My Autistic Unicorn, Felix

My Autistic Unicorn, Felix

I chose my horse, a PRE named Felix when he was nearly 2 years old and still a colt living with his breeder in the North of UK. He was afraid of people when I met him as he had not been handled but he had lived a nice life with his breeders’ other colts. I am not set up for stallions and I had 5 mares here so I asked for him to be castrated before he was transported to me.

It was immediately clear that Felix was very afraid of being touched. He was sedated to travel to me and as soon as he was unloaded and turned out, he was untouchable.  I noticed that even as his confidence grew with me, he was especially afraid of being touched on his upper forelegs – long after he had become happy to have his feet picked out and lower legs brushed. He was also very afraid of water, so could not be washed with a hose as this made him terrified. Both the sound and the feel of the water seemed to frighten him a lot. I bought a hot horse shower and his whole attitude to water over his body changed!

I had already begun learning about using AAoR training concepts for a while before I bought Felix and Fiona, and their early training work was entirely using Positive Reinforcement, mostly at liberty in an open area and always using no force and the work was the AAoR style. I think this is just as well as I feel he could have become quite dangerous otherwise due to his very high anxiety levels

He is hyper specific, hyper sensitive, hyper observant, hyper sensitive to sounds, does not generalise easily, very intelligent and focusses well, a gentle sweet natured horse who enjoys solving problems but is a slow thinker and a bit dreamy but a fast reactor with a quick body. He seems unable to multi task and cant cope with two people working with him at once and is always very shy with new people – some more than others, but more especially if the people want to touch him, or come into his stable with him.

He was amused and not afraid of having odd things placed on his back, big pieces of plastic, old towels and rugs were all fine. I always do this kind of thing at liberty so the horse can walk away if they need to and I am confident he was not afraid as he didn’t need to walk away. He seemed to enjoy the novel objects and liked to walk on, pick up or paw at the things when they fell off. So perhaps no surprise that saddles – including girths never worried him at all.

We began the process of backing him about 2 or 3 years ago, working with me as his ground trainer and Florence, my daughter sitting passively on him at first and gradually taking over riding him alone, but he was very inconsistent with his anxiety levels and after too many explosions putting her on the floor, she has understandably lost all trust in him. I thought of him as my frightened Lion who could not find his Roar, but to try to rule out pain, last summer I had his spine X-Rayed and this revealed very slightly closer spiney processes in Thoracic vertebra – right under where the saddle would sit – but the Vets’ opinion was that they were not likely to be causing pain as they were not close enough to actually impinge on one another, and he showed absolutely no sign of pain at all when palpated in that area by either the Vet or me, and showed no pain responses along any other area of his spine. He does not drop his back or lift his head high and has no under-neck development, so is not a hollow moving horse, but he moves very wide and stiffly in his hind legs and always has done, so is clearly he is weak in the hind quarters and Psoas muscles – which will impact on the flexibility of his back of course. His feet are kept in good balance and his teeth are checked regularly and show no imbalance either.

So all last winter and this year I practiced Equine Touch regularly on him as I was training up to Level 3 in ET and at first it frightened him a lot! I did expect that response with him, so always worked alone with him, untied in a large stable so he could be free to leave if he wanted to as this always seemed to calm and empower him when he was a younger horse. Gradually after a few ET sessions he began to show some signs of release of tension and after a few months of regular ET he definitely loved it He now stands still with happy anticipation as soon as I begin the “branding” at the start or his sessions. I think the ET was a HUGE turning point for Felix.

I had already decided to think of him as my Unicorn and not worry if he was ever ridden or not – I have other horses I can ride so no problem there – but I have an intuition that he actually does want to be ridden.  I decided to let him take as long as he liked and try to help him truly overcome his own fears of being  mounted by breaking the process down into tiny micro steps and not rush him. I used Clicker Training and he knows there are no consequences for saying “no thanks not now.”  I always worked on him alone with no ground helper as I knew that the actual action of mounting was the real problem, and he has shown in the past that he is often confused if two people work with him at the same time.

I spent all of last winter breaking down all the components of mounting into tiny little step by step elements. Every tiny micro stage was rewarded well and well established in confidence before going on to the next stage and if he seemed worried we went to back to earlier easier stages to reassure him. I then could mount and sit on him breathing with him and relaxing softly, standing still for many minutes at a time, and one day he tentatively offered to take one single step with me sitting on top – I let him try it out and clicked, praised, fed a food reward and got off. Then a few weeks later he offered me 3 steps in a row. He seemed to appreciate being part of the decision-making process. Then one day he chose to offer me a series of 3 steps, and we stopped and I didn’t get off and he stood a while then offered me 3 more steps, and in this way he walked about 10 metres with calmness and confidence. It was a long process, but he just could not seem to proceed any faster than this without getting anxious and to press him to do it faster would have been very destructive for his fragile confidence,  I know.

