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!

Dare to ask questions

“Dare to ask questions. There are answers to any question.”
–Lailah Gifty Akita

I read this quote recently, and thought it’s that simple, but so many people seem to come unstuck when it comes to asking a question.

When I start a lesson with a new client, one of the first things that I’ll say to them – this is a three-way conversation.  There are three of us here in the arena, each with a brain and an opinion…

Dare to Ask Questions
Dare to Ask Questions

I’m going to keep asking you, the rider, questions….  Do you feel that?  Do you notice this?  Remember how you felt when you were skiing down that mountain; hiking up that hill; doing somersaults in the gym….   Does that make sense?  And, at any time, you, the rider can say – no.  No, I can’t feel my right foot moving.  No, I don’t get the feeling of tone from when I was shooting hoops.  No, that picture of balancing a tennis ball doesn’t make sense in my brain.

The horse has a massive part of this three-way conversation.  Who knows what the rider actually feels like?  Who knows if the horse finds it easy to keep his balance, or if the rider is being left behind and is difficult to carry?  The horse is the only one who knows what it feels like to be a horse, the only one to feel what it is like to carry this particular rider.  The horse has the most important opinion of all.   If the horse suddenly lifts his back, reaches into the rein, starts to move in a more balanced manner, he approves of the changes that the rider is making.  If he suddenly hollows, tilts, twists, then his opinion is less positive.

But, what of the third part of the conversation?  The rider must have a voice, dare to ask questions.  Do we think we’ll sound stupid?  Or show ourselves up?

As the lesson is unfolding, I’m asking “does this make sense?”  And, I’m really hoping that the rider will say “yes, yes it makes sense, and how about this?”, or “what about that”.

“Can you explain something else?”

“Can I ask another question?”

“What about this?”

Believe me, no question is stupid – I’ve been asked a whole host more questions than I’d have thought possible…  Some are showing me that I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining.  Some make me think.  Some are a lot more observant than I’d have thought that level of rider would be noticing.  And some, I’ll say, yes, I’ll explain that in a lesson or two’s time, but today isn’t the day.  But, are people wrong to ask the questions?  Not at all, for every question there’ll be an answer.

 

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?

Passion

I had a job, a few years ago.  Yes, an actual job, and I lived in one country.  It wasn’t a “real” job – I was still playing with ponies, but it was a job, with a boss and working hours, and a contract and everything.  A real one.  (And, payday, which is always a plus!)

I didn’t like my job.  I didn’t like having to clock in and out, having to answer to a boss, and write SOP and DOP, and staff reports and horse usage and sustainability analysis.  I didn’t like to have to answer ridiculous emails from the more ridiculous parents, attend HR meetings and I really didn’t like having to apply for a day off.  And so, plugging in my 9 hours a day was tough, because it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.

(Which is partly why, now, I don’t have a job…)

I’ve just spent two months in London, enjoying the summer, and while I was there, I was lucky enough to go to two concerts.  First Bon Jovi, for – what – about the 6th time?  7th maybe?  This was long planned and anticipated.  The second was hugely accidental – wandering into a Robbie Williams summer festival concert in Hyde Park.

Mr Robbie.

There I was – planning to have a little picnic sandwich dinner with my book in the park, the night before a big workshop.  Ambled through the park, largely to find a statue that I had long meant to see and accidentally stumbled upon an Event.  What is the event?  Black Eyed Peas and Robbie Williams.  Oooh.  Are there tickets?  A couple, yes.  Off we go, into a sparkly summer, hippie festival, wearing my sensible shoes, oldest layers, carrying my handbag, book and sandwich, surrounded by drunken, all day revelers with much glitter, bling and fairy wings.  Leaving was interesting – marched up to the police horse on duty at the gate….

I’m looking for my hotel.

Yes?

Am not sure of the address….

Oh, which hotel?

Ummm, not sure I remember….

Uh, where was it?

