Tag Archives: Mali

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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Keeping it simple: Ben selects a bitless bridle

Over the past couple of weeks I have tried four bitless alternatives on Ben, by riding out or in-hand work, or both. I am recording Ben’s response to each, which is obviously just the response of this particular cob to a particular form of restraint and not meant to be a definitive review of these bridles.

I am not against bits and I do not rule out using a bit with Ben again, in fact I possibly will as I, hopefully, progress with his flat work schooling. I am happy with his response in the myler comfort snaffle bit. The only reason I have contemplated bitless alternatives is that, often when I go to put the bridle on Ben, he gives these enormous yawns which I have interpreted as a sign of tension. I also like the fact that riding Ben bitless is educating me, encouraging me to focus on my own body when I ride and to encourage Ben to tune in to weight aids more than he used to. It is also nice to go on a long hack and know that Ben can eat freely without the bit.

There can be far too much information (and even more opinions) on the internet. However, in various searches for bitless bridles I came across this blog post by Tom Widdicombe which has provided a wonderfully sane voice amongst all those opinions out there.

So, here is Ben’s (and my) impressions of four different bridles:

  • Sidepull: the one I used is fashioned from a leather cavesson and I have chosen to place the noseband in the normal position, not low as in crossunder bridles. I have used this bridle while riding out, my daughter has used it in the arena and I have used it for in-hand work.
    • Ben has been more responsive to in-hand flexion etc than he was with the bit. While riding out with Sandra and Cassie I have asked Ben to stop while Cassie moved away from him and he did so from my body’s signal to stop and a slightly lifted outside rein. He did not attempt to snatch at grass while riding out. My daughter said that she forgot he had no bit when she was riding Ben.
  • Lightrider bridle (rope version): I rode out in this once only and did some basic flexions in-hand with this bridle.
    • This felt “dull” and I had to tug quite hard to lift Ben’s head from the grass. I did stop him as Cassie moved away but I had to pull much harder than I liked on the reins. The strap that is supposed to slide behind Ben’s chin did not slide and seemed to stick in the side rings of the bridle.
  • Cross-under bridle: the one I borrowed was made by Barefoot, but is similar in design to a Dr Cook’s. I tried this first over a year ago, when Ben leant into the contact. I thought it was worth trying again as he has had cranio-sacral treatments since which have eased his sensitivity around the poll area. I only rode Ben out in this.
    • This was the worst bridle from my point of view, possibly the best from Ben’s! As we rode out Templeton’s song from Charlotte’s Web went around in my head: “a fair is a veritable smorgesbord…” The sides of the road turned into a veritable smorgesbord for Ben, as he went from snatches of cow parsley to hazel leaves to grass. I must say it was very irritating and the bridle felt un-subtle and quite blunt and I was hating it by the end of the ride.
  • Rope halter: I thought I would try this for in-hand work before riding out in it. Mali used to love the rope halter (parelli-style) and was very light and responsive in it.
    • This felt very crude in-hand and after one session I decided that I would not ride out in it or use it again in-hand.

My conclusions: keep it simple. Choose the bridle that is closest to what Ben is used to, which give direct rein signals and does not involve poll pressure.

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Ben is looking rather disgruntled that I am taking a photo when he thought he was finished. I have fiddled with the height of the noseband a bit and have it usually one hole below this.

Is it worth using a bitless bridle? I think it is. Those yawns prior to bridling have completely disappeared.

The sidepull I have used is borrowed from Sandra, so all I have to do now is choose from the many, many options out there…

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On riding out, 2

Ben and I have been heading out fairly regularly, but life caught up with me recently and we had a week with no rides. When I went to ride out again last Wednesday, he was a bit anxious as we walked up the track to the back gate. The weather is cold and very blustery right now, but no unseasonal weather can deny the ever increasing light of these May evenings. I mounted at the back gate and he strode away, quite fresh, ready to spook, bolt and generally react to every dancing shadow and lurking tiger. I focused on keeping him straight and moving on and he suddenly relaxed, blowing through his nostrils but keeping up his forward pace. I needed to use no leg and he strode out, obviously relishing the movement and the journey. A joy to ride.

This pheasant hopped out of our way as we passed.

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We have ridden out since and yesterday he came up to me at the tack room door and I emerged with bridle in hand. Ben’s response: to stretch his head forwards and into the bridle.

I am convinced, and have been for years now, that once you get a horse past that sticky, leaving home stage, they love to ride out. Their lives are confined in domesticity and what other chance do they get to roam as their ancestors once did?

I am fortunate, of course, in that Ben’s sticky phase rarely lasts more than five minutes. He is generally a very chilled out cob. I had a very different experience with Mali whose sticky phase on one memorable occasion lasted about forty minutes.

