“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.
So, here’s the question – how much do the people around you really see you?
It’s not a criticism, it’s being human. But, I find it interesting, and it’s why my bouncing around the world, works.
I arrived to teach a lesson recently, a very teachable, enthusiastic, focused young lady. I’ve taught her a fair amount – 3 times a clinic for 4 or 5 clinics, so I know her well. This time, she had a new horse. She was riding around at the beginning, letting the horse amble on a long rein as we chatted, I asked her, what’s changed? Uh, she replied – new horse? No, no, I said, something in you?
Nothing – no difference, just a new horse.
Something is different. New gym?
More time studying?
Hmmm…. Something is off, something has changed. New car? Change in driving? New bed? New desk and computer layout?
No, she kept insisting, nothing is different.
I wasn’t convinced, but figured that what ever it was, the answer would come. And it did – 5 minutes later…
Oh, OH, OHHHH…… Oh?
The doctor has diagnosed asthma, a tightening in her breathing. There you go, – that’s it. She’s always had a pattern to round her shoulders, but there was a shortening through the front of her body, a holding, a lack of breath is a good description.
I was teaching recently, in an indoor arena. They had hung a couple of plastic hawks up, to try to keep pigeons from nesting in the rafters. The funny thing was, the horses didn’t notice the new hawk… Until, on a vile, windy day, there was enough draught to make the hawk “fly” and move on the wind. Suddenly, every horse was head up, ears up, noticing the bird. It took a waving red flag before they noticed that something had changed….
I asked her, for our next session, to use her new asthma pump before she got on, and, would you look at that – she sat straighter, softer, with a more relaxed, easier way than before. And – look even more – look at how her new horse lengthened her neck, opened her chest, reached into the rein and started to breathe deeply through-out her whole body.
Now, this young rider is lucky to have a very good instructor who pays proper attention to detail, and a dedicated Mom who is often there videoing. But, they didn’t pick it up…. Because they couldn’t. They see her every day, they don’t see the gradual, millimeter by millimeter change because it’s not in our human make up.
Have you ever heard the story of the frog in the pot of boiling water? A frog is sitting in a pot of cold water, and slowly, bit by bit, the water is heated. It’s so gradual it can’t really be felt, until suddenly the frog is being boiled in his pot of water…. I know it’s happened to me in reverse – you go to soak in a lovely bath of hot, steamy water, and by the time you get out the water is lukewarm, but you don’t notice at the time. Any situation can change so slowly that you don’t notice. Think of how tatty the paint work of your house, or your favourite pair of jeans can become, without you seeing the change?
Something that I often suggest to people is to take a good, clear, side on photograph of their horse. Put it away in a drawer and don’t look at it for 6 months. Take another, new photograph and compare them. Again, we don’t notice our horses developing (hopefully for the better) when we see them every day, but compare where you were 6 months ago? Easy.
How about you do the same for yourself? Take a video, or a series of photos. Compare them to what was, or wait a few months and take some more. It’s not only your instructor’s job to see what you’re doing. They see you too often sometimes, to notice the tiny changes. I’m in the lucky position of having a few months between visits, so the changes are there to see, but, especially when it’s something major, like being diagnosed with asthma.
Do you notice what changes? Are you aware of what you do outside the arena that impacts on you and your horse?
Reluctantly, I wandered into a local football club, for what I suspected would be a dull 3 hours. And was very pleasantly surprised by a thought-provoking evening. Which was? Child safeguarding. Whether it was this trainer and his method, or whether it was the UK Coaching system, we had a good evening of different coaching ideas and a nice interaction between coaches in a wide variety of sports. A couple of aspects made me think, but one in particular…
Children are often bullied and this is a problem. Whether cyber bullying, bullying in class about being “stupid” or wearing glasses or whatever other reason. But, what about in sports? A classic bullying moment comes when the two team captains are tasked with yelling out kid’s names and building their teams, and they each avoid calling out the last couple of kids because they know they have no ball skills. Is this the worst bullying in sport? Actually, no. The worst bullying often happens from the parents.
