Tag Archives: Carolyn Resnick

Herd behaviour

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One fine day before Christmas I was down at the lake with both my daughters (ages 13 and 6) with time on our hands. It is beautiful there. The sun was shining, it was not even too cold and the swans were on the lake. Ben and Rosie came up to us. I offered Ben a scratch while Rosie went over to the girls. Ben stuck out his head and pushed her away. I let it go. Ben stayed with me and the girls went up to Rosie. Ben went over to them, drove Rosie away and stuck his head out to the six year old with his ears back.

Enough! Rosie is Ben’s herd and my daughters are mine. Ben is not allowed drive my daughters away. So I drove Ben away. I moved energetically forward with my hand up and he knew what that meant, despite having a large open space. I drove him around until bucking stopped and he relaxed. Then he wanted to come up to me and I let him. He allowed me scratch and stroke him all over, much more than he usually would and as I did so his relaxation increased to feeling practically hypnotised. I could feel the endorphins flowing through him. Ease and well-being oozed through every pore. I stayed with him for a long time. The girls, meanwhile, were with Rosie. My older daughter commented afterwards how much Rosie loved it, how she kept touching the six year old’s hair with her muzzle. I was reluctant to leave, feeling nearly hypnotised myself. When we left I looked back. Both ponies had not moved, rooted to the spot, dozing in the winter sun.

In an ideal world I would have four ponies. I think that two is the bare minimum for horses to live together. Ben has all the responsibility of being the strong one. I have noticed that if I go out to the paddock on a stormy night, for example, or at a time when something is worrying Ben, it does no good for me to stand relaxed beside Ben, hoping that my relaxation will calm him. He stays standing, on the alert. When I stand tall and alert myself, he relaxes. When Ben and Rosie are at Sandra’s in the summer, Sandra has noticed that the only time that Ben lies down to sleep is when Cassie is on guard. She seems to take on the role of lead mare. He does not lie down if Minnie or Rosie are standing.

When we were at the lake that day I should not have let Ben herd Rosie away from the girls. When I once had the opportunity of a phone conversation with Carolyn Resnick she told me that I needed to show Ben that he was not the boss of Rosie when I am around. She also said that he would probably be the type of pony who would follow me everywhere. (She also told me I had to fall in love with him, which was very astute of her as this was in the early days when I was encountering challenges all the time and was most definitely not in love with Ben.)

When I am that strong with Ben, when he asks me to be, he does follow me everywhere. Sometimes he does not ask me to be. And sometimes I go out and he has a look in his face which is a challenge and I do not want to rise to it. He ups the game until I do.

A conversation with Ben from this morning: I have wandered away while Ben and Rosie eat their feed.  I disturb two curlews, who rise up and away, rejectingly, with a clatter.  From the distance Ben’s head shoots up.  He looks at me.  I stand tall.  Guns go off nearby, Ben looks towards them.  I look also.  Ben stays alert.  I relax, dropping my head, relaxing my shoulders and fiddling with my camera.  Ben returns to his feed.  Rosie has not looked up.

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Treats and a clicker

The winter before last, Carolyn Resnick had a class on her blog for her uberstreichen exercises. This was a bad winter with little riding so I decided that these exercises would be a good way to spend some training time with Ben. There was one problem, as I discovered. For these exercises, Carolyn wanted the horse standing at liberty and standing while the person walked around the horse between each exercise. My attempt at the uberstreichen exercises that winter was reduced to teaching Ben to stand still at liberty.

How silly that sounds. Of course Ben can stand still at liberty! Standing still when I asked him to do so, and in particular when I walked around him, losing eye contact as I went, now there was the challenge.

Ben was in the yard and my solution was to put a bucket with carrot pieces in view but outside the fence. This worked very well. Ben stayed calm while keen to get his treat and I could walk all the way around him and walk, quite slowly, to the bucket for his treat, on the word “stand”. The important point is that Ben stayed calm, attentive to me while looking forward to his treat.

Last summer I met with a clicker trainer as I thought that clicker work might be a useful tool for use with Ben. I have used this a few times and I have followed all instructions for discipline around treats but I have lost that calm attentiveness from Ben and ended up with an anxious horse, constantly snatching for treats. I was in a dilemma. I was keen to do in-hand work and, as some of this is difficult for Ben, I thought that the positive reinforcement and the immediate signal of a clicker should work.

