Empathy and Anthropomorphism

Empathy and Anthropomorphism

These two, for me, have very different meanings.  However, for same people, the lines are blurred.  Yesterday, Bat Cat, (the kitten who is currently allowing me to share her space and wisdom) reminded me.

Her life, to a degree, revolves around food.  And bugs.  And getting into trouble.  As a tiny baby, she got milk from a syringe, progressed to two tiny ketchup serving dishes, and then, last month (when I decided she was actually going to survive) I bought her three very kitsch, shiny plastic dishes.  Purple for water, yellow for biscuits and green for squishy.  This past week, she kind of stopped eating her squishy meat.  She seemed well, playful, happy, but not eating meat.  Biscuits yes, but half the time she spills then out of her bowl, then chases and hunts them, adding to the fun.  Then, it dawned on me, as I watched her picking at her breakfast.  The bowl is high and narrow.  Now her head is cat size, not kitten size, it must be hard to get her head down to eat, without rubbing her whiskers.  I bought her a flatter saucer yesterday, and guess what? She ravenously attacked her squishy meat.

When I went to the shop, the people I was with laughed when I told them that Bat didn’t like her bowl – honestly, that cat is spoilt.  If I’d said she didn’t like the colour, yes.  But, watching her trying to fit her whiskers in…  Imagine trying to cut your food with a knife, if the handle rubbed your hand?  We could have gone through buying different types of meat, cooking chicken, vet check, vitamin injection, when all she needed was a better shaped plate.    That’s empathy – understanding how a person or an animal might be feeling physical, emotional or mental stress, discomfort, joy, hunger, grief…  Understanding, and empathising that the bowl must be catching on her whiskers.

Anthropomorphism is a very different.  It’s giving an animal human emotion.  If I’d said, Bat doesn’t like her bowl because it’s green, and we don’t like green, or, she wants to have something new, that’s anthropomorphism.  “A horse must live in a stable in winter to keep him warm, cosy, dry… I wouldn’t like to be outside, poor pony doesn’t, either.”  Most horses, given adequate hay and a rug / winter coat / open field shelter, are far happier and healthier living out.  Given the choice, they only come inside during the heat of the day to avoid flies.  But, we see a thick straw bed and feel happy, so our horses must agree.  A horse sees confinement in a cage, the loss of freedom and choice if we are empathetic to his needs.  We see comfort, and impose that, and again, that is anthropomorphism.

I was also reminded, explaining to a young volunteer recently, how horses get flooded by too much stress and shut down, how to read the warning body language, and how to help them back from learned helplessness.  It always surprises me when people don’t just know – and it’s something I need to be more aware of….  “This horse is naughty….”  No, really, truly, he isn’t, he’s stressed or scared, asking for time and empathy.

Touch is vital for horses - they communicate between themselves through body language as well as all the other six senses, but touch is for companionship, friendship and bonding.
Touch is vital for horses – they communicate between themselves through body language as well as all the other six senses, but touch is for companionship, friendship and bonding.

In a few of the yards where I have worked, we’ve welcomed school groups, some very young (4, 5, 6-year olds) and I always seemed to end up showing these groups around.  It’s pretty scary, being a knee high 5-year-old and looking at a big old horse, with enormous teeth, bearing down on you.  I figured out the best strategy.  I’d pull out the oldest, sweetest, hopefully small pony, who would happily sleep for an hour.  Once pony was parked, I’d sit cross legged on the floor next to the pony, (yes I know, health and safety – it’s as scary, being talked at by a big, tall, scary foreigner, as being by the pony, the most important thing for me, is getting to eye level with the kids, to help them talk WITH me, and regain a little bit of their confidence) and we’d look, really look, at the pony.

Put your hand in front of your nose, can you feel your breath?  Who wants to put their hand in front of Dex’s nose and feel his breath?  Can you all see his nose move? See his ribs move?  Put your hand on your ribs, feel how they move too?  Ponies breathe just like us!

Who wants to go stand over there and clap their hands?  See how, when little Johnny claps, Dex lifted his head and moved his ears forwards?  He hears, just like you!  Who wants to feel Dex’s ears as he’s moving them back and forth?

Who wants to feel how soft his nose is? Feel his whiskers?  His whiskers are his extra eyes, to feel things in the dark and know where he might bump his nose…  Hold you hand out like this.  Move towards the wall, without looking…  Feel when your fingers bump into the wall?  That is how Dex’s whiskers work…

This is called a stethoscope, it’s magic because you can hear your heart….  We can take some turns, who wants to hear their heart? And then, once you’ve heard the lub dub of your heart, can you hear Dex’s heart?

Feel how, when you lie your arm over Dex’s neck / shoulders just here, he likes it, goes more relaxed?  That’s where his mom would have rested over him when he was a baby, it makes him feel safe.

