I had an interesting chat with a client at the beginning of her lesson a few days ago. I’d already taught her a couple of times during the same week, and as we started, I asked how she was feeling today. Good, she said, a bit stiff after our last lesson, core and thighs had worked harder than usual, but stiff in a good way. How was her brain? Well, good too, what we had worked on had made sense and she’d processed all her thoughts. And, how about your horse? She looked at me as if I was mad. Huh? How’s my horse? Well, fine of course, same as ever, she (the rider) hadn’t been away or anything, the horse had been ridden every day, of course he was the same as ever, why would I ask such a thing?
A while ago, I watched a video online. It was a guy – life coach or similar – talking about how much we’ve lost in life, with our use of smart phones instead of small talk. His argument – you’d have gone into a business meeting, and chatted to your colleagues – how’s the family, how was your holiday, have you recovered from your broken leg? You make small talk, you build relationships, team work, fostering a mutual feeling of being valued. And now, he argued, we go into the meeting room, sit down fiddling with our phones. The meeting begins, we put our phones down. There is a pause in proceedings – someone is turning on their power point presentation, so instead of small talk, we again pick up our phones. End of meeting, we pick up our phones and walk out, looking down at those damn Bladdy phones. We have lost the art of conversation.
This video struck me, partly thinking of human to human conversations, but also because it’s something I have long complained about regarding many riders and their horses.
When I had my own yard, one of the main rules was, you got whichever horse you were riding ready for his session, and you looked after him afterwards. If you were having a lesson at 3pm, you’d need to be on the yard shortly after 2pm. You’d check the board to see who you were allocated, walk up to his paddock, catch him, lead him in. Groom, fetch tack, get both of you dressed and ready, and be in the arena 5 minutes before your lesson. After the ride, you’d untack, wash or brush him off, cool him down and walk him back to his paddock. And in this time, you’d generally end up making small talk…. “How are you doing; are you sound and walking well on all four legs; any injuries; oooh, there it is, the best itchy scratchy place just under your mane…. Are you a bit stiff after we jumped yesterday? Ah, there is a bit of swelling there, did you get stung by something? You happy to have your saddle put on and girthed up?” If I asked any of my pupils how their horse was, they’d be able to give me a clear answer.
Now, there is an awful lot of valet riding. You drive your car to a fancy restaurant, and as you drive up, there is a valet driver to take your car off and park it somewhere, saving you the time, effort and walk. When you are ready to leave, your car is brought around to the front door. Perfect. Valet riding? You arrive at the stable yard and your horse is led, fully tacked up and prepared, to the mounting block, where you climb aboard. You’re led to the arena, and – look at that, you’re here. And how is your horse? Umm….. It’s far less than perfect. At the end of your lesson, the groom appears and leads your horse away, often giving them their bit of carrot on the way. How is your relationship with your horse? Does he even know who you are?
Your horse is getting information from you all of the time. Stressed from work? He knows. A bit weak kneed from your hangover? He knows. Nervous at the thought of today’s jumping lesson? He knows. Happy and excited to be going cross country? He knows that too. So how about you return the favour and find out a bit about him today? We’re all busy and trying to fit our horses in amongst the rest of life, but if you go out of your way for a bit of small talk it’ll pay you back 100 times over…
I’m writing this in a state of disillusionment. For a while, something has been bothering me, and only during a recent online workshop that I worked out exactly what. The thing that floated back into my mind was the real sadness of teaching a lesson a little while ago. Let me explain…
The lady I was teaching was a new pupil, never before met, and quite new to riding itself, only having had about 15 lessons. She was riding a horse who I know reasonably well – I have taught quite a few riders on him, and in his youth, he was a real high flyer, competing at a reasonably high level. The gradual decline of a horse – from young and talented, in much demand, to becoming a schoolmaster for a junior, to riding school horse for the advanced weekly rider, to beginner’s quiet plod. Sad enough for a starting point. Anyway, he seems happy enough in his little world, to plod along. This rider was keen and sweet, but was very unbalanced and wobbly, leaning back, getting left behind and pulling the poor old boy in the mouth at regular intervals. Every time she accidentally socked him in the teeth, he’d stop, sigh, wait for her to get organised and plod off on his way again. We spent much time in walk, re-arranging how she was sitting; getting her legs under her in a more effective way; explaining that his mouth is at the other end of her reins and every time she pulls, he feels it and stops. She was lovely, very teachable, keen to learn and implemented the changes well. When we got into trot, we worked on the correct leg aids and how to keep her balance – and our gentle soul of a schoolmaster picked up some speed, put himself in a beautiful rhythm and started to carry himself. Oooh, she said in excitement, this is so different. Wonderful, I replied, why? Well, it’s so springy, she said, and he is going fast, forwards and easily… I don’t have to whip him. After the lesson, as we were closing up, she said she was so happy, she doesn’t like whipping her horse. I asked her, do you whip him often? Oh yes, came the reply, my instructor (who I also, sadly, know) sits in the corner and yells, whip him, whip him, whip him harder, to try to keep him going. He tells me the horse is slow, stubborn and old, and will only go if I make him, by whipping him.
