Have You Been Seven Stepped?

Ah, COVID – there have been some benefits, haven’t there?  Among them have been the leaps that people have taken to get their business online.  I think I have attended more CPD (continued professional development) days in the past two years then in the 10 years previously, because with the amount I travel far away, I simply couldn’t plan many in before.  It’s more accessible, easier and far cheaper, when you think of transport and hotel costs.  Awesome.

Sadly, it’s also raised some seriously “interesting” content…  One particular course that I bought left me scratching my head…  (The horse appeared lame in his right foreleg…  The expert body worker was talking about how lame he was in the near (left) fore, and then proceeded to treat the off (right) fore….  It went downhill from there…  Whether he was tongue tied being on film or confused between the terms near and off….  Who knows?  But, it just shows, you can’t believe everything online, or know the quality of content before you begin.

I started to do more online too, I now regularly teach lessons via Zoom, and although not as fun as real life, it still works.  But, I’ve been hesitant in setting up courses, until now.  Now, I’ve figured out (with help, it’s not my clever thinking) what my hesitation was…

I follow a guy online who I think is awesome.  He’s not horse related at all, is about running an ethical business, green ideals and helping people.  And he was chatting about a mentorship program that he had been running.  One of the participants had been chatting to him, and said how grateful she was, that she felt he hadn’t seven-stepped her.  Huh?  What does that mean?  She explained that so many courses, mentorships, workshops, were, she felt, seven steppers.  A lot like following a recipe – here are 7 steps…  Beat the eggs, warm the milk, sift the flour, mix together, add the heat, enjoy your cake….  They treated everyone as if they were starting from the same place (Island A) and would end in the same place (Island B) just “by following these seven simple steps”.  And guess what?  Life isn’t like that, it doesn’t work…  And yet, so many coaches only work to push their seven steps.

Indy was really scared of going to the beach – the sight and sounds of big waves, the odd smell and the skidding sand…  Clicker Training was a massive help for him.

Just from my personal perspective, no one, no one, horse or human, is following the same path or having the same lessons.  Every time I meet a new pair, I will immediately be thinking about what is possible and the definite no’s.  The first thing that pops into my head is clicker training.  For some horses, I love clicker training.  It’s brilliant for horse with fears and phobias…  The horse who is so head shy you can’t put on a bridle; the ones who are scared of clippers or farriers; deworming syringes, injections, and wind surfers (yes, we did need a fix for a beach horse who was scared of wind surfers in the sea).  It’s the best way to get shut down, abused or worried horses out of their shell, thinking and interacting with humans, and great for teaching relationships and body language to kids.  BUT, I’ll only use clicker training with, maybe 25% of horses who I work with.  Why?  Because for many horses, it stops them being able to be still; to just park their feet, still their mind and stand with a human.  They are constantly treating their human like a squeaky toy, or even worse, a cash ATM, and get aggressive or resentful with the human doesn’t come up with a carrot for performing their repertoire of tricks.   I’m also not a huge fan of teaching “tricks” because often they become unwanted behaviour.  (One client taught her horse to paw / hold her hoof up in the air for a treat.  Do you know how many issues that caused – wearing out her feet when tied up waiting for some one by scrape, scrape, scraping the ground.  Striking out with her forefoot when you were busy saddling, grooming or handling her…  not standing for the farrier, the list was endless).

Having a friend along for the outing, such as Lady here, can be a massive help for some horses, while others prefer to lead the way.

There is one very famous Natural Horsemanship course that guides you through steps – you have to play the games in order, to get the badge, win the tick, and move to the next level.  It seriously is seven stepping you.  And, it creates so many issues when novice owners rush through the games to get to the end, often leaving horses confused by the vague things that they have been taught, or scared by the hurry, or shut down by trying to understand and being shouted down.  It can be a great tool in the right hands, with the right trainer, and it can create destructive havoc if done poorly.

On a simpler note – I was googling how to prune my mother’s elderly lavender bushes.  I read through the steps, following the instructions and got to the point saying this must be done in April.  Damn, I thought, totally missed that bit.  Until, I thought about it a few hours later, and checked up – English website.  Meaning that it must be done in spring, before the summer growth begins.  Which is perfect since I’m sitting in the northern hemisphere, and spring is about to be sprung…  The steps still apply, but if a course is made to be country specific, again, you run into confusion.

