There is an old story about two dogs who walk into a room….The first one enters, and comes out wagging his tail, wearing a big sloppy grin on his face from what he has seen in the room.The second dog enters, starts to growl, snarl and bare his teeth.He comes out of the door angry and snappy.What was in the room that provoked such a huge difference in these two dog’s reactions?
Mirrors.The first dog entered the room with a smile, saw a smiling dog who wagged their tail at him, and he was wagging his tail right back…The second dog entered growling, and surprise surprise, the dog he met was growling too.
This story always sticks in my mind – what you think, expect, anticipate, you’re going to get back, double time.
I spend a lot of time in airports and generally the poor staff there are harassed and complained at by irritated, tired travellers.They are often defensive, and if you go in angry and defensive, guess what you get back?If you go in laughing, happy, joking, it is generally what you get in return…
Why am I thinking about this now?A while ago, I was working a horse.I knew, well, not a lot about this horse.He was about 10, middle-aged, had done a fair amount, needed some work.So, I worked with him.Afterwards, I was chatting to the instructor who generally worked with the horse.
“He’s a sweet little guy, isn’t he?”I asked.Stood while I got organised, went off when I said go, gave me exactly what I asked for at each moment, tried hard to understand and please, made some nice changes in the way he was carrying himself.I was happy with the session; he and I left the arena both smiling.
“No”, the instructor replied, he’s difficult.He’s stubborn, mean and has a nasty buck.He doesn’t offer anything unless you push, and even then he is sulky and difficult…..He’s a bully who needs bullying.
I clarified, had I worked the right horse?The big grey in the paddock at the back?Well yes, that horse.The difficult one.No, I corrected, the big grey, the easy one…
What happened?Well, I believe that we were the two dogs entering the room.I think she found the gelding that her boss had bought and assigned to her to bring on when she was already too busy, with too much on her plate.I think she approached the horse with that attitude, so he responded in kind.Oh horse, I hate riding you…Oh human, I hate carrying you too…And then, I walked in, with no pressure, no time constraints, no boss, no agenda, and said ooooh a horse…A new friend…Hello Pretty Horse, will you be my friend, will you carry me, will you play and dance with me?And, the horse again responded in kind…..Ohhh, hello human, yes, let’s explore, let’s play, what shall we offer each other….
Horses are a mirror to us – walk into their stable with what you expect and 99% of the time, they’ll prove you right…
At the moment, I’m walking around with a knee brace on. Long story short, I’ve upset the ligaments, tendons and cartilage in my knee, and the best way forward seems to be wearing a big black metal brace, with hinges that allow it to bend, and elastic bands built into it, creating a resistance to make me work harder. My knee’s habit of wobbling alarmingly from side to side, or giving way entirely has now been stopped all together. Which is awesome, in theory. However… There must be a downside, right? There so often is… Because my knee is now tracking forward and backward without rotation, the joints above and below – hip and ankle – are now under unusual use and are in a fair amount of pain. Which impacts my back, because for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If one thing can’t do its usual practice, often it affects something else.
Which leads me to think about both horses and riders.
Horses compensate in, mainly, two ways. The part that most of us (hopefully) know, understand and accept, is that they will move out of the way of pain. A horse pulls off his front shoe. Because he now draws his weight up, off, back, behind the nude hoof, he gets sore in the shoulder / long back muscle on the same side as the hoof that lost the shoe. If this is more on going (a hoof abscess, punctured sole etc), he can get sore in the opposite hind quarter, because it transfers away, across the diagonal. If he is sore in his mouth, he may raise his head higher when ridden, so dropping down in his back, so ending up with back pain, from a sore tooth. You get the idea. I remember a horse a long time ago who was put down for suspected kissing spines. In post mortem, they discovered the issue was a tooth abscess. He was so sore in his mouth that he hollowed his back and went in a kissing spine kind of way. The horse could have been saved if they’d delved a little deeper into his secrets.
The other way that a horse will compensate is, possibly, less obvious, but I think, even more important to understand. If water is flowing down a river, and the river is blocked, or dammed up, the water will find a new route – maybe it will flood low lying ground or find a new route for the river to flow. Water wants to move, so will find a new way.
How does this apply to our horse? I am going to direct this towards lunging, but it applies in all work. I hate lunging with any form of gadget or rein (other than the lunge rein). Horses are designed to move their heads while they walk. When you, as a human, walk along, you swing your arms, yes? Your right arm swings forwards with your left leg and vice versa. That is why, if you have to walk with a crutch or walking stick, you hold it in the opposite hand. Why do we do this? It keeps us balanced – as mammals who are vertical, we swing our arms forward and back to help with our vertical balance. Now a horse, who is a more horizontal mammal, can’t use his arms to swing, since he doesn’t have any… So, he nods his head forward and back, so that his long neck can help to stabilise his length. People who watch a lot of racing may have heard the expression that a horse won on the nod – meaning that as his head nodded forwards, it took his nose a fraction out in front of the second placed horse.