Minute by minute, my heart fell a little more. This sweet, kind, gentle horse, doing his best to listen to his rider when she pulled on his mouth and keep her safe, was being whipped, whipped, whipped to make him go. Would this happen in a dog training class? Your dog won’t sit? Whip him harder. And yet, it’s ok in a riding lesson. Your parrot won’t talk? Whip him. Your cat won’t stay off the table? Whip him. Your horse is stopping when you accidentally ask? Whip him. Logic, right?
So, this is an isolated incident? No. I see this again and again. Lazy teaching, “instructors” simply directing traffic to pass the time. Riders who, instead of being helped and taught, are put on tied down, miserable, shut down horses. Buyers being given bad advice by advisors who will get back hander from horse sellers. Greedy yard owners overworking horses (and instructors). Lame horses being sold or used for riding. Horses, and novices, being taken for a ride, literally.
It’s a global issue. The governing powers that be, are turning a blind eye to much abuse in the competition world, and that seems to trickle down through the ranks. Whats the fix? Honestly, I don’t know. Better teacher training? Better pay so that instructors don’t work the long hours and become stale? Better vetting of instructors and yards? Really, I don’t know where the change is going to come. More novices being asked to open their eyes to what is happening in front of them?
I do what I do because I actually like horses – something that seems to be in short supply in the horse industry at the moment. I want to make a difference, to improve that horse’s life, but also to educate the human with them, to improve the lives of all of the future horses that human will come into contact with. But sometimes, like now, I get tired. Disillusioned. Fed up with swimming against what seems a tidal wave of cruelty and misunderstanding. I know it’s not only in my industry – school teachers are giving up teaching due to spoilt brats who are over entitled and not disciplined by their doting (or lazy) parents. Animal charity workers committing suicide over the never-ending deluge of unwanted, over bred, abused or mistreated lost souls. Environmental activists who simply give up and vanish. Many, many of us are in the same boat and wonder how (and why) to proceed.
I’m currently staying in a hotel in Malaysia. It’s a bit of an odd one – I think the building started life as an office block, before becoming a hotel. It’s very square, which means one issue – if you pay top dollar and book a room on the outside of the building, you get a window. But if you get a standard room that is in the middle – there are no windows.
The first time I stayed here, I didn’t realise. I checked in at night, went up to my room, opened the door, wheeled luggage inside, close door – bed, check. Bathroom, check. Hanging rail / shelf, check. TV, check. Aircon unit, check. What’s missing? Something is not right… Ah, there is no curtain, there is no window. Never mind, I thought, it’s only three nights, and I’ll only be in here at night, I don’t need a room with a view, the curtains will be closed anyway… Do you know how awful those nights were?
Now, I’m not claustrophobic. I’ve been down mines, stuck in lift, scuba dive through shipwrecks. It takes a lot to rattle my cage. But, sleep in a room with no windows? Hmmm. And, I love (NEED) my time alone to recharge, especially when I’m busy teaching, and with people all day, and talking, and explaining and interacting – I love what I do, but it’s blissful and essential that I can close my door and the world out in the evening. I need a good 12 hours of time without seeing another soul. And yet – sleeping in a room with no windows…. Hmmm.
We humans need some form of interaction. We need light, movement, to see things, or sights, or at least whether or not it’s raining, sunny, day or night.
This trip I’m very, very happy, I have a window. Not only that, I have a minute little balcony. It’s hot and humid out there, and I’m really only here at night, but having a door and access to outside, excellent.
Recently there was a video going around Facebook. This one actually –
And, it really upset me.
There are loads of comments about hahaha, there is always a “special” horse around. Horses, even more than humans, need social interaction. They are “designed”, – hardwired – to be outdoors, walking, walking, walking. They should be grazing 16 hours a day, and much of that time is spent wandering along, nose on the ground, following the best trails of grass. They need to be interacting with other horses, or at least other animals. They groom each other, they form close bonds. If spending three nights without a window bothered me, imagine what living in a closed in box does to a horse. I suspect that the rails that these two horses are talking through enclose the stables on all four sides, and that these horses have no time to actually interact with another horse in any other way. If you turned these two out together, they’d probably be grooming each other. And, if they can’t be turned out together, how about at least creating a window for them? If they could stick their heads through a gap and “talk” without bars, I bet you this “funny” behaviour would disappear. I don’t see this as cute, funny or entertaining. I see it as a horse who is desperate to interact, having to have made a plan… If you see a tiger pacing up and down the front of his zoo cage, is it cute? If you see a horse windsucking, is it funny? If you see a person pacing and pulling at their hair, is it entertaining? Not really. So, why is this horse’s stress being seen as anything other than the stress behaviour that it is?
