Motivation – hmmm, at times I hate that word.

When someone asks me, what is your skill, or talent, what are you best at doing? Procrastination – finding the importance in studying people’s food photos on Facebook, studying the back of my own eyelids, going for a walk, washing my hair, anything that removes me from what I should be doing. Give me a full day of lessons, I am on it, tackling each with the same enthusiasm as the first, but give me a tax return, or reports to write – ooooh look, a butterfly….

(My internet lady, who puts all that I write into the website, will know, I have chosen to write this, rather than tackle the jobs that she has given me instead…. The lessor of two evils!) So, why am I writing this now? Well, there is an interesting pattern that I noticed a while ago, and it is still holding true, although I am not consciously pushing it.

When I am in England, I am very lucky to stay in a house belonging to a lovely lady, who is famous in the horse industry. She has been a mentor to me for some time, and other than being a ground-breaking horse person, she is always amazing me with how dedicated she is. She has written many books, and has the discipline to shut herself in her office, and get it done, while I am taking photos of her cat to post on Instagram, and watching the hot air balloons float past the window…. Are we seeing a difference here?! When she is away, I kidnap her office, park myself in her chair, set my laptop up on her desk – and do you know, I get more done there, in that week in her office than in the entire year anywhere else.

Now, as I sit in Singapore, I again stay with another amazing lady, this one not having to do with horses, but a high flyer in the corporate world, and having the motivation to work mostly from home – ya, no, that really wouldn’t work for me now, would it – ohh, another butterfly. And again, she travels a lot for work, and when she is away, I pinch her spot with a desk, set up my laptop in front of her office chair. The UK desk has a wonderful view of paddocks with horses, and rolling English countryside, while this desk has a view of a white wall, but in principle, they work the same.

Now, in both places, I say that I am pinching (or piggy-backing) on their work ethic, their mojo, the magic spell that they cast over their desks and offices allows me to – ohh, butterfly – sorry, allows me to concentrate and get on with the job. I think though, there are two key factors, and this is what we need to address for your riding practice too…

I am comfortable. In a lot of places, I balance my laptop on my knees, while sitting on the floor, my bed, or a sandy beach. Or I lie on the floor to write. Or lean against the counter in a coffee shop. My back aches, I have to fidget. Foot goes to sleep with the odd angle, so I get up. The sun is shining in my eyes, so I squint. Discomfort and focus are not friends. Both of these desks are set up for busy, motivated people who need to be able to sit down and crack on. Take this to your horse – your stirrups have stretched and you just can’t get them even. Oooh, this underwear really doesn’t work (while on the subject, ladies, sports bras please – you need to be comfortable). The arena hasn’t been levelled and has a rough spot that keeps grabbing your attention. There is STILL a chunk of mud in your horse’s mane, just behind his ears. And for your horse? This browband pinches my ears, but I get in trouble when I shake my head. My saddle bounces on my poor back. These bandages are too loose and are slipping around like carpet slippers. The ground is slippery and I don’t feel safe. Distractions at every turn.

The other thing though, is mental. I go into these two offices knowing that I will sit and write. My mind set is correct. I come in, leaving my phone behind. I turn the internet off, sit with a purpose and get the job done. Both these ladies use a timer to get up and move every hour, I tend to let the empty coffee cup tell me when it is time to walk to the kitchen, but my intention is set – I know I will be comfortable, with no distractions, so set my brain, body, mindset, intention, focus, whatever you choose to call it, to GO, and I work.

Again, let’s move this to your horse and arena. You have a lesson booked, or a test to practice for the upcoming show. So, you go into the arena, intending to practice you have your game ready hat on, leave your phone at the stables, choose a spot away from your friends, you focus, your horse think oh yeah, she means business and he comes to the focus party too. It is a mindset – you have decided what needs doing, so you get it done.

If you tried to school your horse, and your mind wasn’t really on it. Your boot was rubbing your ankle, and that pair of knickers really didn’t work. Your horse’s boot slipped so you had to get off to fix it. And, you had your phone in your pocket, and when it rang, you answered it and had an argument with you significant other. The schooling session went to pot, you got demotivated, and went for a hack around the block instead. A few days later, you look – right to the arena, or left to the forest trail? Ah, the arena was awful, lets go play in the forest. This pattern happens for two weeks, you go back to the arena. Your horse’s boot is still slipping. AND now he is stiff, having done no suppling work for two weeks. Give up, go to the beach. You see how easy it is to lose that mojo?

The opposite, you are comfortable in your clothes (a regular bra, with a sports bra over the top works great, ladies). Your horse is comfortable in his tack – you bought him a longer browband, had the saddler fit a saddle and ditched the bandages. You schooled away from your friends and phone, had an awesome ride, and are feeling inspired to keep this upward trend happening.

It isn’t the magic desk, or the view. Its comfort and mindset. What is interrupting your schooling? What is stopping your progress? Is it out of your control? (like a rainy spell, where the arenas flood), or in your control (get that sports bra). Do you need help (give me a call, I travel to you!!!), or do you just need to focus? Are you both comfortable? Do you have goal to work for?

