Friday, May 31, 2013

31st May, 2013 That's me in the Korma

A busy day ahead with four horses to work with and a stack of panels to move over to Minty's place. Xanthe from Mallorca is coming over some time and there's a dozen of us going out for a meal. Having got up really early I have visions of me falling asleep with my face in my dinner.

Yesterday I went to see a little Welsh pony that we'll call Star who has turned out to be spooky about everything and three weeks ago decided that he would no longer be caught. He belongs to a smashing young girl aged 8 and she reminded me of me at that age when ponies were my world (oh, what's changed?). Although her pony is older than mine was he is just as green and his nervousness is putting her confidence at risk. Hard decision for her Mum to decide whether to keep him or to see how much work it would take to turn him into a little police horse. It's certainly do-able but ultimately you can't take the Welsh Pony out of the Welsh Pony and he will always be bright and perhaps a little sharp. Having got him to the stage of being caught happily yesterday I am hoping they will enlist my help for the next stage.

My own pony was hardly broken when we got him and within weeks he had spooked at a dog and I fell off and broke my arm. It took me months to get my confidence back but soon the pony were inseparable and I spent all day, every day with him. On school days my Mum used to fetch me from school riding her own horse with my pony on a lead rein. We were all rather gung-ho in those days. I do wonder sometimes whether social services should consider a care order for some children whose parents seem to be prepared to put them on anything, even completely unbroken ponies, as some sort of crash-test dummy!

My three year old green grey pony arrives having been ridden all the way back from Norton Canes - about 8 miles. In those days hats seem to have been a token nod to safety!

Smokey on the Sherriff's Ride - some 20 miles around the boundaries of Lichfield in what often seemed like an uncontrolled stampede. People who couldn't ride hired ex-racehorses for the day and all the rest stops were at pubs. In later years the mounted police came along to insist on some sort of order.

The days of crates, barrels and tyres.

Oh the shame of the Donny Osmond T-shirt and I am clearly starting to outgrow my pony.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

29th May, 2013 Anything You can Do, I Can Do (Better)

Yesterday afternoon I went to fetch Wellow Nettles from his field about three quarters of an hour away. If you are a long term reader you may recall that I halter trained Nettles with the help of a group of students about two years ago. He had been brought in off the Forest by his owner when he was very young because his mother wasn't well. Before we halter trained him he had no handling at all. Since he was halter trained he has not left his field although he has received regular loving attention from his owner and a nice friend. When his mother died he was absolutely bereft but various attempts to get him a companion failed. First of all he took to eating the tails of other horses (which thankfully he has now stopped) and then he chased his sister through the fence. More recently he has had the company of an older mare. 

Now three, Nettles has had very little experience of life. He has only been led tentatively, groomed a bit but never had his feet picked up or picked out. They need trimming soon. On one occasion that his field gate was left open to the road, he stayed in the field rather than venturing out to explore the world. 

Considering all that, he loaded very quietly yesterday having been eased up the ramp step by step with the help of clickered treats at the front end and a quarter rope around his hindquarters. It's a testament to his good nature that he never thought of kicking or rearing. He travelled back well and was delighted to be turned out with Jack, who was also bred by the same lady.

This morning I let the two of them up to the top paddock knowing that Nettles might struggle with the thresholds at the gateways. It took him twenty-five minutes to follow Jack's example and summon up the courage to go through the gateway. 

I took his old head collar off when he arrived last night and I did wonder how easily I might be able to catch him given that it is so long since he had his halter training. One click and I had his attention and was able to catch him easily. He's an endearing soul who loves to put his head on your shoulder but doesn't push or shove to get attention. I 'pretend tied' him while I groomed him all over, putting baby lotion on his tail to make it easier to brush. I think most of the attention he has received has been at the front end so it was good to know that he was willing to accept being groomed at the back end. I also picked up all of his feet and picked out the front ones.

We ended the session by walking through another gateway together, walking around the big field and him putting his two front feet on the see-saw.

