Two months later…

Where to begin. Short version. 

I’ve been up north for two months. Mum’s diverticulitis (which should have been addressed at least two years ago) has finally been dealt with. She’d gotten very unwell and needed surgery. Surgery which her doctor had been scaring her off of for two years. “You might die on the table Jane!” It turns out he’s known for being rather spineless, and the whole thing was far more problematic than it would have been if addressed two years prior. 

I went up for a two week stint (we all thought the surgery would be scheduled for later on), and ended up staying two months. I’m glad it happened this way though. I’m even glad for all the delays to her recovery which kept her in the hospital for far longer than planned. They gave me time to muck out her entire cottage and get it into decent condition. Mice had been getting into the kitchen, the dogs were treating the spare room like a toilet, and there was junk everywhere. She’d been working far longer than she should, was in constant pain and misery. Coming home and climbing straight into bed and then not even being able to really sleep. It’s no life. And things were so bad I was trying to mental prepare myself for the worst, even whilst cracking on as though everything would pan out fine. Which, thankfully, it has. In all their preparations for the op they’ve diagnosed her with diabetes and found a surprising heart murmur, but these things should be manageable. 

She’s home, she’s recovering well, the cottage is hygienic and safe enough, and the dogs have had two months of extra attention/training, so it’s now a rare day that they get caught short and resort to messing in the house. 

Poppy has positively blossomed. I did loads of +R with her to help her confidence around humans. It’s still in progress, partly because I can’t control all the parameters. Sometimes noisy men turn up and try to touch her or shout at her for barking. What can you do? You certainly can’t tell the men that they should modify their behaviour… But regardless she’s doing really well and now she usually only barks once or twice out of surprise, then settles down. Having gained confidence with me she then decided that the next person she’d allow to touch her was my brother’s finance, Linzi. It’s only taken two years! And she’s still tentative, it has to be on her terms. But it’s a huge step forward. Linz said, “she’s lost her voice!” “A sea-witch took it!” I said. She’s even been playing quietly with my big burly brother. She would play with him, but it usually involved being over-threshold the entire time. Now she’ll often play silently. 

On the flip side, her voice has come to her in other ways. This the dog who, as a puppy, was so traumatised that she did not vocalise at all. When she finally found her voice it was to bark in fear, or to grumble thanks when you gave her a biscuit. Now she has a wider vocabulary. Huffs and puffs and “Staffie chat” when she wants a toy. I even saw her ragging a toy the other day. She’s discovering more ways of being a dog. 

We got her happy to be harnessed. The start point was a dog who would hide under the table when her harness was picked up. And slink to the ground if you forced it on. I tried to counter-condition the harness by putting biscuits on it. Then clicker trained her to put her nose into it. Then her head. Again and again and again, setting up a pleasant new history around the harness. With Reggie practicing patience in the meantime, sitting politely and earning shared clicks. Then began fastening it, which she didn’t like. The end point (or rather, progress so far) is a dog who (when she fancies it) will gallop over to you and thrust her head into the harness, staying standing and confident whilst you fasten it under her belly, then merrily accept either a belly rub or praise or biscuit as thanks. Sometimes I would run backwards on the lawn, holding the harness low in front of me, and she would sprint over to catch me by shoving her head into it. She even let Linz pop it on once or twice. Even moved her nose towards it a couple of times when Ben held it up, but he did what we would all do and was too keen to then finish the job by moving it towards her when what she needs, being so fearful, is for you to stay still and let her do it herself. But she’ll get there. 

We worked on her fear of the jangly chain lead too and made good progress (a jangle now = run over to see if there’s a biscuit on the go), but there’s still more to do. We’ve swapped to a fabric lead as the weight of the chain seemed to still bother her, even once the noise didn’t. Any pressure on the line concerns her. But it’s something for me to work on when I see her next. She gave us a useful barometer of her comfort levels by only taking her regular biscuits (from their ordinary dinner ration) when she as comfortable. If she refused those or only accepted something tastier, it was a sign she wasn’t entirely comfortable. 

Meanwhile, Reggie became slightly less frantic and anxious just for having people there all the time. I also spent a lot of time fussing him and Poppy back and forth, showing him that he doesn’t need to push in, a fuss will be forthcoming if he just waits. That “politeness” (for want of a better term) will be rewarded. 

I also began some mat work with him and though we’ve not spent much time on the idea or had very specific training goals in mind, he’s figuring it out for himself. Where he used to jump heavily onto your lap for attention, he is now often sitting on his mat and waiting for it. He’s even decided it’s a good place to sleep, if there’s no room on the sofa. This was important to me, to teach him not to jump at anyone with my face (ie: myself or my mother/doppleganger) as I couldn’t have that happening post-surgery. She has a stoma bag now, so even if not for the surgery wound he would no longer be allowed to jump on her tummy. And he’s done really well in this regard. But again, I needed all those weeks of her in hospital, tedious and depressing and concerning though she found it, to be able to make a dent with the dogs behaviours. To get some of their old habits out of their heads. 

I transitioned them to sleeping on the sofa instead of the bed, which was easy enough. And told mum it’s just not allowed anymore, because of her stoma bag and hygiene. And I think she was fine with that idea once she saw how settled they were. Even the cat (Kevin, a gorgeous tabby and white who moved himself in a few months ago) seems to appreciate the greater calm that has fallen on the cottage as now he is choosing to interact with us all a lot more, dogs included. He’s carefully making a study of them, and figuring out how he can play or sit or sleep with them. 

Whilst I was at home, we also made the decision to have my childhood pony Freddie back for his last few years. He’s been on loan for 13 years, but his loaner has fallen on hard times. It can happen to anyone, and is why I never consented to actually sell him. She did a beautiful job of caring for him during all that time. So we have rented that back field again and he is home. He doesn’t have an equine companion which really troubles me. Horses should be with horses. But, on balance, this was the best option available to us. He’s seen and interacted with by people four or five times a day, and he currently has two tups sharing the field. Linzi, who has never had anything to do with horses and finds him (at 14.2hh) a bit big and scary, seems to love him. She gives him a carrot on her way to work and yesterday took him a bucket of water as the stream was a little low. Sometimes I’ve found her sitting next to the fence with him chilling on the other side. Even my brother seems happy to have him back, which I didn’t expect, asking me what we could do about his itching and such. 

The pony hadn’t wintered well. Wet conditions and rubbish hay and financial difficulties. Quite thin. If he had muscle mass and was younger you’d say it was an athletic bodyfat level, but as it stands not so much. His spine was still covered, but his poos were quite black at first and I thought, “nutrition? Or bleeding in the digestive system…?” They’re a more normal colour now, thankfully. He also had a lot of winter coat still to get off and that, combined with midges, put him on an itching mission. 

Three weeks later, he’s started putting on weight and has stopped rubbing himself raw. He’s on senior mix with chaff, an itch-free supplement, extra garlic, and fruit. Plus all that rough but plentiful grass and forage in the field, and the occasional handful of clover from the garden as a treat. Sudocreme, a soothing bathe of the worst bit (his neck), and daily grooming/shedding helped with the exterior. It’s all about how he does through summer now, as I wouldn’t want him going into another winter this thin. But we’re hopeful that he’ll keep gaining now that he’s got better nutrition. And where at first mum was keen to find somewhere else for him to live, now she’s planning on having him stay there, so I’m hopeful that he’ll be okay. 

If it weren’t such a big journey for an old boy (he’s 28) and if livery costs down here weren’t twice what they are at home, I’d have brought him down to live with Skye. But as it stands I’m happy. I think he’s going to be well-enough loved as a family pet that I don’t need to worry about him. And he’ll not give them any trouble. 

It was a treat being there with him though. It was weird going home for so long in general, but I had a job to do so it was fine. Tasks: look after mum, arrange lifts for various hospital appointments (some very excellent people helped me with this), sort out the cottage, help the dogs (mostly Poppy), get Fred settled in and on the road to health, keep Ben and Linz updated on how mama was doing, and spend time with her incase the worst happens. Objectives achieved. 

I’m now slightly at a loss, having returned to my own life. Normally when I’m up north I feel mildly frustrated. I want to study or play with horses or muck out stables or eat dinner with John or sit with my cat or pop to the shops (our village doesn’t have one). But this time I had a job to do, so all those other concerns went out the window. They didn’t matter. And having a purpose always helps you. So that kept me busy and fulfilled, even though it was horribly stressful at times. Then once mum was improving and the pressure was off, Fred returned home. 

All of a sudden 90% of my needs were met. I missed Skye and John and the cat, I wanted my own space to retire to, but otherwise I was very content. Mum seemed softer and sweeter, mostly for no longer being in pain but also, I think, because the dogs and I had created a calm environment in the cottage. Her medication was finished so I didn’t need to keep to that schedule or administer any more injections, and she’d even begun feeding herself and regaining an appetite for solid foods, so I suddenly had time and headspace to continue some studies. Intrinzen’s Project Proprius and three excellent long-wished-for books (“Calming Signals”, “Empowered Horses”, and “Horses in Company” which is just the best book I’ve ever read on how horses naturally live). 

My peacefulness increased ten fold for having a pony outside the window and were it not for that list of creatures that I missed back here in Birmingham I wouldn’t have left. 