Scratch him here, on this part called his withers.  See his nose wriggling?  How he wants to scratch you back? That’s how he’s making friends with you…

This is the famous Dex, on one of our school group tours.  How do you say thank you to your pony?  You give him a great big hug....  You don't want to hug him?  It's OK, I'll hug him for you...
This is the famous Dex, on one of our school group tours. How do you say thank you to your pony? You give him a great big hug…. You don’t want to hug him? It’s OK, I’ll hug him for you…

And guess what?  The twinkles are enthralled and forget to be scared, because the pony is just like them in so many ways.  We teach empathy, we teach respect, we teach them that ponies are sentient beings.  Isn’t that better than saying, yes, Star loves his green blanket, just like you love your green socks….  Anthropomorphism has little place in learning to understand and truly respect your four-legged friends….

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Gym Sounds

Gym Sounds

It’s funny what speaks to you, isn’t it?  What really gets into your brain.

A few years ago I was talking to a school teacher who also plays and teaches music.  I said to her, I’m utterly tone deaf.  I just couldn’t learn to play music, even hitting the triangle at the right moment in school was a challenge.  I think it’s why I can’t learn languages too – someone will tell me a word.  I’ll repeat it, they’ll say no, it’s a R not an L…  I try again, and again.  After 5 attempts they say – well, kind of.  And within 5 minutes, I’ve forgotten the word entirely.  Language just doesn’t seep into my brain.

This teacher though, said no, no one is totally tone deaf and cannot learn.  “If your phone rings (think good old land lines, without caller ID) and you answer, do you recognise the person talking?”

“Well, if I know them, of course…”

“That means, you’re not tone deaf and could learn…”

It’s an interesting theory, and one that I’m still not utterly convinced about.  I still can’t remember the Bahasa words that Joni tried to teach me this morning.

Many years ago, I had a brilliant vet.  One of the first times that I saw him visiting a horse, it was a mystery lameness.  As the horse was standing at the end of the driveway, groom attached to the end of the lead rope, this vet turned his back, and looked out over the paddocks.  The groom started running, the horse trotting, and still the vet seemed to be ignoring them.

“Uh”, I said – “the horse is, uh, trotting.”

“Mmmm” he replied.

The horse got to the end of the driveway, turned and came back.  When he reached us, the vet turned, walked to the horse, picked up the lame leg (that he hadn’t seen) and pressed straight onto the root of the problem.  Impressive.  He taught me so much, that vet, but this was one of the first and most important lessons – trust your ears before you trust your eyes.  He always, without fail, dealt with a lame horse with his ears, then his hands to feel, and only then his eyes.  Eyes and vision lie, ears generally don’t.

I found this video years ago and still love it – can you recognise the sounds before you watch it?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suPDB-lCjPc&sns=em

Why am I thinking about this now?  I’m currently sitting on Gili Trawangan, a small island in Indonesia.  The only transport here is horse cart or bicycle – there are no cars or motorbikes.  And very quickly, I could recognise the hoofbeats of different horses coming before I could see them.  Here comes the grey who swings his right hind wide.  There is the chestnut who lands so much heavier on the left fore.  I didn’t fully appreciate just how ingrained it is in me.

I do know, when I’m teaching I’m watching the horse, but I’m also listening to him.

Whenever I start a lesson, I ask, if I had a magic wand, what would you like to change, improve, fix?  What are you working on, what’s the issue?  And usually, the answer I am given would be the answer the horse would give too.

“My horse is like a worm – he just wiggles all the time”

If I could ask the horse?

“This rider doesn’t sit straight or ride straight – their weight is right, their right leg kicks me left, it’s like carrying a sack full of kittens…”

Or…

“My horse lacks energy – he just won’t go forward”.

As the rider sits there, like a sack of potatoes, with no tensegrity or movement herself…

Horse?  “This rider is heavy and soggy.  If I move, she’ll fall off, so I’ll just match her energy level and keep her on board…”

But, this is the most common…

“Useless horse has no rhythm…  He’s fast, slow, 2 beat, 3 beat, hopping and skipping, nothing is regular”

And the horse?

“Useless rider has no rhythm…  She’s fast, slow, 2 beat, 3 beat, hopping and skipping, nothing is regular”

Fix?  If the rider hears and feels the beat, they become the leader of the dance.

So, when I’m teaching, especially if I have more than one horse in a group lesson, I’m listening.  If I’m watching horse and rider number one, I’m listening to horse and rider number two as my back is to them.  I’m listening to hear the regularity of the steps, and if one hoof is harder, lighter, twisting as it lands.  And, I’m listening to how hard he lands on all four hooves.  A light and balanced horse could trot across a sheet of ice or glass without cracking it…  Think of a ballerina dancing across a stage.  An unbalanced horse clunks and thumps like a sluggish tortoise, crashing through the glass or ice sheet.  If the rider is light, rhythmic, balanced, so is the horse.  If they’re lacking rhythm or landing with a thud, guess what?  So will the horse.

