Thursday, 24 December 2009

Ponies can be useful!

Ponies and horses can be useful.
To the vast majority of the world's population that is so mindblowingly obvious it is hardly worth saying.
In England it is a revolutionary attitude likely to destroy the very fabric of society. In England, ponies exist to allow their owners to pretend the last 100 years haven't really happened. The British attitude to equestrian activities is the longest running re enactment society around.
Attitudes that would get you arrested in any other walk of life are the norm. Take a simple example, the whip. Take your pet through the streets waving a whip at the said pet, but please don't touch it as I don't want you to get arrested.  Dog, gerbil, cat, giraffe, lion...... wave a whip at it and the authorities will be screaming "cruelty to animals" before you even touch the animal, but if you give your child a pony, you give the kid a whip, to go with the special boots for kicking it in the ribs, the gloves to protect the little darlings hands as it hauls a lump of metal round inside the pony's face.
The Pony Club test children to see they are comfortable holding a whip in either hand at 10 years old. The British Horse Society insists you bring a whip to any exam, and the British Driving Society insist you have a whip in your hand at all times. They are so whip obsessed, they even call themselves whips and are proud of it.
What has the pony done to deserve this unique status, the only animal you can whipin public and one where you are made to carry a whip at most organised equestrian events.
It might make some sort of sense if the whips, bits spurs and all the leather straps were actually necessary. They aren't
I drove Obama from Brecon to Birmingham in 2009, via Abergavenny, Monmouth, The Forest of Dean, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Evesham and on the Stratford Canal to Birmingham. I used a simple rope halter and a pair of reins, no whip, no stick, no violence and in thirteen days never felt the need of any of the stuff considered obligatory by the re enactment societies. Obama is a seven year old rescue pony who I got as a failed kids pony in January 2009 and since then he has done everything I have asked. My only training criteria when I started, was that I would NOT use a whip. Over the year I have increased the use of the carrot without ever using the whip.
While on the road I talked to a lot of people who had worked with horses, logging, mining, delivering, ploughing, etc and I asked all of them if they had used a whip. They all looked at me as if I was completely mad.
If we want ponies and horses to be useful again we are going to need to at least make the whip optional. At present it is depressingly often compulsory. A jockey will be disqualified if he races without one. Why?
So back to using horses.
Carbon neutral, eco friendly and loved by everyone, why aren't ponies everywhere?
And here we are back to the English re-enactment societies. If ponies are easy to handle, easy to train, nice safe animals to have around, who is going to be impressed with the horsemanship of the establishment. The whips, bits and spurs are what make ponies dangerous, and the danger is what makes horsemanship an elite activity.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

What's the point?

This is the opening salvo in what will become "Open Horse", a variation on the computer concept of "Open Source". Open Source software is free to use and free to modify as the writers make the source code available, hence the name "Open Source". So anyone can improve any "Open Source" software but with one proviso, that they acknowledge the original source and make their modifications "Open Source" as well.
So everyone can keep improving the product without anyone getting a stranglehold. Open Horse is copying this idea, and fully acknowledging the debt, and the idea is that anyone can use the ideas I am suggesting, as long as they acknowledge where they came from, and allow anyone else to use them and hopefully improve on them.
The beneficiaries will be the ponies and horses and those who work with them.

Working this last year with Obama, who I got in early January 2009 has taught me so much about ponies and horses. I started with a concept that came from my blog "All I want for Christmas is a whip" and grew into a training philosophy. It's pretty simple really. Don't hit the pony.

But while it may sound simple to those who don't know ponies, to anyone brought up in the "British Equestrian Establishment" it is damn near impossible. You have to have a whip. You can't do a BHS exam without one in your hand. You can't even think of driving a horse without one, and the Pony Club test ten year olds to check they are comfortable holding a whip in either hand.

Somewhere I have still got the first whip I was given. A knobbly bamboo with a ring every inch and a slight curve at the end you hold. I hardly ever used as I was terrified that the pony would extract vengeance if I did use it, and as a product of the very finest English education, I did actually know what a bamboo feels like when it hits you.

So there I am with a rescue pony, and a decision that I won't hit it, which isn't much to work on. And to be honest  I haven't added much to the system. Except carrots. I was coming into Cheltenham, knackered, and so was Obama. We had been on the road for nearly 12 hours, and although we had only done 25 miles that included the centre of Gloucester and we badly needed to get to a safe haven.

