I’m sitting cross legged on a veranda, in deepest darkest Africa as I write this.In fact, here – look at my view.
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.
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!
There is an old story about two dogs who walk into a room….The first one enters, and comes out wagging his tail, wearing a big sloppy grin on his face from what he has seen in the room.The second dog enters, starts to growl, snarl and bare his teeth.He comes out of the door angry and snappy.What was in the room that provoked such a huge difference in these two dog’s reactions?
Mirrors.The first dog entered the room with a smile, saw a smiling dog who wagged their tail at him, and he was wagging his tail right back…The second dog entered growling, and surprise surprise, the dog he met was growling too.
This story always sticks in my mind – what you think, expect, anticipate, you’re going to get back, double time.
I spend a lot of time in airports and generally the poor staff there are harassed and complained at by irritated, tired travellers.They are often defensive, and if you go in angry and defensive, guess what you get back?If you go in laughing, happy, joking, it is generally what you get in return…
Why am I thinking about this now?A while ago, I was working a horse.I knew, well, not a lot about this horse.He was about 10, middle-aged, had done a fair amount, needed some work.So, I worked with him.Afterwards, I was chatting to the instructor who generally worked with the horse.
“He’s a sweet little guy, isn’t he?”I asked.Stood while I got organised, went off when I said go, gave me exactly what I asked for at each moment, tried hard to understand and please, made some nice changes in the way he was carrying himself.I was happy with the session; he and I left the arena both smiling.
“No”, the instructor replied, he’s difficult.He’s stubborn, mean and has a nasty buck.He doesn’t offer anything unless you push, and even then he is sulky and difficult…..He’s a bully who needs bullying.
I clarified, had I worked the right horse?The big grey in the paddock at the back?Well yes, that horse.The difficult one.No, I corrected, the big grey, the easy one…
What happened?Well, I believe that we were the two dogs entering the room.I think she found the gelding that her boss had bought and assigned to her to bring on when she was already too busy, with too much on her plate.I think she approached the horse with that attitude, so he responded in kind.Oh horse, I hate riding you…Oh human, I hate carrying you too…And then, I walked in, with no pressure, no time constraints, no boss, no agenda, and said ooooh a horse…A new friend…Hello Pretty Horse, will you be my friend, will you carry me, will you play and dance with me?And, the horse again responded in kind…..Ohhh, hello human, yes, let’s explore, let’s play, what shall we offer each other….
Horses are a mirror to us – walk into their stable with what you expect and 99% of the time, they’ll prove you right…
“Why are you teaching the ponies circus tricks?”I was asked.
Are we teaching circus tricks?
An animal in the wild, any animal, has its mind and time occupied.A horse has to find enough food, possibly digging through snow or covering great distances.They must find water, avoid predators, look for suitable breeding partners and mares are raising their foals.Herd dynamics take even more time.Do they have time to get bored?No.Do you see a wild horse with a stable vice, such as wind sucking or weaving?No.The same is true for any animal, be it a grazing prey animal (deer, buck, etc) a predator (lion, tiger, wolf etc) fish or birds.They have basic needs and these must be met.
We take an animal, supply its basic needs – we feed them, water them, choose their friends, geld the colts.Suddenly, they are unemployed.Fair enough – a life of leisure, right?Then, we house them, at worse in small cages (yes, call your horse’s stable a cage, does that change how you see it?), and at best in a fenced paddock with friends.He is still contained in a much smaller area than he would if he were wild.Again, apply this to all animals – your dog should be running with his pack, hunting his dinner.Now, he sleeps on the couch and only gets to walk an hour or two a day.A cat has more freedom, unless a city apartment cat, but has still lost his main jobs.So, what do they all have in common?Boredom.Horses start to develop stable vices.Dogs chew your shoes and jump on visitors.Cats claw the furniture.So, what do we need to do about it?Environmental and behavioural Enrichment.Which is?
Some of these fixes are passive – environmental – which tend to be about making the housing / area better for the animal.They would include a bigger paddock for your horse.Interesting things – a river, banks, forests, a sand pit for rolling, (paddock paradise, which is a track system within paddocks, is becoming popular).
In human terms, imagine that you have been locked in somewhere for some reason.You don’t have a job or a purpose, and could just sit 24 hours a day, staring into space.Environmental enrichment could be having a window, a comfortable bed, a TV.Something that could distract you.