So, lets take this horse, who is meant to move his head, and tie his head in one place, because that is what we are told to do, right? We put him into side reins, or German reins, or a Market Harborough, or a bungee or whatever you use / call it, that holds his head in one place. And now, he must run around like that, often on a circle, which isn’t that normal for a horse in the first place. And, we wonder why it goes wrong… Let me tie your hands to your sides and make you run fast around in circles… You want the water (horse) to move, but you create a blockage in the movement, so, the water (horse) finds another way.
Apparently – clever people have worked it out – a horse has 17 different routes of evading a pair of side reins on a lunge circle. I have never tried to work them out, or count, but off the top of my head – swing quarters in, swing quarters out, drop shoulder in, drop shoulder out. Lean on the rein, tuck behind the rein. Tip to the right, tip to the left. Stop tracking the inside hind through, stop tracking the outside hind through. Rotate the withers in or out. Its like my knee brace – stop the wiggle somewhere, another joint has to move differently.
The only animal designed to keep its head still, is a chicken… Pick up a chicken (a live one, not one about to go into a roasting tray…) and notice that he keeps his head straight out in front of him. Tilt his body to the right or to the left, and notice that he keeps his beak level, and eyes straight in front. This chicken, he would be great in a pair of side reins, but a horse, not so much. We lunge in side reins because for so many years, we have focused on getting his head down, but fortunately now, more and more people are realising that we should be working on getting the back UP. All that lunging on a small circle with side reins does, is, wears out his joints, places strains on his tendons and ligaments, gets him fitter and fitter (for those who lunge their horse to get rid of excess energy – he’ll get more and more of that excess energy!) and reconfirms his favourite method of evasion… He compensates for having his head tied down, but letting the movement wiggle out somewhere else.
What do we do instead? Preferably – lunge with a rope halter and lunge rein or learn to long rein with two reins. Both take more skill than traditional lunging, but both offer so much more in the results that can be achieved… You can send the horse in straight lines, curved lines, big circles, some small turns, and can alter where you ASK his head to go, rather than forcing one position.
What do you do with your horse that he is possibly avoiding or compensating for? How can you help rather than hinder him? So, in my example, will give up the side reins and take on a better way to do things?
In one of the places where I stay, there is about a 5-minute walk to the nearest supermarket, and so, I do it often. Chocolate and coffee, you know, vital daily necessities…
And, at one point, you walk along side a row of houses, where, midway down, lives a lovely little tabby cat. That is all I know about her – which is the house she lives in. And, that she is my friend. As other people walk past, and ignore her, she sits on the little brick pillar at the end of her footpath, and watches the world go by. And then, when she sees me coming and I talk to her, she is all mewing and purring, standing with all four feet tucked into the little bit of space, and we greet with head bumps and rubs and purrs. It’s purely a happy greeting – I don’t have food or anything for her, she has nothing for me, but we chat for a few minutes and it leaves both of us with a smile. A very simple interaction, with no real point other than to make us happy.
A while ago, I was in Singapore, leaving a shopping centre, where the pavement passes the bus stop. It was 6pm and crowded with people leaving work, coming into the shopping centre, finding hawker centres for food, just the hustle bustle of a city evening. And there was a little girl, standing on the edge of the bus stop. She must have been about 3 or 4, and was there with her Mom or Nanny, and she was waiting for a bus to arrive. But, clearly, she wasn’t waiting for the bus, but for who was on it. She was so excited, going from foot to foot, knees pumping up and down as she bounced. Every few seconds she would turn and look at her Mom or Nanny, grin, even squeal, with joy, and then go back to looking ahead and bouncing from foot to foot. I slowed down, even more than the crowds made me, to watch and see what would happen… The next bus pulled in, and as the crowd all came out, there was a man, looking for her. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy”, she shouted, so excited that she literally couldn’t contain herself, wriggling with happiness. This was clearly a ritual that was quite common for both.
Daddy crouched down, open armed, picked her up, swung her around, all the time she was bouncing with joy. There is simply no other word for it. And, everyone around them started to smile to – how can you not?
