Punishment Chair

Last summer, I was exploring a new town and handed over a vast amount of cash to explore their famous palace.  It was well worth it, after my bank balance had recovered.  (And yes, I do know why all these places charge a small fortune – it costs a massive amount to maintain these ancient buildings, but it’s still always an internal debate for me – do I pay that much, or just enjoy from the outside?)

As I was wandering through the rooms, there in the children’s nursery stood a very tall, very narrow, very rickety looking small chair, a tiny child’s high chair, with exceptionally long legs.  I was just thinking the legs looked as if they had had some uneven wear and tear – all four legs seemed to be slightly different heights, leading to the rickety appearance.   As I was looking, one of the castle guides came up, and asked if I knew what I was looking at.  A child’s chair?  Well, yes.

But this is different – this is a punishment chair.  Huh?  This chair dated back to 1700 or 1800 ish.  The royal nannies who looked after the young princes and princesses were not allowed to physically raise a hand to a child or punish them in any way.  Which meant that these young royals were running riot.  So, they developed the punishment chair.  Because of its height, with it’s extremely narrow base, it was already not terribly stable.  Add to that the legs all being at different heights, and the whole thing was liable to topple over.

https://www.scotiana.com/scottish-castles-series-falkland-palace-part-2/

Sadly, photographs are not allowed within the palace, and the only image I can find of the chair, is this one that isn’t terribly clear…

https://www.flickr.com/photos/147846958@N06/46352902201/in/album-72157668431082618/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/147846958@N06/32480811208/in/album-72157668431082618/

And this was the first naughty chair.  If a young prince or princess was being naughty, they were put in the chair for a while.  And while in the chair, they had to sit absolutely still, otherwise it would topple over.  Quick fix for temper tantrums, right?  The staff didn’t inflict any actual punishment, but the child very soon learnt to be still and quiet.  Hmmm…. And what does that have to do with you, and why I’m writing this?

How often have you heard instructors yelling across arenas, just sit still, stop fidgeting, and relax, just sit there.  There is nothing relaxing about sitting still – it takes a fair amount of physical effort to “just sit still”.  Hello, it was a method of punishment…  It takes physical and mental effort to be still.   I bet those young royals learnt about using their core and stabilizing themselves in a hurry.  It shouldn’t be torturous to sit still, but it certainly isn’t something to “just relax” about either.

(In a totally unrelated thought – follow me here – just think about normal school kids. They have to sit still in class, not get distracted, not move about, not make a noise, and if they don’t – straight onto Ritalin….  Hello, sitting still is torture!)

But, it also made me think about horses, and what we inflict upon them.   Get your horse’s head down – put him in one position and keep him there….  How is this not a torturous punishment?  Every living being, be it human, horse, cat, dog, any animal, needs to MOVE.  You cannot tell a rider or a horse to sit still in one position and hold it.  And yet, what do we spend much of our time doing?

Happy Valentine’s Day

It’s Valentines – which made me think for a moment…  I don’t do the whole “significant other” …  I love my independence and the ability to up and off at a moment’s notice, and having to discuss with a partner about what, where and how is really not my thing.  I even resist going on holidays with a friend, since there is always the, “Well, where would you like to go, and what would you like to eat?” conversation.  But I do have a whole team of “matchmakers” in my life, without whom, what I do would be impossible…

They even ply me with chocolates…
They even ply me with chocolates…

In every city that I go, I have a wonderful lady (I really don’t know why they are all ladies – come on guys, catch up), who organises my life.  They chat to venue owners, they contact riders, they cajole people who they think would be interested in booking a strange lesson with an unknown person, and they “matchmake” all my meetings and lessons.  I believe there have been literal blood, sweat and tears involved…

Sometimes, they get it wrong – oh my, yes.  They’ll arrange a lesson with someone who’s mindset and ethics is a mile off mine, hoping that we may have a meeting of ideas, but the rider is really not ready to discuss a new way of thinking, and it’s that really awkward blind date – especially with the pony being the third wheel and trying to side of the more friendly, relaxed way of working.  But generally, my matchmakers are right on the money.  Once they convince a rider to have one lesson, we usually have a lot more.

