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?

Consequences

Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Selfie-itis

Selfie-itis

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

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

Too many emails

Not enough emails

You didn’t subscribe

This no longer interests you

Etc Etc Etc.

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

What did she did?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confidence or Competence

Confidence or Competence

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

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

I have never ridden.

I have ridden at walk.

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

I have cantered.

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

I could ride any horse in any circumstances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why bother?  Does it make a difference?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Attendance or achievement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the difference?

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

 

Under Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Home …

I’ve thought about this before, began writing it, stopped, started again, deleted it.  And at the moment, it’s fresh in my mind again.

I don’t actually live anywhere – most people know that.  No house, no rent, no furniture, no ties.  Which I think is perfect.

“Where do you live?”

“Well, now, this week, I live in Gili Trawangan, but last week I lived in Bali, the week before that, I lived in Singapore.”

Gili
Gili

“Where did you come from?”

“Well, do you mean which airport?  Or last week?  Or last long-haul flight?  Or???”

And, what’s really blown me away this past week, is the number of messages that I’ve had, saying, are you OK?  Please come home, your bed (and Cat) are waiting for you…  So many people saying that their home is my home, and that if I need somewhere to hold up, their house is open.  Which, I find incredibly humbling…  Someone asked me a while ago if I consider myself wealthy.  My reply was, if I look at my bank account, no.  But yes, I am incredibly wealthy, as this week has proved.

Another friend said, please get to England as fast as possible – you need to be with family and friends.  That’s a challenge, with my mom in South Africa and brothers in UK and Kenya, as well as cousins in every corner of the globe – family is not place, anymore than home is.  When people have been forced from their native country due to politics, and have scattered worldwide, “home” is no longer there, so, where is the new home?

And so, my reply to her – well, I am home.  I have ponies, and I have the sea.  In every country, wherever you go, you walk into a stable yard, and you could be anywhere.  Any yard, has the same routine – you count the number of pony legs and divide by four…  Is everyone alive and healthy, does everyone look happy and anticipating breakfast?  Is the grumpy mare putting her ears back, is the greedy one nickering for his feed?  Top up empty water buckets.  Take around the hay.  Mix breakfast feeds.  Open paddocks, unlock tack rooms, muck out stables, scrub out water buckets, empty wheelbarrows, put horses out…  In any yard, I can just get on and help with yard work, because horses are horses, no matter where they are.  And yards are yards, mucking out, sweeping, scrubbing feed bins, it’s all the same.  Same same but different, as they say in Asia.

Horses and stable yards
Horses and stable yards

Horses speak the same language, no matter what dialect the words come from.  They need the same things, they offer the same things.  You can move them backwards or forwards with a gesture or a glance, they co-operate with the human, the human co-operates with the pony.

In big yards, grooms are bantering, yelling light-hearted abuse.  In racing yards, the appies touch their stick to their cap – “mornin’ m’am”.  The sun comes up slowly, horses start moving out, hooves on concrete, horses calling, bits being crunched.  In competition yards, the first strings go to the horse walker, or out hacking with the grooms, the trainers head to arenas.  In riding schools, lessons begin, the words of the instructors always follow a familiar cadence, no matter the language.  Which country are you in?  It doesn’t matter, welcome home, welcome to the familiar, the feel of routine and peace.

If you think you’re lost, or far from home, the horses will welcome you and remind you that they create home, it’s not a place, it’s a feeling.  It’s the sounds, sights, smells of the yard waking up, ready for another day.

In normal time, my usual life before social distancing and lockdown, I’m generally at home, even though my passport will show that I’m in a far-off country.

In a couple of yards where I go often, I’ll be standing talking to a human, or watching a horse work, or teaching, and I’ll hear a whicker, or feel a bump in the small of my back, as one of my four legged friends sees that I’ve arrived and hauls their human over so they can say hi, or nickers until they call me over.  They replace being able to pop to a familiar coffee shop or visiting a childhood friend.  They hold the space, and always offer a “welcome home”.

Christmas is coming!

So many people deal with their horses with an agenda – they are fitting them in between work, home, family, commitments, life, and the horse must be sandwiched into a couple of hours early morning or late evening.  Or, we make a bucket list – I want to…  ride on the beach, do a dressage test, learn half pass…  And our horse becomes the means to an end, the bicycle on which we put check points on the list.

