Release

Cassie has been sick. It began with little things. Swellings on her face and body. Hives, I thought, a reaction to fly spray, except that they all burst open and scabbed over and then the hair started coming off her face. Then she started coughing. A summer cold, I thought, and I started her on a course of anti-biotic powders in her feed. It didn’t make any difference, instead she slowly got worse, and I watched her anxiously as her energy disappeared and she shuffled about like an old, old horse with dull eyes and no interest in anything. I could feel how depressed she was. Then her glands started swelling up, and I got the vet out, terrified her throat would swell shut, my own throat aching in sympathy.

The vet blamed the bad weather and for sure the relentless rain and the cold of this poor excuse of a summer we’re having would make anyone sick. Arrow started coughing too, but he had no other symptoms and, even though it took a long time for the cough to disappear, he remained his cheerful self. Whatever was wrong with Cassie, it had completely compromised her immune system, and even when she started to improve a bit physically, she still seemed depressed.

She spent long periods of time in her stable, standing in the back. In the evenings, I would go and sit with her to keep her company. Not wanting to impose myself upon her, I’d sit on the opposite side from her, leaning back against the stable wall with my eyes closed, trying to empty my mind and just focus on my breathing. In…. Out…. Slowly. It is not that easy to empty your mind and it is interesting to see what thoughts come up uninvited. Thoughts about lost time and lack of achievement. Of plans unfulfilled. I started wondering why these things came up. I am not ambitious, I don’t care about competing in any kind of discipline, so why do I feel under pressure to make some form of progress? I don’t need to do anything with my horse, but it feels like I should. Because you get asked, what do you do with your horse, do you hunt? Jump? Dressage then maybe? No. I don’t even ride. I just sit with my horse and breathe.

I sit with Cassie and I listen to her breathing. I can’t hear her breathe in, I can only hear her exhale, but if I breathe slowly enough she’ll synchronise with me. Cassie comes up to me and stands over me. I don’t touch her, I just sit quietly with my eyes closed, but with every breath I can feel Cassie’s head lowering until her head is resting on mine. We stay like that for a while. Then she lifts her head, yawns, and she rubs her face against mine. When she starts grooming my back, I scratch her chest. I wait for her to move away to doze in the back of the stable. Then I leave.

Teeth on wings

We are pretty lucky in Ireland. We don’t have to deal with scorpions, malaria flies, poisonous spiders and on the whole our insects are fortunately not equipped with the exaggerated array of weapons that a lot of tropical bugs carry around. But we do have midges. Lots and lots and lots of them. Scientific research suggests that one hectare can harbour as many as 50 million midges. 50 million! The area around here is an ideal habitat for midges; we are surrounded by pine forestry and more often than not the ground is wet and marshy and covered in rushes. This year the midges are worse than ever, because we had a wet summer followed by a mild and wet winter. Usually we don’t see them until May, but this year the first ones were out in February. They hate wind, but unfortunately the wind here often dies down in early evening, just when the midges like to come out.

Today we had a fairly good breeze up here, but it didn’t last into the evening. The horses were restless, constantly swishing their tails, stamping their feet and biting their chests and they couldn’t settle down to graze, they kept moving around trying to find relief and obviously not finding any, in spite of all having been treated with midge repellent earlier. Then Cassie jumped the fence and tore off across the front field, kicking and bucking. I ran outside, was immediately attacked by a swarm myself and had to run back in to get a jacket with a hood to cover myself up as much as possible. I then calmed Minnie and Arrow down and called Cassie. To my surprise she came almost immediately and let me put a lead rope around her neck. She was absolutely covered in midges, it was horrible.

I brought her to the stable and brushed the midges off. Her neck and chest were covered in bumps and swellings, which really worried me. When I first got Cassie, she suffered from sweet-itch, which was treated initially with steroids and then with homoeopathy and I got her a sweet-itch rug. She responded really well to the homoeopathy and she hasn’t suffered from sweet-itch since. I repeat the homoeopathy every year before the midge season starts. The rug has been stored in a bag in my tackroom, but now was a good time to bring it back out. I have used every available midge repellent, but this year nothing seems to work. Garlic, tea tree oil, citronella, and neem oil don’t keep them off either. Is there anything that does work? I am going to have to keep Cassie rugged when the midges are out, it is not fair on her, she can’t cope. While I was rugging Cassie I got tormented myself and ended up with dozens of bites on my face, so now I’m covered in stinging red swellings, but at least I can go inside. No such relief for the horses.