Once they are set up with those who all are interested, my amazing helpers then get into hyper organised mode, and fill my dance card…  It’s really no use me trying from the other side of the globe – people contacting me, saying can I have a lesson at this time in venue A, when someone else is an hour later at venue B, and I don’t have a clue where anything is, or the politics of who is welcome to who’s yard….  So, by the time I arrive, there is a colour coded, beautifully efficient list of names, times, locations, and all I have to do is pitch up.  It’s just MAGIC!

And, my wonderful helpers don’t even stop there!  Many welcome me into their homes, they cook vegetarian meals (even if it’s out of their norm), they ply me with chocolate, coffee and wine, they don’t complain about how I am so not a morning person, they fetch and carry, they share their cats, and they’re just awesome.

I get to share their cats!
I get to share their cats!

One of these special people was quizzing me for the dates I’m looking at for their area – I told her some dates, and, the very next day, she tells me that there are over 90 lessons booked – talk about speed dating!

Last week, one amazing organiser, organised a massage, lunch, chocolate, and tourism on the free day – this week, my current spectacular person is sourcing cough sweets, painkillers and “knock it on the head” flu meds.  You see, my life is like Valentines every day!

If you are the kind of person who likes having a “significant other human” in your life – Happy Valentines.  If your S.O., is four legged – well done you, even happier days.  And, if you’re like me – buy yourself that chocolate, it’s all about treating your self right!  Oh, and please buy a carrot for your pony!

Priorities

Every situation will bring about a different priority.  In Singapore, all cars must be parked by reversing in, nose facing out.  Because? The car parks there are so small that it’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle getting in.  In the event of fire, they want to evacuate fast, which is much easier if everyone is going forwards.  In Germany, they all park nose first.  Why?  Because, reverse parking means exhaust pipes against walls which leave dirty marks.  Evacuation isn’t a priority.  They do, however, have a lot of spaces painted pink, which are for single women.  These are closest to the lifts and security, well-lit and bright, because their priority is stopping the attacks on lone women leaving work late.  And now, here I am, thinking of this in Kenya.  Again, they reverse park for the bulk of the time, and yet there is space, and the majority of parking is outside, where there is less fire risk.  So why?  Terrorism.  Kenya has been victim of few terror attacks, and again, evacuation is faster if you’re pointing the right way.  

So, what’s the relevance to you?  

Picking out hooves should be a priority for everyone.
Picking out hooves should be a priority for everyone.

In every country, every community, every culture, we deal with what is the most urgent.  In Nordic countries in winter, snow control is vital.  This wouldn’t be much of an issue on the Middle East.  In Africa, we worry about Malaria and tick bite fever, not really an issue in Europe.

In the UK in particular, things seem to be becoming more and more pedantic.  Yes, a horse must be comfortable and well cared for.  But where it gets me is if it clouds people’s judgement. 

When I am in foreign countries, I often get asked to help people with their tack fitting, shoeing or feeding issues.  Two feeding issues made me think recently.  The first has a big, strong, exuberant young warmblood.  He forgot to stop growing and is a VERY big and strong young lad.  He is, if anything, rather too prosperous…  He is a little too round and well covered and has a little too much boing in his step.  His owner asked me to check out her feeding schedule since she had been reprimanded by her vet for not feeding him enough.  Ummm, I said…  On the back of her hard feed bag is the feeding guide.  For a horse of his size, he should be getting 5kg.  He is currently getting 3.5kg.  But he is also on 15kg of very good quality hay, as well as chaff, extra sugar beet, vits and mins etc.  He is VERY well fed, and looks as if he is VERY well fed.  Did your vet ask about what else he is getting I asked?  No, she replied, only about how much hard feed he is on.  Maybe, particularly a vet, should trust his eyes instead of sticking to the letter of what the feed bag says? 

The other was about an adviser who lives in a country that has excellent feed, hay and grazing, telling a questioning owner in a country with bad feed, bad hay and no grass, that they should dramatically reduce what they feed their horse out of a bucket.  Yes, if the horse in question was getting a few hours of high-quality grass grazing they could be eating less, or even if they had a lot more access to better hay, but with no grass, limited bad hay, they wanted to reduce his food?  Well, no, how can you advise from a different country without asking for enough information? 

