Tag Archives: Hempfling

Two different equines

One thing that became very clear to me last winter was that Ben and Cloud do not co-exist ideally on my track system. Cloud’s rate of eating impacts on Ben. Ben’s slower rate, punctuated by rests, does not fit with Cloud’s non-stop and rapid eating. The result has been that Cloud became overweight (far too overweight) and Ben became underweight and looked bad. His coat looked dull, his bones showed and for the first time he looked old.

Having the use of the field this summer reversed this for Ben. Ben’s coat gleamed, his top-line improved (I was also riding most days which I am sure helped) and he gained weight. Cloud’s weight held until the second half of August, when increased grass growth told its tale and he became very round again.

Since coming back, my ad lib experiment has not worked. I have abandoned it a couple of weeks ago. Cloud also got mild laminitis due to the flush of Autumn growth and I have had to face the obvious: they are two different animals and need to be treated as such.

I do not understand this insistence some proponents of track system/paddock paradise have for ad lib feeding. The most I have been able to stretch this for Cloud has been three weeks. I was told (on the facebook paddock paradise group) that it can take six months for a horse to self-regulate. How can this be right? How can this be the right thing to do to a pony like Cloud? I certainly have not been prepared to take this risk.

Feeding ad lib hay worked for Ben and Rosie. Ben set the pace of eating and resting. He may have looked a bit too well-covered but I was not worried for his health. Now Cloud sets the pace.

I do not know Cloud’s breeding, but that he is a native type is obvious, in both character and make-up. He responds so very differently to Ben, for instance, when it comes to loading. Ben, you could say, is more “trainable”. For Cloud, it was clear that he was prepared to resist in every possible manner and a different way to reach him had to be found. I have found Hempfling’s writing on “The Origin” very helpful in helping me understand Cloud. And as regards his make-up, well I wonder about insulin resistance, I wonder also whether he could be leptin resistant which (if I understand correctly) would make him unable to self-regulate. And even if neither of these apply (the test for IR resistance is very expensive so I am holding off for now) I cannot see how a native type, whose ancestors lived on sparse forage over rough ground, could thrive on ad lib forage 24/7.

This morning, I let Ben into grass and spread Cloud’s hay around the track so that he circled Ben moving from small pile to small pile again and again as he foraged for the last remaining wisps. I am still working it out. I have been reluctant to abandon my system which worked so well for Ben and Rosie, where both could share everything day and night. But my big realisation has been that they are two quite different equines and I have to treat them as such. “Keeping it natural” is not quite so easy for this pair.

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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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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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Ponies in the dark

Last night I went out to the paddock at about midnight. I did not take a torch and made my way around track by the faint light from the stars. The ponies were not in the yard, haynets were not finished. I picked my way carefully along the rough, dried mud of the front section of the track towards the trees where I thought they might be. They were not there and I made my way around the track, hearing nothing. I saw Ben’s silhouette in the wide corner that is the highest place on the track. His white socks were just visible. He made his way towards me. We stood together looking down the track and he rested. His breath was gentle on my face as he moved his head near me. This little cob, who is quite resistant to touch around his head, moved his head over my shoulder and in beside my face and he dozed.

When he moved away, I moved towards Rosie. Her head, being level with my waist, was instantly nosing at my pocket for the carrots that were there. Ben ignored us as she crunched on one. It seems a long time since he would chase Rosie away if she came near me. I crouched and Rosie and I were nose to nose in the darkness.

I was very struck by what an urban environment they live in. We are supposed to be in the country here. It was midnight. Lights were on in our house and our neighbours’. Cars were on the road. Looking down the track, across the lake, the glow of lights from a nearby town was visible. At midnight, in the darkness, under the stars, horses should have silence from human sounds and they do not. They cannot. We are everywhere. There are of course more remote places in Ireland. We are near to villages and towns and a main road here. But even in more remote places they will see a glow from lights in the sky, they will hear noise. And they adapt, they have to. Do we?

I did a workshop with Ben at the weekend given by a trainer who has trained with Hempfling and Chris Irwin among others. It was helpful, particularly in showing me how to position my body during in-hand work to help and allow Ben move his body optimally and also to keep my focus so that Ben can relax when he is around me. There was a pony brought there who was difficult to trailer load, a sweet looking Connemara type. She was filthy as she would not let anyone groom her. Horses and humans interfacing can clash and this clash can so rapidly become chaotic and even dangerous.

I do not have a photograph from the darkness, so here are Ben and Rosie again early this morning after their breakfast. I love that their stance is almost identical.

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More on the trailer

For the last three days I have focused on the trailer with Ben. I have it parked in the paddock and with both ramps open asked Ben to follow me walking through it. He started with reluctance once again. On a loose line I walked in random patterns around the paddock, stopping with emphasis and moving off again emphatically. Ben matched his movement to mine, with turns, pace and halts and doing this he gradually became happier with the trailer. He sniffed, put his feet on the ramp and then walked through. I did this 10 times, and the last few times he was walking very smoothly through.

On the second day, I asked for a halt inside the trailer, a step forward, a halt and further steps. Once again I just used my own body language, and voice, to ask. He was worried, I could see it so clearly the first time I asked him to halt. In fact, I became very aware of the trailer sides all around me with the roof so near to my head. I seemed to see that place where we were standing with his eyes and with his mind. Again, we went through 10 times, halting each time inside and he was just so soft at the end and so relaxed, it was a delight.

This morning, we did it again. This time I asked for a step backwards inside the trailer. The first time, he rushed backwards down the ramp. With the repetitions, he came in, stopped, took one or two steps back, depending on what I asked, came forward, stopped, took a step back and walked through, very relaxed. At no time did I tug or push. I kept a loose lead line and used my body language.

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A really nice plus of all this work is that when I go to him on the track, he is stuck to me, completely at one with my movements, with no halter or lead rope on. Billie had posted a video recently on her blog of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling working with a horse and it reminded me of how I had previously used his suggestions for leading with good effect on my mare Mali. I will never even aspire to move with such quietness and precision as Klaus does, but focusing on my body in terms of directing Ben worked really well for him. I felt we were completely in synch towards the end.

My husband, who has to listen to all my horse tales, pointed out that in Tai Chi, they do repetitions in threes, so I did that last session 9 times – not that Ben cared!

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