I wrote a blog over on one of my sister sites, the Gower Pony Experience. It was about play behaviour in the hill ponies: https://gowerponyexperience.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/horseplay/
Just after I wrote the blog I went out to work, one on one, with a young horse I’ve been producing for a client over the past year. He had me thinking about energy, how it goes up and down, and that my responsibility as a horse trainer is to keep that energy on an even keel. Just like in the natural games of the hill ponies; play ebbs and flows according to how each partner feels and responds to the other. Monty Roberts describes horses as approach and retreat animals. Using techniques that approach and retreat can help keep that energy on an even keel. But of course I am a natural horsemanship hater, so I’m being pretty generous mentioning Monty?
I watched and documented natural horse behaviour before I was ever involved with NH. I never saw hill ponies doing any kind of join up with the young members of their groups. I never saw ponies playing the seven games of natural horsemanship. But I did see play and other social interactions working in an advance and retreat, in an ebb and flow as ponies responded to each other. Because I had watched and documented natural horse behaviour, and because I knew from being a student of animal welfare science, I knew I wanted my horsemanship to be as natural as possible for what sometimes gets called an unnatural relationship – a human controlling a horse.
This brings me back to the young horse. In the past year I have taken him out and about exploring the world beyond the yard gate. The world around has changed through the seasons, cattle in a field one month, sheep the next, the hedge gets cut, the farmers harvest their silage, the telecommunications guys dig up the road, the community veg growers lay their hedge, the neighbours put up and take down fairy lights. All sorts of novel experiences for a young horse to explore and learn about, in all weathers.
Yes I have applied some learning theory so he knows some actions to go with some cues, so I can direct him about a bit. But we have gone closer to natural behaviour. I let the youngster set the pace of his discovery of the world around him. When he was keen to explore I went with him and flowed along with his energy. I did my best to be the parent, and give him a secure base to gain confidence from. When his energy was ‘stuck’ or ‘blocked’ (pick your own description) I went first with an air of quiet curiosity – he needed reassurance of safety and what better than to be a good example. So I never dragged or lured him up to anything; all his approaches were his own authentic learning. He would look and smell and touch, and get to know what was around him. When he relaxed I’d reward him – hey, it’s nice to be out, and move on. When he was relaxed I upped the tempo of our ride and helped him discover the joy of forward movement, and find that bringing him back to a more boring pace could be rewarding too. When he was unsure about his situation, but did what I asked, I rewarded him. With nurturing he became a more and more willing partner, enjoying his excursions into the local countryside and becoming braver and more knowing.
Journeys with horses allow time for nature. Natural horsemanship hater?