Behavioural enrichment is more about having something to do.This is, thankfully, becoming more common in zoos and laboratories that house animals.It is things such a hiding the animal’s food in logs or pipes and giving them pieces of stick or straw to pull the food out, giving them balls suspended from the roof filled with hay, giving a mouse a running wheel or giving apes climbing frames and swinging ropes.(Lottie’s treat barrel).For a horse, it could be a small hole haynet, or a treat ball that must be rolled around until cubes fall out.Or, in human terms, a gym to work out in, a jigsaw puzzle, a recipe and ingredients to cook your own food.It’s something that is generally more about natural behaviour – hunting out your food, keeping active, solving a problem.
Now, I’m not condoning catching wild animals and bringing them in – wild dolphins belong at sea, wild elephants belong wandering the savannah, but if an animal is in captivity (even if it a domesticated horse) they need enrichment.Elephants standing on balls or monkeys dressed up and playing a guitar – that is a whole different ball game and really shouldn’t be happening.Have a look here, for what I consider a good scheme for animals having to live in a zoo.
All of these animals are trying to live with humans, which can be challenging all on its own – humans have a whole new set of rules and difficulties.So, we need to help the animals adapt.
You teach your dog to sit, to lie down, not to jump on visitors, to walk on a lead.Why?Are these circus tricks?We don’t think of them in that way – we think of it as making it easier for us to live with our dogs, and easier for our dogs to understand us and cope with living in houses, going out for exercise and not getting in trouble for knocking granny over.We teach our cats to scratch their scratching posts instead of the furniture, and to chase the toy mouse hanging on the end of a string, because it distracts them and gives them some hunting type play.Is that a circus trick?
How about horses?We teach them to lead, to tie up, to stand for grooming and for the farrier.In a lot of cases, we teach them to be ridden, driven or worked.We teach them how to adapt – we domesticated them, we owe it to them to help them live in our worlds.How about challenging their learning ability?In a recent blog and members monthly lesson, I was discussing proprioception, and some of the tasks we can set horses to help them discover more about their own bodies.These included standing on plastic bags, walking over poles, stepping through hula hoops.Its shows them where their body’s edges are, how tall they are, how wide they are.It does challenge them to think.It distracts them from standing in a stable or paddock all day, and helps them to move their bodies.
What do you think, behavioural and environmental enrichment, or circus tricks?(And yes, for paid Kudaguru members, this is an upcoming lesson).
Creating confidence in young riders is best achieved with easily gained challenges and lots of repetitions.
During the lesson, leaders and ponies often need to minute or two to recover after trotting and there are many exercises that the rider can practice in halt. The most simple and widely known is Around the World.
At its simplest, the rider turns 360 degrees whilst sitting on the pony. The rider begins by raising one leg – in this case the right – and takes it over the pony’s neck so that they are sitting facing sideways, both legs on the pony’s left side. The left leg is then raised and taken over the pony’s quarters so that the rider is facing the tail. The right leg is taken over the quarters to take the rider sideways, facing right. Finally, the left leg passes over the neck so the rider is back to facing forward. This is then repeated in the opposite direction.
If there is a group of riders, they can then do Around the World as a race, all riders setting off on ready, steady, go, and shouting out their pony’s name as they get back “home”. Doing the exercise with their hands on their head makes it much for riders to find their balance.
Another option is to take the rider on a journey, Around their World. They begin at home – this could be by saying that they at the riding school for very young riders, or they name of the town or country for slightly older children. As they sit sideways, they say the name of another place. Either a place they go (like the shops, home, school etc), or another city or country. As they travel around, backwards and sideways again, they choose another place to go, arriving back at the riding school or the actual town as they arrive back facing forwards. Repeat this going the other way around the pony, choosing new places to go. This is a really good way of teaching children about their environment and the world that they live in.
I also ask the riders, how they are getting there? What is the mode of transport? For serious children, this maybe literal – if it is far it could be by plane. If over water, maybe a boat. If the next town, a car or bicycle. Other children will come up with flying carpets, skiing behind a whale, floating on a cloud. The sky is the limit!
Moving on to other exercises will help to get the rider supple and confident moving about on top of the pony. Change of seat is little more difficult to do. The rider begins the same as Around the World, lifting the right leg over the pony’s neck and so sitting facing to the left. They take their left hand across their body to hold the pommel (front of the saddle). Their right arm goes across their back and they hold the cantle (rear of the saddle). Keeping their legs hanging down the left side of the pony, the rider rolls their body over, so facing the right side of the pony, their stomach on the saddle and their weight supported on their arms. The rider then swings their right leg up, over the pony’s quarters and they sit up again, back in the saddle. Repeat this in the opposite direction, beginning with the left leg over the pony’s neck.
