Expertise Induced Amnesia

I was sitting with a friend recently in her stable yard over a glass of wine.  (Read that sentence again – drinking wine in a stable yard…  some people just know how to do things right…)  when there was great moaning and groaning from one of the horses, a big old retired mare.  She was dropping down to roll in her fresh bedding, just laid for the night.  (Come on, at least we waited until evening stables before breaking out the alcohol).  Several minutes later, the big mare was still down, still groaning quietly under her breath, a geriatric old eccentric muttering about the youth of today and her aching bunions.  My friend asked – “is she ok, do you think?  Does she have colic?”

“Hmmm” I managed around my brie on a cracker, “doubt colic”.

A few minutes later the old girl was up and (looking slightly senile and unfocused) staring at the wall.  My friend asked again – “Is she ok? Does she have colic?”

“No”, I replied – “she’s absolutely fine.”

“How do you know?” (without leaving the table that hosts wine and cheese…)

“She shook”

Blank look….  When a horse who is healthy and feeling well has a lovely roll in fresh bedding, or mud, or sand after work, or has been sleeping in the sun, they stand up and give their whole body a good shake, like a dog coming out of water.  From the tips of their ears to the end of their tail, their entire body shakes.  When a horse has colic, and so a sore belly, they stand up and refuse to shake, because it hurts.  They might flick their head in a half-hearted attempt at “normal”, or look at their gut, but shake?  No.

After a lovely muddy roll, an even better shake…  This is how horses in the wild groom themselves – the mud sticks to the hairs, and as it is shaken off, any loose, molting hair goes off with it. 

Would I have thought to teach that in a lecture about colic?  Probably not.  Would I have put it in to words automatically?  No.  But do I know it to be true?  Oh yes.  And that knowing has a great term – “Expertise Induced Amnesia”.  You don’t know just how much you have learnt, figured out, processed and forgotten.  When you repeat a pattern again, again, again, you often forget half the steps, because you just know.

Do you know why the Great Wall of China has random steps – one big, one tiny, one high, one low?  Damn Bladdy difficult and tiring to walk along…  Because people who walked that wall everyday knew the steps and could run them in the dark, half asleep.  They knew the pattern.  Come along a night raider who didn’t know the steps – crash.  The guards who lived there couldn’t have told you the pattern – they just knew, and had amnesia about the dance…  Awesome defense system, right?

My mentor has a great story about a plumber…  He’s a grand master plumber, old, wise, been in the job for decades and teaches many apprentices.  He was called in for a major leak that no one could quite find or fix.  He walked in, straight to the issue, fixed it in 3 minutes and handed over a hefty bill.  On looking at the size the bill, the office block owner coughed…  “3 minutes and this is the bill?”  The reply – “You don’t pay me for what I do, you pay me for what I know…”  He teaches the next generation of plumbers, but still can’t teach experience. Or, sometimes, you’re just waiting for the pupil to figure it out for themselves.

I remember staying with a friend in Spain in a remote farming area.  She had two old pet pigs and one morning one of them was seriously unwell.  She called the local vet – but, this being a farming area – his reply was “I can give you the number of the butcher”.  That wasn’t really her plan, with this pet of hers.  We stood, each with one boot clad foot on the 5-bar gate around his pen, contemplating the four-legged patient, as horse people so often do.  “Well”, I said – “the one trick an acupuncturist taught me, is the re-set button for horses with bad colic or going fast into shock after a trauma or accident…  The absolute “Oh Dear” button that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly – this is the time…”  I do happen to travel with hair – thin – acupuncture needles (doesn’t everyone?  One day I’ll explain about my Tardis-like suitcase), so retrieved a needle and stuck it in, leaving it in place for 5 minutes.  Within 20 minutes, Mr. Pig was back up and rooting through his pen for the best vegetable scraps.  “So, how did you know it was needed and would work”, asked my friend.  I shrugged…  Dunno – just because I knew?


