Tag Archives: horse agility

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
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.

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.

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.