Feedback loop

The yard where I kept my first horse, had a sign hanging up in the tack room, saying

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maybe they were just warning you to look before yelling out that you couldn’t find your girth, but that quote has always stuck with me.  When you see something every day, you stop seeing it.  Which is why its really vital to ask the question – what is your feedback loop?

Can you see things from your horse’s point of view?
Can you see things from your horse’s point of view? Have you checked for feedback?

Recently I was at a saddle fitting CPD day, and one of the things that the coaches were saying was, the horses gave us feedback on that girth, or that saddle pad etc.  One of the participants said – huh?  How did your horse give you feedback?  They replied – the horse might put his ears back when he sees you approach with the saddle; he could threaten to bite you; dip his back away; bite at the saddle or girth; chew at his side after you have undone the girth etc.  All of these points are feedback from the horse.  If your horse stands quietly with a smile on his face while you potter around him, doesn’t react to having the saddle on, isn’t stressed about the girth, moves well under his saddle, you are getting pretty good, positive feedback.  The challenge comes in, where the saddle was fitting well, and over time it isn’t – maybe the horse has changed shape, or the saddle needs flocking, or the tree was damaged, but gradually, gently, over time, the horse started showing that he was a little less willing about tack.  He shuffled his feet away from you, he shook his head at you, he snapped his teeth at the girth.  It’s hard to see, because each day is just a little more than the day before.  The frog in a pot of boiling water.  Your saddle fitter comes out to check, sees the signs, and immediately says – your saddle isn’t fitting, your horse is giving you feedback.  Which, when it was happening slowly, right in front of your eyes, was the hardest thing to see.

Is this the only type of feedback needed?  No, we all, no matter how experienced or thoughtful, or logical, need feedback.

Just a short time ago, I was teaching a clinic, and at the end the hosts asked for my feedback.  Was I happy with the condition and training of the horses, the tack, the arena, the yard, the organising, was there anything I would like to tell them, or suggest improvements, or differences?  We discussed one or two very minor things, but overall, I thought everything was fabulous, and was very happy. And, by taking the time to ask for feedback, they were tackling small issues before they became big issues.  Perfect.

On thinking about that, I asked for their feedback about the lessons that I had taught.  I was happy with the way things had gone, and the pupils seemed happy, but just to check?  They said, hmm, maybe I should be making it clearer that the pupils should be praising their horses sooner, for any attempt of try on the horse’s part.  Interesting, I thought.  It’s so automatic for me to praise my horse when I am working with him that maybe I forget to tell others.  And since then, I’ve been much faster to say – yes, good, reward him.  It’s something simple – asking for feedback, listening, putting in motion, that improves everything.

Can you recognise this horse’s thoughts about something in his environment?
Can you recognise this horse’s thoughts about something in his environment? What’s his feedback?

A different yard, where I tried teaching briefly, didn’t work out, because they didn’t ask for, or accept, any form of feedback.  There was a horse who would come out lame, and still work in lessons.  The mare is lame, I’d say.  She ‘s always like that, they replied, it’s fine, she works anyway.  Your saddle doesn’t fit, I’d suggest?  It’s fine, we checked it, was the response…  It bounces on her back?  She’s happy, they’d say, we checked, it’s fine.  There was a lot going on in that yard, and their response was always – this is the way we do it, we’re in a nice routine, so this is the way that it will get done.  If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.  Some people are open to ideas, feedback, sounding boards, and some?  Well, some aren’t.

When was the last time you asked for feedback, from friends, trainers, peers, clients, pupils, coaches, saddle fitters, your horse?  And if they give feedback, are you ready to hear it?

I was reading a very old book recently…

I was reading a very old book recently – the 1952 Pony Club Annual – which was mostly just a little bit of entertainment…  Would you know how to judge the yearly horse against tractor ploughing match?  But, one article made me think.

The subject was, “Judging a Showing Class”.  It was explaining what the judges have to do, how to behave, how to judge a class keeping good time, being fair, acting professionally.  And he made a comment that I think too many people nowadays forget.

