Category Archives: Orion the Exmoor Pony

Orion 14: Snow Wanted . . . And Unwanted

The climate in Cornwall is different from that on Exmoor so different that the Payne children, Harry and Lowenna, had never seen snow.

As a thank you for having Orion, we promised the Paynes they could come and stay at West Ilkerton Farm when it snowed. Usually this happens several times during the winter and spring on Exmoor, but all we got during the winter of 2014-15 was rain, rain and more rain. Not a snowflake in sight . . .

At last, when we’d nearly given up hope, there was a forecast for snow on high ground, particularly on Exmoor, Bodmin and Dartmoor, and it was going to happen on a Saturday. Ideal!

Jon had to work, so Beansy brought the children up for the weekend, despite the fact she wasn’t feeling well.

Lucy recognised Harry and Lowenna
Lucy definitely recognised Harry and Lowenna

The weather was pretty good when they arrived on Saturday afternoon. We went to see Eric and Lucy out in the field, and the ponies got some apples as a special treat.

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And then, as if by magic, during supper it began to snow! Hurray! We could hardly contain our excitement!

Half an hour later, it had all gone.

Never mind. The forecast was for snow overnight, so we were bound to wake up to a winter wonderland . . .

As soon as I woke up the next morning, I knew it hadn’t happened. The light seeping into our bedroom was the ordinary, dull light of a grey winter’s morning rather than the luminous reflected light from snow.

The children were bitterly disappointed but making a huge effort to be polite about it. I felt awful, and tried to compensate by doing fun things like lighting the fire in our dining room so we could have a campfire breakfast. (It took about two loaves of bread to perfect our toasting technique, but eventually edible pieces of toast were produced.)

Outside, it was turning into a sunny day. Huh, so much for snowstorms.

Sarah, who’d been checking her Facebook messages, suddenly said, “Look! They’ve had snow at Exford! Oliver Edwards has posted some photos of snow at Westermill.

Is it still there? I asked.

Hang on, I’ll send him a message.

Tap, tap, tap . . . Tap, tap tap . . . Yup, he says there’s still some, but it’s melting fast.

Feeling rather like those crazy storm-chasers in America who drive around in search of bad weather, we drove into the centre of Exmoor. The roads were clear, but ribbons of snow still clung to the verges and hung around in patches on Brendon Common. We stopped briefly, in case that was as good as it would get, then kept on driving through Exford and towards Dunkery, hoping that the probability of finding snow would rise with altitude . . . Yes! We were right!

First snowman

First snowman

First toboggan ride on a feed sack
First toboggan ride on a feed sack

It was powdery, like icing sugar, and there wasn’t enough to build a huge snowman or go tobogganing properly, but it was just enough to have some fun and a snowball fight until the novelty wore off and everyone became cold and hungry.

Snowball fight
Snowball fight

What was really amazing about that weekend was that Beansy wasn’t at all well but she still came up because she didn’t want to disappoint the children. She’d told me beforehand that there was a possibility we’d have to rush her into hospital. Thank goodness that wasn’t necessary. However, she was going to have to have an operation as soon as possible, and it would take her at least a month to recover afterwards.

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Originally the plan had been that Orion would stay with the Paynes until the summer, and we would swap Eric and Lucy for their Exmoor stallion Dunkery Tawny Owl (Owly) at the end of February. Eric was going to a new home, and the children were keen to have Lucy back so they could ride her. Owly would run with my three mares so that, all being well, they’d have foals in 2016.

Owly
Owly

However, this plan could have resulted in foals being born in January, when the weather’s often at its worst. Also, Beansy wasn’t going to be well enough to train Orion for a few months, so we decided on a Plan B: to swap Eric and Lucy for Orion instead. Having made tremendous progress, Orion hadn’t been doing so well recently. Perhaps a complete rest and change of scene would do him good.

There was one day, and one day only, when Jon and Beansy could make the journey to Exmoor while somebody looked after the children at home. Even though the weather forecast was appalling, we had no option but to go for it.

The weather was even more appalling than we’d bargained for, with high winds and sleety rain. Jon led Orion over to the other side of the farm, where Gaia, Demeter and Dora were waiting in a pen with Eric and Lucy. The idea was to get Eric and Lucy out before we released Orion, but he became so excited that we had to release him into the pen straight away. Eric took exception to another gelding with his harem, but luckily Beansy caught Eric, Jon caught Lucy and they led them away before any damage was done.

Orion the outcast
Orion the outcast

I’d been looking forward to a joyful reunion between Orion and Gaia – I think Orion had, too – but she was utterly vile towards him. She’d loved Eric from the start, and appeared to be lost without him, so perhaps she felt Orion was responsible for the removal of the love of her life. Whatever the reason, she treated him like an outcast, attacking with her hooves and teeth whenever he approached her or the other two mares, or even me. Soon he was covered in bite marks.

To add to his misery, the snow we’d longed for a couple of weeks earlier arrived. It was the kind of wet, sleety snow that chills you to the bone. The other mares were okay because they had thick winter coats, but the Cornish weather had been so warm that Orion had already shed his winter coat and replaced it with a sleek summer one.A bleak day in March, with a dusting of snow on the hills

I worried about him all the time. He looked so cold and lonely, but there was nothing I could do. All our available shed space was taken up with cows, calves, sheep and our riding horses. He’d just have to tough it out somehow . . .

Orion 13: Slow Progress (by Beansy Payne)

My best Christmas card!
My best Christmas card!

This is Beansy Payne’s second blog about Orion’s training in Cornwall during the winter and early spring of 2014 – 15. I love the way she is so honest about the setbacks and breakthroughs involved. I also love the fact that Jon and Beansy aren’t giving Orion a ‘one size fits all’ education. We’re keen to make progress, but at the same time we’re prepared to take as long as it takes.