How often are we stressed, or rushing, running from point A to point B and not taking the time to stop and smell the coffee? Recently I met up with a pony who I hadn’t seen for a very long time. I sat on the poles closing him inside his pen and we had a good chat for a while, him lipping at my hair and hands, checking my pockets for carrots, nothing pushy or bolshie, just a friend who was happy to see me and saying his hellos the best way that he could. Horses greet each other through touch – we humans may be happy with a smile or inclination of the head, but ponies need an actual physical contact. After a couple of minutes, I went to stand up, and he snaked his neck around me, effectively pinning me to the poles of his door. He was enjoying having contact with a friend and wasn’t ready to stop just yet.
How often do we just hurry through our days and through our lives and forget that a lot of this life is meant to be finding happiness? And, we are in a hurry to work harder to buy a fancier horse / house / car / watch because it is this that will make us happy, when in reality there are so many little pleasures around us much of the time, if we were just to take the time to sit and enjoy them… So, have you hugged your horse today?
“My F&%# off button is broken”, my friend would complain. It was a game we would play, walking through town… You know all of those fund raisers, marketers, “please try my test product” people? Do you seem to attract them, or do they ignore you? My friend and I would try to keep them away, and it’s generally done with your &%$@ off button… You just walk along, and without saying anything or doing anything, they step back… Know what I mean? We’d walk along and check that they didn’t approach. But, sometimes they do. It did frustrate me, she was much better at playing the game than I was…
It always fascinates me, watching how people react to each other. Those fundraiser people, and marketers, they are so good at reading people. If someone walks past looking ahead, striding along, with a purpose, often they don’t bother them – the target has their F&%# off button firmly engaged. Sometimes it is when you put on your sunglasses and earphones, and they see that you have blinds up, not talking. Those who walk past looking less secure in their own skin, hesitant in where they are or where they are going, almost apologetic in being, and the marketers will get them… And those people are most likely to give them money too, since often they can’t say no.
I’m at my worst getting onto a plane. My flying time is my time, it’s where I switch off from the world. I get in my seat, next to the window, and don’t talk to me. I used to do it with props, by opening my book, putting on ear phones and leaning against the wall… Now though, I can do it without aids – I get in my seat and there are walls between me and my neighbours. Please, please, don’t be the seat neighbour who tries to talk to me – because I just won’t.
Why am I thinking about this now? I had lunch with a friend recently and we were discussing teaching and lessons, and how I read people. How do you do that, she asked? Do what, I replied? Well, just know stuff… A large part, I think, is reading what they are saying with their body.
Is electricity real? Uhh, yes. Can you see it? No. So, you must believe its there. We have the same forces within us – an electricity or a current, an energy and boundaries, unseen but (hopefully) felt / experienced / adhered to by other people.
There was a study done over a few years – I think, actually, it is still ongoing – about footballers and what makes the brilliant ones brilliant. Someone is running towards you, kicking the ball along in front of them. Are they going to send the ball to your right or to your left? There is a slight dodge, wobble, look to where they are going to go, maybe a flicker in their eye. The kids who go on to become elite footballers are the ones who can read it, and the really elite players just can’t get it wrong – as the player is running towards them with the ball, they can predict the movement.
When walking through town with my mom, she is forever complaining that when I walk, or when my brothers walk, people move out of our way, while she spends her life dodging. Just walk straight, I tell her – they’ll move. And, they do. For me. And for my brother’s. They end up walking into her. What’s the difference? Playing chicken? It’s intention – I’m just walking, and people believe that as I am walking, I won’t move, but they don’t believe her (warning – don’t try this with anyone pushing a pushchair / pram… They are a little insane, rules don’t apply…) How does this work? We do read each other, we know what people are thinking or how they are going to react, without registering or acknowledging it.
We project energy around us. Your friend walks in looking tired. How do you know? You just do. The footballer knows the ball is going right. Because, how? It just is. Maybe there was an eye flicker, maybe they are projecting energy in that direction. When someone is walking towards you down the footpath, they are going to move or not… How do you know? You just do. Think of that very charismatic, magnetic person…. They are charming, they are liked, good things just happen to them. How are they like that? They project positive, interested, interactive, high vibration energy. They attract people. Think about that slightly apologetic, world weary person. You can see them coming too.
Can I teach this? How to read this? I’m not convinced that I can. Thinking back to the conversation with my friend – how do you just know. Well, I do. When some one walks into the arena with their horse, I always spend 5 minutes or so just chatting to them. Letting them settle into their own skin, into their horse’s skin, into the space they are in. You can see it when they find their way to a good spot… They move in an easier way, they breathe. How can you not see it, I ask people?