Coming together

Now that Minnie is happy to stay behind when I take Cassie out it has become clear how stressful Minnie’s anxiety used to be for all of us.  For the first time I can work constructively with Cassie in the picadero, without either of us being distracted by Minnie whinnying in the background. I feel more relaxed and Cassie is much calmer and far more focussed and her attention is on me rather than back in the yard. The picadero has become a place of learning, instead of the place where I frequently attempted to fly a 500 kilo kite. Those days seem to be over and now we’re making progress. Which is just as well, because in two weeks time, Alexandra Kurland  will be in Ireland to give a 3 day clinic at the Irish Clicker Centre , and Cassie and I are going!

I am of course a complete clicker novice, and it is not that easy to teach new skills while trying to learn them myself. Until I acquire muscle memories, coordination is perhaps not my strongest point. I have for instance never been able to learn how to juggle. And I found that managing the clicker, the treats, the target and the lead rope came  rather close to juggling, unfortunately.  There are skills you just can’t learn from a book.  To really benefit from Alexandra’s teaching, I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to have at least the very basics in place. Not just for me (although I would of course prefer not to look a complete fool), but also for Cassie’s confidence. Time for a couple of lessons.

Mary from the Irish Clicker Centre has come up twice to give lessons to Maíre and me. The first lesson was about 6 weeks ago and focussed on Alexandra’s foundation lessons and rope handling skills. The second lesson was last week and we refined what we learned in the first lesson and added some new exercises.

Apart from coordination, there were other things I struggled with. Clicker training is not about the clicker. The clicker is just a signal that says; ‘yes, that’s it, you got that right’, then the reward follows. There are lots of times when you need to have your hands free and it is useful to have a vocal bridge; usually a tongue cluck. I quickly found that I was useless. Well, I can cluck my tongue of course, but I can’t keep it up; after a couple of times my clucks deteriorate and start to sound like ‘twugg’,  ‘fwlugg’ and ends up something like ‘blweh’. Very confusing for Cassie. On to the next option.

First I considered just saying ‘click’. That would work. Then I pictured myself riding Cassie out on the road. I already have a reputation with the locals for being half-cracked because I ride barefoot and bitless, so imagine the looks if I start saying ‘click’ to Cassie! Definitely not an option. I decided on using ‘ok’. It’s neutral, easy enough to always say it in the same tone of voice and Cassie picked it up immediately. It worked fine when I was alone with Cassie, but during the lesson with Mary last week, I suddenly realised how often people use ‘ok’ in a conversation and even though I used a specific tone of voice, I noticed Cassie’s ears flicking. I pictured myself at the clinic with lots of people saying ‘ok’ all day long and Cassie getting totally confused. ‘Ok’ was out. I went back to just using the clicker so I could think about it. I have a book on dressage at liberty and trick training in which the author explains how useful it is to use a different language for voice commands, because it ensures that the words you use don’t ever crop up in casual conversation. She uses French. I remembered it after the ‘ok’ fiasco. I think it’s an excellent idea. I don’t even have to brush up on my French; I can use Dutch.

Mary made a couple of short video clips last week. It was incredibly useful. It was interesting (even if it did make me cringe) to see myself and Cassie, because it showed me a couple of things I was not really aware of. What struck me most was that Cassie is absolutely not in control of her body. I always knew that Cassie is very crooked and not really aware of her legs, which is why I had been doing the Labyrinth with her, but seeing it on video makes a huge difference and I now actually think that the Labyrinth was too advanced for her. I watched her having trouble organising and balancing herself and I noticed how her hind legs don’t cross over when she’s on a turn. It really reinforced that I have to slow right down with Cassie and give her time to work out where to put her feet.

I’m really enjoying the clicker training. I work with Cassie in the picadero 3 or 4 days in row, then she gets a day off. I think the days off are very important to give her brain time to process and invariably she shows a lot of improvement after her day off. I keep the sessions very short and if she does something especially wonderful, I immediately end the session there and then, even if it’s only 5 minutes after we started. Little by little, we’re improving. It’s coming together. I have a better idea where we’re going, and Cassie is gradually becoming more fluid. It is changing our relationship too; she is eager to come with me. Yesterday, I moved the horses from the back fields to the front. Fresh, green fields. Lots of grass. It’s their favourite area, they much prefer it there. But today, when I walked up and called, Cassie came without hesitation. She lowered her head so I could put the head collar on and calmly walked beside me without a backward glance. Behind us, Minnie and Arrow continued grazing, unperturbed by Cassie’s leaving, confident that she would be back. Such peace!

