Tag Archives: Ben’s story

Stroppy gelding 2

For some reason I have been reluctant to write about what happened at a riding lesson a few weeks before Christmas. I’m not sure why.  Maybe I don’t want to think about this too much.

After that lesson where Ben bucked and hoisted when two horses ran loose into the yard, he arrived for following lessons calm and curious. He seemed keen to go into the yard, interested in the other horses but attentive to my daughter. He still did not like to ride with the other horses in the lesson so my daughter rode him on a separate track. He was very neat over jumps and as my daughter said “this is fun”.

Then, one Saturday, as I watched the lesson, across the road from the arena I could see a lone horse galloping wildly in a field. Then, as my daughter said, she and Ben spotted that horse at the same time. She turned Ben away but he bucked and bucked and she shot off and he ran loose around the arena. There were about five other girls on ponies in the class. I ran into the arena. Thankfully my daughter was on her feet and seemed a bit shocked but unhurt so I could turn my attention to Ben.

He was running blindly, it seemed. He careered into some ponies who started to kick. I called to him and reached towards him and he veered away. Another pony’s back legs shot up in a kick. I had a vision of children flying off ponies in every direction. Then I called “stand”. This was the command I had taught Ben two winters ago during a hard freeze. With not much else to do I taught him to stand at liberty in the yard while I walked to a treat in a bucket that was behind the fence. I have reinforced that command at different times since.

Anyway I said “stand” and – he stood; rigid, head up, rooted to the spot by the fence. I walked slowly towards him, repeating the word. He still stood. I came up to him, took each rein and asked him to lower his head using very light downward pressure. I did not want to provoke a resistance to pressure, but we have been doing some basic in-hand work which I am sure paid off here. Ben lowered his head immediately and as he did so he relaxed. Much of the tension left his body and his face lost that wild look.

Leading him I went up to my daughter. When we reached her, Ben stretched out his head and touched her lightly on the arm. “He’s saying sorry”, I said. (I have been reading a (very good) book which gives stern warnings about anthropomorphism, but really, what else were we both to think? He was certainly making some connection with her. And it helped her, she reached out to him and has not held the bucking against him since.)

The instructor, who was reduced to being a helpless spectator for all of this, remarked that Ben was very stressed during this episode – he did not look like a horse who was just overexcited and wanting to be with his mates. I said that he had hunted a lot in the past and that I thought he did not like hunting. As I said this, Ben turned his head towards me and touched me on the arm. The instructor commented that if he was hunted he had not been hunted well, possibly by a beginner who could not give him any leadership but let him career around without control. And, of course, he was first bought for a nine year old girl to start hunting.

It was then suggested that I ride Ben. So I did, cramming my head into daughter’s helmet. We did the exercise: trot, canter and trot over poles, and then some jumps. (To daughter’s delight, the instructor’s comment was that “Mum can do dressage and you can jump.” My jumping position was not the best!) But, while he did what I asked, he still felt tense. I focused on my breath and my core, centering myself as I rode, which always used to help Mali when she was tense. But it did not help Ben. If time had permitted I would have taken him out the road to relax and then back into the arena. But we had to go.

Back home, the state of the horsebox testified to Ben’s stress. As I led him up to the paddock, his head went down to eat grass. And while he is a great eater of grass, there was something in the quality of how he ate – somehow I could nearly taste the sweetness of the grass coming up through the leadrope – and I could feel the tension oozing out of his body and I recognised this as trauma. In my day job I work with traumatised children and the quality of Ben’s reaction here was no different to theirs. It all made sense – the trigger of the galloping horse, the blind action that was not a discharge of tension, and the final relaxation from eating the grass afterwards.

I thought of all I knew about trauma, of what researchers have learnt about animals and trauma; normally they can run and discharge the trauma but if they are restrained they don’t – they run blindly with no discharge. What a responsibility we have when we ride horses – we put them under restraint and if we cannot provide good direction, what do we do to their minds?

At home, Ben stayed with me, sniffing my hair and being unusually anxious for contact. I thought of the times I have labelled him “stroppy”, of behaviour I would have called dominant (for he is a dominant horse) which was no such thing.

Ben has two, what you might call “right-brained” states, when I am with him. One is what I call his “stallion mode” and that excitement is now relatively straightforward for me to deal with. The other is a different state and while, thankfully, I have rarely encountered it when riding, when I have it is as if he has forgotten I exist. He certainly looked as if he had forgotten my daughter existed – she was just a hindrance that he needed to be rid of.

Since then, with a busy run-up to Christmas, lessons could not happen and I have decided to put them off until Ben and Rosie are back at home with us in March.  Ben will need to get fit again and I also need to think of what will be the best approach for him regarding these group lessons.

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Effects of a saddle

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I bought Ben this time last year because I wanted a horse to ride. I wanted a horse I could safely ride from home, keep at home, manage myself. I saw myself having fun with this horse, doing le trec, schooling, taking lessons, going on long peaceful hacks on summer evenings. I saw perhaps my daughter riding him if she stayed interested. That is what I wanted.

I saw Ben’s photograph in an internet advertisement. It was a blurred photograph of a cob jumping with a teenager on top. Although I am not an enthusiastic jumper, something about that little horse made me put him to the top of my list.

