Tag Archives: communication

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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Cloud’s hooves

I thought I had a difficult journey in Ben’s transition to barefoot.  I did not.  What made it difficult was the absence of expertise.  As Dermot and John lived far away, beyond their first few visits, we were on our own.  I read as much as I could, trimmed as I understood I was taught and trusted to nature.  Ben is a cob, with good hooves, and he is rock crunching right now.

Since June 2013 I have had the benefit of consultations from Maureen Tierney.  Currently I am having monthly consultations to guide my trimming of Cloud’s hooves and am learning how much I did not know.  I am also seeing big progress in Cloud’s hooves.

Cloud’s mild bout of laminitis in October forced me to pay great attention to his hooves. I was too sanguine about his recovery from this and allowed him turn-out too soon.  I had some days and nights where he was clearly in pain, hating me touching his hooves and confined to his stable.  He watched miserably as Ben had the happy task of chewing down a small section of the paddock.  Once most grass was gone, Cloud and Ben were turned out on it.  Cloud walked happily on the soft muddy ground and, seeing this, I made a firm resolve to stop worrying and trust in nature.

I had tried: vet’s visits – anti-inflammatories and suggestions to put shoes back on; hoof boots and pads – boots walked out of in no time at all; and every suggestion a helpful tackshop assistant could make.  (One suggestion is well worth passing on: put Staysound on the sole of the hoof overnight, packed into the sole with a cut out section of a feedbag put on top.  This tip from her time in a racing yard was very effective in bringing down heat and pulses in Cloud’s front hooves after I had turned him out on the track too soon.)

After a few weeks, Cloud’s energy started to increase, he started to become pushy with me and with Ben over his hay.  When I stood my ground he circled me with a most beautiful springy trot.   A few days later I decided he was ready for the track again.  As extra insurance I put on hoof boots and EVA foam pads and out he went.  He trotted around the track, out of these boots as well and I watched as he walked over stones and tackled the steep descent of the hill.  He stayed sound.  He looked happy again, energy up, in charge of his world and proving to me that the track works as a space for him and Ben and that time does heal.

Cloud and I opened up to each other through those few weeks of pain.  He hated me touching his hooves, and, even with pain gone, was clearly anticipating more as he would snatch a front hoof from me as soon as I picked it up.  I found no easy way through this.  Time, lots of patience and help from Ben all played their part.

Yes, Ben helped.  Clearly aware, one night he drew near me in the yard as I cleaned Cloud’s hooves.  Snatch, snatch, snatch.  It was wet and cold.  I became very aware of Ben’s presence.  I put down Cloud’s hoof, straightened up and looked at Ben.  “Ben could you ask Cloud to bear with me.  I need to do this.”  A pause; call me crazy but I had a strange sense that something passed between Ben and Cloud.  I bent down again and picked up Cloud’s hoof.  He rested his hoof in my hand, brought his head around over my shoulder and licked my cheek.  He stayed relaxed as I finished his hooves.

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Cloud’s left front hoof, 23rd June 2013.

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Cloud’s left front hoof, 18th December, 2013.

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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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Finding my way

A good few years ago I read a book called ‘The Adolescent Psyche’ (work related). I re-call one vignette in which the author described a film he had seen (called Gangs I think). In it two teenage boys were running across a busy street. The first boy was seamlessly weaving his way through the cars. The second boy looked clumsy and as if he could be knocked down at any moment. The point of the example was that the first boy was following only himself and so could move with ease. The second boy in trying to follow the lead of the first boy, was clumsy. He was not making his own way. He was following the way of another.

It is always interesting to me just what one remembers. Out of all of that book, which featured one of my heroes, Winnicott and his view of the adolescent psyche, what I recall is that small vignette. I am not even sure how it fitted into the text.

I feel I have been clumsily dodging obstacles and moving without feel recently in some areas of my relationship with Ben. I wanted guidance in how to do the right groundwork for Ben that would strengthen his back. What led me to clicker training was an attempt to motivate him to do work he clearly could see little point to. What started out as a potentially useful tool became a major obstacle between us as his tension and aggression mounted around the treat delivery. (I am sure I have made many trainer errors in this regard; many, many errors and points missed, despite the coaching I had at the Alexandra Kurland clinic.)

I have read others’ blogs who have been having similar problems. I have also read debates about the science of training, about whether to use pressure or not, about whether to train or not and so on. I have come across SATS which has added a nice dimension to communication.