At 3.30pm we would take Fred’s dinner out. We would feed him over the fence separating the back garden and the field. The dogs would come and Kevin would accompany us too. What a funny cat. He would keep look-out on a tree stump or climb my weeping willow or hide in the long grasses watching the dogs to learn about how they play. A couple of times he braved pouncing towards them before sprinting away to safety. There would always be a noisy robin in a tree, losing its mind and shouting a warning cry, “cat! cat!” The bluebells were out on our bankside and in the field there were primroses and marsh marigolds. The back garden was comprised of a curious mix of clover, grass, and reeds. We’d call for Fred and eventually he’d hear us. Sometimes he would whinny, “I’m at the front gate, come here!” but we were stubborn about where his meals were taken. The one day that he didn’t hear us I went up the hill to call again and he came tearing across the skyline in a healthy-looking gallop, very excited for the prospect of dinner. We always tried to time it to avoid the midges, as we fed him down near the stream which he would step down to with his front legs to delicately suck up some water whilst holding the most ridiculous looking posture you’ve ever seen. He adjusted back to the rough and hilly field very quickly, his hollow haunches filling out for the “work” and the food. Doddery and a bit stiff, he looks his age but seems to be thriving for the environment. They always do better with variety than with a flat paddock. It was a joy to see him recreate the exact same routes he used to take, 13 years ago. Human attention by the gate, dinners by the back fence, water at the stream, greener grass on its opposite bankside, a good pooing spot in a dimple of land on the top, and a good vantage point up there to graze and gallop about and see and hear for miles. 

The dogs would run for thrown balls or scavenge for scattered dog biscuits. Poppy would sweetly gaze up at Fred and they would sniff each other’s noses to say hello. Reg was less confident, his bull terrier heritage telling him that he wanted to chase the big silver animal if it moved, or possibly even try nipping at its hocks. Mum would be smiling or laughing, for the most part, and we got both of the dogs feeling quite chill about the pony. She was not only recovering from her illness and operation, but also becoming softer and sweeter in her overall manner. She said i was kinder and more understanding than her, and that it clearly worked with the dogs. I don’t think I am, I think she was just struggling with illness. We’re all less tolerant when we’re unwell. The pony would crane his neck over the fence, convinced her dog biscuits might be interesting and then crinkling his nose at the distasteful smell. I did bits of clicker training with him for my own education, and it seemed to help him settle and restore him back to how we always knew him… nosy and confident and calm. He had seemed anxious and withdrawn at first, but he quickly remembered how it was with us. 

When he’d finished his dinner, he would climb back up the hill to graze and we would sit on the patio for a while. Maybe eat a snack or drink a cup of tea. Sometimes Poppy would practice harnessing, sometimes they’d nap, sometimes we’d all play, sometimes they’d scavenge food that we threw for them. One time we cut an apple into small pieces which they each bobbed from a bucket of water. That was cute. Then eventually it would be human dinnertime. 

It was quiet, it was green, there was a pony on my doorstep and dogs by my side and food in the fridge and a happy and well mama. I had a role to fulfil, a job to do, and my days were composed of creating small routines and habits which I saw build in each individual until we were all living in a more harmonious way. I had a purpose and fresh air and animals and birdsong and wildflowers. 

Now I’m back in Birmingham and I don’t have a set routine to return to. I need to re-create one. I have the cat (who took a night to decide to forgive me for my absence), and Skye (who recently suffered an abscess in her front left hoof and has been on box rest, so she’ll probably be feeling a bit sorry for herself when I see her tomorrow), and John (who is in the midst of wondering again how he feels about his work and his life), and it’s good to have those individuals to return to. 

But the peaceful way I feel when I see Skye for an hour… or when I have time to volunteer once or twice a week… I helped cultivate a household where I had that feeling every single day. I’d improved things for mum’s benefit, had expected to want to swiftly get back to my own life, but then as soon as there was a pony to breathe in everyday, bang… it was suddenly heaven for me too. 

So I feel torn in every direction. She doesn’t need me up there right now, she’s healthier than she’s been in years and is almost over her dizzy spells and reluctance to eat. And I do need to be here, to earn some money and decide where to go or what to do next. Two months of not-earning was not a good thing, especially given I’m part-time self-employed and had a surprisingly tough winter this year. So I need to sell some things and apply for part-time jobs. Anything merry and simple, like cleaning since you’re often working alone and work short hours. Or anything that involves animals, kennel work, mucking out, pet supply sales, things like that. Am getting some responses, but there’s a lot of people here and only a handful of those jobs. So I’d better sell some drawings and maybe a corset or two in the meantime. 

I still want to do that NAC equine behaviour consultancy course, and if I can raise another £300 I could do it. It’s not an expensive course by any stretch, we’re just all very skint at the moment and I have Skye to pay for. But it’s something to work towards. 

The point is there’s things I can work towards, good reasons for being in Birmingham, good things I can do whilst I’m here… but if I were up north right this moment, we would now be playing with the dogs having just fed the pony. I’d know if mum was okay because I’d be able to see as much. I’d know how Poppy was developing in her fears of people, because I’d see her efforts every day. I’d know if mum was feeling strong or tired, because I’d be able to see if she’d done the dishes or fed herself or done some laundry, or just stayed in bed all day. I’d be able to ensure she asked the right questions at her doctor’s appointments and that she didn’t downplay things and say, “oh I’m okay” when she really hasn’t been. I’d get to enjoy the simple caregiving jobs of setting out cat food and mixing Fred’s dinner. And the sillier fun tasks of making him a fruit ice-lolly for the very hot days. I’d get to see if my brother was softening for Poppy, and if she were being given every opportunity to trust him and make friends. 

I would have animal interactions countless times a day, be able to make real dents in positive changes for those animals, and have greenery and fresh air right outside. In terms of those selfish (and highly highly rewarding) desires, I would have them every single day, not just a few hours each week. Where I’m sat, right now whilst typing, I have sunshine on my back, a nice breeze blowing through the boat and the cat sleeping by my side. It’s not bad at all. But if I look out the bow doors to my left I see the edge of another boat, then the soulless design of an expensive block of flats rising above it. I don’t see any greenery. There are no ponies. And if I walk out the stern in search of them, it’s at least an hour’s journey (unless given a lift by John), before I find them. I can cope if I get enough of the latter (ponies) to offset the former (concrete). But I’ve had a reminder if just how sweet it can be to have those things on your doorstep, and I think that’s going to make city life harder. I’ve had about fifteen years of enjoying cities (which was a thing I had to learn in itself, I hated living in a city when I first went to uni). But I suppose those early life experiences set up patterns for the future. My default setting is to have animals around all day everyday. 

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Never discount the best possible outcome!

Skye was an absolute stunner yesterday. A total superstar. 

After volunteering, I had my friend L come down to see the horse again. She’s handling Skye for the farrier on Monday, on account of my going home to help mum, and I thought it would be a good idea for them to have a bit more bonding and clicker time beforehand. 

In the end my excellent livery owner agreed that we could bring Skye and her filly friend Verity down to the nearest field (if they would come!) and stay there over the weekend. That will make things far far easier come Monday morning. I had been quite anxious about it. Thinking that the horse won’t want to leave her herd so L will have to insist, but would the horse then become too afraid to be manageable, etc. etc. But no, I think we have side-stepped the issue. Feeling optimistic. 

V hasn’t been taught to lead or halter, so we went down there with a small bucket of food. I love this filly, she’s so cute and curious in the field, but this was a good reminder of why I like clicker (or rather why I like the “manners” clicker creates). As soon as there was a bucket, this polite and curious filly became rather more pushy. Manageable, but a handful and not especially calm. Food in husbandry education is very useful and I think all domestic beasties could do with learning (human defined) food manners. But luring with food can encourage pushy ponies. Skye’s not pushy at all really. 

Anyway, to back-track. We went up to the field and found the herd eating on the other side of a little rise (another lovely natural “obstacle” which I hadn’t seen before). Chattered away to L about, “fingers crossed this works, but if not I’ll just have you do some clicker with her here to get comfortable” then called Skye’s name. Her head flew up, ears pricked, “two hoomins again!” She looked to Spot who wasn’t interested, then decided to toodle over by herself. Up over the rise in the ground, keen walk, straight over for the target which I offered. L said, “she has a spark in her eyes! It’s like a different horse!” 

The top image is when I viewed her back last summer. The bottom two are examples of posture from yesterday. Apologies for the quality, they’re all screenshots of video. Sara Wyche talks about a “reciprocal tipping” of the poll when the cervico-thoracic junction of the spine straightens out during movement. In other words, when the withers are up. Herein lies the endless issue. Yes, a horse will flex and look fancy when they’re in a good posture. No, getting the nose down will not lift the withers. We have to start at A, not Z. And that’s even more true if we’re using traditional aids/gear to ask for certain postures. “On the bit” is all for naught if the withers are down.

She came with us to the gate very easily, happy to be headcollared and lead, happy to target, and V followed behind with a little bit of calling and a couple of tiny pieces of carrot. V was so keen once she realised food was on the go that she needed some attention. So I gave Skye and the target to L, coaxed V along, opened the gate (L lead Skye through as though it were an everyday occurrence and leaving her herd-mates had never ever been an issue), and got V through before the others followed. V headed straight for her bucket, of course, and Skye was rather keen to sniff it out too! 

We took them across the field and V couldn’t have cared less about leaving her friends behind. Spot was prancing and shouting along the field-line, but our two walked sweetly and enthusiastically. Skye was mildly het up by L’s treat delivery as she felt it could have been a bit faster, haha. But L did great. Which she would, she’s a good horse-person, and knows enough clicker to be able to do Skye in the way she’s used to. She didn’t have to jangle or nag or pull or get “firm” once. Horse has happy to go with me and Verity in front and happy to target and walk with L. She did pause and look backwards a couple of times, but this was good too as L let her have a look, chatted merrily whilst the horse thought about things, and when Skye swung her head around again she offered a target which the horse accepted every single time. 