For me, personally, being a self-confessed techno-phobe, that really is where I have found myself being seven stepped…  open this window, pull down this list, click the tab, and ….  The Damn Bladdy thing still doesn’t work…

And this is why I have started, stopped, started, stopped, struggled with putting together courses and plans – in person, I can meet the horse, chat to the owner, see the living conditions and we can formulate a plan together.  There isn’t, and in no way can there be, a seven-step program that will work for every horse, every rider, every owner and every caretaker.

My advice for owners, riders, horse keepers?  Know that somethings will work for you and your horse, and some things really wont…  Learn your tools, figure out clicker training, liberty training, natural horsemanship, equitation science, classical in hand work, take what is relevant, file away what isn’t, and enjoy your horse.  Seven stepping him?  It won’t work, he hasn’t read the book…  And, the only person who can protect him is you…

 

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Are you open minded? Sorry, no…

 

The mind is like a parachute – it only works when it’s open…  I always loved this quote, and often used it when teaching.  A rider may say something like – “Oh, I don’t like groundwork, if I am paying for a lesson, then I want to ride”.

In some cases, I let it go.  Clearly the rider is not open to ideas (or science – the horse who works in hand and on the lunge is proven to learn faster).  At other times, I’ll say come on, be a parachute, give it a go…  It really depends on the human in front of me.

And then, just last week, I was listening to a podcast on Neuroplasticity.  (Yes, sorry, I am THAT nerdy) and the presenter said something that made me pause…  At the beginning of a convention or workshop (pre-covid) he’d say – “everyone who is open minded, put your hand up.”  And most people would duly raise their hand – it’s trendy to be open minded.  And he’d say – sorry, guys, you’re not.  Open mindedness is not as, well, open, as we think…  OK, so now he had my attention…

We are all pre-programmed, from day 1.  As we are raised, we are surrounded by a community that is constantly shaping us and giving us clues as to who we are and how we fit into society.  As humans, we like to fit in, to be accepted as part of the herd, and doing something that sets us apart is often a scary place to be.  (The current pro / anti vacc is a classic example…  People who were in your “herd” who are disagreeing with your viewpoint are immediately considered unsafe in your subconscious, just for disagreeing).  Religion, culture, language, gender, all create your own reality, that is completely different to everyone else’s reality, and it dictates how closed off you are to new ideas or thinking.

Imagine that I suggested taking a knife and going to stab someone.  Would you be tempted?  Are you open minded enough to consider it?  What about changing your thoughts on religion?  Would you be open to the possibility to convert to Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, atheism, whatever is foreign to what you had been brought up with?  Chances are, no.  Of course, there are channels through which fundamentalists are recruited – a lot of people brought up in Western countries are not growing up with the dreams of becoming a suicide bomber; but, they are normally seeking a way out of something in their lives (yes, I am generalising).  But mostly, we are not open minded enough to completely change our deep beliefs.  What if I told you that the sky is green?  We are not open to changing what we consider fact.  (Until we’ve seen a green flash sunset, but that’s a different story…)  If you are intrigued by this, I highly recommend you watch The Push… It’s quite a challenge to watch – I had to take a few breaks, but it is awesome in understanding the human mind…  https://youtu.be/doFpACkiZ2Q

So why am I talking about this now?

Every single one of us is living from a different perspective.  All of the events that have shaped who you are, have created an individual.  If 100 people attended a workshop / lecture, they would all have a very slightly different take away from it.  Person A might have noticed that they only understood 5% of it – it was too advanced for where she was.  Person B may have thought it was all too simple and commonplace.  Person C may have found a sentence at 6 minutes so totally mind blowing that she couldn’t focus on the next half hour.  And person D may have fallen so deeply in love with the presenter’s shoes that that was all they could think about.  We are all listening to the lecture from a very slightly different place, and so we are “hearing” different things.  None of us will hear the talk as it is being told, because none of us have lived the exact life of the presenter.   What they say, and what we hear are not the same thing.

