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.

 

Just who is Kudaguru?

Me!  I’m Kudaguru – which means what, precisely?  I’m Ashleigh, a nomadic, hectic, packing-phobic, peripatetic adventurer who bounces around the world, playing with ponies…  Literally.

Many moons ago, I was an ordinary equestrian business owner.  I had a yard full of horses and ponies, a mixture of my own as well as liveries.  I had grooms, young instructors, clients.  I competed most weekends in eventing, dressage, show jumping, showing and equitation, young horses, established horses, client’s horses, sponsored horses, as well as going to shows with pupils.  And then?  Well, politics happened, and I ended up moving my horses from Zimbabwe to South Africa, only 43 horses moving 3,500km, walk in the park, really.

Teaching in Asia.
Teaching in Asia.

During the South African spell, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of years riding with the incredible South African Lipizzaner’s, the only Lipizzaner team recognised by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, so became very focused on classical dressage.   Riding the Ballet of the White Stallions – an unforgettable experience.  But…  Well, South African life wasn’t really meant for me, I had some family in the UK, but being winter phobic as well as packing phobic, I wasn’t over keen to go back there full time.     

And so?  I started taking on 6 month to 1 year contracts, to help yards troubleshoot issues, set up training programmes for horses, clients and grooms, build client bases etc.  In that time, I worked across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Caribbean – I did like to choose pretty locations!  But then, 4 years ago I decided that I missed working for myself, and so, time for adventure…

During these four years, I have been lucky enough to build a pretty solid client base across several different countries.  When people ask where I live – well?  36,000 feet?  I’m fortunate to have no commitments (unlucky in some people’s opinions).  I own no property, cars, furniture, horses, yards, employ no staff.  (In my opinion, I’m not owned BY them, as so may people are.  How often have you had the conversation with someone saying they hate their job, they hate their life, but they won’t move because what do they do with their house, car etc…)  I literally live where I am at that moment, with no physical place or possessions drawing me forwards or pulling me back.  Opinion is divided – about 50% of people I meet say, isn’t that wonderful, can I come along to carry your suitcases, and the other 50% saying that is terrifying and awful, they couldn’t live without stability and their things.  And, another benefit of being a full time nomad – there is always time, space and opportunity for adventure, growth and learning…  

Riding a lovely mare in Costa Rica
Riding a lovely mare in Costa Rica

And, what is it that I do that is different enough to allow all this travel?  I try to turn traditional teaching on it’s head.  As a very young rider who I taught recently explained to her Dad afterwards – most people tell her what to do, but in our lesson, she learned HOW to do it.  I’ve always had a slightly out of the box way of looking at things and explaining them differently, but almost 10 years ago, I discovered Mary Wanless and her Ride with your Mind methodology.  That inspired more research, more in-depth thinking and more awareness.  I now use a very eclectic mixture of old-school eventing training, classical dressage, Ride with your Mind and spatial awareness techniques, along with training from other sports – martial arts, climbing and scuba diving in particular.  My aim is to create riders who think – who question what they are told, who notice what their horses are responding to, to BELIEVE their horses more than some of the instructions being issued, and to dance with their equine partners in a balanced and ethical manner.  

Almost at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro
Almost at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro

As I’m so often saying to my pupils – the only expert at being a horse in this three-way relationship (you, me, your horse) is your horse.  He is the most important teacher that you will ever have.  The horse is the teacher, all I’m doing is providing a translation…

Adding Value

Is your coach adding value?

Recently, there were three of us sitting around the table, trying to work out why a lame horse was lame.  And no, we couldn’t call the vet, since the country we were in, isn’t that easy.  We were each coming at the problem from a slightly different angle.  I was reminded about two other conversations…

