’s brain is primed to experience it. 

Where do you even begin with a beastie like that? Well, I’d done a tiny bit of clicker with him last year, so I repeated what we’d started. No, go back… before that I got him in from the field, and this required a bit of, “may I? Okay no, I’ll turn away, but we’re just going together this way, ah yes here you come, you know the drill… but may I clip this lead on?” 

Many calming signals on his behalf, but generally he goes straight from “head away” to “avoidance movement” (that is to say, he walks off, ha). If you approach quietly and slouchily and in a curved arc, he somewhat understands you have benevolent intentions, but it’s a very delicate thing. I actually think this may be the more appropriate starting point, and so I’m going to research CAT-H (Constructional Approach Training for Horses). 

Anyway, back to the clicker. I don’t think it’s just about classical counter-conditioning for the donkey. I think he needs a deliberate operant conditioning aspect, needs to know that his behaviour can create a desired consequence (ideally, distance from the human). That he’s not just at our mercy. 

Maybe I’m wrong. But trying to counter-condition scary things may prove impossible when food delivery itself is scary. I’ve been working in protected contact over his stable door (for his benefit, not mine, it does let him feel braver) and I click whenever he pricks his ears at me or makes a cute face. The idea being to build the criteria so that he’s coming closer, voluntarily. But I think we’re a long way off that. He remembered this beginning from months ago though, which is good, and I had quite a few funny moments where he looked cute, I clicked and dropped some chaff over the stable door, he dipped down to sniff it, then almost immediately swung back up with another cute face. It felt like he was testing the system. “Oh, I’ll look cute again, see what happens!” Which is exactly what you want, for them to learn how clicker works. That’s the point of the early sessions, just to teach what clicker is. Though you wouldn’t usually do it like this. Certainly, if you have a bold animal you wouldn’t click them for anything that hinted at coming into your space. And with a shy one, you don’t want to make them getting the treat contingent on doing something they’re scared of. So for him, we can’t ask much yet. And at least, if I’m on the other side of the stable door, he’s not too scared. 

But, first you have to get him into the stable. Which again, is why I might look into CAT-H in the meantime. Use distance as the (negative) reinforcer. Because what does the donkey want more than he wants a carrot from my hand? He wants me to sod off and leave. So I’ll puzzle it over, but keep on with the super basic clicker whenever I see him, no see if it helps. 

 

BUSTER – FEAR OF INJECTIONS 

Beautiful Buster, I absolutely love him. I introduced clicker to him months ago (I think to demo something to someone) and he’s such a scaredy cat that at first he was slightly shocked by the click sound and then he was shocked by the notion of targeting! Thankfully, I have a variable-volume clicker and a lot of affection for this horse. Back then, we got as far as some basic targeting, but I had to be stood between the horse and the target, for him to feel brave about reaching for it. It’s all about known/unknown for Buster. I’ve seen him shy at a dandy brush if held in front of his face, but never even flinch about being groomed. Different contexts, one unknown. 

Because clicker is participatory, it reveals a lot about individual character. The basic foundation lessons (to teach what clicker is and how to click together safely around food) are generally always the same. But you need to vary your timing and questions and environments and so on and so on for the benefit of the individual learner. 

Returning to clicker today, Buster remembered how it worked, was unconcerned by the click sound, and progressed very well. The challenge of helping him be less afraid of injections is that I cannot recreate certain aspects of getting an injection. Vets smell funny, actual needles look and feel different to any simulation we can create, and sometimes an injection is happening because something is hurting. That’s a lot of reasons for a pony to be afraid. Even so, we can try to help. 

We did polite standing first. At liberty in the stable. This is most people’s first clicker lesson (or a variation thereon). You stand at their shoulder and teach them what the click means by clicking/feeding for eyes-front. Of course they then start nudging you, “more food please!” It’s what foals do to get milk, it’s super natural, it’s not rudeness in horse language. So you keep yourself safe but otherwise let them investigate, then on the slightest turn of the head back to forward you click and feed (also being careful to “feed for position”, ie: feed them so that their head is where you would want it to be). Repeat repeat repeat, not being stingy with the clicks, and soon they’re waiting there politely, having learned that “mugging” doesn’t work. You need to do loads, build up a very clear click = treat rule. At the same time, it builds a very clear rule about how clicks happen… by giving “good” behaviours. And it also teaches the horse that their actions/behaviours can create desired consequences. 

This is why it’s so instructive to us humans. If we change the teaching to +R, use desired reinforcers (ie: consequences that the horse is motivated to get) and the horse still doesn’t do what we want, then either we’re asking too much too soon, or we haven’t explained it well enough, or they have a bloody good (and unseen) reason for preferring to say no. This is what I mean when I say it reveals a lot about character. 

Anyway, I was clicking Buster for polite standing at my shoulder and he remembered it perfectly. I then clicked for polite standing plus accepting my fingertips on his neck. Then the same, but with some light pressure. Then the same but gently pinching the skin. Repeated this many times, then called it a day and dumped the remainder of the chaff when I left. Leaving a +R session can, sometimes, be construed as a punishment. One way around that is to leave the horse eating a decent reward so that next time they look up and offer the behaviour, you don’t just walk off and leave them wondering what they did wrong. 

So Buster did really well. I’ll repeat this and begin adding things like a pen lid to give the sensation of a sharper pressure. Then try to repeat in other contexts (eg: on the yard). Just try to convince him that someone messing on pinching and pricking his neck is no bad thing. 

 

SPOTTY – FLIGHT AND MOUNTING 

Spotty is a funny one. I’ve not had much to do with him, but today I got to see how busy his brain is. He’s very touch sensitive, very quick to react, and he apparently came to us very nervous. He’s habituated to an awful lot and done really well, but sometimes if he bolts in a lesson it’s hard to approach him successfully, and often he’ll dance around at the mounting block. 

Potentially tricky issues to unpack without knowing him better (well the former is, the mounting block should be pretty simple), but even so, the starting point is the same. Teach him what clicker is. 

Same lesson as Buster (polite standing), which he picked up quickly. Needs this repeating a few times, as he’s kind of frantic once he realises food is available. He’s so clever that I’m imagining the main thing will be getting him chill first. I think you could teach him to target his hip to your hand no bother, in terms of him understanding quickly. And then add a mounting block, so that he lines himself up. But keeping him calm at the same time, that’ll be the more important part of it. 

Anyway, very early days with all three, so hopefully I’ll have the time to see if we can make an impact. The donkey, in particular, will be the biggest challenge. It took Skye about nine months of almost pure +R to convince her than humans were friends and she was no-where near as scared as the donkey is. But, you never know, there’s no rule to these timescales. What was it Susan Friedman said? Something like, “behaviour is always a study of one.” Individual variation. 

 

“I GOT THIS!” 

Didn’t have much time with Skye today and I wandered around the field unable to find the herd at first, so I was feeling a bit rushed. Then as I was going to check a different field I heard the thudding of hooves on dry ground and they appeared through a gateway, led by Skye, having trotted haughtily up the hill to find out who was shouting for them. 

They had a lovely sassy joyful vibe, which I never expect on a hot day. Who’s got the energy?! 

Skye came over to say hi and I went to bridle her, thinking, “I don’t have time to dally today.” But the horse swerved the reins… It was in a rather relaxed way, you could have caught her and bridled her if you wanted, but I was so intrigued by this new opinion that I let her do it a few times to see what it was about. 

All the while, she was leading us at liberty to the yard. Sometimes at my shoulder, sometimes slightly in front, sometimes pausing to pinch a bite of grass. It’s like I’ve offered a friend a hand with something heavy and they’ve confidently struck a pose and said, “no no, I’ve got this!” It was very entertaining. We were only walking, but there was a sense of slightly showy purpose which was new. Like she felt really full of herself, really capable and confident. 

When we reached the track with my little obstacle course, she walked over every single one at my shoulder, choosing the bigger logs whenever a choice was before her. She has never done this before. She would always swerve poles if she was allowed to and it didn’t matter if this was on lead or at liberty, normal handling or with clicker, raised poles or ground poles. Anything to do with her feet was concerning enough to avoid. Just a month ago she found these obstacles kind of stressful and took nearly a full 5mins to decide to go over the first one. 

And now, all of a sudden, she’s doing it completely voluntarily, not clipping anything with her front toes, and deliberately opting for the higher obstacles. It was like she was showing off. And all that’s changed is we’ve added some time on the mat to our routine. Proprioception is king. 

Intrinzen (and the physios they reference) talk about “parking brakes”, bracing, stiffness, and sometimes pain that the nervous system imposes on body parts that it considers in danger (whether due to old injury or simple lack of use). These things function as secondary stabilisers, keeping you within a limited range of movements. A lot of their work, attempting to bring contemporary movement science into horse world, is about releasing these parking brakes. The “therapy” always being largely the same: increased ROM and enhanced proprioception. It certainly feels like Skye has recently released a significant parking brake. Whatever was stopping her from boldly tackling obstacles seems to have largely gone now. Fingers crossed this change holds. 

 

CONFIDENCE COMES FROM FEELING CAPABLE 

I bridled her for the yard and sat down, expecting her to have a bit of chaff and salt lick whilst standing with her fronts on the gym mat (our usual routine). 

Instead, she stood on the mat, sniffed disinterestedly at the food stuffs, and nosed the pine tar hoof spray which was sat nearby. 

The hoof spray which, a few days ago, she had said no to.

The hoof spray which, yesterday, she consented to (without use of +R, except in the sense that choice is a reinforcer) when asked with an “if/then” rule (“if you touch the bottle I will spray your foot, if you don’t touch the bottle I won’t). 

She nosed it repeatedly. It felt like a declaration of, “this thing! I did this thing yesterday, I was in control, I was bold, let’s do it again. I’m not scared of pine tar, oh no, not me.” 

The entire vibe today was, “look what I can do!” 

 

MIXED SIGNALS 

After spraying those feet, she wandered off to the gate and I thought, “well that was abrupt! But okay.” Opened the gate and she didn’t want to go through. Gave a gentle tug of the reins, nope, not for it. She had just gone to the gate because it’s a good bit of shade under the big trees. And maybe she liked the dusty sandy incline. 

It’s funny that the new mental shift I’m having to make is from respecting her “no” to recognising her “yes”. 

So I tried suggesting that she lift that left hind foot (by herself, without me holding or tugging or any such thing), as we did yesterday, and she gave some great efforts! Wouldn’t look like much to anyone just expecting their horse to pick up it’s foot when asked, but for Skye this is a very big deal. It indicates that her physical balance and proprioception is beginning to match up to her emotional capabilities. 

I tried to film a few, but of course then the quality of my timing and choices went down. Memo to self, just focus on the job at hand. Even so, we got some good clickable moments. And there were loads that I missed. Never click in a heatwave kids! I’m pretty useless when I’m hot and bothered and tired and thirsty. 

The moments I missed are because I was trying to get the whole “lift” that she had given me seconds before. Too greedy. The video made this clear. I missed all sorts of “offerings” where her foot was lightened, gently flexed, with the heel beginning to come off the ground. Skye doesn’t generally hang around dozing with one hind leg cocked, to give you a sense of how squiffy her body awareness has been, she just can’t quite do it. So to do it repeatedly in this context, it was definitely an attempt at answering my clicker question. I also missed moments where she lightened a different foot. The right hind and then the left fore. All of these efforts (little to us, but big to her) in which it really did feel like she was saying, “come on then, I can have a go at this now, I’m ready and I’m tough and I know where my feet are!” 

 

BOOBIES 

In general, she was just super sweet today, alongside the slight showing off. We also discovered a new itching spot. Her pectorals! Right between the front legs. Okay, so not actual horse boobs, but it tickled me to think so. 

I wish I’d had longer to hang out in the field, maybe do some more massage strokes, but my ride (my lad) had to get back for his evening’s teaching. We had some chips in the sunshine, Luna got a small bite of my sausage and was dozing on the yard, exhausted from a big day of new places and new people, and all-in-all it was a lovely day. 

 

— 

 

FRIDAY 

 

VACCINATIONS

The vet came today and Skye was great. Bit alarmed at the tight pinch of the needle, but good and quick to forgive. Whilst I had her, I asked the vet if I could possibly keep the syringe body/plunger, for working with a horse afraid of injections. She seemed to find this bonkers, but kindly obliged. So that’s great, something I can use for Buster at Summerfield and for anyone else really. Yes, it’s not the same as a needle, but it will still let me work on more of the factors involved. The sight of a syringe, the smell, pinching the skin, pressing it against the neck. And having the plunger will let me practice an appropriate duration and pushing sensation too. Fingers crossed we can help reduce some fear levels. 

 

JOINT FLUID 

I also had the vet take a quick look at Skye’s left front. Once she got over the abscess (that appeared and burst whilst I was up north), she’s actually been far more sound than ever before. Her body awareness, all that good stuff that I’ve been talking about. And yet, her left fore seems a touch swollen in points. 

Perhaps it’s the hard ground, perhaps she’s bumped herself in the field, perhaps it’s just recovery post-abscess (she’ll have been moving squiffy whilst it hurt). At any rate, I wasn’t thrilled with how it’s looking. 

The vet didn’t seem concerned though. She said they can get “puffy” around the coffin joint (and I think the next joint up too), extra fluid being produced. She was happy enough with the shape of the feet (which is more than I am, but they’re a work in progress) and said if the horse is sound and happy carry on. Fair enough. But I’ll keep an eye. 

 

BALANCE 

We did a tiny bit more on the mat and with lifting that left hind. But I mostly just observed and fussed today, whilst waiting for the vet. At various moments, Skye was lightening feet other than the (comparatively easy) left hind. Eg: pausing with a front hoof cocked mid-step whilst enjoying a salt lick. And resting a hind hoof when dozing (something that I never see her do, as previously noted). She’s just more confident on her feet. This will open so many doors. 

 

AGILITY AND DOWN-REGULATION 

Agility is the ability to react, safely, to changing “demands” of the environment. Agility is a horse’s life-line. Free-living horses don’t practice circles, they practice coiling the haunches and springing away. This is why Intrinzen focus so much on agility-boosting moves like the core stabilisers because they feel that an agile horse is a confident horse is a co-operative horse and so on. It’s also why traditional people can find their work alarming, at times, as the horses sometimes adopt postures which look very advanced. Well, they are advanced when trained through levels designed to protect the horse. They’re not advanced to a new foal who is practicing to “sit” on his haunches on day two of life. And they would be too much under saddle, if the horse wasn’t strengthened in a methodical way beforehand. 

At any rate, a healthy horse should be able to sit and whirl and spring away, when playing with their friends in a field. We might not want it under saddle but, to be honest, it kind of means their body is working so we should be somewhat pleased if it happens once or twice, haha. 

So, agility is one focus for Skye. She has it when playing, but it’s a lot of effort for her, and her default posture is not one from which she can quickly become agile. Because that’s the part that matters, how quickly and reflexively you react. How quickly you could catch yourself before falling. How quickly you could squat and spring if you were playing tennis. Changes of direction, all the good stuff that unridden horses who’ve lived on varied terrain can do, on demand, whenever needed. Agility. 

The other side of all this is down-regulation of the nervous system, from fight/flight/freeze (or play…) to rest and digest. An individual that can swiftly and comfortably transition is going to have an easier life overall. 

So I was delighted today when Skye accidentally nudged the gym mat (she was next to it, not on it) in such a way that it skidded across the floor. 

Previously, this would have seen her run as far away as possible, in a somewhat frantic manner. 

But today, she spooked a couple of steps to the side by putting her weight back on her haunches and somewhat pivoting away, withers most definitely up. 

She then came back down to earth (and all this was a fraction of a second), looked at the mat and at me, and decided that maybe it wasn’t so scary after all. She was still uncertain, but it was a far better level of reaction than she’d have given a few months ago. She was far more able to stop herself in her tracks and use her brain. 

And I think this change has two causes. 

1) she is a shade more agile, and thus a shade more confident, so she can stick around without putting herself into terrible danger. 

2) she’s had enough good experiences with me to help counteract any bad ones we may meet. She doesn’t live on the edge of fear anymore. 

Agility and down-regulation. Or “self-possession” perhaps. 

 

TEACHING HERSELF 

After a bit I invited her back onto the mat and she was fine. It was as though the two things (standing on the mat and spooking at it) were entirely different. Later, she accidentally made it slide away again, and had a much smaller response. So she’s pretty much teaching herself that it’s not too scary. Even so, I might weight the ends somehow, to limit how much it can move. 