Can horses teach this? Oh yes. You watch a horse being lunged. A novice is trying, the horse won’t go forwards, he spins around to go the other way, or he turns into the middle and stops. The poor person has no hope. The instructor walks in and the horse obediently trots along at the end of the line. The instructor didn’t appear to do anything different, and yet the horse just behaves. So, why did the horse behave? Simply, because he believes the trainer. In the way that the elite footballer knows the ball is going right or left, the horse knows whether or not to take the lunger seriously. In the same way the marketer knows if your %&$@ off button is working or not, your horse knows. He knows if you are sending him out, or drawing him in… How seriously does your horse take you?
I met with a friend for dinner last month – it had taken a long time and lots of back and forth messages to organise a time that suited both of us. When we finally got together, she said – this whole – “I’m just so BUSY, when did we start saying this as a good thing?” When you meet up with someone, or ask a friend how they are, how often is the answer, OK, busy, all OK…?
Part of the reason that this is on my mind again, is reading an article in an equine magazine last week, about making our working hours closer to 9 to 5. They say farriers, vets, instructors shouldn’t be expected to answer their phones or messages outside working hours. On one hand, yes, I can see where they are coming from. You cannot be working 24 hours a day. However, for an awful lot of people, horses are their hobby, their down time, their relaxation. And so, as with any leisure or hospitality industry, your working hours are during what most people consider their leisure hours. A lot of yards or instructors take Monday as their day off, because they are working all weekend when clients have time for lessons. And there are even some yards who close on Monday, the horses just getting their basic care. So, if you only answer your phone, emails or work in mainstream working hours, you miss out on a lot of work.
I know that I am dreadful at not being “at work”. Recently, I decided to take a DAY OFF. An entire day, of not doing anything related to working, writing, researching etc. I lasted until about 11am. Because I have clients all over the world, no matter what time it is where I am sitting, someone somewhere is telling me about their ride, asking me about their bit, chatting about where we are organising our next yoga retreat, or asking advice about an issue. The number of times I’m sitting up at midnight chatting to a client who is another part of the world, or at a family function but on my phone at the same time…
Another friend who I was chatting to a while ago had, sadly, just lost her horse to colic. She was saying one of the things that had really surprised her was the amount of free time she had – not just the actual time she would have been spending at the yard, but time planning what schooling sessions she would be doing, looking into different feeds, checking that she had booked her farrier at the right time, reading about new bits and wondering if she needed to change what she was using. And because she was working full time and juggling her horse around work, and juggling booking her farrier around that, she would sometimes be messaging him at 8 at night.
Is being too busy different when it’s your hobby? Does it make it better when you work your hours and then you’re “being Busy” is your hobby time? It’s all a careful balance I think…
And then, a couple of days ago, I was walking from the house where I was staying, down to their yard. It’s 660 steps – I know because I counted – and I think it’s a lovely amble. For me, that is my down time. I don’t have internet connection when I am outside the house or yard, so for those 5 minutes I am not online. And, the view, the flowers, the ponies grazing in the paddock, they all make you go hmmmm… And on one of those walks last week, there, sitting on a bench on the common was an elderly lady, very quietly, very still, gazing down the valley. She didn’t move, didn’t react, was completely lost in just looking out over the fields and hills. That, I thought, that is switching off and not being at work. Maybe, instead of trying to stick to office hours, or stick to taking a day off, maybe we should just make sure we have time everyday to sit and stare at the view, to make room in our heads for nothing but the feel of the warming sun, the smells of the spring flowers, the sound of the birds in the hedges
And, what about our horses? So many horses live in very busy yards. They have grooms in and out of their boxes, mucking out, feeding, grooming, tacking up, and different riders coming in, collecting different horses at different times for different lessons. Maybe those horses go out for a couple of lessons a day. And even those in the paddock, cars will be driving past, pulling into the car park. Planes fly overhead, things are always happening. I do think horses get stressed by being a part of our “busy”. On this day, when I was watching the lady sitting staring down the valley, I also watched the horses in the paddock in her line of sight. One was standing, hind leg rested, head lowered, ears hanging out to the side and lower lip flopping. The other two horses were lying flat out on the grass, sunbathing and totally switched off. These, I thought were horses who really were busy doing nothing. And that is so important in their lives, they need to horse, they need time to relax muscles and they need time to process.
When I was first learning about horses, first taking professional exams, one of the subjects that we spent a lot of time on was roughing off (preparing a horse for his summer holidays by gradually reducing his work, his hard feed, his rugs) and then getting him fit again, ready for his busy season. For at least a month, he would be turned out, checked once a day but otherwise left alone. How many people now a days have no idea how or why roughing off is done? How many horses never actually get to have a holiday? So many people have horses who they ride 6 days a week, every week and when they, the humans, go away on holidays, they make sure to hire someone else to come in and ride their horses 6 days a week.
