Are you doing your required reading?

Oh, I may tread on some toes here – there is a fine line to this one.

When I start teaching a new pupil, one of the first things that I ask them – who is the most important teacher you will ever have?  Sometimes, if their full-time coach is near, I see them (the coach) grow a little taller, lean a little nearer…..  Am I going to say me?  Am I going to say them?  No.  The most important trainer in your life, for ever and always, at any given time, is the four-legged coach you are sitting on / leading / handling.  He is the only one who truly knows the impact of how you are sitting or what you are doing, and he is the only one who has zero ego or pre-existing opinions.  If you do something right, comfortable or clear, he says yes.  If you are fuzzy, rough or unfocused, he says no.  It’s that simple.

I’m just the co-coach – it’s the two big brown boys here who are the real teachers
I’m just the co-coach – it’s the two big brown boys here who are the real teachers

I read a huge amount, but I tend not to read equine books.  I read books on philosophy, movement, psychology, martial arts, diving – I think I’d read the phone book if I had nothing else, but horse books?  A few, but not often…  Yes, way back in the dark ages, I read the Pony Club Manual and, and, and, all the required text needed to lay down the base rules, keep me and my pupils safe, pass my BHS exams etc, but not many of the “Classical Training” manuals.

A few days ago, a very good friend who I trust implicitly, sent me a message – “read this book, but you’ll hate me for it.”  I dutifully downloaded it and began to read.  Yes, I don’t fully like what I’m reading, a lot of it is close to the bone, but it’s good stuff…  That’s a whole other story.  But the bit that prompted this?

The lack of literature on the topic was a handicap, but my great teacher, Elvin Semrad, had taught us to be skeptical about textbooks.  We had only one real textbook, he said: our patients.  We should trust only what we could learn from them – and from our own experience.”

Later in the text, this doctor asks his professor, “Would you call this patient X syndrome or Y syndrome….?”  And the great professor said, “I’d call him Michael”.  The more we read, very often the more we over think and over complicate.

Some of the greatest horse trainers who I have ever seen working with horses have never read a book in their lives.  Often, kids can do amazing things with ponies.  Have they read the classic trainers works?  No, they’re still learning “The cat sat on the mat”.  So, how do they do it, without all this learning that we must do, reading we must focus on, lessons we need to be taught?  They follow their gut, use their intuition and watch and listen to their ponies.  Can I tell you a secret?  The ponies haven’t read the books either…

I am often asked, how do I plan my lessons?  How do I know what to teach, when?  And currently, I’m sitting in front of my laptop trying to put together a course that many people have requested – and the problem is – I just don’t know.  When I sit to write, things like this, they just appear on my laptop screen in front of me, but when I try to write a technical “How to”, I often get stuck….  Well, it depends on this, or that.  It depends on who the pupil is, how they think, the structure of their horse or the quality of their interaction.  Things cannot truly be taught by reading text, the only way to learn is to look at the horse in front of you and ask him questions.

I love Leonardo Da Vinci, because when I look at his sketches, that’s how I see things too.  If you look at his Vitruvian Man ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvian_Man ), that is how horses appear in my mind – I’m drawing angles and lines on them, seeing them in motion, seeing what they need or don’t…  How can a textbook teach that, when there are around 59 million horses in the world, and they’re all different?  Where do you even begin?

Seen in London, at a Leonardo exhibition – just love his work
Seen in London, at a Leonardo exhibition – just love his work

There’s a balance, between practical, awesome horse people who read loads and still allow horses to teach them, and those people who read all the dusty old tomes, can spout off how Classical Trainer X taught Y, but couldn’t recognise a horse if it walked out in front of them.

I love the fact that this professor and author have the same belief.  The author of this book says that for one year they were not allowed to read textbooks – and since then he has been the most voracious of readers, devouring everything he could get his hands on.  But that year got him to stop thinking in his head and start to look, listen, feel and notice what his patients were there to teach him…  Could you go a year without reading, and learn to listen to your gut?  Your most important teacher may well be thanking you…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soSTiBnug1Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OxI3XA9fMs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMVTAHmwkkU

Under Pressure

What’s got me thinking this week?  Pressure – what does that mean to you?

