Two sides of a coin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

SESSION ONE 

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

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

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

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

 

SESSION TWO

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

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

 

 

SESSION THREE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

OVERVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

I was so full of happiness last night. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Peace

My calm horse is back! 

Or perhaps I am back… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When in doubt, just walk and breathe. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good fortune and anxiety

What a busy few days! Am very much in need of a break and some alone time, to recharge my batteries, but I’ve got some friends to see this weekend first. In terms of Skye, the week has gone like this…

Sunday was moving day, as already written. A corsetry friend came to stay that night. We had such a drama… because of trains and a lack of phone battery, she was essentially lost to me for two hours! Walked all around town looking for her. Had covered about 14 miles by the time Sunday was done. 

 

Monday…

She stumbled a few times on this first day. Not over the branch so much, but over her own feet! That’s why she especially needs this landscape. We’ve been fully inspired by the ideas of the Intrinzen people in this regard. I want to give her as much variety of sensory input as possible.

We did a little photoshoot in the morning, which was ace. The sun shone brightly and we used the quirky industrial backdrops of the boatyard. Am looking forward to editing them. Rushed her to the bus station, then saw Skye in the afternoon. 

 
After Moving Day, I had thought, “ah these horses are going to be so happy here that we may struggle to catch them for a week or so…” But no, as easy to walk up to as ever. Basil was stuck to her like glue, with Monty not far behind, and they both came with me as I lead her to a little wooded area in the field. She was distracted by their antics, but very obliging. We went over a fallen branch, up and down small but steep-ish slopes, backwards both on the flat and uphill, and generally explored. The boys kept leaving the woodland then coming back, confused as to why Skye was still there with me, which was a distraction. At one point, I was stood arm’s length from Skye with the lead rope loose between us. Monty barrelled through in a fast walk and when his chest hit the lead rope he paused, then carried on, with a look that said, “I’ll get you free, Skye!” To her absolute credit, she just stepped out of his way as the rope dropped from my hand. He bumbled off and she just stood patiently. 

So it was a very good start. 

 

Tuesday…

On Tuesday we did much the same routine, but I had my instructor-friend with me, to show her the land. I’d also forgotten to pick up the cavesson and lead rope. Need to get into a routine here. So I used the waistband of my treat-bag as a loose loop around Skye’s neck. Though the boys weren’t quite as stuck to her as the day before they were still keen that she run off with them, and without the better control/communication of a cavesson we did struggle to get any decent work done. But that’s fine, it just shows me all the things I need to improve on. 

The friend liked the landscape and all the happy horses, and commented that Skye’s back-up was looking a lot better. She moves in proper diagonal pairs now, with the head a bit lower and the back no longer dropped. It’s hard to tell from right by her side, but it seems that she may overbend her neck slightly, “cheating” on muscular strength by putting some of the work onto the nuchal ligament, but at this stage that’s absolutely fine. 

John and the friend also picked wild blackberries to eat and there was this lovely moment where Skye was doing the same in the foreground. I see her eating from varied heights quite often in this field, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. That reaching neck posture, to gently strengthen the longus colli and scalenus. 

 

Wednesday… 

Even on Tuesday I was starting to feel a bit irritable (I think just because I’ve not had a day to myself in weeks), which isn’t brilliant for the horse. She needs my absolute patience and gratitude, and even if my slight irritability didn’t change anything you’d see on the outside I think it did change my focus and the vibes the horse got from me. 

I decided to brave the jumping field today, to explore some new obstacles. She’d walked through it on Moving Day and I knew the others would be coming for their horses soon, so we’d have company. Whilst we had company she was great. A bit quick in her walk across the grass, but then she’s just keen, and with the softer footing she can zoom along. Not so myself, so between the two of us it was a bit messy. In the field she was fine. A little distracted by all the smells and sounds to take in, but not at all worried by anything I asked her in terms of stepping over poles, big tubes, and between cones. 

Eventually, the boys and one of our livery-owner’s mares were going out for a mini-hack, and Skye was very upset by this. Whinnied heavily, began spinning around me, oblivious to the fact that I was there to help her. She settled a bit for walking and being given tasks to focus on, but otherwise she was the most unsettled I’ve ever seen her, and that includes the first week I had her. 

Once she’d settled, we put her back in the field and she was happy again. 

 

Thursday… 

Moment to moment. These are Skye’s two types of trot. It would be good to also have a “stretchy” trot in her repertoire, but I think that’s a question of unlocking her topline and perhaps using targeting to encourage that reaching posture. On the lunge, at this stage, she just braces in the trot. But many roads lead to Rome, so we’ll experiment and see.