Equine professionals are often running, between working horses, teaching lessons, running the yard, moving from location to location, and the horses become a job, part of the props.  I’ll admit that I have at times chivied a horse along, because I needed to work on something with the rider, so the horse must hurry up, come to the party and do the job.  Even then, I do try to spend a couple of minutes at the beginning and end where the horse can chat and get involved, but, realistically, we’re all on a timeline.  When I was still at school, I was told repeatedly by a lady who I used to ride for, not to go into horses as a career, because the minute something you love doing becomes a job, you lose a lot of the magic about it.  Horse mad kids who get office jobs, continue on as horse mad adults, but often those who work with horses become jaded, hurried, and lose the connection…

How divine is this mare? After a long ride, hanging out with her in the river, letting her just be a horse, was a reward for both of us…

A few weeks ago, I was hanging out in a barn of horses, mainly because I needed some photographs and it was taking a while.  As I stood leaning against a door, one of the horses came and hung out, putting her head over the door, leaning against me, then lipping through my pockets for polos, checking out my hair, and then just leaning against me when she figured that sweets weren’t forthcoming.  And, it’s pretty cool, just to be there, hanging out, and having a horse hover with you, choosing to be there.

I was thinking about it now, as we run up into Christmas.  We humans are even busier than usual, chasing our tails as “The Big Day” gets closer.  For a change, I’m not buying an animal presents this year, since I’m animal – less this Christmas, but so many people are out there spending a small fortune on their horses, buying a new saddle pad that the horse doesn’t care about, or extra oats that he doesn’t need.

The best thing that we can actually give our horses?  How about just giving them some time?  Horses love it when they have company – have you ever just sat under a tree in your horse’s paddock, and noticed how often they wander over and graze right by your feet?  And, this mare, who chose to stand right next to me, leaning on me, even when she knew that there weren’t any food treats involved.  They like people hanging out – if the people are bringing the right energy or intention with them.  If you’re hanging out to put another check on your list, you’ll probably find them wandering off in the opposite direction….  A lot more is achieved when you’re not trying to achieve anything…

This was taken, unbeknown to me, during a huge thunderstorm. I was taking shelter in the stable yard, sitting on the front of this horse’s box when he ambled over to hang out and watch the rain together…

Recently there’s been a rash of research published – Horses can read emotions…  Horses are better than Prozac…  Horses help recovering PTSD soldiers.  Horses can read facial expressions…  True horse people say – yes?  Obviously?  Surely, they didn’t need thousands of dollars of research budget to find that out?  Horses, when we spend quality time with them, make us feel better, turn us into better humans.  They teach a lot more about empathy and humanity than most humans.

And now, at Christmas, being still is the gift that your horse offers you.  Much as there may be a gift under your tree that says it’s from your horse, chances are he didn’t trot down the high street to buy it…  But, given the chance he’ll give you the best gift that money can’t buy – time, peace, pause, a brief respite from the hustle and bustle of shopping.  Go out to your paddock or barn, and sit or stand quietly, lean on the door or fence, and just hang out.  Let your horse be with you, let him offer you peace and companionship, which is surely the point of Christmas…

Happy Christmas Everyone!

The Mustang Programme

I’m sitting at 40,000ft, just for a change, and decided that I’d kick back and watch movies for the alternative experience – and look, back on my laptop….  Why?  Well, for a blog or two, the reasons of which suddenly tied together.

A Gili cart pony – “Animal Welfare” or “Animal Rights”?

I’ve just watched a movie called The Mustang.  It’s interesting, not pretty, not “nice”, but it passed an hour and a half.  The story follows a herd of wild American Mustangs who are rounded up from the dessert using a helicopter and placed in a men’s prison in the middle of nowhere.  The inmates train them, and they are then auctioned off as riding horses, many into the police force, border control and other law enforcement.  In light of a couple of recent events it really made me think.

There are (according to the movie) around 100,000 wild / feral mustangs living in USA.  Due to land use, loss of habitat and “over population”, these numbers are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.  Some horses are caught and immediately euthanized – the skeptic in me suspects that they are trucked to Mexico and turned into dog food, but don’t quote me on that one.  Many end up standing in dry lots for the rest of their days, some end up being backed, trained and become riding horses.

