Tag Archives: herd dynamics

A wake up call

Somewhere in the depths of this blog I have written how I would receive a message from Ben to “wake up!”

That was back in the day when Rosie was with us. (How strange that already that feels like a long time ago.) And that message was particularly strong in the early days. I learned to become very present at all times around Ben. When he had Rosie to protect he could become quite anxious and consequently quite aggressive at times.

Now Ben can relax. Cloud is in charge and those edgy, aggressive moments have disappeared and Ben, the cooperative willing friend has been at my side all the time, making time spent with him pleasurable and easy. So without realising, I have slipped in my state of alertness and have become more automatic and distracted around them both, Ben in particular.

Today, I wanted to do some work with them both in the picadero. They were both there with me as I was getting organised. I stooped to pick up a headcollar and suddenly found myself knocked to the ground – by Ben. I was not hurt, but I was horrified. What I think happened was that Cloud pushed Ben and Ben moved out of his way taking no account of me. Maybe he saw me as smaller, stooping to the ground and certainly not aware of what was going on. Maybe he was just not aware of me. Anyway – I woke up.

I drove Ben out of the picadero, closed the fence and started to herd Cloud. I felt I should start with the dominant horse. In the end Cloud was listening to me, responding to every move I made. He stopped beside Ben at one stage, who was standing just outside the fence, and I turned away and Cloud left Ben and came to me. When I opened the fence he stuck with me. I produced a bucket with some treats and he waited until I allowed him eat.

Then I went to Ben. I have done work around buckets of food many times with Ben. To my surprise he was far pushier than Cloud. I have done myself and Ben no favours by ignoring this side of our interaction. I have taken him for granted and have not had the alertness and presence that he requires and has asked for many times from me.

So I have had a valuable wake up call today. I also realised something else. I have been anxious not to interfere with my daughter’s relationship with Cloud and have deliberately taken a back seat with Cloud, just making sure some basics were in place. Cloud needs and deserves me to be as clear and present with him as I should be with Ben.

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Moving on

It has been a strange summer. Somehow I have not had much time for blogging, either reading or writing. But, as always, with the new school year routines return and I look forward to playing catch up. Here, we have done more work on our track, re-seeded various areas and most importantly been joined by a new pony.

Meet Cloud:

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He is 14.2, 15 years old and originally from Lithuania. He has come from a riding school not far from here that is closing down and is a quietly self-confident pony who has, in a most friendly manner, assumed leadership over Ben.

Ben’s welfare was my biggest concern with Rosie gone. Fortunately he had somewhere to go. He has stayed with Sandra before and knows her two mares (her three year old Kerry Bog pony gelding, Arrow, was new to him and was to provide a most persistent challenge). He stayed there for the last three weeks. I knew I could not bring him home until I had found another pony. Ben is a worrier and would not fare well alone. Word of mouth led us to Cloud and, while he is a few years older than I would like, my older daughter’s complete confidence while riding him, and her beaming smile afterwards made the decision easy.

We met him in the passageway of the school’s barn and his presence filled that barn and clearly indicated a pony in charge of his herd. He is friendly towards children, pushy regarding treats, accepting of boundaries consistently put in place and is every bit as good a doer as Ben. I will get through a lot of hay this winter.

He had two days here at home by himself for my daughter to spend time with him before her school started. He really does impress as being very comfortable in his own skin. He adapted to being here alone, chose a vantage point from which he could see horses in a nearby field and stayed near my daughter every time she was in the paddock.

I brought Ben home last night. I kept them both in their stables for the night as Ben had greeted Cloud with much angry squealing and posturing over a stable door and I was anxious as to what fireworks would ensue during the night. This morning we could see that Cloud had finished his hay and most of his water. Ben had not touched his. We opened the stable doors and stood back. Cloud came out of his stable and approached Ben’s. Ben squealed. Cloud put his head into the stable. More noise from Ben. Cloud withdrew, walked a small circle and put his head back in again. More Ben noise. Cloud walked into the stable. The next thing we saw was Ben leaving and Cloud quietly herding him along the track.

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It was very impressive. Quietly done, with minimum fuss, a friendly air and, soon, they were grazing together. As my husband remarked – how could you remain angry with someone that friendly?