Thursday was likewise mixed in terms of success. We went to the jumping field again. In the distance she could see the colts’ field, and those boys had come up to the fence to look at her and prance around. But she settled to our obstacles quite well. Lots of diving her head to the ground to stress eat though. Then her boys went out for a hack again. She was less outwardly worried this time, but I was helping them at the gate and she did start becoming bargy in a way that was borderline dangerous. Just oblivious to my presence. Got a bop on the nose for that, and you know I’m not one for punishment. I tend to think that 90% of the time you’re better off ignoring the unwanted behaviour than punishing it. And I don’t know if I called it right really. As I say, I was becoming irritable this week, so I’m unsure of my judgement in that moment. But hey ho, it’s done now, and I don’t think it’s hugely affected how the horse thinks of me. And I’m not against a bop on the nose, I just don’t know if that was the best option at that moment. 

A few more obstacles after the boys had gone, and that was fine. Oh, I brought the gymnastics mat down! She didn’t mind it at all really. Assumed it was for stepping over rather than on, but I captured/clicked a few moments with her foot on the mat or knocking the mat, so we’ve made a start. 

Then back to the field. She was alert but attentive walking back, halted whenever asked (which is just as well, as I can’t walk quickly over that ground yet). But I made a poor decision once in the field. I’d thought I’d lead her over to her new horsey friends, or at least for a few steps, so as to avoid getting into the habit of having her bolt away at the gate. Just to instil some patience. Teaching patience at gates in her old yard had been easy! But no, she couldn’t see her friends from there and all she wanted to do was go. Managed to get the cavesson off, but she was on her toes spinning around me so it wasn’t ideal. Got a tiny moment’s pause before letting her free, so at least she hadn’t fully forgotten there as as a human attached to her. Then off she went, walk to gallop, which settled into a forward canter with whinnying and high tail. 

I’m seeing the silver linings though… my horse cantered! In her last field, they didn’t play. There was no-where for horses to disappear from sight, so they never bolted off looking for one another. There wasn’t much to interest or inspire. She had been a runner when in the field with the boys, but once she got moved into a small paddock with two girls it all stopped. Her quarters even got smaller through lack of use. Am so pleased she runs here! 

Anyway, I didn’t want bolting off to be the last impression she had of our session, so I went over to find them all near the wooded area. She was grazing with her new friends as quiet as a lamb, and happy for me to go up to stroke her. No hard feelings, just got anxious about being away from them. The entire herd is very friendly and curious, especially the coloured mare and the dun filly, so I hung around for a bit to fuss them. Skye didn’t send them off, but a couple of times she was a bit, “wait, isn’t that my human?” I think this is what she needs, for me to hang out with the herd for a few minutes every so often. Zero pressure, just chilling together. 

Whilst there I saw the others take themselves over and around all the natural obstacles of the trees and was pleased. Happy, healthy ponies. 

 

Week Overview… 

My task is to help “unlock” her superficial dorsal lines. But hopefully, herd life in a richer landscape will encourage a few more of these effortful trots naturally. She’s not tracking up and she can’t “stretch” over her back yet, but look at the balance and the lift through the withers…

But what I’ve realised is that I’ve actually asked quite a lot of her this week. When I look back to the first week I had her, all we did was walk up and down the yard, and sometimes practice standing for grooming and feet. The constant movement was the best thing really, the only thing that let her calm her mind. As she has moved to the new yard with both myself and two of her favourite horse friends (plus their humans, who she knows quite well), I’ve taken it somewhat for granted that she would settle faster. But no. I need to be more conscious of not stressing her out. 

It’s very curious that she’s displaying separation anxiety now though, when she never really did before. I’ve a theory that she’s so happy in the herd that she has a terror of losing it. Like rescue dogs that have been deprived of food who are then aggressive at dinner time. So I’m going to endeavour to ask smaller questions and maybe have a few more days where we use the fallen branch rather than the man-made obstacles of the jumping field. That way she doesn’t have to be taken away from her friends, but we still get the postural exercise and human contact in. Maybe I should use this as another opportunity to practice targeting too. See if it’s still over-stimulating when it’s loose in a field. Take things slow. 

I’m so thrilled by the landscape though. The forage, the variety, the gentle inclines and divots in the ground, the grassy bits and dusty bits, the tree roots, the brambles and thistles and the paths through the bushes. Over the last two weeks Skye’s posture had collapsed a bit for lack of work as I’d not been available. But by the end of this week, when I stood next to her she seemed a bit taller and flatter again. Just a bit. And all we’ve done is walk over some raised obstacles and have her live a more natural life. 

 

In the first five days there I’ve seen her do all of the following: 

  • multiple canters. 
  • one gallop. 
  • effortful showing-off trots. 
  • not so good trots, but at least it’s movement. 
  • graze uphill, downhill, and on the flat. 
  • browse varied plants at varied heights. 
  • communicate fairly with all her new friends. 
  • babysit the boys, who she loves. 
  • walk over and through the stream. 
  • plus the tasks I’ve asked her to do, backing-up on varied terrain and walking over raised obstacles. 