The kids’ practice, they are coached, they enjoy the sport, and then, come match day, the parents stand on the edge of the sports field to cheer on the little darlings. Some parents are awesome, they cheer, they clap, they encourage. Others, not so much.
“You call that a pass?”
“Hit it to the other team”
“Go on, kil’em”
“Oi, ref – you call that reffing? Are you blind? What part of penalty do you call that?”
Parents screaming at their kids, parents screaming at other kids, parents screaming at other parents, parents screaming at refs. And THEN, they have to get in the parent’s car and get yelled at going home too. Awesome. Kids drop out of sport and decide that much as they love football, rugby, hockey, riding, whatever, they’d rather give up, because they don’t want to be yelled at. I love this video – really gets the message across…
And that got me thinking about something else. How often do horses feel this too? Lots of horses school nicely at home but fall apart at a show. Yes, some of that is due to rider’s nerves, and horses suffer from stage fright too. But often, horses will have home tack that they school, train and hack out wearing, and then a set of fancy show tack to compete in. One horse and rider combination who I used to teach a lot always did a fabulous job at home when we were schooling but so often the horse would start head shaking when ridden through a dressage test. I’d seen a couple of videos of the tests, but never saw them in real life. Finally, I managed to be at a show where they were competing and was standing chatting to them in the warm up arena. On rubbing the horse on his face, I felt his fancy diamond encrusted browband, and it was so small that it was pinching the base of his ears in front of the head piece. How can you ride him in this bridle? Well, it’s his pretty show bridle. We swapped it for his usual bridle and magic – the head shaking stopped.
That was a physical issue, but how many horses associate a piece of equipment or a place with being beaten up or pushed too hard in competition?
When I started riding and working with stallions, one of the first things that I was taught, was that a working stallion who was also covering mares must have two bridles. They have a “concentrate, we are schooling” bridle, and they have a “let’s go cover a mare” bridle. My stallions would cover in a loose ring rubber snaffle and work in some form of metal bit. Why? Because the instant the horse sees, smells or wears his bridle, he knows what to associate with it. The behavior was very different in his two different bridles. So, does he see his show bridle, and think, here we go with My Magic Sports Kit? Does your horse like competing, or does he feel stressed by the extra pressure?
Have a look at this video too – do you tell your horse, I love watching you play? Do you tell your child/ pupil / sibling / friend, I love watching you ride?
You know the quickest, easiest way to push my buttons? Overhear an instructor standing in an arena yelling, use more leg, add leg, MORE LEG. Tear my hair out. Please, please, don’t add more leg.
A horse is standing quietly, when suddenly he starts to stomp his feet, wave his tail about and get really agitated. Why? Because a fly, midge or mosquito is biting him. He gets quite rattled, because it nips, releases, nips, releases, nips. How much weight, power LEG does a fly have? And yet, magic that, it gets a reaction. The fly gets more reaction than you do, and yet, he uses less leg.
The grumpy old pony mare who is queen in the paddock marches up to the great big dopey cob, with a scowl on her face and he speedily moves away from the hay pile. Did she use any leg? Add leg? MORE LEG? No, she pinned her ears back and marched with purpose, and he believed her. (Probably because the first time she demanded the hay and he didn’t move fast enough, she turned around and kicked him, fast, in and out… She certainly didn’t slowly add more leg.
Something goes bang of the road, and your horse shoots forwards. Did the bang USE MORE LEG? Ummm, no. It got a reaction, it held his attention – it wasn’t an irritating kick, kick, kick on his ribs.
A horse is more than capable of moving off the slightest possible signal, even just the change of your breath, so what possible reason could you ever have of using more leg? Make the signal louder?
Someone walks up to me and asks me to take a seat…. But, they are speaking French. I don’t speak French. They see that I am not reacting in the correct way, I’m still standing. So, they yell louder that I should sit. They yell louder and louder, but I’m still standing. Shouting at me louder, won’t help me understand French. The challenge is that I don’t understand, not that I don’t want to respond. And me yelling back in English that I don’t understand won’t help either. If the French speaker pulled the chair out and swept his hand across it, inviting me to sit in a manner that I could understand then we’d both be happy.
