Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A change of mood, and a little horse tale

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I met some really nice and interesting people today. A local woman came up to speak to me about a wind farm development which is planned for two hills away. (There shall be a post about this later; I need to marshal my arguments and check my facts.) I was working with the mare, and the woman admired her greatly, and of course I could not resist explaining about Nijinsky being Red’s grandsire. It is the most babyish form of boasting, and I seem to have absolutely no way of not opening my mouth and saying it out loud, for all the vulgarity.

At this, the woman walked quickly back to her car, opened the door, and then her husband appeared, at a run. The woman smiled at me. ‘When I told him that you had Nijinsky’s granddaughter in the field, he could not resist,’ she said.

The husband gazed at Red with the proper awe. I could have hugged him. I get this same feeling when people say nice things about The Pigeon. If someone truly appreciates how magnificent my mare is, then I am their slave for life.

Luckily, Red was at her politest and best, probably because I had been working on her ground manners for the last hour. She sometimes can take or leave visitors; this time, she courteously offered her nose to be stroked and nodded her head and pricked her ears and was quite delightful in every way.

It was lovely to lean over the gate, in the shadow of the blue hill, and talk with interesting people about our countryside, and what shall happen to it. Later, two of the gentlemen who look after the place for The Landlord came up and also leant on the gate, and we discussed the farmer, and how hard he is working to get the hay in, how he had been up harvesting until eleven last night. We lamented how the weather is all against him, and contemplated the nuances of silage.

Who knew that silage did have nuance? And yet it does. It’s all to do with rain and the time of harvest and the sugar content of the grass. You need different kinds of silage for milk cows and meat cows. I devoured all this excellent new information with delight. One of the things I love most is talking to people who know the land. I did not quite expect, when I was running around tranny bars in Soho at four in the morning in my wild twenties, that I should end up with a horse in a muddy field, talking intensely of silage. But I am oddly glad that is how I did end up.

The horse work today was of great interest to me. I’ve been feeling rather sorry for the mare for the last couple of days, what with the mud and the murk and the rain and not being able to go riding. I made the schoolgirl mistake of not doing much work with her, thinking she might appreciate the time off, and over-compensating with carrots. This did not at all have the desired effect.

Yet again, I realised I must go back to basics, that even in two days bad habits had crept in, that she was not paying proper attention to me, and she was crowding me a bit. There are hard line people who say you should never feed your horse from your hand, because it will always make them pushy. I don’t quite believe this, but I do think that there should be strict discipline around all forms of feeding.

So, there were no treats today, but a little manners work. I went back to leading her on the long line, and making sure she was respecting my space. Everyone has a theory on this. I find an arm’s length is good. I walked her at my side, with my arm straight out, so that if she got too close, she bumped into my fist. Because I have been a little lax about discipline lately, she was quite cross about this. She tried all kinds of cunning tricks to get round it, changing sides, going behind me where she could rub her head on my back. I kept on, very consistent and firm, and suddenly she submitted.

The thing that interests me about horse psychology is that instant switch. It is a combination of them understanding what you want them to do, and being willing to accept your direction. Oh, I see, they are saying, you are the dear leader, and I can trust you and follow you, and this is the thing you would like me to do. Of course, they say, in their horsey heads; of course.

The other thing I fully realise, perhaps for the first time, is that this sort of gentle discipline must be done daily. You can’t just think: oh, I taught her that, she’s got it, now I can do anything I like. It’s a process, not a ticked box. That’s why old horsemen always say good habits make good horses. It’s not that she is naughty and she wants to take advantage, it’s that she is a horse, and she needs to know the same thing applies every day, so that she does not fall into confusion. (I start to think that horses hate confusion more than almost anything; if I had a number one watchword at the moment, it might be clarity.)

What I like about the natural horsemanship method is that you can instil discipline by the gentlest methods. Discipline sounds like a harsh martinet word, that must involve some kind of physical push or hit or shove, raised voices, even punishment. With these techniques, it’s not like that at all. I did not let the mare crowd me and then get cross and tell her off. The stretched arm stopped her crowding me in the first place. I was not pushing her with my fist, I was letting her run into it if she attempted to invade my space. It only involved the merest contact, but it was enough to show her what I wanted.

The other lovely thing I have learnt lately is the idea of rewarding the try. This is something I have read about from many sources. The idea is that you watch your horse acutely, and the moment they make the smallest, imperceptible attempt to do what you are asking, you reward them. You do not wait until they do the exact thing completely and perfectly, because often they do not quite get what the complete thing is. It is the try, rather than the ideal execution, that may be praised.

I adore this idea. Again, I extrapolate from it the lifiest of life lessons. Everyone should be rewarded for the try. One should not expect people in one’s life to do the things you may wish exactly as you wish them to be done. Honour the attempt, not the idealised consummation. I am now going to apply this to every area of my life. If I am very good, and concentrate very hard, I may even learn to apply it to myself.

Of course, the happy irony is that if you are working with an equine, and you start rewarding the try, they immediately begin to do everything perfectly anyway. It is as if they sense that you are so much on their side, so devoted to the idea of partnership, that all they want to do is please you.