Horses should be fed according to where they are and the quality of their grazing and hay among other considerations, not solely by the very general guide lines on the back of the feed bag
Horses should be fed according to where they are and the quality of their grazing and hay among other considerations, not solely by the very general guide lines on the back of the feed bag

Both the vet and the feed advisor are qualified professions and I am sure they are good at their jobs, however, they both have a different country priority.   

The thing that affects me most though, is probably tack.  In developed countries, if a saddle is 99% ok, it’s considered a problem for some people.  A good while ago now, I walked into a riding school and several of the horses had bad saddle sores, some openly bleeding.  When I questioned the manager, I was told that was part and parcel of a riding school horse’s lot.  Did I agree?  Absolutely not.  My first priority was to fit all the saddles, allocate each horse their own saddle, the best possible option, adding pads when they could be useful, and labelling the saddles, the pads and the racks, so making sure that it could be maintained.  By European standard, where they ideal?  No.  Were the horses an awful lot more comfortable, and open wound and blood free?  Yes.  We have an obligation to do the best by our horses, but we do, realistically have to accept that we must have priorities, and often we have to offer the best we can, instead of being paralysed by the knowledge that it can’t be perfect in everyone’s eyes…. 

What compromise would you accept, where are your priorities?

Being Still

Recently, I read an interesting book – The Zen of Horse Riding by Ingrid Soren. 

One of her paragraphs made me think about a conversation that I was having recently with a couple of friends of mine…

“My body is my thoughts; my thoughts are my body.  My thoughts and my body are indivisible, and when I am sitting on Jade’s back her thoughts and my thoughts are linked, her body and my body can become one.  I become calm and relaxed, she becomes calm and relaxed.  “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself”.  I began to understand the wisdom of doing the least to express the most.  My tendency was to rush at things and try to do too many things at the same time.  As in life…  I was all too often “painting legs on the snake”, that divine Chinese image for wasting energy.”

My friends were discussing a training program that they are currently doing online, about how being still and quiet, almost meditating, calms your horse.  The lessons are about how to sit still and invite your horse into a calmer place, which gives your horse confidence in following and being with you.  My thought was isn’t this just what every one does?   

You’re sitting on the back of a living, breathing, reactive prey animal – is this a time for an anxious brain? Shouldn’t we all be calm?
You’re sitting on the back of a living, breathing, reactive prey animal – is this a time for an anxious brain? Shouldn’t we all be calm?

The constant thread throughout my riding career was the manic, hot, difficult, often slightly insane horses.  The ones who weren’t breakable and the ones who broke people; the throw away horses who no one wanted.  The horses who were like kegs of dynamite.  One particular mare comes to mind. 

I was just starting a schooling session on her one day, when a friend arrived.  My friend sat on a jump in my arena as I cantered a 20m circle around her, she and I chatting, discussing what she had come to ask me, ignoring the horse.  I went into a light seat, and just let the mare have her head, hands resting on her neck while she went through her regular motions of beginning a schooling session.  After a few minutes of cantering around, my friend suddenly said, “Ummm, do you realise that the mare hasn’t had her feet on the ground, or been parallel to the floor since you got on?”  She would bounce, rear, leaps, bucks, twists in a lovely, athletic, graceful way, and as long as I didn’t interfere, and stayed off her back, she would do all of this in a lovely regular, joyous way.  “Yes”, I replied,” and?”  After 10 minutes of this bouncing, she’d settle and school beautifully, but if you started a session by getting after her and trying to make her conform, the forget it. 

Schooling her, and others like her, needed a blank mind – clearing thought, breathing with intention, soft hands, sit lightly, be still.  Riding these horses taught me to plan my shopping lists, run through my to do lists, write my lesson plans, because things that were dull and weren’t exciting would still our minds, thoughts, bodies.  And this was just something that was done, wasn’t it?  What do you mean people don’t?

(The Way to Perfect Horsemanship.  Trafalgar Square.  1998.  Udo Berger). “To become a good horseman, one needs to be bold, agile and relaxed.  These qualities are not physical attributes, they are psychological ones.”

A good rider needs a relaxed mind.  There is no getting away from it – the minute that a rider gets excited, stressed, worried, tense, the horse is going to be wondering what’s wrong….   “Come on you damn bladdy horse – settle and work, I’m getting nervous / stressed / impatient”.  You think this is going to work?  No.  They are either going to wonder were the lion is, or they are going to get stressed about why they are in trouble.