Domesticated life is challenging for Orion and, as a result, it’s often difficult for us to make sure we always do right by him. We’ve never come across a pony that responds in quite the same way as he does. He’s super-sensitive, incredibly flighty and very much likes to control situations, and that can create problems when he interacts with people. We’ve had to be flexible and imaginative in our training methods, so he’s teaching us a lot as well.

Sometimes it’s hard to see progress and we begin to doubt ourselves, but then there’s that special moment when a breakthrough occurs, and we realise that we really are going forwards!

For instance, today Orion was asleep in his stable and I was able to muck out the loose box next door before going into the stable with him to take a photograph. He didn’t worry about me at all. He stayed lying down and then slowly and calmly got up before walking towards me for a rub his forehead. It did bring a little tear to my eye as I realised he truly was beginning to trust us.

Since my last blog entry, I’ve been clicker training Orion. This is based on positive reinforcement through a simple method of using a ‘click’ to mark a desired behaviour and then offering a reward. For Orion this is a food reward. I have a little shoulder bag that sits at about my hip height, and have lots of pony nuts in it. The success of clicker training is all in the timing. Orion never looks to ‘mug’ me he never even puts his nose near the bag where the food is instead, he quietly looks to seek out what it is I’m asking of him.

https://www.facebook.com/jennahorse/videos/10154858215435244/?__mref=message_bubble

Orion was the perfect candidate for clicker training as he was quick to want to avoid human contact and really only looked to engage with us when he was out of his comfort zone. By introducing clicker training, he had the motivation of food. Yes, the cynics would say it was cupboard love and to begin with, of course, it was. But over time, as we’ve shaped his behaviour, this training has given him confidence in us. I don’t think Orion lacks confidence in general; I actually think quite the opposite. It’s only when he’s with humans that he lacks confidence.

At first, I target trained him to the head collar. I chose to use this because he doesn’t really have a positive association with it. (He has a history of pulling away, and I guess he feels trapped by it.) I held out the head collar and, when he touched it, I clicked and then reached into the bag and gave him a reward. Orion is very quick to learn, and in no time at all he was looking for the head collar in order to receive his treat. I was even able to hang it on the wall and he’d still go and touch it before returning for his treat.

We’ve now moved onto rope work. I ask him to stand, and then I touch his body with the rope. He used to hate people behind him, but I can now stand behind him and touch his bottom with the rope without him looking to move off. We’re also shaping how we use the clicker for this: he waits for two or three clicks before he receives the reward and so he learns to ‘hold’ the desired behaviour. It’s all about gaining his trust in us with a kind and sympathetic approach. We’re not afraid to alter our methods and ideas as we develop with Orion after all, every pony is different.

We still have to move very slowly near Orion, ensure the children or visitors don’t alarm him and continue to work around him in a way that he can cope with. He will still pull away or have a ‘meltdown’ if frightened. He tends to react first and think later. However, when we look back at how he was when he first arrived, we can see how much progress we’ve made. He’s definitely earned his spring holiday with his sisters on Exmoor!

Orion 12: First Few Weeks In Cornwall (by Beansy Payne)

I’m very grateful to Jenna (Beansy) and Jon Payne for generously agreeing to have Orion  during the winter, and to Beansy for writing this: her first blog about Orion’s initial training with them in Cornwall. I’ve found it really interesting, and I’m sure you will too.

Jon teaching Orion how to trot
Jon teaching Orion to trot in-hand

We didn’t really know what to expect with Orion. Tortie had been very honest about him, but we didn’t know how he was going to take to any of his new experiences – least of all, how he was going to take to us.

Orion travelled quietly home with his new friend, another Exmoor called Bumbe Bee, and happily reversed off the trailer and led into his stable. We were aware that he might look to ‘pull away’ so we led him everywhere with a lunge rope for the first few weeks, which meant we could be happy that if he did pull we could let the rope out until he settled.

There was little delay in starting work with him; he went for his first walk the following morning. We don’t believe in formal training sessions with youngsters, they rarely go in the school to be worked but rather we much prefer ‘real world’ training and what better way to see what life has to offer than by going for walks around the village? Orion went for a walk daily; he spent lots of time watching traffic pass, greeting walkers, walking out with pony friends or on his own and exploring the endless stony tracks around us in the heart of old Cornish mining country.

He was certainly nervous around us. He would jump about in his stable when we went to feed him, he’d run backwards when people walked past his door and we had to quietly coax him to let us close to him so we could gently pop a headcollar on him for turnout. At first, we just let him follow his friends in from the field, but as we began to build up a relationship with him we soon expected him to be caught before he came in. I’d often spend up to an hour at a time standing quietly, waiting for him to approach & rewarding him with food before he’d let me catch him. This time is much less now and I don’t need a bucket, just some food in my hand.

Orion with Jon
Orion with Jon

One of the things we were charged with working on was trotting. I think part of the key with Orion is to have high expectations. Once you start to push the boundaries and get him working a little outside his comfort zone, you see a massive improvement in his confidence in other areas of his training. From the very beginning we expected him to walk beside us. We nagged him to come forwards, never proceeded unless he was beside us and rewarded him with scratches on his wither when he was delivering. He’s a bright pony, quick to pick things up, and we swiftly moved onto trotting. He really was reluctant to go forwards into trot, and when we’d try to encourage it he’d get all sticky on his feet and sometimes have a mini ‘meltdown’, as we’d call it, where he’d want to pull away and get all worried. Once it was clear this route wasn’t getting us anywhere, I led him and asked Jon to quietly walk behind. (Orion hated this to begin with, but within a couple of walks it became the norm.) As I asked for trot, Jon put a little bit of pressure on him from behind. . . He whizzed off forwards but we let him; we  went with him and rewarded him with lots of scratches and kind words. He was confused at first, but his confidence grew. Going forwards is something I’m a huge believer in. If a novice ridden pony shoots off forwards, I never hinder them. Forward energy is vital. Orion picked up trotting quickly and we were soon trotting large parts of our walks (it’s lucky we’re fit!).