This summer I worked on his Groundwork, he already knows all lateral movements, in walk and trot, and is lovely to work in hand, lunge or in Academic Groundwork, and super to long rein. I have been using an exercise in Groundwork where he was asked to frequently change his bend from QI left to QI right after only a few steps in each – which was suggested by Monika Sanders when she was here, plus we incorporated more canter transitions on  lunge – also suggested by Monika, both to try to release his stiff Sacro iliac joint. I also use larger circles on lunge, incorporating straight lines, squares and ovals, and some collection and extended work on lunge in walk, trot and canter. I sometimes use raised poles too.

I can now mount him from the block in a cavesson bareback or with a soft bareback pad and just recently I have started to use a saddle. He can make many circles to the left or right now and be corrected in  falling in or out with his shoulders, make Shoulder In steps and Quarters In steps on a circle. He is still needing to straighten a little more, but is improving and his hind legs are getting stronger and held closer together, little by little.

Personally, I think ALL horses are what we humans call Autistic – but Felix is a long way further along the spectrum than most. Time, patience, Equine Touch, Academic Art of Riding,  R+, quiet and calm reassurance, no force and some sympathy for his fears have all played their part.

Felix is my Autistic Unicorn, and all I want is for him to him to find his Lions Roar and feel truly OK, while I work on improving his mind and body.

He does not have to earn my love. It is unconditional.

Target the muscles you want to strengthen

Do you want to train your horse to be a marathon runner or a body builder?

It isnt necessary to work your horse until you can see sweat and the breathing rates increase – unless you want to use cardio training for sport endurance fitness –  and cardio fitness needs to be done out of the arena, on a hack.

In the arena, target the specific muscles you wish to strengthen or stretch by using gymnastic exercises such as circles, changes of direction, changes between collection and extension, changes of gait, School Halt, Shoulder In, Quarters In/Half pass/Renvers/Pirouette, School Walk, Piaffe, Passage and Terre a Terre and Levade.

That is what these movements are for.

 

Using Dominance

 

Just because your horse feels the need to use dominance does not mean that your horse IS dominant.

Labels stick.

Horses learn to use dominant behaviours to cope with stresses in the environment or training.

Reduce those stresses and you reduce the dominance behaviours.

Make Haste (very) Slowly!

The horse in this video clip is my nine year old PRE gelding Rancar Felix, who I bought as a 2 year old.

Last year and the year before he was tolerating being mounted (with care) and then ridden away in walk trot and canter by my daughter Florence, having been started and prepared very slowly and carefully with progressive stages, but despite our best efforts to be taking things at his pace, using regular short sessions, with positive reinforcement used generously, he was still tense during the actual mounting process. Our pace of progression was still too fast for him.

He is naturally a timid, high fear, hyper specific, hyper sensitive horse who has always been very touch phobic and sound sensitive, plus claustrophobic and he is also a high intelligence slow thinker but physically a fast reacting horse who is a little weak in his hind legs and therefore unbalanced and stiff in his body  Florence was no longer willing to ride him after his behaviours had her on the floor (unharmed but shaken) too many times – he was showing he could be dangerously explosive if one small thing was slightly different in his routine being mounted.  To rule out pain, I then had his back Xrayed and I was prepared at that point to have him put down as if the Xrays had revealed that he was in pain from his spine, but no evidence of this on Xray could be seen.

So, I have been working on things very, very slowly again. Even slower than before during the last winter. I gave him Equine Touch every week, which at first he was not sure of at all, but has now come to love, and I worked on his fears while being mounted using clicker training and positive reinforcement – and many, many repetitions of the same things before progressing to the next stage.  I took the whole mounting process apart and worked with him unpicking the various aspects of his fears connected to being mounted, and I did this alongside his education from the ground.  In the new year I knew he was ready for me to actually consider sitting on top of him properly at a stand still. I did that for weeks. Just sitting on him at a standstill.  It felt lovely to sit on him and feel him not being afraid. I really love training my horses from the ground, it is so rewarding to work them in this way and he is a dream to work with as he is so sensitive and intelligent, but I knew it would be wonderful to be able to ride him one day to train him from his back too.