I was teaching a lesson recently, where the rider was flap, flap, flapping their legs on the poor horse’s sides. The horse was busy ignoring her and she was busy nagging. “Why are you flapping so much with your leg?” I asked? Because her instructor was always yelling, use more leg, more leg. There were other elements involved – the rider was not balanced and so was blocking the forward movement, and the horse was an elderly schoolmaster who was great at tuning out the rider. Watch, I said, as I stood by the horse for a few moments. I pushed my hands firmly against the horse’s shoulder, and after a second, he pushed back. He was happy leaning into a constant, non-demanding pressure. After a minute of me trying to push him over, of leaning more and more heavily against him and him not moving, (of me “adding more leg”, and him leaning into it) I gave up. And instead I started to tap his shoulder, just a niggle, like a fly landing on him, and look at that, he moved. I had his attention, and it was that pressure that had him moving his feet. It wasn’t adding more pressure at all (using more leg) – he weighs 5 or 6 times what I do, no human could physically move a horse in a way that he doesn’t agree to be moved to. It was in getting more reaction, that he moved.
So, what is the answer?
We humans all have a finite amount of leg to use. If you go into the gym with a child and a bodybuilding man to do some weightlifting with your legs, you’d all reach a limit. Maybe the child could lift 10kg. Maybe you could do 30. Maybe the weightlifter could do 50. But we all have a limit. “Using more leg” is going to hit a limit somewhere, and pretty much means that only big hefty men could ride horses, because how would the small legged child get her pony to move? And, your horse can feel a fly, why, oh why, would he need a 20kg thump in the ribs to get him going?
As one of my lovely pupils puts it, “if you want your horse to respond like a ballerina, why would you treat him like a rugby player?”
What do you need? You need MORE reaction from LESS leg. Think of your leg as an irritating fly – you whisper a leg aid, quiet the leg, whisper it again. And if you don’t get a reaction, then you give a sharper leg aid or a flick with a stick to say HELLO, reaction, then you make your leg quiet again. But please, please don’t use more leg…
There is a lesson on leg aids and the use of legs on the www.kudaguru.com for members.
A friend posted something on Facebook recently, that made me smile to myself. It was one of these inspirational posters / quotes, along the lines, of always having an open mind to experience adventure, because you never know when the next awesome thing will come along. Now, this is something that I am very much open to, believe whole heartily, and everyone knows I’m always ready for adventure, but it was who posted it that made me smile. This particular person is open to adventure, BUT, only when it’s neat, tidy, clean and in a ribbon bedecked, safe little box. Adventure? Yes, but… A long while ago, three friends (including me) went on a trip together. Friend A had planned a day’s outing. Great, I said. Friend B, said, ummm… No. It wasn’t in her comfort zone, it wasn’t the kind of thing that she wanted to do. Which did cause a whole pile of friction. And the problem came about, because although she pushes for adventure, she has a whole lot of Yes, but…
We’re all different – how boring would the world be if we were all the same, carbon copies of each other? But, we need to be aware of our differences. Everyone has a comfort zone, a stretch zone, a learning zone and a panic, out of control zone. This lady I’m talking about? Well, her comfort zone is her town, her regular coffee shops, restaurants, cinema, shopping malls, office. Easy peasy. Her stretch zone would be travelling to a different country, trying a new yoga or Pilates class, something a little out of the norm. Learning zone – something a bit bigger, maybe travelling to a new country alone, or taking a pottery weekend course. And her out of control, panic zone, her “yes, but” zone is along the lines of scuba diving, skydiving, camping, something that has her saying “yes to adventure, but NO”. Now, I’m a bit weird, we all know that. There is only one, particular thing that would have me saying, ummmm, No. (And no, we’re not going there right now!) But ANYTHING else, if it is morally, ethically, legally ok, I’m game. A couple of things may begin to push my buttons – scuba diving through a very tight shipwreck where my tank has to be manoeuvred through – oh yes, that’s a challenge. Being a passenger on the back of a motor bike – yes, I have doubts. I’ll still say, yes, let’s go.