I am sure it works well for many horses, but it has not worked for Ben. Maybe it would work for Ben with a different person, but I think it actually interfered with our relationship. It brought up all Ben’s anxieties around food. His snatching for food felt like dominant behaviour, he could not listen to what I was asking him, and I think he was quite disturbed by seeing me as a “treat machine”, and could not see that this was about the clicker, although he knew to listen for the clicker. I think that using the clicker and Ben’s response to it changed our relationship in a way that Ben did not like.

So, I went back to the bucket behind the fence and it worked. Ben still looked anxious however so I brought the bucket into the picadero and asked Ben to stay away from it and remain away until he looked calm and was not looking for any treats. This has given our relationship back what it needs. Once Ben was calm I stood away from the bucket and invited him in. He is now happy again around me, not snatching for treats and, when we do in-hand work, standing at intervals while I walk over to the bucket.

(As it happens, I visited Carolyn Resnick’s blog after this and saw that she had two very helpful posts on giving treats, well worth a read here and here.)

But my experience of using the clicker was that it got between Ben and me and our relationship suffered. It must have been confusing, because Ben was acting as if he could take food from me, when normally I would never allow that. Ben was not calm and soft with me. Thankfully he is once again. Of course when he sees me, he sometimes gives that deep chuckle of his that says “maybe you have something nice” and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. But he doesn’t snatch and I feel I can occasionally bring an apple or whatever as a gift, not as payment which is probably the crucial difference.

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Breaking a rule

Ben is boss of Rosie. Carolyn Resnick told me that I need to show Ben that I am boss of Rosie when I am around. To do this, I have established a rule that Ben does not boss Rosie when I am around. Generally this works very well. Rosie feels protected and Ben seems to enjoy challenging me and subsequently softening.

Here are Ben and Rosie waiting for breakfast this morning. Despite the promise of food, Ben has one ear cocked towards Rosie and she is in her place behind him.

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Last week we had storms. One evening in the dark when I gave them their tea, one bucket in each stable, Ben, unusually, ignored his bucket, rushed into Rosie’s stable, chased her out and took over hers. I chased Ben away. He herded Rosie up the track to under the trees.

Pause for licking and chewing by me. The wind was gale force and Ben is always agitated in a storm. Rosie, I suppose, does not have to be, as Ben does the worrying for her.

I went over to the trees. Ben looked at me and shifted his body so that Rosie was further away. I have interpreted this before as a challenge, but that evening all I saw was a worried Ben, with only his herding instinct to turn to. I stayed by Ben and away from Rosie. We stood like this and Ben started to relax. First he yawned, enormously and repeatedly, then his head came down, then he touched my arm with his nose. Finally, he moved his body so that access to Rosie was not blocked. I went over to Rosie, greeted her and then walked back to the stables. Ben followed quietly and went into his own stable for his tea, allowing Rosie into hers.

This is an example for me of how rules, no matter how wise, are empty unless they become part of and subordinate to the communication between horse and person.

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Inspiring links

Carolyn Resnick has a blog post describing how she worked with a horse who was difficult to bridle. She emphasises that we do not need to retrain a horse or ourselves. We just need to take the time to allow good energy to happen which allows for a good connection between horses and ourselves and everything follows from that. I read it yesterday and it is one of those posts I would like to return to just to remind myself to focus on my own inner energy and if I find myself doing something that I dread, work on myself first. It is about working from the inside out, which has to be the way to work with horses; with everything in fact.

Also this is a really nice video from France featuring barefoot horses in the Pyrenees. I am not sure about a claim made for horses living longer if barefoot, but there are great close-ups of horses’ footfalls and one great shot where a horse steps on something, feels it, and move his foot to another place.

Dermot is coming next week and I find myself mentally preparing for all the raised eyebrows (and more) I will get about the “irresponsible” thing I am doing. So videos like this are very reassuring in helping fill up a mental bank of images and knowledge.

On the subject of footfall, I have noticed that Ben’s hooves strike the ground toe first, while Rosie’s do not. My daughter has noticed this too.

Our man with a digger has done some good work to our track. I will take some photos of these later. I am trying to be as prepared in terms of environment as I can and I hope I have a head start on this one with the track system that I have.

In the midst of all this mental activity, the ponies rest and I just love, love, love being with them in these moments. Their energy draws me into stillness as well.

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Filed under General, hoof care, track system