Friday, November 24, 2006

24th November, 2006 Piper's Story

Piper is a seven year old Exmoor stallion from the Anchor herd. He has lived out on the moor all his life and had his own group of mares. Sadly, his owners decided that they had one stallion too many and that Piper would have to go. I don't want to go into the reasons why Piper was chosen - it doesn't really matter. It could have been any one of the stallions.
Piper was booked to go to Potters for meat on Friday, 11th November. To some people this may seem unforgiveable but the truth is that there are very few people who can take on a mature wild stallion given the cost in terms of time and money, and the facilities needed to keep him while he is entire. Who knows, even now, Piper might prefer to be dead than to have to give up his moor, his mares and his freedom from human contact.
Having been successful with 23 wild ponies at the Moorland Mousie Trust aged from 6 months to 2 years, I asked to be given the chance to work with Piper before he was put on the lorry. "If I'm not going to do any good," I said, "he can still go." He was deposited in a stable at the back of the Centre and during my lunch hour I would spend just ten minutes assessing his attitude to being approached. I was struck by how polite he was - he would go to the back of the stable, stand sideways on to me and indicate that he was "just over here, minding my own business" and would I kindly do the same so that there would be no confrontation. He was not aggressive but like Marlene Dietrich he preferred to be alone.
When I telephoned David asking him to bring the trailer down when he came to pick me up at the weekend he wasn't in the least bit surprised. The fact that half my money from the Moorland Mousie Trust course would be spent on an unwanted pony was just about typical really. I started work with Piper the day after I got back. He was parked in the barn which is really a Nissen hut with bedding in one end, food and water in the other and the gate open into the pony pound; a sort of room with en suite and conservatory. He seemed to settle very well but would speed away if I even so much as looked at him. "It's okay, I'm going away...." he would say. He really was extremely sensitive and I was very conscious that I would need to work very carefully if I was going to bring him round. Being faced with a blank canvas like this can be very daunting. It's important to make the first splash of paint before you decide to avoid it altogether.

During the first two weeks with Piper I have been able to touch him all over his left hand side with the hand on the stick and also the feather duster. I have been able to touch his bottom and rub his bottom with my hand and to creep a little way along his back. I've even been able to brush his bottom with a rubber curry comb and a body brush. I can move parallel to his body with the hand on the stick and approach him from the front and touch his shoulder with the hand on the stick but if I attempt to move my hand further along his body or to touch the front of him, he either flees to the back of the hut or threatens to kick me. He has only actually kicked out at me once. I can touch his legs all the way to the floor and rub behind his fetlock with the hand on the stick. I can even touch his tail. I can reach over his back with the hand on the stick and touch him on his right hand side but he will not expose his right hand side to me at all yet. He is much less sensitive to movements of my fingers and will eat food from a bucket in my arms and he can now cope with my feet moving towards him as long as I don't get too close. I found that he loves the smell of Ylang Ylang and that it calms him so I put a little on my hands and on the hand on the stick. I have had to wrestle with my thoughts on a daily basis about the best approach to take. Should I have insisted on touching his shoulder rather than his bottom first of all to prevent him presenting his bottom to me whenever I approach? I think beggers can't be choosers and I'd rather be able to touch anywhere than nowhere at all. Although he sometimes rounds his bottom towards me, this merely seems to be him going into pressure as I come within touching distance and is more a polite acceptance of what seems to him to be inevitable rather than him warning me not to come any closer. Should I have insisted that I started with a rope round his neck so that I could direct his movement by force if necessary for safety reasons and teach him all about physical pressure and release before I did anything else? The trouble is that I don't know what Piper has been through before. He must have been branded and inspected at some time and this will have involved a rough rope being forced on his head and him being tied to something immoveable. These rope halters continue to tighten while the pony struggles and fights the pressure. He may also have been haltered and "swung" as a colt to teach him not to fight a rope. I doubt that he has ever met a sympathetic touch. I felt that whilst a rope might keep me safer, it could also break our relationship right from the outset - it was likely that he would tear around the pen with the rope trailing after him and I just felt it wasn't worth it. I wanted Piper to stay with me by choice albeit that I might make the choices very black and white for him.
Piper has made significant and positive progress every day that I have worked with him. It hasn't been as dramatic as the foals which switch within hours of first working with them; nevertheless there has always been a step in the right direction. Today (24th November), Piper has made a huge breakthrough. Until now, he has been reactive and yet prepared to endure something providing nothing goes too far. Today he started to be pro-active, working things out for himself, giving things a try and allowing himself to be curious.He's amazing.
I decided that I needed to be able to work at the front of him. I invented a game which I have called Grandmother's Steps. It goes like this: I take a couple of steps towards Piper's head from directly in front of him. I don't look him directly in the eye, I keep my arms down and I walk sideways like a crab. I don't want him to get confused when I ask him to step backwards by moving my feet directly towards him. If he stands still, I move away again and pause for a couple of seconds before repeating the exercise. If he backs up, I keep walking with him until he pauses or even looks as if he will pause and then I reward him by moving away from him again. If he turns and flees, I keep after him much more positively and send his bottom away from me but the second his head comes round, I drop my body language and walk away from him to reward him. It's basic Monty advance and retreat technique but I needed to apply it absolutely consistently and make my timing as perfect as I possibly could. In no time Piper was engaging with me - I don't think he could have done this a week ago, he would have just fled - as I approached he would nod his head even if he was backing up. In time I was able to take three steps towards him and then four and five until I was getting really close. I could pause for a little longer before moving away again. And next, he started to take the occasional step towards me - if he did I would instantly move away and reward him by staying away from him for longer. In time he was taking four or five positive steps towards me and I was getting closer and closer to him when I went towards him. Eventually I closed the gap by leaning my body towards him and then moving it away again. He started to reach out to smell me and each time I would reward him by moving away. And then he just leaned forward to smell me, dropped his head, gave a huge sigh and completely relaxed. We just stood together quietly while I told him how clever he was, how amazing and how beautiful and tried to put convey pictures into about how much I love him already.