Kick ups are another useful and fun exercise. The rider holds the cantle of the saddle with both hands. Leaning their upper body back, they use their core and thigh muscles to lift both legs, swinging them up so that their heels kick together above the pony’s neck. Care must be taken that the pony will stand still and not fidget or take fright when the rider’s legs move up through their line of vision. It should be stressed to the rider to lift their legs high enough not to kick their pony on the neck. As the legs touch together, the rider then lets them come gently back to the pony’s sides without kicking him. While first learning, it can help to have a person standing on each side of the pony. They each hold one of the rider’s feet, and on counting 1, 2, 3, swing the foot up, helping the rider to kick their feet above the pony’s neck. The rider is then encouraged to try it out on their own.
Once the rider can do this, they can move onto the kick up behind. This is much more difficult. The hands are placed on the front of the knee rolls. The rider should again try to move in one fluid movement, and needs to have a reasonably strong upper body. It often helps if they have the idea of doing a hand stand. In one swing, the head and neck fold forward toward the pony’s shoulder and the rider raises their body up onto their hands, allowing the legs to swing up and out behind, so they can kick the entire length of their leg together, above the pony’s tail. Once their legs have kicked together, they softly and smoothly come back down to sit upright in the saddle.
As the rider gets more able, they can do all of these unaided, but the pony should always be held – a runaway pony in the middle of the exercise would be disastrous. Done carefully in a controlled environment, these all exercises with encourage confidence, balance and good use of the core.
Proprioception – it’s the buzz word at the moment, isn’t it?So, what is it and why is it important to me and my horse?
You’re standing on a beach, barefoot in the sand – through the soles of your feet, you’re getting a whole heap of information – is the sand wet or dry?Is it deep and heavy, or is it firm and easy to stay on top of?Is it silky smooth or sharp with bits of shell?Is the tide rolling in and out, and if it is, are your ankles having to make subtle shifts of tension and relaxation, holding on and letting go, to allow you to remain upright?
It’s the middle of the night and you wake up and need to turn the bedside lamp on – can you reach the correct arm out of your bed, to the right height of the bedside table and connect your fingers to the light switch without knocking over your water glass?
Those are two instances of proprioception.It’s a (usually sub-conscious) knowledge of where you are in space – are you standing, sitting or lying down.As you read this, you know where you are in the world.And, its your body’s ability to remain upright while you walk, without you spending much time wondering if you are going to fall over.A lot of this comes from something called a spindle, which is a receptor in each and every muscle that transmits its location and action to your brain.Clever things, our bodies.
So, why do we think about this in the horse world?If horses are born and brought up as “real” (in my world) horses, they learn where their feet are.A foal grows up on a farm in the mountains.He has to walk up and down hills, cross rough ground, smooth ground, stony ground.He has to jump ditches and streams, and paddle through rivers.He swims through dams and ducks under trees.He’s a typical kid – he feels things through his soles; branches and sticks brush against his sides; low branches brush over his ears.He smells plants and other animals, touches the ground and rocks, tastes different grasses and leaves.He develops his knowledge of where his feet are at any one time, and knows instinctively that when walking on slippery ground downhill, he needs to throw his weight back and take extra care.
Another foal is born on a small property.He spends much of his time in a stable, and when he comes outside, he walks along a flat, paved path into a square paddock of manicured grass.There are no slopes to climb, no banks or ditches to clamber through, no rivers or streams to paddle, no stones to avoid.After a few hours, he is led back along the safe path, following his dam, and put in a square stable with no sharp objects, four square edges and a thick bed.Later, he learns to work in a rolled and raked, flat, smooth sand arena, or if a race horse, to gallop along a flat mowed grass track.
Which of these foals, and later, young horses, is going to be more intuitive about his balance, his feet on the ground, organising himself when faced with climbing down a hill?Which horse would you rather ride out on?
Horses used to be very sure footed and aware about their position in the world, but sadly as their space gets smaller and smaller, and many are bred as “hot house flowers” that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars / pounds, they are treated more and more as fragile glass ornaments.They lose a lot of their natural proprioceptive skills and possibly even more damaging, they’re unaware of their bodies and more prone to injury.So, what do we do about it?
We give them awareness challenges.We ask them to do odd things – walk over poles.Walk over flat poles on the ground, raised poles, a high pole and then a low pole.We ask them to walk over plastic, to stand on things, go under things, go through things.To walk backwards, to walk sideways.We ask them to be more aware.
(For those of you who read the monthly newsletter, Sherri Bull-Rimmer, a faradic therapist who comments each month, wrote an article about this a couple of months ago.)
I met with a friend for dinner last month – it had taken a long time and lots of back and forth messages to organise a time that suited both of us. When we finally got together, she said – this whole – “I’m just so BUSY, when did we start saying this as a good thing?” When you meet up with someone, or ask a friend how they are, how often is the answer, OK, busy, all OK…?