There are two worlds.  There is the actual world, and there is your own internal world.  Let’s say that today its pouring with rain.  (It really is here, where I’m sitting).  That is the actual world.  The weatherman can say it’s 12 degrees and raining at an average rate of 6mm an hour.  This cannot be disputed.  But, each of us has an internal world, and this is how we RESPOND to the actual world.  Person A – yuck, its raining, I hate the rain, it’s depressing.  Person B – awesome, I’ve just re-seeded my paddocks, this rain is exactly what it needs.  Person C – rain makes my arthritic joints ache.  Person D – rain, awesome, it’ll settle the dust and help my hay fever.  Person E – oh, rain…  I have to go out and feed my horses, unpleasant when it’s pouring.  Person F – rain – how divine, it’s my day off and I can have a duvet and Netflix day, guilt free….  Who is right?  We don’t share the same internal world, we each react to everything differently.

How is this relevant in the horse world?

For starters, it’s going to dictate how much you get, as a rider, from a coach.   As a rider, if a coach demands that I enter his arena with draw reins and enormous spurs, I’m not going to be open to enjoying my lesson, no matter what he says.  He might be brilliant, but because of MY BELIEF SYSTEM, I’m not going to be open to hearing him.  The other side of the coin, I’ve had riders come into my arena with draw reins, ridiculously tight nosebands, whips, spurs and every gadget under the sun.  As I have suggested loosening the noseband and ditching the draw reins, I’ve seen the change of expression on their face and know that I have lost them.  They are so entrenched in THEIR belief that a horse cannot be schooled without gadgets, that whatever I say from then on, clearly I’m an idiot bunny hugger.  Who is right?  Well, I BELIEVE that I’m right.  And they believe just as strongly that they are.  Neither of us is more right than the other, because it’s what we believe in our internal world.

I’m think I’m pretty open minded.  I choose different approaches to working with different horses and riders, but I have concrete NO’s to many things…  Beating up horses; asking more than they are capable of; belittling horse or rider; putting horse or rider into dangerous situations; gadgets; kick, kick, spur, pull; Oh, so many things will make me walk away, because I’m not THAT open minded.

In some cultures, horses are meat animals.  It’s simple – they live in a herd, they are worth $XX per KG of dead weight; they don’t have names or personality.  In other cultures, they are work animals – they provide the transport for crops, people, power to plough or pull, whatever it be.  They need care, as you would care for your tractor, but they are a tool.  For others, they are competition equipment, needed to win medals and secure sponsorships.  They may receive the very best of care, have names etched in gold on their fancy stable door, but if they break or aren’t preforming, they get shipped out and replaced.  At the very opposite end of the spectrum are the horse pets, allowed to live out as nature intended, fed and treated as and when needed, loved and adored, but allowed to be.  Who is right?  Everyone, according to their own belief.  Not many people are going to cope with doing something that is totally alien to their belief system

When dealing with your horse, or thinking of trying out a new trainer, start with a list of things that you are not willing to negotiate on.  And from there, consider what you’d agree to change.  Adding some ground work?  Lunging for a few minutes?  A change of bit?  Putting your leg in a different position?  Remember, just as much as you live your belief system, so does your horse.  If he has been taught, through bad riding, abuse, sore teeth or bad bitting, that bits are poison, you may need to be open minded about riding bitless…

What are you willing to be open minded about?  And what is a big, fat NO?

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Doing this thing right or doing the right thing?

Gili

So, I’m sitting in front of my laptop “writing a blog”…  In reality?  I’m sitting in front of my laptop playing mahjong…  The subtle art of procrastination…  I’m just letting my mind drift while along while I think what to say – right?  Hmmm…  But, actually, the answer was right there, in my game.  The version that I’m playing ends each completed game with a fortune cookie that, when cracked open gives you your cheesy motto for the day…  I was debating how to write about a lesson I taught a few weeks ago, how to begin, and suddenly the right way to start bounced out of my “Congratulations on Winning” fortune cookie…

Ask not if you are doing this thing right, but if you are doing the right thing!”