It’s interesting to watch, when a group of people do meditation or yoga in a paddock full of horses, how the horses generally walk up and see what’s going on.  When they feel the group’s slow breathing, low heart rate and clear minds, they hang out, their breathing slows, they doze.  We forget that as gregarious animals they depend on feeling each others heart rates to stay alive – literally.  A herd of horses are grazing, most have their heads down, a few doze, one or two are on security duty.  One horse is startled, their head comes up, heart rate increase, they take a deep gulp of air in preparation to RUN, and the whole herd reacts in a second.  The last to react is the lion’s dinner. 

Even in play, when one runs, we all run…
Even in play, when one runs, we all run…

As a rider, if you are waiting for the plastic bag in the corner to bite your horse – guess what happens?  Where as, if you are cool, calm, breathing and ignoring the plastic lion, guess what your horse is doing? 

I talk sometimes about talented riders not being able to teach because they say, well I don’t know how to tell you – you just sit there and the horse will become more collected / elevated / just more, what do you mean you don’t know how?  It’s just something that happens…  I didn’t think I was a coach who battled with this, because I do know it doesn’t just come naturally.  But, this conversation was an eye opener for me….  What do you mean, people don’t clear their minds, breathe and soften their edges when they ride? 

Do you do this naturally, or is this a skill you need to learn?

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Hang on let me ask my app….

I must have an amazing body…  If I haven’t drunk enough water, I feel dehydrated and head achy.  If I have drunk enough, I feel clear and brighter.  If I haven’t eaten enough, I feel hungry, and if I’ve eaten too much, I feel lazy and over full.  If I had a good night sleep, I wake up feeling refreshed and ready for action, and if I slept badly, I struggle to get out of bed and have a slower start.  AND, if I exercise, I sleep better, feel better, and get fitter.  Isn’t that incredible?  Isn’t that such a spectacular thing?  I should thank my body, clearly it’s a bit of a rarity, since so many people seem to need a Fitbit to tell them all of that amazing information. 

Do you know, in USA, they have a thing called Nature deficit disorder.  They say it’s affecting millions of people, mainly kids.  Some schools actually have bootcamp to fix it – they put a class load of kids on a school bus, remove their Fitbit, smart watches, phones, earphones, laptops, and take them out to the wilderness.  Once there, they have them walk across grass, stand in streams, lie on a sunbaked rock, and actually feel, smell, taste, see and hear.  Listen to the birds.  Feel the rough ground.  Taste the clean water.  Smell the wild flowers.  Look at the view.  I think it’s incredibly sad that kids need to be taught to put their technology down and see what a running river looks like.  And imagine the shock – you can walk across a field without posting on social media how many steps your Fitbit said you took.  Shocking – people walk without recording it.  Imagine that.

Alexa – is this a good view?  Should I feel happy?  If I walk across the valley, how many steps will I log?  Will I get to my 10,000 for the day?
Alexa – is this a good view? Should I feel happy? If I walk across the valley, how many steps will I log? Will I get to my 10,000 for the day?

And here is another contradiction – your Fitbit tells you to get up and walk, that you’ve been sitting still for too long.  But…  Your smart home Alexa can turn on the lights and the TV without you having to stand up and walk to the light switch, so allowing you to sit still for longer.  Because heaven help those poor people, who have to stand up and walk to the light switch… 

I break technology – many people who know me know that I am a “slider” – things break.  If I wear watches, they stop and run backwards.  Clocks stop working, anything that is charging when I try to use it either turns off or gives shocks.  Laptops and phones don’t last long, and printers – don’t even go there.  And, it’s something I am incredibly grateful for.  Even if I could wear a Fitbit or have an Alexa, I wouldn’t even if you paid me.  I know many people are excited by technology and the developments, but really, I think the more developments there are, the more disconnected humans become and the less we trust our brains, our bodies, our instincts. 

 

https://www.stufftoblowyourmind.com/podcasts/watch-stoppers.htm

I have a phone, a laptop, a kindle and an ipod.  And that is about it.  And, that is the way it’s staying.

