Category Archives: General

The end of a journey

In July Ben tore his tendon (left hind leg, superficial digital flexor tendon) galloping in the field that I was renting behind us here.  He then damaged the tendon in his right hind leg, simply by the strain of supporting his left leg.  Recovery happened slowly, then he became severely lame again, recovered a bit, his fetlocks dropped and suddenly was incurably lame.  He was put to sleep in the last week of October.

So much in the package of a small, stocky cob.  He has been my equine partner, my friend, my guardian of being for nearly eight years.  It has taken me until now to write this, which feels like the ending of ponies at home although life goes on and more ponies come.  Ben and Rosie were the originals, the first, the magical initiators of so many, many new experiences, new ways of awakening to life, new conduits of joy.


Ben went without a fuss.  He was old and I could see that he was ready.  The only problem was that I wasn’t.  Two nights before the vet was due I sat outside near where he stood munching some hay.  My mind had at last found a still place and Ben limped over and stood by me.  He rested his head on mine, breathed a long breath over my hair and limped away again.  His goodbye.  And he went with such finality, such typical completeness.  No ghost lingers, as Rosie still sometimes does, to accompany me through the paddock, thrusting a soft invisible muzzle against my arm.

And how I miss him.

With Ben I took the decision to go barefoot which seemed at the time like a defining moment in how I viewed so many aspects of keeping horses.  In time we went bitless and eventually treeless also.  But as I look back these are not the stand out moments for me.

I miss so many aspects of Ben himself.  His defiance, his pride, his surprising gentleness, his stubbornness, his determination, walking purposefully in the direction of his goal.  I remember him coming up beside me to lick a raw scar from a burn on my wrist; how he wrapped his head around my back as we mourned Rosie together; how he impatiently would lift each leg in turn during hoof trimming in a ‘get on with it’ manner; how he walked off to the back gate all tacked up without waiting for me when I was taking too long fitting a new saddle.

I remember how he would sink into peace beside me as I sat in the yard and how Rosie would line up on the other side of me and together we would breathe in harmony with the universe.

And I remember our rides: galloping flat out trying his best to keep up with Sandra and Minnie, cantering through forest tracks, galloping in a field with Cloud, this time happy to be in the lead, and jumping, never faltering no matter how I saw or did not see a stride.  But most of all I remember our rides from the back gate at home, doing what he loved best, for if I ever turned him back before he had gone as far as he felt he should, he would walk home in a sulk, dragging his feet.  But when we had time for the full ride – well I can see the road ahead right now in my mind’s eye, and feel in my body his wonderful relaxed walk as we ride home in the light of a setting sun on a summer’s evening on a loose rein.



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A winter night

That rare thing – snow.  We get so little here that my excitement rises like a child.  I relish the thought of a night time visit to Ben and Cloud who are at winter grazing a short drive away.  I fill the jeep with hay and feed, wrap up, put on my head torch and persuade my eldest daughter to come with me.  The snow swirls in the headlights throwing the beam back to me.  I dip the beam and drive slowly, the ground slippy from the quickly gathering snow.  As we turn into the side road two deer appear in front of the car, surprisingly small, walking in front of us with white flags of tails raised behind them.  They add another layer of enchantment to the silent, swirling, fairy tale scene.

Arriving at the winter grazing, all tracks have vanished.  My daughter’s sense of direction holds good from three years ago when Ben and Rosie spent a winter here.  I, who was here the day before, wander into bushes, hopelessly lost without her.  Ben and Cloud hear us and emerge from the dark in front of us, Cloud excited by the feed and startled by the light.  Feed and hay given we take photos from camera phones by the light of my head torch.  And then have the sense to pause, to pull ourselves away from the lure of this too easy technology.  I turn off the torch and as our eyes adjust we feel as well as see them in the dim light.  Ben’s breath is warm on my cheek in a greeting, a benediction nearly which remains with me as we drive away.

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A break in the storms

We have had storm after storm batter us this winter.  Interaction with Ben and Cloud has been limited to dashing out, feeding, distributing hay and dashing back in again, with time made for hoof trimming also.  Somewhere in the midst of that Ben has sought me out, making it clear that he wants to spend time with me. Cloud has seemed stand-offish, standing away, approaching only when he sees a bucket in my hand or hay in my arms.

So today, a sunny, frosty morning, gave some opportunity to spend time with the boys before this evening’s promised storm crashes in.

My agenda: to spend time with Cloud, undemanding time, sitting in a chair wrapped against the cold and showing him that I am non-threatening.