Now there are two ways of looking at this.  Animal rights – these horses have the right to roam wild in their home – they are (or should be) a source of national pride, heritage, a National Treasure.  And, certain people will fight for that one thing – leave them alone.  Yes, for sure, that would be first prize.  Is that going to happen?  No.  We need to try to protect the land, but rose-tinted glasses off, its not going to happen fast.

Who is to blame?  The US government for not protecting them?  Yes.  The US cattle ranchers, greedy for land?  Yes.  People wanting cheap, USA raised, steak?  Yes.  Locally produced beef cattle mean the animals are not transported so far (often in bad conditions) to slaughter, so closer grazing land means better cattle welfare and lower carbon emissions from slaughter trucks, both things that another group are fighting for.  Who is right?  The roaming rights of the horses or the welfare of the cattle?  Are the 7 billion people on the planet to blame, for breeding at an alarming rate?  Yes.  So, will these horses be allowed to live out their days, wild and free?  No.  And the people fighting for “animal rights” are not going to win on two fronts – they antagonise people, so break fragile goodwill that can be formed, and they are fighting a fight they cannot win.  The land is not going to stay wild, much as it should.

And there arrives, the second opinion, not animal rights, but animal welfare.  The horses are going to be taken off the land – yes, we need to try to protect this habitat but in the short term, for the next 5, 10 years, the horses are going to come off.  So, how can we help the welfare of these horses?  Is the meat market best?  Uh, no.  But again, as long as people want cheap meat and dog food, people like Temple Grandin are doing an amazing job of trying to improve slaughterhouses.  (That’s a whole other story).  Standing in a dry lot for 10 years?  No, much as people think they shouldn’t be trained or ridden, is standing in a tiny square forever, being treated as a prisoner, the life for a wild horse?  No.  This prison program is trying to do three things – it gives a new chance to these horses – they have a purpose, which makes them of value, and sadly when dealing with something like a government, the only thing that has a value is a dollar value.  Seeing wild horses gallop and live the life they should – that is not quantifiable in a dollar value.  In our eyes we consider it priceless – on the tax books its considered worth less.  So, give the horses a dollar value.  If people have paid for something they look after it.  These horses don’t have to spend their days bored to death – they move, they patrol borders or police the streets.  They roam.  They are ambassadors for their fellow horses who are still wild – when people know about things, they protect them.  Secondly, they are rehabbing prisoners – inmates involved in the program are significantly less likely to reoffend because the horses teach them empathy, respect, self-discipline, patience.  Again, it’s not ideal for horses to be in jail, is it?  But it’s not ideal for humans to be there either, and as long as people hurt, kill and hate each other, there are going to be prisons.  Again – do you put on rose-tinted glasses and say it shouldn’t happen, or do you look at ways to improve things?  And, finally, the auctions raise money for land management.  Your view on that point depends on how well you think the land is being managed…

So, what happened recently that I am saying ties in?  On Gili Trawangan, and in a show jumping arena, animal rights people were running around with little hand-written “animal rights, horses shouldn’t be ridden” signs.  In Egypt, there is an awesome group called Prince Fluffy Kareem who are doing an incredible job at improving a horrific situation, largely by gaining the respect and co-operation of the local people.

https://beta.charitycommission.gov.uk/charity-details/?regid=1156400&subid=0

Education, understanding, empathy.  A group, I suspect the same group as behind the little hand-written protest signs, released a badly informed, inflammatory video about the Egyptian pyramid horses a couple of weeks ago, and a lot of PFK’s work got a lot harder as locals thought it was them.  All that hard won trust?  Down the drain in one idiotic moment.  They’ve even had to move yards, so much damage by radical Animal Rights groups, who are only interested in outrageous headlines.  In every one of these cases, they are looking at the perfect world – horses live wild in endless acres of grassy paddocks; all natural land is protected; people don’t live in poverty or have to earn a living; all humans are convinced not to eat meat.  Yes, it would be lovely wouldn’t it?  And let’s go for world peace, total climate change reversal and unicorns flying across the rainbows.

Someone asked me recently if people with “all talk and no action” were the ones who annoyed me.  It’s the two extremes of people who annoy me – the idealists who are saying anything less than world peace is a problem, and the pessimists who say it’s all so bad nothing can be done.  The people I respect?  The realists, the one who are making a change.  The Prison Mustang program.  Prince Fluffy Kareem.  Horses of Gili.  The ones who are not scared to roll up their sleeves and say – yes, it’s a difficult situation and not perfect, but how can we make the welfare better.  None of us are living in a perfect world – the humans either – so how can we start to pull together and make a positive change?  What is your contribution to a better world?

