There is an old story about two dogs who walk into a room….The first one enters, and comes out wagging his tail, wearing a big sloppy grin on his face from what he has seen in the room.The second dog enters, starts to growl, snarl and bare his teeth.He comes out of the door angry and snappy.What was in the room that provoked such a huge difference in these two dog’s reactions?
Mirrors.The first dog entered the room with a smile, saw a smiling dog who wagged their tail at him, and he was wagging his tail right back…The second dog entered growling, and surprise surprise, the dog he met was growling too.
This story always sticks in my mind – what you think, expect, anticipate, you’re going to get back, double time.
I spend a lot of time in airports and generally the poor staff there are harassed and complained at by irritated, tired travellers.They are often defensive, and if you go in angry and defensive, guess what you get back?If you go in laughing, happy, joking, it is generally what you get in return…
Why am I thinking about this now?A while ago, I was working a horse.I knew, well, not a lot about this horse.He was about 10, middle-aged, had done a fair amount, needed some work.So, I worked with him.Afterwards, I was chatting to the instructor who generally worked with the horse.
“He’s a sweet little guy, isn’t he?”I asked.Stood while I got organised, went off when I said go, gave me exactly what I asked for at each moment, tried hard to understand and please, made some nice changes in the way he was carrying himself.I was happy with the session; he and I left the arena both smiling.
“No”, the instructor replied, he’s difficult.He’s stubborn, mean and has a nasty buck.He doesn’t offer anything unless you push, and even then he is sulky and difficult…..He’s a bully who needs bullying.
I clarified, had I worked the right horse?The big grey in the paddock at the back?Well yes, that horse.The difficult one.No, I corrected, the big grey, the easy one…
What happened?Well, I believe that we were the two dogs entering the room.I think she found the gelding that her boss had bought and assigned to her to bring on when she was already too busy, with too much on her plate.I think she approached the horse with that attitude, so he responded in kind.Oh horse, I hate riding you…Oh human, I hate carrying you too…And then, I walked in, with no pressure, no time constraints, no boss, no agenda, and said ooooh a horse…A new friend…Hello Pretty Horse, will you be my friend, will you carry me, will you play and dance with me?And, the horse again responded in kind…..Ohhh, hello human, yes, let’s explore, let’s play, what shall we offer each other….
Horses are a mirror to us – walk into their stable with what you expect and 99% of the time, they’ll prove you right…
“Why are you teaching the ponies circus tricks?”I was asked.
Are we teaching circus tricks?
An animal in the wild, any animal, has its mind and time occupied.A horse has to find enough food, possibly digging through snow or covering great distances.They must find water, avoid predators, look for suitable breeding partners and mares are raising their foals.Herd dynamics take even more time.Do they have time to get bored?No.Do you see a wild horse with a stable vice, such as wind sucking or weaving?No.The same is true for any animal, be it a grazing prey animal (deer, buck, etc) a predator (lion, tiger, wolf etc) fish or birds.They have basic needs and these must be met.
We take an animal, supply its basic needs – we feed them, water them, choose their friends, geld the colts.Suddenly, they are unemployed.Fair enough – a life of leisure, right?Then, we house them, at worse in small cages (yes, call your horse’s stable a cage, does that change how you see it?), and at best in a fenced paddock with friends.He is still contained in a much smaller area than he would if he were wild.Again, apply this to all animals – your dog should be running with his pack, hunting his dinner.Now, he sleeps on the couch and only gets to walk an hour or two a day.A cat has more freedom, unless a city apartment cat, but has still lost his main jobs.So, what do they all have in common?Boredom.Horses start to develop stable vices.Dogs chew your shoes and jump on visitors.Cats claw the furniture.So, what do we need to do about it?Environmental and behavioural Enrichment.Which is?
Some of these fixes are passive – environmental – which tend to be about making the housing / area better for the animal.They would include a bigger paddock for your horse.Interesting things – a river, banks, forests, a sand pit for rolling, (paddock paradise, which is a track system within paddocks, is becoming popular).
In human terms, imagine that you have been locked in somewhere for some reason.You don’t have a job or a purpose, and could just sit 24 hours a day, staring into space.Environmental enrichment could be having a window, a comfortable bed, a TV.Something that could distract you.
Behavioural enrichment is more about having something to do.This is, thankfully, becoming more common in zoos and laboratories that house animals.It is things such a hiding the animal’s food in logs or pipes and giving them pieces of stick or straw to pull the food out, giving them balls suspended from the roof filled with hay, giving a mouse a running wheel or giving apes climbing frames and swinging ropes.(Lottie’s treat barrel).For a horse, it could be a small hole haynet, or a treat ball that must be rolled around until cubes fall out.Or, in human terms, a gym to work out in, a jigsaw puzzle, a recipe and ingredients to cook your own food.It’s something that is generally more about natural behaviour – hunting out your food, keeping active, solving a problem.
