A couple of months ago, a British event rider went a bit whip happy around a large, prestigious three-day event. Within a day, two of his sponsors withdraw their backing. They cited welfare – the wellbeing of horses is their for first priority and they felt it was time to part company. Good for them – brilliant. And, the one company had a lot of new followers on social media immediately, posts saying things like, I don’t know what you sell, but I’m buying two. People putting their money where their mouth is, backing ethical business and ethical riders.
On the other hand, some very unethical riders have merchandise lines, and people will say – oh I hate what that dressage rider does to her horses, but I have her saddle and ten of her saddle pads… I have asked riders – if you don’t like what she stands for, why did you buy her saddle? Well, they reply – the saddle wasn’t physically hers, she has nothing to do with it. Really? The saddle company pay her a large commission to be the face of the brand. If everyone who doesn’t like what she does, were to boycott the brand, and better yet to write to the brand and say, I’m boycotting you because of this rider – do you know what? Things would change. Hitting them in their pocket is the only way things will improve. I love watching Mark Todd ride – I think he is genius, he is the consummate master of his craft, he is always fair to his horses, and he is a genuinely nice human being. Oh look, Mark Todd breeches, yes please. A great product, supporting the deal he has with a brand. Awesome. That abusive lady dressage rider’s riding jacket? Ya, no, maybe not…
Why am I thinking of this now? Ethics. What is important to you?
Have you watched a movie called The Jack Bull? Its awesome. It must be from the late 1990’s, a western starring John Cusack. I was in my yard about 18 years ago (isn’t that scary??? How did I get so old?), grumpy and snapping, on a mission to rescue a horse who was being mistreated. I was gunning for his owner and nothing and nobody was going to stop me. A friend was standing in the yard giggling at my grumpiness, saying Oh My, are you The Jack Bull? Did they write the movie about you? Of course, I had to watch it. The plot, in short, is about a cowboy who has to leave two of his horses as security when he can’t pay a toll on a road. He leaves them and his employee for two weeks and when he comes back he finds his horses beaten and abused, and his friend and employee, vanished. He fights for what is right, he fights for what he believes. The title? His friend says to him, you are part bulldog and part Jack Russel – the strength of a Bulldog when angered, the dogged tenacity of the Jack Russel when he has something in his grip. And yes, when I’m on a mission, A Jack Bull is a pretty good description.
Recently I had a very difficult conversation. A good friend who I desperately didn’t want to upset or lose our friendship, has something going on that just doesn’t sit well with me. And so, finally, after a long time of debating, I had to speak my mind. I don’t like confrontations or unrest, but I couldn’t sit on the fence any longer. What will happen? I don’t know. Do I sleep better at night? I’m sad that I upset someone lovely, and sad that I may have lost a valued friend, but yes, morally, ethically I feel better for making a stand.
So, my question to you…. Are you standing up for what you believe? Are you a Jack Bull? Or do you have an opinion and ethics until it is inconvenient? Do you buy that rider’s brand of jacket because its pretty and pink and has a brand name on it? Even though you profess not to like her methods? Or do you stand by your morals and write to the manufacturers and say, I’m not helping you make money out of abuse? What is the saying – I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees? Are you willing to stand and be counted? Where do you stand?
When people ask what I do, I generally reply, I play with ponies. And, yes, by ponies, I mean anything with four legs, a tail and hopefully two ears (maybe not, knowing me), who neighs. Originally, there were two reasons for my “Playing with Ponies” answer. It started with my family who, with waning patience, kept asking, “so when are you going to stop playing with ponies and get a real job?”. Ya, that didn’t happen did it? As far as they were concerned, being outside in the dirt, spending more time with ponies than people, that wasn’t a real job. (After all these years, they kind of accept it isn’t likely to change…)
The second reason is that for many people, anything to do with working with horses is a second-class job, it’s for stupid people who had no other avenues open to them. The number of times I have met someone, we have been chatting as equals, and when they ask what I do, they go on to say, oh, well… And then dumb down the conversation. I did actually have a guy once say to me, oh well, at least that was an option that was open to you…. He did apologise later, but only after he discovered that I could actually string words together in conversation. Clearly, if you could, you would have a real, or office job, and if you can’t, you settle for ponies. Hmmm…. So, I jump in before they do – what do you do? Oh, I just play with ponies, not a big job like yours…
(Considering that the equine industry is one of the biggest in the world, generating around $300 million annually and employing about 1.6 million people, there are a lot of us lucky people out there.)
I am fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Mary Wanless, founder of Ride with your Mind. A word she hates is “Try”. Can you feel what your seat bones are doing? I’m trying…. To try implies that you are putting in hard, pointless effort for something that won’t happen. I hate that I procrastinate – I’ll try to change. I don’t like being so disorganised, I’ll try to fix it. I need to lose weight / give up sugar / get fitter / give up smoking / get out of bed earlier…. I’ll try. I’m ambivalent about change – maybe I will, maybe I won’t, its pointless effort… I’m trying.
I feel as disenchanted about a different word – work. It’s Monday, I have to go to work – ugh. I hate work, I need a holiday. I need to work, but I’m tired. Work is what you slog through 5 – 6 days a week to get to your weekend. Work, is not a place we choose. I work hard at the office, but I play tennis at the weekend. Different? Recently, I posted a photo on Instagram, sea, sun, sand, saying damn, another tough day in the office, looking for a yoga retreat venue… And, a friend commented, “Ashleigh, do you ever work?” Honestly, really, truthfully, no. I don’t think I have ever done a day’s work in my life. I think, I inquire, I dabble, I explore, I (hopefully) inspire, or lead, or suggest, but work? No, I don’t do that.
