Tag Archives: harmony

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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Keep it simple

I blame You Tube. There are so many attractive videos out there – dancing with horses, playing with horses, riding horses bareback and so on. And I wish – and in those wishes I wish for a different horse to Ben. Because Ben tells me to ‘keep it simple. Find me a well-fitting saddle and take me on long rides. And if you want to add in a jump or two I’ll do that too. Just stop making things complicated.’

Saddle fit reared its ugly head again. I had doubts over my lovely Stubben in terms of giving Ben sufficient freedom of shoulder movement. So I researched and trialled a saddle made by a company that specialises in native ponies and cobs and found one that fits well and has a much straighter cut.

Here is the field we had use of for July and August. Ben and Cloud shared it with some calves and, for a few days, some sheep and it is almost too well grazed but I was glad of it, as was daughter, who dragged in jump poles and thought I should jump too.

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Ben liked to see me in the field and would leave his grazing to come up to me and walk with me, his head at my shoulder, all round the field.  Sometimes I would stop or change direction or weave complicated patterns and he would stick with me, head at my shoulder all the time.  That was our version of dancing together.  And it was good.

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Filed under liberty, riding, tack

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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Morning routine

I am not working today, so I can take my time. I head out after breakfast to the yard. They see me and come down the track looking for their breakfast.

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I tip over the bins containing the soaking haynets. I drag the haynets to a wooden pallet to drain and start filling the bins again with water. I give the boys their already prepared buckets of feed. I shut Cloud, the faster eater, in to his stable.

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I gather the day’s hay into a wheelbarrow and bring it around the track, placing half in the haynet under the trees and spreading the other half around the track. I am careful to place the hay away from the mud that has built up on the track.

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I am experimenting with different schedules to make the hay last. Good dooer as Ben is, I never had this issue when Rosie was with us. Ben chews more slowly than Cloud and Rosie would frequently take breaks and wander off causing Ben to follow her. Cloud lays into that hay as if it will be his last meal.

I gave them a small amount of straw yesterday and I check the two haynets to see if they ate it. When I observed them last, they had been concentrating on the hay. But the straw is gone, as is all hay that was strewn around the track.

Ben has come out and I let Cloud out. Cloud pushes Ben off the hay he is eating and they both make their way to the haynet. Sometimes they like to move around the track eating the hay on the ground first. They eat a piece and move to the next before the last piece is finished and this keeps them moving repeatedly around the track.

I place the tap into the second bin. I start to muck out. The stables are almost clean, just some wet pieces of hay left on the ground from their night time haynets, which I always place in the open stables.

I move around the track. Droppings seem normal. To counteract the mud I leave the picadero open and they clearly spend a large amount of time there. Otherwise droppings are gathered in the shelter of the hedgerow at the back of the track, near the big haynet and also (thank you boys) neatly dumped by the muck heap.

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I fill two haynets with a small amount of straw. I bought some barley straw in the local market yesterday and hope that it will prolong chewing time for Ben and Cloud. I weigh the haynets now and am starting to be able to accurately estimate their weight. I tie the nets at different places along the track.

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During this time Ben and Cloud come, separately, to the yard to drink water. Both wander over to me, extend nose in greeting and wander off.

It starts to rain. I do not worry about the hay strewn around the track. It will all be eaten. I have only sheltered tasks left; haynets to fill and soak for the night and feeds to prepare.

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If I don’t soak the hay one or other of them cough. The soaking is a nuisance and soaking in advance leaches nutrients along with calories. But to soak for 20 minutes or so ahead of feeding them would be too time consuming. When I win the lottery I want one of these. In the meantime I am researching how to make my own hay steamer.

No grass in all this routine. They have chewed down the poorest area I have. The lake front, the garden and the rest of the paddock will be kept for winter grazing. It all looks much too lush right now.

I leave them sharing the big haynet.

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It is peaceful. There is a sense of harmony between these two. Ben of course is filthy. He loves to roll and has found a suitably muddy patch beside a hedge of brambles, stripped of all their leaves. Cloud never seems to roll. He is always clean. But I am sure he is responsible for much of that hedge stripping. To get to this area they need to walk along a narrow rock and muddy channel. I am happy with the surfaces on the track despite the increasing mud. Some branches have fallen, or been pulled, recently and I leave them where they lie, as I also leave loose wooden posts, logs and rocks.

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Continued clicker experiences

Alexandra Kurland is coming to Ireland in a few weeks time. It seems too good an opportunity to miss so Ben and I are booked on this clinic. In preparation, Mary from the Irish Clicker Centre came out to give a lesson to Sandra and I. The ground to be covered was what Alexandra Kurland calls the foundation lessons. I have had a session with Mary before. I stopped using clicker as I felt Ben was becoming too “snatchy” around food and he was focused on that alone.

It was helpful to have this lesson with Mary, but back at home, practising with Ben, he looked anxious for treats and yet expecting them and, even though I spent a lot of time with this, I was still not happy with how things were progressing. I thought that Ben’s behaviour would have convinced anyone watching that clicker training was not the way to go with a horse.

Last week we had another session with Mary. Things fell into place. First of all, it transpired that Ben’s anxious behaviour was for one activity only – standing on a mat. And once he was clicked and treated at a good rate for doing this, his anxiety disappeared. (He does not now need this rate of reinforcement.) Secondly, I was able to refine my aids and focus in on my body language and breathing. This made a huge difference.

Learning clicker, like any new skill, takes time. But it is not an end in itself. It is only a signal to say “that’s it”. But as I am new to it and to the specific rope handling techniques that Alexandra Kurland has developed for her exercises, it has been all too easy to forget the basics of energy, breath and body language. And most importantly, of intent.