A lady walked her horse into my arena, all dressed up and ready to go.  She was a new client, had obviously randomly heard there was a clinic and booked a slot, since none of my regular people knew her.  The problem for me, was, she had arrived with her horse tied down with a pair of draw reins.

I began, as ever…  “So, tell me…  Who are you; who is your horse; what’s your story; what brought you here; what’s up?!”  She chatted for a few minutes – started riding later in life, worked hard, saved hard, after her kids left home and she had time and money, bought herself her dream pony, the one that she had thought about on and off since she was little.  So here, at 50+, she sat, a novice rider with her first pony.  All good, well done to her.  So what, I asked, would you most like to get from today, I asked as her very quiet pony plodded a track around me.

“Well”, she began, and addressed the elephant in the room…  She had learnt to ride at the local riding school, on school horses.  She’d ridden them in simple snaffle bridles with one rein and felt pretty confident in how she was coping with keeping her hand quiet, still and organized.  Then, she’d taken the plunge and bought her pony.  (I have a tendency to call all equines ponies, but this really was a pony, a stocky little cob gelding, who looked as if, if the Hounds of the Baskerville charged him, he may just about break into a jog).  She’d had him a couple of weeks and was beginning to hack out, exploring the local rides.  She was lucky enough to have some great off road riding around her.  And then, her friend and the friend’s teenage daughter came to visit.  The daughter had a jumping pony, who was “hot and exciting, always leaping around as if the ground was on fire” and this girl rode her pony in draw reins, especially hacking, since it was “the only way to be safe”.  She’d advised (as only a 14 year old with vast experience can) that it was dreadfully unsafe to go out with draw reins, and a flash noseband.  And now, here was our rider, coming to ask me – “Am I using these two pars of reins right?”

I looked at her long suffering pony, standing there half asleep, no thought of charging off or flinging his head, with his chin pulled into his chest and my fortune cookie thought was floating through my head – why is she asking me if she is using two reins right, when she would be better off asking me, is it right to use two reins?

“Imagine”, I began “driving a formular one racing car.  Those drivers wear fire resistant, spinal supporting suits, thick gloves and helmets with face shields”

“Yes”, she relied

“So, do you wear a fire suit, gloves and a helmet to driver your Mini to the shopping centre?”

“No, of course not!”

Everything is relative.  Riders of racing mountain bikes who hurl them selves off the top of mountains wear far superior helmets and protection to the person riding their standard bike around the park on a Sunday afternoon.  I remember when I was planning my bumble up Kili, I went into a chain of budget quality sports equipment warehouse and quickly realized that their £19.99 hiking trainer was not going to cut it.  And the £300 pair I did buy would have been over kill for the occasional dog walk.

We discussed the effects of draw reins (by now, yes, I had removed them), why, in my opinion NO horse should be wearing them and what they are actually for and do.  I asked her to compare her pony with the friend’s daughter’s pony.  That jumping pony – maybe it does need it’s pelham, flash and possibly a martingale for hacking (although some lessons would probably be of more benefit – let’s not go there).  But that pony and her pony, they were very different models….  Did she feel safe on her pony?  Yes.  Did she feel in control?  Yes.  Did she buy him on the advise of her riding school instructor, because he was a safe, snaffle mouthed, bombproof, hacking school master?  Yes.  Had he ever threatened to bolt, rear, buck, swing his head around or behave badly?  (As I watched him raising an indignant eyebrow at me – the stupidity of a human suggesting such a waste of energy – really).  Did she hack out wearing a riding helmet, Hi-Viz vest, and good boots, while he wore a properly fitted bridle and saddle?  Of course.

So, maybe the question shouldn’t be, am I using these draw reins right, but rather am I doing the right thing using these draw reins?

I’m very happy to say that we continued our lesson; the pony woke up and had some fun when his chin wasn’t tied to his chest; our intrepid rider had a ball, laughed, figured stuff out and organized her body, and the draw reins staying hanging over the arena fence.  Yes, she took them home with her (tied like a neckstrap around the pony’s neck) but she only took them home to avoid littering the centre.  She intended to add spring clip to one end and use them as a longer dog lead for her puppy who was not ready to go lead-less in the dog park.

