Animal training – knowing when to take a step back

There are some days when I set out to work with one of the animals, and from the start I can just tell it isn’t going to work. It could be that they aren’t listening, they’re tired or just simply not in the mood for training – for example some days when I go into the aviary, Beaky (my cockatiel) will come over to say hello and will be very cooperative… whereas sometimes I simply get hissed at as he retreats into a corner. Recognising the signs and being able to take a step back for a little while is essential to successful training: to continue to push and ask the animal will only result in frustration, a loss of confidence and a lack of enthusiasm in the next session.

I would like to think that I am respectful of my animals’ feelings, and Rusty’s agility training is always centred around her having a good time. If I introduce a new challenge, I alternate between that and something that she finds fun and easy. If she starts to get tired, I get her to lie down and have a breather. We don’t train for hours on end: I always stop before she loses interest, to keep her keen for the next session.

Recently however we had one training session that really didn’t work out, and I thought that I would share the experience (and my mistakes).

Due to me being so busy, Rusty and I hadn’t practised agility for some time. This had been a recurring theme over the summer, and every time I had brought out the obstacles she had flown around them as if she’d never had a break.

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With this in mind, I set up a new challenge that would really require Rusty to concentrate and listen to me. I wanted (and still want to) teach her to differentiate between obstacles as she is running, so I placed a tunnel and jump side by side so that I could start teaching her to take the one I gave the command for.

Rusty was very excited to see the agility obstacles out again, and I noticed that once I brought a toy into the situation (as I always do – she picks up speed when I have it) she became very wound up, leaping up at me to grab it and not bringing it back straight away after it had been thrown.

To begin with I warmed her up with each obstacle and she did them perfectly. Then I took her through the weaves and then chose either the jump or the tunnel – making sure I was handling her from the side that the selected obstacle was on so that she took the correct one.

The next step was to stand in between the obstacles and call her to one of them (I chose the tunnel more often because she prefers the jump and will always take it if given a choice).

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Until this point things were working well, but it was at this point that I should have recognised that she had already been stretched mentally and would either need a break or something easier to do. Instead, I carried on and began to move further from the obstacles whilst giving the same commands. 

Rusty became very confused and after me asking her a few times she started to become a little demotivated. She was still very focused at this point, watching me carefully to try to figure out what I wanted – but she was still hyper from the excitement of it all.

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I returned to standing in between the obstacles but she was very worked up and would no longer run through the tunnel, instead flinging herself over the jump a couple of times each way!

Again, I should have given her some release here, but I continued to ask and this resulted in Rusty trying to jump over the tunnel, causing her to stumble over. I felt awful about this, but she was up on her feet again and coming back to me as if nothing had happened before I even had chance to do anything.

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I slowed down and asked for her to go through the tunnel one more time (with more of a run up and handling her from the other side to remove the confusion) and she went, earning lots of praise and treats from me.

I then lowered the jump and calmly walked her round an easy route through the obstacles, before calling it a day and taking her for a relaxing walk instead.

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Rusty and I have had some fun with the agility obstacles since this incident and it’s safe to say that she has not lost her enthusiasm for it. When I feel that she is ready, I will reintroduce the concept of differentiating between obstacles and will write about it here! 

This experience definitely taught me a lot – it’s not something that I ever want to repeat but I hope that sharing my mistakes will help other people in their training. Always listen to your animals and don’t go into training sessions with huge expectations – take each achievement as it comes.

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Wildlife Wednesday – Roydon Common fungi

A couple of weeks ago I hopped on my bike and cycled out to Roydon Common – this is a renowned wildlife hotspot that is just a short distance from where I live.

We’ve taken Rusty there a few times, but have always stuck to the same path: this time I headed off on a different route and ended up making quite an adventure out of it! 

Having crossed a few fields, I emerged onto a sandy track and saw the following view…

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At this point I was a bit confused as to where I had ended up and was slightly worried that I was on private land, especially when a land rover came around the corner. Luckily it was just a couple of dog walkers who kindly informed me that I wasn’t trespassing. 

The scenery on the common was quite incredible: everything is covered with a carpet of heather and the land suddenly starts to undulate, creating lots of interesting features. There is also an old watch tower from the war still standing on the common – it was a little eerie in the mist, but definitely helped me keep my bearings as I explored.

I’ve already seen some pretty incredible wildlife whilst walking on Roydon Common, but one particularly fascinating feature is the abundance of fungi. Having photographed each of the different species that I saw, I decided to expand my knowledge and attempt to identify them.

