Approach and Retreat

Lunesdale Silver Belle approaching a plastic box

Last night as I was heading out for last feeding, I had two things to dispose of outside.  The first was a handful of carrot ends, whose destination was a pony’s mouth.  The second was an empty plastic box of salad greens headed for the dumpster.  As I walked out the door, I recognized these two items provided a teachable moment. 

Lunesdale Silver Belle (Ellie) finds many things in her new environment here unusual.  She’s gotten used to the various machines.  Most recently she found burning brush piles, lit after a heavy snow storm, a cause for concern.  She typically expresses her concern with a loud snort first, sometimes followed by movement of her feet. 

As I was walking past Ellie’s pen on the way to the dumpster, I realized the plastic box presented an opportunity to desensitize Ellie to yet another element of her new life.  The box was flimsy enough to move oddly, and it caught the shop lights in strange ways.  Sure enough, when I approached Ellie and lifted the box for her to see, I got the expected snort, and she backed cautiously away.  She then approached and retreated several times, getting closer to the box and sniffing each time.  When she stayed with me (and the box), she indicated acceptance of this new element of her environment.  She greedily accepted the handful of carrot ends as her reward. 

This short session presented a different version of approach and retreat as a training tool than I’d seen before.  Normally I approach the pony and then retreat at a sign of stress, moving closer only when there is some relaxation and indication of acceptance.  (I once saw this demonstrated when the first sign of stress was 40’ away, and this was in a domesticated horse!)  The difference this time was that I stood still and Ellie did the approaching and retreating, showing me this is a very natural training tool for Fell Ponies indeed. 

In our most recent Jingle coaching call, Parelli Professional Jerry Williams said that not only is approach and retreat appropriate for equines, it is also very important for us humans.  The context of the conversation was loss of confidence after a setback in training or an accident.  We humans sometimes work hard at getting our equines back on track, forgetting that we also need to work at getting our own confidence back.  Jerry said that approach and retreat is an important tool for us, too, and we need to stop pushing ourselves through fear and instead honor that feeling and use approach and retreat with the situation that caused our lack of confidence.  (Dr. Stephanie Burns’ book Move Closer, Stay Longer was included in my Parelli Natural Horsemanship Level 2 pack precisely to help with this topic.)

After hearing Jerry describe the importance of approach and retreat for us humans, I realized I was unconsciously using it.  I had a setback recently with one of my ponies, and while I had worked to help the pony recover, I hadn’t thought to help myself.  I had, however, retreated to spending time with my working ponies who are always there and waiting for me to ride or work.  Being with them (especially since I trained them) builds my confidence so I can then approach my more challenging pony work.  Now that I see how approach and retreat has helped me regain confidence, I look forward to using it more consciously for confidence building in the future.

About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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