My “holiday” a couple of months ago, was a quick flip back to Gili, which many people know holds a special place in my world. I have written several times in the past about the Gili Cart Ponies, and some of those blogs and articles can be found here….
Last year, the Gili islands and Lombok suffered from a series of devasting earthquakes and I wanted to see for myself how the island was recovering. Lombok, the biggest island in the area was hardest hit, with over 500 people dying, many more injured and still there are thousands of people living homeless in tents.
The staff on the three Gili islands are mostly from Lombok, they either commute daily (it’s only 10 minutes by boat) or have moved onto the smaller islands, but their families often remain at home in Lombok. Because of this, when the earthquake hit Lombok in such a devasting way, most staff returned home immediately. This included drivers and caregivers of the cart ponies. Fortunately, some people remained on the Gili islands, such as
Chaos ensued for many months – a shortage of food and water, looting, local crime, the total ban of all tourists, devasting losses of human and animal life. When the drivers fled Gili, most of them opened the pony’s stables and left them free to fend for themselves. The majority of the cart ponies are stallions, so a couple of hundred loose stallions running wild on the island. And, those still in their stables had to be found and fed and watered.
The islands are only now, really coming back to life. Tourism is picking up and life is beginning to return to normal. As I wandered around the island, there is still a lot of damage, deserted restaurants and hotels, piles of rubble and rebuilding, but there is definitely a feel of hope and a new start. Luckily, the reefs seem relatively unharmed, and the stunning marine life is healthy and doing well. (Yes, my holiday had to include a few dives, of course…)
And, part of my reason to visit, was to see the new Horses of Gili stable yard and vet clinic. There has been no full-time vet on the islands, but now, through the dedication of Tori Taylor, (of Horses of Gili, and Lutwala dive) a new 8 horse barn is being built, along with a small vet surgery, housing for a vet, a farrier workshop and a charity shop. Interviews are being held for a full-time vet, whose wages will be covered through donations. The stables will be occupied by rescues who need some TLC while recovering from injury or illness. This is a massive undertaking, and Tori desperately needs help with funding the project. As ever, donations of tack and equipment are also most welcome…
Two other things that I was so excited about – one, the condition of the rubbish / garbage collecting ponies. In the past, these ponies have suffered the hardest life, really being the bottom of the pecking order. Now, thanks to www.animalaidabroad.com and www.giliecotrucst.co.id these ponies are fat, well, bright and living in clean, solid, well ventilated stables. They are being shod with good quality shoes, have new harness, and the governing bodies of the island have allowed a few motorised golf carts to assist in the collection of recycling, so making the ponies jobs a lot easier.
The other thing was something I was carrying – socks! A fabulous supporter, Michelle Harrison, together with Raymond Peterson of www.socksforhorses.com organised the donation of 6 sets of their amazing socks! These Silver Whinny socks are fabric that is treated with silver and allow legs to breathe while helping to heal some really nasty diseases and injuries. For those who have been following Horses of Gili for a while, you will remember Miracle, the little chidoma mare who had her entire leg degloved due to an accident. It took well over a year to heal, but she is 100% now, and that is certainly thanks in part to her Silver Whinny socks as well as all of the TLC that she received.
It’s awesome when people such as Michelle, Raymond and companies like Socks for Horses get involved in projects like this, thank you!
It happens after every Grand National, doesn’t it? Ban horse racing. And, I’m pro horses, so I should be pro the ban, right? Well, not really. Let me explain my view – it’s a complicated, emotional subject with so many shades of grey.
Many years ago, I went for a week long interview to become a work rider at a very big name yard. Oooh, I thought, the chance to ride some amazing horses, some of them have values into the millions, and the trainer – famous name. How exciting. Off I trotted…. The first day, a rider was cantering a young filly. She was tied down in running reins and was obviously not very balanced. And, out of the blue – the rider punched her over the head. And again. And again. A watching young rider asked a senior rider, “why is he doing that?”. The older rider’s reply? “I don’t know, because he can? Maybe he had a fight with his girlfriend. Maybe the filly pulled. Maybe she lifted her head. Just concentrate on your own horse”. A couple of days later, a horse who wasn’t being careful enough while jump schooling was pinned in a corner and beaten by two trainers on the ground with lunge whips and the rider on his back, until he was literally wetting himself in terror, before being released from the corner and tearing around the jumps again in panic. The horses lived in squalor, small dark, cramped, damp stables with leaking rooves and disgusting bedding. The grooms were short-handed, grumpy, over worked and had a job, no connection to these horses, so the horses were shoved around with no thought. And, as a work rider, I was given my own bridle and saddle that must be used on every horse I rode, fit or not. As you can imagine, I didn’t even last the week, and when I said I’m leaving NOW, they said oh, really? We were preparing your contract, to stay for a year. Hmmm… So, this must have been a racing yard, since this is about racing? No, it was an elite horse dealing and producing competition yard. I was riding mainly dressage horses, but the other barn was all jumpers. And the price tag on these horses started at 30,000 Euro. Of course, the prospective buyers didn’t see behind the scenes, but oh, what went on. This must have happened in China, or one of the remote, possibly dodgy countries I travel to, yes? No, it is in a highly respected, mainland European country.