I did a challenge a few years back called the Cherry Challenge. I can’t remember all of the details, but it was along the lines of a lady had been clearing her Grandmother’s house and found her stash of treasures – soaps, lotions, potions, wines and chocolates that had been given to her as gifts, that she had put aside and saved for a special occasion. And, saved them for so long that she had died and not enjoyed them. This lady thought no, life is for the living, and so, every single day she does something that she has never done before. Most days it’s something small, like buy a new flavour of teabags or jam. Go to a new coffee shop, order a latte instead of a cappuccino. Take your packed lunch out to the park, drive a new route to the supermarket. These baby challenges are well within the reach of 99% of people and don’t cost a lot either. Maybe once a month, she’ll drive to a neighbouring town, or take a new hiking trail she wanted to try. As long as it is all something she has never done. When we did it, we found all sorts of really random things to do, even walking home from work backwards, surfing on a tea tray down the stairs, and eating dinner blind folded. Of course, there are some big challenges too, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is a good stretch. And, learning to scuba dive was another big one for me. And, what may challenge one person won’t challenge another. Going to a new coffee shop instead of your regular can be a big step for some, where travelling alone to a new country is another day in the office for me. (I highly recommend the cherry challenge for everyone; it definitely adds some flavour to life!)
And why is this relevant to a horse blog? Well, what I do is not mainstream. It’s thinking a long way out of the box for many people. Where is your breath going? How are the water hoses? Is your horse on a balance beam? These are all very normal questions you’ll hear during one of my sessions. And, many riders are very open to the new way of thinking. But, my most challenging riders are those who say “Yes, but….”
Can you imagine that your horse has two long water hoses running from his hocks, up his back legs, over his pelvis, under the saddle, up his neck, and that the movement of his muscles is similar to water travelling through the hoses, and we need to pick his back up? Yes…. But….. I want to get his head down.
Can you feel how adding power to your core, and having your alignment is going to make you more stable, so allowing an independent seat? Yes…. But….. Can’t you just make my hands still?
Yes, I know what your lessons are about, I know it’s not mainstream, and I know I’m going to be asked to think out of the box….. But, I don’t think I can.
Some people are ready to go on a big adventure and challenge their thinking, others, they just want a lesson where they are told to sit up straight, use more leg and make their horse rounder. I want new thinking, yes, but… I’m not that brave.
Adventures are scary places, letting your dragon (fear) out of its box is not always easy, but that knife edge of scary / uncomfortable / uneasy / challenge, that is where the learning and growth happens. You need to jump off the cliff to find your wings…
I had an interesting chat with a client at the beginning of her lesson a few days ago. I’d already taught her a couple of times during the same week, and as we started, I asked how she was feeling today. Good, she said, a bit stiff after our last lesson, core and thighs had worked harder than usual, but stiff in a good way. How was her brain? Well, good too, what we had worked on had made sense and she’d processed all her thoughts. And, how about your horse? She looked at me as if I was mad. Huh? How’s my horse? Well, fine of course, same as ever, she (the rider) hadn’t been away or anything, the horse had been ridden every day, of course he was the same as ever, why would I ask such a thing?
A while ago, I watched a video online. It was a guy – life coach or similar – talking about how much we’ve lost in life, with our use of smart phones instead of small talk. His argument – you’d have gone into a business meeting, and chatted to your colleagues – how’s the family, how was your holiday, have you recovered from your broken leg? You make small talk, you build relationships, team work, fostering a mutual feeling of being valued. And now, he argued, we go into the meeting room, sit down fiddling with our phones. The meeting begins, we put our phones down. There is a pause in proceedings – someone is turning on their power point presentation, so instead of small talk, we again pick up our phones. End of meeting, we pick up our phones and walk out, looking down at those damn Bladdy phones. We have lost the art of conversation.
