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?
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.
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…
I’m writing this in a state of disillusionment. For a while, something has been bothering me, and only during a recent online workshop that I worked out exactly what. The thing that floated back into my mind was the real sadness of teaching a lesson a little while ago. Let me explain…
The lady I was teaching was a new pupil, never before met, and quite new to riding itself, only having had about 15 lessons. She was riding a horse who I know reasonably well – I have taught quite a few riders on him, and in his youth, he was a real high flyer, competing at a reasonably high level. The gradual decline of a horse – from young and talented, in much demand, to becoming a schoolmaster for a junior, to riding school horse for the advanced weekly rider, to beginner’s quiet plod. Sad enough for a starting point. Anyway, he seems happy enough in his little world, to plod along. This rider was keen and sweet, but was very unbalanced and wobbly, leaning back, getting left behind and pulling the poor old boy in the mouth at regular intervals. Every time she accidentally socked him in the teeth, he’d stop, sigh, wait for her to get organised and plod off on his way again. We spent much time in walk, re-arranging how she was sitting; getting her legs under her in a more effective way; explaining that his mouth is at the other end of her reins and every time she pulls, he feels it and stops. She was lovely, very teachable, keen to learn and implemented the changes well. When we got into trot, we worked on the correct leg aids and how to keep her balance – and our gentle soul of a schoolmaster picked up some speed, put himself in a beautiful rhythm and started to carry himself. Oooh, she said in excitement, this is so different. Wonderful, I replied, why? Well, it’s so springy, she said, and he is going fast, forwards and easily… I don’t have to whip him. After the lesson, as we were closing up, she said she was so happy, she doesn’t like whipping her horse. I asked her, do you whip him often? Oh yes, came the reply, my instructor (who I also, sadly, know) sits in the corner and yells, whip him, whip him, whip him harder, to try to keep him going. He tells me the horse is slow, stubborn and old, and will only go if I make him, by whipping him.
Minute by minute, my heart fell a little more. This sweet, kind, gentle horse, doing his best to listen to his rider when she pulled on his mouth and keep her safe, was being whipped, whipped, whipped to make him go. Would this happen in a dog training class? Your dog won’t sit? Whip him harder. And yet, it’s ok in a riding lesson. Your parrot won’t talk? Whip him. Your cat won’t stay off the table? Whip him. Your horse is stopping when you accidentally ask? Whip him. Logic, right?
So, this is an isolated incident? No. I see this again and again. Lazy teaching, “instructors” simply directing traffic to pass the time. Riders who, instead of being helped and taught, are put on tied down, miserable, shut down horses. Buyers being given bad advice by advisors who will get back hander from horse sellers. Greedy yard owners overworking horses (and instructors). Lame horses being sold or used for riding. Horses, and novices, being taken for a ride, literally.
It’s a global issue. The governing powers that be, are turning a blind eye to much abuse in the competition world, and that seems to trickle down through the ranks. Whats the fix? Honestly, I don’t know. Better teacher training? Better pay so that instructors don’t work the long hours and become stale? Better vetting of instructors and yards? Really, I don’t know where the change is going to come. More novices being asked to open their eyes to what is happening in front of them?
I do what I do because I actually like horses – something that seems to be in short supply in the horse industry at the moment. I want to make a difference, to improve that horse’s life, but also to educate the human with them, to improve the lives of all of the future horses that human will come into contact with. But sometimes, like now, I get tired. Disillusioned. Fed up with swimming against what seems a tidal wave of cruelty and misunderstanding. I know it’s not only in my industry – school teachers are giving up teaching due to spoilt brats who are over entitled and not disciplined by their doting (or lazy) parents. Animal charity workers committing suicide over the never-ending deluge of unwanted, over bred, abused or mistreated lost souls. Environmental activists who simply give up and vanish. Many, many of us are in the same boat and wonder how (and why) to proceed.
I’m currently staying in a hotel in Malaysia. It’s a bit of an odd one – I think the building started life as an office block, before becoming a hotel. It’s very square, which means one issue – if you pay top dollar and book a room on the outside of the building, you get a window. But if you get a standard room that is in the middle – there are no windows.