So, what we got to see a lot of last night was the horse managing her own emotions. 

When we got to the top field, we let them loose. Their energy changed as soon as they were on the drier land. There followed some delightful prancing and galloping, it was a joy to see. Skye did occasionally shout in answer to Spot, but she didn’t seem too worried. She would return to the gates to look across the fields, but she didn’t fret along them or even consider trying to run through or jump. Numerous times, she began to settle and graze, only for V’s lust for life to excite her into running again. For the most part, it just seemed as though they enjoyed the “reason” of Spot shouting and running as an excuse to expend some energy on the quick ground. Because he’d been shouting the whole time we were walking but they’d stayed mentally “with us”. Then as soon as Skye’s toes touched the dry land her head went down to investigate, she got a spring in her step, and us slow humans weren’t very interesting. Movement for the fun of it, beautiful to watch. 

In all the prancing, we saw countless moments of glorious posture. I think I’d seen her lift through the withers and really “use” herself maybe four or five times prior. But yesterday she just kept doing it. Kept returning to that powerful frame. And even her head-up “standing to attention” poses weren’t as ridiculously inverted as they used to be. It’s amazing what a difference non-work strategies can make. It’s not like I’ve put countless hours into the usual methods of lunging or such. I guess core stabilisers count as work, they’re very effortful… But I mean enforced “work” in the usual way of horses. 

Walk to gallop. Skye’s got a bloody big pace, it’ll be hair-raising if I ever do sit on it! But look at those haunches…

I made a video and took a bunch of screencaps to look at her various postures, both good and not-so-good. At the time, I tried the Intrinzen trick of capturing/clicking truly authentic moments of agility and good posture, but of course although she may have heard the clicks the prospect of a treat wasn’t stronger than her wish to prance. Which is ideal, actually. She was rewarding herself essentially, intrinsic motivation. Flow, play. But I’m hoping that with a few more “captures” like that, she’ll begin to make the connection. Effortful movement = good things *even when humans are around.* 

She’s so much more “horse shaped” than she used to be.

We chatted with the livery owner and her friend for a while, whilst the beasties settled down. Then before leaving, L and I spent a bit more time with Skye. And this was almost as precious as her powerful postures. 

She was able to down-regulate herself perfectly. “Yeah, I was excited and galloping and prancing, but I can also switch back to chill you know!” In fact even when I wanted prancing (big pony, you are allowed to trot next to humans!) she was a bit, “oh, hooman is involved, time to be polite and gentle now.” 

We both did bits of targeting and then I had L give her a fuss using the consent cue I’ve taught her. It was probably unnecessary, but I wanted the horse to have a way of being crystal clear with us. 

She said, “of course! Scratch my thighs please…” and had a lovely time with L giving her a scritching. Even asked for more when she stopped. Some bonding time, lovely. So that made me feel a lot better about their chances with the farrier. L and Skye got on perfectly and she has had a chance to practice a couple of strategies for if the horse should be worried that day. Things that’ll let the horse know, “hey, this is no different than if Jenni were here.” 

It isn’t that this system is necessary with all beasties. It’s not even necessary with Skye anymore. But it is a good stepping stone and a good fall-back for helping mildly stressed animals to feel more empowered and calm.

Indeed, the day prior I’d had John come see her, in a bid to just build nice experience on top of nice experience. Lots of little deposits into the “trust account”. Alas, at first I left him in the distance with a tripod and camera and she was very concerned about this. Hyper-vigilant. Then 20mins or so later, I sent him back over by himself (with instructions on how to target and how to ask permission for a fuss), and she welcomed him like he was an automatic friend. 

In the video she does a cute double-take. She turns to look at the approaching human (“oh! It’s a different one to normal!”), turns to check where I am, then goes over to target with him as happy as can be. Later, she makes him wait then gives him permission for a fuss, and is perfectly sweet about that too. Emotional resilience. 

Short summary: I was expecting anxiety and to be faced with the difficult choice of how hard to push for the sake of getting her feet done, but instead was treated to confidence and power and emotional self-regulation.  

I’m going to miss her over the next two weeks, but I’m happy that I can go home feeling confident that she’ll be okay. Even if things aren’t perfect or go badly, she’s far more able to bounce-back now, which is perfect. 

Ups and downs

It’s not been a great weekend. I’ve mostly hibernated and worried about my mum. But I’m travelling up on Saturday and will be there for one or two doctor’s appointments so that’s good. 

I’ll miss Skye and the other ponies. Especially since she’s coming out of her shell so well at the moment. She has the farrier on Monday and I won’t be here, which is a problem. I’ve asked a friend to handle her, but have tried to make clear that if it doesn’t work out it isn’t the end of the world. We just have to wait and see. But I’ll be seeing her twice before I leave for the north, and will be taking the friend to see her on Thursday, so hopefully a couple more good human interactions will help. 

Yesterday was lovely. I’d thought to practice coming out of the field again, but by the time I found the herd I’d changed my mind. They were sheltering from the wind between banks of brambles and willows, at the far side of the field. And to reach them, I walked past a large mound of earth that I hadn’t seen before. Slopes! And a flat and dry top! 

She’s like velvet at the moment, looking so well.

Invited Skye out of her huddle, which required moving grey gelding Sam to one side as he was blocking the way. But then she was quite keen. Kept looking back for her boyfriend Spot. It was very windy and I think she feels slightly more vulnerable when it’s like that. But, we made our way over to the mound with a bit of targeting. I found good places to climb up it whilst she ate willow and brambles and looked at me curiously. 

A big breakthrough for Skye will be when she realises that she can “use her body” whilst around humans. We had a small step in that direction with the core stabilisers (crunches). They’re static, but effortful, in a subtle way. I think she’s so used to simply shutting down or just running away, where human “work” is concerned. But of course I’m trying to approach the issue sideways. Create situations where a certain sort of effort is required, rather than push to get the effort (because as soon as the movement is something they aren’t “endorsing” you’ve created a reason for the brain to resist, a reason for it to act defensively, reducing power, bracing parts of the body, causing pain as a warning signal to stop… You can’t force rehab). Going up and down slopes, at liberty, completely able to decide for herself how and when she does it, is one such example of approaching something sideways. In the project, Intrinzen are often saying that they’ll use clicker to explain what they’d like the horse to try, but now how to do it. No micro-managing which leg moves where/when, no controlling the head carriage, no insistence upon loading “weak” legs, no drilling a movement that the horse’s brain has said “no” to. Instead they design circumstances in which the horse’s nervous system will discover, for itself, better ways of moving. 

This focus on proprioception is one that I share, and is why I’m still rejoicing at the wild nature of my livery yard. If I can’t see the horse for a while (as is just about to happen whilst I’m home helping mum), she’ll still take care of herself and progress in unseen ways. She’s in an environment which is doing a lot of the work for me. Variety = information = sure-footedness and a more richly detailed “body map”. 

Only about 4′ high, a good little movement challenge for horses and Hampshires!

Anyway, I waited up on the mound whilst she hovered at the bottom. Even this was interesting. Me being higher up than her. Stand on a mounting block and there are associations to unpick. Stand on a hillock and that’s just a normal part of her lifestyle, no problem. 

I’ll write about willow trees another time. But this was a nice moment yesterday, showing the variety that naturally happens with varied food sources. In reaching for a different part of the tree, she goes from somewhat-on-the-forehand (ribcage/withers dropped, look at the projection of her sternum between her front legs, and the weight generally falling forward), to standing a bit more evenly balanced with the sternum lifted back (ie: ribcage/withers lifted by the thoracic sling).

I’d hung her cavesson and leadrope on a tree and she nosed it a couple of times. She’s done this a bit recently. Completely without worry and not over-excited, but basically treating it like a target ever since I spent 5mins counter-conditioning it. That lesson worked well then! 

She was unsure about coming up the hill. And I’d actually not expected that she would follow. I’d thought, with the wind she’ll not want to be high up, exposed,  away from her herd mates. 

But after a bit of nibbling and thinking, she took a small step upwards. Gave her a target as thanks, then stepped back to give her room. Another step, the same, then all the way up to the top. Easy-peasy. She did slightly pull with her fronts along with pushing with her hinds, but that’s no surprise at this stage and the ground is a bit loose still. And ooh, she was shiny in the sunshine up there. 

Gave her an opportunity to target, then loads of good thigh scratches (horse in heaven again). Then a few crunches, playing around with my position and posture each time. Turn around, few crunches in the other direction. Running my hands along her back, using my hand as a withers target (which I think she’s beginning to understand). 

Back down the slope and, once she’d realised this was it, I wasn’t coming back up, she followed. More thigh rubs as a “well done!” Went for a two-hander, both thighs at once, horse was thrilled, haha. 

Hung around for a bit, then off she went to find Spot again. He hadn’t moved from his place sheltered behind brambles, and they whinnied to each other as she returned to him. Just shows how much of a difference environment and weather makes. Strong winds and of course she’ll be more concerned about where her friends are. But her willingness to leave them for a moment of human-time is a huge step forward. 

Ah, I adore this horse, she’s a treat. She’s becoming more like the “babies” in the field, more innocent and curious and willing. I’ve started seeing her choose to investigate objects that she finds. You don’t want a horse to only do things for treats. Or to only do things to avoid unpleasant or frightening pressure. But one of the great things about the former is that it can kickstart optimism. The belief that things often turn out well! Which then gives confidence in all manner of situations. How often did Skye’s prior human interactions turn out well? Who can say. 

