Tag Archives: dominance

Up against it

This is a long post, but I am writing it for myself to record what feels like a completely new time in my relationship with Ben.

I have taken Ben out of his comfort zone by introducing in-hand work.

It is proving to be a most interesting, and revealing, exercise.

I thought we had a good relationship. I thought boundaries were in place that were flexible yet attentive. I thought Ben trusted me. After all, we had worked through being hard to catch, through not wanting to load, through barging through me for his bucket of food, through the full gamut of Ben’s sourest expressions and now, at Sandra’s, in holiday mode if you like, Ben was still coming to me despite eight acres of escape routes with an open, bright-eyed, soft expression on his face.

Until I asked him to stand still. That was the first indication that we had far more to work through. Asking Ben to stand on a mat produced sourness, barginess, stubbornness. “Stand.” A foot would creep forward. “Back.” He would move to the side. “Over”. He would move through my blocking schooling stick. “I insist.” He would move too far in the other direction.

I removed all treats from the exercise. And Ben somehow gave the impression that he would always have the last word. As soon as my attention dropped, he would move.

A few consistent days produced standing still and flexing of head and neck. So time, I thought, to move to walking. We set up some cones, of the tall type that are used as jump standards, around the yard to provide a visual guide as we walked together, in hand, around them.

I was going to make this simple and start on Ben’s more flexible side, his left, where he bends well around my leg when I am riding him. Push, push, push with his shoulder. I put up with it, trying to push his shoulder back – a hopeless move of course. So he pushed me, right up against one of those cones. If it had been fixed to the ground I would have been hurt. I slapped him against his shoulder. He reared up. And we had a confrontation. I was pleased that I could stay calm as my energy came up as, at other times, I have found myself becoming irritated as I brought up my energy. I have become aware of this and know that it is something I need to work on. That discussion with Ben was settled, and Ben, now quite cross but in self-carriage, bent beautifully around the cones. Later, in the field, he vented his feelings on poor Minnie, sending her shooting out of the way.

Ben has recently been kicking Cassie as well as aggressively herding Minnie and Rosie. My beloved cob is displaying the manners of a playground bully.

I thought long and hard about this and decided that the work in-hand was a step too far for Ben so the next day I took him into the picadero. Loose lungeing, I asked him to move, walk, trot, canter, turn, looking for up and downward transitions. He just about cooperated, swishing his tail and kicking out when I ask for a change in direction until I upped the tempo. He tried to fall in, hide by the gate, break from canter and, when he did stand on request, half turned his bum towards me. This was going to take work, and energy. At the end, he stood quietly where I asked him too, his eye was soft again and his head was lower.

I thought further and I reached for Klaus Hempfling’s “Dancing with Horses”. I have had this book for years and Mali was always very responsive to my body energy when I led her following Klaus’s suggestions. I can remember leading her out to her field on a loose lead rope, slowing my steps and she would slow, despite approaching grass, quickening and she would quicken, stopping suddenly and she would stop. I often wish I had taken this approach further with her. I was inhibited by being on a livery yard but she was looking for leadership and responded so well when I gave it in that way.

But Ben is not Mali.

I could engage in a direct fight with him easily, he seems to provoke it and if he were a bigger horse he would be dangerous. I could be a pushover, and he would be dangerous. He has been dangerous. He has charged my daughter’s friends at home and even kicked my daughter in the early days. In the past he was ridden by a girl and handled by her father. He understands the stick, the growl, the rough handling.

I am doing this in-hand work, not to torment him, but to ask him to use his body in a way that will straighten him and improve his strength to carry a rider. I have no grand dreams of dressage tests, I wish to continue with our long rides, which we both enjoy, and to do so with a stronger, suppler body. Of course I can’t explain that to Ben, so he has to trust me. And he clearly doesn’t; not enough.

I have known for a long-time that his default position is “no”, and if I listened to that we would never have left the paddock at home.

So this morning, I led Ben around the cones, on a headcollar and loose lead rope. Sandra was behind to back up my “walk on” signal. I asked Ben to walk and to stand, from my body language, as advised by Klaus. My goodness I need to develop my presence and vitality to a fire that would shoot from me in a ten mile radius. He requires so much of me; so much to walk with energy, but not trot, and to stand, without creeping forward a few steps. If I had not done this before with Mali I would have thought that somehow my body energy could not be read. We go on each rein a couple of times. He finds it harder to stay in walk on his stiffer (right) side. And he would far rather gaze everywhere else than at me. And he does not want to stand without creeping into my space. We finish when he does.

I get my reward when I lead him back to the field. His head comes up and he walks faster, looking to pass me, as we approach. I stop and raise my hand with energy. He stops and waits for me to move before walking on again. I repeat this a few times as his excitement rises again.

We have a lot of work to do that calls for consistency, calmness, alertness, presence and vitality from me. And from Ben.

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Feeding treats to a dominant cob

Food is highly motivating for Ben. Highly. Motivating. When he first came to me one of my first priorities was to establish manners at feeding time. I quickly learned never to carry treats in my pockets.