The first time I stayed here, I didn’t realise. I checked in at night, went up to my room, opened the door, wheeled luggage inside, close door – bed, check. Bathroom, check. Hanging rail / shelf, check. TV, check. Aircon unit, check. What’s missing? Something is not right… Ah, there is no curtain, there is no window. Never mind, I thought, it’s only three nights, and I’ll only be in here at night, I don’t need a room with a view, the curtains will be closed anyway… Do you know how awful those nights were?
Now, I’m not claustrophobic. I’ve been down mines, stuck in lift, scuba dive through shipwrecks. It takes a lot to rattle my cage. But, sleep in a room with no windows? Hmmm. And, I love (NEED) my time alone to recharge, especially when I’m busy teaching, and with people all day, and talking, and explaining and interacting – I love what I do, but it’s blissful and essential that I can close my door and the world out in the evening. I need a good 12 hours of time without seeing another soul. And yet – sleeping in a room with no windows…. Hmmm.
We humans need some form of interaction. We need light, movement, to see things, or sights, or at least whether or not it’s raining, sunny, day or night.
This trip I’m very, very happy, I have a window. Not only that, I have a minute little balcony. It’s hot and humid out there, and I’m really only here at night, but having a door and access to outside, excellent.
Recently there was a video going around Facebook. This one actually –
And, it really upset me.
There are loads of comments about hahaha, there is always a “special” horse around. Horses, even more than humans, need social interaction. They are “designed”, – hardwired – to be outdoors, walking, walking, walking. They should be grazing 16 hours a day, and much of that time is spent wandering along, nose on the ground, following the best trails of grass. They need to be interacting with other horses, or at least other animals. They groom each other, they form close bonds. If spending three nights without a window bothered me, imagine what living in a closed in box does to a horse. I suspect that the rails that these two horses are talking through enclose the stables on all four sides, and that these horses have no time to actually interact with another horse in any other way. If you turned these two out together, they’d probably be grooming each other. And, if they can’t be turned out together, how about at least creating a window for them? If they could stick their heads through a gap and “talk” without bars, I bet you this “funny” behaviour would disappear. I don’t see this as cute, funny or entertaining. I see it as a horse who is desperate to interact, having to have made a plan… If you see a tiger pacing up and down the front of his zoo cage, is it cute? If you see a horse windsucking, is it funny? If you see a person pacing and pulling at their hair, is it entertaining? Not really. So, why is this horse’s stress being seen as anything other than the stress behaviour that it is?
It happens after every Grand National, doesn’t it? Ban horse racing. And, I’m pro horses, so I should be pro the ban, right? Well, not really. Let me explain my view – it’s a complicated, emotional subject with so many shades of grey.
Many years ago, I went for a week long interview to become a work rider at a very big name yard. Oooh, I thought, the chance to ride some amazing horses, some of them have values into the millions, and the trainer – famous name. How exciting. Off I trotted…. The first day, a rider was cantering a young filly. She was tied down in running reins and was obviously not very balanced. And, out of the blue – the rider punched her over the head. And again. And again. A watching young rider asked a senior rider, “why is he doing that?”. The older rider’s reply? “I don’t know, because he can? Maybe he had a fight with his girlfriend. Maybe the filly pulled. Maybe she lifted her head. Just concentrate on your own horse”. A couple of days later, a horse who wasn’t being careful enough while jump schooling was pinned in a corner and beaten by two trainers on the ground with lunge whips and the rider on his back, until he was literally wetting himself in terror, before being released from the corner and tearing around the jumps again in panic. The horses lived in squalor, small dark, cramped, damp stables with leaking rooves and disgusting bedding. The grooms were short-handed, grumpy, over worked and had a job, no connection to these horses, so the horses were shoved around with no thought. And, as a work rider, I was given my own bridle and saddle that must be used on every horse I rode, fit or not. As you can imagine, I didn’t even last the week, and when I said I’m leaving NOW, they said oh, really? We were preparing your contract, to stay for a year. Hmmm… So, this must have been a racing yard, since this is about racing? No, it was an elite horse dealing and producing competition yard. I was riding mainly dressage horses, but the other barn was all jumpers. And the price tag on these horses started at 30,000 Euro. Of course, the prospective buyers didn’t see behind the scenes, but oh, what went on. This must have happened in China, or one of the remote, possibly dodgy countries I travel to, yes? No, it is in a highly respected, mainland European country.