Right then, I am off to file my tax return – oooh look, my coffee cup is empty….




Squirrel – a vital instruction in my arena.  What?

Think of a squirrel – cute little furry beast, sitting in his tree.  He spies an acorn down there on the floor, and has to clamber down his tree to reach the floor, safely but quickly before someone else gets his acorn.  With me so far?

Now, what seems like a great kid’s game is actually a really good way to keep riders safe.

From their very first lesson, riders should be taught the correct way to dismount – take the rein in the left hand, remove feet from stirrups, lean well forwards, swinging the right leg high, up and over the pony’s quarters without kicking him, and landing on both feet beside the horse’s left shoulder / ribs.  They should be holding the reins, still in control.  In squirrel, we practice doing this on command, first in halt, then walk, trot and eventually even in canter.

Chat to your riders, explaining what a squirrel is (in some countries there are none, so kids don’t know what they are) and that at random points throughout the lesson, you might shout SQUIRREL.  When you do, they must take their feet out of the stirrups, reins in left hand, swing the right leg over, and keep up with the pony, in whatever pace he is in.  Start in halt – whole ride prepare to halt – whole ride halt, and whole ride SQUIRREL.  The riders should follow their normal dismount routine and land on the ground, hand on the reins, keeping their feet still, so both they and their ponies remain standing still.  Start this on the left rein, so that they dismount on the normal (left) side, landing on the inner edge of their pony (towards the inside on the arena rather than out by the rail).  Once they can do this, practice on the right rein.  Here you have a choice – either they have to steer their pony a stride in, off the track, allowing space to land between the pony and the rail, or (the option I prefer) they have to dismount from the pony’s right hand side.

Once they can do this, skip out the halt part – as they are walking around the track (again, start on the left rein) – out of the blue, yell SQUIRREL – and they keep their ponies in walk, feet out, reins in left hand, swing off the saddle and land next to the pony, but as soon as they land they walk, so keeping the pony moving.  As long as they keep walking, the pony shouldn’t break stride.  Some ponies get a tad confused at this – a good school pony waits when his charge falls off, and now we as telling him to keep walking when they hit the floor?  After a few strides, the rider can stop their feet, come to a halt, tell their pony to halt, and remount.  This is repeated exactly the same in trot if they are able – very little riders on too big a pony can’t – there is simply too big a drop.  But, otherwise, the ponies are trotting, squirrel command given, riders leap off, landing in a jog and keep trotting until an instruction is given, bringing ponies and riders through walk to halt.  Advanced riders can do it in canter – not easy, so be wary of introducing this.  Why?  Why on earth would you do this?

I teach this for three main reasons;

First reason – its fun, and really good practice for gymkhana games (mounted games) when rider’s leap of at speed to do something (e.g., throw a ball, run over balance blocks etc) and vault back on.  These games ponies don’t stop for mounting and dismounting – the rider’s must learn to keep up, and bounce on and off while in motion.

Second reason – it does help to get over the fear of falling.  If you are used to deliberately bouncing off your pony, the thought of falling off him is less scary.  There are times when the rider will leap off and land on their bum instead of their feet, and find out that it doesn’t hurt all that much.

The final reason though, is the important one, and it can save you and your riders from a very dangerous situation.  I have used it twice in just this way.

The first time, I was teaching a group of 4 or 5 riders, teenagers who I had taught from beginners, all well versed in riding and in playing squirrel.  I would, once a month or so, yell out squirrel at a totally random point in their lessons to make sure they were paying attention.  During this particular lesson, I saw a strange grey, foggy looking cloud coming over the arena as we were working.  A few seconds later, I realised that this cloud was actually an enormous swarm of bees on the move.  This could have been a disaster – if that swarm had dropped down and started to sting horses with kids on board…  I dread to think what could have happened.  Squirrel – everyone was off, jogging as their horses trotted, bringing them back to walk and then halt, and looking expectantly as they all thought this was the game.  We all stood still, watched the bees fly overhead, and once they had all safely passed, hopped back on and continued our lesson.

The second time, was a semi private lesson with two riders.  One was on a young horse, who was wearing a running martingale.  Now, this bit of kit has rings that run loosely up and down the reins.  This young horse had a habit of playing with his chin and bouncing his head, trying to catch anything he could in his mouth to chew it.  We were walking on a long rein to give the horses a breather, when he started to play with his bit.  In this fuss, fuss, fuss with his mouth, he managed to hook one of the rings of his martingale onto his tooth, and within a second started to panic.  Again, squirrel, both riders on the floor in an instant, and luckily his rider was experienced and fast thinking enough to stop him, keep him calm and free his mouth.  (I already had an aversion to martingales at this point, but from that day onwards, it is rare to see me ride or work a horse in a martingale!).

Both of these situations could, potentially been bad situations to be in, and both worked out well.  It is possible that they would have been fine anyway, but I believe that it was the squirrel game that saved al involved from serious injury.  And, you can have fun too! – Have a look at this video to see some vaulting in action!