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.


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).


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.


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…