Being Still

Recently, I read an interesting book – The Zen of Horse Riding by Ingrid Soren. 

One of her paragraphs made me think about a conversation that I was having recently with a couple of friends of mine…

“My body is my thoughts; my thoughts are my body.  My thoughts and my body are indivisible, and when I am sitting on Jade’s back her thoughts and my thoughts are linked, her body and my body can become one.  I become calm and relaxed, she becomes calm and relaxed.  “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself”.  I began to understand the wisdom of doing the least to express the most.  My tendency was to rush at things and try to do too many things at the same time.  As in life…  I was all too often “painting legs on the snake”, that divine Chinese image for wasting energy.”

My friends were discussing a training program that they are currently doing online, about how being still and quiet, almost meditating, calms your horse.  The lessons are about how to sit still and invite your horse into a calmer place, which gives your horse confidence in following and being with you.  My thought was isn’t this just what every one does?   

You’re sitting on the back of a living, breathing, reactive prey animal – is this a time for an anxious brain? Shouldn’t we all be calm?
You’re sitting on the back of a living, breathing, reactive prey animal – is this a time for an anxious brain? Shouldn’t we all be calm?

The constant thread throughout my riding career was the manic, hot, difficult, often slightly insane horses.  The ones who weren’t breakable and the ones who broke people; the throw away horses who no one wanted.  The horses who were like kegs of dynamite.  One particular mare comes to mind. 

I was just starting a schooling session on her one day, when a friend arrived.  My friend sat on a jump in my arena as I cantered a 20m circle around her, she and I chatting, discussing what she had come to ask me, ignoring the horse.  I went into a light seat, and just let the mare have her head, hands resting on her neck while she went through her regular motions of beginning a schooling session.  After a few minutes of cantering around, my friend suddenly said, “Ummm, do you realise that the mare hasn’t had her feet on the ground, or been parallel to the floor since you got on?”  She would bounce, rear, leaps, bucks, twists in a lovely, athletic, graceful way, and as long as I didn’t interfere, and stayed off her back, she would do all of this in a lovely regular, joyous way.  “Yes”, I replied,” and?”  After 10 minutes of this bouncing, she’d settle and school beautifully, but if you started a session by getting after her and trying to make her conform, the forget it. 

Schooling her, and others like her, needed a blank mind – clearing thought, breathing with intention, soft hands, sit lightly, be still.  Riding these horses taught me to plan my shopping lists, run through my to do lists, write my lesson plans, because things that were dull and weren’t exciting would still our minds, thoughts, bodies.  And this was just something that was done, wasn’t it?  What do you mean people don’t?

(The Way to Perfect Horsemanship.  Trafalgar Square.  1998.  Udo Berger). “To become a good horseman, one needs to be bold, agile and relaxed.  These qualities are not physical attributes, they are psychological ones.”

A good rider needs a relaxed mind.  There is no getting away from it – the minute that a rider gets excited, stressed, worried, tense, the horse is going to be wondering what’s wrong….   “Come on you damn bladdy horse – settle and work, I’m getting nervous / stressed / impatient”.  You think this is going to work?  No.  They are either going to wonder were the lion is, or they are going to get stressed about why they are in trouble.

It’s interesting to watch, when a group of people do meditation or yoga in a paddock full of horses, how the horses generally walk up and see what’s going on.  When they feel the group’s slow breathing, low heart rate and clear minds, they hang out, their breathing slows, they doze.  We forget that as gregarious animals they depend on feeling each others heart rates to stay alive – literally.  A herd of horses are grazing, most have their heads down, a few doze, one or two are on security duty.  One horse is startled, their head comes up, heart rate increase, they take a deep gulp of air in preparation to RUN, and the whole herd reacts in a second.  The last to react is the lion’s dinner. 

Even in play, when one runs, we all run…
Even in play, when one runs, we all run…

As a rider, if you are waiting for the plastic bag in the corner to bite your horse – guess what happens?  Where as, if you are cool, calm, breathing and ignoring the plastic lion, guess what your horse is doing? 

I talk sometimes about talented riders not being able to teach because they say, well I don’t know how to tell you – you just sit there and the horse will become more collected / elevated / just more, what do you mean you don’t know how?  It’s just something that happens…  I didn’t think I was a coach who battled with this, because I do know it doesn’t just come naturally.  But, this conversation was an eye opener for me….  What do you mean, people don’t clear their minds, breathe and soften their edges when they ride? 

Do you do this naturally, or is this a skill you need to learn?

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Hang on let me ask my app….

I must have an amazing body…  If I haven’t drunk enough water, I feel dehydrated and head achy.  If I have drunk enough, I feel clear and brighter.  If I haven’t eaten enough, I feel hungry, and if I’ve eaten too much, I feel lazy and over full.  If I had a good night sleep, I wake up feeling refreshed and ready for action, and if I slept badly, I struggle to get out of bed and have a slower start.  AND, if I exercise, I sleep better, feel better, and get fitter.  Isn’t that incredible?  Isn’t that such a spectacular thing?  I should thank my body, clearly it’s a bit of a rarity, since so many people seem to need a Fitbit to tell them all of that amazing information. 