Another yard where I went to visit, I was warned that people there had had to sign a confidentiality contract as to what was happening on site. Hmm, I thought, that’s odd. Oh yes, I could see why those contracts were in place. Wires, chains, whips. I ran away very fast. So, this must have been racing? No, it was the slightly removed section of the yard for a team of stunt horse trainers, training the ponies for a film company, who were filming an international blockbuster, out of sight, out of mind, in a country where they could get away with cutting corners. Why train a horse to fake fall, when you can just gallop it at a trip wire? It doesn’t matter if it breaks it’s neck, we have spares. And yes, a lot of horse people watch this series because its an epic horse production. But that’s ok, right? It must have been a more minor film company from a bad country? No, it was one of Britain’s biggest name film studios, filming in a far-off land, so they wouldn’t be tied down by welfare issues.
Any industry involving animals can be wonderful. And can be appalling. I’ve been in riding schools where the happy ponies are treated like royalty with 24/7 turnout in herds, awesome feeding and care, body work, experts in for hoof care, dental care, vet care. And, I’ve been in elite yards that made me want to cry. I’ve spent time in racing yards where the lads and lasses who take care of the horses obviously adore them, the care is again fit for royalty, with careful, science based nutrition, fittening, blood work ups, in house vets, where the horses are happy and relaxed. In many, the one thing lacking is turn out, but this is changing in many places, and more and more good trainers are letting their horses live out in herds and taking on the mental aspect. I’ve seen working horses who are fit, shiny, well, happy in their work, and I’ve seen paddock ponies, who are in theory in bliss because they are not expected to work for a living, and are living out in herds, all natural – in horrendous states because of laminitis from unrestricted grass, or skin and bone and on death’s door.
“I adore my horse, he is my life, and we do dressage in pink matchy matchy saddle pads…” As I plonk on a badly fitting dressage saddle (because I like riding in it), tighten my flash noseband so he can’t breath, slap on the draw reins and take selfies in the mirror. And when he’s naughty, he’s disposed of, or sent to bootcamp with the trainer who will ”fix him”. And when he’s not good enough, he’ll get passed onto a junior rider, who’ll add lethal spurs because the horse is tired and shut down and the new rider’s legs aren’t long enough to keep kicking everytime the trainer yells, “legs, legs, more leg, more leg, legs, kick”. And being a dressage horse, he can live this happy life for 20 years, because it’s dressage, which is good, right?
“He’s a racehorse in training, here to provide sport and entertainment and hopefully some financial reward”. And he has a lad looking after him who adores him, and who is a light weight with good hands who walks him up the heath track where he gallops with his head up, not being held down in rolkur. Professional riders, professional care. Yes, he must work, but we understand the science of good nutrition, and he has the best of health and dental care. And, if he’s unlucky, he’ll break a leg and won’t know anything a few minutes later. Or be sold on. But he’ll only be a race horse for a short time. Yes, it’s in the “he’s sold on” that the biggest issues arise.
In 2018, Deathwatch (coalition for the protection of race horses) says 119 race horses died on training or race tracks in Australia, mostly from front leg fractures.
More than 30,000 horses were exported live from Canada to Japan between 2013 and 2017, so that they could be slaughtered fresh for a speciality sashimi called basashi. But, internationally, approximately 10,000 Thoroughbreds are slaughtered annually, which is the bigger issue?
Premarin is produced as a hormone replacement for menopausal woman. Take this, says the doctor, it’ll make you feel so much better… Who knew that PRE MAR IN is short hand for PREgnant MARe urINe? But that’s ok, it’s medicine. And we just slaughter the waste product foals.
If we “use” horses for entertainment (and yes, ALL of us are using horses for entertainment, even if it is just watching them mow the lawn in the paddock), we can do it well, or badly. We can promote metal and physical well being or we can harm them. The outcry about racing? We SEE a horse die in front of us. We can’t pretend we don’t know.
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.”