 

BLADDER MERIDIAN AND OTHER FORMS OF RELAXATION

Yes, again. Lovely response on the left-side in particular. Back in the field, Indie and Solo shared some of Skye’s cuddles. Skye was working on a tree and didn’t mind sharing me too much. Indie is massively cute and enjoys having the inside of his ears scratched whilst he puts his cheek next to yours. Solo is quite young, emotionally, and doesn’t quite know what she wants except that she wants attention. She’s got such a beautiful head. And then Skye had my last cuddles, resting her head over my shoulder as I stroked her nose with both hands. Beautiful beasties. 

 

ELASTIC STRAIN

I’ve not been able to find anyone say this explicitly, because everyone is mostly talking about horses in motion, not when still. But okay. 

Horses mirror each other all the time. It’s part of their natural cohesiveness and wish for synchrony. And it’s something we often fail to make use of. I think if we spend time syncing up with them before asking they sync up with us, they’re far more willing. I need to remind myself to do this more, for sure. But aside from that, look at Skye’s head and neck carriage compared to the others… Even when dozing, she used to hold it higher than this. Or rather, the tensions in her body limited how far it could relax downwards. Now she has spells of holding it like a healthy horse with fewer tensions, emotional and physical. Her front legs are still a bit more under her than you’d want, but it’s all vastly improved compared to a year ago. 

When the horse has free use of its head and neck, and is encouraged to use all that length, the big spinal ligaments create pull from either end (from the neck being long and the pelvis tucking under) which gives the back tension and thus gives it some integrity under the weight of the rider. It’s a long-but-not-low posture. Likewise, the upper neck muscles and their tendinous parts will all have their given limits of elastic strain and a place where they would “hang” if the body is otherwise passive. 

So when dozing, it would stand to reason that the posture adopted is largely passive. The legs have their stay apparatus “locking” them in place. And the structures and musculature of the topline is going to place the body in a certain position when at rest. 

Skye’s topline isn’t full and developed at the moment, but it’s in a process of release. It was so tight when I got her that she was inverted even when standing at rest. Her dozing posture did not have the horizontal neck carriage that you would expect to see, her head was always somewhat up. Tight tight tight. You can’t build healthy muscle on top of tightness. 

So today I was thrilled to see her standing with a posture that almost matched the other horses. As we were leaving I even saw her cock a back hoof (and as I say, this isn’t a thing she used to do!). 

 

A BLACK MOON

Late this evening, John took Luna out for a pre-bedtime wee. He was getting some water from the outside tap, Luna on the lead behind him, then spun around when he heard scrabbling. She’d fallen into the canal! 

Her ears are very floppity, but this one makes a valiant effort at erect-ness when she’s exploring and keen.

She scrabbled, then stopped and went passive, entirely silent. Bloody hell doggo, you’ve not much self-preservation about you eh. John said she had an expression of resignation. He quipped that she was paws together, eyes upwards, saying, “well I didn’t think this was how I would go, but okay lord, I’m ready…” 

He scooped her out swiftly, of course (and I’m glad that his instincts took over in a positive way and he didn’t simply freeze or panic), told me what had happened, then took her for a tiny walk. She shook the water off, pottered around right along the edge of the canal again (it’s her favourite bit as there’s no gravel), had a wee, then came aboard completely unbothered by her ordeal. Towelled her off and she slept soundly. I’m hoping she’s learned something from this! But also, what are the chances, we’ve ended up with two animals with clumsy tendencies… I’ll take what I’ve learned with Skye and try to ensure we give Luna walks in a variety of terrains and surfaces. 

Nuance

NORTH AND BACK AGAIN 

So the last time I wrote was the 10th June! The solstice has been and gone, summer is passing too quickly. I had a lovely three weeks in Birmingham, catching up with my volunteering, spending loads of extra time with Skye, enjoying nice meals with John. After the stress of mum being unwell, and then the relief and peacefulness once she was on the mend, then the shock-to-the-system of finding myself back in a city centre… well, I really needed a nice a few weeks, basically. Skye and John and the cat and the stables were all happy to oblige. 

Then popped back up home for a week to make sure she was getting on okay. She was. Lots more colour in her cheeks now. Still weak as a kitten, still health issues to address, but eating actual meals, playing with the dogs, keeping the cottage tidy, all those good signs of wellness. 

Little doggo Poppy was funny. She was happy to see me (we’d become firm friends on my two-month visit), but kind of subdued. She perked up as the week went on and by the last two days we were snuggling like before. She’s super cute. But oh dear, they do learn too quickly… On the morning that I left with bags in tow she knew exactly what it meant. Hooman friend not coming back anytime soon. Cowered on the sofa looking at me very sadly. Breaking my heart. Mum said that the other day she went into the bathroom and I’d left a pair of leggings hanging in there. Poppy clocked them, sniffed them, and started wagging and wiggling her whole body with glee. Heartbreaking. I just need for this little doggo to extend the lesson she learned with me (that humans other than my mother can be friends) to the other people in the household. It would make me so happy if she felt that way. In time, I’m sure. 

She’d gone backwards slightly in her harnessing, and this was because I hadn’t made clear enough to mum that the part which matters, for this little dog, is in letting her decide to do it. If you offer her the open harness, and just wait and smile and maybe say, “come on Pop!” she will wiggle her way over to you and shove her head in. She’ll chase you across the lawn to “catch” you by shoving her head in. She’ll shove her head in before you’ve even gotten ready to ask. But if you move towards her, before she’s made the decision to come towards you, it’s all too much and she gets very upset. She’s not quite there yet, she still needs to feel completely free. Animal trainers world over are talk in about this now, that choice is one of the biggest reinforcers you can give your animals and that when you allow choice you tend to get better compliance in the end. Ie: in that world of animal training what ends up looking the same as obedience is created through participation more than discipline. And we all know, intuitively, when we try to force an issue it never goes as well as when we almost don’t even care if the thing happens or not. 

 

THE CUMBERLAND SHOW and HARNESS RACING 

Mum and I popped to the Cumberland Show whilst I was up in June and it was a nice day. Rained, of course, and there wasn’t much of a turnout as it was expected to be torrential. But it was okay. 

Saw some nice horses and some chill riding. I never see too many abuses at this show, which is a relief. But oh dear, after the show had finished there was a track set up for an evening of harness racing. 

I’d never seen it before and you can’t have an opinion on something you’ve never seen and know nothing about. Ha, well you can, and people do, but hey ho. So we thought we’d watch. 

I’ll not go into all the details as it would be kind of exhausting to relive. There was one tragic incident right at the start of the first race. A jockey coming off, the horse and trap careening into the vet’s van, the vet needing the paramedics, the horse looking to have broken its leg… the horse, ultimately, being boxed up, driven out of sight, then the box reappearing and parking up (and so we don’t know for sure, but we would presume the horse was shot). It’s racing, this stuff happens. 

Lots of adrenalin. What is the horse experiencing? What would we be experiencing, if we were the horse?

But in a way that wasn’t the worst of it. What was weird was how normal it was for the horses to be strapped up in endless amounts of highly controlling gear. Tied up into a very extended posture (eek, as far as the base of the neck is concerned), unable to move their heads in any direction, various things blocking their vision to keep them under control, lots of pressure on the bits, hopples to prevent them from breaking out of their pacing gait (though some kind of managed anyway, and looked very uneven doing so)… nostrils flaring, mouths trying to open away from the bits, eyes wide. You get a lot of adrenalin from pain, obviously, and no doubt that’s useful when the goal is speed. 

In short, this flavour of harness racing is not for me. If you have to do something to the animal rather than with the animal, I’m not much interested. 

 

MERCURY 

Freddie, two months of eating on hillsides. What a change, to both bodyfat and overall posture/tone. He’s more like himself again.

Fred was looking good. He’s definitely been putting on more weight which is excellent and there’s a girl in the village who has been coming to groom and fuss him every other day. He does love attention, so I’m very pleased about this. And all the grooming has brought out the deep colouring which usually doesn’t show through until late Summer! Still got some winter fluff on his sides, but he’s an old boy now. 

Skinny and old, but vastly improved from two months ago. And he’s getting such good exercise from living in this field again.

So sweet though. We had a couple of walks together (Fred loves taking the lead and exploring), some clicker games, and lots of fuss. I adore Skye, but I’ve know Fred since I was 12. His friendship is just given so sweetly and so freely. Despite some of his experiences, he’s never been deeply traumatised like she has. He knows, down in his bones, that we would never deliberately hurt or frighten him. I think Skye is getting close to the same realisation. She definitely enjoys humans now, and I can’t wait for the ever increasing softness as she settles into that new way of being. I think it will be lovely for her, to let go of those old tensions and memories. She’s well on her way. 

We’d let him loose to explore the back garden (shh, don’t tell, it was mum’s idea!), and he took himself through the weeping willow. It was such a pretty sight I had to recreate it, and it became a little sort of game, me setting him up and him finding new ways through. I was really overcome with love for this little horse. If only he could live forever.

Fred and I jogged on some smooth tarmac when we went walking. Poor sod isn’t sound, but he’s happy in himself and that’s all I want really. Mum’s already sadly anticipating the day we have to let him go (even though it could be years from now), concerned that we don’t leave it too long for our own sakes. I said not to worry about it, he’ll let us know when he isn’t enjoying life. For now, he’s grand. And what I find interesting, is that this old little horse who had gotten into poor condition and bad posture is actually still a shade more sure-footed than Skye, 13 years his junior. His proprioception seems better in his front feet than hers is. On one of our walks he wanted to go across the village green. Not to graze, but to come out the other side and carry on down the hill, exploring one of our old hacking routes. I asked if he could step over the low stone wall to do so. It’s about knee-height on Fred. Yep, no problem whatsoever. Didn’t touch it, no hesitancy, knew exactly where his limbs were. She might manage it now, but if you’d asked Skye to do that last year she’d have panicked, possibly tried to spin away, definitely tried to walk around it, and if she had gone over she’d have likely clipped it with every toe, not quite knowing where her feet are. 

I love this pony. I wish he’d never had to go on loan. But regrets are pointless. I’ve been lucky to know him at all.

 

LUNA 

Back in Birmingham, we collected the greyhound we had met at Solihull Greyhound Trust. Basically my horse in dog form, in many ways. She’s black with white bits and her name was even the same. Sky. We’ve called her Luna. It was just going to get too confusing, ha. I love the name Luna and wanted something that connected to her old name, so there it is. She’s very sweet. Been with us a week now and starting to settle in nicely. Such a timid soul, and it must be a very different kind of life for her. 

Luna, one of our first walks. The muzzle was a “whilst we’re getting to know you” safety measure, she doesn’t need it and has never given cause for concern.

It’s odd walking a dog through a city. I don’t think I’ve done it before. People are kind of different than in the country. We’ve had fascination because she’s a greyhound, isn’t that funny? People wanting to touch her (they just don’t realise that this is frightening for her). And we’ve had people shying away because she’s big (which is also funny, as she’s actually pretty small for the breed), completely oblivious to the fact that the dog herself is also shying away from them (Luna is far more scared of you than you are of Luna). 

The first two days we kept a muzzle on her. A standard suggestion of the shelter when they rehome all their animals, giving you time to make sure the dogs aren’t reactive and so on. She’s never “needed” it, it’s just a safety measure. But this likewise got some people looking at her fearfully. And I was confused by this until John pointed out that muzzles only mean one thing to most people. 

It’s not their fault I suppose. But come on, engage your brains kids, things aren’t always so black and white. Is understanding nuance too much like mental effort? I wonder if these particular townies would look at a horse with a grazing muzzle and assume it was a violent biting machine, haha. 

CatFace hasn’t seemed especially concerned. He wants her at a certain distance, but everyday he’s edged a bit closer, or had a sniff, or watched her curiously. Luckily, she’s happy to oblige him, having (so far) shown zero interest in chasing things. I do think this may be part of why she was retired young (she’s four this month)! Not very motivated to chase. She’s been blasé about birds, cats, dogs of every size, horses… She doesn’t shy away in fear like she does with strange humans, she just doesn’t have much of an interest. 

CatFace and Luna. It’s funny watching their cross-species attempts at communication. A couple of times she toddled over to say hi. The cat of course considered this rather rude. Fluffed up, got tense, grumbled. She then turns her head away (a dog calming signal, “oh, let’s be polite, I didn’t mean anything by it!”). But the cat has no idea what a dog calming signal is. So I stroke them both and make soothing chatter and everyone relaxes. And in this manner they are each starting to learn what on earth the option one is about. It’s cute.

I’m being careful about how we introduce her to all the new things in her life, but yeah, she’s basically a very gentle soul. Takes three or four meetings to feel comfortable with each new human. Very shy and very sweet. And, classic greyhound, does indeed sleep about 18 hours a day, haha. Couple of short walks, couple of extra toilet breaks, job done. Slots into life in a very low effort way, which is exactly what we needed in a dog. 

One of the boatyard employees has a chocolate brown spaniel called Bailey who is a treat. But oh my god, so much energy. And whenever I visit home I’m reminded of how much boundless energy Reggie has (StaffieX). Both delightful beasties, but not for me. And maybe this is part of why I like horses and cats so much… they don’t need as much of your attention. Luna curls up or sprawls out and sleeps (at this stage preferring the small enclosed space of the bedroom, it’s basically similar to what she knows from racing life), and I can crack on with reading and and writing and watching lectures and drawing and all the other things I do with myself. Lovely. 

 

BALANCE

The gym mat continues to have a positive influence. Yesterday I prepped Skye for the farrier by trying to focus on relaxation and proprioception. I’m in-between farriers at the minute, and this guy is wonderful but old-school, so he’s not above treating a balance issue like a disobedience issue. And regardless of where your personal philosophies put you, the thing I don’t understand is when people cause themselves more frustration than is necessary. My old farrier was great. Very chill. If the horse lost balance he just let go, laughed wryly, and started again. Yesterday’s guy instead would tell her off, push, yank (I’m glad she didn’t have a bit in). If someone had tried that with her a year ago she’d have exploded and bolted. But anyway, who got the better results? And aside from that, who felt angry and stressed in themselves during it? The forceful approach didn’t get the job done any faster or any better, and your man had a less pleasant time. So what’s the point of it? 

From my vantage point, standing at her head, I could see how it was all about balance. There is still some residual fear there, of course. Memories of bad experiences, scary humans, physical pain. And we must remember ourselves, bad experiences heighten our memory making capabilities. We are sharpened, we take everything in. 

 

MEMORIES TO KEEP YOU SAFE IN THE FUTURE

I’ve begun learning more very basic principles of neuroscience (thank you Sapolsky and Stanford for the free lectures!) and, to paraphrase, one of the understandings is that the amygdala processes fear and anxiety (and also has a central role in aggression, aggression being intimately linked with fear and anxiety), whilst the hippocampus deals with memory (classical conditioning, eg: X = Y because they were paired at some point). Sapolsky said that the amygdala “hijacks” the hippocampus to learn from scary experiences. I’ve seen other people talk about the “over” learning we do around scary experiences. It’s a survival thing. Once bitten, twice shy. But because we’re sharpened, heightened, full of adrenalin, we often classically condition many things not just one thing. So we can generalise and learn that an entire bunch of things are concerning. Or connect something in the environment to the emotion, even if it wasn’t the cause of the emotion. Example: music. For about fifteen years I couldn’t listen to OK Computer by Radiohead as it triggered immense sorrow. My dad had been copying music onto minidisc and this was one of the albums. My first time hearing it. I loved the music, but it was intimately connected to that time in my life, dad withering away but trying to stay busy and optimistic. I’m struggling to mention it now. 

It wasn’t the album that made him ill. But that particular album, I couldn’t listen to for years. I wanted to, but it was too upsetting. I didn’t know theories of classical conditioning, certainly didn’t know about the hippocampus, but I understood (as we all would) that it reminded me of sad things. I had to break down that association to be able to listen to it again. It took fifteen years and lots of inner thoughts along the lines of, “okay, you’re feeling good, you can try this again, and if it upsets you that’s okay.” 

I can tell you all that, because of shared language and self-reflexivity. If a song was on the radio and I started crying, I could tell you why. An animal can’t explain why it finds a given situation deeply troubling, it can only behave in a way that expresses its feelings about it (whether innate or learned). 

Behaviour tells us something. What it tells us may be hard to figure out at times. And people from different disciplines will interpret behaviour in different ways. But it tells us something, that much can’t be denied. 

 

INTERPRETATION 

So, if Skye suddenly pulls wanting a front leg back, what is it telling us? 

To my farrier yesterday, it’s telling us that she’s just being naughty. That she “knows what she’s doing.” “You’ve been standing with it up for a while Skye, how’s it any different now?” 

Okay, so I’m the annoying child that always asked my mum “why” and “how” endlessly. It was irksome, I’m sure. 

She knows what she’s doing. Well yes, she knows that if she pulls back you might have to let go. 

Why does she want you to let go? 

