Who would have thought that December would be such an interesting month? I didn’t suspect it for a minute! That was until I listened to a message from Adam Henson of BBC 1 Countryfile fame on my voicemail saying he would so appreciate it if I’d come and give him a hand with an untouched Exmoor foal he had which ‘was a bit of a handful’. He mentioned in passing by way of persuasion that they have 6 million viewers so ‘it would be good for Intelligent Horsemanship’. Of course it would! If it went right…
Nine times out of ten my ‘untouched horses’ have been transformed to gentle ‘as if by magic’. There’s a bit of stroking with a stick, a moment of niftiness as you get a rope over their neck and turn it into a halter. With more stick and string niftiness and a plan, you have the halter that undoes at the head and noseband, over the neck and done up. Then you get the noseband done up. Simples! Except when it’s not. I still have flashbacks to the bouncy bouncy little pony at Bury Farm that I was showing for the Private Audience before the main demo started. My biggest mistake, I suppose was over confidence. After all, at one stage this was MY Thing. But to just assume I was going to do this in front of an audience in 20 minutes … madness! I simply didn’t factor in that this pony would have more twists than a tango dancer.
“Early success is a terrible teacher. You’re essentially being rewarded for a lack of preparation, so when you find yourself in a situation where you must prepare, you can’t do it. You don’t know how.”Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Tip: if you’re a pony that doesn’t want to be caught with a rope passed over your neck; all you have to do is put your head as low as you can and keep turning. It makes it practically impossible for the human to get the rope to stay over the neck. Oh and bounce. Keep bouncing and shaking your head at the same time.
So Bouncy Untouched Pony at Bury Farm was classified in my diary as ‘A Learning Experience’. I made enough progress to get her calmly herded back into her trailer and while I introduced Monty for the main part of the demo, IH Trainer Bridget Colston, got the halter on her much more efficiently while she was contained in the smaller space. Her lovely young owner wrote to me afterwards saying what a breakthrough the demo had been. That did make me feel a lot better. Once you’ve actually got the halter on you’re set up to make headway. I’m not sure I could claim the credit though.
My first experience with Countryfile was in 2001 when the BBC came to Hartsop Farm, because they’d heard of our ‘new method’ of starting horses. Ian and Sandy Vandenberghe got us a youngster in to start and I requisitioned a young student, doing her Stage 2 exam that week to be the first rider. Her name was Sandra Luxford (now Sandra Williams). As many of you will know I’ve worked a lot with Sandra since. We joke ‘Sandra came on the course and never really went home!’
I first met Adam Henson in 2010, when Countryfile asked if I’d be up for showing gentling techniques with one of his ‘rare breeds’. Adam’s father gave each of his children a rare breed to continue the line and Adam was given an Exmoor. I’m pleased to say by now the Mental Model of ‘knowing what you don’t know’ occurred to me and I requisitioned Sarah Weston, former IH Trainer and author of ‘No Fear No Force’ to come as an extra pair of eyes. I knew Sarah had done a lot specifically with Exmoor ponies whereas I hadn’t. My experience had been more with hackney/Welsh Cob crosses and bigger breeds. Plus of course, two feral stallions in Nambia which was made into a documentary that’s available on Vimeo .
To be honest at the time I thought it was more a ‘treat’ for Sarah. Her counsel proved useful though as they are spirited little characters. Just as we went to meet them she whispered ‘they can jump like deer you know …’ And as Adam let two of the colts out of the barn they leapt over the full sized paddock fencing and were gone! At least Sarah’s tip off helped me look less surprised. ‘Ah yes’ I nodded thoughtfully ‘Jump like deer don’t they?’
Thankfully, the little Exmoor filly that was left developed trust very quickly. A few rubs on the neck and I’d soon popped the halter and was leading her around. Adam was amazed by how quick this ultra gentle approach could be. It made a very nice segment for Countryfile. I remember watching it with demo team mates and Monty in a Gloucester Travelodge as we were on our travels in February.
