World Animal Day Blog

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

Hello Friend…
Hello Friend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expertise Induced Amnesia

I was sitting with a friend recently in her stable yard over a glass of wine.  (Read that sentence again – drinking wine in a stable yard…  some people just know how to do things right…)  when there was great moaning and groaning from one of the horses, a big old retired mare.  She was dropping down to roll in her fresh bedding, just laid for the night.  (Come on, at least we waited until evening stables before breaking out the alcohol).  Several minutes later, the big mare was still down, still groaning quietly under her breath, a geriatric old eccentric muttering about the youth of today and her aching bunions.  My friend asked – “is she ok, do you think?  Does she have colic?”

“Hmmm” I managed around my brie on a cracker, “doubt colic”.

A few minutes later the old girl was up and (looking slightly senile and unfocused) staring at the wall.  My friend asked again – “Is she ok? Does she have colic?”

“No”, I replied – “she’s absolutely fine.”

“How do you know?” (without leaving the table that hosts wine and cheese…)

“She shook”

Blank look….  When a horse who is healthy and feeling well has a lovely roll in fresh bedding, or mud, or sand after work, or has been sleeping in the sun, they stand up and give their whole body a good shake, like a dog coming out of water.  From the tips of their ears to the end of their tail, their entire body shakes.  When a horse has colic, and so a sore belly, they stand up and refuse to shake, because it hurts.  They might flick their head in a half-hearted attempt at “normal”, or look at their gut, but shake?  No.

After a lovely muddy roll, an even better shake…  This is how horses in the wild groom themselves – the mud sticks to the hairs, and as it is shaken off, any loose, molting hair goes off with it. 

Would I have thought to teach that in a lecture about colic?  Probably not.  Would I have put it in to words automatically?  No.  But do I know it to be true?  Oh yes.  And that knowing has a great term – “Expertise Induced Amnesia”.  You don’t know just how much you have learnt, figured out, processed and forgotten.  When you repeat a pattern again, again, again, you often forget half the steps, because you just know.

Do you know why the Great Wall of China has random steps – one big, one tiny, one high, one low?  Damn Bladdy difficult and tiring to walk along…  Because people who walked that wall everyday knew the steps and could run them in the dark, half asleep.  They knew the pattern.  Come along a night raider who didn’t know the steps – crash.  The guards who lived there couldn’t have told you the pattern – they just knew, and had amnesia about the dance…  Awesome defense system, right?

My mentor has a great story about a plumber…  He’s a grand master plumber, old, wise, been in the job for decades and teaches many apprentices.  He was called in for a major leak that no one could quite find or fix.  He walked in, straight to the issue, fixed it in 3 minutes and handed over a hefty bill.  On looking at the size the bill, the office block owner coughed…  “3 minutes and this is the bill?”  The reply – “You don’t pay me for what I do, you pay me for what I know…”  He teaches the next generation of plumbers, but still can’t teach experience. Or, sometimes, you’re just waiting for the pupil to figure it out for themselves.

I remember staying with a friend in Spain in a remote farming area.  She had two old pet pigs and one morning one of them was seriously unwell.  She called the local vet – but, this being a farming area – his reply was “I can give you the number of the butcher”.  That wasn’t really her plan, with this pet of hers.  We stood, each with one boot clad foot on the 5-bar gate around his pen, contemplating the four-legged patient, as horse people so often do.  “Well”, I said – “the one trick an acupuncturist taught me, is the re-set button for horses with bad colic or going fast into shock after a trauma or accident…  The absolute “Oh Dear” button that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly – this is the time…”  I do happen to travel with hair – thin – acupuncture needles (doesn’t everyone?  One day I’ll explain about my Tardis-like suitcase), so retrieved a needle and stuck it in, leaving it in place for 5 minutes.  Within 20 minutes, Mr. Pig was back up and rooting through his pen for the best vegetable scraps.  “So, how did you know it was needed and would work”, asked my friend.  I shrugged…  Dunno – just because I knew?


Well, it works for horses…. And pigs apparently…

Well, it works for horses….  And pigs apparently… 

I am currently learning – tentatively – about two new skills…  More tools to bring to the table, but not terribly conventional or logical.  (I do try to be conventional sometimes, just ask my rubber duck travelling companion….)  And find myself, again and again pestering these two experts – But why?  But what?  But, how do you KNOW that?  But what do you mean?  I probably ask too many questions – no, I KNOW I ask too many questions – I suppose that since I don’t mind fielding random questions, I ask too many myself….  And get frustrated when the reply comes back – “Because”.  A taste of my own “I dunno” answers?   Maybe they are waiting for me to figure out my own answers…  Or maybe they just know, and there are no words.