Part of the reason that this is on my mind again, is reading an article in an equine magazine last week, about making our working hours closer to 9 to 5. They say farriers, vets, instructors shouldn’t be expected to answer their phones or messages outside working hours. On one hand, yes, I can see where they are coming from. You cannot be working 24 hours a day. However, for an awful lot of people, horses are their hobby, their down time, their relaxation. And so, as with any leisure or hospitality industry, your working hours are during what most people consider their leisure hours. A lot of yards or instructors take Monday as their day off, because they are working all weekend when clients have time for lessons. And there are even some yards who close on Monday, the horses just getting their basic care. So, if you only answer your phone, emails or work in mainstream working hours, you miss out on a lot of work.
I know that I am dreadful at not being “at work”. Recently, I decided to take a DAY OFF. An entire day, of not doing anything related to working, writing, researching etc. I lasted until about 11am. Because I have clients all over the world, no matter what time it is where I am sitting, someone somewhere is telling me about their ride, asking me about their bit, chatting about where we are organising our next yoga retreat, or asking advice about an issue. The number of times I’m sitting up at midnight chatting to a client who is another part of the world, or at a family function but on my phone at the same time…
Another friend who I was chatting to a while ago had, sadly, just lost her horse to colic. She was saying one of the things that had really surprised her was the amount of free time she had – not just the actual time she would have been spending at the yard, but time planning what schooling sessions she would be doing, looking into different feeds, checking that she had booked her farrier at the right time, reading about new bits and wondering if she needed to change what she was using. And because she was working full time and juggling her horse around work, and juggling booking her farrier around that, she would sometimes be messaging him at 8 at night.
Is being too busy different when it’s your hobby? Does it make it better when you work your hours and then you’re “being Busy” is your hobby time? It’s all a careful balance I think…
And then, a couple of days ago, I was walking from the house where I was staying, down to their yard. It’s 660 steps – I know because I counted – and I think it’s a lovely amble. For me, that is my down time. I don’t have internet connection when I am outside the house or yard, so for those 5 minutes I am not online. And, the view, the flowers, the ponies grazing in the paddock, they all make you go hmmmm… And on one of those walks last week, there, sitting on a bench on the common was an elderly lady, very quietly, very still, gazing down the valley. She didn’t move, didn’t react, was completely lost in just looking out over the fields and hills. That, I thought, that is switching off and not being at work. Maybe, instead of trying to stick to office hours, or stick to taking a day off, maybe we should just make sure we have time everyday to sit and stare at the view, to make room in our heads for nothing but the feel of the warming sun, the smells of the spring flowers, the sound of the birds in the hedges
And, what about our horses? So many horses live in very busy yards. They have grooms in and out of their boxes, mucking out, feeding, grooming, tacking up, and different riders coming in, collecting different horses at different times for different lessons. Maybe those horses go out for a couple of lessons a day. And even those in the paddock, cars will be driving past, pulling into the car park. Planes fly overhead, things are always happening. I do think horses get stressed by being a part of our “busy”. On this day, when I was watching the lady sitting staring down the valley, I also watched the horses in the paddock in her line of sight. One was standing, hind leg rested, head lowered, ears hanging out to the side and lower lip flopping. The other two horses were lying flat out on the grass, sunbathing and totally switched off. These, I thought were horses who really were busy doing nothing. And that is so important in their lives, they need to horse, they need time to relax muscles and they need time to process.
When I was first learning about horses, first taking professional exams, one of the subjects that we spent a lot of time on was roughing off (preparing a horse for his summer holidays by gradually reducing his work, his hard feed, his rugs) and then getting him fit again, ready for his busy season. For at least a month, he would be turned out, checked once a day but otherwise left alone. How many people now a days have no idea how or why roughing off is done? How many horses never actually get to have a holiday? So many people have horses who they ride 6 days a week, every week and when they, the humans, go away on holidays, they make sure to hire someone else to come in and ride their horses 6 days a week.
We humans are complaining about being busy, about how we need holidays, about how we need to switch off, and if you are a farrier, to stop answering your phone. But how often do you put your horse’s holidays aside because he must keep working? When was the last time that your horse had a few weeks holiday?
“You are utterly insane and irresponsible, how awful” or “Oh my, wonderful, I am so jealous” are the two comments most commonly offered by people when I tell them what I do for a living – freelance coaching. With a twist. The area that I cover is – anywhere in the world. Some locations are recurring, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kenya, South Africa, England, Germany and Spain, while others are one offs – such as Italy or Costa Rica.