The winter before last, Carolyn Resnick posted a series on her Uberstreichen exercises and I thought they would make a good winter activity for Ben and I. Her first priority was that your horse stands still while you do a particular flexion exercise, rest, walk quietly around him and repeat the exercise. We never really got to the exercises. My winter activity consisted of having Ben stand still. It was quite a challenge: first, to stand still while I put my hands on his headcollar, then to stand while I walked away, and, even more, while I disappeared from view walking around him. I tried calmly moving Ben back to the spot every time he moved, but we were getting nowhere. So out came some treats.

I was doing this work in my yard, being the only ice free area I had. I put treats in a bucket and left them about ten feet away, on the other side of the electric fence. Ben’s rate of learning speeded up very quickly, to the extent that now, when I am doing in-hand once again, he remembers that command to stand.

However, in the meantime, I tried some clicker training, taking advantage of someone local who could come to show me and thinking that the positive reinforcement approach would help us both through Ben’s often stubbornly dominant resistance. Clicker training involved keeping treats on my person and rewarding often. No matter how often I tried to impose discipline around these treats, Ben developed a horrible snatching habit which could lead to a bite. He became totally fixated on the treats, offering lots of different behaviours in the hope of gaining a treat and losing all that calm responsiveness that had come before.

I didn’t pursue the clicker training. It felt too mechanical, interfering in the real relationship that was between us. (Quite possibly an expert clicker trainer could do it with real “feel”.)

I am left with the dilemma of motivating Ben as I do in-hand work with him. I am keen to do this with consistency; he is a stiff cob, who, thankfully, loves to ride out and I am keen to supple and strengthen his back.

He is also “stiff” in terms of resistance and does not see a lot of point in flexing and lowering his head. Doing so puts my hand close to his mouth and we have had snatch, snatch, snatch, snatch, snatch.

I have gone back to the treats in the bucket situation; and to getting the basics – standing on the spot – before we do much more. This has been an interesting challenge: Ben is asked to stand on a mat and this has brought his head up and some real resistance, which I find very interesting indeed. He runs out either side, right through my barrier of schooling whip. He challenges me to “mean it!”, to use my body, my voice, my energy very clearly and decisively. With all this going on, his mouthing for treats has been a distraction. He is now running into the handle of my whip, or my hand, and is learning to wait as I go to the bucket and learning that he only gets a treat when he turns away from me.

I do not reward with a treat for every effort. I fetch a treat for the extra efforts and this exercise is making me think about what is rewarding for Ben. He is not a horse that is rewarded by strokes, although I use these, or tone of voice, although I use this also. He likes and needs a break, a quiet pause. He is definitely rewarded by treats, but I need to find a place where they are the reward but not the distraction.

I had thought that Ben and I would be walking circles and serpentines in-hand at this stage. No, we are trying to stand still together.  With this struggle going on Рwe both have to learn how to do this together РI console myself with the fact that he still comes up to me in the field when I approach with his headcollar.

Having just put the link on to Carolyn Resnick’s blog, I have read her latest post which talks about training a horse and teaching a horse to enjoy signals to halt, go and more. ¬†Well worth a read.

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Equanimity

Ben and Rosie continue at Sandra’s for this reason:

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We are building an extension to our house and how thankful I am to have Sandra’s place and a group of four equines who form a very nice herd together. I have been going regularly to Sandra’s and have felt surprised that Ben has continuously come to meet me when I come only bearing a headcollar and never a bucket.

This morning, Sandra was away and I wanted to use the opportunity to connect with a Ben whom I have felt to be growing in pride and also dominance as he enjoys his status as man among women. On our hacks with Sandra I have felt him less responsive to me and (naturally) very tuned to Cassie. He expresses this by trying either to tuck in behind her so that he can herd her from behind or by taking the lead and crowding her to the side of the road. My task has been to constantly ask him to walk beside her. He accepts this well, but if my awareness slips at any stage he is right back to herding Cassie again.

So I left his tack by Sandra’s arena and went to the field to catch Ben. I was on my own and wondered how the herd as a group would accept this. They had a good eight acres in which to escape me.

Minnie and Cassie saw me and cantered up, Minnie leading, to stop abruptly about twenty metres away. Minnie, in front, turned sideways on, tail like a flag, head tossing, this mainly thoroughbred mare with a weak leg piaffing before me. Then, staying there, she turned her back on me.

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The message could not have been clearer. If I had been in a school playground Minnie would have been the girl who comes to confront the newcomer, followed closely by her best friend: “we don’t want you here”. I think of a lion who, apparently, can walk through a field of grazing horses without disturbing them when he is not hunting and will send them running when he is. I am perceived here as the hunter intent on hunting.

Ben is in a further field, I can just make out his back, head down, seemingly oblivious to these mares’ performances. Rosie is in this field, over to the side, keeping her head down. As I think of her, she looks up. “What do I do here Rosie?” I ask silently. She puts her head down again.

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I take my cue from Rosie. “Do not disturb.” I stay quiet and look at Minnie. She faces me and her head lowers slightly. I remain silent. Summer is passing already. There is a blueish haze over the fields and the trees. A swallow swoops nearby. Minnie puts her head down to eat grass as does Cassie. They stay in the same spot.