I use the word ‘attempt’ here, because it turned out that it was easier said than done! If anyone sees any mistakes or can identify some of the ones with missing names, I would be really grateful if they would comment below…

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Amanita muscaria – fly agaric

The fly agaric mushroom is highly poisonous and is a hallucinogen. Its name arose as a result of a European tradition where the mushroom was mixed with milk and used to attract and kill flies.

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Macrolepiota procera – parasol mushroom
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Phallus impudicus – common stinkhorn

The common stinkhorn has an incredibly distinctive scent (when I walking on the common I smelt this mushroom long before I spotted it). This attracts insects which then spread the spores of the fungi via their feet.

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Stropharia hornemannii – conifer roundhead mushroom

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Flammulina velutipes – velvet shank

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call – stay tuned for more! In the meantime you can find me on YouTube using the link in the menu above, and on Instagram (@ wildcallblog).

Introducing Leon

A few weeks ago, I ended my loan agreement with Bob. There were various reasons for this, one of which was that I didn’t feel as if he was enough of a challenge for me if I wanted to keep progressing. Over the summer he helped me to build my confidence up with hacking out and jumping and also allowed me to have a chance to get used to something that wasn’t as tall and leggy as the horses I have been riding for the past couple of years. 

Shortly before I stopped helping out with him, a lady at the same yard offered that I could start schooling her youngster, so this seemed like an ideal time to make the transition onto something more difficult.

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My new ride goes by the name of Leon – he is six years old and is mostly cob, although his owner has reason to believe that there may be a trace of Arab in him as well. I actually helped with Leon two years ago when he was just four years old, but at that time I lacked a lot of skill in my riding and it was a bit of a struggle at times.

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Taking my coat off while on Leon – he’s pretty bombproof for his age!

Having spent the last six months working on my position and effectiveness in the saddle, I considered myself pretty well prepared for getting back on. As it turned out, this wasn’t quite as easy as I had expected.

In the past two years, Leon has been broken to drive and is now driven out regularly by his owner. He also had some professional schooling for a short time. Despite this, he is still very green and doesn’t seem to understand what is expected of him in the school.

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One problem that became apparent to me when I started riding him was that he was incredibly dead to the leg – no amount of kicking, flapping or flicking him with a whip had any effect. Getting him to move forward was incredibly difficult; I tried talking to him as this is what he is used to when out driving and when this didn’t do anything I moved onto growling. He still showed the same lack of enthusiasm when in the school (I haven’t hacked him much yet but have been on another horse out with him – he can be very forward going when he wants to be!)

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Last week I had my first lesson on Leon with the same instructor who has taught me on Dusty. She watched me ride around for a few minutes, before stopping me and readjusting pretty much every part of my body – I’d slipped into some pretty bad habits.

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The pictures below show me a couple of weeks before the lesson, and then me after the lesson. There’s still a lot to work on, but I feel like I’ve made a step in the right direction. 

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Of course, every part of my body is linked and a mistake in one area can create more problems elsewhere. The fact that I was resting a lot of weight in my stirrups was causing my seat to shift further back, so that I was actually slightly behind the movement of the horse – this is a security thing that I picked up a few years ago – in reality I should be more ‘up’ on my seat bones and the majority of my weight should rest on my thighs/knees. I had broken this habit with Dusty and have really developed my lower leg position on him as well, however I do tend to revert back to my old habits when I start riding new horses.

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Lowering my hands is another habit of mine which has proven incredibly hard to break: it actually communicates to the horse that he needs to slow down, especially with Leon as he has a curb chain on his bridle (this is because of how forward he can be out hacking; he doesn’t really need it for schooling). Having the constant reminder to lift my hands up during my lesson showed me how much more forward Leon can be if he is ridden in a way that allows it. 

The issue with my elbows is not something that I have noticed before. I believe that it has surfaced with Leon because he is so green, and when asking him to turn I tend to overdo it and really pull the rein wide with a low hand. I’m now working to break this habit by keeping my elbows pinned into my sides and thinking of the turn as ‘opening a door’ to allow him to step through. This kind of visualisation is used a lot in the ‘ride with your mind’ techniques that I am being taught, and although it may sound slightly crazy it actually proves to be very helpful when I’m in the saddle.

I will of course continue to gather photos and videos of what I am up to over the coming weeks – for more regular updates you can find me on Instagram (@wildcallblog) or on YouTube (follow the link in the menu at the top of the page). 

I write about several subjects such as horses, dog agility and wildlife, so if there is anything that you would like to see more of then please do let me know in the comments. 

Thank you for reading! 

Wildlife Wednesday – grass snakes

(This is an attempt to revive my ‘Wildlife Wednesday’ series – I can’t guarantee that this will be a regular thing but I will try my best!)