How to develop this feel?  Ride with a metronome.  Ride to music.  Just start to pay attention, use your ears as much as your eyes and feel…

Consequences

Consequences

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we accept that there are consequences about some things but not others.  If you don’t do your work assignment you will get a letter of warning and quite possibly fired.  We still procrastinate about getting it done, but understand the risks.  We know there will be a consequence, but…  If we over-eat during lockdown, when we put our work clothes back on, they may well have shrunk mysteriously, but…

Clicker training done right is awesome, but the consequences can be a horse who is too busy, pushy or won’t settle.
Clicker training done right is awesome, but the consequences can be a horse who is too busy, pushy or won’t settle.

And, how many of us think of consequences when we are co-living with animals?  We allow the kitten on the tables because it’s cute, and easier for us to feed him up there so the dogs don’t steal his food.  Ah, now he’s a big cat, we chase him when he pinches food off a plate, that sits exactly where his bowl was when he was a kitten.  We let the puppy crawl into our beds at night to stop her crying, but as an adult dog, shedding hair and with bone breath, she gets chased.    How can we have one rule once, and another rule later?

What about with our horses.  I had a young horse in for backing years ago.  When you put her on a lunge line, she would run at you and rear up, trying to stand on you with her front feet.  She had been doing this to her owner, which is why she was sent to me.  I later found out that as a foal, she had been taught to put her hooves on her owner’s shoulders to “give them a cuddle” and this behaviour had become firmly engrained.  Just because you think it is nice and cute today, or that it’s something you want, really think about it long term.

Another long ago client wanted to teach her horse a trick while the horse was off work for some reason, and she still wanted to train something.  She taught her horse to say please, asking for a carrot.  The thing that the horse had to do, was hold her front leg in the air, like a dog asking to shake paws.  When the horse was back in work and I went to school her, do you know how irritating it was to groom, tack up and lead the horse, when she kept pawing at you with her front hoof, asking for carrots?  If you are going to train a behaviour, you need to make absolutely certain that you have thought it through.  And, it’s a huge problem in ridden horses.

An unplanned, and really interesting issue was with a little riding school horse.  He’d been privately owned by a teenager who was a nervous rider.  They would all, as a group of friends, ride to the beach quite often and as soon as the horse’s hooves hit the sand, the braver kids would kick into canter.  Our nervous rider would be coming along at the back, knowing this would happen.  As she saw the first riders get to the sand, she’d grab a hold of a big chunk of her horse’s mane.  He’d lurch into canter after his buddies, and they’d be off, at speed, down the beach.  I met the horse several years later.  He had been sold to a riding school and I was teaching a school client on him.  As I was about to start the lesson, one of the regular instructors shouted out to me – just don’t let the rider grab his mane….  When he had arrived at the school, the instructors had discovered an issue.  Anytime a novice rider was a bit wobbly going into trot or canter, or had lost a stirrup, this horse would suddenly canter off.  They worked out – the rider would feel insecure, and either the instructor would yell, “grab the mane” or the rider would instinctively catch a hold of something.  And, all those years of cantering off on the beach…  You know what the horse had learnt?  If the rider grabs the mane, the job of the horse is to go into canter…  That nervous teenager had taught the horse a cue, and the cue had a consequence.

There is one horse who, when I teach his human, I stand outside the fence.  I refuse to go into the arena with him.  He’s dangerous and unpredictable, and when he is pushed a little harder and asked for something which he feels is challenging, such as a turn on the forehand in both directions, having to move both the right and the left hind, he barges in towards the person on the ground and tries to run them over.  It’s a nasty behaviour and very deliberate.  And the reason he does it?  He was taught to roll over a yoga ball as a natural horsemanship game, and since then knows if he threatens to roll over the person, the person runs out of the way.  A very dangerous consequence…

If you ask for go, you might just get go….
If you ask for go, you might just get go….

Now, one of the most common issues.  We, as riders either prefer a horse with more whoa, or more go.  I’m a lazy rider, I hate having to use my leg, so would rather have a horse who will take me forwards.  Other, more cautious riders feel unsafe on these horses and would rather one who, if in doubt, stops.  I had a horse, again many years ago, who looked wild and impressive.  He was a massive black Thoroughbred, big-boned and broad for a TB, was very forward going, and would gently dance his way along the roads when I hacked him.  One of my staff, an instructor who taught the beginners, coveted this horse and desperately wanted to ride him.  One day, I let her hack him out and she came back almost in tears.  The fire breathing dragon horse, who I enjoyed, was terrifying for her when she was on top.  She stuck to the steadier horses after that ride, actually figured out she preferred more whoa.