I can take my time this morning with my approach with feed buckets and hay. And I see why Cloud is stands off.  He is clearly signaling to me that Ben is his.  Ben, behind him on the track is looking for a way around Cloud and I, standing in the yard am clearly a threat – a threat to Cloud’s control of his herd.  I sense that if Ben were not trying to reach me, Cloud would come straight up for that bucket he sees in my hand.

I turn away and wait.  They come up, but Cloud is lively, not settling to his bucket and this effects Ben also who moves around.  I signal to Cloud to stand by his bucket.  I point to Ben to return to his.  And they do.  And my agenda has changed.

Clearly Cloud has reasserted himself over this winter.  Managing a herd of two at home I cannot have this.  When I am around Cloud needs to know that I am in charge.  I am grateful to Carolyn Resnick for coaching she gave me when I had to manage this situation for Ben and Rosie.  I distribute hay in the picadero in small piles.  They come up and I guard Ben’s pile.  Cloud challenges me just once – we have done this particular ritual before quite a while ago.  I find myself very relaxed as I move between Cloud and Ben.  Cloud moves away to another pile.  It is beautiful up there.  Cold, fresh with a wind picking up.  The hens come to join us.  There is a good view in most directions and I can react to the same sounds as Ben and Cloud almost as quickly as they do.  As I notice these sounds they relax and return to their hay again.

After a while I move to greet them.  Ben first, he turns his head as I look at him and I offer him my outstretched hand which he touches gently with his muzzle. Cloud: I look at him, he turns his head and gives my hand a gentle lick before returning to his hay.

All is well here.

Here are some photos from our storm-lashed winter.  I missed my opportunity to get a rain sheet on Ben but to my surprise and delight, there is no rain scald this winter.  His immune system is clearly stronger.




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A pony and a trailer

This summer daughter made full use of the field and how Cloud woke up! It was a joy to see him switch on to jumping and change from a reluctant, can I run out approach to an easy, rhythmical jumper with a wide awake look on his face. It is as if he realised that he is no longer being kicked around a riding school by a variety of riders but ridden by his girl with joy, energy and enthusiasm and those same qualities seemed to awake in him.

So next inevitable step – pony club. Now daughter is not competitive and we both agree that a competitive agenda would not suit Cloud. (Does it suit any horse?) But daughter wants pony companions of her age and they are to be found in the local pony club on a Friday night. And Cloud could certainly do with the exercise. To get there means Cloud going into the dreaded trailer.

I spent time – quite a lot of time – last winter getting Cloud used to the trailer because I guess that it is associated for him with many painful separations. And I succeeded, to a point. Between us we could persuade him into the trailer. The day we bought Cloud, he hated going into the trailer, leaving his companions. And who knows what pain many separations have had for Cloud, this pony from Lithuania, by way of England (three moves there), to a small riding school in Ireland, to us?

First pony club night was last Friday night and Cloud entered the trailer with the help of a carrot. Once in he usually travels well but this time he didn’t and arrived having sweated quite heavily and not touched his haynet. In the class he was lame and so left shortly after it began. The instructor thought it was his shoulder. Maybe he had injured it travelling? (He is walking well again now but on Wednesday a Masterson Method practitioner is coming to give him a treatment.)

Cloud would not enter the trailer to go home. He pulled away from us, three times, to charge to a couple of girls on their ponies in the large, flood lit car park. Result, one small girl in tears, one mortified daughter, one panicked pony and one very helpless me. I had to enlist the help of two Dads because I was not strong enough to hold poor Cloud. They, thankfully, were tactful with him and, using a rope behind him, he was basically pushed into the trailer.

What I think happened was that Cloud, for some reason, panicked while travelling. Once arrived, he settled into the class very quickly. He is used to being in a class of ponies and this must have felt like his herd and he must have felt safe. Due to being lame, he had to leave this new found herd and come into the shadowy, flood lit car park. No wonder he panicked and ran to what ponies he could see.

But I have never felt so helpless. Quite clearly, under stress, he had no strong connection with me. He is also one very strong pony.

So I have spent the last two days practising loading with Cloud. If he cannot do it very easily at home, he will never do it away. The first day he was clearly very stressed but finally, after about two hours, he made a kind of panic bound into the trailer, where he was praised, fed and backed out again. I asked him to do this twice more. He did so, but he was clearly not happy about it. He was difficult. He could stand, seemingly quietly, and suddenly choose to pull strongly away. I was using a lunge rope so he learnt that he could not succeed in getting fully away. But I was not happy with this approach. It felt that he was coming in because he was compelled to do so and that did not sit well with me. Yet, I was quite determined that he needed to learn to load into the trailer. At the end of this day I felt nearly as helpless as I had on Friday night.