 

Some of the cantering will no doubt calm down as she becomes more settled, but with a mixed herd including some young fillies I reckon they’ll have cause to play every so often. 

Oh, it’s just wonderful… If what you want is richly varied sensory input, such as will keep a horse healthy, then you couldn’t ask for much more. And in Birmingham, no less! 

She’s now going to have the weekend off as I’ll be visiting friends. Hopefully in that time she’ll mull over this week, get used to seeing her friends come and go, and begin to trust in her good fortune. 

Moving day!

It’s hard to write when you’re singing, and I’m singing (poorly) along to Corinne Bailey Rae tonight as I’m happy. 

My friends and I moved our three horses to the new livery, the one I described with the varied ground, varied grazing, natural herd life… So thrilled. They were all golden on the hack down (I was leading Skye, the others were riding), and my lady took the lead for much of it as I think she quite likes being out in front to explore. Once she gets past her anxiety that is. Which happens sooner and sooner these days. 

It was a 5am start for me. I walked into town past all the partygoers from the night before, and all the lost and broken people that sleep on Birmingham’s streets, and all those starting early shift work, and met the owner of my volunteering place who gave me a lift out to the yard. What a star she is. Was first on the yard and Skye came in as quiet as a lamb. Her usual mix of chilled and impatient for standing around for grooming, but very chilled and gentle vibes. Which was just as well, as I hadn’t slept for excitement/nervousness. 

As I say, they were all golden on the roads down. I’d felt mildly apprehensive as I hadn’t had a chance to take Skye that route before, every single aspect of it would be new to her. But she was great. A bit snorty at first, and a couple of her trademark mini-spooks, but mostly just keen to see everything. In season too, apparently, as towards the end of the journey she decided “winking” at the geldings behind was of the utmost priority. A charming view for the riders behind! 

When we got to the new place we had to wait a second for the owner to arrive and let us in. The boys instantly put their heads down to eat, but Skye just stood looking into the distance. Ever curious. When we took them in, some of the lady’s colts (in a separate field) noticed us and came prancing over. Monty (my friend’s coloured cob) nearly lost his shit, he’s such a funny character, doesn’t quite know how to be a horse. Spun his backside into myself and Skye, but she wasn’t much bothered, just got herself out of the way. The livery owner said, “she’s a nice chilled mare” and I was pleased. “She wasn’t sold that way!” 

We lead them across to their section of the land (paddock is the wrong word, they’ve got a quirkily shaped area with stream, woodland, bushes, a higher flatter bit and a lower bit, some dry, some boggy), and they were all pretty keen. The ground is uneven and I thought, “nevermind the horse’s proprioception and stability, this is going to do wonders for mine.” We turned them away and off they went, together as a trio, to meet the existing herd and have a run around. It was all rather uneventful, but very sweet. 

We then had to fetch tack and such from the old yard, so that took up an hour or so. Afterwards we went to check on the ponies again, and they were loving life. Skye and Basil clocked us and were like, “no way mate, this is heaven, we’re literally never leaving…” and Monty, conflicted about whether to see his human mama or stick with his horse friends, followed behind. The rest of the herd all said hello though, and eventually our three realised they could say hello to us without instantly losing the lovely new home they’d found. 

I’m just so pleased for them. Especially Skye since this sort of landscape will help maximise the work I do with her. I haven’t been able to do much with her the past couple weeks and physically it’s showing. Mentally, she’s as wonderful as she’s ever been. But her posture has started collapsing again. So I need to get back onto the stability/proprioception work, general stamina (walking out), and so on. The wooded/covered area of their field is small but dry and uneven, with a medium sized branch down on the ground. I clocked it and was instantly like, “I’m using that…” Natural obstacles. 

And oh, postural and nutritional variety! The three of them were straight away plucking thistle heads and blackberries and high grasses, holding their necks out in reaching horizontal postures. It’s no thing to them, the tiniest amount of effort possible for a tasty snack, but if they never have that variety of movement, if their eating is always down on the floor, they’re not getting the work to the base-of-neck muscles that they need. Work that matters even more, not less, in a ridden horse. There are so many reasons to keep them a bit more naturally, even if only from a selfish human point of view. 

I’ve a corsetry friend visiting tonight and was teaching corset pattern drafting yesterday, so it’s been a weekend where near every aspect of my life has been functioning at peak level. Which is probably why I can’t stop singing. Happy, golden, moments. “There are days we live as if death were nowhere in the background.” Blossoms and blackberries and thistles and nettles and hazel leaves and happy ponies and blue skies and golden sunshine. 

