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.