What do you know, or do, that you’d probably forget if leaving a friend a list of instructions…?  What should you be teaching better, or clearer?  Do you expect your horse to know an answer, just because you do?  You may know how to ride a half pass, but do you know what?  If you haven’t discussed it with your four-legged dance partner, he probably hasn’t figured out the half pass steps just yet…  Can you explain your expertise in clear, 1, 2, 3 steps?  Einstein says – if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough…  But somethings just can’t be explained, can they?


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Emotionally Connected ….

Socially distant, emotionally connected.

I pass this painting on a roadside often at the moment, and every time it makes me think…  Today, I actually stopped long enough to take a picture.

Socially Distant, Emotionally Connected
Socially Distant, Emotionally Connected

Yesterday made me, and many, many others, heartsore.  In South Africa, there is a town called Port Elizabeth, (PE) and in that town is a racetrack called Fairview.  It’s an important venue for the South African racing industry.  Yesterday is a long, involved story, but basically, a racehorse trainer has been having a labour dispute with one of her ex-grooms.  This has gone to the work tribunal, is being handled legally etc, but the groom is unhappy with how things have been proceeding.  The version that seems to be the one sticking, is that he abused a horse in his care in Feb of this year and was fired.  He now wants his job back, and if this is the truth, obviously you wouldn’t be hiring him back to work with horses.  Yesterday a group of around 80 people – largely grooms from the whole of the Fairview racing complex – went into the yard, released 28 of these young, sensitive Thoroughbred racehorses and chased them out.  In the process 1 horse died, two received life threatening injuries and most of the others were injured somehow, mainly lacerations.  Whether these lacerations occurred accidently, from falling or from panga wounds (a panga or machete is a very large weapon / knife, that is pretty common in Africa, for cutting through bushland, clearing gardens etc) is unclear.  But, that is all a little beside the point – what gets to many of us, is that these people worked for, cared for and supposedly were connected to, these horses.  They were not random strangers, they were horse people.  How do you do that to your friends?

But, closer to home, I see lack of empathy often.  I was watching a lesson a little while ago and could see the instructor getting more and more frustrated.  The rider was saying – “but he won’t go straight, I’ve told him once, now he’s doing it wrong”.

And the instructor was saying, again and again – “He’s a horse.  He is NOT a bicycle or a motorbike.  He’s a horse.  Ask him nicely, make the request clear.  Stop, think about what you are doing – you can’t make him do it…  Even if you ask once and he agrees, you can’t expect to have everything stay perfect.”

The rider went on – “But I can’t make him do it…”

The instructor, getting frustrated too – “Horses don’t come with remote controls…  I don’t have a remote for him…  You’re in the pilot’s seat – have a conversation with this living, breathing animal, and communicate”

This sign on the road – it’s asking, or assuming (depending on your mindset) that we have a connection.  But often, particularly for horses, the words are reversed – socially connected, emotionally distant.  Physically, socially, a horse and rider are pretty much as close as you can get.  A human is sitting on the back of this huge, potentially deadly, still innately wild, animal, and not grasping the honour and privilege we have, in calling this sentient being our friend.  If a horse chose to, he could kill you in an instant.  But it’s not on his agenda.  They are peace lovers, they are willing to submit to our wishes, and generally they’ll go along with our plans and ambitions, if we resect them and ask them nicely.   You have to leave your ego at the door…   They play the game, of keeping their silly humans on their backs.  But for many, many people, humans and their four legged dance partners are emotionally on different planets.  “Kick, kick, kick your animal friend, pull his mouth harder and make him go straight, like you would make a motorbike perform”.  He’s just a bicycle, and even a non-conforming bicycle at that.  Is that really a such a different road from the one taken by the grooms in South Africa?

I want to win a ribbon at the competition, so I will make my four-legged bicycle perform, come hell or high water.

I want to retaliate against my boss, so I will chase out her investments, those investments happen to have four legs, two ears and a tail…

It’s just a few stops further down the same road.  Which road are you on?

If I asked your horse, “socially connected, emotionally connected”, or “socially connected, emotionally distant” what would your horse say about you?

My thoughts and best wishes to all of those affected by last week’s trauma.

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Pole, Pole – Slowly, slowly.

“To climb steep hills, requires slow pace at first…”  William Shakespeare.

My family and close friends often comment that I’m two personalities…  Give me a parcel to wrap, a knot to untie, a computer to work out a new program and it’s likely to get thrown out of the window…  Patience is really not my strong point.  But, give me a pony who is not understanding, or a pupil who isn’t seeing things as I do, and I have all the time in the world – somethings are way more important than others.