A frog in boiling water ….

So, here’s the question – how much do the people around you really see you?

It’s not a criticism, it’s being human.  But, I find it interesting, and it’s why my bouncing around the world, works.

I arrived to teach a lesson recently, a very teachable, enthusiastic, focused young lady.  I’ve taught her a fair amount – 3 times a clinic for 4 or 5 clinics, so I know her well.  This time, she had a new horse.  She was riding around at the beginning, letting the horse amble on a long rein as we chatted, I asked her, what’s changed?  Uh, she replied – new horse?  No, no, I said, something in you?

Nothing – no difference, just a new horse.

Something is different.  New gym?

No.

New sport?

No.

New instructor?

No.

More time studying?

No.

Hmmm….  Something is off, something has changed.  New car?  Change in driving?  New bed?  New desk and computer layout?

No, she kept insisting, nothing is different.

I wasn’t convinced, but figured that what ever it was, the answer would come. And it did – 5 minutes later…

Oh, OH, OHHHH……  Oh?

The doctor has diagnosed asthma, a tightening in her breathing.  There you go, – that’s it.  She’s always had a pattern to round her shoulders, but there was a shortening through the front of her body, a holding, a lack of breath is a good description.

I was teaching recently, in an indoor arena. They had hung a couple of plastic hawks up, to try to keep pigeons from nesting in the rafters. The funny thing was, the horses didn’t notice the new hawk… Until, on a vile, windy day, there was enough draught to make the hawk “fly” and move on the wind. Suddenly, every horse was head up, ears up, noticing the bird. It took a waving red flag before they noticed that something had changed….

The seasons change – do you notice just how slowly the leaves begin to turn?

I asked her, for our next session, to use her new asthma pump before she got on, and, would you look at that – she sat straighter, softer, with a more relaxed, easier way than before.  And – look even more – look at how her new horse lengthened her neck, opened her chest, reached into the rein and started to breathe deeply through-out her whole body.

Now, this young rider is lucky to have a very good instructor who pays proper attention to detail, and a dedicated Mom who is often there videoing.  But, they didn’t pick it up….  Because they couldn’t.  They see her every day, they don’t see the gradual, millimeter by millimeter change because it’s not in our human make up.

Have you ever heard the story of the frog in the pot of boiling water?  A frog is sitting in a pot of cold water, and slowly, bit by bit, the water is heated.  It’s so gradual it can’t really be felt, until suddenly the frog is being boiled in his pot of water….  I know it’s happened to me in reverse – you go to soak in a lovely bath of hot, steamy water, and by the time you get out the water is lukewarm, but you don’t notice at the time.  Any situation can change so slowly that you don’t notice.  Think of how tatty the paint work of your house, or your favourite pair of jeans can become, without you seeing the change?

I was teaching recently, in an indoor arena. They had hung a couple of plastic hawks up, to try to keep pigeons from nesting in the rafters. The funny thing was, the horses didn’t notice the new hawk… Until, on a vile, windy day, there was enough draught to make the hawk “fly” and move on the wind. Suddenly, every horse was head up, ears up, noticing the bird. It took a waving red flag before they noticed that something had changed….
I was teaching recently, in an indoor arena. They had hung a couple of plastic hawks up, to try to keep pigeons from nesting in the rafters. The funny thing was, the horses didn’t notice the new hawk… Until, on a vile, windy day, there was enough draught to make the hawk “fly” and move on the wind. Suddenly, every horse was head up, ears up, noticing the bird. It took a waving red flag before they noticed that something had changed….

Something that I often suggest to people is to take a good, clear, side on photograph of their horse.  Put it away in a drawer and don’t look at it for 6 months.  Take another, new photograph and compare them.  Again, we don’t notice our horses developing (hopefully for the better) when we see them every day, but compare where you were 6 months ago?  Easy.

How about you do the same for yourself?  Take a video, or a series of photos.  Compare them to what was, or wait a few months and take some more.  It’s not only your instructor’s job to see what you’re doing.  They see you too often sometimes, to notice the tiny changes.  I’m in the lucky position of having a few months between visits, so the changes are there to see, but, especially when it’s something major, like being diagnosed with asthma.

Do you notice what changes?  Are you aware of what you do outside the arena that impacts on you and your horse?