I quietly walk in a wide arc around them, keeping to that twenty metre bubble that Minnie seems to have imposed. They remain grazing. Ben looks up. I cross the gap into the next field and he takes a few steps towards me. Headcollar on, we walk back, past Minnie and Cassie. They do not look up.

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Ben follows willingly until we are close to the gate when he stops. A touch on the girth and he continues but is clearly reluctant to leave his herd. In the arena he can hear them but not see them. Loose there, he wants to stay by the gate with his head up. I move him away. He does not want this. Time for some groundwork. I ask him to move and stay away from the gate. I get bucks, heels, head tossing. I need to up my energy without getting cross, which can often be a challenge for me. There is a pole on the ground. I strike it hard with my schooling whip. My energy has come up and I have stayed calm. Ben responds. He turns to me, his head lowers, his eye softens.

I put on the sidepull bitless bridle and do some in-hand work. Ben is responsive, but in breaks, looks towards the field. I put the saddle on and mount. Instantly Ben’s back comes up. I feel myself freeze and I get this (revealing) panicky thought that I do not have a bit. I name this, aloud, to Ben and myself and this calms me. Relaxing my seat, I put my legs on, giving Ben the reins and as we move off, he stretches and sighs. When we stop, he looks up again. I keep him moving and, to my surprise I must confess, get beautiful self-carriage when I ask Ben to bend around my inside leg. I would have said he was coming into the contact of the bit, only there was no bit. I am very pleased with this sidepull.

After a while, when Ben is soft and relaxed, I dismount. As I lead him back to the field I prepare myself to be assertive with him as he tries to rush in front. He doesn’t. He stays softly behind me. All three mares crowd the gate to welcome him back. Ben stays with me for a while. Then he greets Minnie and Cassie in turn and moves off before turning back again and taking a few steps towards me. We look at each other, he lowers his head, sighs and goes away again, pushing Rosie in front of him, drawing Cassie and Minnie behind, back with his herd once more.

Today was a lesson for me in equanimity – maintaining my calm centre while faced with turbulence without and within, finding a place from where I could diffuse suspicion, claim the attention of a horse who was both dominant and anxious and allow my own anxiety to pass through me.

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A dominant pony

I am following with interest June’s blog here and her thoughts about dominance, with Bridget in particular. I fed the ponies this evening with my four year old daughter helping. This is a treat for her. She loves to give Rosie her tea and then prepare her breakfast. Something happened that I reacted to instinctively and I want to describe here.

The routine is that Ben gets his tea on the ground outside the shed and Rosie is shut into the stable, for her own peace from Ben who always finishes his first. My daughter had gone into Rosie’s stable, the door was still open, and came out in a rush fairly near to Ben. I turned around in time to see Ben lift his hind leg to her. He could have made contact if he wanted to, but when we first got him he did kick my 11 year old and also her friend and recently charged at a friend of hers in the paddock.

None of this actually went through my mind at the time. I sent my 4 year old into the shed and drove Ben off his tea. He merely went as far as the still open stable and made to go in there. I drove him away and out of the yard area. He went up the track and turned around. I stayed at the edge of the yard area, which is open to the track and basically defended the yard. I did not follow him up the track but I would not let him back. My body language was very strong. He eventually disappeared around the back of the track. I was able to help my daughter prepare Rosie’s breakfast and send her back the house happy albeit with lots of warnings about horses’ back legs. Ben reappeared around the other side of the track. (The track is essentially a large rectangle which meets in one corner where the yard is.) He looked at me. I stayed at the edge of the yard, with a lot of energy in my body. He yawned, repeatedly. He lowered his head to the ground a few times. I stayed where I was. He gradually crept, as Rosie would creep when Ben chases her off food, in my direction, his head regularly lowering to the ground. I moved back into the shed. He came into the yard and waited. I turned away from the door, he came nearer and waited. I went out and brought his food to him and he then ate it.

I finished up in the shed, filling haynets etc and when I went out into the yard, he lifted his head and looked at me. Now Ben has a most expressive face. He can looked very sour and closed off, he can look lively, dominant, cheeky, fun and even gentle. Well his eye was bright, his ears were soft.

I went back to the house and thought about all this. I bought Ben last summer from a farmer who had bought him 5 years previously for his then 9 year old daughter. He described Ben as ‘bombproof’. Ben hunted every winter and also gave rides to any child around. He used to do pony camp at the local riding stables with this daughter and then be left at the stables to be used by other children. I think that Ben was tormented by children. He certainly does not like them. Ben is not a family pony type and is not plagued by children here. But he does live in our paddock behind our house and he needs to learn manners around children. My reaction was based on all I have learned from Carolyn Resnick’s Waterhole Rituals and taking territory (at least, how I have interpreted these rituals). And of course my reaction was typically of the strength of a mother aroused – you touch my baby etc…..

These are photos of Rosie at Ben’s favourite haynet under the trees, hearing him approach and moving off to the other haynet.

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