To climb steep hills, requires slow pace at first…  Learning patience while bumbling up a little hill….  We will make haste slowly…
To climb steep hills, requires slow pace at first… Learning patience while bumbling up a little hill…. We will make haste slowly…

The reality of this quote became clear when we (Fred and I) climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.  Pole Pole (pronounced po-lay po-lay) is what the guides are saying all day everyday – slowly slowly, we make haste, slowly.

The foundations of anything are vital – if your first math teacher didn’t get you to understand 2 + 2, you might struggle along until you hit algebra, but at some point it’s all going to come crashing down about your ears and you will have to go back to the beginning.  If your house’s foundations weren’t dug correctly, you’re going to get cracks.

What’s this got to do with a horse blog then?

99% of the time, the issue is in the foundations.

“My horse rushes…”

“My pony won’t load”

“My mare won’t stand for the farrier”

“I can’t get a clear canter strike off”

“He’s just runs through the flying changes”

We take the horse back to square one – Mr. Horse, do you understand stop; go; shoulders right / left; quarters right / left; stand quiet.    All in hand.  And then, do you understand all those questions in walk and trot on long lines…

Put the rider on board – what do we practice?  Stop, walk.  Stop, walk.  Stop, walk.  By this point an awful lot of those issues are already resolved.  Most issues begin with the horse ignoring or not understanding something at real foundation level.

Lovely Betty – only once a horse understands how to carry herself without a rider can she truly organize herself WITH a rider…
Lovely Betty – only once a horse understands how to carry herself without a rider can she truly organise herself WITH a rider…

One of my absolute pet peeves is a horse walking away from the mounting block, rider hanging off the side.  Why?  In essence this horse is running away with his human – it’s not far removed from bolting.  The simple discipline of stop, stand, patience, wait…  Goes a long way in instilling horse AND human disciple for the rest of the ride.

And what about the rider?  Well, this is fresh in my mind at the moment because of a jumping video someone just sent me.  He is now early twenties, fit, athletic, brave, bright, and after lesson number one, (in his teens) he asked, how soon can I jump?  I kept him on the lunge for weeks…  Walk, trot, canter, no reins and no stirrups.  Then we did millions of transitions, circles, turns, leg yielding, moving onto trot poles, grids, tiny gymnastics lines without reins.    In the solid 6 months that I taught him (yes, I lived somewhere that long) we covered basic after basic skill, until he couldn’t get them wrong.  Within a month of my leaving he was (fully ready, with my blessing!) clearing courses of 1m + and now, a few years later, he’s just sent me a video of himself jumping a technical 1.50m track.  To climb the mountain, we began very, very slowly.

So often you see a young horse, or a young rider, very quickly learning to canter and jump – within weeks of beginning, and rapidly climbing the grades.  The problem is, the faster the initial surge up the skill ladder, the faster they reach a plateau and the longer they stagnate there.  Whereas, the (relativity) slower they get there, the higher they go and the more longevity they have at the top.

A few years ago, I watched a day seminar hosted by the world famous master of dressage, Dr Wilfried Bechtolsheimer.  (Or Dr B, as he was probably better known).  A comment he made about one of the seminar horses was how sad he was that she had been started young to compete in the young horse classes, how lucky she was that they had got her out, and how young horse classes are damaging dressage.  As he said – horses competing in the young horse classes are produced – dressage horses are trained and educated…  There is a world of difference…

So, heading out to your horse or your pupils today – what will you do?  Produce them, sausage factory style, or educated them for longevity?  I know which one I prefer!


Feedback loop

The yard where I kept my first horse, had a sign hanging up in the tack room, saying

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maybe they were just warning you to look before yelling out that you couldn’t find your girth, but that quote has always stuck with me.  When you see something every day, you stop seeing it.  Which is why its really vital to ask the question – what is your feedback loop?

Can you see things from your horse’s point of view?
Can you see things from your horse’s point of view? Have you checked for feedback?