Growing up and learning to ride, I was the good pupil, who tried desperately to follow my coaches prompts – make the horse forward, get the horse round, use more leg, ride the canter, being some of those shouted instructions that I would be furiously trying to follow. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to voice my inner thought of – How? How do I make the horse rounder? How do I keep my leg still? How do I get my lazy horse more forward or my whizzy horse to settle? Somehow, lots of excellent coaching produced a rider able to compete across the disciplines and produce horses, but there was always that little inner dialogue of – how is this working? Teaching was a challenge, because I could always see the problem, and see what I wanted to change but often lacked the words or linear set of cues to get the changes I wanted for my pupils.
Thousands of miles in dressage arenas, jumping arenas, cross country courses, race tracks, endurance tracks, bridle paths and lunge rings later, my back started to give out, partly due to a lot of incorrect posture along the way. At that point I was already experimenting with many ideas, but discovered Mary Wanless and her “Ride With Your Mind” system. Finally, I had some of the “how to” answers. How does the horse come rounder? How can I protect my back? In her words – she teaches a “tool kit” – things that we as riders need to get our head around. I became a certified RWYM coach, and that opened my mind to more possibilities and thoughts, creating an eclectic mix that I use today.
I count myself lucky in that I have managed to experience a lot of different things, partly for fun, partly as teaching research, which allows me to connect to my pupils existing skills and has put me in front of some amazing coaches across a lot of different sports. This year, a rider with scuba diving experience was battling with her horse’s flying changes to the right, while to the left was great. Our discussion revolved around how, when asking for the left changes, she put her body into scuba diving positive buoyancy mode, while when asking for the difficult right changes she went into negative buoyancy mode. Instantly, by accessing muscle memory that her body understood, she could ride the changes in either direction. A young rider was battling with her jumping position and a discussion around our shared interest in rock climbing fixed the issue. (You can’t pull up with your arms, you have to push up with your core and legs). And yet another rider was constantly slightly behind the movement, causing frustration and irritation on her sensitive pony, which we worked through… How? That morning, I had climbed off a plane with a heavy back pack. On getting onto the escalator going up towards immigration, the back pack had pulled backwards on my shoulders, almost pulling me off my feet. I had to engage my core, match the packs backward force with my own forward force, so keeping me vertical on the escalator. This rider was being the back pack pulling her little gelding backwards. As soon as we worked through how to engage her core to match his forward momentum, all was better in their world.
Lessons are eclectic, thoughtful and make a rider stop and think. “Be a frog” or “more tennis balls” have been shouted across arenas, after discussion with riders has made this the explanation that puts them where their horse and I need them to be. My business is Kuda Guru, which means Horse Teacher. People assume it means I am the horse riding instructor, but the spin I put on it is, your horse is your teacher, I just translate.
The first question I ask of a rider during a lesson – if I could fix one thing, what would it be? They will answer, I wish he was more forward / straighter / rhythmic / slower / had impulsion / was balanced. And in my mind, I always think, if I could ask the horse, what would he wish for? Generally, the answer I imagine is the same as that the rider just gave. The rider who says, I wish my horse had a better rhythm, is often a rider who is not riding in a rhythm themselves. And I bet their horse is thinking, I wish my rider had a better rhythm. We can’t make the horse have a better rhythm, but if the rider and I can put a better rhythm into that rider, the horse now has a dancing partner that he can work with. At that point, the horse generally finds rhythm, breathes a sigh of relief and I get to translate – look at that, your horse has rhythm, don’t believe me, believe him. When your horse goes better, believe that you are doing something right… He is the expert at being the horse, all I do is translate.
So, what do you wish for when riding your horse? Would he wish for the same thing? How can you create that in your own body?
Recently, there were three of us sitting around the table, trying to work out why a lame horse was lame. And no, we couldn’t call the vet, since the country we were in, isn’t that easy. We were each coming at the problem from a slightly different angle. I was reminded about two other conversations…
One is from a friend who works in the corporate world, who is always talking about how, in every situation, you need to somehow add value to the job, situation, meeting or customer interaction. If you are not giving value, or adding input, then why are you there? As they say, it takes two hands to clap – if you as the coach, advisor, expert, skilled worker etc add value, then the customer, client, pupil can receive the best of what is offered. If the coach is not adding value, the pupil cannot make an awesome, positive, constructive lesson all on their own, and equally, if the pupil is off or negative, having a bad day, its hard for the coach to do all of the work. There has to be an interaction – there have to be two hands to clap. Even the pupil with the best intentions of being really attentive and taking things from the lesson, can’t do that if the coach is not mentally there. So, whenever I go into a lesson or problem-solving situation, at the back of my mind is, am I adding value to the mix? And I inputting ideas, thoughts, helping the situation. If you say – “that’s bad” it’s a negative that no one can draw any ideas from, but if you can say “hmmm, maybe the issue is this, but we can try x, y, z to fix it” then, you are adding value.