So I tried again the following day. He seemed far less stressed. He stood at the bottom of the ramp and seemed to clearly want to go in, but be unable to. It was quiet, with a low, grey sky and a Sunday afternoon stillness all around. I felt quiet and I felt his willingness, but nothing I could do would bring him further than putting his two front feet on the ramp. If I upped the pressure, he retreated. He did not respond to me whether I walked beside him, drove him from behind or went in front.

Time passed. I felt exasperation rise. I went up to him and, my mind occupied with thoughts of exasperation and helplessness, I took his head in my hands. Not knowing what I was doing, I found myself lowering his head into me. He sunk his head into my chest. I held it there in a hug. He sunk it lower into my belly and stayed there. I felt deep sadness.   ‘Why Cloud, are you crying?’ I do not know what passed between us but something very profound seemed to take place. Then I said, ‘Come on, let’s do it together.’ And, with a loose lead rope, I ran up the ramp and he trotted up beside me to be fed treats, praised and backed down again. And we repeated this, a run up the ramp, Cloud matching my energy, all signs of stress gone, again and again. I called daughter out and she ran up with him. One time, he went to back out and she asked him to come forward again and he did.

We will do this again, and again.  We will make short journeys, and then longer ones.  I think we’re on our way.

I do not really know quite how Cloud released his stress. My mind strives to grasp what happened so that I can do it again. But it did not happen at the level of my conscious mind. It happened, maybe, in that field of which Rumi speaks. It certainly had nothing to do with technique.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there.

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Full moon

Nothing gets a pony excited like food! When Cloud first came to us I was very grateful for all I had learned from Carolyn Resnick about rituals around food. He understood straight away and that made feeding times easy.

The evening after Ben and Cloud went into the field daughter and I visited to find the farmer and his son with a scoop of nuts trying to feed their calves. They were surrounded by two very excited ponies who alternated between charging the calves and crowding the farmer. We had to laugh; how well they drove off those calves – and how differently. Cloud would charge at a calf, head snaking, whole body twisting and follow that calf even after it retreated. Ben’s body language seemed more menacing as he charged the calf, head low, but then he would stop as soon as the calf had got the message. Daughter and I were able to go in there, lift our hands and both Ben and Cloud stopped and gave the farmer space. (He could not feed the calves though. We would have to have removed Ben and Cloud for that to happen.)

Yesterday evening I walked down the lane at dusk, a bucket in each hand. The lane is quite sunken and I could hear Cloud above me trotting vigorously on the other side of the hedge towards the gate. Once I was inside with the bucket he danced around, snaking his head at Ben, tossing his head at me, crowding me and, when I told him to stand, turning his back towards me. His energy was up and Carolyn Resnick rituals seemed a long way away.

So I put the bucket down, took off my jacket and defined my space. I swirled the jacket in a figure of eight in front of me, hitting it off the ground, giving myself a wide semi-circle and I repeated this again and again and again until Cloud’s dancing confined itself to outside this space. I moved back to reach the buckets and Cloud danced forward again, so I started again. I felt grounded, in rhythm, almost dancing myself as I moved my boundaries out and claimed my space. Finally Cloud responded to my hand signal and I could get the buckets and allow them their feed. And Ben? He had stood calmly outside all of this waiting for his bucket, seemingly not affected by Cloud’s energy at all.

As they ate I strode off down the field. How alive I felt, walking it seemed into the full moon that was clear now with the light of the day almost gone. When I stopped all my senses seemed switched on and I could hear, not just birds, breeze and distant traffic but, it seemed, the plants breathing, yes, even the Ragwort, and I felt part of it all.

The ponies had finished and Ben moved towards me but Cloud was obviously still excited, backing into Ben and tossing his head. He drove Ben away from me so I stood between them and he stopped and we stood all three of us and I faced Cloud then and, for once, had a moment of connection with him and I felt our differentness and I felt our sameness and we waited there together held in a silent moment of energy under that full moon.

Then it broke, they cropped the grass, I crouched down and we were once again two ponies and a human, magic gone, just being ordinary and, you know, that ordinariness is also magic enough.