Because she’d just rather not? This difference of opinion/preference is perhaps the closest you could get to saying it was “naughtiness”, but then let’s think about that. If she isn’t motivated to do as asked, we can change the motivation. Make it worth her while with clicker training or a straight up bucket of food. So let’s say we’ve changed the motivation and the horse is getting something that she really values, really wants, but she still wants her leg back sometimes. 

Why does she want her leg back? 

Well maybe because she’s finding it difficult. Maybe she’s sore, maybe she has joint issues you’re not aware of, maybe she has poor balance and proprioception. Not all human beings can stand on one leg! 

So she finds balance challenging, but she’s doing well, and has many long spells of managing just fine. 

Why does she then suddenly want her leg back again? 

Well, duration is a thing. Perhaps it’s gotten harder as time as gone on. Stand with an arm out to the side and it’s easy. One minute later it’s not so easy. 

Or perhaps something has happened to affect her balance. A distracting sight, us moving the leg, a shift of head position. 

Okay, but she’s improving in balance and other horses manage fine, so why does she still sometimes want her leg back? 

Perhaps she’s had a sensory fear flashback (it’s proven now, animals get PTSD too), something reminding her that humans lifting up legs = danger! and that tiny momentary feeling has put a flicker of tension through her body which has changed her posture subtly enough to spoil the balance. If you have a traumatic experience, it can take a lot to get you to willingly revisit the situation again. 

The point is, we just don’t know. We can’t ask them directly. The farrier just wants to be able to do his job, which is absolutely fair enough, so for him it’s purely a behaviour/manners issue. I want a happy and sound horse, which is also fair enough, so for me the behaviour is information that I don’t want to suppress. I need that information to have any chance of helping her. 

 

BOOSTS TO BALANCE

Tangent about behaviour being information aside, how did we prep for the farrier yesterday? 

Luna, John and Skye, on a different day. Horse enjoying a salt lick without realising that she’s also undergoing sneaky physical therapy.

The mat. If I bring her to the yard I tend to always give her a salt lick or a bit of chaff (with salt and magnesium), and I set these down such that she normally puts one or both of her fronts on the mat whilst enjoying the food. We get natural variation this way. I don’t instruct her where to stand, so sometimes one foot is on, sometimes two, sometimes flat on, sometimes half-on and angled, sometimes as a pair, sometimes split apart. And the very subtle instability of the mat is just a bit of a boost to proprioceptive data for the body. “Oh, that’s where my feet are!” 

Touch. One of the benefits of light massage and grooming, pretty much regardless of whether you’re just messing about or know what you’re doing, is that you’re bringing more sensory information to the body through the skin. Intrinzen liken this to the difference between high and low resolution screens. The higher the resolution, the greater the information, the better you can judge what you’re seeing. 

I listened to a tiny bit of interview with Sharon May-Davis the other day and she spoke briefly about the C6/C7 malformations that she’s been studying. One of the diagnostics she mentioned, in live horses, was to do with how they take steps downhill. Horses with compromised structure at the base of the neck often, as a result, have compromised nervous systems (because the routes the nerves take have been altered or impinged upon, by everything that results from the changes in the bony structure). So these horses have reduced proprioception in their front feet. And so when walking downhill they step cautiously, almost hovering with the foot before they place it, not quite confident about where it’s going to land. I’ll need to watch Skye as I’ve not paid much attention to this before, when on a slope. 

Anyway, anything to boost sensory information is a good thing. So I stroked her legs repeatedly. Though I think I’ll try to be even more thorough in future. I saw a physiotherapist demo something called “Python lifts” the other week, saying that they were very good for proprioception through the limbs, for “grounding” the horse. I think they were similar to a massage stroke one of the girls at Summerfield taught us a couple of years ago. Will research. 

Then lastly, targeting whilst on the mat. She was very keen for this (which I think is her way of saying “yes” again to clicker, “but ooh, can we please stick to things I’m confident with for a moment?”) and I began bringing in more of a variable rate of reinforcement to keep it fresh. Bending to the right still harder than the left, and I can’t tell if this comes from the torso or from not wanting to throw her weight onto her left fore, or from old anxieties about humans (because she can do that bend when scratching an itch in the field). 

 

FDO and DUAL TASK 

Anyhow, all of those things seemed to get her more aware of her body and more evenly balanced, so that she coped pretty well with the farrier despite the sticky moments of him just wanting good behaviour and her just wanting to be listened to when she said it was hard. 

What helped a lot during the trim was encouraging a forward, down, and out head/neck carriage. With my last farrier (and oh, I wish he were still available), I would do this with the target stick. But yesterday I just did it with mints and carrots. 

With her head and neck in that long frame (like you would want for most riding) she could balance. She was using better (more appropriate) musculature to do it. If her head went back/up (for whatever reason) she would become too heavy on the forehand and lose balance. All of this much worse with the fronts than the backs, of course. It also helped her balance more as a reflex, less as a conscious “he’s got my leg, what do I do?!” because when reaching for the mint she wasn’t thinking too much about what else was going on. I learned recently, via Intrinzen again, that in the human rehab world this might be called Dual Task. 

You want to give the individual an external movement goal which is designed to help their bodies re-find functional ways of moving, but you don’t want them to be stuck “in” their bodies and brains whilst doing it. You don’t want them thinking how to do it. In the human movement world, you don’t even really want to spend much time telling them how to do it. You want to control the environment and the task and leave the individual alone to figure it out (this is called a Constraints Led Approach, CLA). Another vote, perhaps, for hacking through varied terrain and allowing the horse to figure it out for itself (as much as possible). Lucy Rees recently put up a beautiful blog post on just this thing. She isn’t framing it from a functional movement science point of view, but it seems to essentially describe the same thing. 

So, give Skye an external balance goal and she does well. Make it about the lifted foot and behaving yourself and she does badly. 

Standing at her head this was clear. The head/neck carriage was the single most influential thing in whether she was standing well or not. For the farrier, it was just that one moment she was being good and the next she was being naughty. There are always reasons for behaviour, if we care to look for them. 

 

BACK TO A ROUTINE?

Understand individual motivations, and we can all be far more useful to our animals and to society and to one another.

John and I now need to find and settle into a new routine. Working around the doggo and all the things we each need to stay sane. I also need some sort of work or a couple of Sparklewren sales. My passion for the corsetry has almost entirely dried up, and I understand why from a few different angles now. But essentially, it’s about being challenged and seeking things out. Something “known” is at best relaxing and at worst boring. 

Which fine, let the corsetry be a relaxing pastime and sell the results every so often. Sure, except that my audience apparently has no interest in buying if I’m not bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm. They were never just buying a garment or an object, they were buying into the feelings of flow and enthusiasm and creativity and exploration that I shared. Without those things, the business aspect of it doesn’t seem to function. So I need income from somewhere. 

Of course, I’m less motivated to find income for day-to-day expenses than I am to find it for further studies or exploration! Paying your phone bill isn’t very interesting and pleasing (it’s like -R, haha!)… Paying to do a behaviour or massage course or to attend another dissection would be far more motivating. Sadly those things cost a year’s worth of phone bills, lol. But there are still some free resources to exhaust in the meantime, so I can keep learning, keep interested, keep engaged. 

Tense anatomy

AN OBSTACLE COURSE 

Yesterday I pinched a scrap tire and log from my boatyard, and took them down for Skye. Well, for the others too, since what I’ve done is begun an obstacle course along the path from field to yard (through the riding field). 

A tiny pile of sticks, a couple of branches, a couple of small logs, then some raised walk poles (on tires), some regular walk poles, and a couple of cones to pass between at the finish. Will add to it and change it as the summer progresses. 

Skye is so golden about coming in from the field now (these days a couple of her herd mates fret without her, whilst she doesn’t show much worry about them at all), that I thought it would be a good way to begin incorporating more therapeutic raised poles and such. When we’d done a lot of poles last summer it had a big impact on her thoracic sling, definitely worth doing as much as possible. Ideally all year round, of course, but we ended up with different priorities over winter. 

Three of the herd (Skye, Indie, and Solo, the two that love her most) were in a new field full of long grass. Happy horses. Even so, she toodled over when she saw me, which was good as I had the bitless bridle slung over my shoulder again, and seeing how they feel about something the second time is always a good indicator of what they really thought of the first time. Bridled, through the gate, then around the edge of the field as usual. 

One of Skye’s boyfriends. His weight needs monitoring carefully at the moment, so he’s mostly in his own paddock. But happily, he and Skye like one another, so he gets a groom and bit if chat every time she comes to the yard.

 

SHOCK! 

On the way, Skye spotted something in the distance… A pony that she doesn’t know very well (he lives in the boys/colt herd, but was recently in a neighbouring stable whilst she had her abscess) being ridden by the yard owner! 

Her shocked little face… It was as though she’d forgotten this was something that happens. The lesson was, thankfully, a very relaxed one, pony walking and trotting around very merrily. And Skye seemed to be watching it as though to judge whether there was danger or not. She began with her head high in the air, very alertly watching them, but didn’t feel a need to turn her whole body to face them so it wasn’t utter alarm. As far a Skye is concerned, being ridden is A Bad Thing. We need to earn the right to show her that it can be fun. 

At the same time, we had passed some of our logs (to let her have a look at them) and reached some poles. So there was a lot to take in. We stood and I chattered soothing nonsense whilst she watched the riding lesson. After a few minutes she relaxed, dropped her head, and turned towards me, so I offered her a target stick. Click. Using the stick (and no insistence), I encouraged her to consider walking over the poles and in fits-and-starts she did. She really needed a chance to think about it though, assess that it wasn’t the same as whatever previously traumatic experiences she’s had. 

 

HABITUATION AND DEEP STABILITY 

Up on the yard, we hung out enjoying various licks and dinner on her gym mat. Doing this for a week or so has definitely helped her habituate to the mat. It’s no longer especially scary. So much so that with a bit of encouragement (a target just out of reach) she stepped her right foot onto it. 

What’s good for the pony…

Hurray! Well done shiny black pony. Having done it the once she seemed to find it kind of pleasurable, and we ended up walking over it and standing on it quite a few times. I’m sure she’d still lose her shit if it were to suddenly flip up, so my thinking is to pop something heavy on each end (but what?) in a bid to anchor it better. The grip tape has helped, but it could do with more. Ultimately, it would be a good thing to have in the riding field or as part of the obstacle course, but for now I think it’s good to keep pairing it with dinnertime, to keep it “part of the furniture”. 

Anyway, what is the gym mat for…? Well, deep stability and improved proprioception. This is why horse people use thicker mats (about 2″) because you need something chunky enough that it retains some wobble under the weight of a horse. Mine was from Amazon, but I know a lot of people use the multicoloured mat from IKEA. 

The destabilisation has to be super subtle though. It’s about conferring a therapeutic benefit, not about engaging the big movement muscles for exercise. If your big prime movers get involved, your tiny deep stabilising muscles can’t. The wobble has to be so slight as to be almost imperceptible. Intrinzen use these mats a lot and what they say is that it’s interesting how the horses come to enjoy standing on them. And I understand that feeling, because when I stand on it I kind if enjoy it too. There’s something soothing about the gentle sway. But stay on there long enough and it becomes hard work. 

One foot, two feet, all the feet… Variety is the thing.

Gentle sway. Just another surface to safely give increased proprioceptive data to the nervous system.

Exploring movement in a safe way… at walk.

There’s at least one company (I think called Sure Foot) who make pads for individual hooves, and I think some in different thicknesses and some that are wedge shaped, and so on. They’re apparently very useful for box rest and rehab. Very expensive, which is fair enough, but so I’m glad to have my cheap gymnastics mat version. 

So, a fair few minutes (maybe 10 or 15mins total?) with various hooves on the mat. Did it have an impact? I think so. 

 

TRUST, TOUCH, AND BANDAGING 

When your horse is looking all elegant in the evening sunlight, but blinks as soon as you take a photo…

Meanwhile, I had also decided to re-introduce proprioceptive wrapping at some point soon. It had certainly had an effect when I did it last year. As soon as it’s on, she sort of straightens out the cervicothoracic junction of her spine and stands a tiny bit more under herself. The TTouch people use bandaging like this, and it is also demonstrated quite nicely in Gail Williams’ book “Horse Movement: structure, function, and rehabilitation.” Williams describes it as a “box” (whilst others have described it as a figure of eight) saying, “the whole wrap creates a kinaesthetic loop giving feedback to his body, keeping him straight.” It also helps encourage the hind end to come through, without forcing the matter or otherwise making it non-negotiable (forced movement being the opposite of rehab, according to current functional movement science). And it’s not dissimilar to the wraps and compression shirts that are now recommended for anxious dogs (and humans!) having, “a calming effect, particularly on young or nervous horses.” Indeed, I quite want a weighted blanket myself as I find I always sleep better with slight compression. It’s soothing, like a hug. 

Last time I used bandaging, her spine straightened out so much that her neck became dramatically horizontal and she found herself having to deal with the weight on her forelegs in a different way to usual. Her go-to being, of course, to carry her head high and neck tense, spine all buckled in an injurious manner. She still clipped poles and struggled to walk well, but it was a big stepping stone for her in rediscovering how to walk. 

So, having improved so much in her posture since then what would the effect be now? And how would she feel about me putting them on? 

I hadn’t meant to do it yesterday, thinking she’d probably had enough to deal with given the obstacle course and unexpected riding lesson. But she was doing so well and was so curious for something to think about (she said hello to everyone, sniffed everything) that I thought we’d try. 

Horse was an angel. She lifted her head and turned her ears back to assess what I was doing, but it was different to before. Rather than (politely) trying to survive it, she was allowing herself to trust that it was okay. She paid attention, uncertain, but willing and thinking. Thinking it through, not just acting out of fear or instinct. So we got the bandages on, gave a piece of carrot, and got back to chilling. 

Could possibly have been tied lower down, but you get the idea.

Once again, the bandages seemed to straighten out the cervicothoracic junction. It’s as though it operates like a sling, despite the actual physical tension being really rather low. But this time her overall posture is better. Straightening out the spine didn’t throw her more onto her forelegs this time. She just stood and moved nicely. It’s like the chest bandage gave a helping hand to the thoracic sling muscles, perhaps in particular the ventral serratus. From Sara Wyche’s excellent book “The Horses Muscles in Motion”: 

The horse’s chest cavity is suspended between the forelegs by muscles. In fact, it is not only slung, it is sprung. [They can help] protect the body from the energy of impact [depending upon] the elasticity of the whole forehand […] If the serratus ventralis muscles are bruised by the pressure of girth straps, or the neck is fixed by the rider’s hands (or draw reins!) the whole system is rendered useless. The horse’s chest cavity is mercilessly jarred with every stride. 

And this jarring possibly creates cavitation of the joint fluids, which is the current working theory (see Sharon May-Davis) behind why working horses get elbow arthritis whilst non-working horses don’t. 

 

EXTENSOR CARPI RADIALIS

More Sara Wyche… 

The extensor carpi radialis muscle extends (opens the angle of) the carpal joint [“knee” of the foreleg]… its action on the elbow joint is minimal. However, the extensor carpi radialis muscle plays an important role in stabilising the [knee] when the foot is touching the ground and the bodyweight is being propelled forwards. In horses that work on the forehand, this muscle becomes severely overdeveloped. 

I’ve mentioned before how hench, tight, and hard Skye’s ECRs are (and the CDE I think too, the common digital extensor, especially on the right side). The right forearm’s muscling was especially bad and also has a small knot of scar tissue inside it. We don’t know enough of her history, but her body says a lot. The injury to her left hind cannon would have thrown her onto her right fore (compensatory movement). I don’t know when this happened, but I’m inclined to think it was never rehabbed. Horses can’t “undo” a lot of the tensions that they get into. So without appropriate rehab or exercise, this will have just gotten worse and worse, fixing it as her “normal” way of going. Left-hand neck muscles strained, left glute overdeveloped, left hind stepping short, head flung upwards to try to relieve her forelegs, forelegs thus taking even more strain as she became more stuck in this way of moving with a tight underneck… and the right fore, in particular picking up the slack. She didn’t walk “lame”, but this was not sound, functional movement. 

   
   
   

Who knows how long she’s been stuck like this? Long enough to get very big/tight ECRs and quite hefty shoulders too. 

Even with everything changing in her posture over this past year, I hadn’t expected to see a difference to her forearms. Maybe my hopes weren’t high enough for her! But I somewhat assumed that they may always be overdeveloped, that getting her off the forehand might be a hard ask (since I’m convinced by this point that she’ll have some early arthritic changes to her base of neck and elbows). But I should have been more confident. Because now I’m sure her ECRs are reducing. 

I’d noticed it the other day, so I reassessed yesterday. Then looked at some pictures to compare. They’re shrinking! They’re softening! Her legs no longer have such huge ugly bulges at the top! With the reduction in tension (truly, they used to feel like concrete) the knot in the right leg even feels less dramatic. 