Recently I was at a saddle fitting CPD day, and one of the things that the coaches were saying was, the horses gave us feedback on that girth, or that saddle pad etc.  One of the participants said – huh?  How did your horse give you feedback?  They replied – the horse might put his ears back when he sees you approach with the saddle; he could threaten to bite you; dip his back away; bite at the saddle or girth; chew at his side after you have undone the girth etc.  All of these points are feedback from the horse.  If your horse stands quietly with a smile on his face while you potter around him, doesn’t react to having the saddle on, isn’t stressed about the girth, moves well under his saddle, you are getting pretty good, positive feedback.  The challenge comes in, where the saddle was fitting well, and over time it isn’t – maybe the horse has changed shape, or the saddle needs flocking, or the tree was damaged, but gradually, gently, over time, the horse started showing that he was a little less willing about tack.  He shuffled his feet away from you, he shook his head at you, he snapped his teeth at the girth.  It’s hard to see, because each day is just a little more than the day before.  The frog in a pot of boiling water.  Your saddle fitter comes out to check, sees the signs, and immediately says – your saddle isn’t fitting, your horse is giving you feedback.  Which, when it was happening slowly, right in front of your eyes, was the hardest thing to see.

Is this the only type of feedback needed?  No, we all, no matter how experienced or thoughtful, or logical, need feedback.

Just a short time ago, I was teaching a clinic, and at the end the hosts asked for my feedback.  Was I happy with the condition and training of the horses, the tack, the arena, the yard, the organising, was there anything I would like to tell them, or suggest improvements, or differences?  We discussed one or two very minor things, but overall, I thought everything was fabulous, and was very happy. And, by taking the time to ask for feedback, they were tackling small issues before they became big issues.  Perfect.

On thinking about that, I asked for their feedback about the lessons that I had taught.  I was happy with the way things had gone, and the pupils seemed happy, but just to check?  They said, hmm, maybe I should be making it clearer that the pupils should be praising their horses sooner, for any attempt of try on the horse’s part.  Interesting, I thought.  It’s so automatic for me to praise my horse when I am working with him that maybe I forget to tell others.  And since then, I’ve been much faster to say – yes, good, reward him.  It’s something simple – asking for feedback, listening, putting in motion, that improves everything.

Can you recognise this horse’s thoughts about something in his environment?
Can you recognise this horse’s thoughts about something in his environment? What’s his feedback?

A different yard, where I tried teaching briefly, didn’t work out, because they didn’t ask for, or accept, any form of feedback.  There was a horse who would come out lame, and still work in lessons.  The mare is lame, I’d say.  She ‘s always like that, they replied, it’s fine, she works anyway.  Your saddle doesn’t fit, I’d suggest?  It’s fine, we checked it, was the response…  It bounces on her back?  She’s happy, they’d say, we checked, it’s fine.  There was a lot going on in that yard, and their response was always – this is the way we do it, we’re in a nice routine, so this is the way that it will get done.  If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.  Some people are open to ideas, feedback, sounding boards, and some?  Well, some aren’t.

When was the last time you asked for feedback, from friends, trainers, peers, clients, pupils, coaches, saddle fitters, your horse?  And if they give feedback, are you ready to hear it?

I was reading a very old book recently…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The addiction of STUFF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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Why am I on a Facebook detox?

Why am I on a Facebook detox?

Have you ever had a conversation, where you chatted to a friend, an acquaintance, a client, a boss, a stranger, and over the hour chat most of the things that were said were positive – friendly chat about life, issues, events, work performance etc.  But, one sentence or comment was negative or barbed.

Are social media and negative news leaving you feeling sluggish and lethargic?
Are social media and negative news leaving you feeling sluggish and lethargic?

“Oh, it’s ok for some, that they (you) have the money to visit London…”

“Oh course, when you did that, I wouldn’t have made that mistake, or chosen that route…”

“Yes, well we all know that you love to procrastinate…”

“When are you going to get a real job?”

And afterwards, what is the part of the conversation you remember?

As Baz Luhrmann says in his song, Wear Sunscreen…  “Remember compliments you receive, forget the insults, if you succeed in doing this, tell me how…”

Negativity, sadly, sticks.

Criticism comes in two main varieties – positive criticism and negative criticism.  Positive is necessary, and important.  Negative – well, it sucks.  I use this so much in my teaching.

“Well, done, that trot is looking so much better – you were on the correct diagonal, you had Snowy moving with so much more energy and you were both much closer to staying in balance.  Now, we need to think about how we can improve your steering”, is a lot more effective than “Will you EVER stop cutting your corners?”

I have had countless pupils over the years, who were preparing for exams and tests.  As an examiner, I know that many candidates fall down on speaking to the examiner.  Oral exams are not that common and putting the feel of a ride into words is somewhat challenging.  So, chunks of the lessons would be them creating feedback.  I would send them off to a task – jump the course, ride the dressage movement, practice those canter transitions, and then call them back, asking for feedback.  9 times out of 10, they’d start with – “I rode the combination badly”, or “the simple change sucked”.  They’d list all the negatives with utmost confidence, possibly because they thought that the examiner would be judging them, so they’d put themselves down first.  When I asked them what was good, they’d often go blank.  They were better at destructive criticism than at positive criticism.