Within walking distance…

Uhh, which way?

Near a statue?  (Do you know how many statues there are in London?)

Do you not have the booking on your phone?

Yes, well, my phone has gone flat – you see I didn’t mean to be here and, well…  (The horse enjoyed the itchy scratchy time, while stood there on duty).

But, I’m getting sidetracked.  You watch these bands with amazing longevity, Jon, Robbie, Axel Rose a couple of years back.  They walk on stage and BAM.  They may have aged, greyed and wrinkled, but you see the passion flowing through them.  Their eyes sparkle, they feed off the crowd, and adrenaline hits.  Suddenly, they are 20 again, you see them light up and that passion, that joy – that is why they have been around, successful for 20+ years.  I love to see it – the years fall off them and they’re just awesome.

It’s not just rock stars either.  Something I love doing is sitting chatting to people, and you meander your way into finding out what they are passionate about, and they become animated.  Their eyes are bright, they breathe deeper, sitter straighter, and they’re off, explaining, engrossed.

“Physical Energy” at Kensington Gardens. By George Frederic Watts.
So many things attract me to this – he saw it as “that restless
physical impulse to seek the still unachieved in the domain of
material things”.  So much my journey. “Physical Energy” – the name,
dynamic, moving, shifting. And, there are four casts of it – one in
London, one in South Africa, one in Harare (my home town) and one in
Surrey. Too many coincidences for me not to seek it out. It’s a very
impressive, massive, piece of art.

Now, I “work” for myself.  (Ya, I still don’t work) and I often do 10 or 11 hour days.  I go for a couple of months without a day off.  I run, from arena to taxi, to airport, to taxi to arena, and here I sit at 21.34 writing this, before another 5.30am start.  But, it’s not a drag now.  I don’t resent the boss.  Because, when I had a job, I lost the passion.  9 hour days for a paycheck is brutal.  11 hour days for play and passion are a privilege.

They say that horses are not a job but a lifestyle.  And it’s true.  You can’t clock out on a horse with colic or have a lie in on a day off if he’s waiting for his breakfast.  It took reminding from my mates Jon and Robbie to remember what passion and drive look like, but when you find it again – wind up the clockwork mouse and off you go.

So, are you settling, compromising, making do, paycheck to paycheck, or are you passionate about what you do?  Are you playing with ponies, or tied to a lead weight?  One of my favourite sayings – “You are not a tree, if you don’t like the situation you’re in, leaf…..”

 

My Magic Sports Kit

Reluctantly, I wandered into a local football club, for what I suspected would be a dull 3 hours.  And was very pleasantly surprised by a thought-provoking evening.  Which was?  Child safeguarding.  Whether it was this trainer and his method, or whether it was the UK Coaching system, we had a good evening of different coaching ideas and a nice interaction between coaches in a wide variety of sports.  A couple of aspects made me think, but one in particular…

Children are often bullied and this is a problem.  Whether cyber bullying, bullying in class about being “stupid” or wearing glasses or whatever other reason.  But, what about in sports?  A classic bullying moment comes when the two team captains are tasked with yelling out kid’s names and building their teams, and they each avoid calling out the last couple of kids because they know they have no ball skills.  Is this the worst bullying in sport?  Actually, no.  The worst bullying often happens from the parents.

The kids’ practice, they are coached, they enjoy the sport, and then, come match day, the parents stand on the edge of the sports field to cheer on the little darlings.  Some parents are awesome, they cheer, they clap, they encourage.  Others, not so much.

“You call that a pass?”

“Hit it to the other team”

“Go on, kil’em”

“Oi, ref – you call that reffing?  Are you blind?  What part of penalty do you call that?”