She has quite a hence triceps on the right-side too (and ooh, I half wish I didn’t know about the prevalence of arthritis in the ridden equine’s elbow, it makes me look very suspiciously at the triceps of all horses), and Sara Wyche makes the same point: 

[The triceps] also plays an important part in stabilising the forelimb. Like the extensor carpi radialis, it is prone to overdevelopment in horses working on the forehand. It is often possible to feel hardened ‘knots’ of muscle tissue just above the [point of elbow]. 

And, as an additional bit of Wyche wisdom, remember Skye’s bulging underneck a year ago?  

The brachiocephalic muscle works in two ways. When the head and neck are fixed (by other muscles), it pulls the foreleg forwards. When the leg is fixed […] it pulls the neck downwards and the head back. (N.B. The word ‘fix’ is used deliberately. It should bring to the reader’s mind the cardinal sin of riding the horse with a ‘fixed’ hand.) 

For a horse locked in a bad pattern of movement and struggling on the forehand! pulling the nose in would spell disaster. And as I say, I don’t know her history, but I do know of at least one very handsie instructor who hopped on sometime in the three years before I got her. How many vets and physios and anatomists and experts need to say it? We shouldn’t work from the mouth backwards.  

In the badly ridden horse, this muscle bears the brunt of the weight of the forehand. It becomes tense and unelastic, and eventually stops the horse from going anywhere at all. 

People fix the front, denying the horse safe, purposeful posture, and then try to kick them into forwardness. “Forward first.” 

I also noticed when scratching her bum that her hamstrings are now less tight and short. Hurray again! The problematic left-hand hamstring is much improved. It has a dent in the poverty grove (old muscle damage, who knows how), and whilst I don’t think that sort of damage can fill in (unsure haven’t been able to find any information to confirm or deny the idea…) it certainly feels less significant than it used to. Perhaps the lengthening and softening of the surrounding musculature makes the dent seem less dramatic. Either way, thrilled. 

She’s coming ever closer to functional movement. She’s almost like a horse that you could put a rider on without it being an obviously bad idea, physically speaking. But then, I look at some of the showjumpers you see (with tight ewe necks, crashing down onto their forelegs with every stride) and am not surprised that people don’t understand why Skye wasn’t fit for riding. Emotional issues aside, her body was in need of rehab, not fitness. 

 

AT THE END OF HER REINS 

Another cute thing from yesterday was that she wasn’t at liberty on the yard. There was more going on than usual (people, kids, ponies) so I kept a hold of her reins. She would make to potter off exploring, reach a “stop” (I don’t pull or tug, I just passively resist), and turn confused like, “what’s that for?” 

But this is cute to me. Previously, if Skye felt any unyielding backwards tension on her head she would be very upset, sometimes exploding forwards or tearing rings from walls. You need to be very light with a halt cue, for example. And you can be, as she’s very responsive. But I want her to understand how to deal with unyielding tension, as it’s a root problem for her re: standing tied. If she reaches the end of her rope she just keeps pulling, panicking about getting free. It would be good for her to learn that the way to stop the tension is by yielding, so that she can be tied up safely. But I’ve not wanted to tackle it until she was confident that I wouldn’t hurt her. How she reacted to reaching the end of her reins suggests she’s a step closer to that. 

 

SWEET VALIDATION

Shiny pony…

My yard owner’s riding instructor had met Skye once before, about nine months ago. And when she was chilling with us yesterday she was very generous and kind in commenting on the horse’s progress. Noting how confident she was, how she’d have not been happy with all this last year, etc. etc. 

The horse becoming well and happy is its own reward, but of course we all want encouragement and validation. 

Much of the time I don’t know where to start if someone asks, “how’s the horse doing?” My markers of success are generally not the same as other people’s, it feels like speaking a different language… and if you’ve not seen Skye’s transformation so far (both emotional and physical) then it sounds like nothing’s happened. So it’s good when people who have seen the change comment positively on it. 

 

RE-TAKING THE OBSTACLE COURSE 

All told I spent three glorious hours at the yard yesterday. It’s been really good to get down so much more often than I used to. I think John has realised that if I don’t get enough horse-time each week I’ll just run away back to Northumberland. 

Going back to the field, Skye powerfully and boldly strode over most of the obstacles without even a moment’s pause. I was stunned. No clipping with her toes, no hesitancy or worry. 

Five things had changed in the interim. 

  1. There was no riding lesson to surprise her!
  2. We had a couple of ponies behind us and were returning to her friends/field, always good for confidence. But not enough to improve awareness of where your toes are… 
  3. She’d done it once before, so will have had a bit more confidence on account of that. 
  4. She was wearing her proprioceptive bandages and indeed, when she’s worn these in the past they have helped her posture… but they didn’t stop her clipping her toes on poles. 
  5. She’d spent time on the gym mat. 

I think the latter point was the most significant. Functional movement people talk about FIRE, WIRE, and SEAL, wherein you get something better firing in the body (eg: deep stabilisers for improved posture), do an activity which makes use of that improvement, and then cement the positive changes so that they become a normal part of movement for the individual.

I need to review my Intrinzen studies on this and maybe do some wider reading, as I’m fuzzy on the “seal” bit. 

But it’s enough to say that Skye quite consistently touches logs/poles, did so yesterday on the way into the yard… but going back out, having spent some time firing up her body’s deep stabilisers on the gym mat, she didn’t. She knew where she was putting her feet, she didn’t worry about it, she didn’t touch anything. A stunning change. 

I’ve seen a lot of people talk about the “mat effect” (one of the Intrinzen students coined this term) and I’ve watched videos, but seeing it for yourself is very different. 

It will be really interesting to see if we go back-and-forth on hoof awareness over poles, or if we can make consistent changes going forwards. Because I’m convinced if we can improve this it will have a big knock-on effect to her confidence lifting her feet for the farrier and for picking. 

I pretty much feel at this stage that all yards should have a thick gym mat, haha. 

Taking time

JOY AND SUNSHINE 

Today at volunteering, we moved a couple of ponies to one of the summer fields. The grasses were tall and the ponies were small, and they pranced and bucked and ran and ran and ran. Such happy little beasts. 

They walked there sweetly too. It’s not far but the road can be quite busy, and they were both very level-headed about the whole thing. The mare I was leading can sometimes be a bit grumpy, but at the moment she seems to be in rude health so she was very pleasant. The only shock we got (and the ponies were golden, no real spooking) was when a ropey-looking lad in his twenties emerged from an alley doing a wheelie on his bike, complete with huge unlit spliff hanging from his mouth. Birmingham, eh. 

 

GLOBAL FLEXION 

Had opportunity today to talk to one of the older students about equine posture (one of my favourite topics). She had just had a lovely riding lesson and was super-keen to know more. We got onto the spine, the benefit of raised walk poles on a loose rein, various reflex moves (which her pony responded to surprisingly well), all that good stuff. As ever, my favourite thing about all that is how low effort it is. Big benefits for not much work at all. 

She said there was a lot to learn in horses and it was a bit overwhelming. I thought about it and later on said, “if the only thing you learn about is the horse’s spine and posture, that’ll make a lot of other stuff clearer.” She seemed dead keen, I think she’ll do well. 

 

BITLESS AND BAREFOOT 

On to Skye afterwards. Lovely horse wanted to keep grazing today (ie: didn’t bother walking over straight away), but was very obliging about changing her mind on the matter. I’d found the entire herd eating with some purpose, so they’d clearly decided this was the time of day for it. Had probably been dozing in the blazing sunshine half an hour prior. 

Trauma fading, happiness growing. Becoming nosey, like a confident horse.

I’d taken in her bridle, now with the new sidepull noseband (ie: bitless). I’ve not bridled her in a fair old while, have focussed on getting her happy with other things. But the last time I did it was obviously with a bit. And she was never thrilled about it. Always said “no” in a very polite way. Head up, mouth clamped shut. Would relent if you persisted, but had made her point. 

I feel like most horses can go happily enough in a bit, if they’ve never been made afraid of it or have had enough time to re-learn to trust it. But, at this stage, why even bother having the conversation? Let’s do things in a way where she’s set up for success, not failure. 

Anyhow, had the bridle slung over my arm and she didn’t batt an eyelid. Said hello and kept her head low for me to do the reins (previously she would show some concern at this). Kept her head low again for the bridle slipping on. Let me fiddle with the fit (I think I need to punch a couple of holes). Not at all bothered. There’d been no jangle of metal, which I’m sure helped. But she’s just so much more chill now. Could do with a slightly larger browband, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. And she’ll need longer reins once we get that far. The current reins are barely long enough to sit at her withers whilst walking with a proper stretch. Which is great news, for a horse who a year ago looked to have a very short neck! Sometimes conformation is actually damage. All horses can become “more beautiful” for having healthier posture. 

 

LET’S DO IT TOGETHER 

Then we walked up to the gate, just like we would without any tack on, happily. She took herself through the gate, waited, and then we went across the riding field the same. She seems sometimes to want to go exploring in this field, not just pass through it. Another small sign that she might be ready to stretch her comfort zone another tiny bit. 

She’s funny when we get through the gate to the yard. She often passes through and then stops to wait for you. Ears listening back, head lifted and turned slightly your way. She could just walk off to graze or to find her tiny dinner of chaff, salt and magnesium, or to find her salt lick, or to say hello to Bayman, but she doesn’t. She waits. It’s more and more that she’s finding human company pleasing in and of itself. That she’s thinking humans could provide interesting experiences for her. This is lovely. 

 

READY FOR MORE

I have, for now, left this sidepull noseband very loose. Nosebands shouldn’t be tight anyway (sing it, people!), but I especially wanted this to allow for complete jaw freedom at first. A salt lick helped show me that she had no problem opening her jaw as wide as she could, whilst wearing this noseband. I might consider adding some sheepskin to the upper part of the noseband. It’s softly padded and nicely made, but I certainly don’t want any rubbing. We’ll, we’re a way off of that anyhow.

She has her dinner whilst I stick grip tape to the bottom of our gym mat (in a bid to get it a bit more secure), and I filmed this as she was being so cute. Very interested to know what I was doing. Not at all spooky or concerned. Later on, behind us, someone starts using an electric handsaw (they’re working on the stables), and Skye listens to it with mild annoyance but not a hint of fear. 

We do a few crunches, then she’s bored. There is an idea in psychology that low challenge and low skill level equate to apathy. Low challenge and middling skill level equates to boredom. So perhaps this is where Skye currently is with her crunches. If I can bump up her skill level (perhaps by carefully over-doing the reinforcement and asking for more effort a couple of times, ie: exploiting truly extrinsic motivation because “needs must”, it’s a way in) maybe this will prepare her for a bump in challenge level, and let us get out of this bored moment. 

In fact, I should consider all of her abilities in relation to this chart (see below). Just as another way of thinking things over. For example, walking. 

Her walk can be good. So on decent footing with comfortable feet (ie: no more abscess and post-trim), we could say that her skill level for walking is reasonably good. She’s not perfectly even, but who is. Point is, she enjoys walking, has a lovely big stride when she’s keen, just could do with coming a bit more “up” in front, and that’s happening slowly as a side effect of the crunches, target stretches, etc. 

The psychology of “flow”. We might not experience it very often (and when we do, it’s an absolute thrill), but what I’m actually finding more interesting is the notion of what happens on the way to flow. It’s funny too, this chart definitely describes my changing relationship to my work (corsetry), and why I always said the corsets were (in some senses) just a way of experiencing flow. It was the challenge and the learning that I loved, more than the achievement of something made or sold. But I do less and less now, and the reason is that it isn’t challenging anymore. So it’s kind of pleasant and relaxing to embellish something pretty, to use my skills… but I’m no longer challenged by it. And relaxation is dangerously close to boredom and apathy. Oh the other hand, some things in my life are too challenging, in terms of what my perceived skill level (ie: confidence!) is. Whether helping ourselves or teaching others or rehabbing a horse, I think it’s worth considering all these things. 

How can you bump the challenge level for mere walking… 

Different footings? Inclines? Different environments? Obstacles? Load (eg: the weight of a saddle, or duration, or speed)? 

Last Autumn, she hesitated with even simple walk poles. Did it, but kind of carefully. And raised poles were hard, she knocked them often. 

And when I asked her (at liberty, once she’d begun understanding better that clicker sessions = choice) to step over a raised pole she walked obligingly all the way up to it and then stopped, looking at me like, “can’t.” 

Yesterday, by contrast, I took her over some poles on her way back to the field. They weren’t spaced well, I didn’t care about straight lines, I even turned a 90degree angle over some, and she negotiated them perfectly. No anxiety about her feet, no hesitation, no slowing down, no tapping them or stumbling. Something is definitely improving in her nervous system. 

But stuff like this seems, to many, to be an obedience issue. The horse won’t go over poles so we must make them. But sometimes, perhaps more often than we realise, it’s not a behaviour issue so much as a physical issue. Something in the nervous system is saying, “nope, bad idea!” even if only in a mild way. I’m glad that all the proprioceptive work I’ve done with Skye has helped this. 

Anyway, this “flow” model may be a useful way for thinking about the psychology of movement, for horses. I think a lot of the time we raise the challenge too quickly without raising the skill level alongside it (or before it). We expect that the skill follows the challenge. But it’s perhaps a delicate balance (which pivots on, essentially, confidence) because too much challenge = overfacing = worry and anxiety. And depending on the horse that might = complete loss of ability to cope (and then we get into the “dangerous behaviours” thing). But we all know a pony that loves to jump. A pony who is clever with their feet and talented with their turns… if the skill level is too easy they’ll be apathetic or bored, maybe not put any real effort in. 

It’s such an individual thing. 

What is the right level of challenge. How carefully should we expand the comfort zone. How much of the issue is psychological and how much is physical. And a hundred other questions, I’m sure. 

We have to start where the individual horse is, not where we want them to be. 

 

REHAB VERSUS “TIME OFF” 

A friend said, “well the year off has helped her!” And I was a bit, “it’s not been a year off [shrug].” 

“She said what?!”

A year off, to me, is a horse turned away in a big herd and left alone (except for healthcare). It’s no bad thing for them, they like being proper horses. They don’t dream of rosettes, after all. But often a year off strikes me as pointless, in the way that most people mean it. 

I know a head-shaker who has been turned away for a year. What is expected to happen that will fix the head-shaking? Was a cause even found? Are we sure it wasn’t human error? Will anything have changed when the horse goes back to work? Is the terrain/food/lifestyle going to make a difference, or have they be turned away onto a flat grass paddock with no friends? 

Skye’s last owner was lovely but (and he said this) essentially afraid of her. I think that when she’s scared it can be scary for the human. Because if too afraid she does just lose her mind. 

I don’t know much about what was tried, except that she was mostly “off work” for three years, and every so often someone confident would be enlisted to hop on her back and try to get her going. Sometimes she would bolt, sometimes she would plod and ignore all kicking. She was described when I bought her as having been pretty much “wild” and feral three years prior. I’d heard from other people that she’d been very underweight at first (which is hard to imagine, she’s a good doer!). So much so that one instructor I know refused to ride her until she’d gained a bit. Pictures from that time show an unhappy horse with a pained expression and dropped back when under saddle. 

Her posture was awful, her musculature and scars telling a story. But as far as I’m aware that wasn’t addressed. And why would it be, people are largely not given enough education on muscling and posture. And when all you want is a happy hacker, you’re often not going to spend money on vets and physios and such. 

The point is, she’d essentially had three years off. It didn’t help. And throwing someone on her back every so often didn’t help either. 

Despite her obvious fear and physical challenges, Skye is so sweet and gentle that we could have held her still whilst I (or someone else) hopped on, straight away. But how would that have helped her body or mind? 

So she’s not been ridden this past year. And only lunged two or three times (similar issue, her body and mind were so tight that lunging wasn’t beneficial, it was harmful). And to most people that counts as a “year off”. 

What we’ve actually done… 

For her mind: 

  • Gotten her happy. 
  • Convinced her that humans are friends. She seeks us out now.
  • Reduced her fearfulness.
  • Increased her bravery.
  • Given her back her “voice”. 
  • Ie: given her improved psychological resilience. 
  • All of this through +R, quiet handling, low expectations, studying body language (calming signals, etc.) and allowing choice. We expect to always be in charge, but an animal that feels it has absolutely no control over what the scary humans will do to it is an animal that will either shut down (“learned helplessness”) or explode when pushed too far. 