Saddles!

Visited lovely old Fred.

I was home last weekend which was lovely. Though, my mother’s on-off poorliness may have become something more extreme, which is a worry. Going back up before the end of the month to attend a hospital appointment with her, find out as much as we can. I’ve not got much more to say about that, sickness of loved ones is too real for something like a blog post. 

Coco saying hello to big Diego. Here I’ve painted most of the skeleton, the nuchal ligament, hip flexors, and deep base-of-the-neck muscles so that we could discuss healthy posture with the kids on pony camp.

We also had another pony camp this week at Summerfield. So all-in-all, it came around to Thursday evening and I hadn’t seen my horse in a full seven days. 

Though frequency and consistency matter, horses thankfully don’t seem to process the passage of time in the same way as we do. Skye forgave my absence and came out of the field the same as she always does. The girls had said hello to her once over the weekend and sent me some cute selfies with her, so at least I knew she’d had a bit of pleasant human contact. 

Her posture hadn’t changed either. She seemed fatter again and it’s all on the belly (I swear to god, if this horse is accidentally in foal…), but her back looked as well as it ever does. Did a belly lift and pelvic tuck on the yard, very good. Picked up her feet alright (just sticky on the fronts as it’s still hard for her), and let us tack her up with bridle, cavesson, pad, and saddle. 

Oh, but I had my instructor-friend there… It’s so funny but Skye, bless her heart, always side-eyes her with great suspicion. She clocks her instantly as The Professional and gives the impression of a horse that, every so often, someone new has tried to “sort out”. The reason it tickles me is that this friend is the person I would most trust in the world with my horse. With any horse, in fact. So I’ll be softly laughing and saying, “ah Skye, if only you understood…” whilst the horse is consistently keeping a wary eye on this untrustworthy person quietly and confidently pottering around her. 

Amanda got an insight into her character on the yard. I’d left her holding the horse and some children were playing with a hose pipe. As it uncoiled and sprayed, Skye did a mini-shy, but then rather than want to get away from the scary thing she took a curious step towards it and watched them. This is what she’s like, and it’s why I love her. 

It doesn’t fit and the pad isn’t the prettiest, but I think she has potential to look very smart all tacked up. I think on the next few in-hand-hacks I’ll start leading entirely from the reins (with cavesson/lead just there as back-up) and see how we get on. She can probably have the cavesson off soon, since she’s becoming confident that I’m not going to abuse her with the metal in her mouth.

We tacked her up using my old VSD saddle, which did not fit… But it sat there without squeezing or annoying her, so we thought it would do for a quick lead out just to see what she thought to carrying a girthed-up saddle. She’d been uncertain about being saddled but I think that’s because I tasked the friend to do it whilst I held the lead. Probably should have done it the other way around, as she’s already had me saddle her before and was quite serene about it. Anyway, we went for an in-hand hack along the usual route, quiet roads and a small bridleway. As ever, horse was looky and a bit shy for the first part then perked up once we hit the bridleway. Perhaps it is the softer ground? Perhaps the mud compacting in her feet has a cushioning function even once we’re back on the road? She’s always more forward after the bridleway too, you see. 

She settled to Amanda’s presence, but not 100%, and at one point my friend stumbled in a ditch behind her and the horse spooked forwards shoulder-barging me into the air for a tiny step! It was actually funny more than anything. Skye’s shies are small, leg-splayed, freeze-frames, and they’re getting less and less as she grows in confidence. But here we were with no other horses, a professional, and a saddle on her back. She did great really. 

Despite this face, she actually perked up a lot during the course of the walk and was positively enjoying herself by halfway round.

Halts were attentive as ever, and her walk opened up super-keen at the bridleway. We were struggling to keep up a few times! She seemed very happy and forward (but still very attentive), so I invited trot a couple of times on the road (I’d have sunk in the mud on the bridleway!) and she obliged beautifully. She just loves to explore and have a look around. I was able to halt from body language, vocal cue, and lead or reins, and I was able to pick up and fiddle with the reins (no pressure, just the weight of them bouncing around), and she didn’t care one jot, was very merry in her mouth. Given how she stiffened the first time I put a bridle on I’m really impressed with how quickly she’s relaxed and gone, “oh right, I see, it’s like before but nicer, no need to worry.” This is the experience we need to recreate for every “new/old” thing that she has preconceptions about, and I’m glad that yesterday she carried the saddle happily. She didn’t lift or drop her back, she didn’t mind it moving (it really doesn’t fit), she didn’t even mind when we whipped the pad out from the back (it had almost slipped out itself anyway), and her walk was the same as ever. And she was volunteering trot from eagerness, so she clearly didn’t care that it was there. So pleased with her, and may use the saddle (or a different/cheaper one, I could do with selling this really) just for tacking and untacking every so often to get her chill about the process. 