Of course, I could walk Ben in hand and I did just that, on the chiropractor’s instructions, every day for two weeks when he first came to me. It was a good bonding exercise, but limited us to very quiet roads at very quiet times. I also walked Rosie out, when she first came to us and was on her own in the paddock. She did not want to turn back.  (She was wearing front shoes at the time).  Now, she does not want to leave Ben behind in the paddock, but as I have mentioned I do hope to get hoof boots for her so that she can sometimes join us too.

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On riding out, 1

Billie at Camera-Obscura is doing a series of posts on riding, so I thought I would join in, focusing on riding out which is the riding I do here. I ride out because I do not have an arena, only a small picadero and because it is how Ben and I like to ride. I once bought a horse called Rocco who was a young, big, strong draught type who always wanted to turn for home, not out of nervousness (which Mali would do at times) but out of an obviously well-established habit. In the end I sold him on because he was too strong for me. He had a whole repertoire of tricks, which he practised also on better riders than I am and which culminated in rearing. It took me a while to get over Rocco, the feeling that I had failed him in some way and the knowledge that I had to sell him on. I always assumed that a horse with me was a horse for life. But he was young and needed more than living retired here.

Mali used to get nervous sometimes and want to turn for home, but we always worked out between us how to get through these moments and when she relaxed, her stride would lengthen and she would seem to reach this place of trance-like walking and the endorphins flowing from her would flow up through me and at these times we could have gone on forever.

Ben is very different to Mali. But we have not had many rides since Christmas, apart from our rides in company with Sandra and Cassie. But with the longer evenings it has been time to get going again. Our first ride, last week, was on a still, clear day and Ben rode out from the back gate as if there had never been a break. So the next day, I thought about a change of direction, along the main road, between the lake and rising fields, heading towards a quieter road.

Ben met me, popped his head into his headcollar and stood for grooming and tacking up. We turned the other way at the back gate and he strode out down the lane towards the main road. Once on the road the wind rose, blew in from the lake where the sun danced and dazzled, birds called and the fields on the other side rose also, seeming to stir some blood in Ben, memories of hunting maybe and his back came up, he started to hesitate and I asked him to move on, not wanting a confrontation on this main road. We reached the side road and after a while I let Ben eat some grass, thinking he had now relaxed. A curlew called, suddenly, behind us and Ben spun around, heading for home for the first time since I have had him. I turned him back again but he headed backwards as fast as he could go; I broke this with hindquarter yields and when Ben stopped I upped my energy, hitting my stirrup with my stick, using my voice and my posture to urge him on. He trotted on and we kept going until he was walking out relaxed when we turned for home.

This morning, I headed out again. But Ben at the back gate put his back up, plunged, ploughed backwards and when I got him settled, standing quietly for me to open the gate, I decided to get off. I did not want to have a battle, which we would have, and while I knew of others who would insist I sat on top and had that battle, it is not the way I want to be with Ben. I also knew that I was starting to feel anxious and I felt that disguising that by upping my energy would not be fair; Ben would be dealing with an incongruent rider.

So we walked out in hand and Ben piaffed in the lane and I asked him forwards, and he looked at everything and I asked him to pay attention to me and gradually he relaxed and we walked together and friend Ben was back, my go-anywhere Ben, who had a soft eye, glancing now and then to meet mine and I realised that our steps were in synch, we had harmony together as we walked through gusting wind and showers. I could have got on him then but I chose to walk at his side and enjoy this harmony and after a while when I did get on he stood quietly as I mounted and his trot was forward and springy as we moved off again and we walked on through the gusts of wind, the dancing shadows, the rippling puddles, Ben’s head low on a loose rein, his ear flicking back to me and forwards, our harmony as complete as when I was on the ground beside him.

Afterwards I let him into some grass and told him how wonderful he was. He ignored me quite rightly, for he was just being Ben, right through the morning, whether from my point of view he was being wonderful or quite the opposite, he was just being himself at that particular moment. He is as he is and I would not have him any other way.

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Daytime habits

I have had horses (mine or friends’) in my paddock, in spring and summer usually, for a few years before I set up the track system here. I first had Mali here one lovely summer and I discovered that she liked to walk in tracks around the paddock. (When she died, I went up to the paddock and followed the tracks she had laid down.) I found that certain areas were favoured at different times of the day. The paddock rises facing north away from the house with the north-west corner being the highest. Although it is quite exposed, there is a good view from here over the lane to the fields behind. Horses have always seemed to like to come up here to rest during the day. In contrast, they have liked the trees (in what is now the diagonally opposing corner of the track) during windy and rainy weather.

This helped me when I planned the track layout. I made sure that there was a wide space up at the top, with options for haynets to be tied there, and put the main daytime haynets under the trees, as our default weather here is rain and wind.

Ben and Rosie’s use of the track has confirmed this layout. Even in this frosty weather, when I am not putting hay up there, they make their way several times a day to this spot for a rest. Getting there entails either ascending or descending a steep hill. The only days they don’t go up there are on the stormy days when they prefer to stay by the trees.

