“To climb steep hills, requires slow pace at first…” William Shakespeare.
My family and close friends often comment that I’m two personalities… Give me a parcel to wrap, a knot to untie, a computer to work out a new program and it’s likely to get thrown out of the window… Patience is really not my strong point. But, give me a pony who is not understanding, or a pupil who isn’t seeing things as I do, and I have all the time in the world – somethings are way more important than others.
The reality of this quote became clear when we (Fred and I) climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Pole Pole (pronounced po-lay po-lay) is what the guides are saying all day everyday – slowly slowly, we make haste, slowly.
The foundations of anything are vital – if your first math teacher didn’t get you to understand 2 + 2, you might struggle along until you hit algebra, but at some point it’s all going to come crashing down about your ears and you will have to go back to the beginning. If your house’s foundations weren’t dug correctly, you’re going to get cracks.
What’s this got to do with a horse blog then?
99% of the time, the issue is in the foundations.
“My horse rushes…”
“My pony won’t load”
“My mare won’t stand for the farrier”
“I can’t get a clear canter strike off”
“He’s just runs through the flying changes”
We take the horse back to square one – Mr. Horse, do you understand stop; go; shoulders right / left; quarters right / left; stand quiet. All in hand. And then, do you understand all those questions in walk and trot on long lines…
Put the rider on board – what do we practice? Stop, walk. Stop, walk. Stop, walk. By this point an awful lot of those issues are already resolved. Most issues begin with the horse ignoring or not understanding something at real foundation level.
One of my absolute pet peeves is a horse walking away from the mounting block, rider hanging off the side. Why? In essence this horse is running away with his human – it’s not far removed from bolting. The simple discipline of stop, stand, patience, wait… Goes a long way in instilling horse AND human disciple for the rest of the ride.
And what about the rider? Well, this is fresh in my mind at the moment because of a jumping video someone just sent me. He is now early twenties, fit, athletic, brave, bright, and after lesson number one, (in his teens) he asked, how soon can I jump? I kept him on the lunge for weeks… Walk, trot, canter, no reins and no stirrups. Then we did millions of transitions, circles, turns, leg yielding, moving onto trot poles, grids, tiny gymnastics lines without reins. In the solid 6 months that I taught him (yes, I lived somewhere that long) we covered basic after basic skill, until he couldn’t get them wrong. Within a month of my leaving he was (fully ready, with my blessing!) clearing courses of 1m + and now, a few years later, he’s just sent me a video of himself jumping a technical 1.50m track. To climb the mountain, we began very, very slowly.
So often you see a young horse, or a young rider, very quickly learning to canter and jump – within weeks of beginning, and rapidly climbing the grades. The problem is, the faster the initial surge up the skill ladder, the faster they reach a plateau and the longer they stagnate there. Whereas, the (relativity) slower they get there, the higher they go and the more longevity they have at the top.
A few years ago, I watched a day seminar hosted by the world famous master of dressage, Dr Wilfried Bechtolsheimer. (Or Dr B, as he was probably better known). A comment he made about one of the seminar horses was how sad he was that she had been started young to compete in the young horse classes, how lucky she was that they had got her out, and how young horse classes are damaging dressage. As he said – horses competing in the young horse classes are produced – dressage horses are trained and educated… There is a world of difference…
So, heading out to your horse or your pupils today – what will you do? Produce them, sausage factory style, or educated them for longevity? I know which one I prefer!
Recognition of prior learning – (or agreeing that yes, you already know stuff…)
Many, many years ago (oh I feel old…) I taught a fairly novice man, on his sweet but also novice mare. He’d had a few months of riding, could basically walk, trot, canter, but that was about it. The mare was about 5 years old, and also knew walk, trot, canter, and that was about it too.
When we started, they were wondering around the arena, steering was more about where the wind took them. So, that was where we began – and instantly, after me explaining a few points, he could steer better than a lot of experienced riders. Hmmm… And, the reason I am thinking about this now, recently I seem to have had a spate of these lessons.