Now, I’m not condoning catching wild animals and bringing them in – wild dolphins belong at sea, wild elephants belong wandering the savannah, but if an animal is in captivity (even if it a domesticated horse) they need enrichment.Elephants standing on balls or monkeys dressed up and playing a guitar – that is a whole different ball game and really shouldn’t be happening.Have a look here, for what I consider a good scheme for animals having to live in a zoo.
All of these animals are trying to live with humans, which can be challenging all on its own – humans have a whole new set of rules and difficulties.So, we need to help the animals adapt.
You teach your dog to sit, to lie down, not to jump on visitors, to walk on a lead.Why?Are these circus tricks?We don’t think of them in that way – we think of it as making it easier for us to live with our dogs, and easier for our dogs to understand us and cope with living in houses, going out for exercise and not getting in trouble for knocking granny over.We teach our cats to scratch their scratching posts instead of the furniture, and to chase the toy mouse hanging on the end of a string, because it distracts them and gives them some hunting type play.Is that a circus trick?
How about horses?We teach them to lead, to tie up, to stand for grooming and for the farrier.In a lot of cases, we teach them to be ridden, driven or worked.We teach them how to adapt – we domesticated them, we owe it to them to help them live in our worlds.How about challenging their learning ability?In a recent blog and members monthly lesson, I was discussing proprioception, and some of the tasks we can set horses to help them discover more about their own bodies.These included standing on plastic bags, walking over poles, stepping through hula hoops.Its shows them where their body’s edges are, how tall they are, how wide they are.It does challenge them to think.It distracts them from standing in a stable or paddock all day, and helps them to move their bodies.
What do you think, behavioural and environmental enrichment, or circus tricks?(And yes, for paid Kudaguru members, this is an upcoming lesson).
Creating confidence in young riders is best achieved with easily gained challenges and lots of repetitions.
During the lesson, leaders and ponies often need to minute or two to recover after trotting and there are many exercises that the rider can practice in halt. The most simple and widely known is Around the World.
At its simplest, the rider turns 360 degrees whilst sitting on the pony. The rider begins by raising one leg – in this case the right – and takes it over the pony’s neck so that they are sitting facing sideways, both legs on the pony’s left side. The left leg is then raised and taken over the pony’s quarters so that the rider is facing the tail. The right leg is taken over the quarters to take the rider sideways, facing right. Finally, the left leg passes over the neck so the rider is back to facing forward. This is then repeated in the opposite direction.
If there is a group of riders, they can then do Around the World as a race, all riders setting off on ready, steady, go, and shouting out their pony’s name as they get back “home”. Doing the exercise with their hands on their head makes it much for riders to find their balance.
Another option is to take the rider on a journey, Around their World. They begin at home – this could be by saying that they at the riding school for very young riders, or they name of the town or country for slightly older children. As they sit sideways, they say the name of another place. Either a place they go (like the shops, home, school etc), or another city or country. As they travel around, backwards and sideways again, they choose another place to go, arriving back at the riding school or the actual town as they arrive back facing forwards. Repeat this going the other way around the pony, choosing new places to go. This is a really good way of teaching children about their environment and the world that they live in.
I also ask the riders, how they are getting there? What is the mode of transport? For serious children, this maybe literal – if it is far it could be by plane. If over water, maybe a boat. If the next town, a car or bicycle. Other children will come up with flying carpets, skiing behind a whale, floating on a cloud. The sky is the limit!
Moving on to other exercises will help to get the rider supple and confident moving about on top of the pony. Change of seat is little more difficult to do. The rider begins the same as Around the World, lifting the right leg over the pony’s neck and so sitting facing to the left. They take their left hand across their body to hold the pommel (front of the saddle). Their right arm goes across their back and they hold the cantle (rear of the saddle). Keeping their legs hanging down the left side of the pony, the rider rolls their body over, so facing the right side of the pony, their stomach on the saddle and their weight supported on their arms. The rider then swings their right leg up, over the pony’s quarters and they sit up again, back in the saddle. Repeat this in the opposite direction, beginning with the left leg over the pony’s neck.