― Paul McCartney
Luckily for most competition riders, only racing has glass windows, the rest are safely hidden behind brick walls of ignorance and pretending that it isn’t there…
One of the best riding lessons that I ever had was from a back pack and an escalator. The day before was a ten-lesson teaching day, a dash to taxi, airport, jump on a plane and a long haul, overnight flight across the world to the next teaching venue. I was wearing a heavy, badly fitted back pack that had shoulder straps just too long, and as I bumbled along through the landing airport, sleep deprived and slow, and stepped on the upward escalator, the backward force of the pack pulling back on my shoulders almost over ran the forward force of the escalator pulling me forwards. Just in time, muscle memory engaged my core, I went forwards to counteract the backward pull, and without leaning forwards, came into balance with the escalators force. Lightbulb – hello, this is how a horse feels when his rider is a fraction behind the movement – as the horse is trying to go forwards, as the rider is trying to send him forwards, the rider’s slight drag, which increases their weight with a leverage effect, drags the horse backwards. A very simple physics lesson that all rider’s need to understand, and that was clarified to me – already a trainer teaching this – in a simple non-horse lesson.
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have had some incredible training with a range of awesome riding instructors. Many Olympic athletes, judges, brain surgeon, physicists to name a few. There have been many moments of “Oh – that is what you mean”, as well as many incredible four legged learning partners.
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have had some incredible training with a range of awesome riding instructors. Many Olympic athletes, judges, brain surgeon, physicists to name a few. There have been many moments of “Oh – that is what you mean”, as well as many incredible four legged learning partners.
However…. Some of the truly incredible learning sessions have been with other trainers. Learning to use my breath to influence a horse in spectacular ways came from a hugely talented scuba diving instructor. His talk through of finding buoyancy, of being able to float up or sink down and using the breath to control where you are, is something that I teach all the time. (Still haven’t managed to master one of the underwater exercises that he showed me… I suspect when I get it, I may have a better key to teach collection). A martial artist teaching me how to go from defence to attack was the only person who clarified distribution of balance and weight over both feet, and controlling direction of forces, how to flow seamlessly from one to the other with no outward signs, but the control of directional forces. A rock climbing trainer taught me how an obvious looking movement, isn’t what it may seem – you don’t climb a wall by pulling yourself up with your arms, you engage your core to the wall, get your (hind) legs under you, propel yourself upwards and the only thing your hands do is give guidance and balance. A pole dancer taught me about elevation, while a belly dancing guru taught me just how little I know about isolating muscles within the core (note to self, you need to re-visit that particular subject).
An indoor sky diving trainer taught me about firming up certain parts of the core to change direction, while a zip lining wild child taught me about committing to movement. An archery trainer taught me a very surprising lesson about mindfulness, and finding focus while being relaxed in motion. You cannot tense your fingers and force the arrow away, you have to find soft eyes, breathe where you want the arrow to go and relax your shoulder to send it there from the core. And, a porter jogging up Mt Kilimanjaro taught me that dig deep (sit deep) has nothing to do with sitting down on your horses back, but activating a deeper line of muscle to get to a higher point.
Not all of these lessons came from teachers either. My teaching of an elite dancer taught me more about movement, poise and balance than I was able to teach her, and all three of us (pupil, horse and trainer) left the arena with the biggest grins on our faces. And of course, my back pack and that escalator taught their lesson too.
These are all subjects that we as riders need to understand and embrace. It isn’t fluffy, tree-hugging new age, feel good nonsense (as some seem to think) but practical physics that the elite riders practice inherently, and that we non-elite riders need to fully understand and embrace. (By elite riders, I am thinking of the top 100 in the world, not just farmer Jo down the road, even if he is doing a great job)
Yoga, pilates, feldenkrais are (partly) about teaching balance, poise, being fully present, feeling the body in a movement, stretching out tension and tightness in blocked areas. Pretty much matching what I am spending my time teaching in the arena. In today’s modern world, we are constantly putting our bodies under pressure. Stress or emotional pressure. Physical pressure by eating highly processed foods, being exposed to chemicals, electrical signals, and bad posture from things such as cell phones, computers and sitting in cars. We are too busy, too rushed and in a world of instant gratification, often lack commitment or patience. All of these things have an impact on your riding too. If you rush into the yard, grab your horse, hurry through preparing him, leap on and then get after him for not being fully present or immediately accessible, he will often (rightly) get upset or uncooperative. Slow down, breathe, smell the roses (or coffee) and enjoy your horse. The vast majority of people ride for pleasure, so slow down and enjoy it… Looking at the other side of the coin, horses can help your yoga practice too. Horses loosen off the lower back in a way that is hard to do. (Which is why they are often used for Riding for the Disabled or Hippotherapy). Horses make you breathe, they make you get outside, both physically and on the outside of your comfort zone. And often, working through the ride will make a yoga movement clearer.