Bit by bit I sat on him at a standstill for longer and longer, getting on and off many, many times in the sessions. Bit by bit I stayed on him longer and got off him less, but still at a standstill. i tried to finish sessions before he was bored as I know he does get bored rapidly.  Then one day I felt him experimentally shift his weight on one of his front leg slightly and I knew he was testing to see how it felt to move with me on top of him. The next day I asked him if he wanted to take a step with me on top of him and I let him take the initiative to make that first tentative move himself.  He thought about it for a long time and then he took one step and was obviously very pleased with himself! I rewarded him and got off. We went back to the mounting block and did it again – and I got off and ended the session. My daughters’ nine year old super talented show jumping mare Dragon is the same age as him, and has lived with us for nearly as long as he has – and he is being congratulated for taking ONE single step with a rider on him and not exploding! Horses are all so different! So I am re-building the foundations again after I thought we had built them once pretty well already and of course, we may still get things wrong again and try to build too fast. Humans are impatient creatures.

The bottom line is, if the horse says your version of going slow is still too fast, then you have to go even slower.

My Frightened Lion has found his roar and he is becoming the New King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relaxed Intensive weekends

   

 

Relaxed Intensive Weekends see below for 2018 dates now announced!

Bring your own horse and also use my educated horses to learn –

*Work in Hand, Groundwork, and Lunging in the Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup, (I have now passed the groundwork and lunge test with Bent Branderup) and I am an EET Level 3 so teach Ridden work on your own horse.  I am also a Positive Reinforcement horse behaviour trainer.

The Relaxed Intensive weekends provide:
* Not so much a “boot camp” as nice and relaxed atmosphere, but quite intensive one to one tuition
* A maxiumum of four people only at each clinic
* No spectators permitted
* An opportunity to take time to learn, absorb, discuss, observe
* There will be 3 x 3/4 hour/1 hour lessons each over the weekend, plus lectures in lecture room.
* Free use of stable for your horse (bring your own bedding)
* On site camping possible – or use one of the many local b&b accomodations

 

Relaxed Intensive Weekend dates for 2018

 

30th June 1st July – The Emotions, Behaviours and Training
4th / 5th August – Collection
18th / 19th August – The Emotions, Behaviours and Training
1st / 2nd September – Lateral work
29th / 30th September – Collection

Cost for the weekend is £175
Reservations can be made by deposit of £100

 

 

 

50 shades of grey

Working in the grey areas that exist in between lunging and (AAoR) groundwork, or in between long reining and work in hand, or lunging and long reining, or groundwork and work in hand are such interesting places to work.  Always start with groundwork and make sure the communication is really confident, calm and solid there before moving to work in hand or on lunge and be especially careful about introducing long reining as this can be dangerous for you, and make sure that all the exercises you work in are calm, precise and correct, but be flexible about where you stand to ask for the movements and this way you will gradually build up a detailed description using body language in conjunction with your rein, hand and whip touches so that the horse can gradually learn the language of the aids.

Past, Present and Future

So right now I have 3 (well 4 really)  sculptures to talk about – one has been cast already, one is on the table right now, one is commissioned but not begun yet and one exists only in my head and is a future plan.

The sculpture I have just had cast is based on a beautiful Hispano Arabe who belonged to a good friend of mine, and his joyous party piece was the most incredible and flamboyant Spanish Walk. This beautiful horse has now sadly passed away, but when I saw him make his Spanish Walk it had a rare quality because his back did not become hollow and his hind legs were stepping underneath him while his forelegs were being raised so rhythmically and so high that it looked effortless, yet fabulously impressive. This sculpture has now been cast in affordable Resin and can be finished in any colour, including bronze. It can be pained to represent a particular colour of your horse, or it can be painted in a decorative and non realistic manor, or it can be left simply pure white for a beautiful statement piece for your home. The starting price for this sculpture in the pure white form is £250 plus P&P. It is also possible for this sculpture to be cast in bronze to order.

  

 

The sculpture on the table right now is the FABULOUS Lusitano Stallion “Uranio”, belonging to Sue Whitmore. He is an ethereal creature who is fine yet powerful and strong yet elegant. I first met him when he was a young horse and having visited him again more recently as a mature stallion I can tell you that he has become a truly magnificent adult horse. He has a dynamism and balance in his movement that is rarely seen in any horse –  and to see him move makes onlookers gasp at the sheer beauty and grace. He also happens to be a truly wonderful and kind character too. This sculpture will be cast in Bronze and will have a simple rectangular, elegant base.

  

 

The Sculpture that is commissioned is a very elegant PRE mare, who will be a real delight to work on. She has lovely conformation and is a super moving horse, who I have seen working at my own home, so working on her sculpture will be a real joy. Photos will follow once I have them of her.

 

A future idea I have for later this year is to make a sculpture of a life sized horses head. Imagine how beautiful it could be to have such a sculpture of your own horse in your living room with you!