This video struck me, partly thinking of human to human conversations, but also because it’s something I have long complained about regarding many riders and their horses.
When I had my own yard, one of the main rules was, you got whichever horse you were riding ready for his session, and you looked after him afterwards. If you were having a lesson at 3pm, you’d need to be on the yard shortly after 2pm. You’d check the board to see who you were allocated, walk up to his paddock, catch him, lead him in. Groom, fetch tack, get both of you dressed and ready, and be in the arena 5 minutes before your lesson. After the ride, you’d untack, wash or brush him off, cool him down and walk him back to his paddock. And in this time, you’d generally end up making small talk…. “How are you doing; are you sound and walking well on all four legs; any injuries; oooh, there it is, the best itchy scratchy place just under your mane…. Are you a bit stiff after we jumped yesterday? Ah, there is a bit of swelling there, did you get stung by something? You happy to have your saddle put on and girthed up?” If I asked any of my pupils how their horse was, they’d be able to give me a clear answer.
Now, there is an awful lot of valet riding. You drive your car to a fancy restaurant, and as you drive up, there is a valet driver to take your car off and park it somewhere, saving you the time, effort and walk. When you are ready to leave, your car is brought around to the front door. Perfect. Valet riding? You arrive at the stable yard and your horse is led, fully tacked up and prepared, to the mounting block, where you climb aboard. You’re led to the arena, and – look at that, you’re here. And how is your horse? Umm….. It’s far less than perfect. At the end of your lesson, the groom appears and leads your horse away, often giving them their bit of carrot on the way. How is your relationship with your horse? Does he even know who you are?
Your horse is getting information from you all of the time. Stressed from work? He knows. A bit weak kneed from your hangover? He knows. Nervous at the thought of today’s jumping lesson? He knows. Happy and excited to be going cross country? He knows that too. So how about you return the favour and find out a bit about him today? We’re all busy and trying to fit our horses in amongst the rest of life, but if you go out of your way for a bit of small talk it’ll pay you back 100 times over…
I’m writing this in a state of disillusionment. For a while, something has been bothering me, and only during a recent online workshop that I worked out exactly what. The thing that floated back into my mind was the real sadness of teaching a lesson a little while ago. Let me explain…
The lady I was teaching was a new pupil, never before met, and quite new to riding itself, only having had about 15 lessons. She was riding a horse who I know reasonably well – I have taught quite a few riders on him, and in his youth, he was a real high flyer, competing at a reasonably high level. The gradual decline of a horse – from young and talented, in much demand, to becoming a schoolmaster for a junior, to riding school horse for the advanced weekly rider, to beginner’s quiet plod. Sad enough for a starting point. Anyway, he seems happy enough in his little world, to plod along. This rider was keen and sweet, but was very unbalanced and wobbly, leaning back, getting left behind and pulling the poor old boy in the mouth at regular intervals. Every time she accidentally socked him in the teeth, he’d stop, sigh, wait for her to get organised and plod off on his way again. We spent much time in walk, re-arranging how she was sitting; getting her legs under her in a more effective way; explaining that his mouth is at the other end of her reins and every time she pulls, he feels it and stops. She was lovely, very teachable, keen to learn and implemented the changes well. When we got into trot, we worked on the correct leg aids and how to keep her balance – and our gentle soul of a schoolmaster picked up some speed, put himself in a beautiful rhythm and started to carry himself. Oooh, she said in excitement, this is so different. Wonderful, I replied, why? Well, it’s so springy, she said, and he is going fast, forwards and easily… I don’t have to whip him. After the lesson, as we were closing up, she said she was so happy, she doesn’t like whipping her horse. I asked her, do you whip him often? Oh yes, came the reply, my instructor (who I also, sadly, know) sits in the corner and yells, whip him, whip him, whip him harder, to try to keep him going. He tells me the horse is slow, stubborn and old, and will only go if I make him, by whipping him.