Another yard where I went to visit, I was warned that people there had had to sign a confidentiality contract as to what was happening on site. Hmm, I thought, that’s odd. Oh yes, I could see why those contracts were in place. Wires, chains, whips. I ran away very fast. So, this must have been racing? No, it was the slightly removed section of the yard for a team of stunt horse trainers, training the ponies for a film company, who were filming an international blockbuster, out of sight, out of mind, in a country where they could get away with cutting corners. Why train a horse to fake fall, when you can just gallop it at a trip wire? It doesn’t matter if it breaks it’s neck, we have spares. And yes, a lot of horse people watch this series because its an epic horse production. But that’s ok, right? It must have been a more minor film company from a bad country? No, it was one of Britain’s biggest name film studios, filming in a far-off land, so they wouldn’t be tied down by welfare issues.
Any industry involving animals can be wonderful. And can be appalling. I’ve been in riding schools where the happy ponies are treated like royalty with 24/7 turnout in herds, awesome feeding and care, body work, experts in for hoof care, dental care, vet care. And, I’ve been in elite yards that made me want to cry. I’ve spent time in racing yards where the lads and lasses who take care of the horses obviously adore them, the care is again fit for royalty, with careful, science based nutrition, fittening, blood work ups, in house vets, where the horses are happy and relaxed. In many, the one thing lacking is turn out, but this is changing in many places, and more and more good trainers are letting their horses live out in herds and taking on the mental aspect. I’ve seen working horses who are fit, shiny, well, happy in their work, and I’ve seen paddock ponies, who are in theory in bliss because they are not expected to work for a living, and are living out in herds, all natural – in horrendous states because of laminitis from unrestricted grass, or skin and bone and on death’s door.
“I adore my horse, he is my life, and we do dressage in pink matchy matchy saddle pads…” As I plonk on a badly fitting dressage saddle (because I like riding in it), tighten my flash noseband so he can’t breath, slap on the draw reins and take selfies in the mirror. And when he’s naughty, he’s disposed of, or sent to bootcamp with the trainer who will ”fix him”. And when he’s not good enough, he’ll get passed onto a junior rider, who’ll add lethal spurs because the horse is tired and shut down and the new rider’s legs aren’t long enough to keep kicking everytime the trainer yells, “legs, legs, more leg, more leg, legs, kick”. And being a dressage horse, he can live this happy life for 20 years, because it’s dressage, which is good, right?
“He’s a racehorse in training, here to provide sport and entertainment and hopefully some financial reward”. And he has a lad looking after him who adores him, and who is a light weight with good hands who walks him up the heath track where he gallops with his head up, not being held down in rolkur. Professional riders, professional care. Yes, he must work, but we understand the science of good nutrition, and he has the best of health and dental care. And, if he’s unlucky, he’ll break a leg and won’t know anything a few minutes later. Or be sold on. But he’ll only be a race horse for a short time. Yes, it’s in the “he’s sold on” that the biggest issues arise.
In 2018, Deathwatch (coalition for the protection of race horses) says 119 race horses died on training or race tracks in Australia, mostly from front leg fractures.
More than 30,000 horses were exported live from Canada to Japan between 2013 and 2017, so that they could be slaughtered fresh for a speciality sashimi called basashi. But, internationally, approximately 10,000 Thoroughbreds are slaughtered annually, which is the bigger issue?
Premarin is produced as a hormone replacement for menopausal woman. Take this, says the doctor, it’ll make you feel so much better… Who knew that PRE MAR IN is short hand for PREgnant MARe urINe? But that’s ok, it’s medicine. And we just slaughter the waste product foals.
If we “use” horses for entertainment (and yes, ALL of us are using horses for entertainment, even if it is just watching them mow the lawn in the paddock), we can do it well, or badly. We can promote metal and physical well being or we can harm them. The outcry about racing? We SEE a horse die in front of us. We can’t pretend we don’t know.
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.”
― Paul McCartney
Luckily for most competition riders, only racing has glass windows, the rest are safely hidden behind brick walls of ignorance and pretending that it isn’t there…
Slightly odd question, isn’t it? Someone asked me that recently, when I told them of a plan that is ticking over in the back of my mind. How big is your why? Huh?