How about our four-legged friends. Do they think, today I’ll work on my flying changes? Ummm, hate to disillusion you, but no. Horses don’t work. In their natural state, they survive. They eat, they drink, they run from danger, they reproduce. And, they play. They play to learn, to explore their world, their strength, their place in the herd. They play to learn how to become a winning stallion or a lead mare. They don’t expel energy to work. Working would wear them down, making it easier for that tiger to eat them…
And yet, we take our horses into an arena and we set to work. Working a horse, implies for us, that it is going to be a hard grind. I’m working hard on his half passes. I’m working for a better dressage score, or a more balanced canter to jump clear rounds. I’m working him to wear him out before we go hacking, so he doesn’t buck me off…. I’m going to my office to work. And for him? I’m being worked by my human – she is working at my leg yielding… Is that fun? Is that putting either of you in a good space to learn, understand, progress? I don’t think so.
Recently, I wound up somewhere new, with new people, new ponies. On one of the first days, they asked if we were going to work ponies, and I said no, but we can play with ponies… They initially didn’t get it. And then, we took three little geldings into the arena, in a belting wind, and opened up a huge square of tarpaulin. The wind blew, the plastic flapped, the ponies snorted and chased each other, and they played. It was an hour of laughing, of hanging onto corners of tarp, of team work, and of brave ponies exploring, bouncing on and off the plastic, allowing themselves to be wrapped up and covered over. Did we, humans or ponies, work? No. Was it serious? Well, here I am careful how I answer – I was watchful. I checked the ponies weren’t stressed, flooded, anxious. I watched them for signs that this was difficult. I watched that the humans were safe. It wasn’t blindly doing a free for all… Is that serious – to a degree yes, I guess so, but it was to encourage safe play, not to work. Did the ponies play? Yes. Did those ponies leave the arena with more confidence? Yes. The interesting thing was the youngest pony. He gets quite bullied by the other two, definitely the lowest in pecking order. He was the one we targeted the most, and he was the one who ended up totally wrapped up. And he definitely grew from the experience, he was a lot more cocky and self-assured with his two little friends the next day, actually chasing (in play) the lead pony. Did the humans learn within the play? Yes, I kept asking – notice, how is he breathing, notice, where is he looking, is his tail still, is his eye soft. The humans learnt about noticing, but the learning was through play.
Play makes us happy. It raises our spirits. Work – well often it stresses us. Which one do you think inspires your pony to offer more? Are you going to work your horse today, or are you going to go and play with a half pass?
(As a post script – I was happily surprised when I read “The Human Condition”, Hannah Arendt, 1958, this definition of work… “Work, unlike labor, has a clearly defined beginning and end. It leaves behind a durable object, such as a tool, rather than an object for consumption. These durable objects become part of the world we live in. Work involves an element of violation or violence in which the worker interrupts nature in order to obtain and shape raw materials. For example, a tree is cut down to obtain wood, or the earth is mined to obtain metals. Work comprises the whole process, from the original idea for the object, to the obtaining of raw materials, to the finished product. The process of work is determined by the categories of means and end.” So, to work a horse is to create a violation that interrupts his nature… Is that how you want to be with your horse? Her definition of Action is much closer to where I want to be… Maybe it’s just my geek brain over thinking!!!!)
“My F&%# off button is broken”, my friend would complain. It was a game we would play, walking through town… You know all of those fund raisers, marketers, “please try my test product” people? Do you seem to attract them, or do they ignore you? My friend and I would try to keep them away, and it’s generally done with your &%$@ off button… You just walk along, and without saying anything or doing anything, they step back… Know what I mean? We’d walk along and check that they didn’t approach. But, sometimes they do. It did frustrate me, she was much better at playing the game than I was…
It always fascinates me, watching how people react to each other. Those fundraiser people, and marketers, they are so good at reading people. If someone walks past looking ahead, striding along, with a purpose, often they don’t bother them – the target has their F&%# off button firmly engaged. Sometimes it is when you put on your sunglasses and earphones, and they see that you have blinds up, not talking. Those who walk past looking less secure in their own skin, hesitant in where they are or where they are going, almost apologetic in being, and the marketers will get them… And those people are most likely to give them money too, since often they can’t say no.
I’m at my worst getting onto a plane. My flying time is my time, it’s where I switch off from the world. I get in my seat, next to the window, and don’t talk to me. I used to do it with props, by opening my book, putting on ear phones and leaning against the wall… Now though, I can do it without aids – I get in my seat and there are walls between me and my neighbours. Please, please, don’t be the seat neighbour who tries to talk to me – because I just won’t.
Why am I thinking about this now? I had lunch with a friend recently and we were discussing teaching and lessons, and how I read people. How do you do that, she asked? Do what, I replied? Well, just know stuff… A large part, I think, is reading what they are saying with their body.
Is electricity real? Uhh, yes. Can you see it? No. So, you must believe its there. We have the same forces within us – an electricity or a current, an energy and boundaries, unseen but (hopefully) felt / experienced / adhered to by other people.
There was a study done over a few years – I think, actually, it is still ongoing – about footballers and what makes the brilliant ones brilliant. Someone is running towards you, kicking the ball along in front of them. Are they going to send the ball to your right or to your left? There is a slight dodge, wobble, look to where they are going to go, maybe a flicker in their eye. The kids who go on to become elite footballers are the ones who can read it, and the really elite players just can’t get it wrong – as the player is running towards them with the ball, they can predict the movement.
When walking through town with my mom, she is forever complaining that when I walk, or when my brothers walk, people move out of our way, while she spends her life dodging. Just walk straight, I tell her – they’ll move. And, they do. For me. And for my brother’s. They end up walking into her. What’s the difference? Playing chicken? It’s intention – I’m just walking, and people believe that as I am walking, I won’t move, but they don’t believe her (warning – don’t try this with anyone pushing a pushchair / pram… They are a little insane, rules don’t apply…) How does this work? We do read each other, we know what people are thinking or how they are going to react, without registering or acknowledging it.
We project energy around us. Your friend walks in looking tired. How do you know? You just do. The footballer knows the ball is going right. Because, how? It just is. Maybe there was an eye flicker, maybe they are projecting energy in that direction. When someone is walking towards you down the footpath, they are going to move or not… How do you know? You just do. Think of that very charismatic, magnetic person…. They are charming, they are liked, good things just happen to them. How are they like that? They project positive, interested, interactive, high vibration energy. They attract people. Think about that slightly apologetic, world weary person. You can see them coming too.