Parents screaming at their kids, parents screaming at other kids, parents screaming at other parents, parents screaming at refs.  And THEN, they have to get in the parent’s car and get yelled at going home too.  Awesome.  Kids drop out of sport and decide that much as they love football, rugby, hockey, riding, whatever, they’d rather give up, because they don’t want to be yelled at.  I love this video – really gets the message across…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2uH9Dle8mQ

And that got me thinking about something else.  How often do horses feel this too?  Lots of horses school nicely at home but fall apart at a show.  Yes, some of that is due to rider’s nerves, and horses suffer from stage fright too.  But often, horses will have home tack that they school, train and hack out wearing, and then a set of fancy show tack to compete in.  One horse and rider combination who I used to teach a lot always did a fabulous job at home when we were schooling but so often the horse would start head shaking when ridden through a dressage test.  I’d seen a couple of videos of the tests, but never saw them in real life.   Finally, I managed to be at a show where they were competing and was standing chatting to them in the warm up arena.  On rubbing the horse on his face, I felt his fancy diamond encrusted browband, and it was so small that it was pinching the base of his ears in front of the head piece.  How can you ride him in this bridle?  Well, it’s his pretty show bridle.  We swapped it for his usual bridle and magic – the head shaking stopped.

That was a physical issue, but how many horses associate a piece of equipment or a place with being beaten up or pushed too hard in competition?

When I started riding and working with stallions, one of the first things that I was taught, was that a working stallion who was also covering mares must have two bridles.  They have a “concentrate, we are schooling” bridle, and they have a “let’s go cover a mare” bridle.  My stallions would cover in a loose ring rubber snaffle and work in some form of metal bit.  Why?  Because the instant the horse sees, smells or wears his bridle, he knows what to associate with it.  The behavior was very different in his two different bridles.  So, does he see his show bridle, and think, here we go with My Magic Sports Kit?  Does your horse like competing, or does he feel stressed by the extra pressure?

Have a look at this video too – do you tell your horse, I love watching you play?  Do you tell your child/ pupil / sibling / friend, I love watching you ride?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXw0XGOVQvw

Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken

When I’m sitting in front of my laptop, there are three absolutes – coffee to hand, warm cosy blankets or jerseys, and music.  These three things have to be set and ordered, in straight lines and predictable…  Add a cat into the mix and we’re even better.  And it’s the music buzzing along that has led me to a different train of thought today.

Yup, coffee, laptop, YouTube will be all go, looks familiar…

A few days ago, back to back, two of my favourite songs played – Chris Rea, “Tell me there’s a Heaven” and Christina Aguilera / A Great Big World, “Say Something”.  They’re awesome, but they are both jump off the roof material.

Tell me there’s a heaven
Tell me that it’s true
Tell me there’s a reason
Why I’m seeing what I do

Tell me there’s a heaven
Where all those people go
Tell me they’re all happy now
Papa tell me that it’s so

The world is full of suffering, and people and animals hurting and being hurt.   Chris Rea talks of empathy and compassion – that those who hurt are taking a journey to where they will grow their wings.

This little kitten crept straight into my heart. Did it help to have a friend in her last few hours? I like to think that it did.

Christina sings of loss –

Say something, I’m giving up on you
I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you
Anywhere, I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you

And I will swallow my pride
You’re the one that I love
And I’m saying goodbye

OK, so why would I start a blog like this?  Well, there is another song which really bothers me, but first…  Several people who I know have suffered loss recently, either friends, family, partners, horses, pets, and they are all going through a lot of emotions, which they should, and will, and although we can be empathetic and sympathetic, we can’t do it for them.  And at times like this, I’m always reminded by a vet who used to treat my horses.

Pippa Pony certainly taught us all a huge lesson in how much you need to invest in a pony who has given up on themselves. And yes, she didn’t have any ears…

Many years ago, I lost a horse, under pretty traumatic circumstances, and several days later when my vet and I were chatting, I said I was giving up horses, I’d had enough, and they were too important to have die on me.  What he said has stuck with me all these years.