Kick ups are another useful and fun exercise. The rider holds the cantle of the saddle with both hands. Leaning their upper body back, they use their core and thigh muscles to lift both legs, swinging them up so that their heels kick together above the pony’s neck. Care must be taken that the pony will stand still and not fidget or take fright when the rider’s legs move up through their line of vision. It should be stressed to the rider to lift their legs high enough not to kick their pony on the neck. As the legs touch together, the rider then lets them come gently back to the pony’s sides without kicking him. While first learning, it can help to have a person standing on each side of the pony. They each hold one of the rider’s feet, and on counting 1, 2, 3, swing the foot up, helping the rider to kick their feet above the pony’s neck. The rider is then encouraged to try it out on their own.
Once the rider can do this, they can move onto the kick up behind. This is much more difficult. The hands are placed on the front of the knee rolls. The rider should again try to move in one fluid movement, and needs to have a reasonably strong upper body. It often helps if they have the idea of doing a hand stand. In one swing, the head and neck fold forward toward the pony’s shoulder and the rider raises their body up onto their hands, allowing the legs to swing up and out behind, so they can kick the entire length of their leg together, above the pony’s tail. Once their legs have kicked together, they softly and smoothly come back down to sit upright in the saddle.
As the rider gets more able, they can do all of these unaided, but the pony should always be held – a runaway pony in the middle of the exercise would be disastrous. Done carefully in a controlled environment, these all exercises with encourage confidence, balance and good use of the core.
Proprioception – it’s the buzz word at the moment, isn’t it?So, what is it and why is it important to me and my horse?
You’re standing on a beach, barefoot in the sand – through the soles of your feet, you’re getting a whole heap of information – is the sand wet or dry?Is it deep and heavy, or is it firm and easy to stay on top of?Is it silky smooth or sharp with bits of shell?Is the tide rolling in and out, and if it is, are your ankles having to make subtle shifts of tension and relaxation, holding on and letting go, to allow you to remain upright?
It’s the middle of the night and you wake up and need to turn the bedside lamp on – can you reach the correct arm out of your bed, to the right height of the bedside table and connect your fingers to the light switch without knocking over your water glass?
Those are two instances of proprioception.It’s a (usually sub-conscious) knowledge of where you are in space – are you standing, sitting or lying down.As you read this, you know where you are in the world.And, its your body’s ability to remain upright while you walk, without you spending much time wondering if you are going to fall over.A lot of this comes from something called a spindle, which is a receptor in each and every muscle that transmits its location and action to your brain.Clever things, our bodies.
So, why do we think about this in the horse world?If horses are born and brought up as “real” (in my world) horses, they learn where their feet are.A foal grows up on a farm in the mountains.He has to walk up and down hills, cross rough ground, smooth ground, stony ground.He has to jump ditches and streams, and paddle through rivers.He swims through dams and ducks under trees.He’s a typical kid – he feels things through his soles; branches and sticks brush against his sides; low branches brush over his ears.He smells plants and other animals, touches the ground and rocks, tastes different grasses and leaves.He develops his knowledge of where his feet are at any one time, and knows instinctively that when walking on slippery ground downhill, he needs to throw his weight back and take extra care.
Another foal is born on a small property.He spends much of his time in a stable, and when he comes outside, he walks along a flat, paved path into a square paddock of manicured grass.There are no slopes to climb, no banks or ditches to clamber through, no rivers or streams to paddle, no stones to avoid.After a few hours, he is led back along the safe path, following his dam, and put in a square stable with no sharp objects, four square edges and a thick bed.Later, he learns to work in a rolled and raked, flat, smooth sand arena, or if a race horse, to gallop along a flat mowed grass track.
Which of these foals, and later, young horses, is going to be more intuitive about his balance, his feet on the ground, organising himself when faced with climbing down a hill?Which horse would you rather ride out on?
Horses used to be very sure footed and aware about their position in the world, but sadly as their space gets smaller and smaller, and many are bred as “hot house flowers” that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars / pounds, they are treated more and more as fragile glass ornaments.They lose a lot of their natural proprioceptive skills and possibly even more damaging, they’re unaware of their bodies and more prone to injury.So, what do we do about it?
We give them awareness challenges.We ask them to do odd things – walk over poles.Walk over flat poles on the ground, raised poles, a high pole and then a low pole.We ask them to walk over plastic, to stand on things, go under things, go through things.To walk backwards, to walk sideways.We ask them to be more aware.
(For those of you who read the monthly newsletter, Sherri Bull-Rimmer, a faradic therapist who comments each month, wrote an article about this a couple of months ago.)
Isn’t it interesting – different people’s responses to the same thing.I took this photograph in Greece recently, and thought it was very sweet.On showing it to a friend, she was horrified.
“How can you, of all people condone such blatant animal abuse?” she asked.
