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…
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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?
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?
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….