Does this affect the horse industry?  Yes.  With people needing to be told if they had a bad night’s sleep, they are becoming more and more disconnected from their bodies.  You ask some one to feel their body or their horse’s movement and they look blankly at you as if you are asking them to fly to the moon.  And no, they can’t consult their computer about whether or not their horse is moving well.  If you cannot trust yourself to know if you had walked far enough today, how are you going to instinctively know if your horse is active enough?  We need to dump our dependency on the technology, get back to be fully functioning human beings and start using our inbuilt apps – the noticing ones that we were actually born with…    

Wealth

OK, I’m going to go on a rant.  Apologies in advance.  People complain about horses being used for work.  Real, hard work, where they are having to earn a living for their owners.  This year, an awful lot of people have told me that they are really very poor.  They can’t afford to replace their car, or buy a new laptop, or join one of our yoga retreats.  They have a roof over their head, they have food in their belly, they have a phone and / or a computer, they have clothes on their back, they have a bank account, even if it is empty, or almost so.  Just this – food, a bed, dry clothes to change into, puts you in the world’s wealthiest 8%.  Think about that – the number of people sleeping on the street, or without means to buy dinner tonight.  And yet, they can’t see the fact that many people would trade places with them in an instant.   

Travel is, in my opinion, the ultimate eye opener.  When you see actual poverty, you start to change how you see things.  I will always remember going to Cambodia and visiting the boat people there.  We were told that many of them earn less that US$500 a year.  They have no electricity, they have no running water, no sanitation.  Maybe one change of clothes, so they can wash and wear.  And, they wash those clothes in the river where they also fish farm, commute between boats, bath, and drink.  And all of this, with me sitting there with a US$500 camera around my neck.  Still think you’re poor? 

Think about this…

  • This morning, if you woke up healthy, then you are happier than the 1 million people that will not survive next week.
  • If you never suffered a war, the loneliness of the jail cell, the agony of torture, or hunger, you are happier than 500 million people in the world.
  • If you can enter into a church (mosque) without fear of jail or death, you are happier than 3 million people in the world.
  • If there is a food in your fridge, you have shoes and clothes, you have bed and a roof, you are richer then 75% of the people in the world.
  • If you have a bank account, money in your wallet and some coins in the money-box, you belong to the 8% of the people on the world, who are well-to-do.

In many of these cases, the people involved are still able to be very happy – they are often more connected to their family, their home, their culture / beliefs / roots, because they are not distracted by smart phone notifications beeping away, endless adverts to buy bigger and better, and the pressure to buy branded shoes.  And, there is generally a real pride in what they have and what they do. 

While in Kenya, two things stuck me, yet again.  The first was pride.  Many of the local Kenyan’s don’t have running water in their houses.  Or electricity.  Most don’t have access to cars and have to leave their homes at silly o’clock in the morning to stand in long queues at dangerous emergency taxi stands, before travelling many miles, working long hours and repeating this at night, for low pay.  They leave in the dark, return in the dark, and yet they are turned out immaculately.  Just how do you get your white work / school shirt gleaming white, your whole outfit beautifully and crisply ironed and your shoes gleaming, in the dark without running water or power?  I couldn’t…  And yet, they are so proud of their uniforms, what they have and what they do for a job.  The other thing that stuck me, was just how poor the country is, and how many men are pulling carts around themselves, never mind using a horse, just to earn a few shillings for their family. 

And yet, people still complain about how poor people expect their horses to work.  If you had to put food on your table, and could get some money by working with a horse, wouldn’t you do it?  And, if you had to choose between paying your child’s school fees and buying a new set of brushing boot for your narrow pony who was whacking his fetlocks, what would you choose? 

The entire world was born on a horse’s back.  We wouldn’t have the development that we do now, if horses hadn’t helped us along the way.  The first world counties benefitted all along, from the horses who worked – and look at how many we killed in war?  How can we, the first world, say that horses cannot be used in the developing world?  We do need to help, absolutely.  Just because a horse is a working animal doesn’t in any way mean he should suffer or be denied access to feed, water, rest, companionship, farriers, vet care and well fitted harness, but should we try to prevent them doing a reasonable amount of work.  No. 