So, once I had got Red into an attentive, polite frame of mind, I did all the other groundwork things with her. They are all very small, and very potent. Move the hindquarters, stop, back up, come forward. She was so quick and responsive and absolutely immaculate that it blew me away. We got to the stage where I could merely point with my finger, with no contact whatsoever, and she would do the thing I asked.

All this might sound a bit nuts, but there is a really important reason for it. This kind of groundwork makes the horse happy, because she feels safe. She knows exactly where she is with me. It makes me safe too, because it means it is less likely that half a ton of animal will knock me over or push me into the fence or trample me. It means I can trust her with strangers, especially children. I can invite them to come and say hello, secure in the knowledge she will not barge them or frighten them.

I know I do bang on about this a bit, but I can’t tell you what a miracle it feels like to me. To build a relationship like this with such a beautiful, highly bred creature is one of the great gifts of my life. I want to share with the group over and over, because there is so much joy in it. And the potency of the joy comes because it is earned delight; I really have to work for it, which makes the reward sweeter still.

I was filthy grumpy yesterday, and got up with lowered spirits to another black sky. ‘It’s going to rain until September, I heard,’ said the man who knows the land. Yet an hour and a half of good work with my good mare lifted my heart, and defied the damn weather. At the moment, she, with her willingness and her cleverness and her trust and her quickness to learn, is my sunshine. She is my very own little Vitamin D delivery device.


Pictures of the day:

I love how Red’s view changes as they cut the hay. Even on the dullest of days, the colours of the land still sing:

10 July 1

10 July 2

10 July 3

10 July 5

It also interests me how the light changes. Those first two pictures are taken facing due west; the second two are facing north. And they are quite different.

This year really is the year of the foxglove. They must be the only things which have actually welcomed all this rain, because they’ve gone crazy:

10 July 6

10 July 7

My lovely mare, watching the farmer at work, as if it were a really, really good television programme:

10 July 10

And doing her Minnie the Moocher amble:

10 July 12

She really is an awfully nice person.

And talking of nice people:

Pigeon, with serious face:

10 July 15


10 July 16

I don’t have the heart to show you yet another shot of the murk where the hill should be. One day soon, the dear old mountain will come back to us, if only that bloody jetstream could get its act together.


  1. Hello!! I tried to comment yesterday on the aptly named 'Wail' post but my ipad would not allow. It seized. Maybe it's sick of the weather too? I was feeling 'wail' yesterday but your lovely order of L'Apothecary oils cheered me up. I like the idea of a box of Southern soothing things arriving in your Scottish domain! I do hope you like them. And that they cheer you.

    As for the horse talk - it's so elemental and right that you can trace the reaction of Red day by day. There is something very subtle in reading about it. It slows the pace of life and makes me notice. Animals are good at slowing the pace aren't they?

    If this jet stream stays I am not sure what I will do with myself. Surely enough is enough???

    Lou x

    1. I am SO excited about the heavenly oils. Tried to order them the minute you were open but my paypal was acting up, and then I got distracted. They will be the perfect antidote to this awful weather. You are so clever to have started this business, and when I am more organised I am going to plug it like mad.

      The pace thing is spot on. She really does make me stop and smell the flowers, bless her.

  2. Tania, if you fancy some horse etology and similar stuff from an old school horseman, with a heavy dose of misogyny and a sprinkle of philosophy and politics, explore this website http://www.horsemanpro.com/training.htm I find it quite entertaining and certainly a very useful resource.
    I noticed at some of the recent photos that the swanky leather halter was replaced by a rope halter - is Red a "natural" horse now? :)

    1. Yes, she is a natural horse. I've even taken the shoes off. I never knew about natural horsemanship when I was a child, we just leapt on our ponies and galloped away. I love it, both intellectually - it is so interesting - and in terms of utility, because it has the most marvellous effect on my horse. Because of it, I hardly need any halter at all; I can catch her and groom her without the need for any headcollar or rope, which seems like a bit of a miracle. I just put the natural halter on when I want to do some long line work with her.

      Shall go and look at that link. Thank you for it.

  3. 'I did not quite expect, when I was running around tranny bars in Soho at four in the morning in my wild twenties, that I should end up with a horse in a muddy field, talking intensely of silage.' That sentence alone is worth the price of admission. ;-)

    Horse+dog = important reality (as opposed to much of the world's other reality). What a lovely way to live. You are so darned close to the heart of things.


  4. Red's view is just beautiful. As is she.:)

  5. So many times I feel that you and I are on the exact same page! And how many others are right there with us, and this can't be a coincidence...lofty thoughts for my too-tired brain tonight.

    I'm an occupational therapist with special needs kids (autism, chromosomal deletions, cerebal palsy, etc.) and I'm certainly not too tired to fully agree with you about rewarding progress at the first sign. It's one of my most valuable tools. I often think about how different our world would be if we all chose to treat each other in the same uplifting, positive way.

    I think you rock.


  6. "Honor the try."

    I'm writing it down (although I think I'll be able to remember three words! Three very powerful words...)
    Thank you (yet again!)


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