Obama was being really irritating, stopping every few strides, and I was leading from his right since I wanted to protect him from Cheltenham traffic. The trouble was this stuffed my left shoulder which really wasn't liking life. We only had another mile to go to safe haven but the light was going, the traffic wasn't giving an inch and I was rapidly losing the plot. If I had had a stick ready, I would have laid into Obama to get a bit of sense into the little creep, but I didn't

Then I remembered a bag of carrots I had ready for our arrival. Why not feed them now as a bribe? It worked. Since then I have steadily upped the bribery levels to my present "Carrot Carrot system."

Basically if they do what you want you give them a carrot, and if they don't you give them a carrot. It started as a bad joke, my way of taking the mick from a clicker enthusiast. Basically I came up with the concept of reverse clicker training. I give Obama a carrot when I am in a good mood. He then spends the rest of his life trying to work out what keeps me in a good mood so I keep feeding carrots. This means that I don't have to fuss with all that timing and suchlike, I shift all that to Obama and let him do the worrying.

The dumb things is that it works. If you don't beleive me, see if there is anything I won't do with Obama. OK nothing that will hurt him, and he seems to object to loud music at Disco's. I thought it was the strobe lights, but I am pretty sure he doesn't like loud music.

I will update the photos over the next few days, and Obama is driving wheelchair users through city cnetres and across marshes, meeting 8 foot anacondas while delivering books, logging, hoeing, crossing canal aqueducts and endlessly chjarming people.

And I never used a whip, Obama never wore a bit, and I never regretted either fact.
So thats the traingsystem in a nutshell. Try being nice. Next I discuss leadership, and that is even easier.

Biting, an update.

Looking back over that August post on biting, I can't believe I ever considered biting a vice. It is the starting point of almost all Obama's communication, not that he sinks his teeth in, just waves his teeth vaguely in my direction. Watch a couple of ponies playing in the field and they snake their heads at each other, teeth bared, ears flat back  and carry on for ages without ever actually taking a chunk out of each other.
The difficult bit, if you are used to dealing with horses in England, is NOT sloshing them one, but if you can get past that, and get into the idea that any attempt at communication deserves a friendly response, you will find your life transformed. I scratch Obama under the chin, or feed him a carrot, but if he connects and I think it actually hurts, which is rare, I blow in his nose or swear at him, snaking my head at him to suggest that next time I'll bite him.
I get through a lot of carrots, or Obama does, and he talks to loads of people, and never snakes his head at them till he has got to know them. If they feed him carrots, he reckons they want to communicate and tends to say when he wants a carrot, but will settle for a scratch instead.
I am learning all the time what he likes, what he doesn't like, and the same is true for him. When I harness him up he gives me the full performance, snaking his head at me, but he knows he gets a carrot at the end, regardless of his behaviour. And before anyone starts on at me for bribery, how many of you lot would carry on going to work if you didn't get paid at the end of the week. If your boss knew he could get a pony for three or four carrots a day, I'm not sure how long you would still be employed.
Some photos of Obama will be up soon,  so keep an eye on this space, and if you have any questions I am happy to provide an opinionated, contentious response.

Simon Mulholland is back!

Please go to , my new website covering the saddlechariot/iBex and it's uses. This is where you will also find links to all my articles on training, safety, vehicle design and even the weird stuff on cooking and politics.
My new contact details are
and my phone number is +44 7510 736 518

Whether you consider this good news is another matter.
The Saddlechariot is available from Nick Sanders at or google rowanoak and saddlechariot. The past history of the saddlechariot is my problem and I can be contacted via
For anyone interested in the philosophy of design, invention, training etc. I am probably worth talking to.

This is really to announce that I will be back in a few days blogging on 2009 and what I have learned, pictures and updates on a really radical new vehicle, a new pony training system and its relevance to carbon neutral agriculture, transport, fun etc.

I will probably annoy a whole new group of people, but we will all have to learn to live with it.

The next posts are going to be about spending a year with Obama, what I have learned, what I have thought about, and what I am going to do about it.