I asked her, what she was seeing.A poor abused animal, tied in the sun, and made to work.Its abuse, she repeated.So, I looked at the photo again, remembering my thoughts when I had taken it in the first place.
So, what was it that I saw?
I saw a donkey in very nice condition, not too overweight and at risk of developing laminitis, but nicely covered, with a good layer of fat on his rib cage.A clean, well brushed coat that was free from any harness rubs or injury.Well-trimmed, tidy hooves that weren’t cracked or chipped.A harness that fitted well and was oiled and clean so as to avoid rubbing him.An animal that was, yes, working for his living, but an animal that someone was taking care of, an animal that was well enough respected that he was clean, healthy, sound and well socialised.An animal who was not rotting in a paddock somewhere, but who had a purpose and seemed happy enough with his lot.What would I change?Water would have been nice, but we have no way of knowing how long he was going to be standing there – he could have walked 10 minutes from his paddock to get there and be going again in 10 minutes time.Shade?Well, these donkeys living in Greece are used to extreme temperatures, and as this was early in the morning and quite cool, it was actually rather nice standing in the weak morning sun.Space from the motor bikes?Well, does he look worried?Working animals, particularly pack animals, are generally trained to stand still in tight places while being loaded.This little guy gave the impression of happily soaking up the sun’s rays, like a contented cat.
In developing, or poor countries, animals still have their place as beasts of burden.What do they say, about most countries having their history on the back of a horse?Are all of these animals abused?Of course not.Many, sadly, are.But all?No.Are guide dogs, sheep dogs, police dogs abused?How about riding school ponies or rats who hunt for land mines?I always remember the story of a dog who was housed in a rescue centre in the UK.He was un-adoptable – he kept going out on trial only to be returned – he destroyed furniture, jumped on the kids, was quite uncontrollable.Eventually, the police adopted him, and he became one of their best drug sniffing dogs, over joyed at having a job to do.He was just bored and frustrated when asked to sit at home all day.Working animals don’t automatically bear the label of abused animals.But equally, many animals who stand alone in a paddock, day after day, never brushed, never seeing a farrier or their owner are miserable, and yes, suffer from a different type of abuse.
My answer, take each case as a separate case.Use your eyes, use your common sense…If the animal looks content and relaxed, chances are, he’s doing ok…
At the moment, I’m walking around with a knee brace on. Long story short, I’ve upset the ligaments, tendons and cartilage in my knee, and the best way forward seems to be wearing a big black metal brace, with hinges that allow it to bend, and elastic bands built into it, creating a resistance to make me work harder. My knee’s habit of wobbling alarmingly from side to side, or giving way entirely has now been stopped all together. Which is awesome, in theory. However… There must be a downside, right? There so often is… Because my knee is now tracking forward and backward without rotation, the joints above and below – hip and ankle – are now under unusual use and are in a fair amount of pain. Which impacts my back, because for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If one thing can’t do its usual practice, often it affects something else.
Which leads me to think about both horses and riders.
Horses compensate in, mainly, two ways. The part that most of us (hopefully) know, understand and accept, is that they will move out of the way of pain. A horse pulls off his front shoe. Because he now draws his weight up, off, back, behind the nude hoof, he gets sore in the shoulder / long back muscle on the same side as the hoof that lost the shoe. If this is more on going (a hoof abscess, punctured sole etc), he can get sore in the opposite hind quarter, because it transfers away, across the diagonal. If he is sore in his mouth, he may raise his head higher when ridden, so dropping down in his back, so ending up with back pain, from a sore tooth. You get the idea. I remember a horse a long time ago who was put down for suspected kissing spines. In post mortem, they discovered the issue was a tooth abscess. He was so sore in his mouth that he hollowed his back and went in a kissing spine kind of way. The horse could have been saved if they’d delved a little deeper into his secrets.
The other way that a horse will compensate is, possibly, less obvious, but I think, even more important to understand. If water is flowing down a river, and the river is blocked, or dammed up, the water will find a new route – maybe it will flood low lying ground or find a new route for the river to flow. Water wants to move, so will find a new way.
How does this apply to our horse? I am going to direct this towards lunging, but it applies in all work. I hate lunging with any form of gadget or rein (other than the lunge rein). Horses are designed to move their heads while they walk. When you, as a human, walk along, you swing your arms, yes? Your right arm swings forwards with your left leg and vice versa. That is why, if you have to walk with a crutch or walking stick, you hold it in the opposite hand. Why do we do this? It keeps us balanced – as mammals who are vertical, we swing our arms forward and back to help with our vertical balance. Now a horse, who is a more horizontal mammal, can’t use his arms to swing, since he doesn’t have any… So, he nods his head forward and back, so that his long neck can help to stabilise his length. People who watch a lot of racing may have heard the expression that a horse won on the nod – meaning that as his head nodded forwards, it took his nose a fraction out in front of the second placed horse.
