Tag Archives: pony training

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!

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.