I was delighted to have another Exmoor foal opportunity. This time, having more experience I wouldn’t be leaving so much to chance. I’ve learned that while positive thinking has its place one must appreciate the value of negative thinking as described by Chris Hadfield in ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’
‘Like most astronauts, I’m pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That’s the power of negative thinking.”Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
While the ability to ‘wing it’ is invaluable (let’s call it ‘thinking on your feet’) “Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.” (Another Chris Hadfield quote) and so I loaded my little lorry with 15 roundpen panels (more than necessary but better too many than too few). I checked with Ian Vandenberghe and Sandra Williams beforehand ‘what do they think I might have missed?’
I asked Adam Henson if he’d stable the foal with a quieter older horse a couple of days in advance as a companion for her. Sandra Williams accepted my invitation to come along as ‘WingWoman’. The filming was put back a day from torrential rain to bright though freezing. Adam was as delightful as I remembered him from first time around. The foal was in a very big, thick bedded stable with her companion with the top door closed at this stage. I managed a peek in. Full grown Exmoor Ponies range from about 11½ hands to 13½ hands, the majority are 12 – 12.2 hands. I was a bit surprised by her size. She was about 13 hh and very stocky. Adam said ‘This is the foal. She was born in May last year. Oh hang on. What an idiot I am! She’s not really a foal then… more a yearling’! I have to say she did look a very big foal…
The foal not being a foal didn’t matter at all. Just make a note to include multiple sized equipment when going off to work with horses you don’t know. The roundpen was set up easily on non slip paving outside the stable with the old mare staying in the stable, and Forest, our subject, was let out into the roundpen area. We’d considered laying straw there but that can actually make it more slippery not less. We shut the top door to the companion mare as Forest sized up her chances of jumping back in the stable. We were ready to put straw bales at the bottom of the roundpen as she considered whether she could get out underneath.
Once we were 100% safely enclosed it was easier to breath and get to work. She was a feisty girl and I’m pleased I used Sandra’s false arm when I first started touching her as she wasn’t afraid to use her teeth to tell me to ‘Get Off’. Not receiving so much as a flinch from the false arm she soon gave that up. Sandra and I were left with Forest while Adam went to film another part of the programme with a vet. What was noticeable immediately was that Forest only wanted me on her off (right) side. This fits in so well with Bridget Colston’s excellent article on page ?? ‘Don’t push your horse where he can’t go’ although I’ll rephrase that slightly here and say ‘start where it’s easiest for them’. The offside was the easiest place to start from so that’s where I started. Sandra and I had pooled together our bags of tricks. I was sad I couldn’t find my favourite stick with a hook and a fork! But between us we had a good bamboo cane and a useful something with a plastic hook. I have no idea what its original use was. Sandra had a brown fake feather boa in her bag (doesn’t everyone?) Much softer and less scarey than the normal equipment used on youngsters.
It was easy to get her to soon like me a bit as she loved having her wither and then her neck scratched hard. It was interesting she was soon very happy with a rub between the eyes. Not every untouched would appreciate being rubbed round the head area so soon. She’d obviously never been manhandled round her head which was good.
I had a theory about her nearside reluctance. When Adam next appeared I asked him ‘So has she had any experience with people at all?’ ‘Only for her injections’. ‘Ah, and that would have been on the nearside’ ‘Hold on’ he said ‘the vet’s right here – I’ll ask him – that’s right, near side.’ It’s so interesting how their brain logs information. We know that they have to learn to a degree to accept things happily from both sides. It’s also important to understand with horses if something unpleasant (such as an injection) happens to them, they log that in as not a safe area to let people in. At least she was learning from her ‘good’ side that people could be nice. It’s at this stage you start figuring out how to get the halter on which opens at the nose as well as the headpiece from the opposite side. I remember I first figured this out for a programme called Barking Mad. Skippy was a pony with his left eye missing. His owners couldn’t get the halter on because he couldn’t see them so kept moving away. What to do? Turn the headcollar inside out and put it on from the other side. Rocket science!