One is from a friend who works in the corporate world, who is always talking about how, in every situation, you need to somehow add value to the job, situation, meeting or customer interaction.  If you are not giving value, or adding input, then why are you there?  As they say, it takes two hands to clap – if you as the coach, advisor, expert, skilled worker etc add value, then the customer, client, pupil can receive the best of what is offered.  If the coach is not adding value, the pupil cannot make an awesome, positive, constructive lesson all on their own, and equally, if the pupil is off or negative, having a bad day, its hard for the coach to do all of the work.  There has to be an interaction – there have to be two hands to clap.  Even the pupil with the best intentions of being really attentive and taking things from the lesson, can’t do that if the coach is not mentally there.  So, whenever I go into a lesson or problem-solving situation, at the back of my mind is, am I adding value to the mix?  And I inputting ideas, thoughts, helping the situation.  If you say – “that’s bad” it’s a negative that no one can draw any ideas from, but if you can say “hmmm, maybe the issue is this, but we can try x, y, z to fix it” then, you are adding value.

Is your coach adding value?
Is your coach adding value?

I was also reminded of a conversation a long time ago, with a horse health care professional.  He said, if I own a hammer, then all I see are nails…  Let’s say that we have a lame horse standing in front of us, and there are twenty of the world’s greatest authorities on lame horses.  The first is a farrier, who says, well, I see a bad nail, and a slight ridge there – the issue is in the horse’s feet.  The second is a saddler, who says the saddle is not quite square, and there could be friction just here.  That is why he is lame.  The third is a bit fitter, who says, the shape of the mouthpiece doesn’t suit this horse, that will cause resistance, tension, unlevelness…  The fourth is a chiropractor, who says the horse’s pelvis is unlevel, he’s not moving right behind.  The fifth is the riding coach, who says, the rider is crooked…  And so it goes on….  What ever my skill (my hammer) I see the issue through those eyes.  Do any of us see the whole horse?  Not entirely, no, I don’t think so.   Is there one clear reason why the horse is lame?  Sometimes, and sometimes all of these experts are right and it’s a accumulative effect of all elements…

Which leads me back to the horse who we were trying to de-code.  Did we get it right?  Not entirely, no.  I think we needed more tools in the tool kit, but we made a good start at unravelling.  How to find the right tool?  I don’t know at this point…  Is the horse constantly at the back of my mind?  Oh yes…

Do you have good body workers who can treat your horse and make him more comfortable?
Do you have good body workers who can treat your horse and make him more comfortable?

So, what is your hammer?  When you approach a horse problem, what can you bring to the table?  I think it’s your responsibility, as an owner, as a rider, to be able to bring something to the table.  Read, study, watch your horse.  Maybe the value you can bring to the table is an awareness – he always trashes his bed and this week it was too tidy for him to have been lying down.  He always eats all of his hay overnight, but this week there has been some left.  He always stretches before walking out of the stable, but this week he didn’t want too…  Notice things, that is often the first big key in sorting something out…  Is he drinking less water?  Is he grinding his teeth when he didn’t in the past?  Is he wearing out the toe of his shoe?  What’s different?

What do I bring to the table?  I know horses.  I know what is right and what isn’t.  I can see gait patterns.  I can see straightness and irregular steps.  I believe my gut reaction that says something is off or not.  I have a sense of horses and have picked up a fair amount of anatomy and symptoms.  I can tell you if a saddle is bad, or a bit is too big, or the shoes are too small.  Am I a vet, or a farrier?  No.   But I can often tell you where you need to be looking, or what expert to bring in.

How well or badly shod is your horse? Can you farrier add value to the discussion?
How well or badly shod is your horse? Can you farrier add value to the discussion?

So, who do you have around your table?  If your horse came out of his stable lame or sick tomorrow, who would add value to him and his recovery?  How can you surround yourself with people who not only have a hammer, but a screwdriver, pliers and a wrench too?  And, what value can you add, to his life, to your conversations with him, and to your lessons?  Where do you add value?  Can you add value to his surroundings and wellbeing?  Sometimes something as simple as a thicker bed, or patch of sand to roll in can add value to his day.  If horses could pick their owners, would your horse pick you.

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Why Kudaguru?

One of the Malaysian Kuda Gurus…

Why Kuda Guru?

It’s funny how it always goes in spates – people asking me, so what does Kuda Guru mean, then?  And, generally its which area in the world I am currently sitting in.  Here in Asia, people rarely ask.