Can I teach this? How to read this? I’m not convinced that I can. Thinking back to the conversation with my friend – how do you just know. Well, I do. When some one walks into the arena with their horse, I always spend 5 minutes or so just chatting to them. Letting them settle into their own skin, into their horse’s skin, into the space they are in. You can see it when they find their way to a good spot… They move in an easier way, they breathe. How can you not see it, I ask people?
Can horses teach this? Oh yes. You watch a horse being lunged. A novice is trying, the horse won’t go forwards, he spins around to go the other way, or he turns into the middle and stops. The poor person has no hope. The instructor walks in and the horse obediently trots along at the end of the line. The instructor didn’t appear to do anything different, and yet the horse just behaves. So, why did the horse behave? Simply, because he believes the trainer. In the way that the elite footballer knows the ball is going right or left, the horse knows whether or not to take the lunger seriously. In the same way the marketer knows if your %&$@ off button is working or not, your horse knows. He knows if you are sending him out, or drawing him in… How seriously does your horse take you?
Guide dogs always make me smile – don’t you? Not the fact that they are needed, but that they are so happy to have a role, to help their people. I was walking down the aisle in a big shopping mall a couple of days ago, and there was a lady in a wheelchair with a medical alert dog trotting alongside her wheelchair. The first thing that caught my eye was the wag, wag, waging tail – that little Lab was just the happiest dog ever, jogging along, proud of her job. And, the second thing was, as I was right behind them, the way she was having to throw her back legs out to the side, really twisting her spine, to avoid the back wheel of the chair while keeping her nose where it was meant to be, close to her handler’s hand. I did wonder if it was hip dysplasia, but she looked a young dog, if it was dysplasia, it was affecting her early, and would it be financially viable to train up a medical dog if she hadn’t passed her x-rays? I don’t think so, I do think it was her defence against being run over by the wheelchair. So, we are breeding a type of dog, largely because of their temperament, but breeding in hip issues, and then we are giving them a job – which they love and which I fully appreciate they are needed for – which furthers those hip problems. Talk about a man-made issue. Topiary for dogs?
I remember, years ago, seeing an April Fool’s day joke, about buying a glass bottle with a live kitten in it, and the kitten would grow the size, and not ever leave the bottle. Obviously, it was a joke (in bad taste) and wouldn’t have happened, but are we doing the same thing in other ways?
I’m battling with my knees at the moment – nothing new there, I always have had knee issues, and had several surgeries many years ago. Recently, I was talking to someone who was saying that their child (I really can’t remember who it was), was swimming breast stroke in swim club, and was battling with their knees. She went on to say that a large proportion of the big name, Olympic breast stroke swimmers went on to have knee surgery after they retired, and she was debating stopping those breast stroke lessons. The slightly sideways action of a frog kick when you are swimming breast stroke puts a sideways tilt on your knee joints, and how much damage does this cause? My response was to turn this on its head – I was born with dodgy knees, all of the ligaments are too long. It wasn’t injury or trauma, it was hereditary. So, do breast stroke swimmers develop bad knees, or, do people with lax, dislocating and odd knees find the rotation so easy, that it is the weakness it’s self that enables them to swim so fast? I’m sure if they are noticing that these swimmers are ending up having surgery, they will also be looking into the answer to my question, in fact I should probably Google it, but I’m sitting in a coffee shop with no Wi-Fi. (What do you call home? Where your laptop connects to Wi-Fi without asking… I have very many homes, but clearly not this coffee shop).
Well, then, what about riders? I was told years ago that I was the right shape to be a rider – tall, but with most of my height in my long legs, with a slightly shorter body than leg. Vertically challenged people do have more issues with riding at times, but I’m not convinced that long riders have it easy. So then, we are looking for a riding type. But, in the same way that the Labrador Dog had to twist out of the wheelchair’s way, and the way the swimmer twists their knees, does riding do a topiary job on people? Often, yes.
(OK, now I am totally side tracked, but if I am the ideal rider type, why do I battle to find saddles that fit me? My height is in my thigh, there is a long length from hip to knee, and do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a saddle where I can sit in the middle, with jumping length stirrups and not have my knee hanging off the front of the knee roll?)
How often have you heard certain comments being shouted across arenas? Grow tall; lift your chest; pull back your shoulders; be elegant; don’t slouch; push your chest out. And, what do these instructions do? They create overly tall, contorted, hollow backed riders who are hyper extending their lumber spine, and so creating all those riders who complain about lower back pain. There are a huge number of riders who end up having back surgery, as there are the numbers of swimmers having knee surgery. Should we be accepting this? No, I don’t think so.
Rider’s should be sitting straight, but, in the way that a martial artist stands straight. You don’t see a kick boxer slumped, round shouldered like a couch potato, but equally you don’t see them extending their spine, hollowing their back and sticking their chest out. We wouldn’t allow kittens to grow up in a glass bottle, but are we allowing a set, mentally cloned “ideal shape” to dictate how we look when we are sitting on a horse? Should we be paying more attention to how we sit on our horses? Oh yes.
Should I even go here, with this next comment? I think I will… What about what we are doing to our horses? Are we creating something good, neutral or bad for our horses? Dressage, meaning training, should be a good gymnastic training for a horse. It was to take a raw, un-educated horse and make a war machine out of him, trained and educated to be where ever his rider needed him to be in battle, gymnastic and lively enough to get into position and strong enough to maintain it. The horses who have been trained classically are still sound and working well into their twenties. The work is strengthening and enabling. Sadly, many horses now are being “trained” using short cuts and gadgets, which puts them in positions rather like the Guide Dog I was watching at the beginning. She was a happy dog, glad to be with her person and doing the job to the best of her ability. And so, you can’t always say that a happy animal isn’t coming to any harm, can you? A horse may be happily tootling along, doing what his owner asks because they are nice to him and he has a good work ethic, wants to please. But is it necessarily improving his body just because he is doing it willingly? Not necessarily. He shouldn’t dislike good work, far from it, but equally, just because he doesn’t mind isn’t a sign that it’s a good thing.