When faced with a large class, he said, it’s all too easy to pick out the top 5 or 6 ponies going around and ignore the rest.  But, everyone has paid the same amount of entry fee, everyone has put in the effort of training their horse, grooming and plaiting him, getting him loaded or riding him to the show ground and trying their best, while being there.  Everyone is showing respect to the judge by being properly turned out and following the rules, and so, everyone deserves equal treatment.  Every horse or pony in the class should be inspected, they should be watched walk, trot and cantering around the arena.  Their conformation and movement is judged as they come back to walk, and they stand in the lineup.  You cannot ignore someone because their horse is smaller, or younger, less polished or the rider is a lower level, they’ve all tried.  They all deserve to be seen.

These two cuties, Socks and Lucy, were lent to my riding school many years ago, to work with the kids. They were best buddies and liked to stay together. They both had a job, both put their hours in… Did one deserve more respect than the other, just because one had short ears and one had longer ones?
These two cuties, Socks and Lucy, were lent to my riding school many years ago, to work with the kids. They were best buddies and liked to stay together. They both had a job, both put their hours in… Did one deserve more respect than the other, just because one had short ears and one had longer ones?

And so, I think about lessons.  So often a rider will walk in and apologise because they are a novice, or “only hack”, or don’t want to compete.  Being a visiting clinician, people often treat me as some all-knowing, all seeing oracle, who’ll judge them and find them wanting.  So often, the first words that I hear are – I’m sorry, I honestly think I’m probably wasting your time, but I thought I’d come along…

Every person who comes into my arena has taken the same steps….  They’ve thought about the fact that they are willing and interested to learn or change; maybe they’ve researched who I am, read some of my blogs; that they’ll take the risk that someone new will be honest and fair to them, and not tear them down; that they’ve organised to borrow a horse, or to get themselves and their own horse ready and to wherever I am; they have often taken extra time to groom and polish their horse, tack and themselves, to present an attractive and professional appearance; to hand over the cold hard cash….  Whether they have an Olympic quality warmblood, an off the track thoroughbred, a little borrowed riding school pony, they have all invested time and effort to be there, so surely, they deserve equal care and attention back?

I’m reminded about a saying that my own mentor often uses – A rosebud is no lesser than a rose.  Every horse and rider are on their own journey, and being on the first few rung of the ladder is no better or worse than being 100 steps further along…

Another of my riding school ponies, Haiwon, could turn his hoof to most things, from mounted games (first picture) to show jumping, to eventing, but playing double donkey games with his smaller riders was just as much fun for him – he didn’t judge how big or experienced his jockeys were, he just got on with smiling…
Another of my riding school ponies, Haiwon, could turn his hoof to most things, from mounted games (first picture) to show jumping, to eventing, but playing double donkey games with his smaller riders was just as much fun for him – he didn’t judge how big or experienced his jockeys were, he just got on with smiling…

One of my absolute pet peeves is walking into a yard, a riding school, wherever, and seeing the coach sitting on the fence, staring at his phone, yelling out, “yes, yes, well done, that was good, do it again…”  The rider is hearing the voice float across to them, and are focusing and doing, and the coach is….  Staring at his phone.  Even worse, with the surge in use of wireless walkie talkie radios, is the chatting to the peanut gallery.  The rider has an earpiece and is doing their thing out in the arena.  The coach has the microphone and possibly another receiving earpiece.  All of which is fine, and often so valuable, until the coach has a circle of adoring fans around them.  The coach turns on the microphone and says “ok, good, use more leg, do it again”, and then mutes the microphone, and chats with his groupies – “yes, great, so dinner tonight, the new restaurant sounds good, who is the designated driver, because you know, it’s not going to be me…”  And turns the microphone back on to say, “yes, better, do it again and add more leg”.  This often happens with that newer, lower level rider who is demanding less of his attention.  They’ve invested the time, effort, and money to be there, don’t they deserve the same respect?

There are so many, brilliantly fabulous coaches and trainers out there, more often than not doing amazing work.  So, to riders who are accepting less attention, less help, less focus – please, please, stand up and be seen!  Just because you “only hack out” or “only borrow a riding school pony” you are important, you are just as deserving of good training, you should be seen….  Find one of the many brilliant coaches who really will invest time and care into your training, you’ll certainly feel the benefits…

Gym Sounds

Gym Sounds

It’s funny what speaks to you, isn’t it?  What really gets into your brain.

A few years ago I was talking to a school teacher who also plays and teaches music.  I said to her, I’m utterly tone deaf.  I just couldn’t learn to play music, even hitting the triangle at the right moment in school was a challenge.  I think it’s why I can’t learn languages too – someone will tell me a word.  I’ll repeat it, they’ll say no, it’s a R not an L…  I try again, and again.  After 5 attempts they say – well, kind of.  And within 5 minutes, I’ve forgotten the word entirely.  Language just doesn’t seep into my brain.