She explained – let’s say, you are thinking “I want to get fit”. How big is your why? Because, next month we are going for a hike in the mountains, and I want to be able to keep up. Is that a good enough why? No. For one, you’re not really invested in it, for two, in a month’s time, after your hike, where is that inspiration going to take you? Ok, how about, because at the end of the year I’m going to climb Kilimanjaro, and if I’m not fit enough, it’s going to kick my butt. Again, that’s better, but is it enough? If you’re anything like me, no, it’s not big enough. I did this a couple of years ago – I’m going to get fit to climb Kili, and I did…. Ummm…. Zero training. I just plodded up that hill. So, my why wasn’t big enough to get me out there to do my fitness training. I’m going to get fit so I can play soccer with my kids instead of watching from the side-line? Yes, that could do it. I’m going to fit to have more energy to run my business and have time family time. Yup, that could be it too.
A long, long time ago – well over 20 years – I decided that I wasn’t eating meat. Now, my three loves in life were steak, Bovril and an African delicacy called Biltong – a dried meat similar to beef jerky. When I said I was going vegetarian, everyone who knew me laughed, thinking oh yes, this’ll last a week. And, it has lasted, coming up for 30 years. Because? I had an enormous WHY. I wasn’t going to eat my friends anymore. Cut and dried. It was absolutely no effort to stop, and I’ve never been tempted back. My WHY was more than enough. For the past 5 years or so, I’ve debated going full on vegan, but…. I just love cheese and chocolate. Pizza? How do you say no? About 3 years ago, I was coughing a cough that just wouldn’t leave. Doctor after doctor told me that I could try this medicine or that, but nothing worked. Finally, after three separate people told me that it was dairy, I had a go, and removed all dairy from my diet for a month. Lo and behold, after about 4 days, I stopped coughing. Magic. After the month, I started to reintroduce dairy, and the one thing that would make me cough was – milk in my coffee. That why was big enough – I haven’t had milk in tea or coffee since then, and magically, I don’t cough. But I also figured out that I could eat cheese and chocolate…. They both make my throat itch, but I can cope with that….
As a WHY, it isn’t big enough. Recently, I was staying in an area where there are lots, lot, lots of dairies and dairy cows. They were well enough looked after, but the sight of them wearing computerised bracelets to tell the farmers of their number, yield and vital statistics was depressing. And watching the new mum’s bellow for their babies as they were taken away…. I think I may have found a big enough WHY to stop me eating dairy.
A while ago, I went to teach a new client, and as I walked in, this rider said to me – “yes, I know, I’m overweight”. Well OK, let’s get on with it, we went about our lesson. He did battle – his joints are under pressure; the doctor is threatening knee surgery and the risk of diabetes. He’s not fit, and although his very large and up to weight hunter type horse can carry him, it would make both of their lives easier if he lost the weight. I didn’t mention it though. Afterwards, his wife, who was watching, commented that I hadn’t said anything about his weight. I replied, he knows about his weight. The doctor has told him. His regular riding instructor has told him. You have told him. My telling him wasn’t going to be a big enough WHY. When he decides, when the weight gets to him and a WHY appears on his radar, he’ll choose to lose the weight and it’ll happen relatively easily. But until then? Not happening.
You want to improve your riding? Why? To win a ribbon at a show? Not enough. Because your yard suggested you came for a lesson? Not enough. Because your horse has the beginnings of kissing spines, and your vet has said that if you don’t get organised and ride in balance, you’ll end up putting your horse down? Yes, that could be a good enough why.
You want to lose weight? Why? To feel healthier? No. Because your family has booked an epic riding safari and their weight limit is 80kg… Yup, that could be the why.
No one is going to be able to teach you a skill, or help you quit something, or get you into a different mindset unless you decide to go there. And, why do you want to go there? Well, you need to figure out your own WHY…
One of the best riding lessons that I ever had was from a back pack and an escalator. The day before was a ten-lesson teaching day, a dash to taxi, airport, jump on a plane and a long haul, overnight flight across the world to the next teaching venue. I was wearing a heavy, badly fitted back pack that had shoulder straps just too long, and as I bumbled along through the landing airport, sleep deprived and slow, and stepped on the upward escalator, the backward force of the pack pulling back on my shoulders almost over ran the forward force of the escalator pulling me forwards. Just in time, muscle memory engaged my core, I went forwards to counteract the backward pull, and without leaning forwards, came into balance with the escalators force. Lightbulb – hello, this is how a horse feels when his rider is a fraction behind the movement – as the horse is trying to go forwards, as the rider is trying to send him forwards, the rider’s slight drag, which increases their weight with a leverage effect, drags the horse backwards. A very simple physics lesson that all rider’s need to understand, and that was clarified to me – already a trainer teaching this – in a simple non-horse lesson.