Minute by minute, my heart fell a little more. This sweet, kind, gentle horse, doing his best to listen to his rider when she pulled on his mouth and keep her safe, was being whipped, whipped, whipped to make him go. Would this happen in a dog training class? Your dog won’t sit? Whip him harder. And yet, it’s ok in a riding lesson. Your parrot won’t talk? Whip him. Your cat won’t stay off the table? Whip him. Your horse is stopping when you accidentally ask? Whip him. Logic, right?
So, this is an isolated incident? No. I see this again and again. Lazy teaching, “instructors” simply directing traffic to pass the time. Riders who, instead of being helped and taught, are put on tied down, miserable, shut down horses. Buyers being given bad advice by advisors who will get back hander from horse sellers. Greedy yard owners overworking horses (and instructors). Lame horses being sold or used for riding. Horses, and novices, being taken for a ride, literally.
It’s a global issue. The governing powers that be, are turning a blind eye to much abuse in the competition world, and that seems to trickle down through the ranks. Whats the fix? Honestly, I don’t know. Better teacher training? Better pay so that instructors don’t work the long hours and become stale? Better vetting of instructors and yards? Really, I don’t know where the change is going to come. More novices being asked to open their eyes to what is happening in front of them?
I do what I do because I actually like horses – something that seems to be in short supply in the horse industry at the moment. I want to make a difference, to improve that horse’s life, but also to educate the human with them, to improve the lives of all of the future horses that human will come into contact with. But sometimes, like now, I get tired. Disillusioned. Fed up with swimming against what seems a tidal wave of cruelty and misunderstanding. I know it’s not only in my industry – school teachers are giving up teaching due to spoilt brats who are over entitled and not disciplined by their doting (or lazy) parents. Animal charity workers committing suicide over the never-ending deluge of unwanted, over bred, abused or mistreated lost souls. Environmental activists who simply give up and vanish. Many, many of us are in the same boat and wonder how (and why) to proceed.
Slightly odd question, isn’t it? Someone asked me that recently, when I told them of a plan that is ticking over in the back of my mind. How big is your why? Huh?
She explained – let’s say, you are thinking “I want to get fit”. How big is your why? Because, next month we are going for a hike in the mountains, and I want to be able to keep up. Is that a good enough why? No. For one, you’re not really invested in it, for two, in a month’s time, after your hike, where is that inspiration going to take you? Ok, how about, because at the end of the year I’m going to climb Kilimanjaro, and if I’m not fit enough, it’s going to kick my butt. Again, that’s better, but is it enough? If you’re anything like me, no, it’s not big enough. I did this a couple of years ago – I’m going to get fit to climb Kili, and I did…. Ummm…. Zero training. I just plodded up that hill. So, my why wasn’t big enough to get me out there to do my fitness training. I’m going to get fit so I can play soccer with my kids instead of watching from the side-line? Yes, that could do it. I’m going to fit to have more energy to run my business and have time family time. Yup, that could be it too.
A long, long time ago – well over 20 years – I decided that I wasn’t eating meat. Now, my three loves in life were steak, Bovril and an African delicacy called Biltong – a dried meat similar to beef jerky. When I said I was going vegetarian, everyone who knew me laughed, thinking oh yes, this’ll last a week. And, it has lasted, coming up for 30 years. Because? I had an enormous WHY. I wasn’t going to eat my friends anymore. Cut and dried. It was absolutely no effort to stop, and I’ve never been tempted back. My WHY was more than enough. For the past 5 years or so, I’ve debated going full on vegan, but…. I just love cheese and chocolate. Pizza? How do you say no? About 3 years ago, I was coughing a cough that just wouldn’t leave. Doctor after doctor told me that I could try this medicine or that, but nothing worked. Finally, after three separate people told me that it was dairy, I had a go, and removed all dairy from my diet for a month. Lo and behold, after about 4 days, I stopped coughing. Magic. After the month, I started to reintroduce dairy, and the one thing that would make me cough was – milk in my coffee. That why was big enough – I haven’t had milk in tea or coffee since then, and magically, I don’t cough. But I also figured out that I could eat cheese and chocolate…. They both make my throat itch, but I can cope with that….