I was also reminded of a conversation a long time ago, with a horse health care professional. He said, if I own a hammer, then all I see are nails… Let’s say that we have a lame horse standing in front of us, and there are twenty of the world’s greatest authorities on lame horses. The first is a farrier, who says, well, I see a bad nail, and a slight ridge there – the issue is in the horse’s feet. The second is a saddler, who says the saddle is not quite square, and there could be friction just here. That is why he is lame. The third is a bit fitter, who says, the shape of the mouthpiece doesn’t suit this horse, that will cause resistance, tension, unlevelness… The fourth is a chiropractor, who says the horse’s pelvis is unlevel, he’s not moving right behind. The fifth is the riding coach, who says, the rider is crooked… And so it goes on…. What ever my skill (my hammer) I see the issue through those eyes. Do any of us see the whole horse? Not entirely, no, I don’t think so. Is there one clear reason why the horse is lame? Sometimes, and sometimes all of these experts are right and it’s a accumulative effect of all elements…
Which leads me back to the horse who we were trying to de-code. Did we get it right? Not entirely, no. I think we needed more tools in the tool kit, but we made a good start at unravelling. How to find the right tool? I don’t know at this point… Is the horse constantly at the back of my mind? Oh yes…
So, what is your hammer? When you approach a horse problem, what can you bring to the table? I think it’s your responsibility, as an owner, as a rider, to be able to bring something to the table. Read, study, watch your horse. Maybe the value you can bring to the table is an awareness – he always trashes his bed and this week it was too tidy for him to have been lying down. He always eats all of his hay overnight, but this week there has been some left. He always stretches before walking out of the stable, but this week he didn’t want too… Notice things, that is often the first big key in sorting something out… Is he drinking less water? Is he grinding his teeth when he didn’t in the past? Is he wearing out the toe of his shoe? What’s different?
What do I bring to the table? I know horses. I know what is right and what isn’t. I can see gait patterns. I can see straightness and irregular steps. I believe my gut reaction that says something is off or not. I have a sense of horses and have picked up a fair amount of anatomy and symptoms. I can tell you if a saddle is bad, or a bit is too big, or the shoes are too small. Am I a vet, or a farrier? No. But I can often tell you where you need to be looking, or what expert to bring in.
So, who do you have around your table? If your horse came out of his stable lame or sick tomorrow, who would add value to him and his recovery? How can you surround yourself with people who not only have a hammer, but a screwdriver, pliers and a wrench too? And, what value can you add, to his life, to your conversations with him, and to your lessons? Where do you add value? Can you add value to his surroundings and wellbeing? Sometimes something as simple as a thicker bed, or patch of sand to roll in can add value to his day. If horses could pick their owners, would your horse pick you.
Why have I hesitated to write this? It’s been on my mind for a while, but hasn’t been written…
Abuse? What is abuse and what isn’t? I think I may hit a few nerves here…
Recently, I was chatting to a client. He has a super big horse and rides for fun, for relaxation, and forgetting about his work at the end of a busy day. Yes, the horse has some talent, but his main job – a switch off for his owner’s brain. The owner was telling me, sadly, that he couldn’t ride that week. Why not, I asked. Well, because his regular trainer was riding the horse in a competition the next weekend, and told him that he, the owner, doesn’t ride well enough, so if she, the trainer, wants to win, he must leave the horse to her. To say I was taken aback is a bit of an understatement…
I said to him… It’s your horse. Yes. Do you want him to compete? No. Did you organise the trainer to compete the horse? No. Did you decide that competing the horse was a good idea? No. The horse is YOUR HORSE…. YOURS…. You OWN the horse, and what the horse does or does not do, is your responsibility and choice. If you own a horse and decide to paint him pink and ride him bareback through the town eating candy floss, it’s YOUR decision, because it’s YOUR horse, not your trainer’s horse, not my horse, not your next-door neighbour’s horse.
He smiled sadly and said, well within reason, right? If he chose to abuse the horse, to ride it with barbed wire in the horse’s mouth, I’d step in, wouldn’t I? It wouldn’t be his choice then? If a trainer sees abuse, the trainer will walk out and refuse to come back? What would I do if I arrived to teach a lesson, saw a horse in something horrendous, such as wire in it’s mouth? Stay or go? And is his novice riding horse abuse? Shooo… It opens up another can of worms, since what is abuse in the opinion of one trainer, is perfectly ok for another…
In some people’s eyes, riding a horse is abusive, and riding should be banned. Other’s think pleasure riding is ok, but not competitions, racing or jumping. Others think anything goes. Some would ban racing, or jumping, or cross country, or bits, or shoes. I often think that riding school ponies have a tough time, especially in the yards where teachers are yelling out kick, kick, kick, kick…. When else do we tell kids to kick animals? Some people are fine with whatever – it’s only an animal, right? And each and every one of us must draw the line of what we consider abuse.