This teacher though, said no, no one is totally tone deaf and cannot learn.  “If your phone rings (think good old land lines, without caller ID) and you answer, do you recognise the person talking?”

“Well, if I know them, of course…”

“That means, you’re not tone deaf and could learn…”

It’s an interesting theory, and one that I’m still not utterly convinced about.  I still can’t remember the Bahasa words that Joni tried to teach me this morning.

Many years ago, I had a brilliant vet.  One of the first times that I saw him visiting a horse, it was a mystery lameness.  As the horse was standing at the end of the driveway, groom attached to the end of the lead rope, this vet turned his back, and looked out over the paddocks.  The groom started running, the horse trotting, and still the vet seemed to be ignoring them.

“Uh”, I said – “the horse is, uh, trotting.”

“Mmmm” he replied.

The horse got to the end of the driveway, turned and came back.  When he reached us, the vet turned, walked to the horse, picked up the lame leg (that he hadn’t seen) and pressed straight onto the root of the problem.  Impressive.  He taught me so much, that vet, but this was one of the first and most important lessons – trust your ears before you trust your eyes.  He always, without fail, dealt with a lame horse with his ears, then his hands to feel, and only then his eyes.  Eyes and vision lie, ears generally don’t.

I found this video years ago and still love it – can you recognise the sounds before you watch it?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suPDB-lCjPc&sns=em

Why am I thinking about this now?  I’m currently sitting on Gili Trawangan, a small island in Indonesia.  The only transport here is horse cart or bicycle – there are no cars or motorbikes.  And very quickly, I could recognise the hoofbeats of different horses coming before I could see them.  Here comes the grey who swings his right hind wide.  There is the chestnut who lands so much heavier on the left fore.  I didn’t fully appreciate just how ingrained it is in me.

I do know, when I’m teaching I’m watching the horse, but I’m also listening to him.

Whenever I start a lesson, I ask, if I had a magic wand, what would you like to change, improve, fix?  What are you working on, what’s the issue?  And usually, the answer I am given would be the answer the horse would give too.

“My horse is like a worm – he just wiggles all the time”

If I could ask the horse?

“This rider doesn’t sit straight or ride straight – their weight is right, their right leg kicks me left, it’s like carrying a sack full of kittens…”

Or…

“My horse lacks energy – he just won’t go forward”.

As the rider sits there, like a sack of potatoes, with no tensegrity or movement herself…

Horse?  “This rider is heavy and soggy.  If I move, she’ll fall off, so I’ll just match her energy level and keep her on board…”

But, this is the most common…

“Useless horse has no rhythm…  He’s fast, slow, 2 beat, 3 beat, hopping and skipping, nothing is regular”

And the horse?

“Useless rider has no rhythm…  She’s fast, slow, 2 beat, 3 beat, hopping and skipping, nothing is regular”

Fix?  If the rider hears and feels the beat, they become the leader of the dance.

So, when I’m teaching, especially if I have more than one horse in a group lesson, I’m listening.  If I’m watching horse and rider number one, I’m listening to horse and rider number two as my back is to them.  I’m listening to hear the regularity of the steps, and if one hoof is harder, lighter, twisting as it lands.  And, I’m listening to how hard he lands on all four hooves.  A light and balanced horse could trot across a sheet of ice or glass without cracking it…  Think of a ballerina dancing across a stage.  An unbalanced horse clunks and thumps like a sluggish tortoise, crashing through the glass or ice sheet.  If the rider is light, rhythmic, balanced, so is the horse.  If they’re lacking rhythm or landing with a thud, guess what?  So will the horse.

How to develop this feel?  Ride with a metronome.  Ride to music.  Just start to pay attention, use your ears as much as your eyes and feel…

Confidence or Competence

Confidence or Competence

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

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

I have never ridden.

I have ridden at walk.

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

I have cantered.

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

I could ride any horse in any circumstances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why bother?  Does it make a difference?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Are you doing your required reading?

Oh, I may tread on some toes here – there is a fine line to this one.