For her body: 

  • Released that tight topline (chiro visit, “bladder meridian” Masterton Method massage, 24/7 grazing/browsing livery choice).
  • Eliminated that tight and bulging underneck muscle (target stretches, food delivery, and calmness).
  • Developed the beginnings of stability through the base of the neck (the deepest cybernetic muscles), by encouraging browsing postures when stretching and a long neck when walking.
  • Re-set some postural habits through +R crunches (not the same thing as Gillian Higgin’s back lifts, though we’ve used those too), pelvic/wither rocking, proprioceptive wrapping techniques (a bit like TTouch), general variety of touch (more proprioception), and raised poles.
  • Seen her posture improve overall as a result, with the back being a little less dipped, the hindquarters a little more “under her”, the shoulders slightly less upright, the neck held more horizontal, and (a real telltale sign) the dip in the top of the neck (just in front of the withers) beginning to smooth and fill out. The muscles don’t lie.
  • And as of yesterday, it seems as though her overly hench forearms (the extensor carpi radialis muscles, especially on the right-hand side) are softening and shrinking. This was just a feeling I got yesterday (from literally feeling and looking), but if it continues that’s huge news. These muscles get overdeveloped from being heavy on the forehand. If they shrink of their own accord, it’s because she’s holding herself better in her everyday life. Which will set her up better to potentially manage, physically speaking, under saddle. 

That’s not a “year off”, that’s a year of psychological and physical rehab. Slow but effective, highly rewarding, and in the horse’s best interests. 

History repeating itself?

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY SKYE!

Yesterday was Skye’s year anniversary. Took down some Trebor’s Strong Mints as a special treat. She approved. I also had a couple of friends with me. Glo (photographer) and Holly (some-time assistant, and corsetmaker in her own right). 

It was kind of funny how little there was for them to see. “She’s very laid back…” Yeah, she is now! This was not always the case. And the funniest thing is, the way she used to be… I had almost the exact same experience when meeting a potential adoption greyhound just this morning. And the dog is a black girl called Sky. It’s quite odd really. 

The feeling I got from Skye (for the first few months) and from Sky (this morning) is this… 

A lack of feeling. A lack of warmth. A dear wish to not interact. A preference for their own species and a conviction that the hairless two-legs are potential threats. A gentleness which means they would rather take themselves away than confront their fears. An inability to be truly curious, because it just isn’t worth the risk. 

So when my friends described my horse as “laid back” I was almost irked that they didn’t automatically see how wonderful she is for overcoming her fears and anxieties. But why should they see it, they never met her before. They didn’t know her when she was just tolerating human presence. When she couldn’t relax under human touch. They didn’t see her on tip-toes, terrified of everything under the sun. Or standing and spinning, striking and bolting, when pushed just a shade too far out of her comfort zone (which was very small). 

Skye, one year ago.

Skye, this past couple of weeks.

They saw her expressive face yesterday, but they didn’t see the way her eyes would crinkle shut with furrowed brows as she tried to shut out something upsetting. Or how they still widen and wrinkle if something new is introduced too quickly. This latter happened accidentally yesterday. We were working with the syringe (as much as we could, the horse is currently not interested in clicker), when she reached past me to nose carefully at a bit of sheepskin I had brought down to the yard. Someone else saw this and said, “oh what’s that?”, picking it up and moving it towards the horse. Skye widened her eyes and nostrils, lifted her head, rocked her weight back (you know when the front legs stick out, a startle pose), then took herself away from the scary thing. The person just didn’t know though. Far better to let horses investigate things in their own time. The sheepskin wasn’t too scary until it suddenly lurched at her. Still, it’s a sign of her development that she didn’t lose her mind and was able to take another look at it today. 

Skye’s feelings the first time I bridled her. Very sad that she should ever have learned to fear this.

Because I’m not one for pushing situations past breaking point (if I can help it!) I’ve not seen that many instances of Skye losing her mind. But it has happened. And when it does, you may as well not be there. You get no communication from her, no sense of connection or understanding. You’re just another thing for her to be worried about, in this vast sea of worrying things, and you can’t force any living creature to calm down. I’ve seen this with Skye, a couple of times, and it’s a sad thing. A pointless thing too. No-one is learning any useful lessons when feeling like that. But my friends have never seen that. I can tell them that she once leapt a metal five-bar gate in terror, tangling her limbs, flipping, and knocking herself out cold… but they’re looking at a horse that they probably can’t even imagine trotting, that’s how chill she can be these days. 

As I was walking about and scratching the pony, one of my friends (who, in another life thirty years ago, was mis-sold a reactive and unsuitable horse) said, “ooh, I’d have never felt safe standing there at the tail!” And herein lies an industry wide issue. People are forever doing advanced things with horses who can’t even cope with the basics. Riding is an advanced thing, it really is. It kind of doesn’t have to be. But if you think about the sheer number of things that horses have to be able to do and tolerate compared to any other domestic animal, it’s vast. I think this is part of why +R as a mindset is slow coming to horseworld. You might spend weeks teaching a nervous dog to accept a harness, but a mere day or two on a horse, thereafter displaying impatience at any “naughtiness” displayed. I digress. The point is most people aren’t such good riders that they can work through fear issues whilst up there. Do it from the ground. Why would you get on an animal that you can’t walk all the way around, because it’s so afraid or reactive or cross? Why would you tell someone else, a beginner, that this was normal? 

Anyhow, Skye’s “got ya!” day was pleasant. When she saw us in the field she pause and looked for a while, uncertain because I had new, loud people with me. I had them hang back and walked a bit closer. She came over, had a bit of her garlic lick (which still smells more like liquorice to me), then we all went up to the gate tack-free. This is Skye’s usual way of going to and from the field now. I’m currently working on keeping her at my shoulder. She’s doing well. Left the herd behind and she confidently strode across the riding field towards the yard. The herd now miss her more than she misses them. She and one of her boyfriends (Bayman, who is in a laminitic’s paddock next to the yard) had a rumbling little conversation as we walked. This is also part of the routine now. Then we chilled with friends, as noted, and to finish the yard owner and myself did Skye’s third (and hopefully last) lice treatment. She wasn’t thrilled, but she allowed us to do it with no hard feelings afterwards. 

 

SKYE AND SKY 

Today, of course, John and I first went to meet this greyhound, Sky. We need to have a think about whether we have the time and resources that she needs. We’re quiet gentle people and there’s nearly always someone home. And when I’m not home, she could eventually accompany me for most of the things I do. But she certainly may not be as straightforward as some of the other dogs we saw. Big bold beasties who were padding their ways over to their kennel bars, keen to sniff and lick and give you eye contact and a wagging tail, standing up against the bars to say hi. 

Sky, by contrast, wanted very little to do with us. John had to point out that he thought she was lovely, but just didn’t want to be pushy or impose himself on her as she was clearly very uncertain. He’s a good lad. When we spoke later he said he felt sad for her, and worried that we’d hurt her by bringing her away from the kennels. But, one way or another, she won’t be staying there indefinitely. And the change will be upsetting at first, whoever she goes to. 

At any rate, we’ve put down a deposit so that we can think about it and arrange for a home-check. They’re fine with us living on a boat, but I’m sure they’ll have other requirements to discuss. But the question is, do we have the emotional fortitude for another frightened beastie? I think yes. Because it’s so so rewarding when they begin to relax and interact with you. John hasn’t experienced this yes (except in a small way with the cat), so he doesn’t know how it feels. 

And if we did end up taking her, would we change her name?! I think we’d have to, for clarity’s sake. It would get far too confusing otherwise. 

 

ROUTINE 

After the greyhounds, John dropped me off at the horse. She seems happy with the drill now. Came from the field with only one stop to receive a reinforcer. 

I think this is something people don’t understand about clicker. When you begin, you’re clicking and reinforcing a lot for very simple things. Since horses generally value food more than much else (in terms of reinforcers that you can actually give, because I’m sure they value a joyful gallop, for example, but you can’t give that experience or concept after each of twenty clicks in a training session…) you’re at first feeding a lot. And often feeding for things that we think don’t deserve rewarding.  

But essentially, we need to question our expectations and readjust as necessary. Whether using clicker or not. On expectations… 

A horse with separation anxiety refuses to leave the herd/field. What do you do? 

A baby can’t walk yet. What do you do? 

These aren’t things to appoint blame for. They’re not things to be disappointed about. 

The baby climbs up a sofa and we all cheer and smile and praise. This is repeated. They toddle a few steps with someone holding them up and we praise. Repeat again and again. Praise and praise and praise. Praise and smiles and laughter being an inherently valuable reinforcer for a human child, but not meaning much to a horse until they know and like you… 

We don’t cheer a functioning adult every time they successfully take a walk. But we might cheer them for climbing something hard or walking after an injury or rehabbing after an amputation or achieving something physically difficult for that particular individual. 

We easily understand that with a human we praise/reinforce some things at some stages, and then “spend” our praise on more advanced things as time goes on. Though we humans do have the unfortunate habit of reinforcing cute little kids and being rather unforgiving of teens and adults, being stingie with our praise and reinforcement… Anyway. The point is, no-one would think praising a baby for standing up is an over-the-top level of reward. Yet with animals and clicker training, people get stuck on the idea of reinforcing every tiny thing. Perhaps because we view food differently to grazing beasts? 

“You can’t always reinforce every trot transition!” Or every halt. Or every hoof lift. Or for walking ten yards away from the herd. Or for patiently standing for ten seconds. No of course not. But if you view that task as being as momentous (for that individual) as a baby’s first steps or a kid’s first cartwheel or an adult’s first post-surgery walk… Then hell yeah, you reinforce it, and generously so. And you keep on doing it, then a little less, then a little less… until the behaviour/task that you previously reinforced as though it were the greatest thing you’d ever seen is now just “part of what we do.” Like an adult who has their “please and thank you’s” so ingrained into their behaviour that they feel guilty if they forget to say them one time. Learning a thing is different to knowing a thing. 

Habit and routine. This matters. It can help us or hinder us. An unwanted habit repeated a thousand times makes for something that will stick. Just ask me about my chocolate addiction! If a thing can’t be done reasonably well, is it worth forcing it to happen poorly and risk setting a pattern whereby it is always done poorly for the rest of time? 

It’s worth asking ourselves how our beasties truly feel about what we’re making them do. Is this thing which seems small to us, small to them? Or is it a big deal? And if it’s a big deal, should we endeavour to meet them where they are rather then where we think they should be? 

 

SURPRISE TRIM

With that in mind, it was funny that Skye ended up having her fronts trimmed today. 

We were just minding our own business when a farrier turned up. Not my usual guy, he’s now sadly too busy to come out for just one horse, so we’ve been in-between farriers. Anyway, I think there’d been a miscommunication with the yard owner. So we had no horses for him to trim and he was short on time and no-none knew what was going on. I asked, “well since you’re here could you do Skye?” And he did. 

I got the impression he felt that all horses should be pros at lifting their feet, no excuses, and that it was just down to making them practice. It was mildly deflating, after yesterday celebrating her year’s progress so happily. But like my friends, he just doesn’t know how much she’s actually changed. It would have been easier starting with a feral four year old who has no preconceptions about humans. 

After some worry and walking on Skye’s part, she eventually realised he wasn’t for putting off, and allowed him to do the fronts. Lost balance a couple of times and found lifting the right fore harder (as always), but otherwise did very well. I was impressed with her even if he wasn’t, haha. And he did put my mind at ease, in some regards. Wasn’t concerned by the waviness of her hoof rings, said he felt if was normal healthy growth. And when I asked if we should re-do the fronts very soon (in a bid to finally get rid of two persistent toe-cracks) he said no, four weeks will be fine. So that’s good. 

It upsets me that we’ve struggled to stay on top of her feet… Previous farrier no longer available, new farriers never appearing (or not sounding suitable for a nervous horse), me being away to help mum, the horse being tricky to lift/trim, nevermind the anxiety she had leaving the herd, and the times when I brought her up to the yard only to be pleased that the farrier had to cancel as I found myself with a spinning and rearing powerhouse who just would not calm down… but no option of trimming in the field, as it was too wet over winter. 

Picking and trimming her feet is going to be a challenge for a while longer, that much is certain. But she’s had some sterling moments this past week, she’s happy coming to the yard, and the farrier was able to get the job done (no restraints, no sedation), so I’m taking this as a success-in-progress. 

 

DIS/INTERESTED 

One of her favourite games (usually).

Popping Skye back in her field today was interesting. As I say, she’s not been very motivated by her old clicker tasks (stretches, crunches, and the like). She’s mostly just wanted to mooch around, groom, and ingest salt. Which is fine. But today, she told me she might be up for something else. 

She’s often paused about going back through her gate. Not for any reason, it seems, except a wish to be looking around somewhere else for a while. Today, I popped her headcollar on to take her back to the field. Not because we use it, but because I don’t want her to only associate it with nasty things. Past two days she’s only had it on for a lice treatment and the farrier. 

So, headcollar on with leadrope draped over her neck. Walking sweetly at my shoulder. I rest a hand on her neck occasionally, but I’m not leading her. Maybe the headcollar jogs something in my memory as I ask her to halt using my old “woo-oo!” vocal cue. She halts perfectly and promptly. 

Doesn’t want anything for it, doesn’t expect a reinforcer, just shows me that she remembers it. Nine months since I last had cause to ask her to halt. 

We repeat this five or six times on our way to the gate. Her walk-ons are slower, but still engaged. This, at liberty, with fresh grass all around us. All that attention and compliance, when she’s not had any interest in the other tasks that she usually finds very engaging… It was funny. 

And the last time we did this, walking and halting and using that cue, was when we went out on the roads in-hand. An activity which, when she began relaxing, she did seem to enjoy. Indeed, the day we walked down from our old yard (an hour along roads and over a huge bloody roundabout!) she was very keen to have a look at anything and everything. 

This, combined with the fact that she has sometimes said “can we not?” about leaving the yard to go back to the field, has made me think perhaps she’s ready to go back out for our mini hacks-in-hand. It was like she clearly said, “this thing, I’m interested in this thing, the other stuff you’ve offered recently was good, but now I’d like to go for a hack again please.” 

So we’ll try that soon, hopefully accompanied by the yard owner and a pony. A bit of walking would do Skye and I the world of good, begin getting us both fit again. And it will be very interesting to see if she’s the same as she was when we last went walking… or if the level of chill and trust she’s developed will carry over into the different situation. Won’t know until we try. 

 

DISILLUSIONED UNICORNS

Unrelated to anything, the picture I took the other day (of some interestingly designed unicorns in Poundland) tickled Holly so much that she turned it into a meme! 

I mean, just who in the production process signed off on that facial expression?! Too funny. 

These beasties are my new mascot for whenever horseworld just refuses to change. Campaigns against rolkur, the big lick, etc. etc. are coming along really well, but you still see news every so often where human desire is allowed to trump animal welfare. Just look at the whipping of tired horses at Badminton recently. Some people defended it with the argument that a tiring animal can stumble whilst going cross-country so you do whatever you have to do to get them round. Well sure, or you retire from the competition. Getting round is not more important than the animal that the rider apparently respects, loves, and cares for. 

Forever shrugging my shoulders all the way to my ears. We all make some compromises to our animals’ welfare just by owning them, but the level of compromise has to be kept in check. A super-competitive human being is going to struggle to hold themselves in check… Make it easier for them by changing the rules so that they don’t have to self-limit. I actually feel that stuff in the public eye (competition, etc.) will improve before general ownership does. Everyday I see listings of horses for sale/loan proudly shown with their heads pulled dramatically behind the vertical. Whites of the eyes showing, brows wrinkled, lips taught, teeth bared, mouths opening away from the bit (if not tied shut), neck muscles bulging, and (as a rule, since the two normally go hand-in-hand) with a very downhill posture, dropped back, and overly curvy cervical vertebrae (like an “S” rather than a gentle line), rendering the whole reason “on the bit” ever became a common goal completely pointless (and actually damaging).  People put up pictures of overbent pained horses with the hashtag “onthebit” saying, “he’s so handsome, he’s doing so well!” They just don’t know. They see one thing (the round head/neck) and don’t see everything else. 

We need to think about perceptual learning. Apparently you need about 200-300 exposures, in a short period of time, to really good quality examples of the thing you’re trying to learn. It’s kind of an unconscious learning, where the brain begins pattern-matching without your deliberate awareness. You don’t need to necessarily know why a long frame with arcing neck and lifted withers is healthy/good, you just need to see it. Again and again, at the beginning of your horsey education, so that anything else looks jarring and uncomfortable. 

But what happens at most of the horse shows and riding schools you go to? You see horses taught (or made) to put their heads BTV with an overround neck and dropped wither. You see them unhappy with the bit. You see riders tug and see-saw. So this becomes normal. And worse than that, it becomes the pattern your brain unconsciously looks for as being “right”. It would be a revolution to go to a show and see the majority of the horses working with quiet mouths and long balanced postures and gently lifted backs. The few riding schools and organisations and instructors who are working to that aim should be really proud of themselves. 