Friend said that from behind she looked surprisingly straight and that the only thing standing out was the dropped left hip. I will need to think about where this comes from and how to help improve it. The chiro helped, I’m sure, but I’d like to know more and be in a better position to focus my efforts so as to help the horse. 

We pushed our luck upon returning as I wanted to make use of my friend being here and see if we could re-back the horse. 

Saddle off (friend is very confident backing, doesn’t mind doing it bareback), into the arena, touching all over, jumping by her side, legging-up and just holding it a second, plus walking around the mounting block and halting. 

Now, aside from the legging-up, Skye has done all these things with me and has been chill about, but with The Professional, it was a different kettle of fish. “You can’t trust them, these professional sorts, they climb aboard and do all sorts of things to you!” Horse was a sweetheart, but just said “nope!” in the mildest ways possible and got a bit stressed about the whole thing. So we let it be and I may try again with one of my yard buddies in a few weeks, since she sees them more often and knows them a little bit. I’d do it myself (think she’d be happier about that, to be honest), but I’d really rather it was a small/light person given she’s not strong yet, and my friend agreed. Said she thinks she’ll do the job fine once she’s strong (and that may come more swiftly than I expect, if I put the time in) but that for now a smaller load would be better. I may bump the lunging to twice a week (Jec Ballou’s outlines for “bringing into work” suggest this would be fine), but otherwise I think continuing as we are (subtle postural stuff, plus lots of walking, more than we have been doing really) is the thing. I’m looking forward to playing with the gym mat I’ve bought for her. Having stood on it myself I can really see how it would be something like standing on the boat. Firm enough that you are only very slightly destabilised, which should switch on the deepest postural stabilisers. Apparently even 5mins a day is useful. I’m thinking to begin this once we’ve moved yards though. Plenty to get on with in the meantime and if I take it down I’ll only have to move it again before the end of the month and it’s surprisingly bulky! 

Just over 2″ thick and about 6′ long. I’m hoping if it’s just there, in the background, for a while the horse will accept it, then perhaps accidentally walk over it, and ultimately be happy to stand on it.

I finished by doing some free-following, but even that isn’t much fun for Skye. I think she may have had join-up done to her in the past, possibly in a very “effective” way, as although I never send her away when she’s following me off-lead she gets a rather dejected look and subservient posture, as though she’s been made to follow before, and so following has its own associations. “I’d better follow, or she’ll chase me!” After all, she’ll lead at my side fine enough, it’s only when behind me and off-lead that she gets concerned. It’s a very specific set of circumstances, which is what makes me think someone’s drilled the join-up thing at some point. 

Just another thing for me to think creatively about. I need to let her know that she can be alongside or behind or wherever, but that she doesn’t need to blindly follow, that I do welcome participation rather than obedience. I tried to make it interesting yesterday by going over poles and then sort of zigzagging back and forth in-between them. She didn’t perk up, but she did as asked so at least our communication is coming along. 

So horse had a few questions asked of her, perhaps one or two more than I should have asked, but she handled them all great. My friend said she’s coming on really very fast for an animal with so much baggage and I agree. I was sad to have “lost” a week, but her consistency just goes to show how much she’s settled. We were talking about the fact that though she could be easily wound up (and she’s spirited enough to react badly), she’s actually a really easy and sweet beastie. Love her character ever such a lot. 

Delight

Beautiful couple of days with Horse. 

On Wednesday we all did pole work in the jumping field, the girls riding and me, naturally, just leading Skye around at this stage. She’s a good lass. Confident working over, past, and between all manner of obstacles. To some people I’ve met stuff like that is an automatic expectation (horse gets thrashed if it doesn’t comply), not something you would bother spending time training. But I consider it just more small opportunities for confidence-building. Frequency is the thing. Tiny victories stack up, one atop the other, until you have an animal (or person!) who approaches new situations with a subconscious assumption that everything will be fine. Over-facing isn’t just about jump height. 

Before all that though, we popped Monty the cob’s saddle on her back, to see what she thought about girthing, flapping stirrups, walking with the saddle on, all that stuff. The answer she gave was, “urg, this again, I thought you weren’t one of those humans, but okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt…” Such an annoyed face! But so obliging. Walked up and down a bit, then took it straight off again, horse was fine and her annoyance disappeared instantly. Assuming nothing physical going on, I’m sure we can change her feelings about the saddle easily enough. Same as with the bridle and bit, I just need to convince her that I won’t do anything mean or frightening just because we’re “working”. 

Skye is now almost like an ordinary “on the forehand” horse, rather than a squiffy rehab version.