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have had some incredible training with a range of awesome riding instructors. Many Olympic athletes, judges, brain surgeon, physicists to name a few. There have been many moments of “Oh – that is what you mean”, as well as many incredible four legged learning partners.
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have had some incredible training with a range of awesome riding instructors. Many Olympic athletes, judges, brain surgeon, physicists to name a few. There have been many moments of “Oh – that is what you mean”, as well as many incredible four legged learning partners.
However…. Some of the truly incredible learning sessions have been with other trainers. Learning to use my breath to influence a horse in spectacular ways came from a hugely talented scuba diving instructor. His talk through of finding buoyancy, of being able to float up or sink down and using the breath to control where you are, is something that I teach all the time. (Still haven’t managed to master one of the underwater exercises that he showed me… I suspect when I get it, I may have a better key to teach collection). A martial artist teaching me how to go from defence to attack was the only person who clarified distribution of balance and weight over both feet, and controlling direction of forces, how to flow seamlessly from one to the other with no outward signs, but the control of directional forces. A rock climbing trainer taught me how an obvious looking movement, isn’t what it may seem – you don’t climb a wall by pulling yourself up with your arms, you engage your core to the wall, get your (hind) legs under you, propel yourself upwards and the only thing your hands do is give guidance and balance. A pole dancer taught me about elevation, while a belly dancing guru taught me just how little I know about isolating muscles within the core (note to self, you need to re-visit that particular subject).
An indoor sky diving trainer taught me about firming up certain parts of the core to change direction, while a zip lining wild child taught me about committing to movement. An archery trainer taught me a very surprising lesson about mindfulness, and finding focus while being relaxed in motion. You cannot tense your fingers and force the arrow away, you have to find soft eyes, breathe where you want the arrow to go and relax your shoulder to send it there from the core. And, a porter jogging up Mt Kilimanjaro taught me that dig deep (sit deep) has nothing to do with sitting down on your horses back, but activating a deeper line of muscle to get to a higher point.
Not all of these lessons came from teachers either. My teaching of an elite dancer taught me more about movement, poise and balance than I was able to teach her, and all three of us (pupil, horse and trainer) left the arena with the biggest grins on our faces. And of course, my back pack and that escalator taught their lesson too.
These are all subjects that we as riders need to understand and embrace. It isn’t fluffy, tree-hugging new age, feel good nonsense (as some seem to think) but practical physics that the elite riders practice inherently, and that we non-elite riders need to fully understand and embrace. (By elite riders, I am thinking of the top 100 in the world, not just farmer Jo down the road, even if he is doing a great job)
Yoga, pilates, feldenkrais are (partly) about teaching balance, poise, being fully present, feeling the body in a movement, stretching out tension and tightness in blocked areas. Pretty much matching what I am spending my time teaching in the arena. In today’s modern world, we are constantly putting our bodies under pressure. Stress or emotional pressure. Physical pressure by eating highly processed foods, being exposed to chemicals, electrical signals, and bad posture from things such as cell phones, computers and sitting in cars. We are too busy, too rushed and in a world of instant gratification, often lack commitment or patience. All of these things have an impact on your riding too. If you rush into the yard, grab your horse, hurry through preparing him, leap on and then get after him for not being fully present or immediately accessible, he will often (rightly) get upset or uncooperative. Slow down, breathe, smell the roses (or coffee) and enjoy your horse. The vast majority of people ride for pleasure, so slow down and enjoy it… Looking at the other side of the coin, horses can help your yoga practice too. Horses loosen off the lower back in a way that is hard to do. (Which is why they are often used for Riding for the Disabled or Hippotherapy). Horses make you breathe, they make you get outside, both physically and on the outside of your comfort zone. And often, working through the ride will make a yoga movement clearer.
Strange advice from a riding trainer, but my thought for this week – give your horse a day off, get out of the arena and go and do something else. Go for a hike, take a sky diving, scuba diving, pole or belly dancing lesson. Do something that takes you out of your comfort zone, into a place where you have to feel your muscles doing a new range of motion. And maybe (hopefully) you will have a new insight to take back to the patient four-legged dancing partner….
For me, 2018 was not a good year. Work was busy – awesome. Some lovely changes made by lots of enthusiastic riders – great. Some pretty amazing feedback after courses and clinics – all good. So, why wasn’t it a good year? It just wasn’t. It didn’t flow. It was lumpy. Disjointed. Travel dates didn’t work out, everything was jarring. You know when you’ve had a ride on your horse, and it was ok. He didn’t do anything wrong, but it wasn’t spectacular, and it just left an itch unscratched?
I’m often trying to see things from another angle – how is the horse feeling about that question? If a rider isn’t getting a concept, can I explain it in another way? If they don’t scuba dive and understand what I mean about buoyancy, can I explain something “as if”, (imagine you’re skiing down a hill)? And yet, why wasn’t 2018 a good year? Why can’t I explain that? Well, it was lumpy, jarring, scratchy, seemed as good an answer as any, I couldn’t see another angle since I was too much part of the situation.