Horses are not bicycles.  What you give them, they give back.  My horses all came to me as issues – they were rescues, the unwanted and the untrained or untrainable.  The horses who had been given up on, and who managed to find their way to me.  I only bought a couple of them, most were given, with their owners saying please just try…  And those horses generally came right, but not by being treated as bikes.  To “fix” a horse, you need to input a huge amount of resources – not just feed, money and training, but time, patience, understanding, empathy, respect and love.  Without those elements, the horse might regain his body weight, but he’s not going to become a happy, healthy, trusting horse.  If a horse is treated as a bicycle, that is a means to an ends, a way to hack out, or keep fit, or win medals, that is all he takes with him when he dies.  But, if a horse is your friend, when he dies, he takes a chunk of you with him.  You cannot invest a part of yourself in a horse and not expect to lose a part of yourself when he leaves.

Over the years, I’ve rescued many, many horses, and lost a lot of them over time, believe me, they all stay in a special place within you, and take a part of you away too.

So, what song is bothering me?  What made me think all this today, when I am indeed cuddling one of my favourite cats?

PINK is always good, right?  Uplifting, shouty, sweary, awesomeness.  So, after the slit your wrist songs, let’s pick up some Pink.  But, one of her songs bothers me, and I have just worked out why…  “Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken”.  And yes, she is talking about revolution, taking on a cause, about having an indomitable spirit.  But…  Wild hearts can and should be broken, or else you aren’t really taking anything on.  If your wild heart isn’t broken when you lose a horse, were you ever invested in him in the first place?   Maybe it’s just not as easy to write into a song, but how about, hearts can and should be broken, but wild ones will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and live to fight another day…

https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/plymouth-news/125-animals-die-dartmoor-roads-775756 – Yes, this is a distressing image – but it’s also what got me thinking here.  These are wild ponies, with wild hearts, and this pony’s heart is broken…

Please, please, let your horse break your heart!

One of the most beautiful songs, but one of the most depressing too – Chris Rea, Tell me there’s a Heaven

And another – I can have this on repeat all day, but only on certain days – Christina Aguilera and A Great Big World

Pink – Wild Hearts can’t be Broken – please don’t believe her!

Use More Leg.

You know the quickest, easiest way to push my buttons?  Overhear an instructor standing in an arena yelling, use more leg, add leg, MORE LEG.  Tear my hair out.  Please, please, don’t add more leg.

A horse is standing quietly, when suddenly he starts to stomp his feet, wave his tail about and get really agitated.  Why?  Because a fly, midge or mosquito is biting him.  He gets quite rattled, because it nips, releases, nips, releases, nips.  How much weight, power LEG does a fly have?  And yet, magic that, it gets a reaction.   The fly gets more reaction than you do, and yet, he uses less leg.

The grumpy old pony mare who is queen in the paddock marches up to the great big dopey cob, with a scowl on her face and he speedily moves away from the hay pile.  Did she use any leg?  Add leg?  MORE LEG?  No, she pinned her ears back and marched with purpose, and he believed her.  (Probably because the first time she demanded the hay and he didn’t move fast enough, she turned around and kicked him, fast, in and out…  She certainly didn’t slowly add more leg.

A pony tells you all that you need to know, just by looking at you. Cherry here, is clearly saying, “Hello Friend”. She wouldn’t need to add leg if she wanted me to move…

Something goes bang of the road, and your horse shoots forwards.  Did the bang USE MORE LEG?  Ummm, no.  It got a reaction, it held his attention – it wasn’t an irritating kick, kick, kick on his ribs.

A horse is more than capable of moving off the slightest possible signal, even just the change of your breath, so what possible reason could you ever have of using more leg?  Make the signal louder?

Someone walks up to me and asks me to take a seat….  But, they are speaking French.  I don’t speak French.  They see that I am not reacting in the correct way, I’m still standing.  So, they yell louder that I should sit.  They yell louder and louder, but I’m still standing.  Shouting at me louder, won’t help me understand French.  The challenge is that I don’t understand, not that I don’t want to respond.  And me yelling back in English that I don’t understand won’t help either.  If the French speaker pulled the chair out and swept his hand across it, inviting me to sit in a manner that I could understand then we’d both be happy.