Every situation could be abusive. Is a stable abusive? Well, if the horse is locked in 24 hours a day, with no bedding, little food, no exercise and no light, absolutely. If kept in for a few hours at a time, with a deep bed, hay, clean water, sunlight, fresh air, a friend, maybe a view, then no, it’s not. Saddle? If it fits well, is clean, supple, not girthed too tightly, then sure, you’re good to go. If it doesn’t fit, is dirty and rubbing, broken, or the horse has back pain, then it’s abusive – I know where I draw my line – do you?
Recently I was in Bali – and a friend of mine always says – how can you go there? It’s full of stray dogs, she couldn’t cope with seeing them. And yes, there are many strays, skinny, bad skin conditions, no where to go… But, there are amazing people who are running de-sexing clinics, who are trapping dogs to treat their skin and vaccinate them and feeding street dogs. When I go there, I see the improvements as much as seeing the troubles. People also know that I spend a lot of my time helping with the Gili Cart Horses. Again, if you see them for the first time, you can think abuse. There are still an awful lot of issues to address, but, again, things are so much better, year on year. Friends say, how can you go there and see that? You are meant to love horses; how can you condone that? Because, if we all turned our backs on these stray dogs, or working horses, who would help them? Would things improve? Of course not. If you can slowly make changes, dripping water on the rock, then it’s worth doing, yes?
I was approached to go and teach in a certain yard a couple of years ago. I arrived and was fairly appalled at the state of the horses. I watched part of a lesson and it was even worse. I then discovered that riders were expected to sign a confidentiality / non-disclosure document before beginning lessons or stabling there, to ensure they said nothing about what they saw happening. Did I agree to teach? No. They were set in their ways, they knew that people wouldn’t like their practices, or they wouldn’t have that document, and yet they carried on. Would I have been able to make a difference? No.
I see it as a wheel, turning either forwards or backwards. With the Bali dogs and Gili ponies, the wheel is, inch by inch, rolling forwards. Things are getting better. With the yard above – no, the wheel is either still or more likely, rolling the wrong way. What to do about it? I don’t know. I still think about those poor horses, but a cure I haven’t found.
When I owned ponies, I had one leased out to a young rider. The pony still lived with me, but she would take him up to her trainer’s yard for lessons. The pony always seemed happy enough, so I left it. He was strong and could really take a hold so was ridden in a fat rubber pelham with rounding’s and a padded curb chain. One day, he arrived back from a jumping lesson. He seemed nervous about having his bridle removed, and then wouldn’t eat. Gut instinct – I checked his mouth and it was raw in places, bruised and sensitive in others…. Sure enough, on checking, the trainer had changed bridles, got on and “schooled” the pony herself. That day, the lease was cancelled, the child and parents asked to remove themselves from my yard, and the “trainer” was told what I thought. This trainer was angry – did I not realise she was an ex-international show jumper who had won X, Y and Z? Yes, I did, and did I care? No. Sadly, it can still be the ex-champion, old-school trainers who can be part of the problem. They can get hung up on what worked then, and won’t move with the times (not always, I know a lot of old school, amazing trainers too!) Can anyone hurt my pony? No. Did that pony work for his living in the school, jump, go to competitions, get ridden in his pelham and a saddle? Yes. Again, draw your line.
I went on a two-week interview at a big yard in Germany some time ago. They produce, compete and sell competition horses, the big names with the big price tags. And yes, I rode some of the big-name stallions. And yes, I was offered my contract. Did I take it? No, that was one of the most abusive horse situations that I have ever been in, and I still have nightmares about it. Just because your horse cost $1,000,000 doesn’t mean he has a good life… When money is involved, the horse must produce the goods, even when not physically or emotionally ready.
When working with trainers, it is YOUR responsibility to safe guard your horse… When I was competing a lot, I’d have clinics with different trainers. If they asked me to get after the horse, get him more reactive, push him a little harder, I would, it’s often why you need the input to make your horse that bit more… But, if they asked me to put tack on him that I didn’t like, or jump higher when I could feel the horse struggling, then I’d refuse, because as a horse’s caretaker, it’s my job to stand by what I believe. If I say to a pupil we are going to try X, and they were adamantly opposed, I’d respect them more for standing up for their and their horse’s rights, than for meekly following my instructions… If you don’t agree with someone, for your horse’s sake, say so.