And, as I sit here, hunched over my laptop at a coffee table, I can feel my neck creak and crack. And, I look up to stretch my neck out, and I see people all around the coffee shop, leaning forward and crouching over their phones, tablets and computers, and it does make me think, how much are we creating a human issue just as bad? Surely the very fact that so many of us are holding tension and pain in our necks and shoulders from putting ourselves into a “rolkur” position, and complaining about the pain it produces, we should be more aware of the pain we are inflicting upon our horses?
What positions are causing pain and discomfort in your day to day life? Follow
I met with a friend for dinner last month – it had taken a long time and lots of back and forth messages to organise a time that suited both of us. When we finally got together, she said – this whole – “I’m just so BUSY, when did we start saying this as a good thing?” When you meet up with someone, or ask a friend how they are, how often is the answer, OK, busy, all OK…?
Part of the reason that this is on my mind again, is reading an article in an equine magazine last week, about making our working hours closer to 9 to 5. They say farriers, vets, instructors shouldn’t be expected to answer their phones or messages outside working hours. On one hand, yes, I can see where they are coming from. You cannot be working 24 hours a day. However, for an awful lot of people, horses are their hobby, their down time, their relaxation. And so, as with any leisure or hospitality industry, your working hours are during what most people consider their leisure hours. A lot of yards or instructors take Monday as their day off, because they are working all weekend when clients have time for lessons. And there are even some yards who close on Monday, the horses just getting their basic care. So, if you only answer your phone, emails or work in mainstream working hours, you miss out on a lot of work.
I know that I am dreadful at not being “at work”. Recently, I decided to take a DAY OFF. An entire day, of not doing anything related to working, writing, researching etc. I lasted until about 11am. Because I have clients all over the world, no matter what time it is where I am sitting, someone somewhere is telling me about their ride, asking me about their bit, chatting about where we are organising our next yoga retreat, or asking advice about an issue. The number of times I’m sitting up at midnight chatting to a client who is another part of the world, or at a family function but on my phone at the same time…
Another friend who I was chatting to a while ago had, sadly, just lost her horse to colic. She was saying one of the things that had really surprised her was the amount of free time she had – not just the actual time she would have been spending at the yard, but time planning what schooling sessions she would be doing, looking into different feeds, checking that she had booked her farrier at the right time, reading about new bits and wondering if she needed to change what she was using. And because she was working full time and juggling her horse around work, and juggling booking her farrier around that, she would sometimes be messaging him at 8 at night.
Is being too busy different when it’s your hobby? Does it make it better when you work your hours and then you’re “being Busy” is your hobby time? It’s all a careful balance I think…
And then, a couple of days ago, I was walking from the house where I was staying, down to their yard. It’s 660 steps – I know because I counted – and I think it’s a lovely amble. For me, that is my down time. I don’t have internet connection when I am outside the house or yard, so for those 5 minutes I am not online. And, the view, the flowers, the ponies grazing in the paddock, they all make you go hmmmm… And on one of those walks last week, there, sitting on a bench on the common was an elderly lady, very quietly, very still, gazing down the valley. She didn’t move, didn’t react, was completely lost in just looking out over the fields and hills. That, I thought, that is switching off and not being at work. Maybe, instead of trying to stick to office hours, or stick to taking a day off, maybe we should just make sure we have time everyday to sit and stare at the view, to make room in our heads for nothing but the feel of the warming sun, the smells of the spring flowers, the sound of the birds in the hedges
And, what about our horses? So many horses live in very busy yards. They have grooms in and out of their boxes, mucking out, feeding, grooming, tacking up, and different riders coming in, collecting different horses at different times for different lessons. Maybe those horses go out for a couple of lessons a day. And even those in the paddock, cars will be driving past, pulling into the car park. Planes fly overhead, things are always happening. I do think horses get stressed by being a part of our “busy”. On this day, when I was watching the lady sitting staring down the valley, I also watched the horses in the paddock in her line of sight. One was standing, hind leg rested, head lowered, ears hanging out to the side and lower lip flopping. The other two horses were lying flat out on the grass, sunbathing and totally switched off. These, I thought were horses who really were busy doing nothing. And that is so important in their lives, they need to horse, they need time to relax muscles and they need time to process.
When I was first learning about horses, first taking professional exams, one of the subjects that we spent a lot of time on was roughing off (preparing a horse for his summer holidays by gradually reducing his work, his hard feed, his rugs) and then getting him fit again, ready for his busy season. For at least a month, he would be turned out, checked once a day but otherwise left alone. How many people now a days have no idea how or why roughing off is done? How many horses never actually get to have a holiday? So many people have horses who they ride 6 days a week, every week and when they, the humans, go away on holidays, they make sure to hire someone else to come in and ride their horses 6 days a week.
We humans are complaining about being busy, about how we need holidays, about how we need to switch off, and if you are a farrier, to stop answering your phone. But how often do you put your horse’s holidays aside because he must keep working? When was the last time that your horse had a few weeks holiday?
I read somewhere, the rider is an artist or sculptor, the horse is the medium with which he works. (And, if anyone has the origin or author, please let me know!) I like this image. A friend had two photos on her fridge door. One was a scruffy, dirty little dark grey colt, with a long black mane and tail, thick winter coat, unshod and slightly long hooves, a bit unkempt. Tail dragging on the ground where it hadn’t been trimmed. He was slightly ewe necked, weak behind and totally undeveloped. He was standing, looking slightly wild eyed, in a headcollar, an unseen person holding him steady. The other photo on her fridge door, shows a magnificent dressage horse, stunningly turned out, gleaming pure white coat, clean, brushed out mane and tail also pure white, tidy hooves, beautiful topline with a big cresty neck and lovely development through his back, quarters and thighs. Truly, a stunning horse bursting with health and power. He is standing square, oozing confidence and charisma, in a double bridle and dressage saddle, ready for work. And, yes, it is the same horse, taken about 8 years apart.