Do you know, in USA, they have a thing called Nature deficit disorder.  They say it’s affecting millions of people, mainly kids.  Some schools actually have bootcamp to fix it – they put a class load of kids on a school bus, remove their Fitbit, smart watches, phones, earphones, laptops, and take them out to the wilderness.  Once there, they have them walk across grass, stand in streams, lie on a sunbaked rock, and actually feel, smell, taste, see and hear.  Listen to the birds.  Feel the rough ground.  Taste the clean water.  Smell the wild flowers.  Look at the view.  I think it’s incredibly sad that kids need to be taught to put their technology down and see what a running river looks like.  And imagine the shock – you can walk across a field without posting on social media how many steps your Fitbit said you took.  Shocking – people walk without recording it.  Imagine that.

Alexa – is this a good view?  Should I feel happy?  If I walk across the valley, how many steps will I log?  Will I get to my 10,000 for the day?
Alexa – is this a good view? Should I feel happy? If I walk across the valley, how many steps will I log? Will I get to my 10,000 for the day?

And here is another contradiction – your Fitbit tells you to get up and walk, that you’ve been sitting still for too long.  But…  Your smart home Alexa can turn on the lights and the TV without you having to stand up and walk to the light switch, so allowing you to sit still for longer.  Because heaven help those poor people, who have to stand up and walk to the light switch… 

I break technology – many people who know me know that I am a “slider” – things break.  If I wear watches, they stop and run backwards.  Clocks stop working, anything that is charging when I try to use it either turns off or gives shocks.  Laptops and phones don’t last long, and printers – don’t even go there.  And, it’s something I am incredibly grateful for.  Even if I could wear a Fitbit or have an Alexa, I wouldn’t even if you paid me.  I know many people are excited by technology and the developments, but really, I think the more developments there are, the more disconnected humans become and the less we trust our brains, our bodies, our instincts. 

 

https://www.stufftoblowyourmind.com/podcasts/watch-stoppers.htm

I have a phone, a laptop, a kindle and an ipod.  And that is about it.  And, that is the way it’s staying.

Does this affect the horse industry?  Yes.  With people needing to be told if they had a bad night’s sleep, they are becoming more and more disconnected from their bodies.  You ask some one to feel their body or their horse’s movement and they look blankly at you as if you are asking them to fly to the moon.  And no, they can’t consult their computer about whether or not their horse is moving well.  If you cannot trust yourself to know if you had walked far enough today, how are you going to instinctively know if your horse is active enough?  We need to dump our dependency on the technology, get back to be fully functioning human beings and start using our inbuilt apps – the noticing ones that we were actually born with…    

Wealth

OK, I’m going to go on a rant.  Apologies in advance.  People complain about horses being used for work.  Real, hard work, where they are having to earn a living for their owners.  This year, an awful lot of people have told me that they are really very poor.  They can’t afford to replace their car, or buy a new laptop, or join one of our yoga retreats.  They have a roof over their head, they have food in their belly, they have a phone and / or a computer, they have clothes on their back, they have a bank account, even if it is empty, or almost so.  Just this – food, a bed, dry clothes to change into, puts you in the world’s wealthiest 8%.  Think about that – the number of people sleeping on the street, or without means to buy dinner tonight.  And yet, they can’t see the fact that many people would trade places with them in an instant.   

Travel is, in my opinion, the ultimate eye opener.  When you see actual poverty, you start to change how you see things.  I will always remember going to Cambodia and visiting the boat people there.  We were told that many of them earn less that US$500 a year.  They have no electricity, they have no running water, no sanitation.  Maybe one change of clothes, so they can wash and wear.  And, they wash those clothes in the river where they also fish farm, commute between boats, bath, and drink.  And all of this, with me sitting there with a US$500 camera around my neck.  Still think you’re poor? 

Think about this…

  • This morning, if you woke up healthy, then you are happier than the 1 million people that will not survive next week.
  • If you never suffered a war, the loneliness of the jail cell, the agony of torture, or hunger, you are happier than 500 million people in the world.
  • If you can enter into a church (mosque) without fear of jail or death, you are happier than 3 million people in the world.
  • If there is a food in your fridge, you have shoes and clothes, you have bed and a roof, you are richer then 75% of the people in the world.
  • If you have a bank account, money in your wallet and some coins in the money-box, you belong to the 8% of the people on the world, who are well-to-do.

In many of these cases, the people involved are still able to be very happy – they are often more connected to their family, their home, their culture / beliefs / roots, because they are not distracted by smart phone notifications beeping away, endless adverts to buy bigger and better, and the pressure to buy branded shoes.  And, there is generally a real pride in what they have and what they do. 