Keep your leg quiet, in a good place, ear, shoulder, hip to heel. You can use it as a light touch when needed, but please don’t add more leg!

I was teaching a lesson recently, where the rider was flap, flap, flapping their legs on the poor horse’s sides.  The horse was busy ignoring her and she was busy nagging.  “Why are you flapping so much with your leg?” I asked?  Because her instructor was always yelling, use more leg, more leg.  There were other elements involved – the rider was not balanced and so was blocking the forward movement, and the horse was an elderly schoolmaster who was great at tuning out the rider.  Watch, I said, as I stood by the horse for a few moments.  I pushed my hands firmly against the horse’s shoulder, and after a second, he pushed back.  He was happy leaning into a constant, non-demanding pressure.  After a minute of me trying to push him over, of leaning more and more heavily against him and him not moving, (of me “adding more leg”, and him leaning into it) I gave up.  And instead I started to tap his shoulder, just a niggle, like a fly landing on him, and look at that, he moved.  I had his attention, and it was that pressure that had him moving his feet.  It wasn’t adding more pressure at all (using more leg) – he weighs 5 or 6 times what I do, no human could physically move a horse in a way that he doesn’t agree to be moved to.  It was in getting more reaction, that he moved.

So, what is the answer?

We humans all have a finite amount of leg to use.  If you go into the gym with a child and a bodybuilding man to do some weightlifting with your legs, you’d all reach a limit.  Maybe the child could lift 10kg.  Maybe you could do 30.  Maybe the weightlifter could do 50.  But we all have a limit.  “Using more leg” is going to hit a limit somewhere, and pretty much means that only big hefty men could ride horses, because how would the small legged child get her pony to move?  And, your horse can feel a fly, why, oh why, would he need a 20kg thump in the ribs to get him going?

As one of my lovely pupils puts it, “if you want your horse to respond like a ballerina, why would you treat him like a rugby player?”

What do you need?  You need MORE reaction from LESS leg.  Think of your leg as an irritating fly – you whisper a leg aid, quiet the leg, whisper it again.  And if you don’t get a reaction, then you give a sharper leg aid or a flick with a stick to say HELLO, reaction, then you make your leg quiet again.  But please, please don’t use more leg…

There is a lesson on leg aids and the use of legs on the www.kudaguru.com for members.

 

 

 

 

Unicorns and Lions …

It’s slightly odd, Scotland has a Unicorn as their national emblem – what country has a mythical creature as their animal of choice?  Well, there is a rational reason behind it…

Let’s start with a little history lesson shall we – are you all sitting comfortably?  Then we can begin….  Scotland and England hated each other and were always at odds.  Edinburgh was built, a walled city with Nor Loch on its northern boundary, largely to keep the pesky English at bay.  Now, around about 1200 odd, England and Scotland were really heating things up, with The First War of Scottish independence.  (Scottish history is awesome to read – lots of bloody battles, heroes and villains, brave acts and treachery….  One of my favorite things is the word Caledonia – what the Romans called the Scots.  Literally meaning calluses – the Scots were called the Land of people with Callused feet).

The Flodden Wall – part of Edinburgh’s defences against the English.
The Flodden Wall – part of Edinburgh’s defences against the English.

England had their lion – their all-powerful, brave and noble national animal to lead them into battle.  But Scotland had a guy called William Wallace, a fierce and fearless warrior.  And he (as I remember it, I stand to be corrected by an actual historian) said (I’m paraphrasing here…) Hey, guys – I have a unicorn.  Hmmm…..  Pretty in pink, with a flowing rainbow mane?  Taking me into battle?  Uh, no.  I have a unicorn – a fearless and fierce creature, who eats…?  What do unicorns eat?  Lions.  He rallied the troops and defeated England (they went back and forth for a few hundred years), all following their flags of unicorns or lions.

