The Clinic with Pauline Beulze – Le Stage
I’ve been looking forward to this clinic for ages. Not only is Pauline a natural horsewoman in every sense of the word, she’s also a good and patient teacher, and on top of that she’s a really nice person too. Even when she was staggering around semi-conscious last November after being thrown from one of Alexandrine’s breakers, she never stopped smiling.
Here’s a video of Pauline and her stallion Penn. She bought him last year by crowd-funding! Smart girl!
So which horse did I use for it? I would have fun with Aero, but Flurry has become really naughty doing groundwork. I definitely needed some help with him!
To set some context for his misbehaviour :
Everybody I know here rewards their horse with chopped up carrots when they’re doing in-hand work. I’m no different. With 999 out of 1000 horses, this is great. Flurry is the 1000th horse. He’s incredibly food-motivated and, after almost a year of Equifeel competitions and training, he had learned to view our groundwork sessions as food-fests.
Initially, it was annoying but not worrying. He’d start whickering as soon as my hand neared my pocket, and eagerly snatch his reward as soon as it neared his face. But he became progressively more and more excited – in a sexual sense, too! – and more and more bargy and aggressive when he was expecting a reward. I talked to Alexandrine about it. Use fewer rewards, she suggested. Only reward either when he is learning something new or when he has done something exceptionally well. I think the damage was already done at this stage. Flurry had learned to view our in-hand sessions purely as a way to get carrots off my person. His focus was always “CARROTS? ALL THE CARROTS!!! NOW!!! WANT CARRRRRROTTTTTTTTS” rather than on whatever manoeuvre I was asking him to perform. All notions of respect continued to fly out the window. He started to nip at my hand or forearm any time it came near his head. If I was doing an exercise which involved running while he trotted alongside, he would direct his nips at my shoulder, and he would start to bounce up and down and shake his head aggressively as he followed me. Yes, I told him off, but it had little effect. I stopped giving food by hand completely, but he remained pushy and cheeky. I attempted clicker training. He soon learned to turn his head before receiving a reward (he is far from stupid) but the nipping and the lack of respect for my personal space persisted.
Around the same time, Aero’s in-hand work began to improve and he rapidly became better and better. I’ve said many times that he is a joy to work with – well, while he was a dream, Flurry had become a nightmare. So I did the obvious thing. I pretty much stopped working Flurry on the ground. He was as sensible as ever to ride, so why bother?
The problem was, I still harboured the notion of working both horses at liberty, as a team. A girl can dream, right? I made a couple of attempts to work them together, but it’s difficult when one horse is ‘allowed’ to have rewards and the other isn’t. That doesn’t make sense, even to a rational human being, so I let it go. Every so often, I would have a short in-hand session with Flurry, working on his responses at liberty. The last few sessions ended up with him rearing, bucking and farting his way around the round pen. Give it up, I told myself. This is pointless.
And yet… after our first Turbo-Flurry hack of 2016, I took him up to the round pen to free-lunge him before I next rode him, to reduce the excess energy I was sure he still had. The wind was howling, the ground was partly frozen and, worst of all, the local flock of sheep had been installed in the woods across the road, upsetting every single horse on the farm. He’s going to be a f***ing nutter, I thought. But he wasn’t. He was tense and anxious, but he was most definitely looking to me for leadership. There were no explosions, no drama. He walked, trotted and cantered circles at liberty, big or small, whichever I asked for. He stopped and turned on command every time. He was eager to come in to me for reassurance, a scratch and some praise, but obediently went back out on the circle when asked. Perhaps all hope was not lost?
Back to Le Stage…
At the Getting to Know you session, I introduced myself to the group and explained that my horse was cheeky and a biter and that these were the things I was hoping to improve. I also told Pauline that I’d probably do the stage with my other horse on the second day, because I’d found it difficult to choose which one I’d do it with. I really wanted to have at least one day where I could just enjoy myself!
We were split into two groups, with each group to have a session in the morning and a session in the afternoon. I watched the first group, until I became so cold that I had to move, so I went and got Flurry. The arena is sheltered from the wind on three sides, but unfortunately the wind was coming from the South – the open side – and it was bitterly cold.
A couple of horses in the first group were on their toes, but there were no major explosions. Maybe Flurry would behave…
We started our session with ‘moving the horse’s feet’. Following us, stopping as we stop.
Backup up alongside as we walk backwards.
Moving the back end around the front end – turn on the forehand. Move the front end around the back end – pirouette. I was dodging nips as usual, and retaliated a couple of times by smacking Flurry with the handle of the whip, but I’m a dreadful shot and I either missed completely or barely touched him. Then Pauline took over!
She’s a much better shot than me and made contact SHARPLY on his muzzle the first time he tried to bite her. He tried it once again – SMACK – same thing. You’ve got to make it count, she told me. If it’s just a little tap, he thinks it’s a game (think of geldings playing the biting game!). And then you continue what you were doing as if nothing happened. If you want to correct him more forcefully, make him back up – drive him away from you. But then continue instantly with your work, so he learns that he’s going to have to do what he’s told no matter how he tries to avoid it.