So, lets take this horse, who is meant to move his head, and tie his head in one place, because that is what we are told to do, right? We put him into side reins, or German reins, or a Market Harborough, or a bungee or whatever you use / call it, that holds his head in one place. And now, he must run around like that, often on a circle, which isn’t that normal for a horse in the first place. And, we wonder why it goes wrong… Let me tie your hands to your sides and make you run fast around in circles… You want the water (horse) to move, but you create a blockage in the movement, so, the water (horse) finds another way.
Apparently – clever people have worked it out – a horse has 17 different routes of evading a pair of side reins on a lunge circle. I have never tried to work them out, or count, but off the top of my head – swing quarters in, swing quarters out, drop shoulder in, drop shoulder out. Lean on the rein, tuck behind the rein. Tip to the right, tip to the left. Stop tracking the inside hind through, stop tracking the outside hind through. Rotate the withers in or out. Its like my knee brace – stop the wiggle somewhere, another joint has to move differently.
The only animal designed to keep its head still, is a chicken… Pick up a chicken (a live one, not one about to go into a roasting tray…) and notice that he keeps his head straight out in front of him. Tilt his body to the right or to the left, and notice that he keeps his beak level, and eyes straight in front. This chicken, he would be great in a pair of side reins, but a horse, not so much. We lunge in side reins because for so many years, we have focused on getting his head down, but fortunately now, more and more people are realising that we should be working on getting the back UP. All that lunging on a small circle with side reins does, is, wears out his joints, places strains on his tendons and ligaments, gets him fitter and fitter (for those who lunge their horse to get rid of excess energy – he’ll get more and more of that excess energy!) and reconfirms his favourite method of evasion… He compensates for having his head tied down, but letting the movement wiggle out somewhere else.
What do we do instead? Preferably – lunge with a rope halter and lunge rein or learn to long rein with two reins. Both take more skill than traditional lunging, but both offer so much more in the results that can be achieved… You can send the horse in straight lines, curved lines, big circles, some small turns, and can alter where you ASK his head to go, rather than forcing one position.
What do you do with your horse that he is possibly avoiding or compensating for? How can you help rather than hinder him? So, in my example, will give up the side reins and take on a better way to do things?
In one of the places where I stay, there is about a 5-minute walk to the nearest supermarket, and so, I do it often. Chocolate and coffee, you know, vital daily necessities…
And, at one point, you walk along side a row of houses, where, midway down, lives a lovely little tabby cat. That is all I know about her – which is the house she lives in. And, that she is my friend. As other people walk past, and ignore her, she sits on the little brick pillar at the end of her footpath, and watches the world go by. And then, when she sees me coming and I talk to her, she is all mewing and purring, standing with all four feet tucked into the little bit of space, and we greet with head bumps and rubs and purrs. It’s purely a happy greeting – I don’t have food or anything for her, she has nothing for me, but we chat for a few minutes and it leaves both of us with a smile. A very simple interaction, with no real point other than to make us happy.
A while ago, I was in Singapore, leaving a shopping centre, where the pavement passes the bus stop. It was 6pm and crowded with people leaving work, coming into the shopping centre, finding hawker centres for food, just the hustle bustle of a city evening. And there was a little girl, standing on the edge of the bus stop. She must have been about 3 or 4, and was there with her Mom or Nanny, and she was waiting for a bus to arrive. But, clearly, she wasn’t waiting for the bus, but for who was on it. She was so excited, going from foot to foot, knees pumping up and down as she bounced. Every few seconds she would turn and look at her Mom or Nanny, grin, even squeal, with joy, and then go back to looking ahead and bouncing from foot to foot. I slowed down, even more than the crowds made me, to watch and see what would happen… The next bus pulled in, and as the crowd all came out, there was a man, looking for her. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy”, she shouted, so excited that she literally couldn’t contain herself, wriggling with happiness. This was clearly a ritual that was quite common for both.
Daddy crouched down, open armed, picked her up, swung her around, all the time she was bouncing with joy. There is simply no other word for it. And, everyone around them started to smile to – how can you not?
How often are we stressed, or rushing, running from point A to point B and not taking the time to stop and smell the coffee? Recently I met up with a pony who I hadn’t seen for a very long time. I sat on the poles closing him inside his pen and we had a good chat for a while, him lipping at my hair and hands, checking my pockets for carrots, nothing pushy or bolshie, just a friend who was happy to see me and saying his hellos the best way that he could. Horses greet each other through touch – we humans may be happy with a smile or inclination of the head, but ponies need an actual physical contact. After a couple of minutes, I went to stand up, and he snaked his neck around me, effectively pinning me to the poles of his door. He was enjoying having contact with a friend and wasn’t ready to stop just yet.