There are still Unicorn’s in Edinburgh – the people are very proud of their lion eating hero.
There are still Unicorn’s in Edinburgh – the people are very proud of their lion eating hero.

And why am I writing this?  Wallace gave the people something to believe in.  He gave them a touch stone, a symbol, a cause to get behind.  By giving them a unicorn to believe in, he gave them a power to overcome the lion.  When a belief is strong enough, it can overcome almost anything.

Abuse in the horse world is rife at the moment.  There are such big issues – rollkur of dressage horses, tight nosebands, blue tongues, draw reins, soring of saddlebreds, Premarin, donkey skinning, the C6 / C7 malformation in (largely) competition bred horse, neglect of working animals, and and and, the list grows and grows.  It’s easy to believe that we cannot ever win.  The lions are overrunning us.  I admit, there are times when I think, bugger it, I’m giving up horses and taking up knitting instead.  The mountain is too high to climb and there are not enough of us shouting out from the rooftops.

But you know what?  There are people with unicorns.  More and more people are coming to the foreground and speaking up.  To name a few – Sharon May Davis is doing astonishing research and training on the C6 / C7 malformation which is huge.  Temple Grandin is an American professor of animal sciences, who is changing how many farmed animal practices are approached.  Animal Aid Abroad is a huge veterinary based charity who steps into poverty-stricken areas.  Prince Fluffy Kareem in Egypt, Horses of Gili in Indonesia, Hole in the Wall horse project in South Africa, are all on the ground, hands on, welfare groups making big changes.  People like Stride Free and Balance saddlery are changing the whole idea behind saddle fit.  Bomber making horse friendly bits.  Mary Wanless with her Ride with Your Mind is shifting rider’s perspectives.  Dr Sue Dyson and the Animal Heath Trust is showing us more and more about lameness issues.  Dr Hilary Clayton, teaching about equine biomechanics among other things.  The list is long, and it’s growing.

Before…
Before…
After…. – things can change if we believe that we are all fighting for the same cause.
After…. – things can change if we believe that we are all fighting for the same cause.

There are people out there with unicorns.  They have found something to believe in and are using their belief to make things better.  I have friends who own a UK tack shop, called Seriously Tacky.  They provide a service called Whole Horse Happiness, but their tag line is, “Changing the World One Horse at a Time”.  I like that, it’s something I can back.  We will probably, sadly, never unite behind a unicorn and run into battle (Now that is a challenge, please invite me if anyone does this) but, we can change the world for one horse, if we believe we can…

Have you found your unicorn?  If you have, or know about an awesome cause doing good work, let me know!

Sharon May Davis               https://www.equinestudies.nl/en/team-members/sharon-may-davis/

Temple Grandin                                    https://www.templegrandin.com/

Animal aid abroad             https://www.animalaidabroad.org/

Prince Fluffy Kareem        https://www.princefluffykareem.co.uk/

Horses of Gili                         http://www.horsesofgili.com/

Hole in the Wall                                    https://www.facebook.com/groups/253275734741303/?multi_permalinks=2297091837026339&notif_id=1559486776335614&notif_t=group_activity

Stride free                               https://www.kmeliteproducts.co.uk/stride-free

Balance Saddles                   http://www.balanceinternational.com/The-BALANCE-Saddles_B226BDD.aspx

Bomber bits                           http://www.bombers.co.za/

Mary Wanless                       http://www.mary-wanless.com/

Dr Sue Dyson                         https://www.aht.org.uk/

Dr Hilary Clayton                https://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/whos-who/clayton-dr-hilary/

Seriously Tacky                    https://www.seriouslytacky.co.uk/

 