When I meet a pupil for the first time, I ask them two questions. Well, I ask quite a few more, (I’m not nosey, honest…) but these are the important two. What do you know? As in, what sport do you play; what hobby do you have; what musical instrument do you understand; what have you done that has created body patterns, or muscle memory? A lot of people won’t understand if I ask what neural pathways they have built, but “do you play sport?” is something that people can answer. When a pupil walks in, I automatically take some previous learning into account. Do I have to teach him how to speak? How to sit vertical? Do I have to teach him that he is sitting on a horse, or that the fences of the arena mean that he has to stay near me? No, I accept that all of that is previous learning, which makes my life easier – imagine having to start by teaching him his ABC? The other question I ask is, do you have any injury, pain, or issue that I need to be aware of? Hopefully no. If yes, what? Partly so I can help, or at least not make it worse, and partly because I want them, the rider, to be part of how we are going to manage this and move on safely.
So, back to my first rider.
“What sport do you play?” I asked
“Ah, nothing really, I’m too busy with work, and with my horse.”
“What is work, what do you spend most of your awake hours doing?”
“Either flying a plane (I’m a pilot), flying a computer, or sitting on my mare. All things sitting…”
Hmm, I thought, I didn’t believe him. There was immediately too much poise and balance in his body, too high an understanding of tensegrity.
“What sport did you play in the past?”
“Ah, nothing really, a bit of stuff at school, you know, the usual.”
I let it slide – one thing that I have definitely learned, is that people “forget” to talk about big chunks of crucial information, and they will come to light sooner or later.
His understanding of steering was remarkable, and he instinctively knew how to use his core. Within 20 minutes, he and his little mare were walking a dead straight rectangle around the arena and holding it on into trot. Over my time there, we had a few lessons, each one I began by saying – remind me, what sport do you play? And he’d smile and shake his head. We ramped up the technicality of the work, and he and his horse just absorbed it like sponges.
After one particularly challenging lesson, where I really pushed his new found steering skills, he said you know, this reminds me – (and I thought, ah, here we go…) – when I was younger, I used to be a professional sky diver. (I didn’t know it was a profession?) In one of those teams for festivals and displays, where thirty of them jump out of planes, and form patterns in the sky. They link hands in groups of five, then spin away and link feet with 10 others, then flow back into pairs, and all join together, all at 120 miles an hour, at 15,000 feet… How do you think you steer when there is nothing to push against? No wall to lean on, no ground to give yourself resistance. You use your eyes to look (you go where you look), you use your intention, and you steer your core, or trunk muscles. The second I had explained steering, through the use of his core, his pelvis, his thighs and his eyes, he’d put himself back into skydiving practice, and his little mare had instantly understood. He spoke her language. I didn’t teach him anything he didn’t know. I just asked him the right questions to put himself into a place of prior learning. All those years of skydiving were the real lesson.
Recently I had three different riders on three different horses, in three different situations. The first, again a novice man. What sports? Ah, a bit of tennis, jog a bit, fairly active you know. Bit of yoga stretching, move around, swim sometimes.
Its far quicker for me to ask you if you know what a rambutan tastes like, then to start explaining it from the beginning… If you’ve eaten one, you have prior knowledge…
We began our lessons, and I started working on his foot and leg position. As ever, we all have a good well-behaved leg that sits still, and the other wayward leg, he was no exception. We talked about angles, keeping his knee down, keeping both feet parallel to each other and the floor. Imagine you’re skiing I suggested – your skis both have to point down the mountain – if the toes are heading in different directions, you may find yourself in trouble… Ahh, he said, I used to ski a lot. (Ding, ding ding, went my brain, this is what I was waiting to hear…) “I always had to slightly snowplow with this right leg, because it would turn the ski out.” As we went along, the lesson became more ski orientated… Kneeling onto the ski boots, turning a bottle top, cruising the moguls. By the second lesson, he admitted to having been a ski instructor in his past. He’d been taught to teach, but he’d also taken the time out to break down movements and figure out how to teach them to people who didn’t get it. We had quite a few lessons, and each one involved a fair amount of me asking – so tell me, how would you have explained X to a ski pupil. He’d walk his horse around, and as he was answering me, he’d be putting his words into effect in his body, and the horse he was riding – a great hairy old beginner plod cob – would magically become beautiful, light and balanced…. After many of his lessons he’d say to me – magic, thank you, you’re a great teacher, when in reality he was teaching himself – he was the great teacher. The skills he needed to ride the horse were almost identical to the skills he had developed to ski and to teach skiing. I didn’t need or want him to reinvent the wheel – we both had a much simpler time by simply asking him to remember what he already knew.