How often do we just hurry through our days and through our lives and forget that a lot of this life is meant to be finding happiness? And, we are in a hurry to work harder to buy a fancier horse / house / car / watch because it is this that will make us happy, when in reality there are so many little pleasures around us much of the time, if we were just to take the time to sit and enjoy them… So, have you hugged your horse today?
A couple of months ago, a British event rider went a bit whip happy around a large, prestigious three-day event. Within a day, two of his sponsors withdraw their backing. They cited welfare – the wellbeing of horses is their for first priority and they felt it was time to part company. Good for them – brilliant. And, the one company had a lot of new followers on social media immediately, posts saying things like, I don’t know what you sell, but I’m buying two. People putting their money where their mouth is, backing ethical business and ethical riders.
On the other hand, some very unethical riders have merchandise lines, and people will say – oh I hate what that dressage rider does to her horses, but I have her saddle and ten of her saddle pads… I have asked riders – if you don’t like what she stands for, why did you buy her saddle? Well, they reply – the saddle wasn’t physically hers, she has nothing to do with it. Really? The saddle company pay her a large commission to be the face of the brand. If everyone who doesn’t like what she does, were to boycott the brand, and better yet to write to the brand and say, I’m boycotting you because of this rider – do you know what? Things would change. Hitting them in their pocket is the only way things will improve. I love watching Mark Todd ride – I think he is genius, he is the consummate master of his craft, he is always fair to his horses, and he is a genuinely nice human being. Oh look, Mark Todd breeches, yes please. A great product, supporting the deal he has with a brand. Awesome. That abusive lady dressage rider’s riding jacket? Ya, no, maybe not…
Why am I thinking of this now? Ethics. What is important to you?
Have you watched a movie called The Jack Bull? Its awesome. It must be from the late 1990’s, a western starring John Cusack. I was in my yard about 18 years ago (isn’t that scary??? How did I get so old?), grumpy and snapping, on a mission to rescue a horse who was being mistreated. I was gunning for his owner and nothing and nobody was going to stop me. A friend was standing in the yard giggling at my grumpiness, saying Oh My, are you The Jack Bull? Did they write the movie about you? Of course, I had to watch it. The plot, in short, is about a cowboy who has to leave two of his horses as security when he can’t pay a toll on a road. He leaves them and his employee for two weeks and when he comes back he finds his horses beaten and abused, and his friend and employee, vanished. He fights for what is right, he fights for what he believes. The title? His friend says to him, you are part bulldog and part Jack Russel – the strength of a Bulldog when angered, the dogged tenacity of the Jack Russel when he has something in his grip. And yes, when I’m on a mission, A Jack Bull is a pretty good description.
Recently I had a very difficult conversation. A good friend who I desperately didn’t want to upset or lose our friendship, has something going on that just doesn’t sit well with me. And so, finally, after a long time of debating, I had to speak my mind. I don’t like confrontations or unrest, but I couldn’t sit on the fence any longer. What will happen? I don’t know. Do I sleep better at night? I’m sad that I upset someone lovely, and sad that I may have lost a valued friend, but yes, morally, ethically I feel better for making a stand.
So, my question to you…. Are you standing up for what you believe? Are you a Jack Bull? Or do you have an opinion and ethics until it is inconvenient? Do you buy that rider’s brand of jacket because its pretty and pink and has a brand name on it? Even though you profess not to like her methods? Or do you stand by your morals and write to the manufacturers and say, I’m not helping you make money out of abuse? What is the saying – I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees? Are you willing to stand and be counted? Where do you stand?
When people ask what I do, I generally reply, I play with ponies. And, yes, by ponies, I mean anything with four legs, a tail and hopefully two ears (maybe not, knowing me), who neighs. Originally, there were two reasons for my “Playing with Ponies” answer. It started with my family who, with waning patience, kept asking, “so when are you going to stop playing with ponies and get a real job?”. Ya, that didn’t happen did it? As far as they were concerned, being outside in the dirt, spending more time with ponies than people, that wasn’t a real job. (After all these years, they kind of accept it isn’t likely to change…)
The second reason is that for many people, anything to do with working with horses is a second-class job, it’s for stupid people who had no other avenues open to them. The number of times I have met someone, we have been chatting as equals, and when they ask what I do, they go on to say, oh, well… And then dumb down the conversation. I did actually have a guy once say to me, oh well, at least that was an option that was open to you…. He did apologise later, but only after he discovered that I could actually string words together in conversation. Clearly, if you could, you would have a real, or office job, and if you can’t, you settle for ponies. Hmmm…. So, I jump in before they do – what do you do? Oh, I just play with ponies, not a big job like yours…
(Considering that the equine industry is one of the biggest in the world, generating around $300 million annually and employing about 1.6 million people, there are a lot of us lucky people out there.)