While in Kenya, two things stuck me, yet again.  The first was pride.  Many of the local Kenyan’s don’t have running water in their houses.  Or electricity.  Most don’t have access to cars and have to leave their homes at silly o’clock in the morning to stand in long queues at dangerous emergency taxi stands, before travelling many miles, working long hours and repeating this at night, for low pay.  They leave in the dark, return in the dark, and yet they are turned out immaculately.  Just how do you get your white work / school shirt gleaming white, your whole outfit beautifully and crisply ironed and your shoes gleaming, in the dark without running water or power?  I couldn’t…  And yet, they are so proud of their uniforms, what they have and what they do for a job.  The other thing that stuck me, was just how poor the country is, and how many men are pulling carts around themselves, never mind using a horse, just to earn a few shillings for their family. 

And yet, people still complain about how poor people expect their horses to work.  If you had to put food on your table, and could get some money by working with a horse, wouldn’t you do it?  And, if you had to choose between paying your child’s school fees and buying a new set of brushing boot for your narrow pony who was whacking his fetlocks, what would you choose? 

The entire world was born on a horse’s back.  We wouldn’t have the development that we do now, if horses hadn’t helped us along the way.  The first world counties benefitted all along, from the horses who worked – and look at how many we killed in war?  How can we, the first world, say that horses cannot be used in the developing world?  We do need to help, absolutely.  Just because a horse is a working animal doesn’t in any way mean he should suffer or be denied access to feed, water, rest, companionship, farriers, vet care and well fitted harness, but should we try to prevent them doing a reasonable amount of work.  No. 

Money buys choices.  What shall I have for dinner?  If I have money in my pocket, I can choose.  Do I give my horse tomorrow off?  If I’m not relying on his earnings, I have the choice.  Should I buy a new bridle for my horse?  If I have the cash, I can go and get one. 

What do you think?  How wealthy are you, and what are you doing to help the 92% of the world who have less than you?

Just who is Kudaguru?

Me!  I’m Kudaguru – which means what, precisely?  I’m Ashleigh, a nomadic, hectic, packing-phobic, peripatetic adventurer who bounces around the world, playing with ponies…  Literally.

Many moons ago, I was an ordinary equestrian business owner.  I had a yard full of horses and ponies, a mixture of my own as well as liveries.  I had grooms, young instructors, clients.  I competed most weekends in eventing, dressage, show jumping, showing and equitation, young horses, established horses, client’s horses, sponsored horses, as well as going to shows with pupils.  And then?  Well, politics happened, and I ended up moving my horses from Zimbabwe to South Africa, only 43 horses moving 3,500km, walk in the park, really.

Teaching in Asia.
Teaching in Asia.

During the South African spell, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of years riding with the incredible South African Lipizzaner’s, the only Lipizzaner team recognised by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, so became very focused on classical dressage.   Riding the Ballet of the White Stallions – an unforgettable experience.  But…  Well, South African life wasn’t really meant for me, I had some family in the UK, but being winter phobic as well as packing phobic, I wasn’t over keen to go back there full time.     

And so?  I started taking on 6 month to 1 year contracts, to help yards troubleshoot issues, set up training programmes for horses, clients and grooms, build client bases etc.  In that time, I worked across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Caribbean – I did like to choose pretty locations!  But then, 4 years ago I decided that I missed working for myself, and so, time for adventure…

During these four years, I have been lucky enough to build a pretty solid client base across several different countries.  When people ask where I live – well?  36,000 feet?  I’m fortunate to have no commitments (unlucky in some people’s opinions).  I own no property, cars, furniture, horses, yards, employ no staff.  (In my opinion, I’m not owned BY them, as so may people are.  How often have you had the conversation with someone saying they hate their job, they hate their life, but they won’t move because what do they do with their house, car etc…)  I literally live where I am at that moment, with no physical place or possessions drawing me forwards or pulling me back.  Opinion is divided – about 50% of people I meet say, isn’t that wonderful, can I come along to carry your suitcases, and the other 50% saying that is terrifying and awful, they couldn’t live without stability and their things.  And, another benefit of being a full time nomad – there is always time, space and opportunity for adventure, growth and learning…  

Riding a lovely mare in Costa Rica
Riding a lovely mare in Costa Rica

And, what is it that I do that is different enough to allow all this travel?  I try to turn traditional teaching on it’s head.  As a very young rider who I taught recently explained to her Dad afterwards – most people tell her what to do, but in our lesson, she learned HOW to do it.  I’ve always had a slightly out of the box way of looking at things and explaining them differently, but almost 10 years ago, I discovered Mary Wanless and her Ride with your Mind methodology.  That inspired more research, more in-depth thinking and more awareness.  I now use a very eclectic mixture of old-school eventing training, classical dressage, Ride with your Mind and spatial awareness techniques, along with training from other sports – martial arts, climbing and scuba diving in particular.  My aim is to create riders who think – who question what they are told, who notice what their horses are responding to, to BELIEVE their horses more than some of the instructions being issued, and to dance with their equine partners in a balanced and ethical manner.  

Almost at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro
Almost at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro

As I’m so often saying to my pupils – the only expert at being a horse in this three-way relationship (you, me, your horse) is your horse.  He is the most important teacher that you will ever have.  The horse is the teacher, all I’m doing is providing a translation…