What’s this got to do with consequences?  Recently I was teaching a lady on her horse, who lacked go.  He’d become dead to the leg and the “go” button was a bit broken.  Please, please, she begged, I really want him to go forwards with more impulsion and less work from me.  And so, what did we focus on?  We got the horse travelling forward.  DON’T use more leg, get more reaction from LESS leg, was the lesson aim.  Transitions, exercises, moving him around.  Do less, be stiller and lighter, allow the horse freedom to travel more forwards.  It worked like a charm.  The horse suddenly found the hand brake off, he lifted his back, stretched into the rein and travelled forward beautifully.

“Whoa” cried his rider – “he’s running away with me”.

“Uh, no”, was my reply, all he is doing is travelling actively forward, lightly on his feet, having found go.

The lesson’s hour came to an end with a worried rider who was convinced that her dull horse was running away uncontrollably, when actually, he was just moving out well, doing exactly what she had asked for.  The consequence of asking for go?  You get go….

By all means, train your horse, teach him things, refine your own skills and riding abilities, but….  Think carefully about what it is that you are training.  Are you really ready for the consequences?

 

Selfie-itis

Selfie-itis

I’ve been following a business coach for a year or so.  She helps you plan, gives ideas and has some reasonably good thoughts.  And, today, I removed her from my contact list, unsubscribed, unfollowed, gone.

As you go through the unsubscribe procedure, up comes a list of – We’re so sorry to see you go…  Please tick the relevant box as to why you have decided to leave us…

Too many emails

Not enough emails

You didn’t subscribe

This no longer interests you

Etc Etc Etc.

The box I wanted to tick wasn’t there…  You just pressed my irritation button once too often.  You are irrelevant.

What did she did?

Well, at times she’s a little too pushy a salesperson for me, but what actually got me – the incessant selfies.  Now, I already don’t get selfies at the best of times.  I’m far too busy seeing, watching, learning, seeking, to stop and pose.  I don’t care what I look like, or what I’m wearing, as long as its clean and comfortable.  And I don’t generally look at other people’s selfies other than quickly scrolling through the feed.  On a personal page – if it’s your thing, off you go.  But on a professional page?

I’m far more interested in what people SEE, than in what people are seen to be.

This is a business coach.  She is selling herself as a professional, offering a professional service.  I’m only interested in her brain.  Why do I want to see her posing in thirty different outfits in thirty different coffee shops?  How is that going to help me do what I do?  I want to know what she is thinking.  Yes, thoughts are not easy to photograph and put on Instagram.  But, its easy to take a photo of what she is seeing.

I take loads of photos.  Check out my Instagram and there are over 1,300 pictures.  How many selfies?  Uh, about 3, and generally when I’m trying to catch the people riding horses behind me.  What are the pictures of?  What I can see, what makes me happy, what makes me think, what inspires me.  I post what is going on inside my brain, not what new sunglasses I have…  And like-minded people are the ones who I respect and follow.  Yes, trainers post pictures of themselves riding, but this is showing their expertise and training methods, their understanding of how the horse is moving and working, their appreciation of their dancing partner, it’s not a “Pose, smile, click, edit, filter, post – aren’t I gorgeous”  selfie moment.

As a respect to ourselves, our clients, our instructors, we do have to keep up appearances.  When I go to teach, I wear clean, tidy jeans, (or long, smart shorts in some places), a respectable shirt, closed shoes.  Hair tied out the way, cap if its sunny.  Practical, tidy.  It’s a disrespect to myself and my clients, who are paying money for my time and knowledge, to turn up late, dirty, untidy or unprepared.  I notice and appreciate if their horse is well brushed, with clean

tack (as respect for their horse), and they’ve clean and tidy themselves.  An old instructor of mine wouldn’t teach anyone who hadn’t polished their boots.  “If you don’t care of your boots and appearance, you’ll take other short cuts and not care about the bigger picture” he would say.  And, obviously, working with horses, a part of this is safety.

Brains, thoughts, ideas, inspire and excite me.  Tell me what you think.  Tell me your interests, your ponderings.  Talk to me about the universe, about science and art; culture and politics.  Compassion, empathy, kindness, are beautiful things and are so valuable.  The selfie you took, of you sitting drinking your fancy coffee looking as if you’re deep in thought about what business ideas you are going to pass on to me?  Oh, please, go away…

Control

It’s odd, isn’t it, what suddenly makes us think?  Or more, what suddenly makes you put into words what you just know…  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to teach people to teach, how much I just take for granted and how you actually need to be able to put words to things.