I went to see him. I saw a, smaller than expected, cob wearing a headcollar in a field, running away when its owner came, who rattled a bucket of stones which fetched him, close enough to allow a lead rope to be clipped on. I saw a cob being ridden on a slippery field, unbalanced. I rode a quiet small cob down a strange road, turned to go back to the people waiting, knowing I needed to make a decision. I said yes, still unsure. I got off this cob, stood beside him, still with no real sense of him. I looked at him, I saw a gentle, deep eye, he breathed over my head and I felt that, yes, subject to vetting, you are for me.

He had hunted, a lot. He had hunted with a hunt known for the size of the ditches that had to be jumped. He had been exercised in the dark, from a lead rope at the back of the jeep. He had been loaned to children for pony camp.

He always lived out and that cold June day last summer when I saw him he was taken into a bare stable and stood there, shivering. He has free access to a stable here and often uses it. When he was brought to different places he travelled in a cattle trailer, lower, barer, louder than a trailer such as I have. When I went to bring him home to me, he followed me up the ramp of my trailer without a second’s hesitation. Little did I know that I would have great difficulty getting him into a trailer afterwards. He would pull back, hard. I can only speculate that if he did so in that cattle trailer and hit his head, that is possibly how he came to have such pain around his poll. As I have learned more about his saddle difficulties recently, I have realised how short backed he is. The pain the chiropractor found that made him squeal was just behind where a saddle should sit.

Ben came home to me, I got him checked over by a chiropractor, seen by a dentist, got all his vaccinations done, a passport organised, worming, all the things I would expect to do with a new horse. I rode him, regularly, from the back gate, as I had wanted. I took part in a couple of le trec orienteering events. I felt after a while that I was just using him, and I started to put time into our relationship. In part he demanded this, by suddenly becoming very hard to catch. We had a long, cold winter and that gave me plenty of time to spend with him, guided loosely by Carolyn Resnick’s Waterhole Rituals, but mostly by intuition and by Ben himself.

He is a safe horse to ride and in many ways an easy horse in that he is pretty solid on the road. But he was quite sour when he came and seemed to feel that people were a threat. He could be aggressive when children were around. Imagine my joy recently when my oldest daughter and her friend were standing on either side of Ben, my daughter holding the lead rope of his head collar, and his expression was soft, friendly, open.

Carolyn Resnick told me that she wouldn’t be surprised if he turned into the sort of pony who would follow me around everywhere. That is happening more and more. I can catch him with a bridle in my hand now, so the other day, when he ran from me after a hack in another saddle I was trying out, he confirmed what he had told me the day before about that saddle. I had taken him down to a saddlery, where the very knowledgeable owner fitted many different saddles on Ben. One looked ok. I rode around, but as ‘around’ meant through a yard of stallions, and in a field next to mares and foals, Ben was on his toes and not really able to give me a good feel of the saddle. I took it away on trial: a well-made, wide fitting, second-hand treed saddle. I was told that Ben would tell me how it felt. We went on a hack with a friend, from the start he hung back, very unlike Ben who likes to take the lead, and when I asked him to trot he stumbled, ears pinned back. Sweat patches under the saddle afterwards told me that it was sitting too far back.

I think Ben’s sourness and being hard to catch was all about pain. People are a threat if they cause pain. Incidentally, that saddle was not good for me, I had very sore knees. My search continues.

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Naming

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Lynne has a great post about how she named a new foal and some really interesting thoughts on how we name horses. Do we project our unconscious ideas, dreams, hopes onto them? We must, to some extent I think. It made me think about how I named Ben.

I bought him last summer as an 11 year old. Ben was owned by a farmer who had bought him 6 years previously for his then 9 year old daughter. She hunted him every winter and did pony camp in the summer and he was also offered to other children to ride. His name was Tonto. I was not too keen on that name which had vague Lone Ranger associations for me and I thought it was a name a child might give a horse. However, I had always heard that it is bad luck to change horses’ names so, although as I was bringing him home I found myself referring to him as Ben, Tonto he was going to be.

That is, until I spoke with my Spanish-speaking brother. Now he knows very little about horses, but a lot about stories and he said “You can’t call him Tonto.” Why not? Tonto, apparently, was the Lone Ranger’s side-kick and Tonto is a derogatory word in Spanish, roughly the equivalent of calling someone “eejit” (that is very Irish slang for idiot). OK, that settled that. He could not be Tonto. I said that I had been thinking of him as Ben for some reason. “Great, is he gentle?” Yes, he seems to be. “How about Gentle Ben?” Gentle Ben, I did remember; we all used to watch that series about a big, gentle bear when we were kids.

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One thing left, check with Tonto/Ben himself. I called to him “Tonto” – ignored; “Ben” – ignored. At this stage, I did not realise the extent to which Ben had shut himself off from humans and endured. The only hint of this was in how hard he was to catch and his enormous yawns before bridling. Over last summer and autumn, as the light came back into his eye, aggression could emerge which would have frightened me in a bigger horse. And sometimes I wondered, how had I seen him as gentle, which I did that first day I met him, when I looked into his eye and he breathed all over my hair?

There is far less aggression now, he is teaching me, very plainly, with no wrapping up in polite language, that when I approach him too intensely, with an intent of control, if even in my thoughts, he perceives it as threat.  (Control being different to direction; direction, he seems to like.)  On a far more subtle level than body language, he is teaching me to soften inside. And maybe, I am teaching him too, that around humans he can also be soft. Gentle Ben.

And Rosie? She came as Rosie, answers to Rosie and could only be Rosie I think.

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