At the beginning of this year, I popped in to see an awesome lady who has helped me in the past – she’s a homeopathic doctor by training but has a whole suitcase of extras that she brings to the table, and she was just the different perspective that I needed. As she started to ask the right questions, from a totally different angle, things lined up.
What did you learn in 2018? Ummm…. What challenges were over-come? Ummm…. What new countries did you explore? Only one. What adventures? Ummm….. None. How far out of your comfort zone did you stretch? Ummm…. From a personal and learning perspective, it was a year of stagnation. A few years ago, a brilliant sports coach said to me, you can do something for 20 years, you have 1 year of experience that you have repeated 20 times. Or, you can actually have 20 years of experience. It’s not the same thing at all. By doing the same thing, day in day out, month in, month out, you are not growing, or learning, or changing, but just practicing what you know until you don’t notice anymore. I try to stay out of that trap, but 2018 was just a repeat of 2017, no step forwards, no new adventure, no new learning, and that was exhausting. That stagnation was why it was lumpy and unwieldy. “Plan better”, was her prescription, “remember to play, remember to be a tourist again, go and explore, grow and stop stagnating”. Now, I live a strange, peripatetic life, how does that become stagnant? It’s not something I could have put words onto, but she hit the nail on the head. When was I last a tourist? I travel to be a tourist, what went wrong? 2018 will be remembered for….. Ummm….. Sometimes, we are tired because we need sleep. More often, we are tired because we are stuck.
I know that a lot of main stream coaches don’t get what I do. Things have a status quo in their mind, and I often upset that balance. “Sit up tall and keep your leg on the girth” has always worked for them, why am I upsetting this? Maybe, just maybe, they are too deep in the situation to see it clearly anymore? Maybe, they need someone to ask, what is sitting up straight getting you? How can we change it for you to access so much more? What is your perspective, how are you seeing?
When I was in the Midlands of South Africa, we went to the Nelson Mandela capture site, where, as he was pretending to be a chauffer driving a clients’ car through rural roads, he was picked up by the police. There, on the side of the road is a forest of huge, metal pillars. On entering the museum, you are led down a pathway, surrounded by plaques telling of Mandela’s life. As you walk down this brick pathway, there in front of your eyes, the metal pillars arrange themselves into a stunning sculpture of his face. As you get nearer, the face disappears, all you see is a forest of pillars. Magic? Perspective. You must be in the right place, at the right angle to see the sculpture for what it can be. And, once you’ve seen the new way of looking at things, you cannot un see it…
Watch out 2019 – it’s going to be a year of adventure and magic, if 2018 was a repeat visit to 2017, then 2019 is going to make up for lost time. Need an adventure? Come and join me…. Meanwhile, what riding issue can you solve just by looking at it from a new perspective? Who can ask you the right question to get you to give the right answer?
What’s the alternative? The other one, the third one? Huh?
A friend was saying this recently, she had been told at a business conference, think of the alternatives, choice A and choice B…. And then, think of another, choice C. Very often, option C is it.
As you stand by the kettle in the morning, would you like Tea or Coffee? Hmmm, maybe hot water with ginger, lemon and cayenne pepper, that is a good alternative. It’s my day off today, shall I stay in and work, or go out and have a tourist day? Actually, the weather is awful, how about I stay in with a cat and a good book, perfect (purrrr-fect even…)
So, why am I thinking about that now? Recently a long-term client was chatting to me about her horse. The horse has been showing some behavioural issues, and although he is happy to hack out through the lanes and countryside, he is becoming increasingly difficult inside the arena. The farrier says his feet are great, the bridle and saddle fit well, his overall condition is good. The vet found a very slight niggle, but, not really enough to cause the issues and the behaviour didn’t really resolve when they nerve blocked the area, so relieving a pain problem. Well, it could possibly be that, or it could be that the horse is training sour for some reason. The vet has offered two choices – the horse is retired as a paddock ornament or is put down. The owner isn’t especially keen to do either but doesn’t want to cause the horse any more pain, if it is an issue. So, what to do? Well, I suggested, what is the third alternative? She looked at me blankly? The horse is happy to hack out? Definitely, she replied, he marches out in front with his ears pricked. They don’t know if it’s the trotting and cantering on turns and circles that is causing the issue. So, the third option, and what I think is by far the most sensible, is, find someone who will take him into livery as a hack for 6 months. Let the horse happily go out every day, in straight lines, either on his own or in groups, for pleasure or with the guides on a trail. See if the behaviour appears (which it will if it’s medical and gets worse) and, if not, bring the horse home. If the horse is purely training sour, the behaviour may well have disappeared as the horse has had some fun. (The horse has now gone to his hacking home, we’ll see in a few months…) Option A – retirement. Option B – Put down. Option C – try to hack…
My saddle doesn’t fit – the saddler can’t find the right one – does he have time out, or do I ride him in a badly fitted saddle? How about, you spend a month doing alternative work with him – in hand, on the lunge or long-rein, lead him out and about in hand, ride bareback for a while. The in-hand and long rein work could be exactly what is needed to help strengthen his back so make it easier to fit the saddle… Option C wins again.