At the moment, I’ve been hanging out with a little mare with a very big attitude.  If you didn’t know her, you’d swear she’d kill you.  You go to catch her, she pins her ears back, swings her bum to you, squeals with irritation.  But if you tell her to knock it off, walk up to her and put her halter on, she’s actually very sweet and obliging, she just likes to pretend.  She’s been put onto medication for suspected PPID and has to have 20 tablets, twice a day.  It’s pretty simple, crush them in a pestle and mortar, put them in a syringe and squirt them down her mouth.  And every morning when I go to give it to her, she pins her ears, walks out of her stall into the little run out the back, swings her bum at me and makes her opinion very known.  “I’m not happy with this situation, I’m cross, you’re going to have to make an effort and come and catch me”.

I walk into her stable, out into the run, up to her, pat her, tell her that she’s very beautiful and absolutely in charge, put her halter on, take her back inside, where the syringe is waiting.  She needs that moment, to make sure she and I both know that she’s in charge.  She’ll agree, if I ask her nicely, but don’t take it for granted.

This morning, without thinking about it, as I went to catch her I was chatting nonsense to her, saying yes Xena, of course you’re in control.  And it suddenly a whole lot of stuff make sense…

This is my route in and out of the cycle parking, at least twice a day.  And, honestly, it gives me the heebie jeebies at times…  (Isn’t that an awesome expression?  It’s right up there with discombobulated and splendiferous, just makes you understand in an instant).

 

Sometimes, without consciously thinking, I just cycle straight through.  I’m aiming forward, straight, go, and have acres of room.  Other days I’m thinking arrrgh, going hit the tree, going to hit the wall, arrgh, look how close the wall is…  And guess what?  I have numerous skinned toes, ankles and fingers from those trees and wall…  At the moment it’s a bit worse.  Why?  Because the bike I am currently borrowing has no brakes.  Generally, this is ok.  The island paths and trails are rough enough that you get a little smooth run downhill, but almost immediately you hit sand or an uphill that slows you down.  This path and lack of brakes however, don’t go well together.  It dawned on me, as I was chatting to Xena, that on my bike when I have brakes, I know I’m in control.  And, if I know I have control, it gives me confidence to zoom through the gaps without thinking, without touching my brakes, and without hitting the walls.   And on my brakeless bike, I hesitate…  And if you hesitate and look at the wall….  One of the most common things I say to pupils – you go where you look.  What you think, you create.

That’s exactly what Xena was telling me this morning.  By knowing that she could walk away, by knowing that she moves my feet to follow her, and by pulling sweary marey faces at me, she has control of the situation.  She’s in control and its her willingness to accept me and my tube of medicine that allows it to happen, not my control over her.  By me allowing her to walk away, I’m giving her the control she needs, to co-operate as a willing partner.  Mutual respect.

 

I’m very sweet…)
I’m very sweet…)
Unless you go into my space, which I control…
Unless you go into my space, which I control…
And then, I’m friendly again, as long is it’s on my terms…
And then, I’m friendly again, as long is it’s on my terms…

Many moons ago, I had an awesome friend who could communicate with animals.  And one of the things that she drummed into my head – don’t pick up cats.  It’s humiliating, rude and embarrassing.  How would you like it if some giant lived in your house and was forever picking you up?  You’re snoozing in the sun, and they pick you up.  You’re enjoying a bath, and they pick you up.  It’s just rude, takes away your control and makes you feel discombobulated (Love that word…)  You can’t settle, you feel out of control and unsettled so you bite, scratch or hide under the bed. The little Bat Cat kitten, very early on developed a great trick.  If she wanted to be picked up, she’d mew, mew, until you put your hand down.  And instantly, if she wanted to be up, she’d half jump into your hand, wrap her paws around your wrist and ask to come up.  In this way, she had control.  So many people treat animals as dolls to play with – I have a kitten / puppy / tarantula would you like to hold it / pet it / treat it as a living teddy bear.  My friend’s cats would sit and watch.  If they chose, they’d hop onto the couch next to you.  Often, they’d curl up in your lap.  But, they were in control, it was their choice and so they were ultra-confident, because they had control.  If they didn’t like a situation, they’d leave.  Simple.

Think of small kids who are forced to go and hug Great Uncle George, even though they hate Great Uncle George because he makes them feel uncomfortable?  But, because the parents insist on manners, they’re forced to go, and they have zero control of the situation.  This causes stress, worry, and “bad manners”.  Other parents, if the child doesn’t want to go to hug Great Uncle George shrug it off – sorry, they’re just shy.  The child leaves with a sense of control and is more confident.  The book I’m currently reading about PTSD deals with too – if a person is used to being put into a bad situation and having no say, it becomes their norm, which is a problem…

How many horses have any element of control?  They don’t like a situation, tough luck buddy.  How often do these conversations happen…

Horse; I don’t like this hard leather girth…  I’m going to show you by grinding my teeth, pinning my ears back, kicking out a hind foot, and maybe even biting you…

Human; Don’t be a prat, it’s only a girth.  And it was expensive.  And matches my name brand saddle.