After that, had the proprioceptive bandages on Skye again as when I got her in from the field on Wednesday her back looked a little bit improved for the last session we did with them. I need to remember, slow-and-steady as I am going, horses can actually improve very quickly. Had the bridle on beneath the cavesson and though she still closes her mouth against putting it on she was relaxed enough once it was there. It no longer puts her off eating or causes the insta-anxiety face like it used to. She was so chill about it that towards the end of the session I put my lead rope through the bit rings rather than on the cavesson to see how she felt about light touches on her mouth. No bother at all. But this horse, I feel that if you’d thrown tack and a rider on, on day one, and tried to manhandle her head into an “outline” (all too common), she’d have exploded. I’ve only know her explode once and it was because I’d accidentally been rough with her head (and not even via a bit). 

 
But oh, the loveliness continued. We were all standing around whilst the girls chatted about their respective ponies’ progress, and as Skye was so chill I thought I’d try a Masterton Method stroke that I’d been looking at. Just following the bladder meridian from poll as far as the scapula, and looking for responses. I was amazed at how much I got! 

On the right-hand side, she found it relaxing and looked almost surprised by it. About halfway down the neck she would blink, and this response was repeated nearly every time I went over that area. So I thought, “hmm, maybe there is something to these super-light touches after all…” 

An articulated skeleton, for Summerfield Stables. I’ve positioned it a bit like Skye, when I first got her! But she was worse than this, to be honest. This skeleton was modelled on a gelding with uphill build and shorter back, so no matter how much I try to demonstrate a strung out, slumped posture, it’s never going to look quite like her. She’s improved such a lot, I just hope I can help improve her health and happiness further still.

On the left-hand side (the much tighter side, especially along the Superficial Dorsal Line which overlaps with the bladder meridian, hence wanting to try that), the response was huge. She blissed right out. Her eyelids were fluttering and flickering as I stroked along the entire length of the neck. She relaxed, trance-like, for much of it, and at other times turned her head around towards me in an affectionate gesture. It was astounding, actually, and the lighter and more slowly I went with my touch the more it seemed to work. (She also seemed to have what looked like lymphatic drainage lines at the end of the session, which I hadn’t expected. Will need to research that.)

But I shouldn’t be surprised. One reason I thought to try this type of light massage was that my lad John has such magical hands. If I can’t sleep I demand hair strokes because he just has this ability to bliss me out with the least effort. Back of the head/upper-neck is especially good. And where was I stroking Skye? Well then. I thought, if a gentle touch can do so much for me, surely it can do a lot for a beastie too. 

 
So I will try this more, I think, especially this particular stroke since she’s still tight along her topline. But as she’s such a fidget I will have to pick my moments. No point trying it if her mind is elsewhere. 

Then yesterday, I took her out for a walk on the road. Bridle/bit beneath cavesson. Reins on the first, lead rope on the latter. Walk/halt, usual drill. Couple of mini-shies (ooh, those troublesome birds and dogs hiding behind hedgerows!), but otherwise one of her most chill leads out. Confidence growing all the time, didn’t even mind not having other horses with us. Halted with usual cues, then spent some time transferring it over to the reins. Just the lightest bit of pressure. Horse was perfect every time and didn’t worry about the bit once. Spent some time walking whilst holding the reins and just playing with them lightly to see how she felt about that. Answer: fine, not bothered at all. I think she’s going to demand a lot of tact from me, I’ll have to level up as a rider for sure. 

So much fun making these boards and muscles. I’m considering finding a printers to scan in the skeleton board. With some tidying up in Photoshop, it could make a cool poster. With a set of laminated muscles, it could be a really cool beginner anatomy set! Don’t know who’d even want it, but I fancy making it all the same.

These two days, I’ve begun tying her up on the yard too. Since she would previously panic if she reached the end of her rope I’ve been taking that slow. But now, touch wood, when she reaches the end of her rope (which she does, because she fidgets and gets bored and wants to walk off) she just goes, “oh right yeah, I’ll stay here then.” Zero drama. Getting ever better at picking out her feet too, and I’m convinced that’s mostly down to core stability. Oh good posture days it’s easy. On slumped days, it’s hard. 

In other news, I’ve finally finished the stick-on bits-and-bobs for educational playtime at the stables! The articulated skeleton was especially good fun to make. I want to think of more things to make though, am sad to have finished! Laminating was unreasonably good fun, in particular. Greek times. 

We’ve another pony camp next week at Summerfield, so if there are any rainy days we’re prepared! Mind you, it’s slightly irksome that the BHS have removed muscles when creating the new exam pathways. I’ve created a beautiful set of superficial muscles for the girls to teach the youngsters with! Still, even if they’re not used for training up the youngsters they’ll still be good for those of us who are a bit older and want to learn for the sake of it anyway. At the very least, it certainly helps to know which muscles should be big, which should be small, whether they’re over-tight or asymmetric, so on and so forth. 