I’m very stressed that I can’t be here for the farrier on Monday, because I do care about making every interaction as positive as possible. But, it is what it is. Human mothers have to come first and if the trim can’t go ahead the horse will survive a couple of weeks. But fingers crossed. Maybe she’ll surprise me. Kind of the only “downside”, if one must be found, of such a big and wild livery is that I can’t just take the farrier to her. We’ll get there in time. She’s doing so well, really is like a different horse. 

Almost a “normal” horse?

[I’m going to preface this by saying that “normal” means “happy with domestication” in this context. It’s very normal for a horse to have separation anxiety, very normal for them to fly from humans… So in this post, I just mean “normal” as “not afraid” and “confident in communicating” since that surely has to be one of the foundations of welfare for a domesticated animal. A “normal domesticated horse”, to me, is one that has adjusted confidently to life with humans and is happy to be involved in the things we do.] 

 

Yesterday was a funny day! 

After volunteering, John picked me up and we went to Skye. He said, “could you keep it to 30mins, I’ve a lot to do tonight.” Me, “well it’s 10mins to cross the fields and 10mins back again, but I’ll try.” Whoops! 

It ended up being an hour but for the best possible reason. Progress. 

First things first. This was another day (it’s happening nearly every visit now) where she decided to walk over to me. But it was very windy and this seemed to make her ever so slightly more thoughtful about it. She was even startled by the click once, and I have to confess it did carry differently in the wind. 

She would walk so far then stop and look to the rest of the herd. “Are you coming?” They carried on grazing. You’re on your own Skye. It’s also worth noting here that she’s now comfortable grazing further and further away from the others anyway. Doesn’t feel a need to be always so close to them. So, they’re grazing and she’s thinking. She then walks a bit further towards me. I make it easier and go towards her. We meet in the middle, do some targeting, and target our way back over to the gate. 

Skye has been doing so well with choosing to participate that I’d said to myself, “if the herd are somewhat near the gate I’ll see if she’s comfortable walking through it (at liberty, just using targeting).” A 5min learning opportunity, I thought. 

I’d expected that her wish to be with the herd (the separation anxiety which emerged when we moved to this livery) would still be strong enough that she might have a small bit of concern about being on the other side of a fence. 

I’d assumed that we’d walk through with a bit of coaxing (bingo, this was true)… Do a spot of easy clicker on the other side of the gate (also fine)… Then come back through almost straight away as a little reminder that there’s no need to panic, your herd are still here. 

What happened instead… 

A couple of the herd (the usual suspects… cute Verity, curious Tosca, and demanding Spot) begin to follow and decide to mess with my camera whilst I’m working on going through the gate with Skye, which was funny. 

She stood thinking for a moment, looking back occasionally to see where the herd were.

Then happy that they’ve come a bit closer, she agrees to come through the gate. 

She comes with me easily, then hesitates slightly about actually passing through the gate. Which is fair enough, I’ve not flung it wide open (because of the other ponies) and she’s not left the herd in a while. But we target our way through and it’s all fine and dandy. 

On the other side, I very accidentally/gently bump her backside with the gate as I swing it shut. She’s not bothered by this (good confidence progress), she just steps forwards. And then notices that she’s in a different field and oh my, it’s not been grazed for a while… 

She begins marching off and I’m like, “Skye, mate, you’re meant to be the herd-bound one!” 

I call her and she turns around, as though it’s a surprise, then comes back. We do some targeting to chill. 

Resting a leg and looking at me like, “yeah, we could continue targeting I guess…”

“…but ooh, this field hasn’t been grazed for a while… 

I bring her more towards the gate with targeting but as soon as she realises my aim is to take her back through it (back to the herd, which she usually hates leaving!) she plants her feet and says, “nah you’re alright hooman, I’ll just stay here for a bit, what’s ‘separation anxiety‘ anyway?” 

I ask with the target a few more times but just get the longest reaching neck you can imagine, lips extending and wiggling to touch the target, absolutely determined to not actually step forwards. It was hilarious. And when she got bored of having that conversation (impasse), she made it quite clear she’d rather just graze. So I disengaged and she wondered off. Away from the herd, to find good grazing. Like a normal confident horse. 

This was going to double my time and I was thinking, “John’s going to be annoyed…” Fancy today being the day that she makes another step forward in confidence. I was a bit ruffled on account of the extra time, but delighted at the change in her demeanour. Because this is more like a horse that you can establish (for want of a better word) boundaries with. 

Regaining her confidence about leaving the herd. In this case, the newer grass is doing the job for us. Away from herd = access to new grass = natural +R in action. Venturing away from the herd is thus reinforced/rewarded. There’s also the SEEKING system aspect of it (innate curiosity and “wanting”). 

I traipsed back across the fields, updated a mildly grumpy boyfriend, and fetched her headcollar and more snacks. But here’s the thing about clicker. You can’t just tag it onto the end of “ordinary” pressure/release. Well you can, but then you undermine a lot of the benefits of it and those benefits (autonomy, choice, confidence, dopamine, clarity, trustworthiness, authentic movement, communication) are really important for what we’re trying to accomplish for Skye. She’s in emotional and physical rehab! It’s important that she isn’t forced or coerced or bullied. It’s less about “getting the behaviours” and more about “getting the neuro-chemicals.” Of course the two things go hand-in-hand, but it matters which your focus is. She needs time (lots of good experiences and a smattering of gently challenging ones that she can succeed at) in order to develop psychological resilience. To “toughen up”. 

But, some things just have to happen. Healthcare has to happen. Safety. So ultimately one would want the kind of relationship where she feels she has all the freedom in the world, but 1% of the time what “mama” says goes. There’s a lot of good science behind this, but I’m also just modelling it on my actual experience of being parented to be honest, ha. 

Ideally, you would want it to be that we’re on the same page, collaborating, and that nothing is ever forced. So that on the 1% of the time where you need to insist on something it’s no big deal. The relationship is resilient enough for it. Well, Skye is only just getting to that point, nine months into knowing her. Only just two weeks ago, she was still instantly upset for having a headcollar put on, and I’ve only done a small amount of work (5mins worth) on counter-conditioning the headcollar. So uh oh… will we step backwards for having to use the headcollar to enforce a decision? 

Nope, she coped perfectly! 

She was an absolute angel and completely nonplussed by the whole thing. Like a normal horse! I found her bloody miles away from the herd, merrily grazing. Put her headcollar on with zero bother. And she was always well-behaved for this, just slightly unhappy and wouldn’t help you with it (and it would set the scene for potential bigger upsets later)… these days she has started lowering her head to let you do it more easily. And once it’s on, it’s just on, it doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Collaboration. 

A coloured cob decided to help with the camera angle. 

Turned towards the gate on a long lead and said, “come on Skye!” and she did. Zero worried faces, no planting feet, not a moment’s hesitation (except for asking if she could walk around one particular puddle, which is of course perfectly acceptable). Walked through the gate with ease, stood to be untacked, waited while I closed the gate, and then walked with me when requested so that I could offer her a separate clicker session (crunches). 

What a superstar. It was literally like she thought, “ah well, it was fun while it lasted.” I’ll say it again… like a regular horse. So proud of her. 

The crunches then turned out to be excellent too. I know they’re going well when she suddenly seems tall next to me! I had some apple-flavoured chaff and oh my goodness, I may as well have been giving her crack. She was nuts for the stuff. Who knew? She was almost too excited. Her first few crunches were very effortful (and annoyance, I didn’t have my camera at this stage) and she was so switched on to it that I was able to successfully ask for them whilst facing in a different direction (first time trying that). After a few she seemed tired of the physical effort but still very keen for the apple-chaff, so the quality fell apart and it became all about the food. Which isn’t the point of clicker (well, it shouldn’t be, the food is just the way in). 

Toy ponies have changed since I was young… This one even has a carrot for clicker training, haha.

So, I maybe couldn’t use that as the reward every time, but definitely worth knowing for future reference! I’ll need to see what the Intrinzen course shares re: the science of motivation when using +R. I know that there can be pitfalls of too much dopamine, or of fixed rates of reward, but that’s where my knowledge ends. At the moment I’m just feeling it out. Trying to keep it more about the tasks and the time spent together than about the treats. And I also don’t mind an excess of dopamine (in her human interactions) right now. I feel like this winter has been such a big transitional phase for the horse, emotionally speaking, and now we’re in a better place to begin making things a tiny bit more challenging. And that’s largely thanks to dopamine! 

When I finished up yesterday, the usual suspects were still hanging around the fence. Spot was very keen for some attention, as always, but he’s such a funny character. He doesn’t seem to quite know what he wants or how to ask for it. He just comes up and stands there looking at you. Or maybe he thinks I‘m very dim, standing there not knowing what he’s asking for! Young Verity, by contrast, wants to sniff and explore every part of you and your equipment. So between the two of them they took up most of the fence line, whilst shy Skye stood behind looking at me with her big eyes like, “are we done?” 

Normally once we’ve finished she will quickly set off to graze, but recently there’s been more of this sweet soliciting. Yesterday it was probably made worse by the apple-chaff! But I think she’d also enjoyed her tiny adventure into the other field, and using her body for some big crunches. 

A friend of mine said something very sweet the other day. I was joking about wanting a robo-pony (this kids toy which I’d for sure have loved when I was a baba) and she said, “but you have a realo-pony!” I countered, “but robo-pony has light-up eyes!” To which she deftly pointed out that Skye does too. She’s starting to show them. So happy. 