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Pay attention to me

Attention; how important, how simple and how difficult. Being present, being aware, being mindful, the sacrament of the present moment, the power of now….reinforced by so many traditions and teachers, it all comes down to paying attention.

I have had a teacher of horsemanship who emphasises over and over ‘pay attention to me’. I can hear her voice saying it as I type these words. Her emphasis is that your horse should pay attention to you when you are with him. And she insists on bringing him back to you again and again. And it is very important, because if they are not paying attention to you what are they paying attention to? Their environment of course, alert for danger and certainly my two will either knock me down (Ben) or run through me (Cloud) if they spook and are not paying attention to me.

But it is more fundamental than that. If I am not paying attention to me, being present and centered and at the same time aware of what is around me: the movement of the air, the sunlight through the trees, the sounds, smells and feelings of nature that surrounds me and the wonderful, enormous presence of these ponies, well then, I am invisible to them and I am invisible to myself. When I have that attention, I have the ponies’ attention with no effort at all.

When I don’t, if I am tired, worried or generally distracted, well that is the time to sit and rest and relax as they munch through their hay, keeping a certain distance in fairness to myself and to them.

Ben, paying attention to the lake:



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Name and explain

One of the interesting facets of the SATS approach is ‘name and explain’. It is suggested that, without even incorporating bridging (intermediate or terminal), you can start labeling events, locations, physical or emotional states etc. As I understand it, it is different to adding a cue to a learnt behaviour. You just explain things as you go.

This approach has been used to successfully prepare animals for veterinary procedures. A practical example with a horse is explained in this blog post.

I have been comparing and contrasting this in my mind to body language, energy and intent, all clear ways of communicating with horses. Years ago I read Dancing with Horses by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling and immediately and with some success started to put his ideas around leading horses into practice. Recently I have revisited and reinforced this with Ben and Cloud. And it is effective. However, I will never have the focus of energy and intent that Hempfling seems to bring to his work with horses. (I have only his videos to go on as regards this.) There is still plenty of room for error. Adding language is surely a way to help a horse understand what I mean. (This desire for more clarity in my communication was also the reason I got into clicker training.)

Ben and Cloud live in a domesticated environment, in close contact with humans and rely on these humans for their basic needs. Therefore, their natural and normal expression of instinctual behaviour is not always appropriate. They need to adapt.

Here is an example. Morning and evening they are brought a bucket of feed each. As I do not want to be pushed aside I ask them to wait until I have put the bucket down and moved away. They have always done this but each time it has required strong body language and energy from me. So recently I added words. As I emerged from the shed holding the bucket I would say ‘food’. In the stable I would say ‘wait’ with my hand up. I would put the bucket down and step back. I would say the word ‘good’ as a terminal bridge. (‘Good’ is my new bridge as the tongue click had become too associated with excitement and even aggression). Then I would say ‘eat’, as they ate.

I was able to very quickly stop using the bridge word ‘good’. I now just use the words ‘food’, ‘wait’ and ‘eat’. I have not needed to use strong body language. I could be tired and distracted and still I would not be crowded. Indeed Cloud, of his own accord, has been giving me extra space.

This morning I decided to let them into the lake front area that we own which is across a road in front of our house. To get there I had to lead them through the yard gate, down a longish drive with grass on one side, through a further gate, a short way along the road and into the lake front. Ben and Cloud are on hay 24/7. I wondered if I should lead them down separately given their expected excitement at the prospect of grass. I decided to name and explain to help us together reach the lake calmly and safely. I told them we would go to the lake for grass. (I have been naming grass when I let them have grass while riding.) I named ‘headcollar’ and both stood in place as I put headcollars on. We walked out, one pony on each side, each on on a loose lead rope with their head just behind my outstretched hand. I could feed Ben’s excitement rising so I said ‘wait’ and he calmed down and stayed behind me. I could feel Cloud wanting to make for the grass that was beside him. Again I said ‘wait’ and he calmed and stayed just behind my hand. And so like that we walked down the drive, they waited as I opened the bottom gate, we walked calmly along the road and into the lake front area. I named ‘lake’ when we arrived. I asked them to wait again and each did so until released.

It may not sound much but it felt like a lot. Two grass starved ponies successfully curbed their instincts until we arrived at the lake. They had successfully generalised their understanding of ‘wait’ and could apply it to this short journey. As my husband pointed out naming the word must have also helped me: supporting that magic pairing of attention and intention so that I was present, calm and focused with them. I also realised afterwards that I did not even think of using a bridge to mark desired behaviour and it was not needed.



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