This set was made to illustrate some fitting and safety issues. Any guesses?

Am now going home for the weekend. Happy to see mum and everyone, but sad to leave horse for four days. 

I think we’re going to pop to the Lowther Horse Trials tomorrow. In the main arena there’s meant to be a display by a falconer on Spanish horses. Imagine that! Birds and beasties! Might see if there are any goodies to be bought too. 

Hindquarters

Today, Skye looked heavier on the forehand, not lighter, and with a weaker backside! Not what we want. I think I’ve not been vigilant enough with the raised poles (and poles in general), as I’ve been favouring the things we both find interesting. Namely, going out for a walk. Which is beneficial, for sure, but it isn’t very hilly here so it doesn’t automatically engage her hind end. Ah well. 

But, excitement, we are moving to the new grazing! I’m hoping I’ll be able to set out some “permanent” logs or raised poles there. If they’re always out it’ll be far easier to incorporate them into Skye’s life every time I see her. If it’s easy we’ll do it (environment matters) and she’ll receive the benefit. She has been getting a little bit bored which I think is even more reason to work it into our routine rather than have it be a focus of some sessions. Let it be second nature. 

Second farrier visit today. Horse perfect when I picked out her feet, then fidgety for the farrier. Ain’t that just the way. She wasn’t bad though and wasn’t worried by it like last time, was just impatient and didn’t see much point in standing around. Like horse, like human, I’m impatient too. 

He started with the hardest foot though! So at least that was over and done with first. Said they were looking a lot better, we’ve almost got the tiny cracks grown out. At one point we were all talking and he said people didn’t realise how much more horses could do than we ask of them. I agree, in terms of general stamina and distance. Posted on Instagram just last night about the distances wild horses cover. Domestic horses do far far less (less than half, usually, and that’s when living out). Little need to travel when food is plentiful. But travelling is to their benefit. So, in terms of replacing what’s lost in domestication, hacking is of great benefit. 

We then waited around for Monty the cob to have his trim and front shoes. Skye really didn’t understand why we were standing on the yard, so dull! She also wasn’t thrilled when we did some lunging with Monty likewise working at the other end of the arena. She did the job though, and I kept trots short and sweet (never more than a circle, but generally only half a circle) as it is the transition I want more than the trot itself, at this stage. 

She was pulling herself along on the forehand in trot, but it was slightly improved from before as today we went back to using the proprioceptive wrapping technique. It looked, to me, as though her cervicothoracic junction was straightened out by the “sling” of bandage around her chest. She didn’t fully go into the beautiful posture we want, but her withers were a bit more up than usual and you could see her trying to figure out her balance. So I must remember to keep trying this when we lunge once a week. 

But yes, I am thinking to get a saddle or someone light on her soon. She’s gained weight again which doesn’t help and I don’t think I’m going to be able to achieve much more in terms of her posture without levelling up the challenge or hours put in. She needs some general fitness now, to keep the belly off and thus help the back, but I don’t want to lunge more than once a week. 

I read some maths on lunging. When you work it out, about twenty-five 20m circles equates to one mile travelled. In one lunge session you could easily do fifty circles, so about two miles. Two miles of trot would be great for fitness, but on a circle?! That’s very intense on the joints, especially if the horse isn’t carrying herself properly yet. So as far as I’m concerned, lunging should be about getting that supple bend (ie: educating) rather than just getting the miles in. If you want to get the miles in, do it in-hand or under saddle. 

It’s a conundrum at the moment, for sure. Progress has gone backwards, a touch. All I can think is that it’s down to this: her belly is pulling her down (bloody rain, bloody rich grass!)… I’ve neglected the raised poles so she’s re-lost a little bit of muscle tone through her thoracic sling… and perhaps her quarters are no less weak than they were, but with the big belly they’re looking it. So, get poles involved again, get her moving for longer periods of time or under a light load, and persist with transitions and focussing on quality when we lunge once a week. 

Openness

I really appreciate Skye’s expressiveness. Getting to know her is proving a pleasure. Nuno Oliveira said:

The horse is the best judge of a good rider, not the spectator. If the horse has a high opinion of the rider, he will let himself be guided, if not, he will resist.

And:

A horse will never tire of a rider who possesses both tact and sensitivity because he will never be pushed beyond his possibilities

Something to aim for then! Not to ride as well as Nuno (impossible) or to have that wealth of knowledge, but to have enough feeling and empathy (enough tact) to be fair with Skye. Because, if a horse could articulate such things, would she also describe getting to know me as a pleasure? It’s worth considering that question. How would the horse describe the handler to its horsey friends? 