Orion at his first show
Orion at his first show

All the background work never fully prepares a pony for a show. The atmosphere is so different, the ponies can easily get ‘stage-fright’ and there are so many new sights and sounds, not to mention the travelling to and from the event! Orion was hesitant to load. His travel partner this time was our homebred foal, Silky. It was only her second time travelling and her first time without her Mummy, but she’s laid back, trusting of us and good natured; she gave much confidence to Orion.

We hadn’t planned to show Orion, we just took him along for the ride so he could get more experience of life. Off the box, he was quite overwhelmed and looked very much to Jon for support. We spent time walking around, brushing him and generally letting him take it all in. As the ring steward called for the 2 & 3 year-old small breeds Jon said, “Let’s got for it, I think he’ll manage.” So we made a rapid entry and Orion went into the ring. He was amazing. It was quieter in the ring than the outside, but he was still a little hesitant. He had a fright at the judge on his individual show, but got it back quickly to finish in second place behind a Welsh Section B colt.

Trotting
Those hours spent practising trotting were worth it.

A second place meant Orion qualified for the championship. We felt it would be good for him to go in the ring again. He was certainly more relaxed the second time, and he gave an even better performance. His confidence grew by the minute and the transformation was incredible. So much so, he was pulled in Reserve Champion! He even had a round of applause for his lap of honour and he behaved like a pro!

Reserve Champion!
Reserve Champion! (I love the way Orion’s copying Jon.)

We knew it would be the making of this pony, and it was. He’d had so much to think about and was exhausted when he arrived home, but he came back a much more confident pony. He’s more readily caught in the field and doesn’t get worried about people in his stable any more. I’m sure this is a real turning point for him.

Orion’s lap of honour with Jon. (Well done, Daddy!)

We’re super proud of this little man and are really grateful to Tortie & Chris for letting us steal him to Cornwall for the winter. I’m not sure how Orion is going to do better than this for his next blog……….!

Orion 11: Orion Goes To School

After Orion pulled away from me in the field when a pheasant flew at us (see my previous blog) I didn’t dare take him for walks in open spaces in case it happened again. My confidence had gone, and I didn’t really know how to put things right, apart from going back to basics again. I’d always been so careful about not letting him be the first to walk away when I undid his head collar, and preventing him from pulling away when he was tied up or training in an enclosed place, but all that training hadn’t translated into the big wide world. Would Orion know he could get away from me now? If so, I’d never dare to take him to a show, for a walk on open moorland or down a road.

Perhaps I’d pushed him too fast? There again, as Chris remarked, if Orion had been a Shire or Clydesdale he’d have been steady as a rock considering the number of hours I’d spent with him.

Orion earned his keep asa companion
Croix de Guerre was lame for a couple of weeks during August, and he hates being left alone, so Orion earned his keep as a companion when we took the other horses out for a ride.

Talking of Clydesdales, half way through the summer we had a new arrival at the farm, Ruby the Clydesdale, so Orion had three friends in the field every night. I’ll write about Ruby in a separate blog soon, but here’s one of my favourite photos of Orion with her:

Orion theExmoor and Ruby the Clydesdale
Orion the Exmoor and Ruby the Clydesdale

I didn’t have too much time to dwell on what to do with Orion in the long-term because I had the first draft of Katy’s Pony Challenge to write, so apart from getting him in from the field in the morning and putting him out again in the evening we didn’t see much of each other. In the back of my mind I was worried, though.

As I wrote about Katy:

It was impossible to ignore a nagging feeling that she was out of her depth where foal handling was concerned.

I had a voice in my head that said, “Do tell me, Victoria, are your stories autobiographical?”

Should I admit defeat and turn Orion onto the moor with the other geldings,  put him in a severe head collar in an attempt to train him not to pull away or send him away somewhere for further training? I realised we didn’t have ideal facilities for pony training (a cow shed in the summer, some large fields and a vast expanse of open moorland) and I wouldn’t be able to give him much time for the next few months. Then it would be the winter, the cows would be taking up all available shed space and Orion would have to be on the moor or in Rough Field with his sisters on the far side of the farm. Next year he’d be four and we’d be no further forward . . . If I did send him away for further training, it would have to be the right place, with people who understood him and didn’t think he was being naughty when he was scared . . .

I can’t remember why I was talking to Jenna (‘Beansy’) Payne on Facebook. We’re in touch regularly because I’m keeping a retired Exmoor of hers called Eddie (Helmantor Hedrock) on the moor with our geldings and she bought two Exmoor ponies from us several years ago.

Eddie and friends
Eddie (left) and friends
Steady Eddie on the moor
Eddie has settled into a free-living life on the moor very well. We call him Steady Eddie because he’s a calming influence if we have to bring the ponies back to the farm.

Beansy and her husband Jon love training and showing Exmoors and Welsh cobs. (Their Facebook page Trekerwys Native Ponies is well worth a visit.)  Anyway, I told her I was worried about what to do with Orion, and she offered to take him on for a few months. I was delighted – I couldn’t think of any better ‘boarding school’ for him.

In return we’d keep two of their ponies, Lucy the Exmoor and Eric the Welsh cob, here for a winter holiday out in the field with Orion’s sisters Dora, Demeter and Gaia. It seemed like an ideal arrangement, but heavily weighted in our favour!

Eric and Lucy arrived at the farm, walked calmly from their trailer and settled into the cattle shed overnight. The following day we tacked up the two ponies. Sarah (our daughter) rode Eric and Lowenna (the Payne’s daughter) rode Lucy to the other side of the farm.