I already have a horse or two in mind to use as the models as they both have such expressive faces and such beautiful bone structure that they are obvious choices. One of them also happens to be here in training with me too! He arrived here with a lot of defensive anger and fear, but he is becoming happier and softer every day – and he is so wonderfully expressive. The other is Sue Whitmores divine creature Uranio. A truly beautiful Lusitano Stallion, whose head would be a joy to sculpt life sized. I may have to make 2 of these life sized head sculptures I think!

  

 

So on some of the wildest, wettest and windiest days I choose to sculpt indoors and on the slightly better days I work outdoors training my horses. It works for us – but to be honest, this winter I have had rather too many indoor sculpting days!

 

If you are interested in a sculpture, or if you are interested in my training approaches using Positive Reinforcement and Academic Art of riding by Bent Branderup, or Enlightened Equitation Teaching Level 3 Teaching, do get in touch.

or find me on Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/JacquelineBillingtonSculptures

The Three Mees

 

Did you know that there are three versions of you?

The one you think you are,

The one other people think you are,

And the one that you really are.

 

The cool trick is to unify all three versions of you.

 

 

How do you view your horse?

People who know me will know that I am an EET  Level 3, a Positive Reinforcement trainer and I follow as closely as I can the Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderups’ training ideals. Anyone who follows Bent Branderup will perhaps have heard him ask “How does your horse view you?” and this is a very valid question indeed, as your horses’ view of you is the only really important view.

But I want to turn this question on its head and ask ” How do you view your horse?”

Do you think that your horse is stubborn? Do you think your horse is lazy? Do you think your horse is quiet? Do you think your horse is dominant? Do you think your horse is unpredicatable? Do you think your horse is stupid? Do you think your horse is an introvert? Do you think your horse is an extrovert? Do you think your horse is quiet ?

 

Pain can make a horses’ emotions APPEAR – angry, stubborn, lazy, stupid, quiet, unpredictable, dominant, extroverted or introverted .

Fear can make a horses’ emotions APPEAR – angry, stubborn, lazy, stupid, quiet, unpredicatable, dominant, extroverted or introverted.

Misunderstanding of your communications can make your horses’emotions APPEAR – angry, stubborn, lazy, stupid, quiet, unpredicatable, dominant, extroverted or introverted.

 

It is too simplistic to use labels, and labels tend to stigmatise and stick. It is too easy to fall into the trap of over generalisation.

Labels like “stubborn”, “lazy” or “dominant” “quiet” etc etc make a tidy and easy pigeon hole to use, but they could prevent you from having a balanced relationship with your horse that is in the moment. Each interaction must be judged independantly and all of these moments –  if they are managed well,  will build up be step by step what you are capable of together, to create a confident relationship, built on trust.

The emotions behind your horses’ behaviours will only apply at some points while you are together.  Observe and take note of your horses’ emotions when freely interacting with other horses, both at times of low stress with no food resource guarding challenges, and also when there is some percieved anxiety, stress or food/resource guarding urges.

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Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup

 

 

Some of you will know that I host clinics with currently accredited and certified Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup trainers here at my home “Stonehaven” in Somerset.

It is a lot of work to organsie and co-ordinate these clinics, but I do them for two reasons:

  1. Because I  continue to be fascinated over the years with learning to understand how Bent works horses, how his current accredited trainers  evolve and are being taught very accurately and in great detail over time but are encouraged to retain their own identity. This is because he is not interested in quantity of trainers, he prefers quality and this ensures that their depth of knowledge as trainers is kept current and therefore they do not require a script to follow; they are not clones.
  2.  Because I think that more humans and horses in UK should have the opprotunity to learn to this humane, gentle and consistent step by step approach to training and riding horses. There are currently no Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup Trainers in UK.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year I am hosting a Masterclass series of Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup clinics, which will consist of 3 x Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup clinics, held in May, July and September, with Ylvie Fros teaching in May and September and Kathrin Branderup in July. The Masterclass series are already fully subscribed and there were sufficient numbers signed up to require organising them to  be run as double (back to back) clinics over the course of the Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays in each of the 3 months.  This will give all of the riders  a really good chance to learn more detail and subtlety with their work and keep up the momentum of learning input to progress themselves and their horses better during this time.

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

I also do have an open clinic being run during the weekend of June 23rd 24th with Monika Sanders who is another very experienced and sensitive Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup trainer who famously rode and adored Bents blind Knabstrupper, Filur for many years. I am now opening this clinic to take bookings on a strtictly first come first serve basis, with a deposit of £100 securing your rider place. This clinic will also be open to theory students and will cost £290 for a rider place and £80 for theory student place.