Although I hadn’t done an untouched or a while I did remember to mark the inside of the halter with tape as while you’re concentrating on other things it’s easy to get it the wrong way round if it’s not marked. I also put string through the eyes of the halter as the step one in closing it (see diagram). The advantage to getting it on right first time as opposed to fumbling and dropping bits, is they don’t get to learn different ways to evade having it put on. All the time you are with your horse you are teaching him (or her) whether you mean to be or not. The sooner they learn that when you approach with a halter it gently goes on their head the less stress for both of you.
In fact, I soon able to get Forest’s halter on the ‘normal’ way as she quickly became so good around her head. When Adam came back and saw her with her halter on he was effusive in his praise. It’s best way to start early leading in a small circle to make it easy and avoid rearing. I’d got her to a stage that if I put some pressure on the halter, she’d resist a bit and then shuffle half a step and then I’d give her a complete release for half a minute for her to process and then I’d do a little again. When Adam was came back to us and asked me some questions and then I said ‘oh here would you like to have a go at leading her’. I was expecting a shuffle at best – this was still a very early stage. She went round for him like she’d had several days training. Adam was amazed. Actually I was quite amazed too!
A very nice part of my work with Forest, which was just for me as the camera was on the stable door, was when Adam opened the stable door so Forest could go back to her companion. Previously she’d considered jumping the stable door to get back to the companion and I was thinking there could be an explosion now. But Adam opened the door wide and as I undid Forest’s halter she stayed with me momentarily and walked back into the stable with a whole new level of sophistication.
We had planned a lot to fit in one of the shortest days of the year. The drone shot is a whole new level of filming with which I’m unfamiliar. On this day only one camera was used at ground level, so for instance, I’d greet Adam and make some intelligent conversation and then they’d say ‘OK so we just filmed Adam then so can you say what you did again but just leave out that bit you said in the middle’. This time my answer would be less intelligent and natural and then it would be ‘OK and now can you have that conversation again for the drone shot’ by which time my answer would be completely unintelligible. So that’s my story as to why I might come across on camera somewhat bemused at times. And Sandra Williams will back me up. Because she’s my friend.
“It’s not enough to shelve your own competitive streak. You have to try, consciously, to help others succeed.”Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
At 2pm after the horsebox was filmed from the ground and then again by drone our convoy left Adam’s farm. As we drove the 40 minutes to Hartsop Farm we knew the light would be completely gone by 4 pm. In the time available I was to run through how to do a Join Up with Adam, demonstrate with an available horse there and then Adam was to do his Join Up. By the time we had been filmed walking from the carpark to the roundpen 3 times, yes, you’re right time was getting a little tight …It became a case of getting Adam into the roundpen as soon as we could. Ian and Sandy had borrowed one of the nicest young horses we’ve used on courses, James, back from his owner especially. James, taken aback by the camera proceeded to snort like a dragon. I’m not sure if Dragon’s do actually snort but he was certainly making an extremely loud noise as well as having his eyes on stalks. At this time the producer (who was very lovely although was more a regular on Dr Who than Countryfile) was insisting that he go in to the pen to film as Adam did the Join up. I thought I compromised well by saying ‘let Adam do the Join up once without you and then you can go in later’.
I have to say Adam was extremely brave as with the big camera equipment up on the scaffolding James remained extremely ‘expressive’. Thankfully the producer thought the better of going in while James was actually going round in the pen. The follow up circles were the strongest example of ‘this human is my safety zone and I’m sticking with him’ as you’re every likely to see.
Whether the programme will be ‘good for IH’ or whether no-one will ever come on a course again as they’ll be convinced Join up is some alternative version to Gladiators remains to be seen. What I can say for sure, is the day was an unexpected highlight of the year and definitely a positive note to finish 2020.
You can visit Adam’s Farm at www.cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk Cotswold Farm Park Ltd, Guiting Power, Cheltenham, Glos. GL54 5FL It has many activities for children and adults and regular fun rides for horse lovers!
If you would like to learn about Handling the Untouched Horse for yourself make sure you book early when you see that those courses are taking place at Hartsop Farm.