It has been helpful to have had the chance to observe horses’ use of the paddock before putting in the track. I am sure that it has contributed to the success of the track in encouraging movement over the entire area.

Ben at the top of the track in October:

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Bonding with a human

I have been thinking lately about how a horse bonds with a human. So many people have so many ways and methods for this. Books are written, programmes devised, opinions politely discussed or hotly argued. I would have to admit that I do like a good book. Some of my favourites are by Imke Spilker, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, Mark Rashid and Carolyn Resnick. There are rituals, subtleties of body language, principles of leadership and many other concepts and ideas that can be adopted.

But when I think back to Mali, my first horse, I re-call how she bonded to me, exclusively, above and beyond all horses, for a while. There was a while when I could come to her in a five acre field of horses and she would follow me at liberty to the riding arena. Loose in that arena, she would follow me, walk beside me, turn with me, stop with me, all without any join-up, special lungeing, leadership games or any other means. She stuck to me, a very average leisure rider, of her own free will and chose to follow me and want to be with me above all her equine companions, for a while.

Here is how it happened.

I bought Mali, a beautiful 3/4 bred 15.1 hands Irish Sport Horse over seven years ago.

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I kept her for a while in a small yard and then moved her to a riding school and trekking centre, set in 100 acres of farm land. A friend of mine moved her mare there too. She and Mali were a pair bond in the larger herd of school and livery horses. In the summer time, the fields were fabulous, I used to explore them, following sheep tracks, go for long gallops and practise dressage using thistles as markers. I also used to ride out on the roads. There was a long circuit which was a good ride, about 2 hours, once you braved the fairly fast road that was outside the farm. One sunny summer day my friend and I went out for a ride around this circuit. The wind was blowing, the shadows were dancing along with my friend’s chestnut mare and we had a good ride and a good chat and came back along the faster road towards home.

Along this road, my friend’s mare was hit by a jeep towing a trailer who had to try to squeeze past us in a narrow part of that road. The mare broke a hind leg, severing an artery and was put down on the spot.

I do not want to dwell on the awfulness of that moment and the devastation for my friend, her beautiful mare and for Mali.

But afterwards, for the rest of that summer and right through until Christmas, Mali bonded with me. I was her pair bond. She spent the night following that accident calling for her friend. When she was turned out in the field I was told that she would walk up to where the school horses were and stay near them. But when I came, she would turn and come to me, leaving the horses and the grass. It is not as if she was difficult to catch before this. She would wait for me in the field as I would walk up to her and she would come willingly once a headcollar was on. But this time was the first time she would come to me without one. I could walk slowly through this field and she would walk slowly, I could walk faster or run and she would also speed up accordingly. I used to visit her about four or five times a week and I had this level of bonding for months. My friend eventually bought another mare and Mali stayed bonded to me.

Then Christmas came and we went up to Dublin to spend Christmas with my parents. We were gone for about a week. When I came back Mali had bonded with my friend’s new mare and the strength of the bond with me was gone. She was still a willing, sweet mare, and in the arena at liberty would stay stuck to me, but those wonderful times of walking through a field full of horses with me at liberty never returned.

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Ben is bored

Another ride, another windy day. This time Ben walked out feeling fresh, with his back up, but settling and we walked on and I realised that I felt bored. And if I felt bored, Ben must be even more so.

Mali was different.  She used to be quite spooky and reluctant for the first fifteen minutes or so, but she would then relax and her walk would lengthen, her head would lower, her back would round and she would stride out, it would seem, forever.  She was in a rhythm, in a zone even, and endorphins from her would awaken endorphins in me and I used to feel quite close to heaven on earth.  No matter how far we have gone, in company or alone, Ben has never found that place.

Our hacking around here is only on the roads. I have memories from the time I lived in England of riding across acres of national trust common land and driving through countryside dotted with discreet signs pointing to bridleways, which would head off across fields in a way that is unheard of here. White Horse Pilgrim has described many such rides on his blog. There is no tradition here of public rights of way across land. Historically land was owned by unpopular, foreign, absentee landlords and farmed by local tenants. When the big estates were broken up, around the time of the founding of the state, farmers had a chance to buy the land they farmed, and farms around here can consist of fields that are not necessarily adjacent leading to a familiar scene of cows being herded down a road at milking time. Land ownership is very important and public access to land is not welcome.

So what could I do for Ben and for me?

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This lane is behind our paddock and I never meet cars here. So I asked Ben to canter on the green grass in the centre. From the way he sprang forward at the lightest touch from my leg he clearly thought this was a good idea. We were barely getting into our stride when – a car came around the bend. Just our luck, but we will try this again and I will look for other opportunities where we can do this.

I must add that I felt very balanced in my Stubben saddle when I had to slow Ben down suddenly.

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