Happy drizzly day

Yesterday was a beautiful drizzly day. 

I found Skye at the edge of the pond, grazing and drinking. She didn’t notice me at first so I went around to the opposite side with my Fuji and tripod and got a little bit of video footage. 

She’s not fully functional by any means, but then neither am I. She is progressing hugely though. I’m taking more and more snaps where her overall shape looks more like a normal healthy horse than it used to. A friend and I were watching sales footage of a tense, inverted, ewe-necked ridden horse the other day. People just don’t realise the physical damage that builds up to the elbows and so on, when they’re ridden like this. She said, “you could have been riding Skye like that from day one.” Now Skye may never come right for a rider, nevermind a larger one. But either way, first things first. Healthy posture, confidence, then the challenge of being ridden.

When I was finally spotted, she stood tensely pondering for a while. This is her third time seeing the tripod so she is still eyeing it suspiciously. After a couple of minutes she relaxed her posture and began climbing the bankside to come around to me. I’m trying to give her plenty opportunity at the minute to initiate “work” and she’s turning a corner in that regard. Being more proactive in choosing human contact. I am expecting a small slide backwards after her next farrier appointment, ha, but that can’t really be avoided and it’s not the end of the world so long as the overall movement is towards confidence. 

She walked around the pond, pausing briefly with Spot as he was somewhat body-blocking her. He then decided to nip at her backside, and once he’d gone she relaxed and returned to heading my way. 

At a certain distance she paused, so I left the Fuji filming and went over for some targeting. Curious Verity and demanding Spot were there, so it was hard for Skye to concentrate after a while. I laughed and headed back towards the camera. Skye, bless her heart, decided to come with. Growing in confidence all the time, but having curious Verity come too certainly helped. She stopped every so often to cast vigilant eyes and ears towards the tripod, which was kind of cute. 

By the time we I was at the Fuji, Verity had reached it before the others and was having a good old sniff. She’s so charmingly unspoiled, this little filly. So calm and curious and confident. 

Soon this meant that Skye wanted a sniff too, and I ended up doing a sort of unintentional +R in that when she was nosing the fuji I would sometimes just leave her to investigate, sometimes verbally praise, and sometimes take it as a cue to give her a thigh rub. Now that she isn’t frightened of human touch, it’s far easier to do these things, the more “normal” ways that people and ponies make friends. Sometimes people take issue with things like clicker, not realising that if you scratch or rub a pony (one that likes human touch) after, for example, picking its feet up, and you see them improve more and more in that skill, then you’re incorporating +R. It’s happening, whether we’re doing it deliberately or not. 

One of the sweetest moments yesterday was happily caught on video. The entire herd had joined us by this point (they’re all such happy, curious, beasties), with some cantering to catch up. They mostly returned to grazing whilst Skye and I attempted some core stabilisers. This was more of an experimental session, as Skye had put herself facing downhill and I wondered if she’d be able to “crunch” in that position. My video footage was blurry enough and off-frame enough to be of very little use in assessing this. In person it didn’t feel like much was happening, but I gave a few “benefit of the doubt” clicks and on the two occasions where it seemed like she’d made a real effort I gave her jackpot rewards. Carrot pieces and rose-hips again yesterday, though I fear that may be the last of the boatyard rose-hips. 

The ponies then decided to have a small hoon up the hill and I stood with Skye fully expecting her to go with them. Safety in numbers, innate herd behaviour, all those things. 

I’m stood near her haunches, so I give her a small hamstring rub and chatter soft nonsense. I’m expecting her to go, but I’d like to also let her know I’m there and I’m relaxed about things. She tenses up, pauses, starts forward, then after a couple of steps decides to turn back around to me. Almost like, “oh, the hooman isn’t running with us!” I want to reward that decision, so I give her my hand to target for a click and a treat. I probably could have rewarded more subtly, with another bum rub or by offering something more interesting than a hand-target, but in the moment this seemed like the best thing to do. Thinking about Panksepp’s emotional systems is keeping me on track. 

How sweet though. I offered her a couple of crunches, but she was mildly het up so it wasn’t really working. So I toodle off to the Fuji thinking to pick up the target and camera as surely the horse will now decide to head off up the hill to the herd and I’ll have to follow behind. 

But nope, Horse comes with, keen to do some targeting and a bit braver about the tripod. Doesn’t at all mind her equine friends being up the hill (they’re still within sight), in fact she seems to appreciate a quiet moment to click without interruption. 

Turning a watchful eye to the camera and tripod. I also noticed watching footage back that she seems to have developed a bit more topline in her neck since being in this field. That is excellent news. Hurrah for gentle hills!

We did some targeting, which is probably our most solid “default” behaviour. I think to the outside it can look a bit “blah”. What’s it even for? But I’m finding it so valuable, and I think Skye is too. 

Targeting is unlike anything else she’s ever done and it’s only ever meant good things, so it gives her confidence. It’s a task that let’s her *choose* involvement, not just passively respond to commands, good for traumatised beasties who are in emotional (and physical) recovery. It allows me to ask (but never coerce or force) if she can stretch this way and that, so I get good information about her physical abilities. As her crunches become more confident, it’ll be a way of frequently decontracting the underneck muscles and encouraging her to thus use her core rather than a head-fling to perform the move. Targeting can encourage forwardness and enthusiasm. And finally, targeting can be used to teach a whole bunch of other skills (husbandry and/or exercise), should you want to. 

I tried holding the target over her back again (for a neck/body bend away from me), and it was good that I tried this whilst filming as I was able to see that the target is just far too short for this to be an easy/healthy move for Skye. So I’ll need a longer target, sooner or later. 

We had some tiny moments which were notable only for the absence of something… the absence of as many calming signals. Though they’re usually very slight, she’ll often respond to things like stroking her face by jerkily moving it away a fraction. A tiny, “ooh, please don’t…” On this day, we had a bit less of that, had more curiosity instead.

After that, a few more thigh rubs with happy, wiggly, lips. Then I gather up my stuff as clicker time is over and head up the hill. Skye comes with, nosing at the Fuji and walking at my shoulder, so every so often I stop and give more thigh rubs as a thank you. She sharp realises that the clicker snacks really are finished, so she grazes bits as we go. By the end, she has accompanied me quite deliberately all the way to the gate, with little Verity along to investigate too, and we stand around fussing. She spots something in the distance and stands very vigilant, head way in the air with the pose that (when formerly combined with her tense ewe-neck) used to convince people she was part-Friesian. But she seems so much more present now. More aware of my presence as a supportive figure. 

I stood with her to watch (though I couldn’t see or hear whatever it was that had caught her attention), and it reminded me of when I first had her. She was obliging enough, but was mostly just tolerating/surviving the things I asked her to do. I would walk her up and down a quiet road opposite the yard in a bid to get her swinging forward, and it helped a lot in that the small bit of exercise and occasional click/treat really made a huge difference to the tension and upside-down muscle she was carrying in her neck. But emotionally, it only had a small impact. 

Back then, she would spot many scary things and stand on her toes keeping very vigilant and fearful watch. She coped, we did fine, but I may as well not have been on the end of the rope for all the good I was doing her. Yesterday, by contrast, it felt more like we were keeping watch together and that my response would mean something. So I watched for a while, saw nothing, sighed, slumped, and returned to my camera to fold down the tripod. Skye took that as encouragement that whatever was in the distance was of little importance, and came over to investigate the tripod again instead. 

The less you insist, the more they give you. It might take longer to get to where you want to be, but it’s actually considerably easier and more enjoyable than trying to force issues. Habituating to scary objects, etc., is just one example of that.

I know a lot of these details are probably of no interest to anyone but myself (hey parents, I feel the same about your human kids I’m afraid), but oh well, it’s my blog for my memories. Watching this beastie get happier and more well is so rewarding and validating. Yesterday morning I was feeling so overwhelmed by life (the hustle and bustle of the city-centre) that I almost didn’t go to Skye. I was quite tempted to hide under the duvet instead. But we went and it was one of the sweetest afternoons I’ve ever had with her. As a friend said, she’s like a different horse now. I know we’ll have set-backs, some of which will be my fault, but I do feel like I’m doing my part to repay the damage humans have done to her (somewhere along the line). It’s a gift, to see her happy. 

Perfect Snowflakes

Volunteering then on to Skye.

At the former, we mucked out rather swiftly. Frozen poo is easier to sweep and shovel! The wind chill had it feeling about -12C, but our toes were fine so long as we kept moving. And the horses couldn’t have cared less, naturally.

The current snowstorm isn’t quite causing havoc in Birmingham, so we could just enjoy it. And I was delighted to find that the snowfall, as light and “dry” as it was, wasn’t clumping together. As a result, you could see each individual snowflake resting quietly on the ponies’ coats. Tiny, immaculate snowflakes. Our newest arrival, beautiful black pony Florence, looked particularly charming with these little stars scattered across her mane and forelock.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen individual snowflakes in real life. Perhaps in Switzerland once, but then I didn’t notice the flakes so much as the sparkle they created when whipped up by the air on a sunny day.

When I got to Skye, a mere 5mins away by car, things were slightly different.

The land isn’t that much higher, but even so, the winds were far stronger. The perfect tiny snowflakes were whipped around so firmly that they stung your eyes. As I walked across the tricky frozen ground, I decided to keep things very short and sweet. No expectations, no challenges, just a hello with a bit of targeting offered.