Coco continues to make good progress with the carrier bags. Sometimes it is good to do this training all in one session, working until the horse accepts the bags all over. However I felt that coco would benefit from slowing things down and working on consecutive days. It certainly seems to be working and she was far more accepting today than she has been. Sometimes it is easy to inadvertently set up a pattern of behaviour that you did not intend. Normally I allow a horse to move freely around me when I touch them with the bags but I noticed that Coco was just inclined to circle and keep circling as if she thought that was what was expected of her. She has never been lunged so there is no apparent reason why she should do so. Instead I have been putting a suggestion of a halt into the line, helping her to stop so that she can then find the release with the bags moving away from her. This has become the new (and wanted) pattern.

It's important to end every session with something enjoyable that the horse is really good at. Coco loves migrating and so we took her out long-lining on the Forest. She has long-lined lots of times before but never been out and about.

True to form, anything coco can do Rose can do better and she just takes everything in her stride. The bridge and the bags on a stick were a breeze.

She enjoyed her long rein too especially as she was able to snatch some of the marsh grass that grows on the wetter tracks. Sian was glad of her wellies here.

And of course, she is very very beautiful.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

28th May, 2013 For the Want of a Shoe

The saying goes: "For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the man was lost." 

These days a lot of horses are managing perfectly well without shoes.

When I started running I was advised to get the best running shoes that I could afford and to go to a shop with a real expertise in running shoes. The staff watched my running gait, measured my feet and allowed me to go out running around the town in the shoes that they recommended before I paid for them. The shoes were perfect. As a result, I ran my first 500 miles or more with no injuries and got fitter and happier. When the time came to replace them I went back to the same shop but by this time they had changed hands. They were now part of a small chain, not really interested in personal service and they no longer sold the same make of shoes. Nevertheless, after trying on a few pairs for a few seconds and going for a short run to the car park and back, I was persuaded to take on a new pair. I broke them in carefully (is it possible to 'start' trainers?) and gradually increased my distances but discovered that after four miles not only did they cause blisters but they caused me to compensate too. I took to alternating them with my old running shoes but the blister took an age to go and I was never really comfortable running longer distances. I became less confident and finally succumbed to a sore Achilles which meats that I wasn't able to run at all. I know that I need to go and get another pair of running shoes, and I will go to another shop that has been recommended, but at the moment I can't even test drive a pair.

So many problems for horses start with an ill fitting saddle or one that becomes ill fitting as they change shape. Sore backs lead to compensations elsewhere in the body, behavioural changes and long term damage. I find it really hard to recommend any saddler when I hear them praised to the hilt one by client, to find that the next client has been really dissatisfied with their saddle from the same person. I recently went to a client who had been sold a saddle without anyone seeing a rider on board and as soon as Charly got on, it was painfully obvious that the saddle did not fit at all. Saddles are expensive and yet we get very little opportunity to test before we buy because of the risk that they will be damaged. If only there were a saddle library!

As owners we have to become really well educated on saddle fit and to keep checking it ourselves and to notice when it is becoming too tight, unbalanced or lumpy. The problem for saddle fitters is that they are fitting for what they see on the day and that may change - in some cases we want it to change if we are seeking to allow wasted muscles to recover or a young horse is starting to muscle up for the first time.

28th May, 2013 Half a Circle of Influence

Not my pony I hasten to say or one that I have tied up.

A lot of horses feel more vulnerable when they are tied up. It makes sense since it is impossible for them to flee. Instinctively they know it's not a good idea. We reinforce this whenever we tie them up to administer some uncomfortable procedure which may be something as innocuous to us a grooming them a bit efficiently or putting on a saddle that we don't realise doesn't fit. When the horse has a reason to be anxious, which may be just caused by the tying up itself, he will develop strategies to postpone whatever may be about to happen to him or to influence the situation in some way. He will have at least 180 degrees in which to do this and  he may simply fidget or move about, or start to barge into you with his bottom or even squash you against a handy wall. This pony is pawing because he feels the need to move.

Our job is to make sure that we make things as comfortable as we can, read what he is trying to say, and be calm around the horse, and only then deal with the unwanted behaviour. The first thing to do is actually to untie the horse so that he can be schooled when he offers unwanted behaviours. This sounds counter-intuitive but it stops him using his 180 degrees or more of influence. We can work on standing still, moving away from pressure, not biting or striking. It is instinctive, automatic, non-thinking behaviour for a horse to move into pressure when touched on his sides and he has to be taught to do the opposite (and to think!). Once this has been done he can be tied up again but with the rope actually through the ring and to the handler's hand (so not really tied up) so that the handler still has some ability to school. After that he can be tied up again if he is ready.

