Pursuit = Happiness

This week in horses… 

 

MONDAY

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

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

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

 

TUESDAY

What a good day for horses. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WEDNESDAY 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrilled for her. 

 

THURSDAY 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superstar beasties. 

 

FRIDAY

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

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

 

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

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