Sarah riding Eric and Lowenna riding Lucy to their winter holiday destination
Sarah riding Eric and Lowenna riding Lucy to their winter holiday destination

Sarah had a broad grin on her face the whole way. “I’d forgotten what fun ponies are!” she said.  “He’s so like Kizzy!” (Kizzy was Sarah’s Welsh cob x Lundy pony – the pony who inspired me to find out more about Midnight the Lundy stallion, which led to the story A Stallion Called Midnight.)

L-R: Demeter, Dora, Eric, Lucy and Gaia
L-R: Demeter, Dora, Eric, Lucy and Gaia at West Ilkerton

The Paynes were staying on Exmoor for the autumn Exmoor pony inspections, so Orion didn’t go back to Cornwall with them until few days later. I must admit I was concerned because they were taking another Exmoor pony called Bumble Bee back with them as well. Orion would have to load into a narrow compartment in the double trailer with a pony he didn’t know. He’d never been inside a trailer before.

I needn’t have worried. Bumble Bee stood quietly while I led Orion into the empty side of the trailer, and seemed pleased to have a companion. Orion loaded without any fuss, and I knew he wasn’t too worried when he ate the carrots we offered him. He was completely secure and travelling with a sensible friend for his first ever journey. His big adventure had got off to a good start.

Farewell, Orion. Be a good boy!

Orion with Jon Payne in Cornwall
Orion with Jon Payne in Cornwall

 

Orion 10: Summer 2014

Reading to Orion 1 Reading to Orion 2 Reading to Orion 3

I discovered Orion loves being read to – well, who doesn’t?

Vanessa Bee had to go abroad for a week, teaching horse agility, so she lent me the equipment she’d brought to our farm. The plan was that on her return she’d collect it and see how we’d progressed. My homework was to do anything I could think of to make Orion less nervous and more trusting, and to get him moving more freely.

(Everyone has different ideas about using titbits as a training tool – some people have strong ideas on the subject! I’ve found that too many titbits can make horses pushy and bad tempered, but they’re useful occasionally. I only give treats as a reward when a horse has done something really good, and I try to give them in a bucket rather than by hand. When I was out walking with Orion I sometimes pulled some grass for him to eat. Chewing seemed to help him relax. I saved treats like pieces of apple for the end of a training session or when he was very good.)

Orion came in every day but went out in the field at night with Tempo and Croix de Guerre.
Orion came in every day but went out in the field at night with Tempo and Croix de Guerre.

This is what I did with Orion in the days after Vanessa left:

I sat in the barn with him a read him some books. He really enjoyed that, and stood as close as possible. If he could have sat on my lap to look at the book with me, I think he would have! I was with him but not concentrating on him, he was free to come and go as he pleased and I wasn’t expecting anything of him. His attitude towards me started to change from wary to accepting. (There are photos at the top of the page.)

At Vanessa’s suggestion, I left safe obstacles like the tarpaulin, hoops and cones in with Orion. This gave him a chance to explore them by himself. He particularly liked playing with the cones, and carried them between his teeth to rearrange them!

Orion guarding his cone arrangement
Orion guarding his cone arrangement

One of my attempts to allow him to explore a new thing had unintended consequences. I bought a large yellow flag with a smiley face on it, and draped it over the gate so he could investigate it. Horses often explore new objects with their mouths, and unfortunately that’s just what Orion did. He picked the corner of the flag up with his teeth and pulled back in alarm when it slid off the gate. As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, he clamps his jaw tight when he’s nervous or frightened, so the flag stayed firmly between his teeth as he bolted around the barn with the flag flapping all around him – sometimes over his head so he couldn’t see anything. I held my breath, waiting for him to crash into something or try to jump the barriers, but after several laps he slowed to a trot, then a walk, and stopped. I think he’d worked out fairly quickly that if he slowed down the flag didn’t flap so much. Eventually his jaw relaxed and the flag sank limply onto the straw. Orion nudged it, pawed at it and then walked away looking embarrassed. He didn’t mind flags after that. (I never left him alone with flags, as he could have hurt himself on the poles.)

Orion showed a definite preference for the Union flag
Orion showed a definite preference for the Union flag
DSCF6309
Boo! Boo!

Friends often visit the farm, so I tried to introduce as many different people as possible to Orion.

Orion and his good friend Flora
Orion and his good friend Flora
My friend Kath leading Orion through the curtain
My friend Kath Constant leading Orion through the curtain

Soon I was taking Orion for walks away from the farmyard. Every time we went a little further.

Walkies!
Walkies!
Returning from a walk around the fields
Returning from a walk around the fields

Things were going well. Vanessa was impressed with the progress we’d made when she came to collect her equipment.

I began to take Orion for walks around the fields, and he was very good. It was still difficult to get him to walk consistently with his head in line with my shoulder, but he was getting better at it. A few times he shied slightly at things, but I always managed to calm him down and he seemed to enjoy our adventures. As he became more confident so did I – too confident, perhaps.

We’ve got a large, long field called Cow Field. Silage had been harvested from it in July, and now there was a fine crop of after-grass in it, so I walked around the edge rather than through the middle. We were walking along by the top hedge when a pheasant flew up from its hiding place in the long grass with a flurry of wings. I must admit it made me jump. Orion bolted for the centre of the field. For a second I managed to check him when he reached the end of the rope, he pulled me for a few steps and then I could hold on no longer. He galloped around the field, his head high in alarm, while I looked on helplessly, cursing myself for not hanging on. He refused to be caught, so I had to go back to the farm and ask Chris to bring Tempo up to the field to acts a decoy. So much for not trampling the grass!

I went to bed that night filled with self-doubt. I really should have held on to that rope somehow! I wondered whether all the time I’d spent with Orion had been worth it. Would I ever be able to get him calm and trusting enough to take to shows? (Not that I’m into showing, but I wanted to do something with him.) Perhaps I should just let him run free on the moor with the other geldings…

Orion 9: Horse Agility with Orion

 

Orion and Gaia had been inseparable from birth, but at three years old it was time for Orion to become more independent
Orion and Gaia had been inseparable from birth, but at three years old it was time for Orion to become more independent. We took Gaia to the far side of the farm to be with Dora and Demeter, and kept Orion at home with Tempo and Croix de Guerre.