Grandmother's Footsteps worked so well that the following day I was able to put my hand on his face and to stroke his forelock. As you can see from the photograph, every muscle was poised to go backwards at the first sign of any trouble but by the end of the short session he was far more relaxed. The day after that I could stroke him much more definitely and he allowed me to touch him between the ears and to rub his forehead. I was also able to touch his cheek and chin. By the end of week three he is letting me stroke him along his back, all over his face and part way down his neck - just a 6" gap between what I can touch from the front and what I can touch from the back! He chooses to stand near me when we are resting now and stands much closer while I do "room service". Although he is having to live alone, he receives regular visits by the Forest ponies and can touch them through the fence. The mare and foal next door often wave through the hedge.
Week four and I have bridged the gap. Piper now let's me stroke him all over his left hand side and loves being groomed with a body brush. I think there has been a distinct switch between him tolerating touch and now enjoying being touched. He softens his eye, lowers his head and relaxes. He likes his ears being touched (what a bonus that he isn't ear shy) and loves his mane being stroked. I'm really enjoying working with him now and am not so worried about whether I am doing the right thing, because it's obviously working! By the end of the week I have been able to touch and groom Piper along the right hand side of his face and neck and he is relaxed more and more as the week has gone by.
And here's the thing..... on 9th december, Piper's former owner contacted me to congratulate me on how far I have got so far. No-one wants their pony to go for meat if there is another realistic option. The truth is that Piper was never going to be easy and it's only because I have the luxury of working with horses all day that I can fit him into my life. We have still got such a long way to go.
Three days later and I have put a rope halter on Piper without a murmur. I haven't asked him any questions with it yet but he at least doesn't mind the feel of it around his head. I have also got as far as his tummy on the right hand side.
I have never allowed myself to have dreams. Partly because it's easier to cope with disappointment that way and partly because I don't want others to know if I have failed. I have a dream for Piper and I'm not going to keep it a secret - nor am I going to let it put pressure on him or me. I would like to ride him in next year's Moorland Mousie Trust sponsored ride on Exmoor; I would like him to go to one good show and I would like to complete a sponsored walk with him across a Long Distance bridlepath in aid of the Moorland Mousie Trust.
After 33 days (approximately 66 hours of gentle work), Piper let me put his first headcollar on. And....two days later he kicked me. It was my own fault as I just put a little too much pressure on him and he turned around and walloped me one. Since then I have put the headcollar on a number of times and he has been led around the barn. At New Year he is moving into a different barn where he will have access to more grass outside.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

November 2006 (2)

Nell and Blue are treating my place like a couple of university students. They just turn up when they feel like it, use the place as a hotel and never tidy up after themselves. They eat me out of house and home and never tell me what time they are coming home or who they are seeing when they are out. I had to draw a line with Nell today when she turned up with some stray friend that I have never met before. The girl appeared to be barefoot and pregnant - but then mind you, so is Nell. Pie on the other hand thinks he is independent - he looks as if he could do with a good wash and haircut but he's got some nice friends that he goes drinking with. (It's okay, just humour me!)

I attended the APBC Workshop at Witney (Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors) which was entitled The Carrot and the Stick, an examination of different training methods for horses and the behavioural tools that they use. I was disappointed that the promised discussion and debate didn't really materialise and that different training methods weren't portrayed on a level playing field. In any event it helped me to clarify the role that clicker training can play in training. Clicker training is an excellent and positive tool to use during short training sessions and is a great way of teaching a horse to be imaginative and to offer behaviours. Nevertheless in my view it isn't a way of being with your horse all day every day since the horse expects attention throughout the sessions and needs to have a clear indication of when the session is over. In my view clicker training cannot avoid negative reinforcement altogether and this was accepted by the panellists - even the act of picking a horse's head up off the floor by lightly pulling on the headcollar amounts to negative reinforcement. I am very keen that there shouldn't be different "churches" within the horse training world and that our overriding aim should be to be as soft with the horse as we can possibly be (here I use soft as in attitude, not soft as in daft!). I will continue to use clicker training in circumstances where it seems the most appropriate way to go. Throughout my training I endeavour to use both positive and negative reinforcement and to avoid punishment.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

November 2006 (1)

The Handling the Young Exmoor Pony course at the Exmoor Pony Centre was an absolute triumph. I have come home on a real high knowing that the 23 ponies that we handled have got an assured future. We worked with 19 foals, three yearlings and a two year old and by the end of the course they had all been touched, had there headcollars on, been led and had their feet picked up. On the last day all of them were caught in the big pen. We had 38 participants from all kinds of backgrounds: from conservation to probation, healing, hypnotherapy and reflexology, environmental health to tourism. All of us found it to be an immensley rewarding and emotional experience as these wild ponies began to accept and then enjoy human contact. 100's of people came to see what we were up to - most importantly journalists, pony breeders and staff from the National Park. We are already taking bookings for next year.
Pictures from the course are shown on the Exmoor Pony Centre website at but here are a few more!

While I was there, the Johnny Kingdom programme "A Year On Exmoor" featured me and Billy Milton with david in the background. The general consensus was that I had come over well and David got an e-mail from RAF Lossiemouth asking him for a signed photo!

Came home with Piper - a seven year old Exmoor stallion.