In one of the places where I stay, there is about a 5-minute walk to the nearest supermarket, and so, I do it often.  Chocolate and coffee, you know, vital daily necessities…

And, at one point, you walk along side a row of houses, where, midway down, lives a lovely little tabby cat.  That is all I know about her – which is the house she lives in.  And, that she is my friend.  As other people walk past, and ignore her, she sits on the little brick pillar at the end of her footpath, and watches the world go by.  And then, when she sees me coming and I talk to her, she is all mewing and purring, standing with all four feet tucked into the little bit of space, and we greet with head bumps and rubs and purrs.  It’s purely a happy greeting – I don’t have food or anything for her, she has nothing for me, but we chat for a few minutes and it leaves both of us with a smile.  A very simple interaction, with no real point other than to make us happy.

Under cat - definitely one of my joy places...
Under cat – definitely one of my joy places…

A while ago, I was in Singapore, leaving a shopping centre, where the pavement passes the bus stop.  It was 6pm and crowded with people leaving work, coming into the shopping centre, finding hawker centres for food, just the hustle bustle of a city evening.  And there was a little girl, standing on the edge of the bus stop.  She must have been about 3 or 4, and was there with her Mom or Nanny, and she was waiting for a bus to arrive.  But, clearly, she wasn’t waiting for the bus, but for who was on it.  She was so excited, going from foot to foot, knees pumping up and down as she bounced.   Every few seconds she would turn and look at her Mom or Nanny, grin, even squeal, with joy, and then go back to looking ahead and bouncing from foot to foot.   I slowed down, even more than the crowds made me, to watch and see what would happen…  The next bus pulled in, and as the crowd all came out, there was a man, looking for her.  “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy”, she shouted, so excited that she literally couldn’t contain herself, wriggling with happiness.  This was clearly a ritual that was quite common for both.

Daddy crouched down, open armed, picked her up, swung her around, all the time she was bouncing with joy.  There is simply no other word for it.  And, everyone around them started to smile to – how can you not?

How often are we stressed, or rushing, running from point A to point B and not taking the time to stop and smell the coffee?  Recently I met up with a pony who I hadn’t seen for a very long time. I sat on the poles closing him inside his pen and we had a good chat for a while, him lipping at my hair and hands, checking my pockets for carrots, nothing pushy or bolshie, just a friend who was happy to see me and saying his hellos the best way that he could. Horses greet each other through touch – we humans may be happy with a smile or inclination of the head, but ponies need an actual physical contact.  After a couple of minutes, I went to stand up, and he snaked his neck around me, effectively pinning me to the poles of his door.  He was enjoying having contact with a friend and wasn’t ready to stop just yet.

Kids still play hopscotch on the street! Certainly makes me happy!
Kids still play hopscotch on the street! Certainly makes me happy!

How often do we just hurry through our days and through our lives and forget that a lot of this life is meant to be finding happiness?  And, we are in a hurry to work harder to buy a fancier horse / house / car / watch because it is this that will make us happy, when in reality there are so many little pleasures around us much of the time, if we were just to take the time to sit and enjoy them…  So, have you hugged your horse today?





The Jack Bull

How strongly do you stand by your Ethics?

A couple of months ago, a British event rider went a bit whip happy around a large, prestigious three-day event.  Within a day, two of his sponsors withdraw their backing.  They cited welfare – the wellbeing of horses is their for first priority and they felt it was time to part company.  Good for them – brilliant.  And, the one company had a lot of new followers on social media immediately, posts saying things like, I don’t know what you sell, but I’m buying two. People putting their money where their mouth is, backing ethical business and ethical riders.

On the other hand, some very unethical riders have merchandise lines, and people will say – oh I hate what that dressage rider does to her horses, but I have her saddle and ten of her saddle pads…  I have asked riders – if you don’t like what she stands for, why did you buy her saddle?  Well, they reply – the saddle wasn’t physically hers, she has nothing to do with it. Really?  The saddle company pay her a large commission to be the face of the brand.  If everyone who doesn’t like what she does, were to boycott the brand, and better yet to write to the brand and say, I’m boycotting you because of this rider – do you know what?  Things would change.  Hitting them in their pocket is the only way things will improve.  I love watching Mark Todd ride – I think he is genius, he is the consummate master of his craft, he is always fair to his horses, and he is a genuinely nice human being.  Oh look, Mark Todd breeches, yes please.  A great product, supporting the deal he has with a brand.  Awesome.  That abusive lady dressage rider’s riding jacket?  Ya, no, maybe not…

Mark Todd, the greatest rider ever? Photo By Henry Bucklow/Lazy Photography (Sffubs) - Own work; originally published at, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Mark Todd and NZB Land Vision at the Quarry during the cross-country phase of Badminton Horse Trials 2011. Mark Todd, the greatest rider ever? Photo By Henry Bucklow/Lazy Photography (Sffubs) – Own work; originally published at, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Why am I thinking of this now?  Ethics. What is important to you?