This horse, was truly an artist’s creation. He was never hurried or pressured, he was sculpted step by step, sometimes one step forwards, two steps back. As he was being produced, he was given time to find balance; his muscles were given time to develop; the wrong muscles were given time to soften and let go; his brain was given time to understand; he was given time to become confident and trial new behaviour; he was given time for deep practice, to slowly, slowly understand and create something magnificent.
Another quote that I adore – “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” – Michelangelo. (Even I know this one’s origin!) This horse, that I am describing above, that is exactly what happened with him and his training – the stunning, calm, presence filled creature in the second photo was always there, and my friend had the knowledge and patience to carve until she set him free.
So, why am I writing this?
Did Michelangelo take power tools to his marble and produce his angel at record speed? Of course not, he would have taken his time, felt the marble, thought and felt about what he was producing, and as an artist, filed away bit by bit.
The classically trained horses have the benefit of time, they are produced over years, so that if he only offers piaffe at 12, it doesn’t matter, because its part of the process, not a race to the finish line. Which is why these horses stay sound and working into their twenties.
And my point is? Well, I have been trying to work out, just why would trainers use gadgets? In my opinion, draw reins, tie downs, martingales, balance reins, should be burned. There is no place for them. So, just why do some trainers love them? Here are my theories…
The first is the one that I can most empathise with – you have a nice young horse for a novice rider and want the rider to feel what they are aiming for – you don’t want to damage the horse’s back by letting him run around with his head in the air, but the rider hasn’t learned the feel. Ideally, find the rider a schoolmaster to have some lessons on, but having taught in all sorts of weird and wonderful places, I know it isn’t always possible… Do I agree with it? No. But, it’s the one answer that I can see some logic behind.
Next, they want fast answers. As I said, Michelangelo took time to carve his angel. But, if he was being pressured to mass produce pieces to sell quickly, to get more chunks of marble out there to the public, and he had a power tool to hand, would it have made it quicker? Sure. He could have produced 50 in the time it took to carve 1. And, since so many were being made, it would be ok if a couple were chipped or flawed, right? Quantity over quality. If you own a stallion and want to get his progeny out there and competing, to get more mares in, to raise the stud fee, then you want his babies out there fast, (often mass produced) and winning at 3 or 4 years old. So, for speed and faster financial reward, use gadgets.
Ego, I also think, can play a role. If I, as a trainer, am teaching a lesson, and the horse’s head is in the air, am I concerned with what bystanders may be thinking? Am I looking at the other trainers walking by, and thinking, oooh, this looks bad, my pupil has her horse’s head in the air – what will that mean for my reputation, best I tie it’s head down… I remember once, riding a riding school horse. He didn’t go forward, had no go off the leg, and, honestly, felt quite unlevel. I was just trucking him along the track, with his head in the air, just working on GO. I later found out, one of the junior instructors was very concerned about the fact that this horse’s head was in the air. Would it have benefited myself or my horse to tie his head down? No. Would it have made the junior instructor happier to see his head tucked in? Oh yes
Having pupils over horsed. This is a biggie. Your pupil buys a horse who is a little too much for them. Maybe they chose the horse before becoming your pupil, or maybe you bought the horse for them, hoping that they would “grow into” each other, and now, Oh Dear, it’s bordering on being unsafe… So, we just tie the head down. This one is a real bug bear for me – educate, both horse and rider. School the horse correctly, teach the rider. Slow down the lessons, teach them in a walk, until they have more control, and then in trot. Keep them on the lunge, or in a smaller arena. Educate, don’t punish the horse for being more horse than a rider should be riding. Buck Brannaman has a great quote – “When someone tells me they want a pushbutton horse, I say you might as well buy yourself some fairy dust. You’ll bring that horse down to your level in no time”. That fabulous, flashy horse, can be dumbed down pretty quick in a pair of running reins.
Lazy teaching – this is another one that really annoys me. I can’t be bothered to teach you about contact, so we’ll just pull his head down. I CAN’T teach you how to ride the horse rounder, through his back or into a quiet hand, because I don’t have enough understanding or the words, so we’ll put draw reins on. A trainer’s role is to train, to help the pupil to understand. A trainer shouldn’t take a short cut to avoid teaching the lesson. This is often accompanied by the trainer sitting on the fence with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a fan club. Luckily, I only see this very, very rarely!
How much do you agree? Sure, there maybe other circumstances, or other reasons that a trainer may try to convince you that using gadgets is the best option, but 99% of the time, I bet it comes down to one of these five… What are you doing with your horse? Are you carefully shaping the angel who lies within the marble, or are you forcing a shape that is going to chip and crack? Follow
“You are utterly insane and irresponsible, how awful” or “Oh my, wonderful, I am so jealous” are the two comments most commonly offered by people when I tell them what I do for a living – freelance coaching. With a twist. The area that I cover is – anywhere in the world. Some locations are recurring, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kenya, South Africa, England, Germany and Spain, while others are one offs – such as Italy or Costa Rica.
Growing up and learning to ride, I was the good pupil, who tried desperately to follow my coaches prompts – make the horse forward, get the horse round, use more leg, ride the canter, being some of those shouted instructions that I would be furiously trying to follow. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to voice my inner thought of – How? How do I make the horse rounder? How do I keep my leg still? How do I get my lazy horse more forward or my whizzy horse to settle? Somehow, lots of excellent coaching produced a rider able to compete across the disciplines and produce horses, but there was always that little inner dialogue of – how is this working? Teaching was a challenge, because I could always see the problem, and see what I wanted to change but often lacked the words or linear set of cues to get the changes I wanted for my pupils.
Thousands of miles in dressage arenas, jumping arenas, cross country courses, race tracks, endurance tracks, bridle paths and lunge rings later, my back started to give out, partly due to a lot of incorrect posture along the way. At that point I was already experimenting with many ideas, but discovered Mary Wanless and her “Ride With Your Mind” system. Finally, I had some of the “how to” answers. How does the horse come rounder? How can I protect my back? In her words – she teaches a “tool kit” – things that we as riders need to get our head around. I became a certified RWYM coach, and that opened my mind to more possibilities and thoughts, creating an eclectic mix that I use today.