I’d say no, no.  Not good enough.  I want to hear three positives first.  Blank look in reply.  So, I’d demonstrate the feedback that works.  One,  you and Snowy kept a great rhythm throughout the course.  He was forward, active and taking you to the fence.  Two, the tricky line from the black oxer to the pink upright, you got in a good way.  You were worried about him going in four strides or chipping in a fifth, and you stuck to the plan and got four.  Three, when he bucked after the final red oxer, you were ready for him and didn’t get pushed onto his neck.  Now, the negatives – one, you cut the corner into the combination which is why it was a bit of a scramble.  Two, that big jump over the final red oxer had you left behind, which is why he bucked, and three, yes, your lower leg was still unstable, but that is something we can work with.

One of the things that irritates me badly as a teacher, is if someone comes into the arena, looks around and says “Oh no, my horse absolutely won’t jump the wall”.  I often say, well then, put him back in his stable and I’ll go and have a coffee.  If you’ve decided that YOU’RE not jumping the wall, we might as well all give up already.  That cheesy old adage, if you have decided that you can, or cannot, you’re right…   If you start out negative, nothing will change.

OK, how does this have anything to do with my Facebook detox?  Social media, news media, many people at this point in time are very negative.  This is understandable in today’s situation – it’s not a great time at the moment, is it?  People are stressed about friends or family becoming ill, losing their income, sitting home alone, and, and, and…  What they say, think, or write, often reflects this negative mindset.  And, like a snowball, it grows.

I currently am restructuring my business and online courses.  I have great ideas flying through my head, all the steps that I want to take, how I want to get there, to help more people in a good way.  I’d sit down filled with good intentions and fired up, and quickly check in on emails and social media.  And enter the darkness….  One particular post annoyed me – well, it wasn’t the post, it was the feedback.  The video showed a young girl on her fabulous pony, having fun with some jumps.  Yes, there were mistakes, but it was a happy, laughing child and her gung-ho bouncy, happy pony.  You couldn’t help but smile.  And then the comments start – her hands aren‘t good enough, she shouldn’t be allowed to jump;  why is the pony in a bit, poor animal should be bitless, don’t you know bits are cruel; pony should be shod, can’t jump cross country barefoot; I’m sure the saddle doesn’t fit; ponies shouldn’t be ridden, it’s against pony rights;  OMG, how can a mother let her small child do that, doesn’t she know jumping damages the child’s spine…  On and on.  They took lighthearted fun, which the pony was invested in, and turned it negative.  There were many comments that reflected my thoughts, but if you were the mother, coach or later, the child (when she’s old enough to understand) which comments would be heard?

And, I’d close my laptop without doing any of the work to put my high flying ideas into practice.  Two days ago, I removed FB from my phone, and stopped logging in on my computer.  I missed it…  For about 30 seconds, and then had a feeling of relief.  And since then I have written four blogs, finished a powerpoint presentation and started the next, edited a bunch of long lining videos, and planned out what my membership scheme will look like, what I need to do, and how things will change.

When you have a positive experience, conversation, email, thought, your energy and mood is better and you get more done.  When it’s negative, blah.  I’m not saying that we all have to live with rainbows and unicorns.  Or that we should be using this time to write a novel and learn a new skill.  But, we don’t need to dwell in other people’s negative mindsets.  One of my favourite sayings ever is – You are not a tree, if you don’t like where you are, leave.  If you don’t like your job, find another one.  If you don’t like where you live, move.  If you don’t like a relationship, end it.  If you don’t like how sugar and Facebook make you feel, don’t go there…

A bumble down the beach is much more uplifting and positive than mind numbing scrolling through social media
A bumble down the beach is much more uplifting and positive than mind numbing scrolling through social media

If you don’t like the livery yard or riding school where you are, move.  If you don’t like the way your coach gets you riding your horse, find another coach who has the same ethic as you…  If you don’t like my blogs, don’t read them.  If you don’t like the relationship with your horse – look for the positives, what do you like?  Can you build on the good, or are you overwhelmed by the bad?  Sometimes, for the good of your horse and you, things need to change.

Mainly, in this unsettled time, be kind to your horse, be kind to other people who are also stressed, and mostly be kind to yourself – if something is stressing you, detox from it, remove it from your life, and find what makes you smile!