We have three compost heaps in our garden – one that is currently being loaded with waste vegetables and plant material from mum’s flower garden, one that is being left to compost as I write this, and one that is ready to be unloaded.

Dad began to move the compost from the third heap a few days ago, but he soon discovered that just below the surface there were lots and lots of tiny snakes.

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Initially my parents were worried that they were adders (Britain’s only venomous snake) but the yellow band around the back of their heads gave them away as grass snakes. Adders have much darker markings along their bodies as well, whereas grass snakes tend to be more of a brown-green colour. (Side note: I got into a lot of trouble when I was sixteen for picking up an adult adder when I was out walking my dog… I probably wouldn’t do it now as I know how harmful the bite could be, but at the time I just thought everyone was overreacting!)

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Once I had a day off work, I headed down to the compost heap and turned some of it over in the hope that I might find some snakes. I wasn’t disappointed – there must have been hundreds of them in there altogether as they weren’t difficult to find at all.

These grass snakes couldn’t have been more than a couple of days old, as I also found lots of clusters of empty eggs. Due to the rotting vegetation a lot of heat can build up in the centre of compost heaps, which is why they are an ideal location for female grass snakes to lay their eggs as they will remain warm for the eight-week period until they hatch.

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The young shed their skin shortly after hatching – it is easy to tell when this is going to occur because the skin around the eyes becomes looser, causing the eyes to turn a milky blue colour.

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The majority of the snakes that hatched in our garden will have moved on by now: some will still be amongst the long grass in our woodland but they will be forced to spread out as there are not enough resources to support them all in that one area. Unfortunately, I have already found a couple of dead ones out on the road but I am hoping that some made it across safely and have now found a new home in the fields and hedgerows beyond.

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(Once fully grown, female adult grass snakes can reach 80cm in length, whereas males are slightly smaller at approximately 65cm).

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I find snakes incredibly fascinating to watch. Along with birds, they are among my favourite animals and I could see myself becoming more involved with them in the future.

The way that they move is particularly interesting for me: there is a variety of ways in which snakes travel, but grass snakes use ‘sidewinding’ and ‘lateral undulation’ more than anything else.

Lateral undulation makes use of the changing ground and obstructions – for example rocks or tree trunks – so that the snake can keep its forward momentum.

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Sidewinding is generally used when there are fewer irregularities in the ground; the snake lies at an angle to the direction of movement, which creates a better grip for it to be able to continue pulling itself forward.

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UK grass snake populations are not endangered, however the species is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act so that people cannot harm or trade them without a license. I was pleased to discover this, as in my opinion our species should be protected even if they are at risk: species only become threatened due to the repercussions of our own actions and I believe that we should try to accommodate for their needs and protect their populations instead of simply destroying anything that stands in the way of our plans and livelihoods. Everything in the ecosystem is there for a reason and removing it for our benefit will usually result in an imbalance that then has some kind of negative impact on us anyway.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call 🙂

Invasive animal species no.1 – the grey squirrel

The grey squirrel is a small rodent frequently seen across most of England and Wales – its lively character makes it quite an entertaining creature to watch and it seems to blend in perfectly in our woodlands or city parks. However, this is a species which is not native to Britain and since its introduction in the 19th century it has wreaked havoc on our ecosystems.

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Originating from North America, they were first imported to be released onto estates but soon spread beyond and began to impede on the lives of the native species already existing there.

Perhaps the most famous example of these is the red squirrel, whose population has declined dramatically due to being out-competed by the greys for food and by being infected with squirrel pox virus. Grey squirrels are carriers of this disease but unfortunately it proved to be fatal for the reds.

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Grey squirrels also strip the bark off trees such as beech and oak, and on occasion are known to take birds’ eggs from their nests.

So, should grey squirrels be culled? There is a law that allows the UK to poison, trap and kill the rodents, but is it the right thing to do?

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Whilst it would aid the red squirrel population, it could be argued that the greys have been here for a decent length of time now and to remove them could cause more disruption to the ecosystems that they have become a part of.

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It may also be worth considering that it is only through the actions of humans that these squirrels arrived here in the first place – would it be fair to kill them because of our own mistakes?

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In my opinion the situation should be carefully assessed before any drastic action is taken. Numerous culls of other animal species have been ineffective so if this was decided as the course of action then it should be carried out in a controlled area beforehand so that the effects could be monitored.

As sad as it would be to see the death of hundreds of squirrels, it could be for a greater good.

 

Sources used in this blog post:

RSPB – http://www.rspb.org.uk/

The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/uk

The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/