The close work continued. We moved on to reverse and advance – the horse backs up as you walk towards it and walks forward towards you as you step backwards. The yo-yo game, in Parelli parlance. Flurry’s nip attempts seemed to have become less serious and he started mouthing the rope and the handle of the stick instead of me. Now I was caught in a quandary – should I correct every single attempt with his mouth? Sometimes he will just bump me with his nose; sometimes he catches my sleeve with his lips, very definitely with no teeth involved. What about biting the ‘equipment’ – should I allow that? Pauline didn’t have a clear answer on either of these. Her stallion, Penn, is quite mouthy too. Allowing him to hold the rope in his mouth seems to soothe him and enables him to concentrate on her demands – a bit like a small child sucking on a dummy! This is one I’m going to have to work out for myself, but at least I have a better idea of how firm and precise I need to be with Flurry.
She watched me doing reverse/advance and quickly stepped in to correct something. Flurry was showing his usual lack of respect for my personal space when he was coming forward and he ended up stopping literally ‘in my face.’ My reaction was to stop him very aggressively, waving the stick and the rope as I stopped. No, no, she said. Stop yourself softly. If he doesn’t stop in the correct place, back him up aggressively. I tried it. I stopped softly; Flurry ended up in my face; I waved the stick and the rope frantically until he took a couple of steps backwards. No, no, she said. Ask him to go back gently – Phase 1. If he doesn’t reverse immediately, go to stage 4 – SMACK on the chest. This is a correction, not a training. Go straight to Phase 4 if you don’t get a reaction. This behaviour must stop. Within two or three repetitions, Flurry had the message and was stopping quietly and calmly about two feet away from me. Result!
(Phases – essential to Equitation Ethologique is the notion of phases when applying pressure. 1. Hair. The horse feels the lightest touch on his hair. If the horse reacts the correct way, you stop the pressure. If not, Phase 2. Skin. You make enough contact so that the horse feels the pressure on his skin. If the horse reacts you stop the pressure. If not, Phase 3. Muscle. A much firmer pressure, so the horse feels it beneath the skin. If the horse reacts, you stop the pressure. If not, Phase 4. A definite TAP, which turns into a rhythmic TAP TAP TAP until the horse responds in the correct direction. At any stage, if the horse seems to be trying to figure out what you want, stop asking and give him a moment to think.)
We moved on to circling the horses around us, fairly close.
Flurry was (surprisingly) behaving himself, but then Zingara exploded and gave him an reason to react. He threw himself around a bit and tried to pull away sideways but I held on and sent him forwards again. He needed no further excuses – every time I sent him on, he bucked, kicked out in my direction, tried to turn in towards me, galloped off flat out, ran sideways… he even reared very spectacularly a couple of times. Unfortunately, nobody caught any of this on camera… I think they were all too stunned to take a picture! Pauline could see that I was coping ok, so she left me to it and eventually Flurry settled down and worked.
I talked to her about it afterwards, and her advice was much the same – keep him working, don’t let him think that he’ll get out of doing what he’s asked. I also asked her about taking him out to the round pen and letting him blow off steam. If he has a lot of energy, maybe it’s better to allow him to burn it off? No, she said. If he was in the field, would he be doing this? No he would not – he’d be snoozing, or grazing. He needs to learn to control his energy and to respect my demands, whatever they are.
Okay. Fair enough. Roll on the afternoon session!
At lunchtime, people were dumbfounded by Flurry’s behaviour. No-one had ever seen him behaving like this before. Cheval de Spectacle! they said. And Tu laisse ton mari le monte? A t-il le bon assurance? (You let your husband ride him? Has he got good insurance?) Yes, I said, Flurry does this occasionally. Today was as bad as he gets, but he’s usually okay to ride anyway! We’d be riding in the afternoon session, you see…
The afternoon session started with circling once again. I brought a bridle with me, having said to Pauline that I would see how Flurry was behaving before I decided to ride in the rope halter. I was with the first group (the reason is too complicated and irrelevant to explain!) and we almost immediately had an explosive incident, started by another horse, I must add, although Flurry joined in with gusto. Jaysus, was I facing a whole afternoon of hyper-idiotic-Flurry? I wondered.
We continued with groundwork in preparation for riding, working the horse from beside the saddle.
This is something I’ve never done and I found it a bit weird. Flurry got the idea very quickly and was surprisingly… well surprisingly excellent, actually. Walk and trot, with me on either side, with him turning towards me or away from me as requested. There was a suggestion made about cantering. Ha ha. I don’t run that fast!
When it was time to ride, I didn’t even contemplate putting the bridle on him. I mounted from the block as usual. He stood like a rock and off we went. Calmly. Obediently. Forwards, backwards, stop, start, sideways.
Good horsey. But I decided that he needed another day of discipline anyway. Aero would be neglected. Flurry was going to have two days of Le Stage.