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Hiding in plain sight

I love reading – anyone who knows me, knows how I can get utterly absorbed.  I have a very eclectic taste, from fiction, biographies, philosophy, art, neurology, movement and many more.  Apologies in advance, the first few paragraphs of this blog may upset some people, but there is a point, I promise.  If you can, bear with me…  I came across a list of the 20 most powerful political books in the past 50 years, and one title intrigued me – Every 12 Seconds.  It’s written by political scientist Timothy Pachirat, and it’s about his undercover working in a commercial slaughterhouse in Great Plains, America.  It’s a large setup, where 2,500 cattle are killed a day, or one every 12 seconds.

Now, I debated this long and hard for two reasons – one, politics isn’t something that I spend a great deal of time sitting with.  I do follow it to a degree, but to read a great long textbook about it?  And really, the whole slaughterhouse scene.  I’m vegetarian, have been for a long time, but shouldn’t I actually be prepared to put my money where my mouth is?  It’s like visiting a zoo when I’m always saying that I don’t like them – really, take time to look.  Do I buy it, do I not?  Yes, no, yes, no.  Eventually I did, and it sat on my kindle, untouched for a few more weeks.  Finally, during COVID and having time, I opened the can of worms…  I’m very glad I did, it’s a great book.

Was it a challenge?  Oh yes.  Mentally, emotionally, intellectually, it was tough at times.  Has it changed my perspective and turned me into a meat eater?  No, and I think there would be more vegetarians if the book was required reading.  But Tim Pachirat’s insights really intrigued me, and I’m so glad that I read it.  I keep turning it back to the multi billion euro / dollar / pound industry that I work in.

He says, anything unpleasant, disgusting, unsettling, is hidden in plain sight.  And, as we as a culture / species have evolved, we have hidden more, in plain sight.  Back in the caveman days the mighty warrior would go out and hunt down a wild beasty, and it was hauled back in full view, everyone celebrating as it was hacked into bits to be spread around the group.  The hunter who dispatched it was the hero of the hour.  Roll on a few generations, and the killing was a little more hidden, maybe the whole beast was cut into pieces before the general public saw it.  Now, we don’t see an animal, or a head or a hoof, but a small piece of produce, wrapped in plastic and put on display in the supermarket fridge.  It’s become a product, we have removed the origins from our mind.  The kill floor is politically correctly known as the harvesting plant and it takes less than an hour for a living, breathing, sentient animal to go from “steer” to “steak”.  We wouldn’t like the conversation “What’s for dinner tonight?”  to be answered with “dead cow butt” when “rump steak” sounds so much less offensive.

At the same time, we have covered our bodies with clothing to hide our nudity in plain sight – we all know what is under our clothes, but, it’s less vulgar to be hidden.  We have private bathrooms, to hide the nasty, and eat with a knife and fork, rather than ripping our food up with our hands.  Anything “dirty” is removed or hidden from the view.  We want to see pretty, not pollution or ugliness.

The kill plant hired 121 people, and each person was hidden from the view of most of the rest.  This is how the system truly works – only about 5 people actually see the cow die, and its this that keeps everyone working.  Who is to blame for the whole meat industry?  Who is the reason the cow died?  Is it the “Knocker” who actually delivers the blow?  Many workers in the plant thought that.  They were innocent bystanders, the only bad guy was the knocker.  Can you blame all 121 workers?  They work at the slaughterhouse, right?  It’s their fault…  Not in many of their eyes.  Can you blame the farmers who supplying the raw product?  Or, do you blame the average family and little Johnny sitting down to his roast beef dinner?  All, are part of the chain.  From the farmer who bred the cow, to the staff who looked after it, to the truckers who hauled it, to the slaughterhouse staff who processed it, to the supermarket who stocked it, to the consumer who ate it.  Each is responsible, but because not many people see the whole process, it’s easier to stomach.  Hidden in plain sight.

OK, lets switch to the horse industry.

We watch Joe Bloggs ride in some big competition yanking his horse into rolkur, kicking and spurring, and (most of us) say Urggg, that’s awful – Joe Bloggs is a bad man and horrid to his horse.  He’s the one responsible.  Should we include his trainer in the blame?  OK, yes, the trainer is bad too.  What about breeder, who bred a horse with legs too long for him, putting his body out of balance, because that stamp of horse sell at a higher value?  Or, the judging system that made this weak, alien horse worth more?   Maybe we should blame the judges for rewarding bad riding.  While there, shall we blame the groom for silently cranking the noseband tighter and tighter…  Or the saddler who invented crank nosebands?  (just why?)  Let’s blame the farrier who added more and more corrective shoeing to keep this “athlete” sound, and the vet for offering more joint injections for his sore legs and back.  How about laying the blame at the feet of people like me – the teachers of teachers and trainers of the grass root riders.  If little Johnny is taught from his first lesson that this thing he’s sitting on is a four legged bicycle, that to make it go is about kicking more (add more leg!) and that if it’s not totally submissive and under his power, its defective and needs replacing.