Balance and bend – the labyrinth

One of my favourite ground exercises is the Tellington Labyrinth. The labyrinth is a great way to assess your horse’s range of motion and agility, it helps a horse to focus and pay attention to you, it improves balance and coordination, and they enjoy it. I have used it with Minnie, who is very nervous and high-headed at the best of times, but the labyrinth really helps her to relax and come back down to earth. What I also really like about the labyrinth is the way horses have to bend their body to negotiate the turns. They gain flexibility, but more importantly it helps to straighten a crooked horse. Minnie, who used to stand with her right front leg slightly forward, now always stands square in front. It is interesting that a form of the labyrinth is now routinely used as an obstacle in sports like TREC and Horse Agility, although the object there is to lead your horse through without knocking any poles.

The labyrinth is basically an S-bend, and to make it you ideally need 6 12 ft poles. The poles are spaced 4 ft apart and the openings are also 4 ft wide. According to the official instructions, you have to lay it out in such a way that you enter on a bend, so the opening is on the short side, not on the long side. There are clear pictures in Linda’s book “The Ultimate Horse Behaviour and Training Book”. If you don’t have poles you can use anything to lay it out, even rope is suggested, although I wouldn’t like that. I have used 4 poles for the inside and 2 PVC pipes that were left over when the electricity cable was buried. If I had a place where I could leave it laid out like that year round, I would.

Cassie is a very crooked horse. She is left-bend, so the muscles on the left side of her body are short and stiff, and the muscles on the right side of her body are long and weak. Cassie will invariably stand with her left front leg back. When she lies down she prefers to lie on her right side. Apart from being crooked Cassie is also unbalanced and she often doesn’t seem to know where her feet are. Well, she does have very long legs.. A horse that is unbalanced in their body is also unbalanced emotionally and mentally, because their mental and physical state are so closely connected. So when I started to do some straightness exercises with her last summer, it came as no surprise that temper tantrums and volatile behaviour would generally happen on the right rein. Cassie does not like bending her body to the right.

The past couple of months during her rehab I stuck to the recommended straight lines, so I walked her in-hand on the road, and Cassie didn’t have to do any bending.  Until now. Last week I was trying to think of other things I could do to help Cassie relax and start breathing properly,  things that would keep her in a thinking frame of mind and not trigger flight mode and that’s when I thought of the labyrinth again. So I set it up and took Cassie into the picadero. The labyrinth is in the middle, and I decided to walk around a couple of times on both hands as a kind of warm up. I started leading her from the left on the left rein first. That went fine, Cassie was totally relaxed and stayed nicely at my shoulder the whole time, not a trace of spookiness, so I walked across to change direction and I was just thinking how wonderful that giving them free access to the picadero at all times had worked so well when the whole thing fell apart and I spent the next few moments sand-skiing. And it was so helpful that Minnie was whinnying loudly from the stable the whole time! Anyway, skiing over I thought we had enough of a warm-up and led her into the labyrinth. The first time was not a success; I led her from the side and she just went straight on instead of turning as we came in, kicking the poles out of alignment. I decided to try walking backwards myself and let her follow me. And that was it. She calmed down and followed me around without touching the poles, eyes intent on me and we were both breathing again! Not that it was pretty; she was as stiff as a plank and she more or less crow hopped through the turns, but she was calm and relaxed and focussed.

It will take a while before Cassie will be able to do the turns properly, and I’ve actually put the poles a little bit further apart than 4 ft, but we’re having fun with the labyrinth. Linda Tellington has devised many different ways of leading a horse, with different ways to hold the lead and the stick, but I normally don’t use a stick because I actually hate having it in my hand. I just do my own thing, without stick. We walk through it really slowly and after negotiating a turn, we do a bit of a Cha Cha; two steps forward, one step back, pause and move on. I also lead her across the poles, either the four ground poles or the two electricity pipes which are higher, so that gives us a bit of variation too.  It’s a good work-out. When we’ve finished I take her head collar off so Cassie can roll if she wants to, but often she just stays with me. Which is very nice!

Linda over at Beautiful Mustang has an interesting post on labyrinths here.

Breathe

Minnie has always been easy for me. When I first saw her something clicked, and it was as if I recognised her. I always knew instinctively what she needed from me and Minnie was so tuned in that she would move on a thought. I have often mentioned here that on the whole Minnie is not an affectionate horse. She comes across as aloof, she does not really like being touched and she is very protective of her own space. For other people Minnie can be a bit daunting, but she suits me, we complement each other.