Leaning/friendliness

Skye allogrooming with one of her boyfriends. A perk of visiting the yard. Lovely couple of hours with her yesterday. People around, relaxing in the sunshine, so just more little subtle things for Skye to get used to. Apparently she’d been keen to come in yesterday, when I wasn’t down, so I guess she just thinks it’s a nice thing to do now. Get a groom and a salt lick.  

PRESSURE 

The mini-breakthrough of the day was leaning on Skye’s back. 

Not fully over, just on. 

I was up on the folded gym mat which was on top of two wobbly paving slabs. Subtle stability work for me, getting used to the mat for her, haha. Have been putting myself here to let her habituate and to have an easier time grooming certain parts. At first, if you were up high she’d be startled and need to keep you in front of her. Perhaps scared that you’d leap on and start booting her around an arena. Then gradually she was okay with you being at her side. Then yesterday I could be up high and right back next to her hip. So I was reaching over with a dandy brush, rubbing her offside shoulder with my hand, and then I just draped both arms over and rested the weight of my chest and head on her. 

She raised her head to horizontal to look back at me, paused to think, then dropped it again to have her salt lick. Rinse and repeat. It was very restful actually, leaning on a smooth, glossy horse. And though she’s not got topline yet, from up there she does seem like a substantial mare. Kind of broad. 

It’s a tiny bit of progress, but it’s actually huge for her. Not only the emotional aspect, but the physical. About a year ago if you put downwards pressure on her back it would immediately and dramatically dip with her head flinging up at the other end. Not like a pain response or flinch, but like a lack of integrity through her core and back. Or an expectation of fear/pain. Yesterday I rested a fair bit of my weight against/over her, and her back stayed put. No dipping. Step-by-step, slowly slowly. If we can teach her to lift her back into pressure… 

 

HOOVES AND THIGHS

We picked feet again (but only the easy left-side, because I was too hot and lazy to keep asking for the rights), and she’s slowly starting to get more like a “normal” horse in this regard too. 

I also found myself wondering if Skye might one day enjoy work in harness. She’s becoming so confident that I’m imagining we actually could have some little adventures together one day. She doesn’t mind people around her backside (in fact these days she seeks it out for a thigh rub or bum scratch), and when allowed to investigate and habituate in her own sweet time, she finds nothing especially scary. Yesterday I was sat chatting and she came over to say hello. Tables and chairs and tarpaulins and building materials everywhere. Gave her a neck scratch, which reminded her that scratching was available (it’s so funny seeing realisation dawn on her face), and so she swung herself around and presented me with her bottom. Whenever she does this I just laugh. I may need to teach her a more appropriate way of asking. I’ve started using it to suggest lateral work (the beginnings of a turn-on-the-forehand) by stepping to the side and holding my hand out for her to step into. Scratching being the reinforcer, naturally. 

Whilst I was laughing and rubbing she kept shifting her position, cocking her legs at funny angles, swaying and so on, in a bid to show me where to scratch. My yard owner just laughed. “I’ve never seen a horse tell you where before!” 

I’d also taken down one of those spidery head-massagers, ha. I’d found it for a pound in a charity shop, and thought it would be a giggle to see what the horse thought of it. Not least because I get tired hands from itching! 

Well, the jury is still out. She seemed to find it kind of interesting and relaxing, but didn’t give a huge reaction like they do to a good scratch. It’s a fun way of getting a different type of sensation involved though. All good for proprioception. I’d used it on my head before going, to remind myself what they feel like, and they are damn weird… Tickles more than it relaxes. But for sure, she’ll have never felt anything like it before. So a bit of that on her hamstrings and glutes will be no bad thing for increasing body awareness. It can’t hurt, at any rate. 

 

SNAKES 

I get Skye from the field at liberty or, if gentle insistence is needed, with a leadrope loosely looped around her neck. If doing the latter, when we pass through the gate I tend to drop one end and hold the gate (to prevent other keen ponies from following), which then let’s the leadrope kind of drape and slide down her neck and back before falling to the floor as she walks past me. I don’t do this because it’s a good technique for doing gates, obviously (though Skye is perfectly obliging about gates, she will turn and wait and side-step as required if you ask her to)… I do it to see where she is emotionally, and how she feels about things like slippery snake-like ropes sliding over her body. 

I remember the first time I tried to long-line her. She was nervous about the lines on her body, about my position off behind her, but mostly she was stressed about feeling any backwards pull on her head. The lines were just clipped to a cavesson, not her mouth, but she was carrying a bit and it was just all too much. As soon as she perceived any possible restriction in the front, she reared, sprang forward, and bolted back to the field. Well, you don’t know until you try. Now I know how traumatised she’s been I can do all this stuff much more slowly. And the wonderful way she has been this week, I feel that she can and will habituate to all sorts of stuff, so long as it’s introduced in a very relaxed slow way, and so long as anything with bad prior associations is handled even more carefully. So who knows, maybe we will endeavour to learn driving one day. 

 

SADDLES AND BRIDLES 

Saddle uncertainty, a week ago.

After being somewhat upset at seeing a saddle a week ago (“how could you?!”), she yesterday was very chill when someone else dumped their tack on a chair next to her. I was scratching her backside so she was happy, and all she needed was to take a little look at the saddle and then get back to enjoying her scratches. Very good. 

I’m also excited to have a side-pull noseband coming, to convert her bridle to bitless. I am sure she could come to accept a bit, but my experience with bridling her so far is that she’d really rather you didn’t put anything in her mouth. Everything else is fine. She’ll let you, because she’s sweet and gentle. But she says no at first, keeping that mouth closed. And then once it’s in, she looks sad. I was joking to a friend that I’d rather she wasn’t so expressive! It breaks your heart when she looks worried or sad. But as the friend rightly pointed out, we want and need to see these things. We have to be aware. 

I kind of don’t need to know why she feels this way about the bit. It doesn’t much matter (at this stage) if it’s old associations or the memory of pain or mouth conformation or whatever. She’s telling me how she feels. So we’ll try the side-pull for a while and see what she thinks. I used to put reins on her lunge cavesson and she was content with that. Responsive to a very light halt cue and happy having it put on. So I’m hopeful that a side-pull noseband will be good. But, you don’t know until you try, so we’ll see. They’re very affordable though (simple nosebands to convert existing bridles) I was pleasantly surprised. A mere £20 from “bitless and barefoot”. Don’t you love getting horsey post. 

 

BETRAYAL 

Skye had cause to come over curiously with some confusion in her face. “You clicked?” 

My yard owner has gotten interested in clicker having seen how much it’s helped Skye, so yesterday I showed her a little bit with her cute dun pony, Elin (John’s favourite). 

We taught Elin the absolute basics of targeting, and she picked it up in about three clicks. Very clever pony. Not rock solid on the task, of course, but the first lessons where they suddenly understand are so much fun to do. 

She’s gotten annoyed about sunblock, being a bit sore on her nose. So we taught her to target the closed sunblock bottle. I then opened it and she was more hesitant, but carried on. Then she got a bit on her nose, rubbed it off, and came back to us like, “hmm, that was too much, wasn’t keen on that…” so we went back a step. Another girl was there, fascinated, and she asked, “so now do you put it on?” Nope! The owner decided, wisely, to use the pony’s sun/fly mask for now, whilst practicing targeting the bottle for a few days. I explained that if you’re going to use clicker to teach this stuff (or to re-build confidence for something that has gone awry) then the most important aspect is letting the animal set the pace. They get a lot of boldness from being allowed choice, from being allowed to negotiate and somewhat direct their own progress. It takes longer at first, and requires more patience from us (many 5min sessions, always trying to ask little and be pleased with whatever you get), but it sets them up well to accept and confidently participate in all the things we present them with. And that would be true whether you were just using habituation or something more deliberate like +R. Let them tell you when they’re ready to proceed. 

Elin is a smallish pony and very sweet. We could headcollar her and hold her and slap the sunblock on. And sometimes that would be fine. And some horses would accept it. Elin probably would, she’s a sweetheart. But some horses would spend the next twenty years of their life kicking off everytime you tried to apply sunblock. Far too many horses. It’s not necessary. 

How many horses have “problem” behaviours? It’s pretty much standard for horses to have problems with something. But stuff either works or doesn’t, in fixing those problems. And for me, stuff “working” is equivalent to a happy, willing, confident horse. Arguing repeatedly about something you could have addressed is not “working”. Chastising an unwanted behaviour for years is not “working”. And depending on the circumstances and the horse, it might take a long time to improve things if you let them set the pace. Skye’s separation anxiety is only just fading away. That’s taken months. If you forced her to leave the herd (which I did do a couple of times, to be able to say that I had tried it), it just escalated her stress levels until she was standing and spinning. I could have cracked on like that, and maybe I’d have been “successful” at getting her from A to B. But what kind of success is it, if the animal is upset? A good analogy would be jumping… does it matter more simply to get to the other side (by any means necessary), or to have a horse that enjoys its job and gets to the other side safely and happily? 

Anyway, we were working with little Elin (who, it transpires, currently loves an inner-ear scratch more than food, excellent reinforcer to use) and Skye heard the clicking. She was grazing on the other side of the yard and as I was paying attention to Elin in her stable I didn’t really notice until suddenly there was a big curious head at my side. “Why the click, human?” It’s been a while since Skye had other horses doing clicker nearby. The last time will have been back in October I think, before the girls moved Monty and Basil to a different yard. She quickly understood the clicks weren’t for her, but it was funny imagining her mild sense of shock. Wondering what she’d done to prompt the click. 

 

GREYHOUNDS

In other news, the quest to adopt a greyhound continues. John has been speaking to a rehoming place in Solihull. They’re cool with us living on a boat, as one of them used to. This is good, as lots of places’ websites are all, “you must live in a house with a garden!” When you live on a boat, everything outside is a garden [shrug]. Then they discussed the cat, and the lady said they would “cat test” a few dogs this weekend. 

So John called back this morning for an update. There was one bitch called Seren who sounded absolutely adorable but who, sadly, failed the cat test. “She wanted one with ketchup on.” Eek! She sounded really wonderful and had the cutest keen-for-life expression on her face, so I was really hoping she’d be a potential candidate for us. But no matter, there’s no shortage of dogs needing homes,  and I’m sure she’ll find somewhere cat-free. 

One who did pass the cat test (ie: completely disinterested), was a smaller black girl called Sky. That’s right, another black rescue animal called Sky. 

We’re meaning to pop down to meet her on Tuesday. And if we end up being appropriate for each other… ooh, it would be so lovely to have a dog around again. Especially a chill greyhound. But they’ll need to do a home visit first and all that stuff, so can’t get too excited. 

 

PLAY

I’m going to end this post with something from Panksepp via Virgina Morell’s excellent book “Animal Wise”… 

Prancing with another mare, upon returning to the field and being greeted with excitement. It’s a serious business when Skye shows off, she really lifts her withers (she doesn’t convey lightness, but she really does convey power…). So we know that she can do it, when the motivation is right. It’s like the difference between enforced jogging and dancing on a night out. The neurochemistry of each scenario is very different. One assists you, one doesn’t. Guess which is which. Play>work, when talking about developing both body and brain. 

We argue that play – especially rough-and-tumble play – helps construct their social brain. It let’s the [animals] explore the limits of fear, anger, lust, and care, and other subtle feelings, such as exploratory seeking. It makes them confident. – Jaak Panksepp

Play let’s them explore their physical limits too. Their range of motion, their power, their joy. Upon turning Skye out the other day (pictured above) she meandered away listening to the herd calling for her but not being especially concerned about finding them. Not panicking, like she used to. Then, appearing around some vegetation, the beautiful coloured mare came prancing and calling, followed by the rest of the herd. She saw me, saw Skye, and pranced towards us both, ultimately making more of a beeline for the human. She’s very curious. Skye took the invitation and broke into a gallop up the slope, ducking and diving to avoid the coloured mare’s gymnastics, then they both peeled off to do their own little moves. Skye, a bit of a pirouette. The coloured, more of a stand. 

I want to capture these moments of joyful physical expression as it’s the only time Skye lifts her posture proudly. I just don’t see them happen often as I’m not there all day everyday. So I clicked for her sassy pirouette (for the attitude and the joy, not the execution of the move which, to be fair, was on the forehand), and she turned and began jogging towards me with an ear flicking in surprise. “You clicked that?!” She had to pause on her way over as we were split apart first by little Elin then by the coloured mare (“you can’t have her back, we’re keeping her!”), but she definitely registered that I had clicked for something new. 

What I hope, is that she can come to see exercise with humans as similar to prancing in the field, in terms of the attitude and energy brought to it. It would be a far cry from her old response to human-imposed exercise, either shutting down or tearing about in fear of what would happen if she didn’t run. So we’ll see how it goes. At any rate, I’m thrilled that she has playful friends to inspire movement. It will help her no end. 

 

Half-term

FRIDAY 

Well today I witnessed a shocking lack of compassion and empathy from the people of Birmingham. I’ll not repeat the story, it’ll only get me down. But in short, if you’re able-bodied and (apparently) psychologically well, you shouldn’t find it disgusting or funny when someone who isn’t those things is suffering. What’s that quote about a civilisation being measured by how it treats its most vulnerable? It fair rattled John and I. People can be revolting. 

Anyway, as it’s half-term, I’ve been down to see Skye everyday this week, which has been an absolute treat. It’s all kind of blurred into one, for the most part. 

She’s getting less doddery post-abscess, so that’s good. Quite low energy on the whole, but that’s fine. She’s come out from the field everyday, which is brilliant. On the first day she was a bit, “I’d rather not, and aren’t you the human who usually listens when I say ‘no’?!” But (just as before I went north for two months) it was a vastly improved response, a conversation or negotiation. She was no longer horrified and terrified at the prospect of leaving the herd, she just had a preference. A difference of preference or opinion between friends can be discussed rationally, with one party sometimes insisting, without too much risk of damage. Fear cannot. 

 

CODE-SWITCHING 

Uncertainty.

So we’ve been pottering on the yard. On one day I asked too much (re: investigating previously frightening objects, saddles, lunge whips). I’d been along to the Kings Heath Horse Show to support friends and the stables I volunteer at, and I came back to Skye quite tired. I find all the nervous and excited energies of people and horses at shows a bit overwhelming sometimes. Well, groups of people in general, not just horse shows… And it wasn’t even busy this year! Thunderstorms, flooding, and landslips the day before had convinced many people to stay home. But truly the ground was fine and we had a nice day. 

And so everyone did well, except for me, haha. Well I’m being hard in myself really. But I went back to Skye not really thinking about where she’s at, but instead thinking, “horses can tolerate so much when you just crack on.” It muddied my behaviour towards her, I didn’t code-switch fast enough. So she gave me many upset faces and took herself away to graze a couple of times. 

But she always came back quickly, and was very obliging about letting me continue working along her hairline with the nit comb, holding her neck out low so that I could easily do her poll. What a sweetheart she is. But even this, me being too expectant, was a useful thing. A demonstration that all the time spent building trust was effective. If you have a lot of trust you can get things wrong, or do something aversive (emergency situations, vet visits, etc.) and they’ll bounce back and forgive you. You need the trust first though. And it’s not a diaphanous ethereal thing that just happens, or something that emerges without us putting any effort into earning it… it happens because you create and repeat thousands of little pleasant moments and interactions. A predictable pattern, a sense of consistency. This person = friend. As opposed to, “who knows what this person equates to, sometimes she’s angry and sometimes she’s sweet and sometimes she’s soft and sometimes she hits me.” 

 

SALT AND BBQs AND PEOPLE 

But what to do with a piece of rock hard salt lick once you’ve wrested it from your human’s hand?

Aside from that, we mostly pottered this week. Being on the yard was enough to deal with at first, she didn’t much want to also think about crunches or targeting or learning anything new. One day my livery owner was having a small BBQ. Skye and I were already on the yard when people started arriving. We discovered that the horse is currently obsessed with salt licks, so I’m now adding salt (and magnesium, and soon a pro-biotic… the abscess and recent weather has me paranoid about the lush grass’ potential for bringing on laminitis) to a handful of chaff, in a bid to make sure she’s getting enough. 

It was a windy day, things billowing about on the yard and BBQ smoke wafting over us, but she didn’t much care. Stood beside me drenching my arm in saliva and salt residue, as I held a piece of salt lick for her. She was convinced she wanted to crunch it, but of course couldn’t. So sometimes she would tussle me for it, manage to get a grip and hold it, only to drop it and look at me imploringly (“pick it up please!”) when she realised she couldn’t bite it into bits. As a friend said yesterday (when the horse was delicately licking at her hand), “she’s just so gentle.” And she really is. She’s the most gentle horse I’ve ever met. Any person or horse can flip, of course, if conditions allow/create it. But you never, ever, feel with Skye that she might nip you or lift a leg to you or push you aside. 