Skye had a play-date with my friend’s pony Basil yesterday. He’s like a mini-Skye and is very keen on her, it’s so cute. There was a thunderstorm in the distance, rumbles and cracks of lightning, but the horses did not especially care. As I said to my friend, it’s just weather to them. But it was our first time with both of these horses in a storm, so we decided to let them free in the arena. Basil is a springy and punky little thing, Skye looked rather lumbering by comparison! But they had a bit of a hoon around and I’m hoping that when we all move to the new grazing later this month they’ll enjoy becoming part of a herd on larger, varied terrian, and will keep themselves entertained with regular gallops there too. 

I think Skye is becoming bored in the arena though, and is ready for a bit more variety or challenge. 

I’ve been thinking about enthusiasm and playfulness. In being for +R I’m not against -R. +R is certainly beneficial in many ways, but I imagine you could create a machine-like dead-behind-the-eyes animal with either approach. You could even create a more expressive looking animal with -R or +P, which could be mistaken for enthusiasm. Anyway, what I found myself thinking was this… There are probably plenty of people whose ponies express genuinely intrinsically playful behaviours, with spontaneity and enthusiasm, without the owner ever consciously encouraging it. The owner may even be a purely -R person in terms of training, but if they have tact and a gentle touch (training rather than forcing) the horse can still develop enthusiasm for its working life. Before I had Skye I wasn’t able to implement any +R with the horse I rode as he wasn’t mine. But he would still spring his way over to the gate when I collected him for a lesson, and we had some rides where he gave me far more than I asked for, as though he wanted to impress us all. I think he could feel that I was always pleased with him, whatever he offered or managed. 

With Skye, I haven’t begun actively clicking/rewarding “badass” behaviour just yet (for practicalities sake, farrier/vet/etc., I did want to get basic handling sorted first), but she’s begun volunteering it anyway. Only a step or two at a time as she trots towards me (it’s physically difficult for her to sustain that posture, I think), with a proud neck or a little head toss, when I call her name. Not every time, but more often as the weeks go by. It feels genuine. It feels like it’s coming from nowhere but herself. 

And this is where her openness matters. She’s really educating me. The basic things that we do that she gets rewards for (walking, halting, all that stuff), she picked it up quickly and it’s really useful for getting her attention and focus at the beginning of a session or if she’s distracted. I mean who cares, let her be distracted right? But if there’s cars coming through or a vet to stand still for or any number of other things then I need to have a way to get that obedience (for want of a better term), despite obedience not being something I especially aim for. Togetherness is more the thing. Shared input. 

Anyway. Previously, if we tried something harder and she struggled (eg: backing up) we’d have to drop back down to just walking and halting. Lower the criteria to keep it motivating. But now, if I spend too much time in those lower criteria, she drops her head way down to the ground and performs the task at a crawl. This happened yesterday. She and Basil ran about a bit, then she found her way over to me as though she’d decided she’d like an opportunity for some carrots. We walked, halted, went over a small cross-pole, and her enthusiasm waned. The head dropped lower and lower. The only time she picked up again was when I asked for backing-up. Where normally this task is hard and she gets annoyed after a couple of steps, yesterday she would have just kept on going for as long as I asked. We backed-up on curved lines in both directions, purely off body gestures, no touches or ropes. 

She told me she wanted to work, then she told me it was boring, then she told me the harder task was worth her time. So my job is going to be keeping her interested, keeping her at the edge of her abilities and gently shifting back and forth whenever she needs calm reassurance or something slightly more challenging. Hacking out in-hand is currently the best example of this. She’ll be at the edge of her comfort zone for about 40% of the journey (maybe less), but she’ll be forward and curious to explore. It’s the most keen I’ve seen her. Which is great, because it’s also such good exercise, just walking and walking. 

I need to be careful not to swing up onto her back too soon, but I’m thinking the overlap may work differently to how I’d originally thought. I’d thought, get her “working” with good posture in walk, trot and canter, before putting anyone on her back. Now I’m thinking to possibly take it gait by gait. I’m increasingly feeling that trot is overdone anyway and I don’t want to trot her on circles for weeks just to get her fit. Too much risk to the joints. How else to get fitter then… Walking for longer periods of time, or over varied terrain, or under an additional load. So perhaps in a few weeks it’ll be time to back, then walk her once a week with a light rider, then with me, then more often or over different terrain, and so on, every so often testing the strength of her posture in trot in our free work or when at play. There’s no rule that as soon as the horse is ridden it should be doing all three gaits under the rider. So long as the walk is marching and healthy, it’s great exercise. 

But don’t forget what you learned at a recent lecture… Breathing hard develops the serratus dorsalis, amongst others, which as a secondary benefit strengthens the topline and gives the saddle somewhere to go. So lunging once a week is still a good idea.