I remember moving to the sixth form at school, going into my first A level chemistry lesson and being told to forget most of the things we’d learned for (what was then) O levels. We’d been taught useful rules to get us on the right track, the teacher said, but science was much more complicated than we’d been led to believe. It was all about searching for the truth, but nobody knew what the whole truth was. The best we could do was create theories based on knowledge and observation and constantly test them to prove or disprove them. A good scientist, our teacher insisted, should question everything. He or she should be open-minded and prepared learn new things. Nothing was set in stone. I found this both exciting and daunting.

What has this got to do with training an Exmoor pony?

When I was a child I had regular riding lessons and worked my way through Pony Club tests. There were lots of rules, like lead and mount from the near side of the horse. I did these things without question, never wondering who’d made up the rules in the first place, or why. There was even a correct way to put on a New Zealand rug. (I know because I failed my Pony Club C test for doing it wrong!)

As I’ve gained more experience with horses I’ve learned that rules are sometimes useful but observation, empathy and flexibility are crucial. Good horse people are open-minded, inquisitive and willing to adapt.

This was brought home to me when a friend called Vanessa Bee came to the farm to teach me about horse agility because I thought it would be the best way of building up Orion’s self-confidence. Also, I wanted to learn more about horse agility for the new Katy’s Ponies book I’m writing, Katy’s Pony Challenge, and I always love meeting up with Vanessa anyway. She’s taught me a great deal about horsemanship, especially handling newly weaned foals from the moor. In fact, for several years she ran foal handling courses here at the farm. Now she’s busy writing books and developing horse agility, which is turning into a mainstream sport that’s becoming incredibly popular all over the world.

 Two ‘rules’ Vanessa had taught me when halter-training newly weaned foals were that the foal shouldn’t run past me when being led and it should face me to be caught. I thought she’d be impressed by Orion because he always faced me (I’d never had to teach him, as he just did it every time) and he had never, ever tried to run past me. In fact, one of my problems with him was that he tended to hang back and walk a few steps behind rather than staying by my side. 

“Does he always face up to you like that?” Vanessa asked.

“Yes,” I said proudly.

“Hm, do you think it could be that he’s too scared to let you out of his sight? He’s keeping an eye on you all the time.”

Thinking about it, I could see there was a lot of truth in that.

If you look back at my previous blogs about Orion’s initial handling, he was incredibly ‘good’ in that he stood still for the head collar to be put on first time and never moved away from me. The main problem had been getting him to move at all. I said this to Vanessa.

“Yes, standing still is a common response to stress. It’s a good strategy when faced with a predator. Think about walking through a field of sheep with a dog. The dog’s far less likely to attack the sheep if they don’t run away. Movement excites predators.”

I remarked that Orion had the donkey strategy for survival. A few months ago Vanessa had introduced me to Bart and Sue, who own the donkeys at Clovelly, and they’d told me that donkeys ‘freeze’ when stressed.

“Yes, donkeys are famous for it. That’s why they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being stubborn. They’re actually incredibly intelligent, like Orion here,” Vanessa said. “What we need to do is get his feet moving.”

She began to work with him, encouraging him to run past her and around her.

“But I thought one of your golden rules was ‘don’t let the pony run past you’,” I said.

Vanessa grinned. “Rule number one: there are no rules. He needs to  become more confident about moving in all directions, and this is the best way I know of achieving that in a limited space.

That was when I remembered my chemistry teacher all those years ago.

Vanessa Bee making friends with Orion.
Vanessa Bee making friends with Orion.
Vanessa teaching Orion to walk past her - a lesson he found incredibly difficult
Vanessa teaching Orion to walk past her – a lesson he found incredibly difficult
Leading Orion over the tarpaulin for the first time
Leading Orion over a tarpaulin for the first time. He was okay about putting his front legs on, but then his hind legs became stuck.
Orion found the horse agility hoop easy
Some horses find it very scary to put their front feet inside a hoop (possibly because it seems like a trap) but Orion had no problems with it. In fact he soon learned to seek out hoops, and stood in them without being asked to. It was as if they’d become a safe place where he was given a rest and told he was a good boy. What an intelligent pony!
Vanessa Bee and Orion negotiating the horse agility curtain
Vanessa leading Orion through the curtain for the first time. Note that her body language is showing him the way to go but the rope is slack. He soon got used to the curtain and was walking through it with all the ribbons down.
Not sure about that flag!
Not sure about that flag!
Bending through cones
Bending through cones
David Percy, Vanessa Bee and Orion
David Percy (see the blog ‘The Story of Freyer’) saying hello to Orion. If lots of people gathered around Orion he became very nervous, especially if he didn’t know them, so during the summer of 2014 we tried to introduce him to as many new people as possible
Orion on the tarpaulin
Vanessa left some of her equipment with me for a week so Orion could get used to it in his own time. By the end of the week I often found him standing or lying on the tarpaulin.

Orion 8: autumn and winter 2013/14

Time speeds up as you get older. Anyone who’s old will tell you that, and now I’m in my mid-fifties I know it’s true. I heard a scientist explaining why this is so, and it made perfect sense. The theory is that our concept of time is measured in heartbeats, so as our heartbeat rate gets slower with age the days go by faster. Perhaps, also, that’s why time seems to stand still if we’re in a situation where our pulse quickens for some reason.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is that the seasons come around faster and faster on our farm, and there’s hardly time to do any of the things I mean to do. That was definitely the case with my good intentions to handle Orion regularly during the summer and autumn of 2013, before the sheds were filled with cattle and sheep for the winter. I knew the best way to cure his nervousness around people was to spend lots of time with him, but finding the time wasn’t easy.