28th May, 2013 Circles of Influence

When I work with horses I always try to be the gentlest and subtlest that I can be, and for behaviour that I want to keep, I want to make my body language, cue or aid, as small as it can possibly be. This is why it is a joy to be able to think a horse into trot. HOWEVER, there are times when I will use the very biggest body language I have available, flap my rope hard against my coat or even jump up and down. There are just four sets of behaviour that I don't want to keep and my aim is to make those behaviours redundant at the earliest opportunity. I don't want a horse to bite me, kick me, invade my space or overtake me when I am leading him. The first two might seem rather obvious but I meet a lot of horses that bite. The last two are not so obvious but to me they are two of the most fundamental rules that I have. They are also two areas where a lot of  people do not offer the horse enough clarity or consistency and often confuse the horse by giving mixed messages.

When I lead a horse, I want his head to be right by my side - not in front of me and not behind me. As soon as a horse is ahead of me he is put in the leadership position and effectively told that he must now make all the decisions. If he is a quiet, older horse with lots of confidence, he may be fine. More often however a horse put in this position will take the leadership he has been given and start to try to influence his world. They will move their owners around rather than the owner moving them around. Some horses will take their owners for walk or to eat some grass, others will start to circle their owner or press in with their shoulder, impeding the owner's path and preventing their progress - postponing behaviour. The picture above is an exaggerated example of that. When a horse starts to feel out of control, he is often taking control. The temptation is always to put him on a circle around you until he loses that level of energy but it is that very circle that puts the horse in control; almost always he will start to come inwards and move the owner with his shoulder. Shoulders are a massive source of power for a horse.

These behaviours are all entirely natural - this is what foals do to their mothers in order to get them to stop so that they can have a drink. It's what they do to other horses to influence speed, direction and destination - just look at the pictures of the horses practising their emergency drills.

Leading a horse from the shoulder also causes them to be crooked unless the handler never pulls on the head-collar. Pulling on the head-collar causes the horse to go 'into-pressure' and to forge ahead.

If a horse is asked to follow his owner there are two possible outcomes. First of all he may switch off altogether and look as if he is very obedient. I don't want that level of disconnect with my horse. Not only because I prefer to be 'with him' physically and mentally but also because he becomes less responsive to other stimuli and, if suddenly startled, may run me over. I like to know that he is awake. Secondly he may form the impression that he is moving me and be tempted to see what would happen if he did it a bit more or perhaps gave me a little nip!

It's hard to be adamant with a horse about where you want him to be, especially where there is a strong emotional connection with the horse. We want to be really nice to our horses so that they love and trust us, but some good leadership (and here I don't mean domination, I mean having a sense of purpose and security) is worth a lot more to a horse than all the love in the world.  A strong intention and absolute resolve will establish the wanted behaviour in just three goes in most cases. Being tentative will only prolong the existence of the unwanted behaviour and cause it to become a persistent dance - I do this two, three and you do that, two, three until the horse might believe that is what is wanted. I would rather get the behaviour out of the way not just because it is boring to deal with it over and over again but because I'd rather be doing something positive with the horse. Once the horse is leading with his head by my side, we can go over obstacles, we can go for walks, we can try matching stride for stride - fast and slow - and all of this without ever having to pull on his head. Leading a horse should be like going for a purposeful walk with your best friend.

Monday, May 27, 2013

27th May, 2013 Smelling of Roses (and Peppermint!)

Busy bank holiday with four ponies to work with. I started off at 7.30 a.m. with Rose. Her timetable today included a little loading practice, further desensitisation with the fly screen and a confidence walk out on the Forest on her own (well, with me you understand?). She did really well, loading herself at one stage and having the back gates closed to the trailer. She stood quietly under the fly screen and then behaved very calmly out on the Forest.

Off to Brockenhurst after that to work with Rose on trying up and leading out. This pony was Indiana's companion for a while and Sally ended up buying her. I call her a Clydesdale Pony because of her splashy markings.