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There has been a lot of movement on the track today, casual walking, stopping to graze and moving on again. Sometimes Ben seems to initiate it and Cloud follows, but mostly Cloud drives Ben. Ben has come up to me whenever he sees me and Cloud seems happy to let him do this. Ben seems at peace. Cloud reminds me of Mark Rashid’s description of a passive leader. I think he will be very good for Ben.

So we have a new pony at home and Ben has adapted. Life moves on. I miss Rosie, sometimes quite acutely, and will always be grateful for her gentle, grounded presence here and her quite incredible gift to me of absolute trust.

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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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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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Not right now

We are having building work done to our house so Ben and Rosie have gone to Sandra’s away from the noise and the disruption. They do make a nice herd of four. Cassie and Minnie stimulate Ben into movement and Sandra has observed the horses lying down fully with one on guard. At home I have seen Rosie lie down fully, on her side, legs stretched out, but never Ben. There must be a much better feeing of security from the increased number.

We have had some nice hacks and Ben has been more than happy for me to catch him, despite eight wonderful acres to escape to. He lets me walk up to him and as I approach he turns and takes a step towards me. This morning I had a lesson booked. I went out to the horses and there were the three mares lying down with Ben on guard.

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At home, when I want to ride, I wait until they have finished their rest. Or I sometimes join in that rest, it is an incredibly relaxing feeling. But this morning I was on a, very human, timetable. Horses of course live fully in the present and human timetables mean nothing to them. (Having typed that sentence, I need to amend that: feeding time definitely means something.)

I approached Ben with the headcollar and he slowly turned his back to me and resumed his on guard stance. I walked away. I approached again and he turned his head towards me with his ears back. He was quiet, there was no sour face, just ears firmly back. I took a step backwards and his ears went forwards again. I waited for a while and approached again to be met with the same response. Cassie, Minnie and Rosie stayed completely undisturbed by this. Sandra and I talked about this moment and I had to do some serious thinking.

I have listened to Ben’s “no” before. I tend to trust to my intuition as regards the appropriate response for that moment. This time was different as I had an appointment booked that involved another. I put down the headcollar and walked away.  I was fortunately able to postpone my lesson rather than cancel it.

I feel that this was a bit of a watershed moment for me. I could hear the words of former instructors and horsey friends in my mind telling me to take charge. I knew that I shouldn’t. “Not right now” was what Ben was telling me as clearly as if he uttered those words. Later, when they were up, I went out, caught him and, despite reluctance to walk through a sudden shower of hail, he followed me away from the others and loaded into the trailer without hesitation.

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Bonfire Ben

Warning: this post contains excessive photographs of Ben the Magnificent.

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It is holiday time. We are going away for three weeks, so Ben and Rosie are taking their holiday at my friend Sandra’s, who has two beautiful mares, Cassie and Minnie, (described in her blog) both well known to Ben and who lives in an equally beautiful place up in the hills. We load Ben and Rosie into the trailer; Rosie follows my daughter in without hesitation which results in Ben being unable to get in quick enough.

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We arrive and Cassie and Minnie seem to know that these two are to join them, as opposed to the usual Ben turning up for a hack. They are very excited. Rosie is let into their field first by Sandra, so that she can keep Cassie and Minnie out of the way. Ben almost breaks loose from my hold as all his herd instincts surge. Rosie, on her own for a few minutes, defends herself by turning her back to Cassie and letting loose with both hind legs. I have to let Ben in with his headcollar on which I take off later. He gathers up Rosie and herds her down to a far corner, keeping his body between her and the other two. They settle to graze:

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Cassie and Minnie approach:

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A challenge and a stand-off. Rosie gets on with eating, relying on Ben to keep the other two off:

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And this recurs. I get Ben’s headcollar off, who is very relaxed and happy to see me as long as Cassie and Minnie have their heads down. When they approach again, he obviously realises he needs to show them just who he is:

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We had piaffe and the most elevated passage which I could not quite get on camera:

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And various other suitable gestures:

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Eventually Ben and Rosie headed off through a gap to another field. Cassie and Minnie watched:

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Minnie in particular:

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Sandra’s friend from Holland, who was watching, said ‘he danced just like Bonfire and Salinero’.

I heard this morning from Sandra that they are still in their respective pairs. They have lots of space, lots of grass. Have a great holiday Ben and Rosie. I will return in three weeks.

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