Two more followed soon after – maybe because it was on my mind and I was debating writing this… Both quite novice riders. One was struggling to keep his horse in trot and not dropping back to walk. Have you ever played a musical instrument, I asked? Yes! He’s a drummer, has practiced drumming for 20 years, since he was little, 3 hours a day, every single day. Awesome. So, a trot is approx. 70 bpm. You and your horse are dancing partners. Or drumming pairs. Walking is approx. 50 bpm. So, either you can keep the beat in your head (and body) and maintain your rising trot or, he can lead you into following his beat. It’s not about bigger muscles, it’s about focus – who is drumming who? And guess what (magic wand…) the horse kept trotting. Did I magically fix it? No, 21,900 hours of drumming practice fixed the issue. Why reinvent the wheel when his body already knew what to do?
An archer has a body filled with neuro pathways that allow her to shoot without thinking… All we need to do is to tap into that understanding…
The final one – a little slip of a girl. Can’t keep her horse straight. What else do you do? Archery. Awesome – there is a target (imaginary) at the end of each side of the arena. As you come around the corner, breathe, ground yourself to take the shot, stay focused and shoot for the target with your core muscles, that do truly release the arrow… Oh, look at that, suddenly your horse goes straight…..
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?
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…”
“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…
It’s funny, isn’t it, how we accept that there are consequences about some things but not others. If you don’t do your work assignment you will get a letter of warning and quite possibly fired. We still procrastinate about getting it done, but understand the risks. We know there will be a consequence, but… If we over-eat during lockdown, when we put our work clothes back on, they may well have shrunk mysteriously, but…
And, how many of us think of consequences when we are co-living with animals? We allow the kitten on the tables because it’s cute, and easier for us to feed him up there so the dogs don’t steal his food. Ah, now he’s a big cat, we chase him when he pinches food off a plate, that sits exactly where his bowl was when he was a kitten. We let the puppy crawl into our beds at night to stop her crying, but as an adult dog, shedding hair and with bone breath, she gets chased. How can we have one rule once, and another rule later?
What about with our horses. I had a young horse in for backing years ago. When you put her on a lunge line, she would run at you and rear up, trying to stand on you with her front feet. She had been doing this to her owner, which is why she was sent to me. I later found out that as a foal, she had been taught to put her hooves on her owner’s shoulders to “give them a cuddle” and this behaviour had become firmly engrained. Just because you think it is nice and cute today, or that it’s something you want, really think about it long term.
Another long ago client wanted to teach her horse a trick while the horse was off work for some reason, and she still wanted to train something. She taught her horse to say please, asking for a carrot. The thing that the horse had to do, was hold her front leg in the air, like a dog asking to shake paws. When the horse was back in work and I went to school her, do you know how irritating it was to groom, tack up and lead the horse, when she kept pawing at you with her front hoof, asking for carrots? If you are going to train a behaviour, you need to make absolutely certain that you have thought it through. And, it’s a huge problem in ridden horses.