Orion and me, summer 2013
Orion and me, summer 2013. Signs that he’s wary are that his head is up, he has a worried look on his face, his ear is cocked towards me, he’s trying to keep sight of me and (this is peculiar to him!) his off side nostril (the one you can see) is wrinkled upwards so it looks higher than the near side one.
My friend Caroline Fardell with Gaia
My friend Caroline Fardell with Gaia, who has always been much more confident than Orion (look at how relaxed her body is compared with Orion behind her).

Orion and his sisters, Gaia and Demeter, had been kept together from birth. Three semi- tame ponies were difficult to get in from the field every day, and there often wasn’t enough time to handle them all, so I separated out Demeter and let her run free on the other side of the farm with her half-sister Pandora (Orion’s full sister) who was in a poor condition having been lost on another area of moor for a couple of years.

Orion, Gaia and Demeter playing dares as Tempo has a good roll in the field, autumn 2013
Orion, Gaia and Demeter playing dares as Tempo has a good roll in the field, autumn 2013

For a while, during October and early November, we had a good routine: Gaia and Orion were kept with Tempo (our old bay hunter) and Croix de Guerre (our grey ex-racehorse) and they were out in the field for most of the day and in a shed by night.

Gaia was always impatient to be let out of the stable in the morning.
Gaia and Orion. Gaia was always impatient to be let out of the stable in the morning. (The mesh looks like a cage, but we put it across the front of the shed so they could watch everything going on in the farmyard because they were too short to see over the stable door.)

This gave me a chance to handle them on a regular basis, and we made progress.

Orion getting used to the sights and sounds of a busy farmyard, November 2013
Orion getting used to the sights and sounds of a busy farmyard, November 2013. He was much happier to follow a few steps behind that for me to be by his head.

Orion didn’t seem to be too worried by the things some horses are scared of – quad bikes, tractors, flapping plastic and barking dogs, for instance – but he was still very nervous of people, especially if he didn’t know them or they were wearing waterproofs that rustled. Waterproofs caused our first major problem. It was pouring with rain one morning when we led the ponies out to their field. Chris was leading Orion and I was leading Gaia, and as Chris reached up to unbuckle Orion’s head collar his waterproofs rustled. Orion pulled away in fright and tanked off around the field with his head collar on and the lead rope trailing. This was too much for Gaia, who pulled away from me and joined Orion. Two ponies dashing around an eight acre field with their lead ropes tripping them up wasn’t a good way to start the day. The next half hour was spent coaxing them to be caught with buckets of food. Talk about one step forward and two back! Orion and Gaia now knew they could get away while wearing their head collars – something I’d been very careful to avoid.

Gaia (nearest) and Orion
Gaia (nearest) and Orion

It happened again a few days later, but this time Gaia was the one to pull away. I decided to go back to basics with them, handling them in enclosed spaces where they couldn’t get away and tying them up for short periods while keeping an eye on them. It was during one of these sessions, when my friend Kath was helping me, that I made my second mistake. I’ll tell you about it because it’s a good cautionary tale . . .

We usually don’t let our horses wander free wearing head collars, in case they get caught up in something. I’ve heard about too many accidents, including a lovely horse drowning because his head collar became hooked over an inlet pipe in a water trough.  Well, after we’d finished handling Orion and Gaia that day, we unclipped their lead ropes and left them in their head collars while we went to the house to get coats. As we returned to the shed there was a terrible crashing noise. Gaia had been rubbing her head against the mesh of the round pen barrier, and by some fluke had managed to hook the buckle of her head collar through the mesh. Finding herself trapped, she panicked and tried to pull away, taking the partition with her. Luckily, she was sensible enough calm down and let us free her, and she allowed her head collar to be put on again immediately afterwards. It could have been a lot worse, but I’ll never leave a head collar on an unsupervised horse again!

Flora giving Orion and Gaia some carrots in a bucket
Flora giving Orion and Gaia some carrots in a bucket

Another person who was a great help was a local girl called Flora, who got on really well with Orion and came to see him whenever she could. Flora’s mum, Celia, was learning how to massage horses, and our riding horses were willing objects of study. They all loved being massaged, especially Winaway.

Soon it was November, and time for the cows to come into the sheds because they were making the fields too muddy. The cows start calving in December, so it’s good to have them in and settled by then.  There would be no indoor space left for Orion and Gaia until after lambing in April 2014, so they were turned out in a field for the winter, checked every day and fed a bit of hay (plus the occasional treat in a bucket when Flora was around! Tempo and Croix de Guerre joined them by day but were stabled by night, and they all got used to the new routine surprisingly quickly.

In many ways it was very good for the two Exmoors to have time off and see people for nice things like food rather than being caught and asked to do something. Gaia, especially, became very tame. Orion was always a few steps behind, hiding in her shadow and still slightly suspicious! I think it will take a long time for him to trust people completely, but we’ll get there . . . I hope!

Left to right: Orion, Gaia and Croix de Guerre enjoying a sunny day, January 2014
Left to right: Orion, Gaia and Croix de Guerre enjoying a sunny day, January 2014

 

So much to learn

Over the years, I’ve noticed we tend to slip into an interesting frame of mind nearly every time we’re presented with a situation where we’ve reached the end of our chain of knowledge . . . We might react with anger and try to force a solution to the issue. Another way we might react is with unchanged repetition, making the same unsuccessful efforts over and over and expecting a different result. We may also act with resignation and abandon our efforts completely. Still another way to respond is with deliberation. Seeing that we are in over our heads, we may step back from the situation and start to come up with a workable solution . . . it’s the last option that gives us the best opportunity for growth. Unfortunately, it is usually the most difficult one for us to choose, because our egos tend to get in the way of common sense. After all, it can be pretty hard to admit when we’ve come up against a situation we thought we were prepared for, but really weren’t. It’s not an easy thing, coming to the last link in our chain of knowledge. (‘Horsemanship Through Life’ by Mark Rashid)

For several years I’ve handled my untouched moor-bred foals at weaning, to get them quiet enough to be caught, touched and led a short distance. The youngsters have then been returned to moorland grazing or have been sold on to someone else, so I’ve never had to take them to the next stage of training. I’ve become used to dealing with highly reactive semi-wild Exmoor ponies or our ‘ready made’ riding horses, but there are huge gaps in my knowledge – especially of that in between stage where most training takes place. To use the chain analogy, I have a lot of missing links!