But – something has changed for me and I am running across that street now following my own path and in my own way. I am returning to Ben with no expectations or agenda, with a renewed readiness to be open to the present. I am not worrying if I apply pressure or not, reinforce or not, train or not.

Here is an interaction from today: it is sunny and both ponies are resting in the picadero. Cloud comes out to meet me as I arrive, sniffing hopefully for treats. I ignore and when he gets persistent, send him away. He goes off to nibble at some grass behind the picadero. Ben looks over towards me. I go in, and aware that I have limited time, invite him to move. He stays standing. I ask again. He still does not move. I stand as well and then make some movement with my head of which I am unaware until he seems to mirror it. Ok. He is more aware than I am of my gestures and just does not want to move.

I sit down on the warm pea gravel of the picadero. In contact with the ground I become aware of how stiff I feel. I move my shoulders and back and then stretch out on the ground, resting my head on my arm. It feels warm and incredibly peaceful. Ben moves and lowers his head and paws at the ground as if he wants to roll, but he doesn’t. He makes the same actions again. I wonder if my lying on the ground is somehow preventing him from rolling. I sit up and start to stretch and move around. As I move my body, Ben comes down to roll. It seems as if we somehow move in unison. I do a cat stretch and Ben sits and his back seems to mirror mine as he moves his body across the ground.

I feed him treats, I feed Cloud treats. How wonderful, for the giving of treats to once again be a joyful thing!

Cloud comes into the picadero. He moves Ben; herds him out and round the track. I follow. Now I am herding both of them. We all walk calmly, steadily on this peaceful afternoon. I feel my energy rise. I run and both ponies trot ahead. Ben enters the picadero, Cloud stays outside. I follow Ben in and, with both our energies up now, movement is easy. I run and he trots. I draw back and he stops instantly. I go up and give a lovely long scratch. I leave him dozing once again in the afternoon sun.

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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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Further thoughts on clicker training 2

Ben wants and expects clicker training, that much is evident.

Ben is not relaxed during clicker training, that is also all too evident.

I have found that clicker training has its limitations. I have not been able to use clicker to convince Ben to approach a feared place. Once, after I had ridden a relaxed Ben in the picadero, we headed out towards the back gate. Something was rustling in the hedge and Ben spun around and headed away from the gate. I had ‘head down’ on cue and asked for it, and he gave it. I turned him towards the gate again. He advanced so far and spun around again. I tried this a few times. Ben himself tried this – he often does I have noticed if his anxiety is high. He could not bring himself to get any nearer the gate. So, I got off and led Ben to the gate, past the feared place and resumed riding.

I have heard and read clicker training being recommended for approaching feared situations, but in my experience with Ben, when his energy/fear/stress is high, positive reinforcement is not what he needs. He needs leadership he can rely on; in this example, me on the ground in front of him.

Positive reinforcement (through use of a clicker) has been useful in teaching Ben new skills, specifically in-hand work, but has also resulted in him becoming too focused on the source of food and not focused on me. Once, when we were doing what I thought was some nice lateral work (on a ‘why would you leave me’ circle), something rustled in the bushes and Ben jumped, almost knocking me over. This has really put me off clicker training to the point where I would happily have abandoned it, except that Ben has been demanding it, demonstrating this by nipping and clearly being frustrated.  We have also had good sessions with clicker training.

One of the great advantages of keeping a blog is that I have been able to look over old posts I wrote about clicker training. A year ago I described a situation when Ben was on winter grazing where we started with some clicker targeting and ended dancing together with no click and no treat. That is the result I want. That was harmony.

At that time I was using Ben Hart’s approach to clicker training: using both an intermediate bridge (one or more clicks) and a terminal bridge (hand to food pouch). Over the last few days I have read his book again and it made a lot of sense. He addresses frustration in equines, he also emphasises that clicker is not for all situations (or even all horses or trainers). But most importantly he disagrees with the approach of a providing a reinforcer following each click.

So I went out to Ben and used this approach. He understood instantly and nipping and air snatching almost disappeared.

I then searched the internet for examples of trainers using intermediate and terminal bridges and that has led me to Kayce Cover’s SATS approach. It is very early days but I am reading her manuals and really liking what I read. There will be more to come with SATS I am sure.

Ben: my guide to the world of communicating effectively with a horse: push him too far and his aggression or panic can rise; meet him in the right way and his cooperation knows no bounds.

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