Money buys choices.  What shall I have for dinner?  If I have money in my pocket, I can choose.  Do I give my horse tomorrow off?  If I’m not relying on his earnings, I have the choice.  Should I buy a new bridle for my horse?  If I have the cash, I can go and get one. 

What do you think?  How wealthy are you, and what are you doing to help the 92% of the world who have less than you?

Just who is Kudaguru?

Me!  I’m Kudaguru – which means what, precisely?  I’m Ashleigh, a nomadic, hectic, packing-phobic, peripatetic adventurer who bounces around the world, playing with ponies…  Literally.

Many moons ago, I was an ordinary equestrian business owner.  I had a yard full of horses and ponies, a mixture of my own as well as liveries.  I had grooms, young instructors, clients.  I competed most weekends in eventing, dressage, show jumping, showing and equitation, young horses, established horses, client’s horses, sponsored horses, as well as going to shows with pupils.  And then?  Well, politics happened, and I ended up moving my horses from Zimbabwe to South Africa, only 43 horses moving 3,500km, walk in the park, really.

Teaching in Asia.
Teaching in Asia.

During the South African spell, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of years riding with the incredible South African Lipizzaner’s, the only Lipizzaner team recognised by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, so became very focused on classical dressage.   Riding the Ballet of the White Stallions – an unforgettable experience.  But…  Well, South African life wasn’t really meant for me, I had some family in the UK, but being winter phobic as well as packing phobic, I wasn’t over keen to go back there full time.     

And so?  I started taking on 6 month to 1 year contracts, to help yards troubleshoot issues, set up training programmes for horses, clients and grooms, build client bases etc.  In that time, I worked across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Caribbean – I did like to choose pretty locations!  But then, 4 years ago I decided that I missed working for myself, and so, time for adventure…

During these four years, I have been lucky enough to build a pretty solid client base across several different countries.  When people ask where I live – well?  36,000 feet?  I’m fortunate to have no commitments (unlucky in some people’s opinions).  I own no property, cars, furniture, horses, yards, employ no staff.  (In my opinion, I’m not owned BY them, as so may people are.  How often have you had the conversation with someone saying they hate their job, they hate their life, but they won’t move because what do they do with their house, car etc…)  I literally live where I am at that moment, with no physical place or possessions drawing me forwards or pulling me back.  Opinion is divided – about 50% of people I meet say, isn’t that wonderful, can I come along to carry your suitcases, and the other 50% saying that is terrifying and awful, they couldn’t live without stability and their things.  And, another benefit of being a full time nomad – there is always time, space and opportunity for adventure, growth and learning…  

Riding a lovely mare in Costa Rica
Riding a lovely mare in Costa Rica

And, what is it that I do that is different enough to allow all this travel?  I try to turn traditional teaching on it’s head.  As a very young rider who I taught recently explained to her Dad afterwards – most people tell her what to do, but in our lesson, she learned HOW to do it.  I’ve always had a slightly out of the box way of looking at things and explaining them differently, but almost 10 years ago, I discovered Mary Wanless and her Ride with your Mind methodology.  That inspired more research, more in-depth thinking and more awareness.  I now use a very eclectic mixture of old-school eventing training, classical dressage, Ride with your Mind and spatial awareness techniques, along with training from other sports – martial arts, climbing and scuba diving in particular.  My aim is to create riders who think – who question what they are told, who notice what their horses are responding to, to BELIEVE their horses more than some of the instructions being issued, and to dance with their equine partners in a balanced and ethical manner.  

Almost at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro
Almost at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro

As I’m so often saying to my pupils – the only expert at being a horse in this three-way relationship (you, me, your horse) is your horse.  He is the most important teacher that you will ever have.  The horse is the teacher, all I’m doing is providing a translation…

The Uncomfortable experience of being a beginner

“The uncomfortable experience of being a beginner” is a Zen saying.  Learning something from zero is awkward and scratchy.  Whether driving a car, playing an instrument, cooking a meal or speaking a foreign language, you fumble through it, getting things wrong more often than getting them right. 

Driving is something I’ve done a few times, but only to the point of Conscious Incompetence – I know exactly how much of a beginner I am and how much I have to learn!
Driving is something I’ve done a few times, but only to the point of Conscious Incompetence – I know exactly how much of a beginner I am and how much I have to learn!