Horse; I hate being in this cage (stable) so I’m going to box walk and kick the wall…

Human; Arh, pretty pony with a pink blanket, you’ll be warm and dry here…

Horse; I’m not cold, I don’t need a rug, I’m going to snap at you as you put it on, and then rip it off…

Human; Don’t you be bad and break your expensive new pink blanket…

Horse;  I can’t go forward, my feet hurt and you’re pulling my mouth.

Human; Don’t be lazy or I’ll wear bigger spurs…

The horse is trying to have some control over his life.  He’s trying to show what makes him unsettled or uncomfortable, and so often, we take away what little control he has over his life and environment.  And when you can’t apply the brakes at all, suddenly you feel pretty out of control…  How do you think learned helplessness happens?

 

 

 

The Art of Long Lining

I clearly remember many, many years when I was doing my GCSE in Horsemanship (Yes, it was a thing, an actual school exam, equivalent to O levels, in Horses) at the local riding school.  It was a two year course, a few hours a week and counted as one of your exams.  Our instructor introduced us to long lining, and I was hooked.

Continental long lining keeps the reins safely away from the horse’s hind legs…. I don’t ride with my hands by his hocks, why would I want to train with the reins coming from there?
Continental long lining keeps the reins safely away from the horse’s hind legs…. I don’t ride with my hands by his hocks, why would I want to train with the reins coming from there?

She used her own mare, as none of the school ponies had been taught how to work on lines, but she was a firm believer.  So, we all had a go at driving her mare around and around the indoor.  Looking back, it was basic, Irish lining, but it planted the seed.

Roll on, over the years and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some true long lining geniuses who showed me what an amazing, powerful, art form it really is.  Many of these people weren’t great teachers.  They’d be working a horse, with me watching intently, and then hand me the reins.  Initially, those poor horses had to try and decipher my fumbled attempts.   This was the first, and truly one of the best lessons in conscious / unconscious competence.

 

These trainers had no idea how good they were at doing this, and generally no idea how to teach it.  I bumbled my way along, and found my way on unconscious competence, over the years.

A few years ago, someone who I have utmost respect for, as a trainer and teacher, asked me to teach her to long line.  I said, uh, I don’t think I can.  I pick up the reins and it’s like coming home.  I can see the horse isn’t straight, or is twisting, or loading a limb, and I can fix it.  But, I don’t necessarily know how I did it.  So began a process.  I did teach her to long line.  I’d do a bit, she’d watch and talk through what she thought I was doing.  She’d do a bit, I’d watch and see what I could change in her body, with my words.  My turn again, I’d focus on certain bits of my body, or where my attention was going.  And, we made progress.

One day, her horse wasn’t doing a movement well or easily.  I took the reins, and couldn’t solve the issue either.  When I thought about why not, I realized that I was actually trying to put what I was doing into words, I couldn’t do anything right.  As soon as I just let the thought go and trusted my instinct, the horse performed the movement beautifully.

So, why am I going on about all this now?

This horse is showing us how his crookedness is highlighted and encouraged by work on one lunge line. How would you correct this on the lunge? I’m not convinced that you could… But, on long lines things could be changed
This horse is showing us how his crookedness is highlighted and encouraged by work on one lunge line. How would you correct this on the lunge? I’m not convinced that you could… But, using long lining things could be changed

Long lining is such a vital part of my toolkit.  Most issues can be resolved on the lines, and humans improve as riders too.  Their hands get softer, their eye improves and clarity sinks in.  Many people work their horses in hand, and then under saddle, but this crucial link is missed out, making the horse’s life and understanding more difficult.  Long lining done badly can be incredibly harmful.  And having ropes down, around the hocks is dangerous, but done correctly, and with the reins held up by the withers, its magic.

I have been teaching this more and more over the past few years, and everyone who discovers this skill is hooked.

Want to find out more and sign up?
Just follow the link: Long Lining Course!

Why I am talking about this now?  Finally I’ve made a plan to teach this online…  It’s in two sections, this, first section is explaining the basics – what it means, equipment you need, how to start.  Next section will be the skills to start to change and improve your horse’s way of going.  I’m excited to be able to share this magic, hope you’ll join me for the ride!

The gorgeous Blue helps to teach this course, here, by showing how to get a horse who is clearly crooked…..
The gorgeous Blue helps to teach this course, here, by showing how to get a horse who is clearly crooked…..
To become a horse who is straight…
To become a horse who is straight…

Sign up NOW! Part Two is just around the corner!

Confidence or Competence

Confidence or Competence

One of the yards where I used to work, had a long and involved insurance form to fill out before we could let clients ride.  I was always interested in one particular answer and would read it before going out to teach them.