Discombobulation

A little while ago, I was at a horse show, helping some pupils with their horses and classes.  On one particular day, we had walked up to the main arena to watch some of the big class of the morning.  They were jumping 1.30m, which although not huge, is big enough.  As we arrived, a rider who is one of the leading jumpers in the country was just beginning his round.  He jumped the first couple a little scrappily – missed his stride coming in, got in too deep then stood a bit far off.  He got it together and had a few better fences, and then missed a couple again.  The horse, usually very careful, had a fence down, then another, then another.  Right in front of where we were standing was a pretty big triple combination.  He cleared the first but had come in too fast and hit the second.  In hitting the second, they were in a muddle and the final distance just wasn’t happening.  They took off for the last, ploughed head long through it, getting tangled up in poles, and both came down hard, the horse crashing over the rider and both skidding across the sand.  The horse, luckily, did all he could to avoid falling on his rider, and was up and walking away in a moment.  Grooms, vets, officials, all rushed in, the horse was caught, the ambulance crew ran in with a back board and the rider was carried out.  Minutes later, fortunately, the rider walked away from the ambulance, having been only winded and shocked.  Accidents happen, right?  And horse and rider both walked away unscathed.  So, why am I writing about this?

Jumping is a higher risk sport, shouldn’t you make sure you are 100% fit and focused to protect your horse?
Jumping is a higher risk sport, shouldn’t you make sure you are 100% fit and focused to protect your horse?

As we were watching him ride, my first thought was, what’s wrong.  He can ride, his horse can jump and normally they are good to watch together.  But, on this occasion they were discombobulated and all over the place.  He was missing strides, the horse was missing cues and leaving legs behind, it was starting to look desperate and scrappy, the rider chasing strides and the horse backing off.  I had just been saying this round isn’t happening, when crash.

We heard afterwards that they had just had a bad fall in the warm up arena.  The horse had fallen, and the rider had injured his leg.  The ambulance crew had already been called in, strapped his ankle and administered a pain killer.  The horse was checked, deemed sound and fit to continue, and the rider had remounted, jumped another fence and come into the main competition arena.

We talk about riding being a high-risk sport, and about the rider being correctly prepared, with good instruction and careful matching of horse to rider.  Riders must wear hats, body protectors, boots, gloves.  They must focus, not be over horsed, over faced and have as much competence as confidence.  I have said often that a rider is literally placing their life in my hands when I’m teaching them, and it’s my responsibility to be careful, but their responsibility to listen.  We shouldn’t be riding dangerous horses.  But what about the rider’s responsibility to the horse?

A horse doesn’t ask to be ridden.  He doesn’t ask to jump, to be in a competition, to be put in a horse box.  He is there because we choose to put him there, and he is there because he is obliging enough to agree.  He could easily say no (well, hopefully he could – in some instances a horse will say no but sadly won’t be heard).  And so, we should be thinking about his well-being.

We mock footballers when they fall over, chip a nail and act as if they are dying.  We all know those prima donna riders who take a light little tumble and act as if it’s the end of the world.  And, we generally congratulate and cheer on the rider who has taken a fall and, Well Done, gets back up and carries on.  But, are we doing the right thing?

I think it’s great that the fall and out rule applies – if you are in a competition and have a fall, you are automatically eliminated from the class and can only carry on in the entire competition once you have passed a medical exam.  And, if its just nerves and pride that are dented, getting up and getting on is great.  But, if the fall is bad enough to require treatment or pain killers, should we as the rider put our horses at risk to carry on?  In this case, the horse wasn’t injured in the first fall and was sound to carry on.  His confidence was dented though.  And the fall in the main arena could have resulted in serious injury or even been fatal.

Would you load you horse in a horse box, and drive him if you were drunk?  No.  If I have afternoon lessons and go out for lunch, I won’t have even one glass of wine, as I think I need to be 100% focused if I’m going to be teaching.  But if we are a bit sore, a bit hungover, a bit stressed and distracted, should we be getting on a horse?  Do we put our horses at risk?  I think we do, and it’s a rider and an instructor’s duty to safe guard the horse and say no if there is an issue.