So, at home, this is what using positive reinforcement has done for us:

Riding:

Ben walks to the back gate beside me, without his usual spookiness as we approach the gate.

Ben stands as I mount, without snatching at the lush green grass at his feet. (That alone deserves a “wow!”)

Ben walks from the start with an active pace. His point of relaxation – where he lets out a huge sigh – comes much sooner than before. The rest of the hack is with an active walk yet with Ben’s head long and low. Relaxed yet forward – what more could I ask from a ride out on the roads? (Okay, cantering up the back lane with a doberman bounding out from a field towards us loses this relaxation – but we regain it quickly.)

On the ground:

Ben stands still at liberty to be groomed.

Ben walks beside me at liberty.

Ben halts when I halt, walks on when I move. (Here is where I have been able to focus on my own energy and breathing again and Ben has responded to this. The clicker, or tongue cluck that I am using, has only been the “yes” to his response.)

There has been a lot more as well. I have needed the lessons. It is not as easy to master as it looks, it took a bit of persevering. What I have really liked is the emphasis Alexandra Kurland places on tai chi. I have done tai chi and chi kung and I am currently doing another course of chi kung lessons. Chi kung fits very well with being around horses. It emphasises balance. Horses pick everything up from us and Ben really likes it when I am in balance, not just mentally as I have always known, but physically too. He is a great teacher, because his response always tells me about myself.

My fear about clicker training was that it would come between my relationship with Ben. Well on Saturday evening, after our ride and Ben and Rosie’s feed, Ben came to stand with me in the yard. As I stood there in the gathering dark, with the neighbourhood sounds dying down and only the coots still talking on the lake, Ben tucked in behind me and we stayed together for as long as my back would let me. When I moved, he touched my hand with his nose and only when I left did he join his Rosie under the trees.

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Fun with a clicker

I go down to the lake armed with a clicker, carrot slices and a stack of incredibly bright green plastic cones, purchased from a sports shop. Ben is dozing, Rosie come up. I present a cone. This may be different to the yellow ball I have used before but Rosie knows exactly what to do. She targets it and soon she is following me as I hold the cone. Ben approaches. Despite the treats being earned by Rosie he does not attempt to drive her away but stands at a distance and waits.

Ben’s turn. He looks at the bright green cone. This is new. This is suspicious. This must be checked out. He puts his nose to it and laying a large nostril on the top, sniffs it. I click this touch of the cone. A mistake. Ben was not targeting, which he has done in the past by stretching his lips to the ball. So for the next few turns he sticks his nostril onto the cone until I manage to shape him back to targeting it. I am laughing; my mistake Ben, but you do look funny. It all feels light-hearted, a game. Ben is taking the treats gently from my hand, his eyes are bright and he is alert and focused on what I am asking him to do, not on the treats.

I put a cone on the ground away from him. He walks over to it. I put it further away, up on a rock, by a bush, to the side. He goes for it each time. I put out two, he touches both. I put out three, he knocks over each one. I put three in a semi-circle around him, he goes for each in turn. I put out a fourth. Too much. He stops. He starts to nibble some grass. I sense some confusion. I lift up one cone again. He touches it with his nose.

I move away. Ben comes up. Now I move to the side and Ben circles around me, stepping under with a soft, bent body, no clicker, no treats. I move to the other side, Ben mirrors my movement. We are matched, moving in a grave, courtly minuet, a stately dance movement in a wild field by a lake. Clicker forgotten now, we are united, horse and human leading each other in moments of magic. It ends when I lose that immersion in the present. Self-awareness comes in and I have broken the spell.

I have had many such moments with Rosie, but coming from my reluctant, often suspicous Ben, it is magic indeed.

I will never be an Imke Spilker or a Klaus Hempfling who seem (in their different ways) to intuitively move with their horses knowing how to respond from moment to moment, but if a clicker can lead me to unity like this, I want more.

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Call it telepathy….

call it empathy, non-verbal communication or whatever you want. But it happens so often that I am – nearly – not surprised any more.

I take Ben for a walk in hand. At first I want to power walk and have to nag at Ben to keep up. I relax, tune into him and walk at his rhythm. We are walking to help condition his hooves. Ben, on a long, loose lead line, chooses a grass verge. I say “that won’t help your hooves”, Ben moves back onto the rough road and stays there. I think about the grass Ben can eat at the end of that road. As soon as that thought enters my mind, Ben puts his head down to eat – there and then, not at the end of the road.

We do some work in-hand in the arena. I want to put a bridle on over the headcollar and put the reins over his head. Ben, normally so eager to put on a bridle, turns his head away. I wait. I offer the bridle again. Ben turns his head away. I say “you don’t want to wear the bridle do you?” Ben turns to me and “kisses” my hand with his lip. I take away the bridle. Ben kisses my hand again.

Once in the picadero, I keep treats outside in a bucket. At one stage Ben forgets himself and grabs at my hand, grazing the back with his teeth. I feel sore, and cross. I say “if you were my child I would tell you to say sorry. I could have a bruise on this hand.” Ben sniffs my hand and licks it. Later he snatches at my hand again but immediately licks it.

I am a visual thinker. When I use words, images are in my mind. Maybe that is what Ben picks up. There is body language too and energy.  And these moments are accompanied by feelings of real harmony. Maybe they happen because the “noise” in my mind is stilled; like when I disturb the water at our lake front, stirring it up and clouding it with underlying mud and then wait and watch it settle once again: my mind, my whole being needs to settle and come into rhythm with Ben and when that happens, he is waiting for me.

I think they are all waiting for us, horses and other animals too. We just need to slow down, tune in and hear them.

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