If you buy that saddle pad because it has a famous rider’s name, and you know how cruel she is, you are a part of the problem.  What about if you shop from a saddler who stocks all manner of gadgets and pulleys, draw reins, chains, stronger bits and accessories?  Or use a farrier who is known to knock horses around.  Or go to an instructor who trains every one of their pupils to have their horses behind the vertical, or all in draw reins.

A while ago, I was talking to a farrier, who shod the horses at a very famous person’s yard.  He said that the junior riders who “schooled” the young ones, would take a horse into the indoor and an hour later it would come out bloody, stressed and lathered.  The competition rider who owns the yard is somewhat suspect, but how much was hidden in plain sight, by fancy top hats and tail coats, sponsor’s lunches and first place ribbons.  How much should those junior riders be blamed too?  And all the accompanying trades alongside.  He didn’t stay shoeing there for long, simply couldn’t stomach it.

The equine industry is in more trouble than ever.  But recently I heard an awesome term – to be welfare attentive…..  What happens at your yard?  Is it best not to go into the indoor when a certain rider is sitting on her horse?  Are the draw reins tucked in a drawer?  Would you fling open all the doors, make your walls of glass and be seen, or are there murky areas that hide things in plain sight?  Come on, let’s all let the light in – there are lots of awesome yards, doing amazing things, let’s let the horses live and work in a way that nothing needs to be hidden…  Are you up for the challenge?

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

― Albert Einstein



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Recognition of Prior Learning

Recognition of Prior Learning

Recognition of prior learning – (or agreeing that yes, you already know stuff…)

Ummm..... A lesson prompted my indoor skydiving - teaching teaches me about new ways to look at old problems...
Ummm….. A lesson prompted my indoor skydiving – teaching teaches me about new ways to look at old problems…

Many, many years ago (oh I feel old…) I taught a fairly novice man, on his sweet but also novice mare.  He’d had a few months of riding, could basically walk, trot, canter, but that was about it.  The mare was about 5 years old, and also knew walk, trot, canter, and that was about it too.

When we started, they were wondering around the arena, steering was more about where the wind took them.  So, that was where we began – and instantly, after me explaining a few points, he could steer better than a lot of experienced riders.  Hmmm…  And, the reason I am thinking about this now, recently I seem to have had a spate of these lessons.

When I meet a pupil for the first time, I ask them two questions.  Well, I ask quite a few more, (I’m not nosey, honest…)  but these are the important two.  What do you know?  As in, what sport do you play; what hobby do you have; what musical instrument do you understand; what have you done that has created body patterns, or muscle memory?  A lot of people won’t understand if I ask what neural pathways they have built, but “do you play sport?” is something that people can answer.  When a pupil walks in, I automatically take some previous learning into account.  Do I have to teach him how to speak?  How to sit vertical?  Do I have to teach him that he is sitting on a horse, or that the fences of the arena mean that he has to stay near me?  No, I accept that all of that is previous learning, which makes my life easier – imagine having to start by teaching him his ABC?  The other question I ask is, do you have any injury, pain, or issue that I need to be aware of?  Hopefully no.  If yes, what?  Partly so I can help, or at least not make it worse, and partly because I want them, the rider, to be part of how we are going to manage this and move on safely.

So, back to my first rider.

“What sport do you play?” I asked

“Ah, nothing really, I’m too busy with work, and with my horse.”

“What is work, what do you spend most of your awake hours doing?”

“Either flying a plane (I’m a pilot), flying a computer, or sitting on my mare.  All things sitting…”

Hmm, I thought, I didn’t believe him.  There was immediately too much poise and balance in his body, too high an understanding of tensegrity.

“What sport did you play in the past?”

“Ah, nothing really, a bit of stuff at school, you know, the usual.”

I let it slide – one thing that I have definitely learned, is that people “forget” to talk about big chunks of crucial information, and they will come to light sooner or later.

His understanding of steering was remarkable, and he instinctively knew how to use his core.  Within 20 minutes, he and his little mare were walking a dead straight rectangle around the arena and holding it on into trot.  Over my time there, we had a few lessons, each one I began by saying – remind me, what sport do you play?  And he’d smile and shake his head.  We ramped up the technicality of the work, and he and his horse just absorbed it like sponges.