Kuda, means horse in Bahasa Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, so, it begins to make a little bit of sense now, yes?  Guru, obviously means teacher, guide, expert or master.

About 8 years ago, I was working full time in Malaysia, in an area called Johor Bahru, which is the border town between Malaysia and Singapore.  It’s quite industrial and tends to be filled with a lot of Singapore commuters too.  Malaysian’s working in Singapore get the best of both worlds – the cheaper Malaysian rents and being able to stay with their families, as well as earning the much higher Singapore wages (and, sadly also enjoy the many hours of sitting on their motorbikes at the border, in very long queues).  There is a big riding school / livery yard / hotel just outside JB (as Johor Bahru is more commonly known), where I was working.

Jahor Bahru where Kuda Guru came about.
Jahor Bahru where Kuda Guru came about.

I’m hopeless at languages, really, honestly, cannot learn them, no matter how hard I try.  So, living in the hotel, I enlisted a couple of the front of house staff to teach me Bahasa Malay.  It took me about a month to get Selamat Pagi (Good morning) and Apa kabar (How are you?).  Really.  A whole month.  I did also learn quite quickly about Apa ini?  (What is this?) when the grooms would bring me the wrong horse, or the right horse with the wrong saddle etc…  But the phrase that seemed clearest, fastest, was Kuda belak (the horses are back) which would be shouted from one end of the yard to the other, to tell the grooms that the trail riding horses were seen coming back out of the jungle.  Every groom who had a horse in the ride that we had shipped out a couple of hours before, would come out and stand and wait for his horse to get close enough, so he could help the guest down and take his charge off for their welcome cold shower.  My first introduction to Kuda.

Now, since we were out in the jungle, there wasn’t an awful lot to do – um, nothing really.  We had a swimming pool at the neighbouring hotel, and another restaurant there, but one of our big highlights was going into the nearest kampong (village) to the very big Tesco supermarket.  *sigh* such was our hectic social life…  One of the other instructors and I would hitch a lift in with the car owning chef, or phone for a cab, and a real taxi would pick us up.  And then, on coming out of our exciting trip, there would generally be 3 or 4 “taxi” cars sitting outside.  These would have been the Grab / Uber cars, except in those days, Grab / Uber didn’t exist.  So, these random young Malay men would be sitting on the off chance that someone would need a ride, haggle over the price, load their unsuspecting passengers into the back of the (usually slightly dodgy) car and take them wherever they needed to go.  In that time, we were proudly shown bright green zebra print fake fur seats…  A first aid kit…  A fire extinguisher.…  and more bling CD’s hung on grubby ribbon over the rear-view mirror than you would imagine possible…  There were several times, whipping up and down the narrow, steep and winding hill roads where we did consider the possibility of our imminent death…

So anyway, on one particular exciting Tesco evening, I came breezing out and a young man was waiting beside his car.  Taxi taxi, miss, taxi, he was calling.  I said yes, please, I need to go to…  And he said yes, yes, I know Kuda Guru.  And so, my introduction, that all the grooms and pretty much all the kampong unofficial taxi drivers knew the Kuda Guru.  Slightly dodgy again?!

One of the Malaysian Kuda Gurus…
One of the Malaysian Kuda Gurus…

Now, if you take this literally, horse teacher.  I, however take it slightly differently –  horse teacher, as in, the master happens to be an equine.  Who knows best what a horse feels like?  Um, a horse.  Who knows when a horse becomes unbalanced?  A horse?  Who knows what this particular rider feels like?  Maybe a horse?  And how many secrets does a horse keep?  About his rider?  None.  You watch a horse, you can see where his attention is…  How rhythmic his rider is….  If he is comfortable or in pain…    If he understands an instruction…  If he is happy or battling to cope.  All of these things, he wears as plain as his heart on his sleeve.  So, by thinking Kuda Guru – my thinking then becomes, your horse is your teacher – why am I here in the arena with you?  Purely as the translator.  After all these years, about the only language that I appear to understand beyond hello and how are you, is horse.  So, when you go out to greet your horse tomorrow morning, please, please say, Selamat Pagi Kuda Guru, Apa Kabar?!  Have fun!

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