As a WHY, it isn’t big enough. Recently, I was staying in an area where there are lots, lot, lots of dairies and dairy cows. They were well enough looked after, but the sight of them wearing computerised bracelets to tell the farmers of their number, yield and vital statistics was depressing. And watching the new mum’s bellow for their babies as they were taken away…. I think I may have found a big enough WHY to stop me eating dairy.
A while ago, I went to teach a new client, and as I walked in, this rider said to me – “yes, I know, I’m overweight”. Well OK, let’s get on with it, we went about our lesson. He did battle – his joints are under pressure; the doctor is threatening knee surgery and the risk of diabetes. He’s not fit, and although his very large and up to weight hunter type horse can carry him, it would make both of their lives easier if he lost the weight. I didn’t mention it though. Afterwards, his wife, who was watching, commented that I hadn’t said anything about his weight. I replied, he knows about his weight. The doctor has told him. His regular riding instructor has told him. You have told him. My telling him wasn’t going to be a big enough WHY. When he decides, when the weight gets to him and a WHY appears on his radar, he’ll choose to lose the weight and it’ll happen relatively easily. But until then? Not happening.
You want to improve your riding? Why? To win a ribbon at a show? Not enough. Because your yard suggested you came for a lesson? Not enough. Because your horse has the beginnings of kissing spines, and your vet has said that if you don’t get organised and ride in balance, you’ll end up putting your horse down? Yes, that could be a good enough why.
You want to lose weight? Why? To feel healthier? No. Because your family has booked an epic riding safari and their weight limit is 80kg… Yup, that could be the why.
No one is going to be able to teach you a skill, or help you quit something, or get you into a different mindset unless you decide to go there. And, why do you want to go there? Well, you need to figure out your own WHY…
One of the best riding lessons that I ever had was from a back pack and an escalator. The day before was a ten-lesson teaching day, a dash to taxi, airport, jump on a plane and a long haul, overnight flight across the world to the next teaching venue. I was wearing a heavy, badly fitted back pack that had shoulder straps just too long, and as I bumbled along through the landing airport, sleep deprived and slow, and stepped on the upward escalator, the backward force of the pack pulling back on my shoulders almost over ran the forward force of the escalator pulling me forwards. Just in time, muscle memory engaged my core, I went forwards to counteract the backward pull, and without leaning forwards, came into balance with the escalators force. Lightbulb – hello, this is how a horse feels when his rider is a fraction behind the movement – as the horse is trying to go forwards, as the rider is trying to send him forwards, the rider’s slight drag, which increases their weight with a leverage effect, drags the horse backwards. A very simple physics lesson that all rider’s need to understand, and that was clarified to me – already a trainer teaching this – in a simple non-horse lesson.
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have had some incredible training with a range of awesome riding instructors. Many Olympic athletes, judges, brain surgeon, physicists to name a few. There have been many moments of “Oh – that is what you mean”, as well as many incredible four legged learning partners.
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have had some incredible training with a range of awesome riding instructors. Many Olympic athletes, judges, brain surgeon, physicists to name a few. There have been many moments of “Oh – that is what you mean”, as well as many incredible four legged learning partners.
However…. Some of the truly incredible learning sessions have been with other trainers. Learning to use my breath to influence a horse in spectacular ways came from a hugely talented scuba diving instructor. His talk through of finding buoyancy, of being able to float up or sink down and using the breath to control where you are, is something that I teach all the time. (Still haven’t managed to master one of the underwater exercises that he showed me… I suspect when I get it, I may have a better key to teach collection). A martial artist teaching me how to go from defence to attack was the only person who clarified distribution of balance and weight over both feet, and controlling direction of forces, how to flow seamlessly from one to the other with no outward signs, but the control of directional forces. A rock climbing trainer taught me how an obvious looking movement, isn’t what it may seem – you don’t climb a wall by pulling yourself up with your arms, you engage your core to the wall, get your (hind) legs under you, propel yourself upwards and the only thing your hands do is give guidance and balance. A pole dancer taught me about elevation, while a belly dancing guru taught me just how little I know about isolating muscles within the core (note to self, you need to re-visit that particular subject).