Orion and his sisters, Gaia and Demeter, are two years old now and (although I haven’t handled them nearly as much as I meant to) they are at the stage where they’re ‘testing the boundaries’, for want of a better term. I can imagine Gaia, in particular, thinking I wonder what will happen if when she gives me an experimental nip or tries to run ahead of me, and I want to be able to show her it’s not a good idea without squashing her natural exuberance.

It was because of this, and because I was so impressed by a horse agility demonstration given by Dawn Westcott with her Exmoor stallion ‘Bear’, that I enrolled for the Agility and Liberty Workshop during the Exmoor Pony Festival week.

The day of the workshop arrived, and I was looking forward to a thoroughly enjoyable time: early lunch with some good friends in Porlock, then on to Holt Ball for the afternoon. A day off. Ideal!

To begin with, Dawn talked us through various ideas, techniques and exercises with Bear (aka Hawkwell Vesuvius). It looked deceptively easy, mainly because most of the communication that was going on wasn’t visible. The demonstration ended with Bear doing a triple jump at liberty, then he was turned out in the field with his mares for a well-earned rest and we had a tea break. So far so very good.

Then Dawn and Nick brought in four Exmoor ponies: Otis, Penelope Pitstop, Tambora and Harry. Penelope came straight up to where everyone was sitting, lapping up the attention. She appeared to be self-confident and very bossy towards the other ponies. My immediate (unspoken) reaction was that she needed to be ‘taken down a peg or two’, as my Dad used to say when people were too cocky.

“Tortie, would you like to come and work with Penelope?” Dawn said.

I climbed over the partition between the viewing area and the arena. Penelope immediately came towards me and started nibbling at my clothes and hands. It was rather endearing. I was used to Exmoor ponies who were much more wary. I rubbed her forehead, eager to make friends. But the nibbling became more like gentle nips and she was really trying to crowd  me now.

“I shouldn’t let her do that. Make her go back,” Dawn said.

“Back,” I said, looking Penelope in the eye and stepping towards her. That would have been enough to send Orion, Gaia or Demeter scurrying backwards, but not Penelope. She stood as still as a statue.

“Back,” I repeated, and this time I shook the rope in my hand for good measure.

Penelope stood her ground, looking amused.

I was aware everyone was watching, and I felt stupid. This had to be the most stubborn pony I’d ever met! I shook the rope more vigorously up and down with both hands and walked straight into her, but she was as solid as a brick wall.

Dawn took the lead rope from me and, with hardly any visible effort she got Penelope to walk backwards and stay a few steps away, outside her personal space. “You’ve got to mean it. Project your energy,” she said.

I tried again, with limited success, so decided to do something else: moving the pony’s hindquarters. Dawn had showed us how to do this with Bear – walking out to one side and asking him to move his hindquarters. I’d seen this, but in my rattled state I forgot about it and tried to move Penelope round by standing in front of her and inviting her to move by shifting to one side and focusing on her hind legs. This is what I do with my ponies, and how I was taught by Vanessa Bee. It works well with semi-wild ponies, as standing a short distance away from their hindquarters is often too scary for them. Just looking at their feet can get them moving.

It didn’t work with Penelope.

I tried again, this time turning her head to encourage her to step round.

Nothing.

Rather than thinking about what Dawn had shown us half an hour earlier, I carried on with plan A (see Mark Rashid above!) becoming increasingly frustrated that it wasn’t working. Eventually Dawn stepped in and showed me how she did it. Penelope moved round, no problem. Oh God, everyone’s watching me make a fool of myself, I thought. I did as Dawn had shown me, trying my best to concentrate my energy, and it worked to a certain extent, but I must have had a terrible frown on my face because I always do when I concentrate!

Penelope moved reluctantly. If she could speak, I expect she’d have said, “Yeah. Whatever.”

Time to move on and try something different, I thought, admitting defeat. So we went up to the far end of the school and I tentatively led Penelope through an archway with brightly coloured ribbons of plastic hanging from it, expecting her to pull back in alarm as my ponies would have done. She went through without a moment’s hesitation. I got the distinct impression she was glad to be doing something fun and useful at last. We weaved in and out of the bending poles, over the seesaw, through lots of scrunchy milk cartons, round the maze, up a plank onto a circular platform on top of a tractor tyre and over a jump. I had the distinct impression she was showing me what to do, rather than the other way round. All the time I was trying to work out whether my rope was long enough and slack enough, whether I should walk slightly in front or beside her and other technicalities. For a brief moment towards the end I forgot to think and actually started enjoying myself, and when that happened Penelope started walking beside me rather than slightly behind. Hmm…

Then it was time for me to hand over to someone else. Penelope looked happier with her new handler, I thought (although my ego was glad to note she wasn’t entirely cooperative!). It would have been nice to be able to say it was because I’d got Penelope going and had showed her how to do everything, but the fact is she knew exactly what to do already.

So what did Penelope teach me? Far more than I could ever have learned by just watching a demonstration. This blog is already long, so I’ll boil it down to three main things:

1) Horses are excellent mirrors. I’d just written about this in Joe and the Race to Rescue, yet I chose to ignore it when it mattered. Basically, I’d decided fairly early on that Penelope wasn’t my kind of pony. She was too cocky, bossy and annoying.