 

WITHERS TARGETS 

One day, we did some withers-target work, first time properly trying it, and she did great. In fact yes, I’ve already written about this haven’t I? There you are, it’s all blurring into one and I’m getting confused. 

 

PICKING FEET 

We had another small breakthrough with hoof picking this week. The actual task itself is still an effort, ha. But her feelings about it have vastly changed.

It’s hard for her. Physically, I mean. There has definitely been a huge component of emotional fear, but at the root of it is the fact that it either hurts (or has hurt in the past), is uncomfortable, or feels dangerous/unstable. It was never about disobedience (urg, what a word) or stubbornness, you just need to look at the overdevelopment of Skye’s forearms and pecs and right triceps to know that her weight distribution has been off for a long time. We’re working on that, and it’s helping. But in short, picking up her feet isn’t a purely behavioural problem, it’s largely a physical one. 

So, the big turning point we had this week is that she wasn’t frightened or upset at the prospect of lifting those feet. She didn’t want to do it, for good reason, but she wasn’t terrified of my asking. And she began communicating things other than, “no, I just can’t!” The other day (once she realised I really was for picking up a foot, any foot!) she pointedly glanced at me and cocked her left front. “You can do this one next.” 

At present… the left hind is the easiest to do. Doesn’t require much asking, she lifts that almost like a regular horse. The left front is also not too bad. Perhaps because she’s had it messed with so much due to this abscess, she’s come to realise that humans are actually trying to help her feet. The rights are both really difficult. She plants them for a long time and is a big girl! We eventually get there more through my stubbornness than anything. Though a bit of pelvic and withers rocking seems to help, just getting her a bit more relaxed and balanced over all four feet. When she finally lifts the right hind, she snatches it up high, a sort of pre-emptive move. Maybe she anticipates it being pulled into an uncomfortable position? When she finally lifts the right fore, she struggles for balance and sometimes threatens to topple over. 

I’m very pleased to finally be seeing some emotional progress re: the feet though. If I can convince her that all she needs to do is tell me when she’s ready to lift them, then maybe she’ll better prepare herself and we can work as a team. 

Oh, and the hoof picking is all done at liberty. 

 

COGNITION VERSUS OPERANT LEARNING

The first time I ever suggested a “crunch” to Skye, she shifted her weight backwards immediately. Horses naturally synchronise their movement to one another, so it makes sense they would follow body cues if they felt that subtlety was noticed, or if they felt in harmony with the human. Is that synchronisation innate? Operant? Cognitive? Or a combination thereof? Sometimes you ask a thing and they surprise you by making an imaginative leap which, traditionally, people don’t expect of horses. The science hasn’t proved it yet (as far as I know), so many people talk about horses as though the only way they learn is through trial-and-error. 

There’s a question mark over this. When I began studying learning theory as it pertains to dogs and horses, I kept finding myself trying to tease apart the tricky bits where the operant conditioning terminology falls apart. I couldn’t quite figure it out. Motivation, communication, moments where a behaviourist would say “that’s -R, the removal of an aversive to increase behaviour” but which looked more like consensual dance instruction… how that does or does not differ from “moulding” which +R people will sometimes use. Moments where the question of “well what does the animal think of it?” couldn’t really be answered. 

Well the more I read the more I realised… I couldn’t tease apart this question because no-one else has yet. Science doesn’t know for sure. So at least it’s not just me being slow. 

But I was reminded the other day about how finite our cognitive resources are, which seemed to me connected to this question of cognitive versus operant (trial-and-error) learning. If you burn through your resources on, say, a difficult day at work, you then perhaps won’t have the resources to make good food choices once you get home, or to be civil to your partner, or to do extra study. It’s all one pool, one tank, and it’s emptied quickly. This is not great news for those of us who like to dive headlong into one topic. It makes “balance” hard. Ask me how I know. 

I have many conversations with friends about the benefit of a +R mindset/methodology with traumatised or stressed horses and it’s less because I think all our interactions need to be deliberate +R (I don’t think that) and more because if an animal is wasting cognitive resources on fear or stress or anxiety then you’ve nothing left over for anything else. 

Whilst I was at home, I played at a little bit of clicker with Fred, to give him something to think about. First, basic targeting. Which at first was concerning. “Why have you lifted that object up?” Then once he understood it, his confidence blossomed and he was back to being the bold pony I’d known as a teen.

Some +R people want to never use pressure, and I understand why. I want my friendships to be so robust and healthy that if I nudge someone to step out of the way or have to suddenly push them or grab for their own safety, or apply pressure in a way that will massage or help them, then I don’t want them to fall apart in anxiety and fear. I don’t want them to think the pressure will escalate. But the way you get back to that neutral place I feel, with a horse that’s been abused, is by very consciously making use of operant learning… rather than having unfair expectations of their cognitive abilities. 

“She should know I would never hurt her.” How should she know? And, given what she’s experienced in the past, how on earth should she make that cognitive leap whilst in the grip of low-level fear? Reduce the fear first. She’s too busy dealing with that to deal with anything else. Become highly predictable. Be repeatedly paired with good things and good experiences. Foster calmness, a relationship and environment which doesn’t deplete her scarce cognitive resources. Then she will have the brain power to think about any physical pressure that is put upon her. To understand that it may be just another form of communication, or an affiliative experience, or intended to help. To say that horses only learn through experience (classical and operant conditioning) is, I think, to really downplay their cognitive abilities and natural motivations. But of course, I understand why people do it… in discussing any cognitive abilities horses may have it becomes far too easy for people to project complicated (and very human) thought processes onto them. Maliciousness and bids for supremacy and the like. It’s almost safer (ethically speaking) to be a pure “behaviourist” (Skinner et al) and to attribute everything to experience. But it’s an incomplete picture. 

At any rate. Skye and I have done such a lot of +R that if I apply pressure for some physio-rocking or massage or to suggest that she move (whether into or away from the pressure), or to try to lift a foot, it’s no big deal. Not anymore, anyway. It used to be terrifying. 

I see many behaviourists/trainers using the format of Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive (LIMA), and it’s a great principle to adhere to. Physical manipulation does not have to be force, but we should endeavour to be as unintrusive as possible. It all pivots on having the default setting of, “everything they do communicates something.” And respecting that. 

On cognition… Having taught Fred basic targeting I then taught him cheek targeting. He seemed to understand the idea quickly, but was uncertain about doing it. I couldn’t say whether the initial flickers of understanding were cognitive or operant. At any rate, it took a few sessions for him to be happy with this idea. Most likely because we had also had to put sudocreme on his face and neck a few times and he’d rather we hadn’t. 

Having taught cheek-to-hand, I decided to see if I could move it towards being eye-to-hand. I thought this would be done through “shaping”. Using the natural variation of response and clicking for moments which were closer to what we wanted, ie: whenever he accidentally put his face into my hand with it closer to his eye. This slow-and-steady building of criteria has a purpose, letting the learner figure it out through operant conditioning without over-facing them. Knowing that, I still thought I would cup my hand (I hold it flat for the cheek target) and put it in a position which I thought would hint more at his eye than cheek. Give him a chance of getting it accidentally right.

But Freddie is a bright little spark, like most ponies are. He paused, then put his eye into my cupped hand on the very first go. He then nailed it every time thereafter (except once when I’d put my hand in an unhelpful position), and promptly and reliably swapped back and forth between eye and cheek, depending upon whether my hand seemed like it was ready to receive an eye or a cheek. Ie: he saw the position and shape of my hand and thought, “this is different, she means something new.” He also understood the spatial aspect of it, like a lock-and-key, or like those games for children where you put squares into square holes and so on. This is obviously just my own anecdotal experience. But horses often seem to intuit what we’re suggesting in a way which implies cognition over trial-and-error. For sure the latter is a huge part of learning for all organisms. I think we humans put so much value in our own cognition that we forget the weight of experiential learning, especially where things like relationships are concerned. Even so… the pony figured that out. He didn’t happen upon the answer. He solved it. Or so it seemed to me.

WORMING PRACTICE 

A friend gave me an empty worming syringe, and yesterday (Thursday) I showed it to Skye. 

We were pottering around the yard again. A couple of my horse-friends had come to hang out. “She’s a different horse!” “She’s so gentle.” “It’s like having another human hang out with us.” “I’d forgotten she had such a big head.” Haha! 

Skye mostly just wanted her salt lick (as per, this week) and when I showed her the empty/rinsed (but probs still smelling strange) syringe she sniffed it, put her ears lateral, widened her eyes and nostrils, then turned and walked away. “I know what that is human, no thanks.” 

Later on… after some pottering and grooming and nit-combing and dinner and salt licks and slow hoof picking and targeting over my shoulder whilst I sat down and chatted… she seemed interested in trying the syringe again. I stayed sitting with her big handsome head gently craning over me, and she targeted the syringe repeatedly with her muzzle. Skye’s chosen reinforcer for this was a high-value garlic-molasses lick and it gets bloody everywhere. Slowly, my hands were stained and the syringe was getting sticky too. As it began to smell of the lick, she curiously tried taking it between her teeth a few times. Click and give the actual molasses. 

Very good progress. From here, the desired progress would be for her to actively take the syringe between her lips and let me move it around to the corner of her mouth. Then we can begin practicing with something inside the syringe (but not apple/pear purée, as she has tried it twice and both times said it’s horrible!). And so on and so forth. Again, using +R principles to fix something that could have been done well in the first place without deliberate use of reinforcers… 

 

HABITUATION AND HARMONY 

Uncertain, but investigating a saddle in my lap.

Because in amongst all the passionate studies and thoughts on “which quadrant” and “how much is cognition” the fact remains that we can do what we do with horses because they seek harmony. They co-operate. 

Lucy Rees’ new book is a perfect compilation of all her years spent studying feral horses around the world, and it shows us this. They’re built for harmony. Synchrony. Collaboration. They’re not hierarchical, they’re not desperate for power, they’re not fiercely independent like some species. 

Imagine trying to do the things we do with horses… but with horse-sized cats instead. It wouldn’t happen. 

We’ve not been able to achieve so much through horses because we’re clever or strong or because they need leadership or any such thing. We can do what we do because they can habituate to anything and they are so keen for an easy harmonious life that they’ll tolerate much. Their innate curiosity helps too. As such, we need to have in mind the notion that “just because I can doesn’t mean I should.” 

A cat wouldn’t tolerate all the shit we do to horses. Cats don’t even make good animals for experimental study, despite them having minds worthy of it, since they largely have very little incentive to co-operate with our agendas. Horses, by contrast, do have good reason to co-operate. It’s how they’ve evolved. When they stop co-operating, we’ve gone wrong somewhere along the line or there is an unknown factor (eg: illness). When we push them around, we act more like a dysfunctional horse who has learned to bully than like a healthy happy functional friend. And what happens to those pushy horses in a feral setting? They end up ostracised or they breed less. Dominance is not a biologically successful adaptation, as far as naturally behaving horses are concerned. Contrary to what we are often told, strength and control are not things that horses respect. Horses don’t like dictators or bosses. They like equals. 

Habituation and harmony. If they’re never frightened or forced or over-faced, you can teach all sorts of things (like worming) through habituation. If they have been upset then what are we going to do? Adding more fear or stress to the situation is a terrible idea. Getting back to a place of harmony, where natural investigation and habituation can happen, that’s a better goal to have. And perhaps many animals can get there just with the passage of time. But I know plenty who haven’t. Time alone hasn’t made any difference. A more deliberate use of appetitive experiences seems to work better, at undoing the damage done effectively and swiftly enough to please both horses and their humans. 

Pottering

Good few days. Tired. 

 

VOLUNTEERING 

Thursday, I returned to volunteering. Hurray. That’s not sarcasm, it’s relief. Since getting back to the city seeing Skye has been the only thing that felt peaceful, so it’s clear more animals and green things are needed. 

Volunteering was good. Everyone doing well. Got to see some of my favourite ponies in action. Newbie Florence (who is as “cute as a button”, as my mother would say) was in to be groomed by one of the new volunteers. She’s such a cool customer, that little pony. Baby Bumble was ridden and my goodness, what a level-headed youngster she is. Curious to do stuff, an angel to tack up, and her trot was even looking improved. She’s a bit downhill, being young still, but her trot is starting to look more level. Then canter! I was so impressed. Fancy such a new-to-it pony showing the beginnings of a nicely balanced canter on each rein. Really good. She’s going to be perfect for the stables. 

Got to do a tiny bit of re-acquainting with Diego, who still hasn’t gotten over his habit of wanting to show annoyance with his teeth in general handling, but who was a saint for clicker. Bit over-excited, but better that than the opposite. He gave me cause to smile when I called him for clicker. Opposite side of the field, his head shot up (he seemed to be finding himself rather majestic), he paused, then he cantered and whinnied his way over to the gate. Cutie pie. It’s a shame we never seem to get the time to go beyond basic stuff. He’s so willing when something is presented like a puzzle to solve. And so unwilling when you’re instructing him on what to do. 

 

NEGOTIATIONS 

Onto Skye afterwards. My livery owner was there and wanting to get one of her youngsters in (cute dun Welshie, Elin), so John and I went along with a view to bringing Skye in too (if she agreed). 

She didn’t much agree. She wanted to doze in the sunshine. But I knew she’d been in and out a lot lately for mildly unpleasant stuff (abscess, poulticing, box rest), so I decided it was worth insisting, to give her a yard visit that was wholly pleasant. The livery owner does this herself sometimes, so Skye has some experience of the yard being a place for an unexpected dinner. But this is what I must remember, doing something once or twice isn’t enough. It can be enough to spark an idea or a change of mind… but to make something previously frightening (leaving the herd) to pleasant you need to reinforce the new belief/understanding a thousand times over. 

So, she came in, still a bit lame (new farrier to try next weekend, hopefully, mine is no longer available), and pulling sad faces at me (“betrayal hooman! How could you make me leave the field when you know fine well I don’t want to?!”) and annoyed faces at the field’s gelding Indie (“you’ve betrayed me too, I know the new mare is your favourite now, get lost…”). 

 

THE COMFORT OF FAMILIAR THINGS

But once on the yard she was golden. I stood on a wobbly pile of paving slabs and we practiced targeting and a few crunches, but this time with a withers-target. She seemed almost relieved at the nose targeting. A kind of, “oh, we’ve not come to the yard for lice powder or farrier or box rest?! Good, yes, let’s do this.” 

What I need to do soon is get her moving. Crunch to walk, target whilst crunching, things like that. I’ve been waiting for good ground and more equine confidence… We now have the former, but the latter is still a work in progress. And of course, with the current post-abscess footyness, it’s not something I’m aiming for right now. But I’ll be glad once we can do a wider variety of things inspired by the Intrinzen exercises, as I can see how well it would benefit both her body and mind. 

On the yard she was more slow and careful about these things. Golden, but just not quite as comfortable as she is when we do these exercises in the field. Slowly slowly. 

With the withers-target, she picked up the idea immediately (touch the target held above the withers), but executed solutions which were more about a weight-shift and lifted head (contraction of back muscles) than a withers lift.  

On the surface, this isn’t what you’d want. Except that it is… For a session or two, anyway, with constant quests for variety woven into everything you do. 

The vertical lines show how she has shifted her weight backwards. The neutral posture is “better” in this instance than her crunching posture. But… her hip flexors and abdominals are engaged, she’s using her cognition to figure out what I’m asking for, and she’s confident about trying it and about me waving sticks over her back. She’s re-discovering her own body. Exploring a healthy ROM en route to cementing an ability to reclaim a sound, stable, neutral position. That’s the point of working on competency before capacity.

Project Proprius has shared some fascinating insights from the world of movement science. I know some people struggle with their particular use of and beliefs about operant conditioning and the different types of motivation (and there is a question mark over conditioning versus cognition, the well-meaning but possibly harmful quests for entirely errorless learning with zero aversive experiences, and so on)… But I wish they’d not let that get in the way of learning a bit about movement science, so as to potentially find ways of implementing those tidbits of information, even if only in finding a renewed appreciation of the value of rough turnout and boisterous field-mates.  

One of the useful lessons is that movement function (competency) and movement fitness (capacity) are different issues with different rules. Function is about exploring range of motion, proprioception, variety, authentically found solutions to movement puzzles. Fitness is about building upwards, increasing the numbers re: weight carried or reps performed or time or speed or height, etc, etc. 

A rule of movement science is that you don’t load a bad pattern. Ie: you don’t build fitness without function being there first. Relative to the activity. You don’t load a trot if the trot is already done with poor functionality. So, function first. And whilst fitness has “bad and good” patterns, function is about finding stability and mobility through a healthy normal ROM. 