Do I buy a horse, or do I carry on riding on riding school horses? How about you lease a horse, or you have a go at sharing with another owner, to get to grips with what horse ownership is all about. Do you really have the time and money for a horse? Do you know enough? Sharing a horse with his owner can be a great option.
People often ask – what type of bit / saddle / bridle / rug I like to use? What do I recommend? I’ve even been asked to be a brand ambassador and “sell” or at least advertise a product. Well, No. Why not? Because, a horse hasn’t read the same books we have. Just because I like bit A, or bit B, doesn’t mean that he will. With bits and saddles, its often not even bit C that works, they’ll have you looking at options until you hit option S.
School should only be for smart people. I mean come on, your child might be cute, but if they aren’t going to win academic prizes and become a doctor or lawyer, your wasting your time sending them to school, aren’t you? If your child is going to be average and end up with a non-academic job, school is a waste of time and effort. Isn’t it?
I imagine that comment going down like a lead balloon. School is (generally) for all kids. It doesn’t matter if they are bright and going to become a doctor, all kids need to be able to write, read, add 2 + 2 (or at least know how to turn on a calculator). Some form of history, geography and science would be useful. And, if they aren’t ultra-talented, they still need an education. When girls are educated, birth rates (population) drop, there is less poverty, more enrichment and development. Health and welfare improve. Education is power.
And why am I on about this. Do you know what enrages me more than almost anything else in the equine world – I want to do dressage, I need to buy a dressage horse. A dressage horse isn’t a thing. The word “Dressage” means training. To do dressage doesn’t mean to take part in a beauty competition, it means to take a green horse, and to train it. A horse doing dressage is exactly the same as a child doing school.
Some children are more gifted at maths and sciences. Some are gifted in language. Some are not academic at all, but all children can be taught something. Even the most mentally disabled children can learn things, such as getting dressed, feeding themselves, walking, or smiling when someone they know enters the room. Sure, not all kids will be doctors, but do you even hear a parent saying, oh, this one isn’t so bright and I wanted a doctor child, so I’ll go and get a brighter child? Horses are not for dressage, dressage is for horses. There is so much more skill in taking a horse who is slightly less able and training him in dressage, than taking an athlete and calling him a dressage horse, just because he has naturally easier paces.
Dressage is about making a horse’s life easier and longer. He learns to move in better balance. He learns to move lightly on the ground. He learns how to move straight. His body is given longevity. He moves like a dancer. He doesn’t receive training in dressage to win ribbons.
Many, many moons ago, I was riding a young mare in Elementary. I was still at the point where I thought elementary was really quite clever. We were lucky enough to have a big, grown up, dressage trainer come to town, and off I went, taking this little mare for a clinic. When I was introducing the mare and I, I told him, we are doing dressage. Really, he asked, what grade. Elementary. Now, he wasn’t the nicest person, but what he said has always stuck with me… Elementary? Elementary? That’s not dressage, its basic flatwork. Even the simplest hack or most unruly show jumper can do Elementary, dressage only begins at advanced. Elementary is the absolute primary school for kids, we only begin real dressage much later. Hmmmm…
This is one of the most important videos that I wish more rider’s would watch and take note of… When is a dressage horse not a dressage horse?
Fast forward a few years, and there I am, working for a show jumper in Belgium. Now, this is another very big grown up, having won 4 Olympic medals. On one of the first days, I watched him school a horse. He rode in walk, trot and canter, he rode collected and extended. He rode lines of shoulder in, travers, renver, big swinging half passes and diagonals of tempi changes. He collected into canter pirouettes and had the horse reaching in elastic, stretchy free walks. After 45 minutes of impressive schooling he stopped, and I asked if the horse was a visiting dressage horse. Certainly not, he replied, she’s the horse I am preparing for my daughter, to begin training as a jumper. No horse can jump if it doesn’t have the basic education on the flat. Basic, I asked? Why yes, basic. If the horse cannot lengthen, shorten, be held straight and change leads, how will the horse even make it around a course of show jumps? The only things a high-level dressage horse knows that a showjumper doesn’t, are piaffe, passage, quicker flying changes and more sit in pirouettes. A show jumper, an event horse, a hack pleasure horse, should be able to do an advanced dressage test. Incredible advice from a champion rider.
So, unless you’re heading for the Olympics, tell me again, why do you need to buy a particular horse to do dressage on?