Photo 01-03-2018, 13 48 06
Thigh rubs for a big snowy pony. Another moment where I wished I had my proper camera. Alas, I’ve currently lost my lens cap, so I probably shouldn’t drag it around until I’ve got a replacement.

I found the herd against tall hedges with their backs to the wind. Smart. It was quite a sleepy “let’s huddle” sort of moment, but Skye seemed interested in saying hi so I offered a bit of targeting. Tried to swap sides and vary position every time, so as to encourage gentle variety in how she uses her neck. Oddly enough, today she was better at reaching to the right than the left. This is not usually the case. I also took the target down towards her forefeet and she had no problem with this idea. Then I tried something that I’d not tried in months. I stood on the left and held the target up and over her back, so that she could bend to the right to reach it. She understood it with no trouble (so she definitely gets the idea of going to the target rather than going into the human… excellent skill to learn to avoid accidentally teaching “mugging” behaviour) but more importantly she wasn’t at all afraid or concerned about it. The last time I tried this she was very unhappy about having something out of sight passing over her back. Today, absolutely unconcerned.

Until I swapped sides… Once I was on the right (with target held over her back and encouraging a left-hand bend) she seemed to feel vulnerable. But that’s no surprise, she’s always been more concerned about having you on her right-hand side than her left.

Photo 01-03-2018, 13 48 22.jpg
Shorter hairs of the tail, doing their intended job of fanning out in the wind to help warm and protect a delicate region! Despite Skye’s grumpy face at the wind, it’s actually helped them in one regard… barely any snow has settled on their current field, leaving access to masses of food. Food = central heating for horses.

After all that, she seemed sleepy and annoyed about the wind again. Not annoyed enough to move entirely out of it (which was an option), but annoyed enough to want to close her eyes and hunker down like the others were. It was all very sweet and peaceful (despite the wind and cold, more of a problem for feeble humans), so I stood by her head and rested with them. The longer I was there the more relaxed she seemed, spending a few sweet moments with her curving into my space so that my head was resting on her neck. This is the stuff that I do wish I had more time to do, to be honest. But it will be easier come spring and summer.

One irksome thing, however, was the appearance of a bruise on her right-hind hoof wall (lateral to the midline, about half-way up). I am hoping this is just trauma (a knock whilst navigating frozen ground, for example) and it doesn’t look very bad, but oh, you just want to do your best and have them be well and happy. Farrier due soon (if I can get him to reply to my text, ha), so I’ll ask his thoughts.

In other news, I’m thoroughly enjoying the first couple weeks of Project Proprius. It’s just started getting meaty! This week we’ve moved into introductory movement science and the fundamental question of “do we have a function/competence problem? Or a fitness/capacity problem?” Because in the world of human movement, this is now understood to be two very different things. We’re all mammals, so we’re largely alike in this regard. And yet “dysfunction” isn’t really discussed with horses. Injury, sure, but not dysfunction. And dysfunction prompts the nervous system to protect itself however it can, which includes things like stiffness, bracing, resistance… things which we usually view as though they’re manifestations of character (the horse being naughty or lazy) or a lack of fitness/suppleness. As they said in the project, there’s a difference between problems of the nervous system and problems of the tissues (muscles, bones, etc.).

So looking forward to learning more. This is the first week that had some unfamiliar concepts/information for me, which I’m thrilled about. Learning! Challenge! I love it.

Library frustration

Last night a friend was saying that she’s about to start reading “The Age of the Horse”. I’d started it once before but had so many other things on the go that I soon decided to return my copy to the library and pick it up at a different point. 

So I merrily toodled to the library today, with that plan in mind. 

Alas, I couldn’t find the loan copy, only the reference copy! So I thought, “no matter, I’ll find something else to read.” 

Alas once again, they didn’t have anything from my current Would Love To Read list. No Panksepp, no Karen Pryor, no Lucy Rees, none of the other bits and bobs I’m interested in. This is how you know your hobby is niche. I’m going to have to write an actual list (current list is only in my head) so that next time I can really check everything and exhaust all options. Or maybe I could put a request in, I’m not sure how libraries really work these days but we used to request books when I was a kid. Is that still a done thing? 

There was one book which looked potentially promising (“Understanding Horses” by Garda Langley), but it was only for reference and I had to get back home (John was baking for us). So, an utterly fruitless visit to the library! Nevermind. 

Peace

What a pretty scene

The livery herd are currently in a field which slopes down towards a large pond. What a lovely thing! I knew this field had a tested water supply, but I thought it was simply a continuation of the small stream that runs through the fields nearest the yard. 

It’s so funny though, because just the other day I was remembering the pond where Freddie lived and thinking, “wouldn’t it be nice for Skye to have a pond like that.” Who knew?! 

It may not be one they venture into, I couldn’t tell if it were boggy or not. But it’s just another natural “obstacle”, if you like, for them to navigate. 

The ground had dried out a bit today, but we’ve new snowfall scheduled so our fields may end up staying wet and spongy for a while longer. It was easy walking today though. 

The pond. Hidden over the brow of a hill.

Freezing and with tiny snowflakes falling, I felt peaceful as soon as I saw the herd. And then joyful when I saw the pond. Skye these days will look up as soon as she hears or sees me, but in a more relaxed way than before. If I’m close (and if I stop walking towards her) she will pause, think, then begin toodling over. If I’m far away she will watch for a moment then put her head down to graze. So at the moment we’re sort of meeting in the middle, which is a huge improvement from how she used to be. She used to spot you and then watch you carefully, for the entire duration of your approach. No grazing, no running (though she thought about it, a few times at the beginning of our relationship), just frozen watching. Whether that is better or worse than running would probably depend on your point of view. But for her it seemed to be about coping. 

 
The next step will be to increase the distance over which she chooses to “come to call”. Or even not to call. It tends to be that if I hang around doing other things, she’ll decide to come over. “Hmm, hooman here, usually means clicker, but huh, she’s not coming over… Guess I’ll go to her then.” 

 

So today I was so entranced by the scene and the tiny snowflakes sitting perfectly still on her coat (as they should, fluffy fur has a purpose… outside of horse = cold, inside of horse = warm), that I wanted to capture it. It would have been a good moment to have my Fuji, but alas. I went and said hello to Skye and Beatrice, then walked around to the other side of the pond. Skye watched me like, “oh?” and I got some film and a couple snaps of Skye, Verity, Beatrice and Spot, grazing on the bankside, reflected in the pond. 

I’ve fiddled with the colours in this picture obviously. Green grass is lovely for horses, but doesn’t make for the prettiest pictures.

I went back around, said hello, and we did some clicker. 

Tiny bit of targeting to get into that headspace, then asked her to target her cavesson and leadrope. Which she did, with no hesitation. Perhaps the thigh rubs the other day (combined with putting a headcollar purely to take it off again, after my initial “mistake” of expecting too much re: leading from pressure) was enough to kickstart new associations as today she was quite happy about things. 

I clicked for having and holding the cavesson more and more on her head. And remember, you can headcollar this horse with absolutely zero challenge, that’s not the issue. The issue is she becomes bloody miserable as soon as you do. We’re trying to change associations. 

Then popped the cavesson on loosely and had her target and follow a folded leadrope. Easy-peasy, says the horse. All these things don’t cancel out the separation anxiety, but they’ll certainly help. 

Next, I clipped the leadrope on and held the end folded in front of her like a target. And how interesting, even just being clipped on changed her feelings. She would still step forward and target the leadrope, but with hesitation. Far less willingness than when it had been unclipped. Again, I think it’s about association. A headcollar and leadrope means something to her (something along the lines of, “this might hurt, I might be forced to do something scary/painful, I might be taken from my friends”). Targeting means something else (carrots and, these days, thigh rubs!). One = scary hooman. And the other = nice hooman. I’ve some convincing to do. Which also means, emergencies excepted, that I need to not fall into the habit of tugging on a leadrope just because it’s in my hand. 

A friend the other day was saying that dog ownership sometimes upsets her. Yappy animals on extendable leads running under people’s feet whilst the owner looks in a shop window, unawares. I said I didn’t feel ownership was itself the problem, but that we have quite low expectations of ourselves and high expectations of the beasties. Expecting them to slot into our lives with no proper guidance about how to do it. We can all very easily fall short of our aims. But if we *aimed* to have dogs that walked politely and safely off-lead we might at least end up with dogs that walk well enough on-lead. 

And I kind of feel the same with horses. Just my personal preference but I’d like to feel that the tack was secondary to the harmony/communication. It might limit what we can do, but I’d not want to do much with a miserable looking horse anyway. 

Light snowfall and a black pony, beautiful.

Anyhow, at the minute the communication does beat the tack, for Skye. Because the tack is so historically unpleasant for her. I unclipped her again, and she went back to targeting/following with more enthusiasm. We got some sustained near-the-shoulder walks (small, but that’s the point, to click and reward before you’ve asked just that millisecond too much), and she was generally very sweet and cheerful. 

Took off the headcollar, dished out some thigh rubs, then thought I’d better get going (John waiting in the car). Horse followed keenly, far more keenly than with the tack on, so I stopped and gave her a thigh rub. We continued in this way for about four or five thigh rubs, getting some nice forward walks together, until I finished one rub a bit sooner and peeled off to leave, upon which she went back to grazing. 

A lovely visit. Thrilled once again about the landscape, thrilled for the happy horse, delighted with the tiny snowflakes. 