How many times should we be questioning what we are doing, rather than how?

Right, I’m off for another round of Mahjong – who knows what is going to come out of my fortune cookie this time – it’s all just about research!

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World Animal Day Blog

World Animal Day was yesterday, 4th October.  A day to celebrate our (mainly) four legged friends… (Don’t say that to our friends with 3, 2 or no legs…)  Which led me to thinking about how this weird 2020 year has affected them, as well as us.

Hello Friend…
Hello Friend…

Many people assume that it’s been a great year for animals – we’ve all seen the stories on the news, haven’t we?  Deer in Japanese cities, wild boar in Barcelona…  Cleaner water, a return of many butterflies and birds.  (Sadly, many of the truly awesome animal stories, such as dolphins in Venice and drunk elephants in a Chinese tea garden were later proved fake).

But has 2020 really been a good year for our friends?  Alas, for many, no.

It was first apparent to me in on Gili Trawangan, the tiny dot of an Indonesian island where I became stranded.  The two types of animals there – cats and horses – are both being badly affected.  Feral cats abound on the island, and many “adopt” a local warung (restaurant) where the owners may give them scraps, and certainly the tourists are generous with their left over ayam (chicken).  These cats, although not living in luxurious suites, are generally pretty sleek and well fed.  Now?  The tourists aren’t coming, the chefs aren’t cooking, the warungs are closed, so where do the Kuching (cats) eat?  This is true of many thousands of animals all over the world, particularly on routes such as the banana pancake trail, where animals depend on tourism.  (The banana pancake trail is a roughly defined route around south east Asia.  It forms the steps taken by many Instagram trendy millennials lured by cheap accommodation, sunshine, parties, Instagram worthy photo opportunities, and as the locals have discovered the western sweet tooth, an endless supply of banana pancakes for breakfast…)

And, as people who know my blogs will have already read, the cidomo taxi ponies, who move tourists around these islands, are also out of work.  No tourists, no need for tourist pony taxi, no work, no money.  Charities such as Horses of Gili and Cats of Gili, (who are doing “pussy patrols” to feed the warung cats) have been hard hit by the huge financial burden of trying to feed these jobless animals, as well as the drop in donations from the closure of the tourism industry.  Double whammy.

And then, you hear more.  My cousin’s cat, in Australia, was taken to the vet and diagnosed with a bladder infection.  According to the vet, bladder infections have gone through the roof in COVID quarantine time.  His theory – cats are stressed by their humans being home all the time.  They are used to independence and quiet and suddenly their humans – big and small – are doing all their office and school work online, getting stressed and on top of each other, and the cats are (literally) getting p’ed off…  And all those hilarious videos of fed up dogs being taken for ANOTHER walk…  Seriously?!

Horse charities across Europe have also been hit with many animals being surrendered because owners simply cannot afford to feed them, having lost their jobs.  And, stable yards where owners have been restricted are seeing welfare issues in horses not being maintained to quite such a high standard, hectically rushed grooms just unable to give the 5* care that a single doting owner can.  Also, sadly, many riding schools, who barely make it by month by month have gone under, leaving more homeless ponies and city children without access to discover the magic of ponies.

It’s not all doom and gloom – many horses who have been hard at work received a desperately needed holiday.  And there are thousands of cats and dogs who lived lonely lives while their human guardians were at work, who are overjoyed at having their friends stay with them.  Turbo, my Mom’s little Jack Russel is certainly in this group – he’s rightly over joyed at now being offered a seat ON the couch and having his human around 24/7….

Turbo, the JRT, laying claim to the couch
Turbo, the JRT, laying claim to the couch

So, how are the animals in your community coping?  Take a look around and see which feathered, furry or finned friends are not coping so well, and see if you can offer a helping hand – from scattering bird food at a local tourist hot spot, to letting your cat have a peaceful sleep while you work on the balcony, how can you help your animal co-workers survive (and thrive) through the rest of this COVID time?

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?

I was reading a very old book recently…

I was reading a very old book recently – the 1952 Pony Club Annual – which was mostly just a little bit of entertainment…  Would you know how to judge the yearly horse against tractor ploughing match?  But, one article made me think.