Put in a different way, you begin a new skill in unconscious competence.  You have no idea of just how much you don’t know.  You then, with a few lessons move to conscious incompetence.  Meaning, you now begin to understand what you’ve let yourself in for – just how much learning you have ahead of you.  Conscious competence follows after a lot of practice – you can do the new skill, but only if you really think about it.  And finally, unconscious competence – “Well, I can’t explain how, you just do it…”

How many times do you hear riders, athletes or trainers yelling at their pupils – just make it happen.  Make the horse rounder.  Make the horse more collected or more elevated.  And when asked how, they say, just make it happen.  Unconscious incompetence.  They don’t know what they know.

The problem comes in when an instructor doesn’t understand this. 

Many years ago, I was working with a young instructor.  He was a talented rider but hadn’t taught much.  I was watching him teach a group of beginner kids one day, and he was saying – it’s just trotting, all you have to do is go up and down – come on now, it’s not complicated, it’s just trotting, up and down. 

This was a problem.  No beginner at anything is going to progress by being told that it’s JUST A, B, C, and that they should be able to…  So, we came up with a plan, and took this young coach roller blading.  He’d never tried it before.  Once he’d hopped into his shoes, stood up and uh – fallen over, there were a couple of us yelling, come on, get up, what are you lying on the floor for?  It’s just standing on wheels, it’s easy, look, you just do it like this…

It didn’t take him long to get our point.  A few days later, I was watching him working with a group of young riders, and there he was, patiently explaining, this is what I want you to do, and this is how we are going to achieve it.  Lesson done. 

Scuba diving was a new skill for me a few years ago – and having my coach yell “just swim” wouldn’t have been useful…
Scuba diving was a new skill for me a few years ago – and having my coach yell “just swim” wouldn’t have been useful…

We can never lose sight of how uncomfortable and difficult it is to be a beginner.  It’s awkward and challenging, and it’s a time when we coaches need to be patient and explain, not be yelling, Just Get on With it, it’s EASY.  I try, all the time, to keep doing things that are new or challenging.  By learning new skills all the time, I keep the learning space in my brain open, and remember to be patient with novices. 

When was the last time you tried something for the first time?

Do you know how they save a particularly beautiful or loved tree in the African bush?

Do you know how they save a particularly beautiful or loved tree in the African bush?  They hang a beehive in its branches.  

As you are riding across the bush, you can see these trees, often big Acacia trees, with a hollowed-out tree truck, barrel or box hanging from a big branch.   And how would this save the tree?  Elephants hate bees…

 

As elephants walk across the savannah, they have very few predators.  Not a lot out there can damage a fully-grown adult.  They rule the bush, rubbing against trees and eating a huge amount to fuel their not particularly efficient digestion. 

As they find a tree that buzzes with the sound of a swarm of bees though, they move away in a hurry.  How can such small insects do anything damaging to such huge animals?

If an elephant wants to take the branches off a tree to eat the leaves, he must lift his trunk to use it as a hand – he grasps the branch and pulls it down.  And at that moment, an angry bee can sting him on the trunk.  As soon as he gets stung, his trunk can begin to swell up, and a swollen trunk is useless at gathering food or water.  And so, that little bee can bring down something as big as an elephant.  

(Incidentally, this is why you don’t see drone footage of elephants – when a herd of elephants hear a drone buzzing around above them, they think of swarms of bees and so they disappear in a hurry).  

So, why is this relevant to us?  Well, the first thing that I thought of, was how one small person can make a lot of noise and make a change.  Just because something is accepted as the normal – (why do you do it this way?  Because we always have) doesn’t mean that it’s the way it has to be. I love this quote…

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  ― The Dalai Lama

 

And, in the horse industry, there have been many bees or mosquitoes who have brought about changes.  Off the top of my head, think Mary Wanless with her Ride with your Mind, Mark Rashid with looking at horses as sentient beings, Temple Grandin with her ethical cattle slaughter, and Prince Fluffy Kareem with their project to help the pyramid tourist horses.  Do you feel strongly about something?  Do you sit back and think, well that’s not right…  Or, are you a bee bringing down an elephant?   

Beethoven or Heavy Metal?