I am fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Mary Wanless, founder of Ride with your Mind. A word she hates is “Try”. Can you feel what your seat bones are doing? I’m trying…. To try implies that you are putting in hard, pointless effort for something that won’t happen. I hate that I procrastinate – I’ll try to change. I don’t like being so disorganised, I’ll try to fix it. I need to lose weight / give up sugar / get fitter / give up smoking / get out of bed earlier…. I’ll try. I’m ambivalent about change – maybe I will, maybe I won’t, its pointless effort… I’m trying.
I feel as disenchanted about a different word – work. It’s Monday, I have to go to work – ugh. I hate work, I need a holiday. I need to work, but I’m tired. Work is what you slog through 5 – 6 days a week to get to your weekend. Work, is not a place we choose. I work hard at the office, but I play tennis at the weekend. Different? Recently, I posted a photo on Instagram, sea, sun, sand, saying damn, another tough day in the office, looking for a yoga retreat venue… And, a friend commented, “Ashleigh, do you ever work?” Honestly, really, truthfully, no. I don’t think I have ever done a day’s work in my life. I think, I inquire, I dabble, I explore, I (hopefully) inspire, or lead, or suggest, but work? No, I don’t do that.
How about our four-legged friends. Do they think, today I’ll work on my flying changes? Ummm, hate to disillusion you, but no. Horses don’t work. In their natural state, they survive. They eat, they drink, they run from danger, they reproduce. And, they play. They play to learn, to explore their world, their strength, their place in the herd. They play to learn how to become a winning stallion or a lead mare. They don’t expel energy to work. Working would wear them down, making it easier for that tiger to eat them…
And yet, we take our horses into an arena and we set to work. Working a horse, implies for us, that it is going to be a hard grind. I’m working hard on his half passes. I’m working for a better dressage score, or a more balanced canter to jump clear rounds. I’m working him to wear him out before we go hacking, so he doesn’t buck me off…. I’m going to my office to work. And for him? I’m being worked by my human – she is working at my leg yielding… Is that fun? Is that putting either of you in a good space to learn, understand, progress? I don’t think so.
Recently, I wound up somewhere new, with new people, new ponies. On one of the first days, they asked if we were going to work ponies, and I said no, but we can play with ponies… They initially didn’t get it. And then, we took three little geldings into the arena, in a belting wind, and opened up a huge square of tarpaulin. The wind blew, the plastic flapped, the ponies snorted and chased each other, and they played. It was an hour of laughing, of hanging onto corners of tarp, of team work, and of brave ponies exploring, bouncing on and off the plastic, allowing themselves to be wrapped up and covered over. Did we, humans or ponies, work? No. Was it serious? Well, here I am careful how I answer – I was watchful. I checked the ponies weren’t stressed, flooded, anxious. I watched them for signs that this was difficult. I watched that the humans were safe. It wasn’t blindly doing a free for all… Is that serious – to a degree yes, I guess so, but it was to encourage safe play, not to work. Did the ponies play? Yes. Did those ponies leave the arena with more confidence? Yes. The interesting thing was the youngest pony. He gets quite bullied by the other two, definitely the lowest in pecking order. He was the one we targeted the most, and he was the one who ended up totally wrapped up. And he definitely grew from the experience, he was a lot more cocky and self-assured with his two little friends the next day, actually chasing (in play) the lead pony. Did the humans learn within the play? Yes, I kept asking – notice, how is he breathing, notice, where is he looking, is his tail still, is his eye soft. The humans learnt about noticing, but the learning was through play.
Play makes us happy. It raises our spirits. Work – well often it stresses us. Which one do you think inspires your pony to offer more? Are you going to work your horse today, or are you going to go and play with a half pass?
(As a post script – I was happily surprised when I read “The Human Condition”, Hannah Arendt, 1958, this definition of work… “Work, unlike labor, has a clearly defined beginning and end. It leaves behind a durable object, such as a tool, rather than an object for consumption. These durable objects become part of the world we live in. Work involves an element of violation or violence in which the worker interrupts nature in order to obtain and shape raw materials. For example, a tree is cut down to obtain wood, or the earth is mined to obtain metals. Work comprises the whole process, from the original idea for the object, to the obtaining of raw materials, to the finished product. The process of work is determined by the categories of means and end.” So, to work a horse is to create a violation that interrupts his nature… Is that how you want to be with your horse? Her definition of Action is much closer to where I want to be… Maybe it’s just my geek brain over thinking!!!!)