I count myself lucky in that I have managed to experience a lot of different things, partly for fun, partly as teaching research, which allows me to connect to my pupils existing skills and has put me in front of some amazing coaches across a lot of different sports. This year, a rider with scuba diving experience was battling with her horse’s flying changes to the right, while to the left was great. Our discussion revolved around how, when asking for the left changes, she put her body into scuba diving positive buoyancy mode, while when asking for the difficult right changes she went into negative buoyancy mode. Instantly, by accessing muscle memory that her body understood, she could ride the changes in either direction. A young rider was battling with her jumping position and a discussion around our shared interest in rock climbing fixed the issue. (You can’t pull up with your arms, you have to push up with your core and legs). And yet another rider was constantly slightly behind the movement, causing frustration and irritation on her sensitive pony, which we worked through… How? That morning, I had climbed off a plane with a heavy back pack. On getting onto the escalator going up towards immigration, the back pack had pulled backwards on my shoulders, almost pulling me off my feet. I had to engage my core, match the packs backward force with my own forward force, so keeping me vertical on the escalator. This rider was being the back pack pulling her little gelding backwards. As soon as we worked through how to engage her core to match his forward momentum, all was better in their world.
Lessons are eclectic, thoughtful and make a rider stop and think. “Be a frog” or “more tennis balls” have been shouted across arenas, after discussion with riders has made this the explanation that puts them where their horse and I need them to be. My business is Kuda Guru, which means Horse Teacher. People assume it means I am the horse riding instructor, but the spin I put on it is, your horse is your teacher, I just translate.
The first question I ask of a rider during a lesson – if I could fix one thing, what would it be? They will answer, I wish he was more forward / straighter / rhythmic / slower / had impulsion / was balanced. And in my mind, I always think, if I could ask the horse, what would he wish for? Generally, the answer I imagine is the same as that the rider just gave. The rider who says, I wish my horse had a better rhythm, is often a rider who is not riding in a rhythm themselves. And I bet their horse is thinking, I wish my rider had a better rhythm. We can’t make the horse have a better rhythm, but if the rider and I can put a better rhythm into that rider, the horse now has a dancing partner that he can work with. At that point, the horse generally finds rhythm, breathes a sigh of relief and I get to translate – look at that, your horse has rhythm, don’t believe me, believe him. When your horse goes better, believe that you are doing something right… He is the expert at being the horse, all I do is translate.
So, what do you wish for when riding your horse? Would he wish for the same thing? How can you create that in your own body?
Recently, there were three of us sitting around the table, trying to work out why a lame horse was lame. And no, we couldn’t call the vet, since the country we were in, isn’t that easy. We were each coming at the problem from a slightly different angle. I was reminded about two other conversations…
One is from a friend who works in the corporate world, who is always talking about how, in every situation, you need to somehow add value to the job, situation, meeting or customer interaction. If you are not giving value, or adding input, then why are you there? As they say, it takes two hands to clap – if you as the coach, advisor, expert, skilled worker etc add value, then the customer, client, pupil can receive the best of what is offered. If the coach is not adding value, the pupil cannot make an awesome, positive, constructive lesson all on their own, and equally, if the pupil is off or negative, having a bad day, its hard for the coach to do all of the work. There has to be an interaction – there have to be two hands to clap. Even the pupil with the best intentions of being really attentive and taking things from the lesson, can’t do that if the coach is not mentally there. So, whenever I go into a lesson or problem-solving situation, at the back of my mind is, am I adding value to the mix? And I inputting ideas, thoughts, helping the situation. If you say – “that’s bad” it’s a negative that no one can draw any ideas from, but if you can say “hmmm, maybe the issue is this, but we can try x, y, z to fix it” then, you are adding value.
I was also reminded of a conversation a long time ago, with a horse health care professional. He said, if I own a hammer, then all I see are nails… Let’s say that we have a lame horse standing in front of us, and there are twenty of the world’s greatest authorities on lame horses. The first is a farrier, who says, well, I see a bad nail, and a slight ridge there – the issue is in the horse’s feet. The second is a saddler, who says the saddle is not quite square, and there could be friction just here. That is why he is lame. The third is a bit fitter, who says, the shape of the mouthpiece doesn’t suit this horse, that will cause resistance, tension, unlevelness… The fourth is a chiropractor, who says the horse’s pelvis is unlevel, he’s not moving right behind. The fifth is the riding coach, who says, the rider is crooked… And so it goes on…. What ever my skill (my hammer) I see the issue through those eyes. Do any of us see the whole horse? Not entirely, no, I don’t think so. Is there one clear reason why the horse is lame? Sometimes, and sometimes all of these experts are right and it’s a accumulative effect of all elements…
Which leads me back to the horse who we were trying to de-code. Did we get it right? Not entirely, no. I think we needed more tools in the tool kit, but we made a good start at unravelling. How to find the right tool? I don’t know at this point… Is the horse constantly at the back of my mind? Oh yes…
So, what is your hammer? When you approach a horse problem, what can you bring to the table? I think it’s your responsibility, as an owner, as a rider, to be able to bring something to the table. Read, study, watch your horse. Maybe the value you can bring to the table is an awareness – he always trashes his bed and this week it was too tidy for him to have been lying down. He always eats all of his hay overnight, but this week there has been some left. He always stretches before walking out of the stable, but this week he didn’t want too… Notice things, that is often the first big key in sorting something out… Is he drinking less water? Is he grinding his teeth when he didn’t in the past? Is he wearing out the toe of his shoe? What’s different?
What do I bring to the table? I know horses. I know what is right and what isn’t. I can see gait patterns. I can see straightness and irregular steps. I believe my gut reaction that says something is off or not. I have a sense of horses and have picked up a fair amount of anatomy and symptoms. I can tell you if a saddle is bad, or a bit is too big, or the shoes are too small. Am I a vet, or a farrier? No. But I can often tell you where you need to be looking, or what expert to bring in.