After one particularly challenging lesson, where I really pushed his new found steering skills, he said you know, this reminds me – (and I thought, ah, here we go…) – when I was younger, I used to be a professional sky diver.  (I didn’t know it was a profession?)  In one of those teams for festivals and displays, where thirty of them jump out of planes, and form patterns in the sky.  They link hands in groups of five, then spin away and link feet with 10 others, then flow back into pairs, and all join together, all at 120 miles an hour, at 15,000 feet…  How do you think you steer when there is nothing to push against?  No wall to lean on, no ground to give yourself resistance.  You use your eyes to look (you go where you look), you use your intention, and you steer your core, or trunk muscles.   The second I had explained steering, through the use of his core, his pelvis, his thighs and his eyes, he’d put himself back into skydiving practice, and his little mare had instantly understood.  He spoke her language.  I didn’t teach him anything he didn’t know.  I just asked him the right questions to put himself into a place of prior learning.  All those years of skydiving were the real lesson.

Recently I had three different riders on three different horses, in three different situations.  The first, again a novice man.  What sports?  Ah, a bit of tennis, jog a bit, fairly active you know.  Bit of yoga stretching, move around, swim sometimes.

Its far quicker for me to ask you if you know what a rambutan tastes like, then to start explaining it from the beginning… If you’ve eaten one, you have prior knowledge…
Its far quicker for me to ask you if you know what a rambutan tastes like, then to start explaining it from the beginning… If you’ve eaten one, you have prior knowledge…

Its far quicker for me to ask you if you know what a rambutan tastes like, then to start explaining it from the beginning…  If you’ve eaten one, you have prior knowledge…

We began our lessons, and I started working on his foot and leg position.  As ever, we all have a good well-behaved leg that sits still, and the other wayward leg, he was no exception.  We talked about angles, keeping his knee down, keeping both feet parallel to each other and the floor.  Imagine you’re skiing I suggested – your skis both have to point down the mountain – if the toes are heading in different directions, you may find yourself in trouble…  Ahh, he said, I used to ski a lot.  (Ding, ding ding, went my brain, this is what I was waiting to hear…)  “I always had to slightly snowplow with this right leg, because it would turn the ski out.”  As we went along, the lesson became more ski orientated…  Kneeling onto the ski boots, turning a bottle top, cruising the moguls.  By the second lesson, he admitted to having been a ski instructor in his past.  He’d been taught to teach, but he’d also taken the time out to break down movements and figure out how to teach them to people who didn’t get it.  We had quite a few lessons, and each one involved a fair amount of me asking – so tell me, how would you have explained X to a ski pupil.  He’d walk his horse around, and as he was answering me, he’d be putting his words into effect in his body, and the horse he was riding – a great hairy old beginner plod cob – would magically become beautiful, light and balanced….  After many of his lessons he’d say to me – magic, thank you, you’re a great teacher, when in reality he was teaching himself – he was the great teacher.  The skills he needed to ride the horse were almost identical to the skills he had developed to ski and to teach skiing.  I didn’t need or want him to reinvent the wheel – we both had a much simpler time by simply asking him to remember what he already knew.

Two more followed soon after – maybe because it was on my mind and I was debating writing this…  Both quite novice riders.  One was struggling to keep his horse in trot and not dropping back to walk.  Have you ever played a musical instrument, I asked?  Yes!  He’s a drummer, has practiced drumming for 20 years, since he was little, 3 hours a day, every single day.  Awesome.  So, a trot is approx. 70 bpm.  You and your horse are dancing partners.  Or drumming pairs.  Walking is approx. 50 bpm.  So, either you can keep the beat in your head (and body) and maintain your rising trot or, he can lead you into following his beat.  It’s not about bigger muscles, it’s about focus – who is drumming who?  And guess what (magic wand…) the horse kept trotting.  Did I magically fix it?  No, 21,900 hours of drumming practice fixed the issue.  Why reinvent the wheel when his body already knew what to do?

An archer has a body filled with neuro pathways that allow her to shoot without thinking… All we need to do is to tap into that understanding…
An archer has a body filled with neuro pathways that allow her to shoot without thinking… All we need to do is to tap into that understanding…

An archer has a body filled with neuro pathways that allow her to shoot without thinking…  All we need to do is to tap into that understanding…

The final one – a little slip of a girl.  Can’t keep her horse straight.  What else do you do?  Archery.  Awesome – there is a target (imaginary) at the end of each side of the arena.  As you come around the corner, breathe, ground yourself to take the shot, stay focused and shoot for the target with your core muscles, that do truly release the arrow…  Oh, look at that, suddenly your horse goes straight…..