On the drive I’d been talking with John about hoof-trimming. He asked how feral horses cope! So we got onto varied terrain, higher ground, rocky ground, constant movement, and how some people are trying to recreate aspects of this with track systems and the like. He then asked about teeth, how do they cope without dentistry? So we got onto grazing and browsing, hippsodontal teeth, jaw angle, varied foods, twigs and bark, and all such things. My livery doesn’t tick all the boxes that you could dream of and even if it did you’d still get the farrier, etc., but goodness me it’s very close. John reflected how well the Exmoors in Sutton Park always look. I imagine they’re rounded up once or twice a year for check-ups (I’d love to know more about it), but otherwise they’re pretty much left alone. They’ve got beautiful backs, lovely postures, solid feet (a bit long, but you never see cracks or curls or flares), and harmonious behaviours. They’re always a delight to see, I’ve not been in months though. 

At any rate, it all gives me ideas for the future, should I ever be lucky enough to have a bit of land. Which feels unlikely, but you never know. Lovely day. 

Dialogue

“Good training is a dialogue and not a monologue.” – Susan Friedman

 

It’s half-term, so we had a load of kids down for Clear Round jumping at the stables. Ooh, they all did so well. Some lovely, confident, balanced riding emerging which really let’s the ponies just ping merrily over the fences. 

It ended up being a day of clicks and sweetness too. 

One mare improved dramatically when the girl grooming was advised to simply be sweeter with her. Another mare (who has recently become angrier than usual about being groomed and tacked up) was golden for a tiny bit of clicker training (targeting and quiet standing = not a single grumpy expression during all her least favourite parts of the process, girthing and such). And big Diego began the day very defensive and cross, but cheered up no end for a tiny bit of targeting before going out to the field. 

They tell us such a lot, all the time, and it’s worth paying attention. 

 

SPECIES-SPECIFIC 

In addition to the Equine Behaviour & Psychology CPD I recently completed, I also did one on Animal Behaviour & Welfare and another on Cats & Dogs (created by the vet school at the University of Edinburgh). Hurrah for the internet and online learning! Here were a couple of interesting things… 

  1. cats apparently have quite a slim repertoire of calming/appeasement signals (the body language behaviours we perform to maintain non-threatening and harmonious social existences, polite smiling for example). They’ve little need of them, being largely solitary. Makes perfect sense and goes some way to explaining how deadpan cats can seem! Zero shits given. 
  2. dog calming signals are often presented as a ladder or scale of communication, and it’s the same with horses though it has only been catalogued, analysed, and documented recently. Dogs start with things like blinking, licking, yawning, moving away, laying down (“I’m no threat, why are you still upsetting me?!”), then eventually through to more active measures of defence: growling and biting. Elsewhere I saw it put quite succinctly… “Punishing a dog for growling is like removing the batteries from your smoke alarm.” 
  3. in short, if we don’t have warning signals (if we don’t have a dialogue) we’re in danger of misunderstandings. And misunderstandings matter when they occur between fragile humans and strong beasties. 

So arguably the more social/vulnerable the species, the more need for subtle affiliative and non-threatening/calming communication. Horses, being prey herd animals, are all about maintaining harmonious relationships. They perform a lot of behaviour to that end. 

 

RESILIENCE 

Skye had another emotional shift today. I almost spoiled it! But in doing so, revealed a little bit about her growing levels of resilience (psychological ability to “bounce back”). Basic overview… 

Lovely clicker session. Bump into livery owner as I’m finishing up. The field we’re working in, they’re not meant to be in, haha. But someone has discovered an easily knocked down bit of fence. So last night (when they first broke in) she was trying to herd them out and they weren’t for it. She thought, “well I’ll try Skye” and Horse allowed her to slip the headcollar on and lead her out with no problems, then stood quietly whilst the others decided to join (Spot can’t be without his beloved Skye for long!). So I thought, I’ll take that as a prompt to try her in the headcollar again today. 

To recap, Skye has always been fine for leading and you can always “make her” come should you need to. But it’s not about that for me, it’s about the associations, which is why I ditched it for a while. To give her a breather of sorts. 

If you compel her to come by tugging, she shuts down and pulls a pain face (unsure if this is discomfort at the poll, or only the memory of pain). If you tie her up she often panics and pulls, even if the lead is long/loose. If you have her walk with you at liberty (doing some targeting or whatever) she’s golden and merry. If you try exactly the same but with a lead attached, she’s less willing. At some point, something has upset her, and of course it could even be just as simple as no-one has ever really explained light pressure/release to her so pressure = panic/fear. So now, although she is perfectly obliging for 90% of the process, she is instantly unhappy once you put the headcollar on. 

As another aside, memo to self, it’s worth taking photos of the less-than-golden stuff. In the future, it gives you something to reflect on and compare to. 

So, we’d finished all the treats and thus had no formal way of using the clicker, but I thought I’d headcollar and lead her towards the exit of the field, just to see if she showed any difference of feeling. 

She did and she didn’t. Her willingness to move or “come with” diminished as soon as she was on a lead, same as before. She froze a couple of times. Her facial expression was instantly a bit tighter and her posture was instantly a bit more hollow and stressy. 

But, you could “make” her come without resorting to much force if you wanted to and she doesn’t give any trouble for putting the headcollar on. She’s also easier if you have a second horse that she likes, for company. So, to most people, that’s a success and/or manageable. For me, it would be a success if it were just about stubbornness/preference which one must occasionally overrule for the sake of farrier visits, etc. But her face shows us that it isn’t about that, it’s about old fears. 

 

FACIAL EXPRESSIONS FOR COMMUNICATION 

Headcollar face. Widened base of ears, tight muzzle and lips, tense chin and eyes, tense underneck, slightly inverted posture.

She has such an expressive face (and body). And though I know I don’t always read her 100% perfectly, it’s pretty clear when she’s happy and when she’s stressed. If I was walking a dog and it was cowering and flattening its ears and looking up ingratiatingly, I’d not be thinking this was successful leading. Or rather, I’d not be thinking it was the finished article. The signals may be different for horses, but the principle is the same. If she’s stressed, the situation is not working well enough for her. We can do better than that. She might live and work another five to ten years, I’d like for her to not be mildly worried every time a headcollar is put on. 

At about the edges of her comfort zone I removed the headcollar and gave her lots of thigh rubs (more on that in a moment). It took a while for her to relax (we had some head away, pretend sniffing of the the ground, sad faces, just a few of her go-to “calming signals”), but I gave her space and she did begin to release the tension she’d been holding. I put it on again, scratched her thighs, removed it, scratched again, and this time she relaxed further and went back to how she’d been earlier in the afternoon, merry and friendly. “Headcollar doesn’t always equal pulling? Oh, okay, that’s good to know.” 

Evidence of some newfound resilience. We’d had a great session, I’d tested the waters with something, and she’d found it somewhat stressful… but she bounced back and forgave me within 10mins. 

How do I know she bounced back? The newest aforementioned emotional/behavioural shift. 

 

SOLICITATION 

Last time I wrote, Skye had shown an active enjoyment of thigh scratches. Today, she not only enjoyed them she asked for them in standard horse fashion… by swinging her backside up next to me whenever I stopped and stepped away! 

There’s a time and a place, Horse can’t forever be swinging her arse into people, but that really isn’t something that worries me (easily managed). I’m just delighted to see another step towards “normal horseness”. 

First she tolerated human touch because what choice did she have? Suppression. Don’t let yourself feel the thing (fear) because you can’t do anything about it anyway. She wasn’t in total Learned Helplessness, I don’t think, but she certainly “coped” with humans rather than liked them. 

Then she accepted us and our touches, but with some suspicion/caution. 

Then I taught her to say “yes” or “no” to being touched, and it made a huge difference to how she responded to human touch. She could trust that her boundaries would be respected. It wasn’t something to switch off to or fear anymore. It could even be pleasurable. And she quickly extended that sense of comfort to other humans too. 

And now, she’s decided it’s actually really nice and worth seeking out and “oh, maybe I don’t even mind if I’m touched without being officially asked first”. Isn’t that wonderful! She’s soliciting touch from humans. 

It reminds me of the first time my mum’s troubled dog Poppy sidled over to me on the sofa and (eyes fixed firmly on my face because you can’t be too careful!) placed a little paw on my hand (this is what she does to my mum if she wants a fuss). If I try to stroke Poppy without her invitation or awareness (or without it being done in an especially good relaxed moment of clicker or something) she’ll tense up or shoot away with fear. For info, that’s low to middling on the scale of dog calming signals… but Poppy, being poorly socialised as a puppy, didn’t learn to vocalise for a long time and still doesn’t communicate quite like a “normal” dog in that regard. So for her, at first, those low to middling fear responses felt like they could explode all the way to biting without much warning. No smoke alarm, as it were. 

At any rate, it means so much when these traumatised beasties decide to try trusting you. 

 

IT’S ALL BONKERS TO THE HORSES

I’ve written this blog post backwards you know, bloody hell… 

So, before our final friendly scratches was the headcollar experiment (which told me that I need to do a lot more to counter-condition her emotional experience of headcollars and lead-ropes). Before the headcollar experiment was a grazing break whilst I talked to the livery owner. And before that, was the actual clicker session. 

This was another example of her growing confidence. 

“Wearing a delicate gold chain and coming over to target a golden moth” face. How bonkers! Posture relaxed, ears softly alert, head swinging gently as she walks forwards.

I had taken two new things down. A golden metal moth trinket tray and a loop of delicate rose-gold chain. The reasons why will be shared, in due course, on a different blog. 