So, who do you have around your table? If your horse came out of his stable lame or sick tomorrow, who would add value to him and his recovery? How can you surround yourself with people who not only have a hammer, but a screwdriver, pliers and a wrench too? And, what value can you add, to his life, to your conversations with him, and to your lessons? Where do you add value? Can you add value to his surroundings and wellbeing? Sometimes something as simple as a thicker bed, or patch of sand to roll in can add value to his day. If horses could pick their owners, would your horse pick you.
Why have I hesitated to write this? It’s been on my mind for a while, but hasn’t been written…
Abuse? What is abuse and what isn’t? I think I may hit a few nerves here…
Recently, I was chatting to a client. He has a super big horse and rides for fun, for relaxation, and forgetting about his work at the end of a busy day. Yes, the horse has some talent, but his main job – a switch off for his owner’s brain. The owner was telling me, sadly, that he couldn’t ride that week. Why not, I asked. Well, because his regular trainer was riding the horse in a competition the next weekend, and told him that he, the owner, doesn’t ride well enough, so if she, the trainer, wants to win, he must leave the horse to her. To say I was taken aback is a bit of an understatement…
I said to him… It’s your horse. Yes. Do you want him to compete? No. Did you organise the trainer to compete the horse? No. Did you decide that competing the horse was a good idea? No. The horse is YOUR HORSE…. YOURS…. You OWN the horse, and what the horse does or does not do, is your responsibility and choice. If you own a horse and decide to paint him pink and ride him bareback through the town eating candy floss, it’s YOUR decision, because it’s YOUR horse, not your trainer’s horse, not my horse, not your next-door neighbour’s horse.
He smiled sadly and said, well within reason, right? If he chose to abuse the horse, to ride it with barbed wire in the horse’s mouth, I’d step in, wouldn’t I? It wouldn’t be his choice then? If a trainer sees abuse, the trainer will walk out and refuse to come back? What would I do if I arrived to teach a lesson, saw a horse in something horrendous, such as wire in it’s mouth? Stay or go? And is his novice riding horse abuse? Shooo… It opens up another can of worms, since what is abuse in the opinion of one trainer, is perfectly ok for another…
In some people’s eyes, riding a horse is abusive, and riding should be banned. Other’s think pleasure riding is ok, but not competitions, racing or jumping. Others think anything goes. Some would ban racing, or jumping, or cross country, or bits, or shoes. I often think that riding school ponies have a tough time, especially in the yards where teachers are yelling out kick, kick, kick, kick…. When else do we tell kids to kick animals? Some people are fine with whatever – it’s only an animal, right? And each and every one of us must draw the line of what we consider abuse.
Every situation could be abusive. Is a stable abusive? Well, if the horse is locked in 24 hours a day, with no bedding, little food, no exercise and no light, absolutely. If kept in for a few hours at a time, with a deep bed, hay, clean water, sunlight, fresh air, a friend, maybe a view, then no, it’s not. Saddle? If it fits well, is clean, supple, not girthed too tightly, then sure, you’re good to go. If it doesn’t fit, is dirty and rubbing, broken, or the horse has back pain, then it’s abusive – I know where I draw my line – do you?
Recently I was in Bali – and a friend of mine always says – how can you go there? It’s full of stray dogs, she couldn’t cope with seeing them. And yes, there are many strays, skinny, bad skin conditions, no where to go… But, there are amazing people who are running de-sexing clinics, who are trapping dogs to treat their skin and vaccinate them and feeding street dogs. When I go there, I see the improvements as much as seeing the troubles. People also know that I spend a lot of my time helping with the Gili Cart Horses. Again, if you see them for the first time, you can think abuse. There are still an awful lot of issues to address, but, again, things are so much better, year on year. Friends say, how can you go there and see that? You are meant to love horses; how can you condone that? Because, if we all turned our backs on these stray dogs, or working horses, who would help them? Would things improve? Of course not. If you can slowly make changes, dripping water on the rock, then it’s worth doing, yes?
I was approached to go and teach in a certain yard a couple of years ago. I arrived and was fairly appalled at the state of the horses. I watched part of a lesson and it was even worse. I then discovered that riders were expected to sign a confidentiality / non-disclosure document before beginning lessons or stabling there, to ensure they said nothing about what they saw happening. Did I agree to teach? No. They were set in their ways, they knew that people wouldn’t like their practices, or they wouldn’t have that document, and yet they carried on. Would I have been able to make a difference? No.
I see it as a wheel, turning either forwards or backwards. With the Bali dogs and Gili ponies, the wheel is, inch by inch, rolling forwards. Things are getting better. With the yard above – no, the wheel is either still or more likely, rolling the wrong way. What to do about it? I don’t know. I still think about those poor horses, but a cure I haven’t found.
When I owned ponies, I had one leased out to a young rider. The pony still lived with me, but she would take him up to her trainer’s yard for lessons. The pony always seemed happy enough, so I left it. He was strong and could really take a hold so was ridden in a fat rubber pelham with rounding’s and a padded curb chain. One day, he arrived back from a jumping lesson. He seemed nervous about having his bridle removed, and then wouldn’t eat. Gut instinct – I checked his mouth and it was raw in places, bruised and sensitive in others…. Sure enough, on checking, the trainer had changed bridles, got on and “schooled” the pony herself. That day, the lease was cancelled, the child and parents asked to remove themselves from my yard, and the “trainer” was told what I thought. This trainer was angry – did I not realise she was an ex-international show jumper who had won X, Y and Z? Yes, I did, and did I care? No. Sadly, it can still be the ex-champion, old-school trainers who can be part of the problem. They can get hung up on what worked then, and won’t move with the times (not always, I know a lot of old school, amazing trainers too!) Can anyone hurt my pony? No. Did that pony work for his living in the school, jump, go to competitions, get ridden in his pelham and a saddle? Yes. Again, draw your line.