After the usual Name, Address, Age etc, it asked, what is your riding experience?  And gave a list, from which you had to pick one answer.

I have never ridden.

I have ridden at walk.

I have walked, trotted and tried / can rise to trot.

I have cantered.

I can canter, could complete a simple dressage test and jump.

I could ride any horse in any circumstances.

It amazed me, the number of people who would tick the last option.  If they did, I would ask them about it.  And, tell them that I’d never tick that box…

“But, you’re the instructor?” they’d say.

Tomala (grey) and Ballybay – two very challenging mares who struggled to find riders
Tomala (grey) and Ballybay – two very challenging mares who struggled to find riders

And I’d answer that I would be happy to ride most horses in most circumstances, but certainly not all.  A bucking bronco in a rodeo?  Uh, no.  A racehorse in the Grand National?  No thanks.  A “show horse” tight in rolkur and stressed about his upcoming dressage test?  No, just no.  So, any horse in any situation?  No.

Confidence vs competence is a question that comes up at times and should come up a lot more.  As a kid, we were taught to ride without stirrups, bareback, backwards, and some of the ponies we got thrown onto…  Well, they were interesting.  But, we leant how to ride through most situations on a variety of horses.  We got more confident, and wham bam, a pony would ditch us, and we’d come back to earth, literally.

Roll on a few years, and I had a couple of difficult ponies in my yard.  It started to become more and more challenging to find riders for these ponies.  Parents would much rather pay for readymade, easier ponies for their little twinkle to get on, and win on from day one, than for them to possibly have falls and challenges with a tricky pony.

When teaching in certain countries now, health and safety rears its (often ugly, in my opinion) head.  In some places, we can still do no stirrups etc, but in many places’ things have to be ultra-safe.  And yes, kids should be safe.  I always insist on them wearing helmets, body protectors are mandatory in some yards, ponies should be appropriate to the level of rider, comfortable and safe tack, etc,.  But, it’s important that riders develop competence and an understanding of where they are at, as fast as their confidence grows.

And so, ponies who need a better rider, and a rider who thinks, are often redundant because no suitable rider exists.  And we are seeing more and more over bitted, gadget-ed up, draw reined in horses, because the riders simply can’t cope.  Their expectation of their ability far outweighs their reality.   Watch show jumping videos from 20 years ago – most horses were in snaffles, cavesson nosebands, maybe a martingale.  Some didn’t even have boots.  The riders were truly competent – they were masters at the craft.  Now, with the ridiculous amount of bitting up, nosebands, gadgets?  Many are confident, not competent.

So, why bother?  Does it make a difference?

This is competence...  John Whitaker and Milton, jumping at the absolute top of their game, in a simple snaffle bridle and long running martingale.  No gadgets in sight...
HP0GM4 World Equestrian Games, Stockholm, 1990, John Whitaker (GBR) riding Milton – This is competence… John Whitaker and Milton, jumping at the absolute top of their game, in a simple snaffle bridle and long running martingale. No gadgets in sight…
And, this, sadly, is not...
And, this, sadly, is not…

Oh yes.  At another yard where I worked, we instructors didn’t have anything to do with taking bookings.  We would just get the message of a rider / pair / group of riders coming in, ages, weights and experience – beginner, intermediate or advanced.  We had, in the yard, a variety of horses to choose from, some very simple and safe for beginners, some who would be a little bit faster or more challenging and some nice, educated horses for experienced riders, who we just couldn’t put novices onto.  And, do you know the number of people who would book as advanced, and just their approach to the horses would tell us that they were beginners.  “How much experience do you actually have?”  I asked more than once.  Ah, I rode my grandpa’s horses around the farm 20 years ago – I know what I’m doing, and I want to go fast.  Most of the time we’d sigh, return the horse we had ready and get a quieter one out.  Occasionally we’d stick with the horse who was ready, if the client was rude and belligerent about their riding ability.  Didn’t happen often, but generally didn’t end well.

An extreme example of this was a rider a while ago.  I vaguely knew them, had met a couple of times over the years.  I heard through the grapevine that they’d been killed in a riding accident.  On talking to the trainer where it happened, she said that the horse was actually really nice, but too much for him.  He’d bought the horse because it was big, flashy, extravagant and the dealer / agent had told him he looked great on it.  If he’d had a slightly steadier horse, chances are that it wouldn’t have happened.  And the horse now is going well for a new owner who has more experience.  A tragedy that wouldn’t have happened if the rider’s competence had grown in tune with his confidence.

