Last Thursday morning I loaded Ben and Rosie and headed to Sandra’s. There we swapped Rosie for Minnie. Rosie was to stay with little Arrow and Cassie for the next few days. Two Kerry Bog ponies, one old, one young, meeting each other. I have some good photos of that for another post. Sandra was bringing Minnie, who has been off work for quite a while because Cassie presented with lameness just that morning.
When I first had Ben, Sandra was still riding Minnie and they became regular partners on long rides together. It was interesting to re-call just what good partners they were. Moving together over this weekend, they seemed to match each other stride for stride in a way Ben and Cassie have never done. Ben became very attached to Minnie during the weekend and stayed with her during all her restless moves. He even allowed her eat from his bucket and share his pile of haylage.
So we drove down to Kerry on a hot afternoon encountering roadworks after roadworks. Ben and Minnie travelled well and we arrived in time to settle them in before we met Alex and the other course participants and observers for dinner.
Mary had six horses to find accommodation for over the weekend. There was a field, some pens and an arena. Each horse or pair had time in each. Ben and Minnie spent each night in the arena and Ben proved proprietary where Minnie was concerned, placing his body between her and any other gelding who dared look over the fence. He took particular exception to Moffet, the only other cob on the course.
How to write about the clinic? There was so much learning packed into it. Alex is an incredibly generous teacher. We worked each evening for as long as it took. Conversations continued during lunches and dinners. Officially, Friday was a data collecting day, Saturday was hands-on teaching and Sunday was the results coming together. In reality, teaching happened from the start. There was time spent practising rope handling and tai chi exercises, there were discussions that were philosophical, theoretical and practical. Three of the course participants were quite advanced in their clicker training and three of us were novices.
So day one, Friday. Ben had been on my mind during the night as when we left them they were clearly unsettled in the arena, surrounded as they were by other geldings in their separate pens. Ben was squealing, striking and keeping pace with Minnie who was moving restlessly around. In the morning he did not want to settle for grooming and did not even show much interest in his bucket until Minnie settled to hers. If Minnie moved, he wanted to barge past me to catch up with her.
We watched the advanced horses first, which gave Ben and Minnie a morning in the field. I hoped that would help Ben settle but when I brought him in to show what we had been learning he was tense. I was too, very aware of being observed (there were two video cameras going) and very aware of how novice we were. As we walked through the foundation exercises Alex started to give me guidance and Ben was far too impatient to wait. He became very snatchy, grabbing for food with his mouth open and his head swinging all too regularly in my direction. His body was pulled onto his forehand with his neck reaching to the side. Ben was looking, in fact, like just the sort of horse who should never be introduced to clicker training. It felt tense, it looked tense (I saw some of it played back later) and there was no connection between us.
So this data collection session became a lesson in food delivery. Alex asked Mary to work with Ben teaching him to accept treats politely (to use his knife and fork as she put it) and she showed me just how to do it. Then I practised it with Ben. When providing any kind of physical contact with your horse (for example, asking for back up, head lowering or in this case placing a hand on the head collar to keep it out of my space) Alex places great emphasis on bone rotation. This concept took me a while to grasp and I gather that it comes from tai chi. I was to place my hand on the side of Ben’s head collar turning my arm from the shoulder so that the back of my hand was uppermost. In this way I was not using muscle but using bone and there is a completely different feel. It does not provoke a leaning into pressure reaction. It is hard to explain. We practised it on each other and there is a big difference in feel.
So I was to stand to the side of Ben, facing his shoulder and step towards his head, with my near hand on his head collar and the other hand presenting the treat, initially sliding down between his nostrils to his mouth. I was also to watch for Ben’s head position and aim to present the treat in a place where his head would be centered. This was not easy with his head butting against me.
Here we were on the very basics of clicker training. Ben’s anxiety had brought it to the fore. I had worked on this at home but obviously not with sufficient clarity for Ben.
At the end there was a magical moment for me, possibly my biggest insight of all the insights of the clinic. Ben was starting to wait calmly for the treat. His head was staying in midline as soon as my hand moved towards his headcollar. I became sufficiently at ease with my hand movements to be able to focus on the rest of my body and to become centered over my feet as I moved towards him. And I was aware that he was in balance and I was in balance and I had an image of a circle of energy between us uniting us both in this moment of balance. So even this most basic of exercises showed me that ‘everything is about everything else’.
After that I watched Alex work with Sandra and Minnie and also with Moffet. As regards food delivery with Moffet, the treat was placed underneath his muzzle so that he had to lift the base of his neck and from this his back-up became freer. Back-up was progressed to where a clean step from his inside fore was reinforced. After Alex worked on foundation lessons for a while with Moffet, this young, heavy cob was clearly lifting his legs rather than dragging them and looked much lighter.
That was day one. Mary’s arena overlooks the sea and between the learning, the blowing sand and the sun I was tired indeed.