You have been warned.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Obama has been biting me a bit, (what an exquisite play on words), and as with so much that Obama has taught me, it has taken time for the lesson to sink in. Ponies can't talk but if they want to communicate, a nip is a perfectly valid communication.
i am still scratching the scab where Obama bit me pretty hard on the arm, and unusually, refused to let go. I punched him fairly hard on the cheekbone because punching really hard on the cheekbone is stunningly painful for the person doing it. Obama did let go, and looked mildly guilty as I swore at him, but then I started thinking. It was raining hard, I had hauled him out of a barn where Cally, his latest girlfriend, is in season, and dragged him out to the field to hook up a prototype hoe for clearing the wheeltracks of corn spurry. I was trying to drive this rig, on my own through 5,000 soggy brassicas without Obama succumbing to the temptation to eat them or wander off track. So I was in a pretty vile mood and by the end of the first row when I realised my new prototype didn't work, Obama decided to but in with his opinion, and bit me.
Whose fault was it?
Mine, and Obama was telling me, in clear and concise language (horse) what he thought of it so far. As I nursed my bruised knuckles I realised the answer and gave Obama a carrot. Now when he nips me, i check his harness, check the equipment and once I have straightened the saddle, or whatever it is that is upsetting Obama, i give him another carrot and we carry on working.
Ami I rewarding vice, or rewarding communication. I do ensure that the carrot comes a lot faster if the nip is gentle. So we learn together that what traditionally is referred to as a vice, is communication. Don't punish any attempt to communicate. I now regret swearing at Obama for kicking me.

Sunday, 2 August 2009


Location, location, location, and no this isn't some ghastly property program, but a simple analysis of leadership as a tool of horsemanship. This applies to a whole raft of other disciplines, but not to everything so I am definitely sticking to horsemanship which I am beginning to understand.
Leadership is great as long as you understand the word. You lead from in front. You can follow from behind or you can drive or you can chase, you can sneak up and you can stalk, and I am well aware of other activities but this is a blog that might be read by anyone so I want to keep the tone reasonably pure.
Politicians get on top, as do Generals and you can order, subdue, squash, boss, bully and defecate on, from on top, but unless you can fly, you can't lead upwards.
Leadership works with soldiers and horses for the same reasons. The first person into the new situation is going to get whatever trouble is lurking there. If we work on the lion/zebra analogy as the wild equid with which most of us are most familiar, when a zebra goes through a narrow gap between thornbushes, there is a horrible risk that a lion or two is lurking out of sight. The zebra with the courage to lead the way, deserves whatever perks he earns, because if he is wrong, he is dead.
Not only is he dead, but he is almost certainly the ONLY casualty. Lions kill one meal at time. Soldiers following a brave leader are far more likely to die than a zebra following another zebra, because basically, people are an awful lot nastier than lions. This doesn't mean soldiers are nastier, but the people who direct what soldiers do, load them with weapons that will wipe out larger and larger numbers of their fellow men, while being incredibly careful to stay well out of the way of the faintest risk of meeting the weapons they have so enthusiastically supported, those people are nastier.
So leadership, is done from in front, and it works because it demonstrates your courage.
Courage is another of those misunderstood concepts. Courage is NOT necessary for horsemanship, it is necessary for upper class twit horsemanship because upperclass twit horsemanship developed as a way of showing you were a member of the ruling classes, and in those days, ruling and leadership of men, were pretty similar.
The Earl of Cardigan rode at the head of the Light Brigade down the North Valley at Balaclava in a stunning display of courage which just happened to be an equally impressive display of outright stupidity. But in Cardigan's defence, he knew he was risking his life, and still went.
To impress men, you need courage, and in a modern army, intelligence. Soldiers will no longer lay down their lives for an upper class twit walking into the valley of death. Instead they are sent by a bunch of politicians, to find weapons of mass destruction. There are still leaders, but they are a lot younger and a lot more junior, and they lead from in front, and they die because that is the nature of the game.
But horses don't assess risk the same way. They are still looking out for the lion, or tiger, or wolf, the large meat eating predator, because that is the threat they have evolved facing. Today's threats, assuming you are doing your horsemanship in a solvent, first world environment, don't include any of the threats horses evolved to survive.
But the horse or pony is still just as worried going through a narrow gap, or into a new space with hiding places for predators. In the horse's opinion, there might "be tygers". But assuming you have the intelligence of an Earl of Cardigan, you will be well aware that large, horse eating predators are in short supply in the neighbourhood. So you get the credit for being brave without any of the risks, BUT, and there is always a but, you only get the credit if you lead. Back to location. If you are on top, you ain't leading. If you are behind, you ain't leading.
o, to teach your animal that you are a leader worthy of trust, you are going to have to get off the horse or vehicle and lead, from in front, because there isn't anywhere else you can lead from.