Have you watched a movie called The Jack Bull?  Its awesome.  It must be from the late 1990’s, a western starring John Cusack.  I was in my yard about 18 years ago (isn’t that scary??? How did I get so old?), grumpy and snapping, on a mission to rescue a horse who was being mistreated.  I was gunning for his owner and nothing and nobody was going to stop me.  A friend was standing in the yard giggling at my grumpiness, saying Oh My, are you The Jack Bull?  Did they write the movie about you?  Of course, I had to watch it.  The plot, in short, is about a cowboy who has to leave two of his horses as security when he can’t pay a toll on a road.  He leaves them and his employee for two weeks and when he comes back he finds his horses beaten and abused, and his friend and employee, vanished.  He fights for what is right, he fights for what he believes. The title?  His friend says to him, you are part bulldog and part Jack Russel – the strength of a Bulldog when angered, the dogged tenacity of the Jack Russel when he has something in his grip.  And yes, when I’m on a mission, A Jack Bull is a pretty good description.

The Jack Bull. By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,
The Jack Bull. By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

Recently I had a very difficult conversation.  A good friend who I desperately didn’t want to upset or lose our friendship, has something going on that just doesn’t sit well with me.  And so, finally, after a long time of debating, I had to speak my mind.  I don’t like confrontations or unrest, but I couldn’t sit on the fence any longer.  What will happen?  I don’t know. Do I sleep better at night?  I’m sad that I upset someone lovely, and sad that I may have lost a valued friend, but yes, morally, ethically I feel better for making a stand.

So, my question to you….  Are you standing up for what you believe?  Are you a Jack Bull?  Or do you have an opinion and ethics until it is inconvenient?  Do you buy that rider’s brand of jacket because its pretty and pink and has a brand name on it?  Even though you profess not to like her methods?  Or do you stand by your morals and write to the manufacturers and say, I’m not helping you make money out of abuse?  What is the saying – I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees? Are you willing to stand and be counted? Where do you stand?

The power of play

The power of play

When people ask what I do, I generally reply, I play with ponies. And, yes, by ponies, I mean anything with four legs, a tail and hopefully two ears (maybe not, knowing me), who neighs.  Originally, there were two reasons for my “Playing with Ponies” answer.  It started with my family who, with waning patience, kept asking, “so when are you going to stop playing with ponies and get a real job?”.  Ya, that didn’t happen did it?  As far as they were concerned, being outside in the dirt, spending more time with ponies than people, that wasn’t a real job.  (After all these years, they kind of accept it isn’t likely to change…)

The second reason is that for many people, anything to do with working with horses is a second-class job, it’s for stupid people who had no other avenues open to them. The number of times I have met someone, we have been chatting as equals, and when they ask what I do, they go on to say, oh, well…  And then dumb down the conversation.  I did actually have a guy once say to me, oh well, at least that was an option that was open to you….  He did apologise later, but only after he discovered that I could actually string words together in conversation.  Clearly, if you could, you would have a real, or office job, and if you can’t, you settle for ponies.  Hmmm…. So, I jump in before they do – what do you do?  Oh, I just play with ponies, not a big job like yours…

(Considering that the equine industry is one of the biggest in the world, generating around $300 million annually and employing about 1.6 million people, there are a lot of us lucky people out there.)

I am fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Mary Wanless, founder of Ride with your Mind.  A word she hates is “Try”.  Can you feel what your seat bones are doing?  I’m trying…. To try implies that you are putting in hard, pointless effort for something that won’t happen.  I hate that I procrastinate – I’ll try to change.  I don’t like being so disorganised, I’ll try to fix it.  I need to lose weight / give up sugar / get fitter / give up smoking / get out of bed earlier….  I’ll try. I’m ambivalent about change – maybe I will, maybe I won’t, its pointless effort…  I’m trying.