The subject was, “Judging a Showing Class”.  It was explaining what the judges have to do, how to behave, how to judge a class keeping good time, being fair, acting professionally.  And he made a comment that I think too many people nowadays forget.

When faced with a large class, he said, it’s all too easy to pick out the top 5 or 6 ponies going around and ignore the rest.  But, everyone has paid the same amount of entry fee, everyone has put in the effort of training their horse, grooming and plaiting him, getting him loaded or riding him to the show ground and trying their best, while being there.  Everyone is showing respect to the judge by being properly turned out and following the rules, and so, everyone deserves equal treatment.  Every horse or pony in the class should be inspected, they should be watched walk, trot and cantering around the arena.  Their conformation and movement is judged as they come back to walk, and they stand in the lineup.  You cannot ignore someone because their horse is smaller, or younger, less polished or the rider is a lower level, they’ve all tried.  They all deserve to be seen.

These two cuties, Socks and Lucy, were lent to my riding school many years ago, to work with the kids. They were best buddies and liked to stay together. They both had a job, both put their hours in… Did one deserve more respect than the other, just because one had short ears and one had longer ones?
These two cuties, Socks and Lucy, were lent to my riding school many years ago, to work with the kids. They were best buddies and liked to stay together. They both had a job, both put their hours in… Did one deserve more respect than the other, just because one had short ears and one had longer ones?

And so, I think about lessons.  So often a rider will walk in and apologise because they are a novice, or “only hack”, or don’t want to compete.  Being a visiting clinician, people often treat me as some all-knowing, all seeing oracle, who’ll judge them and find them wanting.  So often, the first words that I hear are – I’m sorry, I honestly think I’m probably wasting your time, but I thought I’d come along…

Every person who comes into my arena has taken the same steps….  They’ve thought about the fact that they are willing and interested to learn or change; maybe they’ve researched who I am, read some of my blogs; that they’ll take the risk that someone new will be honest and fair to them, and not tear them down; that they’ve organised to borrow a horse, or to get themselves and their own horse ready and to wherever I am; they have often taken extra time to groom and polish their horse, tack and themselves, to present an attractive and professional appearance; to hand over the cold hard cash….  Whether they have an Olympic quality warmblood, an off the track thoroughbred, a little borrowed riding school pony, they have all invested time and effort to be there, so surely, they deserve equal care and attention back?

I’m reminded about a saying that my own mentor often uses – A rosebud is no lesser than a rose.  Every horse and rider are on their own journey, and being on the first few rung of the ladder is no better or worse than being 100 steps further along…

Another of my riding school ponies, Haiwon, could turn his hoof to most things, from mounted games (first picture) to show jumping, to eventing, but playing double donkey games with his smaller riders was just as much fun for him – he didn’t judge how big or experienced his jockeys were, he just got on with smiling…
Another of my riding school ponies, Haiwon, could turn his hoof to most things, from mounted games (first picture) to show jumping, to eventing, but playing double donkey games with his smaller riders was just as much fun for him – he didn’t judge how big or experienced his jockeys were, he just got on with smiling…

One of my absolute pet peeves is walking into a yard, a riding school, wherever, and seeing the coach sitting on the fence, staring at his phone, yelling out, “yes, yes, well done, that was good, do it again…”  The rider is hearing the voice float across to them, and are focusing and doing, and the coach is….  Staring at his phone.  Even worse, with the surge in use of wireless walkie talkie radios, is the chatting to the peanut gallery.  The rider has an earpiece and is doing their thing out in the arena.  The coach has the microphone and possibly another receiving earpiece.  All of which is fine, and often so valuable, until the coach has a circle of adoring fans around them.  The coach turns on the microphone and says “ok, good, use more leg, do it again”, and then mutes the microphone, and chats with his groupies – “yes, great, so dinner tonight, the new restaurant sounds good, who is the designated driver, because you know, it’s not going to be me…”  And turns the microphone back on to say, “yes, better, do it again and add more leg”.  This often happens with that newer, lower level rider who is demanding less of his attention.  They’ve invested the time, effort, and money to be there, don’t they deserve the same respect?