Where do you draw the line?  What is a minimal risk you would take, and where would you draw the line?

How’s your horse today?

I had an interesting chat with a client at the beginning of her lesson a few days ago.  I’d already taught her a couple of times during the same week, and as we started, I asked how she was feeling today.  Good, she said, a bit stiff after our last lesson, core and thighs had worked harder than usual, but stiff in a good way.  How was her brain?  Well, good too, what we had worked on had made sense and she’d processed all her thoughts.  And, how about your horse?  She looked at me as if I was mad.  Huh?  How’s my horse?  Well, fine of course, same as ever, she (the rider) hadn’t been away or anything, the horse had been ridden every day, of course he was the same as ever, why would I ask such a thing?

Is your horse just slotted into a small space in your day?
Is your horse just slotted into a small space in your day?

A while ago, I watched a video online.  It was a guy – life coach or similar – talking about how much we’ve lost in life, with our use of smart phones instead of small talk.  His argument – you’d have gone into a business meeting, and chatted to your colleagues – how’s the family, how was your holiday, have you recovered from your broken leg?  You make small talk, you build relationships, team work, fostering a mutual feeling of being valued.  And now, he argued, we go into the meeting room, sit down fiddling with our phones.  The meeting begins, we put our phones down.  There is a pause in proceedings – someone is turning on their power point presentation, so instead of small talk, we again pick up our phones.  End of meeting, we pick up our phones and walk out, looking down at those damn Bladdy phones.  We have lost the art of conversation.

This video struck me, partly thinking of human to human conversations, but also because it’s something I have long complained about regarding many riders and their horses.

When I had my own yard, one of the main rules was, you got whichever horse you were riding ready for his session, and you looked after him afterwards.  If you were having a lesson at 3pm, you’d need to be on the yard shortly after 2pm.  You’d check the board to see who you were allocated, walk up to his paddock, catch him, lead him in.  Groom, fetch tack, get both of you dressed and ready, and be in the arena 5 minutes before your lesson.  After the ride, you’d untack, wash or brush him off, cool him down and walk him back to his paddock.  And in this time, you’d generally end up making small talk….  “How are you doing; are you sound and walking well on all four legs; any injuries; oooh, there it is, the best itchy scratchy place just under your mane….  Are you a bit stiff after we jumped yesterday?   Ah, there is a bit of swelling there, did you get stung by something?  You happy to have your saddle put on and girthed up?”  If I asked any of my pupils how their horse was, they’d be able to give me a clear answer.

It’s nice to just spend time hanging out with your horse….   Even when she’s isn’t your horse!
It’s nice to just spend time hanging out with your horse…. Even when she’s isn’t your horse!

Now, there is an awful lot of valet riding.  You drive your car to a fancy restaurant, and as you drive up, there is a valet driver to take your car off and park it somewhere, saving you the time, effort and walk.  When you are ready to leave, your car is brought around to the front door.  Perfect.  Valet riding?  You arrive at the stable yard and your horse is led, fully tacked up and prepared, to the mounting block, where you climb aboard.  You’re led to the arena, and – look at that, you’re here.  And how is your horse?  Umm…..  It’s far less than perfect.  At the end of your lesson, the groom appears and leads your horse away, often giving them their bit of carrot on the way.  How is your relationship with your horse?  Does he even know who you are?

Your horse is getting information from you all of the time.  Stressed from work?  He knows.  A bit weak kneed from your hangover?  He knows.  Nervous at the thought of today’s jumping lesson?  He knows.  Happy and excited to be going cross country?  He knows that too.  So how about you return the favour and find out a bit about him today?  We’re all busy and trying to fit our horses in amongst the rest of life, but if you go out of your way for a bit of small talk it’ll pay you back 100 times over…