An unplanned, and really interesting issue was with a little riding school horse. He’d been privately owned by a teenager who was a nervous rider. They would all, as a group of friends, ride to the beach quite often and as soon as the horse’s hooves hit the sand, the braver kids would kick into canter. Our nervous rider would be coming along at the back, knowing this would happen. As she saw the first riders get to the sand, she’d grab a hold of a big chunk of her horse’s mane. He’d lurch into canter after his buddies, and they’d be off, at speed, down the beach. I met the horse several years later. He had been sold to a riding school and I was teaching a school client on him. As I was about to start the lesson, one of the regular instructors shouted out to me – just don’t let the rider grab his mane…. When he had arrived at the school, the instructors had discovered an issue. Anytime a novice rider was a bit wobbly going into trot or canter, or had lost a stirrup, this horse would suddenly canter off. They worked out – the rider would feel insecure, and either the instructor would yell, “grab the mane” or the rider would instinctively catch a hold of something. And, all those years of cantering off on the beach… You know what the horse had learnt? If the rider grabs the mane, the job of the horse is to go into canter… That nervous teenager had taught the horse a cue, and the cue had a consequence.
There is one horse who, when I teach his human, I stand outside the fence. I refuse to go into the arena with him. He’s dangerous and unpredictable, and when he is pushed a little harder and asked for something which he feels is challenging, such as a turn on the forehand in both directions, having to move both the right and the left hind, he barges in towards the person on the ground and tries to run them over. It’s a nasty behaviour and very deliberate. And the reason he does it? He was taught to roll over a yoga ball as a natural horsemanship game, and since then knows if he threatens to roll over the person, the person runs out of the way. A very dangerous consequence…
Now, one of the most common issues. We, as riders either prefer a horse with more whoa, or more go. I’m a lazy rider, I hate having to use my leg, so would rather have a horse who will take me forwards. Other, more cautious riders feel unsafe on these horses and would rather one who, if in doubt, stops. I had a horse, again many years ago, who looked wild and impressive. He was a massive black Thoroughbred, big-boned and broad for a TB, was very forward going, and would gently dance his way along the roads when I hacked him. One of my staff, an instructor who taught the beginners, coveted this horse and desperately wanted to ride him. One day, I let her hack him out and she came back almost in tears. The fire breathing dragon horse, who I enjoyed, was terrifying for her when she was on top. She stuck to the steadier horses after that ride, actually figured out she preferred more whoa.
What’s this got to do with consequences? Recently I was teaching a lady on her horse, who lacked go. He’d become dead to the leg and the “go” button was a bit broken. Please, please, she begged, I really want him to go forwards with more impulsion and less work from me. And so, what did we focus on? We got the horse travelling forward. DON’T use more leg, get more reaction from LESS leg, was the lesson aim. Transitions, exercises, moving him around. Do less, be stiller and lighter, allow the horse freedom to travel more forwards. It worked like a charm. The horse suddenly found the hand brake off, he lifted his back, stretched into the rein and travelled forward beautifully.
“Whoa” cried his rider – “he’s running away with me”.
“Uh, no”, was my reply, all he is doing is travelling actively forward, lightly on his feet, having found go.
The lesson’s hour came to an end with a worried rider who was convinced that her dull horse was running away uncontrollably, when actually, he was just moving out well, doing exactly what she had asked for. The consequence of asking for go? You get go….
By all means, train your horse, teach him things, refine your own skills and riding abilities, but…. Think carefully about what it is that you are training. Are you really ready for the consequences?
It’s odd, isn’t it, what suddenly makes us think? Or more, what suddenly makes you put into words what you just know… I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to teach people to teach, how much I just take for granted and how you actually need to be able to put words to things.
At the moment, I’ve been hanging out with a little mare with a very big attitude. If you didn’t know her, you’d swear she’d kill you. You go to catch her, she pins her ears back, swings her bum to you, squeals with irritation. But if you tell her to knock it off, walk up to her and put her halter on, she’s actually very sweet and obliging, she just likes to pretend. She’s been put onto medication for suspected PPID and has to have 20 tablets, twice a day. It’s pretty simple, crush them in a pestle and mortar, put them in a syringe and squirt them down her mouth. And every morning when I go to give it to her, she pins her ears, walks out of her stall into the little run out the back, swings her bum at me and makes her opinion very known. “I’m not happy with this situation, I’m cross, you’re going to have to make an effort and come and catch me”.