Cassie is different. When I first went to see her I already knew that I wanted her and I love her to bits, but I struggle with her. Cassie has been with me for two years now and so far I haven’t done a lot with her. Initially I felt that what she needed most was time off. She was fairly traumatised when she came to me and had a worrying habit of rearing when things got too much for her. I decided that the most important thing was for her to learn to trust me, so I spent a lot of time with her doing nothing, just being around quietly, and it helped. That first summer I rode her only occasionally. Then we transitioned to barefoot followed by a very severe winter, so there was not much we could do and hardly any riding at all. Last summer I had just started to work with her when Cassie got injured and she had another 6 months off.

So Cassie is still almost as green as she was when I got her two years ago, and although I know her much better now and there is a deep bond of trust between us, I still found it difficult to work with her. One of the biggest problems is that there is a very fine line between impulsion and explosion. I couldn’t seem to get the balance right and find a way of teaching Cassie without her flying off the handle. I didn’t understand it. Cassie is very introverted and sensitive, so I wondered if I was putting too much pressure on her without realising it. The other thing was that I couldn’t figure out what Cassie actually enjoys doing and what motivates her. Except food maybe. That turned me to clicker training. Just as well, because I’ve been blind.

Cassie is very clever, so it didn’t surprise me that she understood the concept of clicker training immediately. But it was Minnie who seemed to be really getting it and soon she was miles ahead of Cassie. With Cassie, I ran into trouble and again I didn’t understand it. Sometimes she wouldn’t move, even if she knew what she had to do. Sometimes she would take the treat off my hand, but she wouldn’t actually eat it, she would just hold it in her mouth. There were other things as well until finally it dawned on me that Cassie actually wasn’t breathing.

I know only too well that what goes on on the inside doesn’t always show on the outside and introverts especially are experts in burying old trauma deep inside. I stop breathing myself when I get tense. I don’t know how I missed it in Cassie, but as soon as I became aware of it many things fell into place. I spent a couple of days doing different things with Cassie; I took her for a walk, did some liberty work in the picadero and paid close attention to her breathing the whole time and I found that if Cassie wasn’t a chestnut she’d be blue in the face from holding her breath.

Horses listen to each other’s breathing and I have used my own breathing successfully to calm Cassie down on several occasions, so this morning I went out to do some breathing exercises in the yard. I positioned myself in front of Cassie, close enough that she’d be able to hear my breathing, but not so close that I would stand in her space. I assumed the Horse Stance, unfocused my eyes, and started breathing slowly and rhythmically. It was lovely. The crisp morning air was stirred by a light breeze, there were birds singing in the trees and I felt incredibly peaceful. I stood and breathed. After a while I could hear the horses coming closer, but I ignored them and continued breathing, concentrating on Cassie. She was right behind me and bumped my shoulder with her muzzle. I slowly turned around. Cassie lowered her head towards me. We stayed like that for a while, breathing.  I began to massage Cassie’s muzzle, slowly working my fingers around her nostrils, lips and inside her mouth, until I could feel some of the tightness relaxing. Minnie yawned and yawned. Then Cassie yawned too.  It’s a start.

Click!

Yesterday morning I introduced Cassie to the clicker. I was never really interested in clicker training before. When I first heard about it, the idea of working with a clicker didn’t appeal to me and I also heard some negative stories about clicker trained horses that kept offering all kinds of behaviour in an effort to earn a reward. Those stories put me off and I also didn’t like the idea of becoming a giant vending machine myself, so I decided it wasn’t for me and I left it at that. It wasn’t until I ran into the question how I could best motivate Cassie to work with me that I began reconsidering clicker training. The reason was that I didn’t feel I was fast enough rewarding Cassie for a job well done. Positive reinforcement only works when the timing is spot on, or you might be reinforcing the wrong behaviour. Cassie is a sharp horse, so it is very easy to teach her the wrong thing by being too late.

Getting the theory by reading is of course a good place to start, and I read a lot of useful stuff that I liked, but a pound of practice is worth more than a ton of theory. Since I never even held a clicker before I felt I really needed an eye on the ground, someone to help set me up. Fortunately, Maìre, who has experience with clicker training, offered to come over with Ben and Rosie to show me how to get started. There are two ways to start with clicker training. The first method is to establish a link between the clicker and the reward directly, basically click and treat. The second method uses a target, which is how Maìre was taught to do it.

