Tag Archives: leadership

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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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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Continuing the story of St Bridget’s Cloak

St Bridget spread her cloak on the ground and it grew, to cover an area large enough for a small arena. But in order to grow, it had to climb up ditches, trees and even an old pheasant cage. St Bridget and her cloak needed some help. Enter the man with a digger.

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Enter Ben, back with Rosie from a day spent at the lake while the digger did its work. The light is fading earlier in these late September days and Ben stiffened as he saw the great yellow monster at the top of his track. Head went up, nostrils flared, breath quickened. I left Ben, taking off his headcollar and walked purposely up the track towards the digger. Near it, I turned. Ben was following me up at a safe distance, his head down again. I reached the digger and touched it. Ben turned around and wandered back to the shed for tea.

The cloak has spread over this space:

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“Wake up”

A sunny morning, chores done, ponies grazing; I join them and lie down on the dry ground under a hazel tree. It is peaceful. A hazel nut detaches itself and falls down beside me. I rest. Rosie comes near to graze, Ben stays away. I am mildly surprised that they do not stop grazing and doze as well as they usually do at this time of the morning.

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Time for me to go; I get up, go up to each in turn and greet them: Ben moves towards me to acknowledge this. Greeting over, he instantly falls into stillness, one leg resting, head low. Rosie joins in.

I watch them and then have to leave them both, dozing in the sun on this beautiful autumn morning.

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That was yesterday, and this small event stayed with me throughout the rest of the busier part of my day. Ben prefers me alert, that is certain. When I am standing, and awake (which means mentally), he relaxes.

I have been thinking about leadership, as it relates to horses. It is a much used and, I am sure, mis-used word. Margrit Coates has a section on it in her book Connecting with Horses that I found helpful. “When a leader exudes an energy with a rich content of authenticity that feels safe to gravitate towards, amazing things can happen, both with people and horses.” (p 62) Another quote is: “Only when calmness prevails and we are in harmony will a horse say from the heart, ‘I want to be with you and follow your lead’.” (p 63) She stresses that following as opposed to leading is more important when thinking about horse behaviour and points out that horses lead us in spiritual terms towards discovering and learning. I have mentioned before that Ben will follow me when I am authentic.

I have only Ben’s behaviour to follow as I try to figure out where he is leading me: he seems to want me as a leader, and a leader in the sense that Margrit Coates describes.

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