When I start teaching a new pupil, one of the first things that I ask them – who is the most important teacher you will ever have?  Sometimes, if their full-time coach is near, I see them (the coach) grow a little taller, lean a little nearer…..  Am I going to say me?  Am I going to say them?  No.  The most important trainer in your life, for ever and always, at any given time, is the four-legged coach you are sitting on / leading / handling.  He is the only one who truly knows the impact of how you are sitting or what you are doing, and he is the only one who has zero ego or pre-existing opinions.  If you do something right, comfortable or clear, he says yes.  If you are fuzzy, rough or unfocused, he says no.  It’s that simple.

I’m just the co-coach – it’s the two big brown boys here who are the real teachers
I’m just the co-coach – it’s the two big brown boys here who are the real teachers

I read a huge amount, but I tend not to read equine books.  I read books on philosophy, movement, psychology, martial arts, diving – I think I’d read the phone book if I had nothing else, but horse books?  A few, but not often…  Yes, way back in the dark ages, I read the Pony Club Manual and, and, and, all the required text needed to lay down the base rules, keep me and my pupils safe, pass my BHS exams etc, but not many of the “Classical Training” manuals.

A few days ago, a very good friend who I trust implicitly, sent me a message – “read this book, but you’ll hate me for it.”  I dutifully downloaded it and began to read.  Yes, I don’t fully like what I’m reading, a lot of it is close to the bone, but it’s good stuff…  That’s a whole other story.  But the bit that prompted this?

The lack of literature on the topic was a handicap, but my great teacher, Elvin Semrad, had taught us to be skeptical about textbooks.  We had only one real textbook, he said: our patients.  We should trust only what we could learn from them – and from our own experience.”

Later in the text, this doctor asks his professor, “Would you call this patient X syndrome or Y syndrome….?”  And the great professor said, “I’d call him Michael”.  The more we read, very often the more we over think and over complicate.

Some of the greatest horse trainers who I have ever seen working with horses have never read a book in their lives.  Often, kids can do amazing things with ponies.  Have they read the classic trainers works?  No, they’re still learning “The cat sat on the mat”.  So, how do they do it, without all this learning that we must do, reading we must focus on, lessons we need to be taught?  They follow their gut, use their intuition and watch and listen to their ponies.  Can I tell you a secret?  The ponies haven’t read the books either…

I am often asked, how do I plan my lessons?  How do I know what to teach, when?  And currently, I’m sitting in front of my laptop trying to put together a course that many people have requested – and the problem is – I just don’t know.  When I sit to write, things like this, they just appear on my laptop screen in front of me, but when I try to write a technical “How to”, I often get stuck….  Well, it depends on this, or that.  It depends on who the pupil is, how they think, the structure of their horse or the quality of their interaction.  Things cannot truly be taught by reading text, the only way to learn is to look at the horse in front of you and ask him questions.

I love Leonardo Da Vinci, because when I look at his sketches, that’s how I see things too.  If you look at his Vitruvian Man ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvian_Man ), that is how horses appear in my mind – I’m drawing angles and lines on them, seeing them in motion, seeing what they need or don’t…  How can a textbook teach that, when there are around 59 million horses in the world, and they’re all different?  Where do you even begin?

Seen in London, at a Leonardo exhibition – just love his work
Seen in London, at a Leonardo exhibition – just love his work

There’s a balance, between practical, awesome horse people who read loads and still allow horses to teach them, and those people who read all the dusty old tomes, can spout off how Classical Trainer X taught Y, but couldn’t recognise a horse if it walked out in front of them.

I love the fact that this professor and author have the same belief.  The author of this book says that for one year they were not allowed to read textbooks – and since then he has been the most voracious of readers, devouring everything he could get his hands on.  But that year got him to stop thinking in his head and start to look, listen, feel and notice what his patients were there to teach him…  Could you go a year without reading, and learn to listen to your gut?  Your most important teacher may well be thanking you…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soSTiBnug1Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OxI3XA9fMs

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

Under Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas is coming!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas Everyone!

Dare to ask questions

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

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

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

Dare to Ask Questions
Dare to Ask Questions

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

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

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

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

“Can you explain something else?”

“Can I ask another question?”

“What about this?”

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

 

The Mustang Programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passion

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

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

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

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

Mr Robbie.

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

I’m looking for my hotel.

Yes?

Am not sure of the address….

Oh, which hotel?

Ummm, not sure I remember….

Uh, where was it?

Within walking distance…

Uhh, which way?

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

Do you not have the booking on your phone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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