Rosie is happy to be ground tied when groomed in the field. You'll note that as soon as she is actually 'tied up' Sally is holding the end of the rope so that if Rosie backs up she can gently ask her to move forward again and then put a release back into the rope.

Even though Rosie (a yearling) went only 100 metres down the drive she found it a bit worrying and the others in the field were all worried too. By taking very short walks like this we can build up the pony's confidence and that of her field mates and then gradually extend the distance and the time for which she is out. In that way everyone remains safe.

When Rosie went back into the field all of the ponies had to practice their emergency drill all over again to make sure that everyone knew what they should be doing!

and then it was time for a drink...

Back to Fritham then to do some work with Coco this time. More loading work and another walk arund the Forest.

I finished later at Hale where I was working with Minty again. He decided that he wasn't going to go in the stable today so we did wonder whether we would do any good at all. Instead I started to work with the feather duster and clickered treats out in middle of the field. Minty grew more and more confident and by the end of the session |I was able to put the scarf around his face in a figure of eight just as if it was a head-collar. He seems to love the scarf once it is in place. More practice later in the week.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

26th May, 2013 Dynamics!

Today we put inoffensive Jack in the field next to Coco and Rose with the idea that he would keep Coco company when Rose went out. Instead it changed the whole dynamic so that not only did they have to practice their emergency procedures again, but we had to wait half an hour before we could attempt to catch either of them. Out of the field, Rose was distracted and full of energy but it gave us an opportunity to work with a horse with a bit more adrenalin flowing around and to see whether we could keep our leadership and boundaries within that environment. Arguably we could have just turned her out again and waited until another day when she was calmer but in reality we are bound to meet these sort of situations and adrenalin levels with all of our horses at sometime - perhaps at a show or out on a hack, and it gives us a chance to see what influence we can have on their behaviour and how we can keep ourselves safe. In any event, a bit of good groundwork and some concentrated work and Rose was much much calmer.

A day would not be the same without a glimpse of High Jack here standing in line with some of his now huge band of mares. The lack of rain over the last few days has brought him back to the local pond where he is king of all he surveys. However, he is so quiet and unobtrusive, none of the Bank Holiday tourists have a clue that they are looking at a stallion. I'm such a fan.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

25th May, 2013 Bits and Bobs Day One

So today we started work at the fields, although Julie might have you believe she was the only one doing the work- she chose to push the wheelbarrow and carry all the bags and coats across.

Loading training and practice for Coco and Rose as well as trying out some of the obstacles. Both were remarkably relaxed considering they had only moved here yesterday.

Rose wore the 'jingle bells' breastplate and was unfazed...

Whilst Coco seems to have taught her owner to go under a fly screen.

At the end Julie was rewarded with a ten second bareback ride on Petra from the bridge to the gate. Just like the old days of working for riding stables.

This afternoon I went out touristing with a friend we met in Guyana. Our wildlife might not be as exotic but it stands still for a lot longer. Here is Lovely Hill High Jack sleeping again.

Friday, May 24, 2013

24th May, 2013 Shank's Ponies

This morning, before the  rotten rain set in again, Sian and I walked Coco and Rose over to Fritham where they will be staying for an 8 day 'camp'. We've got all sorts planned from loading to long reining and ridden work too. First of all they had to investigate their field and make sure that they had rehearsed their emergency procedures. It's always lovely to watch horses synchronise like this as they practice their drills.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

23rd May, 2013 Sense and Insensibility

A lovely loading session with New Forest cross Arab, Razzy this morning. He has a very good reason to not want to load as all of his recent journeys have terminated at the vets to undergo uncomfortable procedures following an injury. He'd taken a very passive stance, planting on the ramp and just refusing to move. Some very gentle pressure and release and the addition of clickered treats and he was soon walking on without any pressure whatsoever and looking quite happy doing it. The brilliant thing in his case was that I was more or less the first resort and not the last so no-one had been allowed to get at him with whips or brooms. This meant that there was never any question of him backing out on his own or being concerned about being approached from behind. Hopefully his next journeys will be to more interesting and less painful places and will restore his trust. Lots of practice over the next few days and he should have it down to a fine art.

At the farm this afternoon the chilled air seemed to have injected the horses with a dose of May Madness!

Later, all serene...

My article in Horse Scene magazine has come out today: