A good run of volunteering days this week. Despite having all the rain yesterday! And a very informative week with regards to Skye’s emotional baggage too.
First, Skye. With the winds and weird air of Hurricane Ophelia on Monday, she did not want to leave the herd. We were having some progress until the herd likewise got het up by the weather and galloped off. They’ve been moved into one of the furthest fields for now, to rest the others, which also showed that Skye’s separation anxiety hasn’t gone, it had just been temporarily alleviated by the fact that when brought onto the yard alone the herd were still within sight. After a certain distance, she gets upset. As a friend put it, “for all she knows a lion has eaten her babies…”
On Tuesday she was reluctant about leaving the herd, but golden once we got onto the yard. Largely because my friends’ two horses were also there. Horses = safety. We practiced polite standing, anchoring to a cone with a target on top. She did so well. And it’s so interesting learning about how her mind works. After I’d done a bunch of that work I wandered off to help the girls practice some clicker with their ponies. After a few minutes one of my friends suddenly said, “Jenni, look!” Bless Skye’s heart, she was still anchored to her cone, nudging the target every so often. That was heartily rewarded.
The more I know Skye the more I see how humans have messed things up with her. Pressure is often upsetting. She doesn’t really know what pressure/release is. You can’t tie her up and let her figure out how to stand on a yard, for example, if she reaches the end of her rope she gets stressed and keeps pulling. If you pull too much to urge her to walk she plants her feet harder. It’s a natural response for horses to push into pressure (I can’t remember what the official term for it is right now), it’s a human thing that we want them to yield to it. And whilst it might seem like I’d prefer +R most of the time, I do think that domestic horses need to calmly understand pressure/release. It’s our responsibility to them, at the moment. I could die tomorrow and the horse could end up anywhere, and pretty much anywhere she went she’d need to know how to yield to light pressure.
The -R has perhaps been done clumsily with Skye, or gone into +P far too often and fruitlessly, and who knows whether that was by accident or by design.
We did pony swaps too. One of my friends did some of the cone targeting with Skye and said, “she’s doing it more for the click than the treat!” We are slowly getting there. Another was holding her later on and commented on how sweet she is. Which just goes to show, this horse is pure honesty. She can give you every end of the spectrum, depending on how you treat her and what situations you put her in (as you’ll read in a moment). It was cute, anyway, as I was teaching the beginnings of clicker to her pony and Skye was watching on curiously as if to say, “why make click? Am just standing here. Click not for me?”
It’s fun doing clicker with their ponies. They’re both so much bolder than Skye, and actually kind of stroppier even than Diego. They’re just learning how it all works so at the moment it’s a bit over-exciting. But then on another occasion one of them showed us how clever he really is. With one sideways step and a click that was meant to highlight a halt but also captured the sideways… he ended up doing a turn-on-the-forehand with each halt! Too bright! Clicker is good for challenging us to be more observant, for sure.
Then on Thursday the farrier was meant to come. In the end he cancelled due to injury but it was just as well. Pretty much everyone I trust (who are all wonderful, but who are primarily from a -R background) had advised a “no nonsense, let’s get on with it” approach to getting her away from the herd, and I was half with them since sometimes (medical treatments, etc.) that’s perhaps how it needs to be. And most horses will settle to that, one way or another. It helps for them to know what to expect. We’re going to the yard, end of story. For Skye, I think she’s been pushed around so much it just isn’t going to work like that. She’s made it to 14, after all, without this issue being addressed, and mostly as a field ornament. Force can’t fix separation anxiety, and I’m a touch disappointed in myself for trying. But, hey ho, at least then you can say that you have indeed tried the normal approaches.
I made her come in alone and it was easy enough. Physically making it happen was never the problem. The trick with her is a deep voice, so that tells us something. But it was utterly pointless. She was so far beyond threshold that my presence meant nothing and all she could think about was where her herd was. I walked her for 45mins and she did calm down a touch (we had some standing up, some striking, panicked whinnying, which did all lessen) but she was still completely disconnected from me.
Now, does that matter? Perhaps if this was the drill on every visit she’d “get used to it.” But I want more for her than that. When you’ve seen how engaged and connected +R horses can be, you don’t want for them to merely tolerate or switch off to the things you do. You want them to participate. It’s so much more fun. So I’m going to go back to a more careful and slow strategy of bringing her just a short way from the herd, just slightly outside of her comfort zone, working there, then putting her back. Hopefully increasing the distance a little more each time. In the meantime, I’ve got permission to bring out little Nancy (one of Skye’s favourite herd-mates) whenever I need to bring Skye up to the yard. I think that’ll keep her much happier whilst we slowly deal with the separation anxiety, since she’s perfect if there’s another horse there. Aside: I’ve had two horses thus far in my life and they’ve both had little ginger friends. Funny.
Because here’s the thing… I don’t care if her body is physically where I want it to be if her mind is not.
My new mantra for Skye, something to keep in mind whenever I slip into impatience: “she’s not for forcing.”
On the plus side, a friend said yesterday that she looked less plump! And that her back looked flatter. Whether this is a general improvement (from the terrain of her new home) or a momentary improvement (from being engaged and ready to run back to the herd!), who can say. But I am thrilled to see her “use” her body more and more. Her anxious rears showed wonderful hind-end engagement and wither lift, ha.
Right, on to volunteering.
We’ve had all the weathers this week. Glorious on Tuesday through to torrential endless rain on Thursday. I continued prepping the fibreglass horse and got as far as having half his tail brushed! What need is there for such a thick tail…? I swear, that’s going to be the longest part of the process. But it’s step two (after the initial scrub down). Clean, brush, plait, and bandage the tail so that I can scrub, sand, and paint the rest of the horse without messing it up again.
We had two of our regular teenagers down for work experience this week, so that was good too. They’re a good pair, hardworking and they love the animals. I love when Summer ends because I find too many people around a bit overwhelming. It’s also why I like weekdays! But it’s nice to have them all dip in and out every so often during term time or what-not.
Diego was very good for his clicker this week. He’d been a bit off last week, in general, and at first this week he seemed to not know how he felt about humans. Uncertain coming over in the field and such. But once we got into the arena and reminded him that it was just a fun clicker session he was great.
Tuesday, very focused and attentive. I was trying to show someone that if you’re teaching polite standing/manners, you might build upon duration slowly. I tried to explain about how if he swings his head into your space you can stand up squarer with arms by your sides, say “stand” if you need to as a reminder, and he’ll go, “oh right yeah” swing his head back forwards and stand perfectly, at which point you click and reward (sometimes a neck scratch, sometimes a treat, or on the yard you’d just scratch and say “good boy”). No need to correct or punish, just remind him of the job you want him to focus on. Alas, I couldn’t demo the head swinging very well as he was so focused on standing with eyes front he was exceeding the duration I’d decided to aim for. Good pony. He tries really hard.
Wednesday, popped a passenger on board to see if the addition of a person on his back changed how he felt about clicker. After all, it’s because he has (at some point in his life) been soured to work that we’re doing all this silly stuff. Answer, nope! He was as motivated as ever. In fact this day was another high motivation day, he was a tad miffed when we ended it. A big rule for me is to not piss off 600kg animals, but I can only work with what’s in front of me I suppose. Anyway, we exploited that energy to get a couple of trots and a canter depart, and we ended the session on the best trot I’ve yet seen from him. Rhythmic, non-grumpy (important!), forward, and he’d have kept going if we hadn’t stopped him, which is great. We got some backing-up too, in which our passenger could really feel his back lift, so it’s good to know he’s capable of lifting with a weight on his back. He did find it hard, of course, so we got it perfectly the first time and then when we asked again he was reluctant. But he’s just at the beginning of getting fit with his weekend hacks and such, so that’s all fine.
Thursday, all the rain in the world. So just practiced tacking up as I’d never seen what he was like for that. Brilliant, really. Just like any horse, good if you’re chill, miffed if you’re too sharp with the girth and such. Also used it as an opportunity to practice yielding the haunches to light pressure as he’s better for that on the yard than in the arena. But it’s interesting how he’s been switched off to pressure just as Skye has, but with a very different manifestation of the problem. Which I guess will be down to their very different characters and life experiences. He ignores pressure until it makes him angry, whereas she ignores pressure until it makes her afraid.
Today I’m mostly resting and reading. Though my rest days are actually much worse for my body than my active days. Watched something just the other day about how the latest thinking is that we should be active 8 hours a day. Walking, squatting, climbing. Hunter gatherers. Even an hour of gym each day isn’t enough to counteract sedentary jobs/lives, the two groups of people have similar rates of “affluent illnesses” later in life. I’m glad to have bumped up to three days volunteering each week, glad to have a bumpy field that I have to walk through to see my horse. The next step is to get a bit more of a routine going on my other days, to get a bit more active still. Am back at my local gym courtesy of a Christmas/birthday present from my mum, so swimming is back on, hurrah! But, much like these horses, I’m not one for forcing. Won’t do a thing unless intrinsically motivated somehow, or unless there’s a good enough external motivation/reward. I’ll muck out for a couple of hours far more readily than I’ll lift weights for 30mins at the gym. You need to exploit your own motivations.
Right, enough writing.