We humans are complaining about being busy, about how we need holidays, about how we need to switch off, and if you are a farrier, to stop answering your phone. But how often do you put your horse’s holidays aside because he must keep working? When was the last time that your horse had a few weeks holiday?
I was accused of being a chameleon this morning. I had just finished a long morning of lessons (fortunately in an indoor, since it was chucking it down…) and a group of the riders and I headed off for brunch. The discussion moved to, what do you have for breakfast? Well, my reply started, it all depends on where I am… In some countries where we start really early, I don’t have breakfast, but we break early and go for mid-morning snacks. Other places, we’ll all get up and cereal. Where I’m staying now, I grab a protein bar on the run. Just so long as there is always coffee, all you riders are ok… If there isn’t any, who ever is first in the arena is in trouble. Hmm, so no set breakfast then? No.
The conversation moved on – who ate healthy and who didn’t? Again, I replied, it depends. Some places where I stay, its all salad, vegan, healthy. The next week will be cheese, chocolate and grabbing a muffin for lunch on the hoof… The next is all about 7 course meals, the next is about 1 meal a day. Where ever I am, what ever situation I’m in, I adapt.
And, do you drink? Well, in some places yes, its about mojitos for lunch, wine for dinner, and whiskey chasers for nightcaps. In others, its all about coffee, tea and water. And then, in others, it’s all coconut water.
At which point, you arrived in this conversation – you’re a chameleon! What is it that YOU like, not what suits that week. And honestly, I can’t tell you, because I don’t think I know…
A similar situation last week – I was staying with a friend, doing a lot of writing and admin. He would head off to work and I’d be in front of my laptop, listening to Mantovani as I typed. A couple of hours later, he’d return and there would be Guns ‘n Roses. The next day might start with Pink and move to Gershwin. The next was Disturbed… And when he walked in on Vivaldi, he couldn’t hold his tongue anymore – so what music do you actually LIKE? Is the classical stuff there to help you think? Well, I like it all, I replied. Some days it’s a shout along to Meatloaf day, other times, its chill to The Piano Guys – it really depends on the day. Hmm, he thought…
In some places, I’m happy to park in front of the TV and vegetate. In others, I can’t sit still. Sometimes I like exploring and adventure, sometimes I need time to be quiet. What do I like? I like to walk, to hike, to swim, to dive, to “people”, to have closed doors, to eat out, to hibernate. I like loud, I like quiet. I can tell you, about the only thing I know I dislike with a passion is to be cold…
Is it a problem? Most people don’t think so, but my music and breakfast friends both think it is… Is it my indecisive nature that lets me escape from making decisions? Possibly. Where do you want to live – oh, so many choices… Where do you like to go – oh, everywhere… who do you like to teach – Ooooh, everyone… Which breed of horse do you like – oh, all and none, it depends on the individual… Which discipline do you like to ride or teach the most – oh, all of them, sometimes dressage, sometimes jumping, sometimes equitation… Do you like teaching beginners / advanced, kids or adults? oh, yes…. Is my chameleon / indecision a blessing or a curse – well, who knows… I’ll start making decisions – or maybe I won’t….
So, what about you? Do you like schooling, or going for a gallop down the beach (Me? Both). Do you like sitting quietly with your horse, or are you always needing to be “doing”? (Me? Both). Do you like working over poles, or sticking to more traditional flat schooling? (Me? Both – are we seeing a pattern here?). Do you like riding babies or experienced school masters (Me? Yes, OK, we don’t need to keep asking) (But, for the record, both!)
And, what about your horse? Your horse needs consistency. He needs you to be predictable – legs mean go, still means stop. A pat means well done. Contact is contact. He needs his known house, his regular feed times and feed type. He needs his friends and his routine. But, the happiest of horses I know, have variety in their work. On Monday they’ll hack and have a canter round the fields. On Tuesday they will lunge. On Wednesday they have some schooling. On Thursday they’ll do fast work at a canter track. On Friday they do poles and gymnastics. On Saturday they jump courses. Sunday is rest. (This isn’t in any way a work plan, it just shows how we can be flexible). The fast work is cardio and fun. The gymnastics tests reaction, the schooling is educating and so it goes. A horse who goes into an arena EVERY DAY, or jumps EVERY DAY, or lunges EVERY DAY is often the horse who becomes sour and dull.
What do you like to do? What does your horse like to do? How do you keep a freshness in you schooling? And, just out of nosiness, what do you listen to when you’re are tap tap tap tapping out on your laptop?