“My F&%# off button is broken”, my friend would complain. It was a game we would play, walking through town… You know all of those fund raisers, marketers, “please try my test product” people? Do you seem to attract them, or do they ignore you? My friend and I would try to keep them away, and it’s generally done with your &%$@ off button… You just walk along, and without saying anything or doing anything, they step back… Know what I mean? We’d walk along and check that they didn’t approach. But, sometimes they do. It did frustrate me, she was much better at playing the game than I was…
It always fascinates me, watching how people react to each other. Those fundraiser people, and marketers, they are so good at reading people. If someone walks past looking ahead, striding along, with a purpose, often they don’t bother them – the target has their F&%# off button firmly engaged. Sometimes it is when you put on your sunglasses and earphones, and they see that you have blinds up, not talking. Those who walk past looking less secure in their own skin, hesitant in where they are or where they are going, almost apologetic in being, and the marketers will get them… And those people are most likely to give them money too, since often they can’t say no.
I’m at my worst getting onto a plane. My flying time is my time, it’s where I switch off from the world. I get in my seat, next to the window, and don’t talk to me. I used to do it with props, by opening my book, putting on ear phones and leaning against the wall… Now though, I can do it without aids – I get in my seat and there are walls between me and my neighbours. Please, please, don’t be the seat neighbour who tries to talk to me – because I just won’t.
Why am I thinking about this now? I had lunch with a friend recently and we were discussing teaching and lessons, and how I read people. How do you do that, she asked? Do what, I replied? Well, just know stuff… A large part, I think, is reading what they are saying with their body.
Is electricity real? Uhh, yes. Can you see it? No. So, you must believe its there. We have the same forces within us – an electricity or a current, an energy and boundaries, unseen but (hopefully) felt / experienced / adhered to by other people.
There was a study done over a few years – I think, actually, it is still ongoing – about footballers and what makes the brilliant ones brilliant. Someone is running towards you, kicking the ball along in front of them. Are they going to send the ball to your right or to your left? There is a slight dodge, wobble, look to where they are going to go, maybe a flicker in their eye. The kids who go on to become elite footballers are the ones who can read it, and the really elite players just can’t get it wrong – as the player is running towards them with the ball, they can predict the movement.
When walking through town with my mom, she is forever complaining that when I walk, or when my brothers walk, people move out of our way, while she spends her life dodging. Just walk straight, I tell her – they’ll move. And, they do. For me. And for my brother’s. They end up walking into her. What’s the difference? Playing chicken? It’s intention – I’m just walking, and people believe that as I am walking, I won’t move, but they don’t believe her (warning – don’t try this with anyone pushing a pushchair / pram… They are a little insane, rules don’t apply…) How does this work? We do read each other, we know what people are thinking or how they are going to react, without registering or acknowledging it.
We project energy around us. Your friend walks in looking tired. How do you know? You just do. The footballer knows the ball is going right. Because, how? It just is. Maybe there was an eye flicker, maybe they are projecting energy in that direction. When someone is walking towards you down the footpath, they are going to move or not… How do you know? You just do. Think of that very charismatic, magnetic person…. They are charming, they are liked, good things just happen to them. How are they like that? They project positive, interested, interactive, high vibration energy. They attract people. Think about that slightly apologetic, world weary person. You can see them coming too.
Can I teach this? How to read this? I’m not convinced that I can. Thinking back to the conversation with my friend – how do you just know. Well, I do. When some one walks into the arena with their horse, I always spend 5 minutes or so just chatting to them. Letting them settle into their own skin, into their horse’s skin, into the space they are in. You can see it when they find their way to a good spot… They move in an easier way, they breathe. How can you not see it, I ask people?
Can horses teach this? Oh yes. You watch a horse being lunged. A novice is trying, the horse won’t go forwards, he spins around to go the other way, or he turns into the middle and stops. The poor person has no hope. The instructor walks in and the horse obediently trots along at the end of the line. The instructor didn’t appear to do anything different, and yet the horse just behaves. So, why did the horse behave? Simply, because he believes the trainer. In the way that the elite footballer knows the ball is going right or left, the horse knows whether or not to take the lunger seriously. In the same way the marketer knows if your %&$@ off button is working or not, your horse knows. He knows if you are sending him out, or drawing him in… How seriously does your horse take you?