Well, it works for horses…. And pigs apparently…

Well, it works for horses….  And pigs apparently… 

I am currently learning – tentatively – about two new skills…  More tools to bring to the table, but not terribly conventional or logical.  (I do try to be conventional sometimes, just ask my rubber duck travelling companion….)  And find myself, again and again pestering these two experts – But why?  But what?  But, how do you KNOW that?  But what do you mean?  I probably ask too many questions – no, I KNOW I ask too many questions – I suppose that since I don’t mind fielding random questions, I ask too many myself….  And get frustrated when the reply comes back – “Because”.  A taste of my own “I dunno” answers?   Maybe they are waiting for me to figure out my own answers…  Or maybe they just know, and there are no words.

What do you know, or do, that you’d probably forget if leaving a friend a list of instructions…?  What should you be teaching better, or clearer?  Do you expect your horse to know an answer, just because you do?  You may know how to ride a half pass, but do you know what?  If you haven’t discussed it with your four-legged dance partner, he probably hasn’t figured out the half pass steps just yet…  Can you explain your expertise in clear, 1, 2, 3 steps?  Einstein says – if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough…  But somethings just can’t be explained, can they?


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Emotionally Connected ….

Socially distant, emotionally connected.

I pass this painting on a roadside often at the moment, and every time it makes me think…  Today, I actually stopped long enough to take a picture.

Socially Distant, Emotionally Connected
Socially Distant, Emotionally Connected

Yesterday made me, and many, many others, heartsore.  In South Africa, there is a town called Port Elizabeth, (PE) and in that town is a racetrack called Fairview.  It’s an important venue for the South African racing industry.  Yesterday is a long, involved story, but basically, a racehorse trainer has been having a labour dispute with one of her ex-grooms.  This has gone to the work tribunal, is being handled legally etc, but the groom is unhappy with how things have been proceeding.  The version that seems to be the one sticking, is that he abused a horse in his care in Feb of this year and was fired.  He now wants his job back, and if this is the truth, obviously you wouldn’t be hiring him back to work with horses.  Yesterday a group of around 80 people – largely grooms from the whole of the Fairview racing complex – went into the yard, released 28 of these young, sensitive Thoroughbred racehorses and chased them out.  In the process 1 horse died, two received life threatening injuries and most of the others were injured somehow, mainly lacerations.  Whether these lacerations occurred accidently, from falling or from panga wounds (a panga or machete is a very large weapon / knife, that is pretty common in Africa, for cutting through bushland, clearing gardens etc) is unclear.  But, that is all a little beside the point – what gets to many of us, is that these people worked for, cared for and supposedly were connected to, these horses.  They were not random strangers, they were horse people.  How do you do that to your friends?

But, closer to home, I see lack of empathy often.  I was watching a lesson a little while ago and could see the instructor getting more and more frustrated.  The rider was saying – “but he won’t go straight, I’ve told him once, now he’s doing it wrong”.

And the instructor was saying, again and again – “He’s a horse.  He is NOT a bicycle or a motorbike.  He’s a horse.  Ask him nicely, make the request clear.  Stop, think about what you are doing – you can’t make him do it…  Even if you ask once and he agrees, you can’t expect to have everything stay perfect.”

The rider went on – “But I can’t make him do it…”

The instructor, getting frustrated too – “Horses don’t come with remote controls…  I don’t have a remote for him…  You’re in the pilot’s seat – have a conversation with this living, breathing animal, and communicate”

This sign on the road – it’s asking, or assuming (depending on your mindset) that we have a connection.  But often, particularly for horses, the words are reversed – socially connected, emotionally distant.  Physically, socially, a horse and rider are pretty much as close as you can get.  A human is sitting on the back of this huge, potentially deadly, still innately wild, animal, and not grasping the honour and privilege we have, in calling this sentient being our friend.  If a horse chose to, he could kill you in an instant.  But it’s not on his agenda.  They are peace lovers, they are willing to submit to our wishes, and generally they’ll go along with our plans and ambitions, if we resect them and ask them nicely.   You have to leave your ego at the door…   They play the game, of keeping their silly humans on their backs.  But for many, many people, humans and their four legged dance partners are emotionally on different planets.  “Kick, kick, kick your animal friend, pull his mouth harder and make him go straight, like you would make a motorbike perform”.  He’s just a bicycle, and even a non-conforming bicycle at that.  Is that really a such a different road from the one taken by the grooms in South Africa?