I used the moth as a target. Would it be scary given it was shiny and hard and cold? No, horse was coming over to target before I was even really ready for her. 

I used the chain as a loop and clicked for putting it over her nose, then up to the eyes, then over the ears, then over the head. A task that you might use when lifting reins over the head in a horse that has to re-learn calm bridling, for example. Eventually she was wearing it as a rather fetching necklace with not a care in the world, and following the golden moth as a target. 

If you want, imaginatively replace the golden chain and moth for any other comparable items. A neck-rope or lariat or breastplate or rug, a tennis ball or cone or tarp or target stick. Because the point is that the objects don’t matter. The associations and training matters. Leather saddles make no more sense to horses (in terms of their intrinsic meaning as objects) than laying your jumper across their back. We use tack mostly, one hopes, for good reasons. But as far as the horse is concerned it’s all just strange human stuff. So it’s up to us to make new objects and experiences as pleasant and safe as possible. 

At this point, I could “lead” Skye best off thin-air, well-timed snacks or scratches, and a golden moth. Or any novel object/target. Anything new I bring is a potential target. But the thing for actually leading her, not so much. Emergency situations aside, the sparkly nonsense “equipment” works better than a lead-rope and headcollar. Because what works is the dialogue and history between us and when I use kit with unpleasant associations from the past I may as well be “talking” cruelly to her. That’s how she sees it. So I need to make sure I take her headcollar up more often, to give her more chances to change her opinions on it. Perhaps I’ll try teaching her to target/follow a folded leadrope, approach it that way. 

 

POSTURE AND PROPRIUS

In other news, today was Day One of “Project Proprius” by Intrinzen. Exciting! The first videos are ones I’d mostly seen when they released teasers a while back, but good to recap. The focus is agility. Because although the research has lead them around to things like +R and zero-coercion, the impetus was, from the start it seems, about creating healthy horses. 

I can’t wait for some of the denser information though. Feel such a wish to deepen my knowledge. Which brings me to two thoughts from recent times… 

  1. when people say they tried +R and it didn’t work. +R is a natural law like gravity. It doesn’t sometimes work and sometimes not. If it actually happens it works. If you didn’t get the desired results, it’s because something else was going on or because you weren’t actually doing +R (you can give treats without it reinforcing the behaviour you’re aiming for very easily, all you need to do is have poor or accidental timing). “We tried reinforcement but it didn’t work. This is an oxymoron.” – Jose Martinez-Dias, PhD. 
  2. eek, when people gleefully say that they “don’t believe the modern science.” Such wilful misunderstanding. You can interpret the findings differently, you can seek out different studies and findings to suit your agenda, you can say you just don’t care, and you can challenge “bad science” (bad methodologies or bad conclusions)… but science itself is a method for gradually finding repeatable, testable, observable truth. It’s not about belief or opinion. When I see people say things like this, I wonder if they realise they sound like flat-earthers. Or if they even know what “science” is. Or if they think that spiritual intuition alone was what created the phone on which they’re sharing such points of view. 

Perhaps people really have “had enough of experts” as I believe one slimy politician said. But I hope not. I love the experts, the more of their thoughts that I can access the happier I am. 

Behaviour, Psychology, Movement and Motivation

STUDIES 

I can’t sleep for excitement! 

Good fortune (in the Stoic sense of the word) has given me access to Project Proprius by Intrinzen! I cannot wait to sink my teeth into some learning… For those not in the know, Proprius is basically Intrinzen’s way of collating, distilling, and sharing a boatload of the newest movement and motivation science. With a particular focus on how it pertains to horses, naturally. 

What I always love about Intrinzen is that they’re the first to say, “this is the science, this is how we interpret the science, find your own path.” In a world of “this is how we’ve always done it” and “it worked before” and “tradition”, that’s a refreshing level of flexibility. So I will endeavour to meet the material in the same fashion. With my personal philosophies about horses occasionally stored to one side so that I can engage with the information with as little bias as possible. Let it all simmer and then decide what to do with it. 

It’s going to be so intense. 

I was trying to explain to John why I was so excited. In the end, the only way I could sum it up was to say that there are some other equine/animal courses (both short and university) where I would go into them feeling confident that I had about 70% of the knowledge installed already (including some very outdated and inaccurate bits of horse info which I actually know many degrees still teach). Not enough of a challenge. Whereas with this short educational project by Intrinzen, I reckon I’m going in with (if I’m lucky) about 10% of the knowledge. A challenge! 

I recently did got a CPD certificate in Equine Behaviour and Psychology, for example. I’m glad I did, as it showed me to not undervalue what I’ve studied and learned. But by the end I was mentally re-writing bits where the language was muddy and thinking, “if someone came to this course with no prior experience they’d be hard pushed to figure out some of the information, it could be more clearly explained”… and in doing so I realised that I wasn’t learning, I was just revising. 

So I’m glad I did the CPD, but there was no challenge in it. It was meant to be 70hours of study, but it was actually about 3hours of revision and tests. Proprius will be challenge! It’ll be a shade (or more!) beyond me! I’m so excited. 

 

PONIES

In other news, today was a nice day for ponies. 

Skye once again showed me that working too near to the herd gets her a little anxious (simply because every so often someone will interrupt us or push on her with their body language, they’re all so curious), but that gave us plenty of opportunity to practice walking away from them which was good. At this stage it’s less “training her to walk away” (which I’ve never really done, but thought I might have to eventually do) and more “walking away together because she’d like to click in peace.” That’s a nice shift. 

We did a bit of stuff she knows and enjoys, and I attempted to teach her hip targeting but it wasn’t clicking (as it were). But even so, a big improvement from a couple months ago when I first tried to teach it. Back then she was alarmed about the target (or me) going towards her haunches. Too much prior experience of whips hitting her back end I should think. So I left the idea alone. When I tried it again today she didn’t volunteer movement. Possibly still a bit concerned. But she likewise didn’t display alarm or a wish to get away. Just waited. I think she thought I just wanted stillness. And then she thought, “oh wait, reach for the target with my nose!” and we got some unintentional lateral neck stretches instead. So I think I’ll keep the target for her nose and use my hands or something else as targets for other body parts. To try to make a clearer distinction between the tasks. 

From her right, I saw again today (very clearly) how her upper neck vertebrae are sort of stuck in a permanent curve outwards to the right. Imagine a very shallow backwards “S” viewed from above. That’s her neck. So when she bends around in that direction, all the bend comes from the base of the neck and she makes up the distance by rotating/tilting her head. I could keep on bending her, but (even with pleasant +R) I’d possibly be bending the wrong parts and giving her reason to protect herself by bracing. Proprius might give some insight into these things, but Bowen or more chiro is definitely on the cards for the future. And I’m doing a tiny bit of Masterton bladder meridian stroking every so often. 

Oh, horse got some rose-hips again today, the bush in the boatyard keeps on fruiting. And the herd has moved field again, so that’s another new set of slopes and foodstuffs to negotiate. So pleased that she has this lifestyle. An arena would be useful, for sure, but my livery is otherwise ideal. 

After all that, finished on grooming and scratching as usual. The permission cue is working wonders for Skye. I got a fist-bump and begin curry combing. She grazed. I checked in for a permissive bump a couple of times. When I finally reached her hamstrings the head came up in thought. Asked again and got a bump. Began currying hamstrings and inner thighs. Horse’s lips start wiggling in bliss. And not a tentative wiggle like we’ve previously had, but a comical wiggle in which her lips were so busy that glimpses of teeth were visible, whilst her ears flickered and her head wobbled. I laughed and laughed and told her she was excellent. A few repetitions of requesting permission just to keep on cementing the idea that she has a say in the matter. 

At one point I finish with my curry comb and go stand up front, facing away, just chilling. She thinks, steps forward, and bumps my hand. So I give her withers a rub. And she steps forwards so that my hand slides backwards to her rump. The hamstring scritches begin again! Horse in ecstasy. 

And it’s such a small thing, but such a huge thing. 

 

TURNING POINTS FOR SKYE (SO FAR)… 

  • Day One. Prancing on tiptoes to walking quietly. Just up and down the yard. Horse learns that she’s not in any immediate danger, despite being in a new place and having a human next to her shoulder. She calmed down, outwardly.
  • Targeting, four months later. If I’d really known the value of targeting I’d have made it priority much sooner. It was a lightbulb moment for her. Horse learns that she doesn’t need to simply “react to survive” she can be an active participant in human-activities. She began engaging, in the tiniest of ways, like a normal horse. 
  • Core stabilisers (crunches). Though we’re very new to these, Horse finds them somehow motivating. Every session since introducing crunches, she’s shown a more active interest in me. I hadn’t attempted to really teach recalls (come to call), but her enthusiasm for clicker had her begin coming of her own accord, which has meant I can begin reinforcing it (though not necessarily with clicks/treats every single time, reinforcement is about more than that).
  • Permission cues. We’ve only worked out one rudimentary cue for now (nose bump my fist to let me know you’re happy being touched), and the more she practices it the more she says “yes” when I ask and the less she minds if I forget to ask. Being given some self-determination has given her the confidence to quite quickly relearn to enjoy human touches. We can do more by demanding less. 

There have been other turning points too, of course, but these are the biggest emotional ones so far. I’m so pleased for her, and so excited for myself. It’s been kind of a rubbish 2018 so far. And the end of last year wasn’t great either! But now I’ve done a little CPD, got three months of intense learning to look forward to, the days are getting longer and warmer, and Skye is becoming happier and happier. It’s 2am and I can’t sleep and I am feeling fortunate.