I put Minnie and Cassie in their stables and Maìre brought out Ben. She showed Ben a target, in this case a yellow ball, Ben touched it with his muzzle, Maìre clicked and gave him his reward. As simple as that. Ben of course knew the game and quickly touched the target wherever Maìre put it. It was great to watch. Then it was our turn. The first thing I learned was that it’s a good idea to get properly organised. I needed to improvise something to put the chopped up pieces of carrot in and it is also a good idea to bring the clicker before you go and get your horse. Anyway, we got sorted and I led Cassie out. I had read a lot about horses having a lightbulb moment when they see the link between the sound of the clicker, the reward and touching the target, but I missed Cassie’s lightbulb moment. The first time I held up the ball she immediately touched it and came forward expectantly to receive her reward. She had learned the process by watching Ben! Clever girl. I have to say that Cassie was better at it than I; I fumbled around clumsily trying to coordinate the clicker, the ball and getting the pieces of carrot out of the bag without dropping the ball. But I have no doubt I’ll learn. After all, I have the best incentive there is: a motivated horse!

Motivation

My daughter came home with the results from her Christmas tests yesterday and they were disappointing. Some of the low marks were for subjects that she is normally very good at, so I was a bit surprised, to say the least. My daughter started off by making excuses. The tests had been impossible, lots of her class mates had bad results too, some of the questions concerned lessons she had missed when she had been off sick. I pointed out to her that I felt she wasn’t taking any responsibility herself. Perhaps she could have spent less time on her phone and the computer and made more of an effort to study and made sure she got notes for the classes she had missed. My daughter got upset, and cried that she had made the effort but that it was all stupid and pointless. All that useless stuff that she’s not interested in and is never going to need in real life.  “Why do I have to know what the value of x is, why do I have to know the names of all the Prime Ministers we’ve ever had, and learn stupid poems that I hate, what is the point? And no matter how many times I go over it, I can’t remember it!” It was as if I heard an echo of myself in the past.

It is a well-known fact that it is easier to learn something when you’re interested or when the experience is fun. If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll want to come back for more. If learning can be a positive experience, then how come the overall learning experience in school is not fun, but something that my children describe at best as “boring”?

It is true that modern technology means my children have far more distractions than I did when I was in school.  But I think part of the problem is that the traditional educational system is still a form of coercion. Students have to adapt to the system, it doesn’t adapt to them. Systems work with the greatest common divider, the school curriculum has to be followed and it doesn’t look at the unique talents of individuals. Students have little choice and there is always pressure in the form of an implied threat of punishment. Coercion can invoke three responses: avoidance, rebellion and compliance. In a school system that means students playing truant, being disruptive or trying to find the least uncomfortable way to function within the system. Some self-motivated students will work hard, but most students simply put in minimal effort. I know I did. My motto was: “Do not do today what you can still put off tomorrow”. That habit of procrastination was hard to break and stayed with me a long time after I left school. I remember that the only times I was motivated to work hard was for the very few individual teachers who managed to make things interesting, like the Classics teacher who brought us Xenophon’s Art of Horsemanship to translate, or the history teacher who sent us into town on a medieval mystery trail.

Back to the horses.  Horses respond to coercion exactly the same as humans do: with avoidance (flight), rebellion (fight), or compliance. Most systems of horse training are of course based on coercion, even if it isn’t recognised as such, but with legs, spurs and whips  there is always an implied threat. Who hasn’t kicked on a horse at some time? I have. Natural Horsemanship and pressure and release techniques are often perceived as more horse friendly, but four phases of increasing pressure is still coercion.

In my last post I described how walking with Cassie as part of her rehabilitation programme has not been easy. When Cassie didn’t walk actively as she was supposed to, I fell into the trap of using coercion without even realising it. But Cassie did. I thought stopping at the halfway point to give her time to graze would be a reward, but of course I was totally wrong. Cassie enjoyed the grazing, but there was no connection with the exercise before it. I should have responded immediately when it was going well. As far as Cassie was concerned I wasn’t doing anything to motivate her, I used pressure and she was having none of it.

I don’t want Cassie to become a compliant horse, a horse that just puts in minimal effort and is zoned out for most of the time. I want time spent together to be fun for both of us. That means I have to plan ahead and think about what I want to do beforehand, to consider what will motivate Cassie, how I can make things interesting for her and what, apart from food, Cassie will recognise and enjoy as a reward for an exercise well done. I am considering clicker training.

I asked my daughter if any of her teachers tried to make things more interesting. She dismissed them: “As if they care…” I thought that was really sad and I didn’t know what to say to her.