I feel as disenchanted about a different word – work.  It’s Monday, I have to go to work – ugh.  I hate work, I need a holiday.  I need to work, but I’m tired.  Work is what you slog through 5 – 6 days a week to get to your weekend. Work, is not a place we choose.  I work hard at the office, but I play tennis at the weekend.  Different? Recently, I posted a photo on Instagram, sea, sun, sand, saying damn, another tough day in the office, looking for a yoga retreat venue…  And, a friend commented, “Ashleigh, do you ever work?”  Honestly, really, truthfully, no.  I don’t think I have ever done a day’s work in my life.  I think, I inquire, I dabble, I explore, I (hopefully) inspire, or lead, or suggest, but work?  No, I don’t do that.

Another hard day in the office then….
Another hard day in the office then….

How about our four-legged friends.  Do they think, today I’ll work on my flying changes?  Ummm, hate to disillusion you, but no.  Horses don’t work.  In their natural state, they survive.  They eat, they drink, they run from danger, they reproduce.  And, they play.  They play to learn, to explore their world, their strength, their place in the herd. They play to learn how to become a winning stallion or a lead mare.  They don’t expel energy to work.  Working would wear them down, making it easier for that tiger to eat them…

And yet, we take our horses into an arena and we set to work.  Working a horse, implies for us, that it is going to be a hard grind.  I’m working hard on his half passes.  I’m working for a better dressage score, or a more balanced canter to jump clear rounds. I’m working him to wear him out before we go hacking, so he doesn’t buck me off….  I’m going to my office to work.  And for him?  I’m being worked by my human – she is working at my leg yielding…  Is that fun?  Is that putting either of you in a good space to learn, understand, progress?  I don’t think so.

Recently, I wound up somewhere new, with new people, new ponies.  On one of the first days, they asked if we were going to work ponies, and I said no, but we can play with ponies…  They initially didn’t get it.  And then, we took three little geldings into the arena, in a belting wind, and opened up a huge square of tarpaulin.  The wind blew, the plastic flapped, the ponies snorted and chased each other, and they played.  It was an hour of laughing, of hanging onto corners of tarp, of team work, and of brave ponies exploring, bouncing on and off the plastic, allowing themselves to be wrapped up and covered over.  Did we, humans or ponies, work?  No. Was it serious?  Well, here I am careful how I answer – I was watchful.  I checked the ponies weren’t stressed, flooded, anxious.  I watched them for signs that this was difficult.  I watched that the humans were safe.  It wasn’t blindly doing a free for all…  Is that serious – to a degree yes, I guess so, but it was to encourage safe play, not to work.  Did the ponies play?  Yes. Did those ponies leave the arena with more confidence?  Yes. The interesting thing was the youngest pony.  He gets quite bullied by the other two, definitely the lowest in pecking order. He was the one we targeted the most, and he was the one who ended up totally wrapped up.  And he definitely grew from the experience, he was a lot more cocky and self-assured with his two little friends the next day, actually chasing (in play) the lead pony.  Did the humans learn within the play?  Yes, I kept asking – notice, how is he breathing, notice, where is he looking, is his tail still, is his eye soft.  The humans learnt about noticing, but the learning was through play.

Playing with Ponies
Playing with Ponies

Play makes us happy.  It raises our spirits.  Work – well often it stresses us.  Which one do you think inspires your pony to offer more?  Are you going to work your horse today, or are you going to go and play with a half pass?

(As a post script – I was happily surprised when I read “The Human Condition”, Hannah Arendt, 1958, this definition of work…  “Work, unlike labor, has a clearly defined beginning and end. It leaves behind a durable object, such as a tool, rather than an object for consumption. These durable objects become part of the world we live in. Work involves an element of violation or violence in which the worker interrupts nature in order to obtain and shape raw materials. For example, a tree is cut down to obtain wood, or the earth is mined to obtain metals. Work comprises the whole process, from the original idea for the object, to the obtaining of raw materials, to the finished product. The process of work is determined by the categories of means and end.”  So, to work a horse is to create a violation that interrupts his nature…  Is that how you want to be with your horse?  Her definition of Action is much closer to where I want to be…  Maybe it’s just my geek brain over thinking!!!!)

Happy Playing!