Closer to home, a friend and I booked a beach ride about a year ago.  When we arrived, she told the guide that yes, she was very experienced, had ridden her whole life, had horses (all of which is true), while I told him, yes, I can ride a bit.  She looked at me with raised eyebrows.  As I had anticipated, I got an awesome little horse who tootled along on a long rein, allowing me to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery, while she got a hot little youngster who spooked and pranced his way along, keeping her with her hands full.  Who had the best ride?

So, next time that you’re off to ride an unknown horse, or are looking to buy a horse, ask yourself first, am I more confident, or more competent?  I know which one I’d rather…

 

 

 

Attendance or achievement?

This is something really important to me, and I’ve had it mind to write about for ages, but watching events unfold in front of me has clarified it again.

Attendance or Attainment.  What does the difference mean to you?

Attendance is to attend something.  To have made an appearance.  Last summer I did a lot of CPD days, (continued professional development days) and at the end, we were given our “6 hours CPD” certificates, whether or not we slept through it, interacted, agreed, disagreed or learnt.  Some were awesome, others were…  Well…

Attainment is to achieve.  When I was head of testing for the Pony Club, I had no issues failing the kids.  Well, let’s rephrase that.  When I was lecturing them, I’d always prepare them for the grade above what we were doing.  If they were aiming for C test, I’d make sure they could pass their C+ with flying colours.  Partly because I don’t believe in failure.  Partly because, coming from little old Zimbabwe (and teaching a lot of embassy / expat kids) I wanted to make sure the standards were high, so that when these kids went back to the first world they came from, people would be impressed with their knowledge gathered in Africa, not be making exceptions for them.  But, if I was examining and an unprepared kid, or a kid with a know-it-all attitude came along, I’d fail them.  Later, as an examiner for The South African National Equestrian Federation, I did fail a fairly high proportion of instructor hopefuls.  If you can’t do the skills, you don’t get your bit of paper just for attending.  It’s that simple.

A lot of courses are only aimed at giving enough information so that participants can answer the questions.  “Here is a 100-page book to study…  You really only need to read chapter 5 and read the list of past questions on page 89, because that’s where the exam questions come from”.  How often have you heard that one?  I have.  And that, I think, is attendance, not attainment.

Albert Einstein is credited with the quote – “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

To this end, when I was Chief Instructor for the Pony Club, all the older kids had to lecture the younger ones.  The older C+ kids lectured the E and D kids.  The B and A test kids lectured the D+’s and C’s.  It freed up instructor’s time, but it was mainly to clarify things for the older kids.  If you can’t explain to a 10-year-old how to assemble a bridle, maybe you don’t understand it well enough yourself…

Why am I thinking of all of this now?  I’m sitting at a dive centre, (https://www.facebook.com/lutwaladive/) watching some people do their PADI Rescue Diver Course.  In some centres, the course is done in about 2 / 3 days.  A morning watching videos.  An afternoon in the pool.  A day in the sea.  Wham, Bam, thank you M’am, you’ve attended the course, here’s you bit of paper.  Here, it’s a bit different.  Breaking down the skills.  Doing the theory, then in the pool.  Then the sea.  Back to watching the video, reading the book, discussing the scenarios.  In the water, out of the water.  This morning, there was a “accident”.  Oh My Word, someone is “drowning” out to sea, quickly, quickly, can someone rescue him – Oh The Drama…  It’s taking up a good week.  They’ve had to drag in a body against the tide – exhausted rescuers.  They had to hunt for a weight belt and plot the search area.  They haven’t attended the course, they’ve learnt the information, they’ve done everything practically.  They’ve taken twice as much time, been tired and overwhelmed, and they have understood.  Some people would be bored and frustrated.  And you know what?  If I were to have an accident, or to get lost at sea, do you know who I’d rather have out looking for me?  The ones who have attended a two-day course, or the ones who have achieved pulling in a “dead body” against the current and plotted a proper search area?

When I learnt to dive, we took it really slow.  My dive instructor was pedantic about safety and understanding.  We went through the theory, we did all the drills, we worked out the compass and plotting on land.  We tested, learnt, practiced, practiced.  It helped that he was my friend.  It helped that we had no rush.  It helped that he taught some of the world’s biggest VIP’s and so had to be ultra-cautious.  And, I learnt properly, carefully, thoroughly, and so it made sense.

A couple of years ago, I did a two-day free diving course.  There was a set syllabus.  Morning one – yoga practice.  Pool practice.  Afternoon one, yoga practice, pool practice.  Skills 1, 2, 3, 4.  Day two, pool practice, afternoon, sea practice, you WILL dive to 20m, stay 30 seconds, come back up.  The instructor was disinterested.  He had a list to follow, we were drilled through his list.  He damn near drowned me, and I didn’t finish the course.  He was unprepared and only had one thought in mind – to get through his two days.

See the difference?

As a pupil, which way would you rather learn?  As an instructor, honestly, how do you teach?

 

Are you doing your required reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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