I walk into her stable, out into the run, up to her, pat her, tell her that she’s very beautiful and absolutely in charge, put her halter on, take her back inside, where the syringe is waiting. She needs that moment, to make sure she and I both know that she’s in charge. She’ll agree, if I ask her nicely, but don’t take it for granted.
This morning, without thinking about it, as I went to catch her I was chatting nonsense to her, saying yes Xena, of course you’re in control. And it suddenly a whole lot of stuff make sense…
This is my route in and out of the cycle parking, at least twice a day. And, honestly, it gives me the heebie jeebies at times… (Isn’t that an awesome expression? It’s right up there with discombobulated and splendiferous, just makes you understand in an instant).
Sometimes, without consciously thinking, I just cycle straight through. I’m aiming forward, straight, go, and have acres of room. Other days I’m thinking arrrgh, going hit the tree, going to hit the wall, arrgh, look how close the wall is… And guess what? I have numerous skinned toes, ankles and fingers from those trees and wall… At the moment it’s a bit worse. Why? Because the bike I am currently borrowing has no brakes. Generally, this is ok. The island paths and trails are rough enough that you get a little smooth run downhill, but almost immediately you hit sand or an uphill that slows you down. This path and lack of brakes however, don’t go well together. It dawned on me, as I was chatting to Xena, that on my bike when I have brakes, I know I’m in control. And, if I know I have control, it gives me confidence to zoom through the gaps without thinking, without touching my brakes, and without hitting the walls. And on my brakeless bike, I hesitate… And if you hesitate and look at the wall…. One of the most common things I say to pupils – you go where you look. What you think, you create.
That’s exactly what Xena was telling me this morning. By knowing that she could walk away, by knowing that she moves my feet to follow her, and by pulling sweary marey faces at me, she has control of the situation. She’s in control and its her willingness to accept me and my tube of medicine that allows it to happen, not my control over her. By me allowing her to walk away, I’m giving her the control she needs, to co-operate as a willing partner. Mutual respect.
Many moons ago, I had an awesome friend who could communicate with animals. And one of the things that she drummed into my head – don’t pick up cats. It’s humiliating, rude and embarrassing. How would you like it if some giant lived in your house and was forever picking you up? You’re snoozing in the sun, and they pick you up. You’re enjoying a bath, and they pick you up. It’s just rude, takes away your control and makes you feel discombobulated (Love that word…) You can’t settle, you feel out of control and unsettled so you bite, scratch or hide under the bed. The little Bat Cat kitten, very early on developed a great trick. If she wanted to be picked up, she’d mew, mew, until you put your hand down. And instantly, if she wanted to be up, she’d half jump into your hand, wrap her paws around your wrist and ask to come up. In this way, she had control. So many people treat animals as dolls to play with – I have a kitten / puppy / tarantula would you like to hold it / pet it / treat it as a living teddy bear. My friend’s cats would sit and watch. If they chose, they’d hop onto the couch next to you. Often, they’d curl up in your lap. But, they were in control, it was their choice and so they were ultra-confident, because they had control. If they didn’t like a situation, they’d leave. Simple.
Think of small kids who are forced to go and hug Great Uncle George, even though they hate Great Uncle George because he makes them feel uncomfortable? But, because the parents insist on manners, they’re forced to go, and they have zero control of the situation. This causes stress, worry, and “bad manners”. Other parents, if the child doesn’t want to go to hug Great Uncle George shrug it off – sorry, they’re just shy. The child leaves with a sense of control and is more confident. The book I’m currently reading about PTSD deals with too – if a person is used to being put into a bad situation and having no say, it becomes their norm, which is a problem…
How many horses have any element of control? They don’t like a situation, tough luck buddy. How often do these conversations happen…
Horse; I don’t like this hard leather girth… I’m going to show you by grinding my teeth, pinning my ears back, kicking out a hind foot, and maybe even biting you…
Human; Don’t be a prat, it’s only a girth. And it was expensive. And matches my name brand saddle.