So, Skye’s ever so slightly squiffy looking withers-targets are not what you would want to repeat or load in a bid for fitness. But as something for her to experience a few times en route to a wider proprioceptive awareness of her entire body? Sure. It’s just more information for the nervous system. More self-knowledge. 

 

You can see, with the horizontal lines, how she pressed her withers back/down more than lifting them up. You wouldn’t want to “train” this posture. You wouldn’t treat it like a fitness thing, increasing reps or size or adding a weight to it. But as part of a process of discovery I’m fine with it. Ideas for variety going forward include alternating with a low nose target, adding targets to the side during a crunch, and holding the withers target (or a hand) more above than behind the withers, to see if that gives her a hint about what we’re after.

 

I care about the spine in ridden horses, so I’m forever looking there and noticing the “good” and “bad” moments. I know which shape/posture I want to help become more habitual. This is in big part not something you can do with fitness exercise. 

The big prime movers, visible on the surface can certainly fill out and look the part, but they shouldn’t be doing the job of the deepest stabilising muscles along the spine (tiny criss-crossing flyovers which keep the spine safe and which benefit from things like varied terrain, grazing/browsing, marching walks, and so on). If they are, you’re wasting capacity on competency (I think that’s how I’ve seen it described before). It’s not very efficient, not very stable/safe, and you fatigue more quickly. 

And she’s well on her way. She does hold herself far better than a year ago. Her default setting has improved. If only I had the same enthusiasm for helping my own movement competency! I was thinking the other day about my slight carefulness when on my own two feet. I think Skye and I have similar challenges. I remember saying to my boyfriend’s father that I feel far more stable and safe on horseback than on my own two feet or on a bicycle. He was shocked! Perhaps from a “being in control” point of view. But for me it’s because I feel more stable working from my pelvis/hips/core than from my lower limbs. I “trust” my hips and core in a way that I don’t trust my knees and ankles. The carefulness I have stepping off my boat, for example, is not a million miles away from the carefulness that Skye shows in slowly walking around the yard. And even so, she puts her feet down at quite odd angles sometimes. As though she’s not quite aware she’s done it and that it’s a daft way to stand or step. I think I need to spend as much time thinking about increasing the proprioception of her lower limbs as I have done with her core and neck. 

Anyway, in always looking at the spine, it’s important not to forget the rest of the body. Though her back tightened in a way that I don’t want to repeat/encourage, her abdominals and hip flexors also engaged. In the video you can see the muscles flickering beneath her point of hip (her glossy highlights give it away). And between efforts she stood more evenly balanced over all four feet than she had before the activity began. So we got some good things firing. 

During some of this I was still stood on the wobbly paving slabs, so we had a slight emotional challenge there too. Today I increased that again by popping my folded gym mat on top so that I would be stood even higher and on a different object.  

 

HABITUATION and COUNTER-CONDITIONING 

She came in today with zero refusal (even though the snack I had for her, a cherry tomato, was deemed worthless!), so I think Thursday’s lesson made a tiny impact. I didn’t even bother with a headcollar, as I wasn’t that determined to make her if she didn’t want to. Just looped a lead rope round her neck, invited her with me, and was letting her loose before we had even finished coming through the gate. Angel. 

Sometimes she went off to graze, sometimes she went off to investigate. This is what I want, for her to feel like she can investigate and handle any/every environment.

I then pottered around the sheds collecting things whilst she watched on. She gets this curious and surprised sort of expression when I’m doing things like that. Or when she discovers she can cope with something scary.  

She’d put herself straight into shadow and wasn’t for clicking, so I groomed for a while, sweeping off and picking out the dead bodies of lice. I’ve bought a nit-comb today too, to try to get some of those eggs off before they have a chance to hatch. She dozed, swung her arse towards me a couple times for a scratch, generally chilled and didn’t fret too much. 

The livery owner and friend arrived as I was grooming. Bless my livery owner, she’s always so pleased when she sees Skye doing well. They brought the cars in whilst I carried on grooming (all at liberty), then we did a tiny bit of clicker whilst chatting to everyone. Horse cautious still, and was shocked to see me stood even higher up than last time (when on the folded mat), but she did very well. Took her time and definitely wanted to keep me in eyeline whilst I was higher up (“hoomans climb on your back when they’re up high!”) but investigated everything (not for clicks, for her own confidence) and took herself away to nibble grass or reach for high leaves when she felt she’d done enough. 

Which is ideal, because then they come back again having decided for themselves that they can cope with the situation. I sat with the girls at the patio table and Skye pottered around. Came over for nuzzles and I was handed a slither of salt lick for her. Skye loves a salt lick… They reckon that salt can be addictive (no kidding), but that it can also function as a sort of anti-depressant, so maybe she’s telling us that she’s a little bit deficient. I might try her on a balancer at some point anyhow, see if enhancing the variety of nutrition even further (because she already has quite a lot of variety in the grazing here) helps her emotions at all. 

We had many comical minutes with the salt lick. Horse wouldn’t lick it from the ground, you had to hold it. But she also wanted to snap a bit off to eat. Which she couldn’t do, so we had some playful tussles and some moments where she’d got it and was nodding and chomping away only to drop it again and look keenly like, “pick it up please hooman!” Gentle and comical, that was Skye today.  

And all this, on and off, whilst other people arrived with scurrying and barking dogs, a startled stray cat, the smoke from disposable BBQs (right there on the table I was sat at), people chatting to her, reaching to her, stroking her… one guy (who hasn’t learned horses yet) running behind her before we had a chance to advise otherwise… wind threatening to blow a parasol over and making fly rugs and tarpaulins billow everywhere you looked… and all her herd mates, both current and former, a field and a fence away, save for Velvet who was resting her poorly foot in a stable behind Skye. 

Lots of things to potentially startle a horse. But none of them quite did. She looked aware, could easily have been pushed over threshold if something big and spooky had happened, but no more than any other horse. And being at liberty, she had less cause to feel near to threshold. No threat of a human clinging onto her via metal in mouth or nylon over poll. 

Once she’d finally had enough of the salt lick (I think because the BBQ smoke was getting a bit much), she wandered off to graze. I grabbed an apple and walked to the gate, “come on Skye.” Horse followed. Came in sweetly (rest of the herd in the distance). Enjoyed her apple then said, “I don’t want cuddles, I want a bum scratch” a couple of times. Then wandered off in the general direction of the stream (not the herd) at a walk, which is quite a change from when she used to canter off to her herd mates in a returning-to-safety panic. Golden. 

I’d love to be at all the visually exciting stages where I can see her body and confidence benefitting… crunches becoming canter departs, chasing targets, lifting forelegs… Or at the stage where she doesn’t consider things like saddles automatically punishing. But I do feel that this stuff, quietly letting everything become safe and familiar and routine, will help get us there. 

Nearly a year apart. The red line suggests the spine (not super accurate, but you get the idea, less kinked between the shoulders). Belly a bit less saggy (improved abdominals and pelvis a bit more under herself). Back closer to horizontal, withers a tiny bit more up. Topline less tight/contracted in general. Front legs less camped under (ie: less heavy on forehand). More horse-shaped! Her posture now makes her neck look slightly longer, which is what you want, a sense of more horse in front of the saddle than behind. Emotional work aside, she’s almost at the stage where it wouldn’t be unethical to put a rider up there. She’s almost back to neutral, re: her posture. 

Peace

Yesterday turned out lovely. I’ve felt quite miserable since getting back to the city. It’s a great place, but you want what you want. Seeing Skye and the others yesterday helped hugely. 

 

HAPPINESS 

She seemed taller than I remembered! I’m putting this down to absence, a few weeks getting used to my old boy (14.2hh Fred), and the fact that the ground is now dry and so she isn’t sinking into it, haha. 

What a joy a lovely big horse is though. Well, she’s not that big, but you know what I mean. Powerful but gentle. She always slots into a herd perfectly. She’s just good at being a horse. Not all horses are! And having read a bit more about how they would live naturally in Lucy Rees’ excellent new book (“Horses in Company”) I’m not surprised. We don’t often let them learn horse before we expect them to learn human. 

 

SUNSHINE AND ABSCESSES 

Skye, Indie, and Velvet (with Verity over the fence). I was pleased to find her standing square on those front legs, even if she had clearly tightened up and become a bit strained whilst dealing with the abscess.

It was sunny but not too hot and not too close. We found Skye with the livery owner’s herd (as she has been since I went north two months ago, save for her recent spell indoors due to an abscess), all dozing near a fence in the sunshine. I was glad at this, the ground being dry enough for her to be out. 

The abscess story. She was suddenly on three legs one evening so the livery owner helped her hop across the fields into the stable and contacted me. We agreed to decide on a plan of action in the morning, once I could see some footage of her walking. Just as we were agreeing “call the farrier” (thinking it must be an abscess, but obviously wanting a pro to sort it) Skye obliged us by bursting the abscess herself. The livery owner kept her indoors with poultices for a few days and it seems as though that will be all she needs on this occasion. 

Horses though. It was funny/stressful timing, as I’d just started feeling like I could let my guard down re: mum’s recovery and Fred’s overall health. Then boom, your horse is on three legs and a couple hundred miles away and you’ve not been earning because you’ve been caring for a family member. Thank goodness for good livery owners and common ailments. At a distance, you can’t help but imagine that there could be something severe and costly happening. 

I was sad for the beastie, didn’t want her to be in pain or stuck inside. But thank goodness for all the work and time we put into just getting her relaxed and happy with people. She loves my livery owner and is now pretty friendly towards everyone she meets. So she tolerated being stabled quite well all things considered. 

Anyway, she’s back outdoors now, still a bit lame but vastly improved. Feet due a trim soon, so we’ll see where we are and what the farrier thinks then. 

 

HOBBLING 

Left to right: Toffee, Elin, and John.

Having found them all by the fence, Skye eyed us somewhat cautiously. “Humans again, what now?!” When she realised it was just me with the usual stuff she relaxed. She could do with a bath (somehow, a few lice have gotten into the herd, eek) and of course needs that trim, but for my first visit back and with her a bit lame I just wanted to say hi and reconnect. 

This was charmingly complicated by some of the other horses who wanted to say hello too. 

Filly Elin (who I guess must be about four now?) seems to love my boyfriend, she always makes a beeline for him when I bring him along. Her little Shetland shadow Toffee always follows at a small but safe distance. John didn’t fuss her quite as much as she wanted, so then I got to be the itching servant for a while. 

Big brown Irish lad Indie was keen to interact. And a gorgeous new coloured mare called Solo was very keen interested too. 

I love horses and I don’t mind working around a herd situation, so this was all fine. But complicated slightly by Skye visibly hobbling and showing reluctance (at first) to engage with the humans. Soon though, they all got bored of vying for my attention and by this point Skye had realised there was nothing to be concerned about, so we were able to find a little bit of space to interact. 

 

OFFERINGS

There’s a lot to be said for just chilling in a field and waiting until the beastie decides to interact with you. But perhaps there’s also something to be said for very clearly saying, “this is what I’m about today, do you fancy it?” so that the animal knows what it’s choosing to take or leave. 

I tried a few things, to let her know what the deal was. Fist targeting for a carrot. After a few of these, her eye softened. The suggestion of crunches, incase she might do one and find that shifting her posture or engaging her muscles might help relieve her tired right foreleg (compensating for the healing abscess in the left). And yes, she remembered the idea and gave about four small weight shifts. Invitations to take a few steps with me, which she accepted once she’d had twenty minutes of being allowed to say no. Then fist bumping for scratches, which she enjoyed. 

 

RELEASING TENSIONS 

Two interesting things. One) the muscle imbalance that has returned to her neck through hobbling around on this abscess. You can see how it’s become tight and short again, with the underneck bulging. Two) her mane-flip has changed again! When did this begin? Is it going to persist? If her mane ends up doing this, sort of splitting down the middle and falling equally to the left and right, I’d be inclined to interpret that as a sign that we’re moving towards something like symmetry.

From here, I was able to offer her some relaxing massage strokes, as she’d decided having me near and touching her body was fine. I did the only Masterton Method stroke that I currently know (the bladder meridian) alongside lots of general stroking. She was in absolute heaven. She has enjoyed this stroke before, but I think she really needed it yesterday. If you remember when I first got her, that tense and tight ewe-neck… It’s clearly a posture she’s gone into before, in response to injury or discomfort. So common in horses, whether through injury or poor training/riding/saddle-fit. “Topline syndrome” I’ve seen some vets and bodyworkers call it. Well I felt like I’d spent the best part of a year creating conditions/work/habits that would slowly dismantle that posture, and it seemed to be working. Sneakily decontracting her body, whilst more obviously focusing on her emotional life. But poor thing, she’d tightened up again this week in trying to keep weight off the abscess. 

As soon as my fingertips were running along that topline, her eyelids began flickering. The left-hand side, in particular, was especially knotty and tight. I would pause and hover over the areas that showed the most response but to be fair, there were many points on the left-hand side where this was the case. 

I swapped sides and swapped hands, and basically carried on for as long as I could without tiring. I carried on down her back and haunches a couple of times, but it was the neck that showed the response. As the releases increased the blinking did likewise. The head began to drop from its high tense position, she began swaying side to side, and she almost stumbled sideways at one point. And all that from just lightly touching (barely-even-doing-it, they call it “air gap” or “egg yolk” pressure) a certain part of her topline. I really need to learn more about Masterton. 

Rather open shoulder and ribcage there. She can do this to both sides. Could a human ask her to bend using physical aids without her resisting or bracing? Maybe not yet. But you can encourage it with target or carrot stretches, goals to reach for.

Aside from the bladder meridian, I also tried to soothingly stroke her entire body. Gently, in a bid to increase proprioception. “Hey horse, you have haunches and abdominals and thoracic sling muscles here, perhaps they could help you take the weight off your tired forelegs?” And I can’t say for sure if this is connected, but when we left and she walked off to graze, her movement was vastly better than when we had arrived. Still lame and cautious, but walking rather than hobbling, with a decontracted topline and half-decent posture. She had a couple of good itches to either side too, displaying some lovely suppleness as far as “social” movements go. I can’t remember all the terms, I’ll have to review my Intrinzen studies. But essentially it’s worth being aware of the fact that bending for a perfect circle is one kind of movement and bending to scratch your hip is another! We think a lot about how our horses do or don’t manage to move as desired for ridden work, but how well can they move as a horse in their normal lives? And does their suppleness dramatically differ when ridden or when free? When doing a task they enjoy versus a task they dislike? Or when doing something with a goal (“must… reach… itch…!”) versus something “pointless”? Biomechanics and psychology are not separate concerns. 

During the massage, all the other horses had gone off to graze. Occasionally Skye noticed and her attention was taken away from the massage. But she repeatedly decided to stay for more. When I finished, I was standing around minding my own business and she decided a thigh rub was in order, and side-stepped her bottom towards me. Cute. I’m so pleased she still wants to interact, despite my absence and despite having to recently have humans do things she’d rather they didn’t (poultices, stables). It shows the change in her feelings, I think. 

I then leaned against her neck and shoulder and just chilled, because to be honest I’d been feeling claustrophobic and sad in the city and all of a sudden everything was good with the world again. Just because of a sweet, shy, gentle horse. She rested the weight of her head over my shoulder and we dozed together for ages whilst I stroked her cheek. Lovely cuddles. 

But oh dear, this is where the herd’s lice made themselves known! I’d not seen anything on her, but with all that thigh rubbing and topline massage I’d disturbed her mane and tail enough to reveal the little bastards. No-one wants to discover their horse has lice by realising that they’re merrily meandering from her cheek onto yours! 

Well, I suppose life is all about the sublime and the ridiculous. A perfect afternoon and a perfectly ill-fitting ending to it. My glossy horse in her shiny summer coat, looking the picture of health save for the healing abscess, and oh dear, some blood-suckers have found their way to her. 

We’ll be treating the entire herd, at any rate, and if that doesn’t do the trick I’ll call the vet for an injection too. She’s not especially infested, it just needs nipping in the bud. 

 

SPRING GRASS 

Not sound, but walking with her head low rather than hobbling with her head high. Hurray for the bladder meridian!

Perhaps the abscess is connected, who knows, but I was also pleased to find that the lush spring grass (when it finally came) hasn’t done her weight any harm. 

Now that her winter fluff is off she looks good. Not muscled of course, but not fat. Our winter was so mild I was concerned she wouldn’t get lean enough for spring. And then I wasn’t here to keep tabs for my own peace of mind. 

But, two months away and the horse is no worse off for it. Indeed, she’s had to practice being lead to the yard and back quite a few times, has had to agree to poultices, has had lots of sweet human interaction. So really, this time has been useful for her, even if I was sad to be at a distance. 

Fingers crossed now that she will be sound again soon and we can pick up where we left off.