So, my pupil’s question – if I walked into a yard and a rider was expecting me to teach them with barbed wire in the horse’s mouth, would I stay or go? It depends. If it is an inexperienced rider, who has an open mind, who has been put in this situation by their tradition, culture or a bullying instructor, I’d stay. I’d talk to them, convince them, just for today, to take the wire out and see what we could do. I’d work on education, because if I walked out, who would be helping the horse, and this rider’s future horses? I do walk into situations I don’t like sometimes, and by dripping water on the rock, I can usually change them. If this was happening in the yard with the confidentiality form, or the yard in Germany, then what would I do? Then, I’d walk away. Because you can say what you like, it isn’t going to change. You know that saying – If you don’t want to learn, no one can make you… But if you WANT to learn, then no one can stop you…
It’s funny how it always goes in spates – people asking me, so what does Kuda Guru mean, then? And, generally its which area in the world I am currently sitting in. Here in Asia, people rarely ask.
Kuda, means horse in Bahasa Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, so, it begins to make a little bit of sense now, yes? Guru, obviously means teacher, guide, expert or master.
About 8 years ago, I was working full time in Malaysia, in an area called Johor Bahru, which is the border town between Malaysia and Singapore. It’s quite industrial and tends to be filled with a lot of Singapore commuters too. Malaysian’s working in Singapore get the best of both worlds – the cheaper Malaysian rents and being able to stay with their families, as well as earning the much higher Singapore wages (and, sadly also enjoy the many hours of sitting on their motorbikes at the border, in very long queues). There is a big riding school / livery yard / hotel just outside JB (as Johor Bahru is more commonly known), where I was working.
I’m hopeless at languages, really, honestly, cannot learn them, no matter how hard I try. So, living in the hotel, I enlisted a couple of the front of house staff to teach me Bahasa Malay. It took me about a month to get Selamat Pagi (Good morning) and Apa kabar (How are you?). Really. A whole month. I did also learn quite quickly about Apa ini? (What is this?) when the grooms would bring me the wrong horse, or the right horse with the wrong saddle etc… But the phrase that seemed clearest, fastest, was Kuda belak (the horses are back) which would be shouted from one end of the yard to the other, to tell the grooms that the trail riding horses were seen coming back out of the jungle. Every groom who had a horse in the ride that we had shipped out a couple of hours before, would come out and stand and wait for his horse to get close enough, so he could help the guest down and take his charge off for their welcome cold shower. My first introduction to Kuda.
Now, since we were out in the jungle, there wasn’t an awful lot to do – um, nothing really. We had a swimming pool at the neighbouring hotel, and another restaurant there, but one of our big highlights was going into the nearest kampong (village) to the very big Tesco supermarket. *sigh* such was our hectic social life… One of the other instructors and I would hitch a lift in with the car owning chef, or phone for a cab, and a real taxi would pick us up. And then, on coming out of our exciting trip, there would generally be 3 or 4 “taxi” cars sitting outside. These would have been the Grab / Uber cars, except in those days, Grab / Uber didn’t exist. So, these random young Malay men would be sitting on the off chance that someone would need a ride, haggle over the price, load their unsuspecting passengers into the back of the (usually slightly dodgy) car and take them wherever they needed to go. In that time, we were proudly shown bright green zebra print fake fur seats… A first aid kit… A fire extinguisher.… and more bling CD’s hung on grubby ribbon over the rear-view mirror than you would imagine possible… There were several times, whipping up and down the narrow, steep and winding hill roads where we did consider the possibility of our imminent death…
So anyway, on one particular exciting Tesco evening, I came breezing out and a young man was waiting beside his car. Taxi taxi, miss, taxi, he was calling. I said yes, please, I need to go to… And he said yes, yes, I know Kuda Guru. And so, my introduction, that all the grooms and pretty much all the kampong unofficial taxi drivers knew the Kuda Guru. Slightly dodgy again?!
Now, if you take this literally, horse teacher. I, however take it slightly differently – horse teacher, as in, the master happens to be an equine. Who knows best what a horse feels like? Um, a horse. Who knows when a horse becomes unbalanced? A horse? Who knows what this particular rider feels like? Maybe a horse? And how many secrets does a horse keep? About his rider? None. You watch a horse, you can see where his attention is… How rhythmic his rider is…. If he is comfortable or in pain… If he understands an instruction… If he is happy or battling to cope. All of these things, he wears as plain as his heart on his sleeve. So, by thinking Kuda Guru – my thinking then becomes, your horse is your teacher – why am I here in the arena with you? Purely as the translator. After all these years, about the only language that I appear to understand beyond hello and how are you, is horse. So, when you go out to greet your horse tomorrow morning, please, please say, Selamat Pagi Kuda Guru, Apa Kabar?! Have fun!