I was working with a young filly a bit ago, she was a 3yr old Thoroughbred who had raced and rested due to an injury.  She was just beginning to come back into fittening work.  I met with the owner, who asked if I could start teaching him how to work with her.  She was fresh, full of herself, and would have been asked to knuckle down and behave quite quickly.  I really liked her, and said I would take her on, because then I could play quietly, just in a rope halter, letting her play, asking a bit more, backing off and letting her play…  In my opinion, I wasn’t putting her under any pressure.  I was chatting to someone about her, and they said – maybe take the pressure off her?  An eye opener for me, since I was already thinking I was giving her time…

What do I consider pressure, what do you consider pressure?

There is a great lady in US, called Hilary Clayton.  She’s a researcher in the equine industry, and I think she’s absolute gold.  She was speaking a little bit ago and said – pick your poison.  (I’m adding in my thoughts here).  What ever we do with our horses, has a poisonous element.  Keep your horse stabled – he’ll be warm and dry…  And may well go stir crazy, develop vices and be majorly stressed…  But, he’s dry, right?  Keep your horse living in a paddock – he may develop mud fever, rain scald, lose his shoes in the mud, but he’ll be happier, saner, probably overall healthier.  Which version of the poison resonates best with you?    Ride your horse bitless – he shouldn’t have a bit in his mouth…  And, if you don’t fix your own position, you’ll just stop him breathing and damage his nose, which is just as sensitive as his mouth.  Ride with a bit – you’ll generally get a better contact and if you have a balanced seat, you shouldn’t be hooking him in the teeth anyway…  But, he’ll have a metal bar in his mouth, and if you lose your balance…  Ride with a treeless saddle – it may well cause pain and rubbing under the stirrup bars…  Ride in a saddle with a tree, it may cause friction and pressure on his back.   In any interaction we have with animals, horses in particular, we create pressure.  And, you have to choose the pressure that most aligns with your own morals.

 saddle with a tree, or saddle without...
saddle with a tree, or saddle without…

I really dislike round pens.  If I work in one, I feel claustrophobic and stuck – where is the escape.  But, I’m happy to work in a larger place.  Horses are prey animals – they are aware of who would like to eat them for dinner, even after all of these years of domestication.  We, like it or not, are predators.  A horse can tell – it’s the way we move, the speed of our movements, the set of our eyes.  Now, if you lock me in a circle with a tiger, I’m going to be a little stressed and yes, I’m going to move my feet.  Even if the tiger “creates a safe place” and invites me in, I’m not going to fully relax in that circle.  I want my horse to be able to move away from me. I want to give him the choice of come or go.  I don’t want to force, or add the pressure, of being so confined.  Added to that, hello, horses are not designed to run around in circles.  How often will you see a herd of wild horses trotting circles in the middle of the savannah?  It’s bad for their joints, their tendons, their ribcages and their balance.  I want to be able to move my horse on the end of the lunge, straight and forward, softly around me, towards and away, and for him to have the space to object if he isn’t a willing participant.

I don't like working in round pens, I would much rather give the horse room to move around me.
I don’t like working in round pens, I would much rather give the horse room to move around me.

In today’s society, pressure is everywhere.  We are under pressure to create the perfect life for social media, the perfect photo worthy plates of food, buy the right furniture, work in the highly esteemed careers, and be available to our bosses all day every day, whenever that little phone notification buzzes.  Horses are under that pressure too…  Learn shoulder in today, jump higher tomorrow, be ready to compete at X level by next month.  All too often, the horse is prepared for a circle ringing the date on the calendar, rather than by watching his reactions, his posture, the way he is building up and his mental health.  And, it’s breaking them.

When buying horses for clients, I won’t go to professional dealer or producers.  Why?  Because, the horse has been treated as a product, an item that needs fixing before it is prepped for sale.  There is a huge difference between a horse who has been trained, schooled, educated, and a horse who has been produced for the young horse classes, or for sale.   He’s a product with a price tag, and everyday of work means less profit.

What pressure do you choose to put your horse under?  If someone said to you, reduce the pressure on the horse, would it make you question what you are doing?  Would it make you back off?  Is your horse happy and coping with the amount of pressure you’re adding?  How good are you at picking your poison?