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.