Horse; I hate being in this cage (stable) so I’m going to box walk and kick the wall…
Human; Arh, pretty pony with a pink blanket, you’ll be warm and dry here…
Horse; I’m not cold, I don’t need a rug, I’m going to snap at you as you put it on, and then rip it off…
Human; Don’t you be bad and break your expensive new pink blanket…
Horse; I can’t go forward, my feet hurt and you’re pulling my mouth.
Human; Don’t be lazy or I’ll wear bigger spurs…
The horse is trying to have some control over his life. He’s trying to show what makes him unsettled or uncomfortable, and so often, we take away what little control he has over his life and environment. And when you can’t apply the brakes at all, suddenly you feel pretty out of control… How do you think learned helplessness happens?
I clearly remember many, many years when I was doing my GCSE in Horsemanship (Yes, it was a thing, an actual school exam, equivalent to O levels, in Horses) at the local riding school. It was a two year course, a few hours a week and counted as one of your exams. Our instructor introduced us to long lining, and I was hooked.
She used her own mare, as none of the school ponies had been taught how to work on lines, but she was a firm believer. So, we all had a go at driving her mare around and around the indoor. Looking back, it was basic, Irish lining, but it planted the seed.
Roll on, over the years and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some true long lining geniuses who showed me what an amazing, powerful, art form it really is. Many of these people weren’t great teachers. They’d be working a horse, with me watching intently, and then hand me the reins. Initially, those poor horses had to try and decipher my fumbled attempts. This was the first, and truly one of the best lessons in conscious / unconscious competence.
These trainers had no idea how good they were at doing this, and generally no idea how to teach it. I bumbled my way along, and found my way on unconscious competence, over the years.
A few years ago, someone who I have utmost respect for, as a trainer and teacher, asked me to teach her to long line. I said, uh, I don’t think I can. I pick up the reins and it’s like coming home. I can see the horse isn’t straight, or is twisting, or loading a limb, and I can fix it. But, I don’t necessarily know how I did it. So began a process. I did teach her to long line. I’d do a bit, she’d watch and talk through what she thought I was doing. She’d do a bit, I’d watch and see what I could change in her body, with my words. My turn again, I’d focus on certain bits of my body, or where my attention was going. And, we made progress.
One day, her horse wasn’t doing a movement well or easily. I took the reins, and couldn’t solve the issue either. When I thought about why not, I realized that I was actually trying to put what I was doing into words, I couldn’t do anything right. As soon as I just let the thought go and trusted my instinct, the horse performed the movement beautifully.
So, why am I going on about all this now?
Long lining is such a vital part of my toolkit. Most issues can be resolved on the lines, and humans improve as riders too. Their hands get softer, their eye improves and clarity sinks in. Many people work their horses in hand, and then under saddle, but this crucial link is missed out, making the horse’s life and understanding more difficult. Long lining done badly can be incredibly harmful. And having ropes down, around the hocks is dangerous, but done correctly, and with the reins held up by the withers, its magic.
I have been teaching this more and more over the past few years, and everyone who discovers this skill is hooked.
Why I am talking about this now? Finally I’ve made a plan to teach this online… It’s in two sections, this, first section is explaining the basics – what it means, equipment you need, how to start. Next section will be the skills to start to change and improve your horse’s way of going. I’m excited to be able to share this magic, hope you’ll join me for the ride!
This is something really important to me, and I’ve had it mind to write about for ages, but watching events unfold in front of me has clarified it again.
Attendance or Attainment. What does the difference mean to you?