Strange advice from a riding trainer, but my thought for this week – give your horse a day off, get out of the arena and go and do something else. Go for a hike, take a sky diving, scuba diving, pole or belly dancing lesson. Do something that takes you out of your comfort zone, into a place where you have to feel your muscles doing a new range of motion. And maybe (hopefully) you will have a new insight to take back to the patient four-legged dancing partner….
Every situation will bring about a different priority. In Singapore, all cars must be parked by reversing in, nose facing out. Because? The car parks there are so small that it’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle getting in. In the event of fire, they want to evacuate fast, which is much easier if everyone is going forwards. In Germany, they all park nose first. Why? Because, reverse parking means exhaust pipes against walls which leave dirty marks. Evacuation isn’t a priority. They do, however, have a lot of spaces painted pink, which are for single women. These are closest to the lifts and security, well-lit and bright, because their priority is stopping the attacks on lone women leaving work late. And now, here I am, thinking of this in Kenya. Again, they reverse park for the bulk of the time, and yet there is space, and the majority of parking is outside, where there is less fire risk. So why? Terrorism. Kenya has been victim of few terror attacks, and again, evacuation is faster if you’re pointing the right way.
So, what’s the relevance to you?
In every country, every community, every culture, we deal with what is the most urgent.In Nordic countries in winter, snow control is vital.This wouldn’t be much of an issue on the Middle East.In Africa, we worry about Malaria and tick bite fever, not really an issue in Europe.
In the UK in particular, things seem to be becoming more and more pedantic.Yes, a horse must be comfortable and well cared for.But where it gets me is if it clouds people’s judgement.
When I am in foreign countries, I often get asked to help people with their tack fitting, shoeing or feeding issues.Two feeding issues made me think recently.The first has a big, strong, exuberant young warmblood.He forgot to stop growing and is a VERY big and strong young lad.He is, if anything, rather too prosperous…He is a little too round and well covered and has a little too much boing in his step.His owner asked me to check out her feeding schedule since she had been reprimanded by her vet for not feeding him enough.Ummm, I said…On the back of her hard feed bag is the feeding guide.For a horse of his size, he should be getting 5kg.He is currently getting 3.5kg.But he is also on 15kg of very good quality hay, as well as chaff, extra sugar beet, vits and mins etc.He is VERY well fed, and looks as if he is VERY well fed.Did your vet ask about what else he is getting I asked?No, she replied, only about how much hard feed he is on.Maybe, particularly a vet, should trust his eyes instead of sticking to the letter of what the feed bag says?
The other was about an adviser who lives in a country that has excellent feed, hay and grazing, telling a questioning owner in a country with bad feed, bad hay and no grass, that they should dramatically reduce what they feed their horse out of a bucket.Yes, if the horse in question was getting a few hours of high-quality grass grazing they could be eating less, or even if they had a lot more access to better hay, but with no grass, limited bad hay, they wanted to reduce his food?Well, no, how can you advise from a different country without asking for enough information?
Both the vet and the feed advisor are qualified professions and I am sure they are good at their jobs, however, they both have a different country priority.
The thing that affects me most though, is probably tack.In developed countries, if a saddle is 99% ok, it’s considered a problem for some people.A good while ago now, I walked into a riding school and several of the horses had bad saddle sores, some openly bleeding.When I questioned the manager, I was told that was part and parcel of a riding school horse’s lot.Did I agree?Absolutely not.My first priority was to fit all the saddles, allocate each horse their own saddle, the best possible option, adding pads when they could be useful, and labelling the saddles, the pads and the racks, so making sure that it could be maintained.By European standard, where they ideal?No.Were the horses an awful lot more comfortable, and open wound and blood free?Yes.We have an obligation to do the best by our horses, but we do, realistically have to accept that we must have priorities, and often we have to offer the best we can, instead of being paralysed by the knowledge that it can’t be perfect in everyone’s eyes….
What compromise would you accept, where are your priorities?
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.