I went on a two-week interview at a big yard in Germany some time ago. They produce, compete and sell competition horses, the big names with the big price tags. And yes, I rode some of the big-name stallions. And yes, I was offered my contract. Did I take it? No, that was one of the most abusive horse situations that I have ever been in, and I still have nightmares about it. Just because your horse cost $1,000,000 doesn’t mean he has a good life… When money is involved, the horse must produce the goods, even when not physically or emotionally ready.
When working with trainers, it is YOUR responsibility to safe guard your horse… When I was competing a lot, I’d have clinics with different trainers. If they asked me to get after the horse, get him more reactive, push him a little harder, I would, it’s often why you need the input to make your horse that bit more… But, if they asked me to put tack on him that I didn’t like, or jump higher when I could feel the horse struggling, then I’d refuse, because as a horse’s caretaker, it’s my job to stand by what I believe. If I say to a pupil we are going to try X, and they were adamantly opposed, I’d respect them more for standing up for their and their horse’s rights, than for meekly following my instructions… If you don’t agree with someone, for your horse’s sake, say so.
So, my pupil’s question – if I walked into a yard and a rider was expecting me to teach them with barbed wire in the horse’s mouth, would I stay or go? It depends. If it is an inexperienced rider, who has an open mind, who has been put in this situation by their tradition, culture or a bullying instructor, I’d stay. I’d talk to them, convince them, just for today, to take the wire out and see what we could do. I’d work on education, because if I walked out, who would be helping the horse, and this rider’s future horses? I do walk into situations I don’t like sometimes, and by dripping water on the rock, I can usually change them. If this was happening in the yard with the confidentiality form, or the yard in Germany, then what would I do? Then, I’d walk away. Because you can say what you like, it isn’t going to change. You know that saying – If you don’t want to learn, no one can make you… But if you WANT to learn, then no one can stop you…
I was accused of being a chameleon this morning. I had just finished a long morning of lessons (fortunately in an indoor, since it was chucking it down…) and a group of the riders and I headed off for brunch. The discussion moved to, what do you have for breakfast? Well, my reply started, it all depends on where I am… In some countries where we start really early, I don’t have breakfast, but we break early and go for mid-morning snacks. Other places, we’ll all get up and cereal. Where I’m staying now, I grab a protein bar on the run. Just so long as there is always coffee, all you riders are ok… If there isn’t any, who ever is first in the arena is in trouble. Hmm, so no set breakfast then? No.
The conversation moved on – who ate healthy and who didn’t? Again, I replied, it depends. Some places where I stay, its all salad, vegan, healthy. The next week will be cheese, chocolate and grabbing a muffin for lunch on the hoof… The next is all about 7 course meals, the next is about 1 meal a day. Where ever I am, what ever situation I’m in, I adapt.
And, do you drink? Well, in some places yes, its about mojitos for lunch, wine for dinner, and whiskey chasers for nightcaps. In others, its all about coffee, tea and water. And then, in others, it’s all coconut water.
At which point, you arrived in this conversation – you’re a chameleon! What is it that YOU like, not what suits that week. And honestly, I can’t tell you, because I don’t think I know…
A similar situation last week – I was staying with a friend, doing a lot of writing and admin. He would head off to work and I’d be in front of my laptop, listening to Mantovani as I typed. A couple of hours later, he’d return and there would be Guns ‘n Roses. The next day might start with Pink and move to Gershwin. The next was Disturbed… And when he walked in on Vivaldi, he couldn’t hold his tongue anymore – so what music do you actually LIKE? Is the classical stuff there to help you think? Well, I like it all, I replied. Some days it’s a shout along to Meatloaf day, other times, its chill to The Piano Guys – it really depends on the day. Hmm, he thought…
In some places, I’m happy to park in front of the TV and vegetate. In others, I can’t sit still. Sometimes I like exploring and adventure, sometimes I need time to be quiet. What do I like? I like to walk, to hike, to swim, to dive, to “people”, to have closed doors, to eat out, to hibernate. I like loud, I like quiet. I can tell you, about the only thing I know I dislike with a passion is to be cold…
Is it a problem? Most people don’t think so, but my music and breakfast friends both think it is… Is it my indecisive nature that lets me escape from making decisions? Possibly. Where do you want to live – oh, so many choices… Where do you like to go – oh, everywhere… who do you like to teach – Ooooh, everyone… Which breed of horse do you like – oh, all and none, it depends on the individual… Which discipline do you like to ride or teach the most – oh, all of them, sometimes dressage, sometimes jumping, sometimes equitation… Do you like teaching beginners / advanced, kids or adults? oh, yes…. Is my chameleon / indecision a blessing or a curse – well, who knows… I’ll start making decisions – or maybe I won’t….
So, what about you? Do you like schooling, or going for a gallop down the beach (Me? Both). Do you like sitting quietly with your horse, or are you always needing to be “doing”? (Me? Both). Do you like working over poles, or sticking to more traditional flat schooling? (Me? Both – are we seeing a pattern here?). Do you like riding babies or experienced school masters (Me? Yes, OK, we don’t need to keep asking) (But, for the record, both!)
And, what about your horse? Your horse needs consistency. He needs you to be predictable – legs mean go, still means stop. A pat means well done. Contact is contact. He needs his known house, his regular feed times and feed type. He needs his friends and his routine. But, the happiest of horses I know, have variety in their work. On Monday they’ll hack and have a canter round the fields. On Tuesday they will lunge. On Wednesday they have some schooling. On Thursday they’ll do fast work at a canter track. On Friday they do poles and gymnastics. On Saturday they jump courses. Sunday is rest. (This isn’t in any way a work plan, it just shows how we can be flexible). The fast work is cardio and fun. The gymnastics tests reaction, the schooling is educating and so it goes. A horse who goes into an arena EVERY DAY, or jumps EVERY DAY, or lunges EVERY DAY is often the horse who becomes sour and dull.
What do you like to do? What does your horse like to do? How do you keep a freshness in you schooling? And, just out of nosiness, what do you listen to when you’re are tap tap tap tapping out on your laptop?