Attendance is to attend something. To have made an appearance. Last summer I did a lot of CPD days, (continued professional development days) and at the end, we were given our “6 hours CPD” certificates, whether or not we slept through it, interacted, agreed, disagreed or learnt. Some were awesome, others were… Well…
Attainment is to achieve. When I was head of testing for the Pony Club, I had no issues failing the kids. Well, let’s rephrase that. When I was lecturing them, I’d always prepare them for the grade above what we were doing. If they were aiming for C test, I’d make sure they could pass their C+ with flying colours. Partly because I don’t believe in failure. Partly because, coming from little old Zimbabwe (and teaching a lot of embassy / expat kids) I wanted to make sure the standards were high, so that when these kids went back to the first world they came from, people would be impressed with their knowledge gathered in Africa, not be making exceptions for them. But, if I was examining and an unprepared kid, or a kid with a know-it-all attitude came along, I’d fail them. Later, as an examiner for The South African National Equestrian Federation, I did fail a fairly high proportion of instructor hopefuls. If you can’t do the skills, you don’t get your bit of paper just for attending. It’s that simple.
A lot of courses are only aimed at giving enough information so that participants can answer the questions. “Here is a 100-page book to study… You really only need to read chapter 5 and read the list of past questions on page 89, because that’s where the exam questions come from”. How often have you heard that one? I have. And that, I think, is attendance, not attainment.
Albert Einstein is credited with the quote – “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.
To this end, when I was Chief Instructor for the Pony Club, all the older kids had to lecture the younger ones. The older C+ kids lectured the E and D kids. The B and A test kids lectured the D+’s and C’s. It freed up instructor’s time, but it was mainly to clarify things for the older kids. If you can’t explain to a 10-year-old how to assemble a bridle, maybe you don’t understand it well enough yourself…
Why am I thinking of all of this now? I’m sitting at a dive centre, (https://www.facebook.com/lutwaladive/) watching some people do their PADI Rescue Diver Course. In some centres, the course is done in about 2 / 3 days. A morning watching videos. An afternoon in the pool. A day in the sea. Wham, Bam, thank you M’am, you’ve attended the course, here’s you bit of paper. Here, it’s a bit different. Breaking down the skills. Doing the theory, then in the pool. Then the sea. Back to watching the video, reading the book, discussing the scenarios. In the water, out of the water. This morning, there was a “accident”. Oh My Word, someone is “drowning” out to sea, quickly, quickly, can someone rescue him – Oh The Drama… It’s taking up a good week. They’ve had to drag in a body against the tide – exhausted rescuers. They had to hunt for a weight belt and plot the search area. They haven’t attended the course, they’ve learnt the information, they’ve done everything practically. They’ve taken twice as much time, been tired and overwhelmed, and they have understood. Some people would be bored and frustrated. And you know what? If I were to have an accident, or to get lost at sea, do you know who I’d rather have out looking for me? The ones who have attended a two-day course, or the ones who have achieved pulling in a “dead body” against the current and plotted a proper search area?
When I learnt to dive, we took it really slow. My dive instructor was pedantic about safety and understanding. We went through the theory, we did all the drills, we worked out the compass and plotting on land. We tested, learnt, practiced, practiced. It helped that he was my friend. It helped that we had no rush. It helped that he taught some of the world’s biggest VIP’s and so had to be ultra-cautious. And, I learnt properly, carefully, thoroughly, and so it made sense.
A couple of years ago, I did a two-day free diving course. There was a set syllabus. Morning one – yoga practice. Pool practice. Afternoon one, yoga practice, pool practice. Skills 1, 2, 3, 4. Day two, pool practice, afternoon, sea practice, you WILL dive to 20m, stay 30 seconds, come back up. The instructor was disinterested. He had a list to follow, we were drilled through his list. He damn near drowned me, and I didn’t finish the course. He was unprepared and only had one thought in mind – to get through his two days.
See the difference?
As a pupil, which way would you rather learn? As an instructor, honestly, how do you teach?
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 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?
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…
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.
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.
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?
“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…
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.