There are so many, brilliantly fabulous coaches and trainers out there, more often than not doing amazing work.  So, to riders who are accepting less attention, less help, less focus – please, please, stand up and be seen!  Just because you “only hack out” or “only borrow a riding school pony” you are important, you are just as deserving of good training, you should be seen….  Find one of the many brilliant coaches who really will invest time and care into your training, you’ll certainly feel the benefits…

The addiction of STUFF

One thing that I have always hoarded far too much – books.  Even now, stuck on a little dot of an island, I have 6 books on the go at the same time – 4 are on my kindle and 2 are actual books.  And, I do have a couple of crates and bags scattered around the world, mainly…  books.

One of my current books is a page a day on self-disciple, motivation, and anti-procrastination.  It is pretty easy, that one page a day.  A couple of days ago, the theme was something that already resonates with me.  It said, we should try to simplify, live with less.  It makes you more focused, less distracted, more able to deal with coping in bad situations where you do have to live without something, and more resourceful about being able to adapt.

I already live simply – no house, no furniture, no animals, no physical office or workspace.  Only carrying with me what will fit into my suitcase.  I have been threatening for years to attempt the 100 item challenge – you can only own 100 things.  But, you know…  books….

Very slightly OCD about my packing - everything has to be straight...
Very slightly OCD about my packing – everything has to be straight…

When I flew into Asia, I came with my giant, 30kg suitcase and 8kg hand luggage.  When I flew onto Bali, I came with 12kg of luggage, leaving the bulk in Singapore.  I have travelled with less, because it’s only been a short trip, with less things to do, less commitment, less need of things.  So, now here I sit, with about 5 changes of clothes, my laptop, 2 books, a kindle and ummm….  That’s about it.  I certainly have less than 100 items, can’t trim down my possessions much more, and do you know what?  It’s awesome.  Less thinking everyday about what to wear, what to do, tidying up, sorting out.  It’s very cool.  So when the book said, see what you can trim and delete from your life – well, not a lot really.  (It does help that all you need here are a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of flip flops…)

What’s all this got to do with horses?  Who, honestly, keeps things clutter free and easy with their horses?

Years ago, I worked for an Olympic 3-day eventer.  He had about 10 horses, and the tiniest little tack room ever.  Each horse had a halter and a bridle; a rug or two.  And that was basically it.  There were maybe 5 saddles, a handful of bits, a pile of clean saddle pads, and….  The horses were ridden in simple snaffles, cavesson nosebands, no martingales or gadgets, nothing.  On one occasion, I asked him if I could hack one of the horses out with a martingale, because he could get quite full of himself and explosive.  Sure, was the reply – if you can find one in my tack room?  He’d said this with certainty, because he knew that he didn’t own one.  (He later asked me – do you know what a martingale is?  Well, yes, I replied – strap from girth to reins, passes through a neck strap?  No, he explained, it’s a flashing neon sign, saying that the horse’s owner doesn’t care to educate him and just ties his head down instead…  I haven’t used a martingale since…)

When I had my yard in Zimbabwe, every horse had a halter and a fly fringe.  All the riding horses had a simple snaffle bridle.  Most had a winter rug, and there were a variety of saddles, certainly not one each.  Each groom had a grooming kit, there was a first aid kit, a pile of working and show saddle pads, and….  Nothing.  80 horses shared one very small tackroom, because their kit was so simple.  No gadgets, no martingales, very few boots, one or two flash nosebands.

My world fits into this little carry on...
My world fits into this little carry on…

I look at some of the yards (most of them) where I go to teach – horses each have vast tack closets, enormous tackrooms, and riders still store their collection of 89 different coloured matchy matchy sets of saddle pads at home.  I did tell one young rider that the only reason she had a horse was because she figured that at her age, it was not appropriate to dress up Barbie dolls any more…

So, my challenge to you – could you strip down to less than 100 items in your tack cupboard?  Could you ride your horse just in a simple snaffle and saddle?  No martingales, no gadgets, no nosebands, no side reins or bungees or multitudes of 89 different coloured saddle pads?  It really does make your life simpler!

 

 

 

 

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