What did she think about me? Probably much the same thing. I was too focused on making her ‘do’ things and I didn’t bother to relax and get to know her properly.

2) There’s a lot more to good horsemanship than meets the eye. In fact the most effective sorts of communication are invisible: energy, breathing and how we feel inside. There was a young girl on the course who was there because she loved ponies, full stop. She seemed to have an amazing connection with the pony she handled. No prizes for guessing why!

3) It’s easy to measure horsemanship by what someone can make their horse do, and it’s easy to appear to be a good horseman (by that standard) if the horse you are handling is frightened of what you might do if he or she doesn’t cooperate. My Exmoor ponies respond to my every cue because they haven’t completely lost their natural fear of me yet. Penelope wasn’t in the least bit afraid of me and she couldn’t see any good reason to do as I was asking, so I felt powerless. I’d come to the end of my chain of knowledge. I reacted in all the predictable ways.

I need to forge lots of new chains, starting with how I feel inside when I work with horses. I need to be strong, consistent and soft, but most of all I need to stop analysing everything, smile and remember how it feels to be a girl who loves horses, full stop.

Orion 7: Orion as a two-year-old, summer 2013

Summer: Orion and friends
Summer: Orion and friends

The ability of horses and ponies cope with bad weather amazes me. If given the choice between being outside in a field or inside in a cosy shed when it’s pouring with rain, they’ll often choose to stay outside. Flies are a different matter, though, and the horse flies were particularly vicious this year. By the beginning of July the riding horses and the Exmoor ponies were stomping at the gate by seven o’clock in the morning, begging to be let in.

We led the riding horses into their stables every morning, and Orion, Gaia and Demeter followed them into the barn (usually!). Orion is particularly wary of gates, after one slammed shut in his face when he was younger, and occasionally he found it hard to summon the courage to go through by himself. Gaia was a problem in a different way; she’d often overtake the horses, then, finding she was in the lead, go into panic mode!

Orion, summer 2013
Orion, July 2013

Exmoor ponies look completely different in summer. Their thick winter coats briefly give way to sleek summer ones which are glossy even when they haven’t been groomed.

Whose side are you on?

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to handle Orion much during July because I was busy writing my latest book, Joe and the Race to Rescue, but towards the end of July my good friend Caroline Fardell came to stay and we spent a happy couple of days playing with ponies. It’s amazing how much they remembered, even though they hadn’t had head collars on for nearly a year.

Our daughter Sarah with Orion
Our daughter Sarah with Orion, July 2013
Orion with me, August 2013
Orion with me, August 2013

 

 

 

 

 

First we worked with the ponies in the confines of the shed – catching them, setting them free, then catching them again; leading; backing up; turning; touching them all over and picking up their hooves. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?! Well, it can take a whole day to get just one of those things right.

Horses are often ‘one-sided’, and prefer being handled from one side or the other. Orion has taken this to a whole new level. He prefers people to be in front of him, where he can keep an eye on them, but he’s okay about people standing on his right (off) side. His left (near) side is a different matter, and it’s taking ages for him to feel comfortable about anyone being there. It’s particularly inconvenient because head collars are buckled on the near side, it’s traditional to lead from there and (if he’s ridden eventually) people mount from the near side too.

If I’m standing beside him and trying to get to his near side, Orion will politely block me with his head. This can look very endearing, as he’ll snuggle right into me! If I’m further away (as in the photo below) he’ll become very tense, ready to flee. Nervous horses and ponies find people much more threatening if they’re standing a short distance away rather than up close – perhaps because predators, and aggressive horses, need a bit of space to build up the momentum for a strike. I’m glad to say that Orion is getting better all the time. The trouble is that I’m concentrating on doing things on that side of him so much that he’ll probably end up with a problem on the other one!

Orion looking tense
Orion looking tense because I’m walking around to his near side.

*Did you know that the terms ‘near side’ and ‘off side’ date back to the days when road vehicles were horse-drawn? The near side is the side next to the pavement when you’re driving a vehicle along the road in the UK, and the off side is away from the pavement.

Funnily enough, Gaia doesn’t seem to be one-sided at all, and Demeter is one-sided on her off side rather than her near side. I have asked several equine vets about one-sidedness and what causes it, and nobody seems to know why it happens. From birth a lot of foals appear to favour being on one side of their mothers, but whether this causes the problem or is a symptom of it is a mystery. The most plausible explanation is that horses are similar to people in that they are generally born right-handed or left-handed (or in their case, hooved).

 

Orion 6: Orion’s Snowy Winter

Orion in the snow, January 2013
Orion in the snow, January 2013
Chris in our farm lane, January 2013
Chris in our farm lane, January 2013

The winter of 2012 – 2013 was particularly severe on Exmoor, with heavy snow and a persistent north-easterly wind. Orion and his sisters, Gaia and Demeter, were lucky because they didn’t have to fend for themselves on the open moor with the rest of the herd. They spent the winter in a field close to the farm. Although they weren’t stabled they were fed hay every day, and they seemed perfectly happy. Their thick double-layered coats kept them warm (Exmoors have a dense furry layer next to their skin, with long hairs to shed water over the top).

DSCF0307

Orion, Gaia and Demeter in the snow
Orion, Gaia and Demeter
Orion and Demeter grooming each other
Orion and Demeter

 

 

 

We didn’t bring Orion in to handle him during the winter and spring of 2013 because all the sheds and stables were full (the cows have their calves in the sheds during the winter and the sheep are housed in the farmyard for lambing during April). However, the three Exmoor ponies saw us every day when we took hay to them, and they began to get quite friendly. By the end of the winter I could stroke Gaia and Orion when they were free in the field.

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Demeter was more wary, and her spookiness often set the others off; they’d all gallop away if anyone accidentally made a sudden movement, as if to remind me I still had a long way to go with their training…

Orion
Orion