I want to win a ribbon at the competition, so I will make my four-legged bicycle perform, come hell or high water.

I want to retaliate against my boss, so I will chase out her investments, those investments happen to have four legs, two ears and a tail…

It’s just a few stops further down the same road.  Which road are you on?

If I asked your horse, “socially connected, emotionally connected”, or “socially connected, emotionally distant” what would your horse say about you?

My thoughts and best wishes to all of those affected by last week’s trauma.

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Pole, Pole – Slowly, slowly.

“To climb steep hills, requires slow pace at first…”  William Shakespeare.

My family and close friends often comment that I’m two personalities…  Give me a parcel to wrap, a knot to untie, a computer to work out a new program and it’s likely to get thrown out of the window…  Patience is really not my strong point.  But, give me a pony who is not understanding, or a pupil who isn’t seeing things as I do, and I have all the time in the world – somethings are way more important than others.

To climb steep hills, requires slow pace at first…  Learning patience while bumbling up a little hill….  We will make haste slowly…
To climb steep hills, requires slow pace at first… Learning patience while bumbling up a little hill…. We will make haste slowly…

The reality of this quote became clear when we (Fred and I) climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.  Pole Pole (pronounced po-lay po-lay) is what the guides are saying all day everyday – slowly slowly, we make haste, slowly.

The foundations of anything are vital – if your first math teacher didn’t get you to understand 2 + 2, you might struggle along until you hit algebra, but at some point it’s all going to come crashing down about your ears and you will have to go back to the beginning.  If your house’s foundations weren’t dug correctly, you’re going to get cracks.

What’s this got to do with a horse blog then?

99% of the time, the issue is in the foundations.

“My horse rushes…”

“My pony won’t load”

“My mare won’t stand for the farrier”

“I can’t get a clear canter strike off”

“He’s just runs through the flying changes”

We take the horse back to square one – Mr. Horse, do you understand stop; go; shoulders right / left; quarters right / left; stand quiet.    All in hand.  And then, do you understand all those questions in walk and trot on long lines…

Put the rider on board – what do we practice?  Stop, walk.  Stop, walk.  Stop, walk.  By this point an awful lot of those issues are already resolved.  Most issues begin with the horse ignoring or not understanding something at real foundation level.

Lovely Betty – only once a horse understands how to carry herself without a rider can she truly organize herself WITH a rider…
Lovely Betty – only once a horse understands how to carry herself without a rider can she truly organise herself WITH a rider…

One of my absolute pet peeves is a horse walking away from the mounting block, rider hanging off the side.  Why?  In essence this horse is running away with his human – it’s not far removed from bolting.  The simple discipline of stop, stand, patience, wait…  Goes a long way in instilling horse AND human disciple for the rest of the ride.

And what about the rider?  Well, this is fresh in my mind at the moment because of a jumping video someone just sent me.  He is now early twenties, fit, athletic, brave, bright, and after lesson number one, (in his teens) he asked, how soon can I jump?  I kept him on the lunge for weeks…  Walk, trot, canter, no reins and no stirrups.  Then we did millions of transitions, circles, turns, leg yielding, moving onto trot poles, grids, tiny gymnastics lines without reins.    In the solid 6 months that I taught him (yes, I lived somewhere that long) we covered basic after basic skill, until he couldn’t get them wrong.  Within a month of my leaving he was (fully ready, with my blessing!) clearing courses of 1m + and now, a few years later, he’s just sent me a video of himself jumping a technical 1.50m track.  To climb the mountain, we began very, very slowly.

So often you see a young horse, or a young rider, very quickly learning to canter and jump – within weeks of beginning, and rapidly climbing the grades.  The problem is, the faster the initial surge up the skill ladder, the faster they reach a plateau and the longer they stagnate there.  Whereas, the (relativity) slower they get there, the higher they go and the more longevity they have at the top.