F&%# Off Button

“My F&%# off button is broken”, my friend would complain. It was a game we would play, walking through town… You know all of those fund raisers, marketers, “please try my test product” people? Do you seem to attract them, or do they ignore you? My friend and I would try to keep them away, and it’s generally done with your &%$@ off button… You just walk along, and without saying anything or doing anything, they step back… Know what I mean? We’d walk along and check that they didn’t approach. But, sometimes they do. It did frustrate me, she was much better at playing the game than I was…

As you walk through a paddock of horses, are they drawn to you or pushed away?
As you walk through a paddock of horses, are they drawn to you or pushed away?

It always fascinates me, watching how people react to each other. Those fundraiser people, and marketers, they are so good at reading people. If someone walks past looking ahead, striding along, with a purpose, often they don’t bother them – the target has their F&%# off button firmly engaged. Sometimes it is when you put on your sunglasses and earphones, and they see that you have blinds up, not talking. Those who walk past looking less secure in their own skin, hesitant in where they are or where they are going, almost apologetic in being, and the marketers will get them… And those people are most likely to give them money too, since often they can’t say no.

I’m at my worst getting onto a plane. My flying time is my time, it’s where I switch off from the world. I get in my seat, next to the window, and don’t talk to me. I used to do it with props, by opening my book, putting on ear phones and leaning against the wall… Now though, I can do it without aids – I get in my seat and there are walls between me and my neighbours. Please, please, don’t be the seat neighbour who tries to talk to me – because I just won’t.

Why am I thinking about this now? I had lunch with a friend recently and we were discussing teaching and lessons, and how I read people. How do you do that, she asked? Do what, I replied? Well, just know stuff… A large part, I think, is reading what they are saying with their body.

Is electricity real? Uhh, yes. Can you see it? No. So, you must believe its there. We have the same forces within us – an electricity or a current, an energy and boundaries, unseen but (hopefully) felt / experienced / adhered to by other people.

There was a study done over a few years – I think, actually, it is still ongoing – about footballers and what makes the brilliant ones brilliant. Someone is running towards you, kicking the ball along in front of them. Are they going to send the ball to your right or to your left? There is a slight dodge, wobble, look to where they are going to go, maybe a flicker in their eye. The kids who go on to become elite footballers are the ones who can read it, and the really elite players just can’t get it wrong – as the player is running towards them with the ball, they can predict the movement.

When walking through town with my mom, she is forever complaining that when I walk, or when my brothers walk, people move out of our way, while she spends her life dodging. Just walk straight, I tell her – they’ll move. And, they do. For me. And for my brother’s. They end up walking into her. What’s the difference? Playing chicken? It’s intention – I’m just walking, and people believe that as I am walking, I won’t move, but they don’t believe her (warning – don’t try this with anyone pushing a pushchair / pram… They are a little insane, rules don’t apply…) How does this work? We do read each other, we know what people are thinking or how they are going to react, without registering or acknowledging it.

We project energy around us. Your friend walks in looking tired. How do you know? You just do. The footballer knows the ball is going right. Because, how? It just is. Maybe there was an eye flicker, maybe they are projecting energy in that direction. When someone is walking towards you down the footpath, they are going to move or not… How do you know? You just do. Think of that very charismatic, magnetic person…. They are charming, they are liked, good things just happen to them. How are they like that? They project positive, interested, interactive, high vibration energy. They attract people. Think about that slightly apologetic, world weary person. You can see them coming too.
Can I teach this? How to read this? I’m not convinced that I can. Thinking back to the conversation with my friend – how do you just know. Well, I do. When some one walks into the arena with their horse, I always spend 5 minutes or so just chatting to them. Letting them settle into their own skin, into their horse’s skin, into the space they are in. You can see it when they find their way to a good spot… They move in an easier way, they breathe. How can you not see it, I ask people?

Can horses teach this? Oh yes. You watch a horse being lunged. A novice is trying, the horse won’t go forwards, he spins around to go the other way, or he turns into the middle and stops. The poor person has no hope. The instructor walks in and the horse obediently trots along at the end of the line. The instructor didn’t appear to do anything different, and yet the horse just behaves. So, why did the horse behave? Simply, because he believes the trainer. In the way that the elite footballer knows the ball is going right or left, the horse knows whether or not to take the lunger seriously. In the same way the marketer knows if your %&$@ off button is working or not, your horse knows. He knows if you are sending him out, or drawing him in… How seriously does your horse take you?