I’m sitting cross legged on a veranda, in deepest darkest Africa as I write this.  In fact, here – look at my view.

The best way to start your day – early morning, before the day’s sun has burnt off the mist, enjoying the coffee tray that has been brought as a wake up call
The best way to start your day – early morning, before the day’s sun has burnt off the mist, enjoying the coffee tray that has been brought as a wake up call.

Not bad, huh?

And, why am I here?    Well, largely for a horseback safari.  Here, Sosian Lodge in Lakipia, Kenya, is one of the world’s premier horse-riding safari locations.  And, it’s simply magic.  There isn’t really another word for it.  But, it makes me think, why do you ride?  Why did you learn your skill?

Everyone learns a skill for a different reason.  Some people are happy reading nothing more than road signs, while others use that reading skill for Shakespeare, War and Peace and Lord of the Rings.  Some people learn to play music to simply practice doing scales, while others play Beethoven, Mozart and Vivaldi.  Some people learn to drive so they can go 2 blocks to the shops, while others undertake epic road trips across continents.  And riding for me?  Well, I didn’t learn to ride to go around and around for hours, “getting the horse’s head down”…  Riding (for me) is about getting out there, challenging myself, challenging the communication and bond with my horse.  Some riders are happier refining heir dressage skills, thinking that is the art form.  I started my competing mainly in three-day eventing, the ultimate test of training, fitness, stamina, endurance and rider stickability.  Now, I don’t compete anymore, but coming to places like this, this is where some of the greatest riding happens. 

It always makes me a little sad, when people say oh, sorry, I’m just a trail / hacking rider.  Why would you put your self down like that?  Trail riders face so many obstacles that riders who stay safely inside an arena fence wouldn’t even dream of.  Clamber down the bank and scramble up the other side.  Watch the bird who flaps across in front of you, or the dog (or lion) who leaps out of the bushes…  Leg yield out of the way of the oncoming car, and hold a straight line past the scary rock, or black plastic bin bag. 

Riding out challenges your balance in a way that arena riding just doesn’t come near.  It also, very definitely, tests the bond between you and your horse.  If something doesn’t quite go to plan in an arena, maybe your half pass doesn’t come off.  If your horse questions your timing or judgement out on a trail, you can come seriously unstuck.

Yes, those are elephants right there – big wild ones, and no, there isn’t a fence between us…
Yes, those are elephants right there – big wild ones, and no, there isn’t a fence between us…

I’m not knocking competitive riders, or riders who love schooling.  There is absolutely a place for it, and honestly, riding out is so much more pleasant on a well-trained, nicely balanced, thinking horse.  And if you are happy spending hours going around and around, go for it.  (As long as your horse agrees about going around and around for hours…) but to me, that is the practicing playing scales before you can play a concerto.  It’s a means to an end.  My horses had to be light, quick thinking and responsive, so they could clear a testing cross country course.  War horses were schooled in Haute Ecole so that they could be ridden into battle.  Fortunately, horses aren’t ridden into battle anymore, but dressage means training – training to enable them to do whatever their main job was.   Training to decapitate foot soldiers, or guard the king, or carry a lady out through the park for taking the air. 

Why do you school your horse?  Why do you ride?  Is it to improve your fitness?  Your non-verbal communication?  Your bond with a living, breathing, non-human being? Is it to do the party ticks, to tick the movements off a to do list?  Or is it so that you can go out for an adventure with a four-legged friend?

This morning I had a great ride out on a lovely mare called KQ.  She was light, balanced, easy and a pleasure to amble with.  She’s not overly confident when faced with a herd of giraffe, which is exactly what happened this morning, and yet she stayed with me, walking quietly, heart racing and snorting a bit, but staying in walk, paying attention.  Would her schooling be tested to that degree in an arena?  No.  Did she need training and schooling to do that?  Absolutely. 

How brave is KQ?

And watching our guide – controlling his horse with one hand, organising us visitors, watching a herd of elephant and reading their movements, and, at the right moment, cracking his stock whip to make sure that a young bull elephant stays back – all while not moving in his saddle – that is a massive skill. 

Is this heavy metal music compared to dressage riders playing Beethoven?  Who knows, but I do know which I love doing! 

So, how do you test your riding?