A few years ago, I watched a day seminar hosted by the world famous master of dressage, Dr Wilfried Bechtolsheimer.  (Or Dr B, as he was probably better known).  A comment he made about one of the seminar horses was how sad he was that she had been started young to compete in the young horse classes, how lucky she was that they had got her out, and how young horse classes are damaging dressage.  As he said – horses competing in the young horse classes are produced – dressage horses are trained and educated…  There is a world of difference…

So, heading out to your horse or your pupils today – what will you do?  Produce them, sausage factory style, or educated them for longevity?  I know which one I prefer!


Feedback loop

The yard where I kept my first horse, had a sign hanging up in the tack room, saying

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maybe they were just warning you to look before yelling out that you couldn’t find your girth, but that quote has always stuck with me.  When you see something every day, you stop seeing it.  Which is why its really vital to ask the question – what is your feedback loop?

Can you see things from your horse’s point of view?
Can you see things from your horse’s point of view? Have you checked for feedback?

Recently I was at a saddle fitting CPD day, and one of the things that the coaches were saying was, the horses gave us feedback on that girth, or that saddle pad etc.  One of the participants said – huh?  How did your horse give you feedback?  They replied – the horse might put his ears back when he sees you approach with the saddle; he could threaten to bite you; dip his back away; bite at the saddle or girth; chew at his side after you have undone the girth etc.  All of these points are feedback from the horse.  If your horse stands quietly with a smile on his face while you potter around him, doesn’t react to having the saddle on, isn’t stressed about the girth, moves well under his saddle, you are getting pretty good, positive feedback.  The challenge comes in, where the saddle was fitting well, and over time it isn’t – maybe the horse has changed shape, or the saddle needs flocking, or the tree was damaged, but gradually, gently, over time, the horse started showing that he was a little less willing about tack.  He shuffled his feet away from you, he shook his head at you, he snapped his teeth at the girth.  It’s hard to see, because each day is just a little more than the day before.  The frog in a pot of boiling water.  Your saddle fitter comes out to check, sees the signs, and immediately says – your saddle isn’t fitting, your horse is giving you feedback.  Which, when it was happening slowly, right in front of your eyes, was the hardest thing to see.

Is this the only type of feedback needed?  No, we all, no matter how experienced or thoughtful, or logical, need feedback.

Just a short time ago, I was teaching a clinic, and at the end the hosts asked for my feedback.  Was I happy with the condition and training of the horses, the tack, the arena, the yard, the organising, was there anything I would like to tell them, or suggest improvements, or differences?  We discussed one or two very minor things, but overall, I thought everything was fabulous, and was very happy. And, by taking the time to ask for feedback, they were tackling small issues before they became big issues.  Perfect.

On thinking about that, I asked for their feedback about the lessons that I had taught.  I was happy with the way things had gone, and the pupils seemed happy, but just to check?  They said, hmm, maybe I should be making it clearer that the pupils should be praising their horses sooner, for any attempt of try on the horse’s part.  Interesting, I thought.  It’s so automatic for me to praise my horse when I am working with him that maybe I forget to tell others.  And since then, I’ve been much faster to say – yes, good, reward him.  It’s something simple – asking for feedback, listening, putting in motion, that improves everything.

Can you recognise this horse’s thoughts about something in his environment?
Can you recognise this horse’s thoughts about something in his environment? What’s his feedback?

A different yard, where I tried teaching briefly, didn’t work out, because they didn’t ask for, or accept, any form of feedback.  There was a horse who would come out lame, and still work in lessons.  The mare is lame, I’d say.  She ‘s always like that, they replied, it’s fine, she works anyway.  Your saddle doesn’t fit, I’d suggest?  It’s fine, we checked it, was the response…  It bounces on her back?  She’s happy, they’d say, we checked, it’s fine.  There was a lot going on in that yard, and their response was always – this is the way we do it, we’re in a nice routine, so this is the way that it will get done.  If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.  Some people are open to ideas, feedback, sounding boards, and some?  Well, some aren’t.

When was the last time you asked for feedback, from friends, trainers, peers, clients, pupils, coaches, saddle fitters, your horse?  And if they give feedback, are you ready to hear it?