An indoor sky diving trainer taught me about firming up certain parts of the core to change direction, while a zip lining wild child taught me about committing to movement. An archery trainer taught me a very surprising lesson about mindfulness, and finding focus while being relaxed in motion. You cannot tense your fingers and force the arrow away, you have to find soft eyes, breathe where you want the arrow to go and relax your shoulder to send it there from the core. And, a porter jogging up Mt Kilimanjaro taught me that dig deep (sit deep) has nothing to do with sitting down on your horses back, but activating a deeper line of muscle to get to a higher point.
Not all of these lessons came from teachers either. My teaching of an elite dancer taught me more about movement, poise and balance than I was able to teach her, and all three of us (pupil, horse and trainer) left the arena with the biggest grins on our faces. And of course, my back pack and that escalator taught their lesson too.
These are all subjects that we as riders need to understand and embrace. It isn’t fluffy, tree-hugging new age, feel good nonsense (as some seem to think) but practical physics that the elite riders practice inherently, and that we non-elite riders need to fully understand and embrace. (By elite riders, I am thinking of the top 100 in the world, not just farmer Jo down the road, even if he is doing a great job)
Yoga, pilates, feldenkrais are (partly) about teaching balance, poise, being fully present, feeling the body in a movement, stretching out tension and tightness in blocked areas. Pretty much matching what I am spending my time teaching in the arena. In today’s modern world, we are constantly putting our bodies under pressure. Stress or emotional pressure. Physical pressure by eating highly processed foods, being exposed to chemicals, electrical signals, and bad posture from things such as cell phones, computers and sitting in cars. We are too busy, too rushed and in a world of instant gratification, often lack commitment or patience. All of these things have an impact on your riding too. If you rush into the yard, grab your horse, hurry through preparing him, leap on and then get after him for not being fully present or immediately accessible, he will often (rightly) get upset or uncooperative. Slow down, breathe, smell the roses (or coffee) and enjoy your horse. The vast majority of people ride for pleasure, so slow down and enjoy it… Looking at the other side of the coin, horses can help your yoga practice too. Horses loosen off the lower back in a way that is hard to do. (Which is why they are often used for Riding for the Disabled or Hippotherapy). Horses make you breathe, they make you get outside, both physically and on the outside of your comfort zone. And often, working through the ride will make a yoga movement clearer.
Strange advice from a riding trainer, but my thought for this week – give your horse a day off, get out of the arena and go and do something else. Go for a hike, take a sky diving, scuba diving, pole or belly dancing lesson. Do something that takes you out of your comfort zone, into a place where you have to feel your muscles doing a new range of motion. And maybe (hopefully) you will have a new insight to take back to the patient four-legged dancing partner….
Last summer, I was exploring a new town and handed over a vast amount of cash to explore their famous palace. It was well worth it, after my bank balance had recovered. (And yes, I do know why all these places charge a small fortune – it costs a massive amount to maintain these ancient buildings, but it’s still always an internal debate for me – do I pay that much, or just enjoy from the outside?)
As I was wandering through the rooms, there in the children’s nursery stood a very tall, very narrow, very rickety looking small chair, a tiny child’s high chair, with exceptionally long legs. I was just thinking the legs looked as if they had had some uneven wear and tear – all four legs seemed to be slightly different heights, leading to the rickety appearance. As I was looking, one of the castle guides came up, and asked if I knew what I was looking at. A child’s chair? Well, yes.
But this is different – this is a punishment chair. Huh? This chair dated back to 1700 or 1800 ish. The royal nannies who looked after the young princes and princesses were not allowed to physically raise a hand to a child or punish them in any way. Which meant that these young royals were running riot. So, they developed the punishment chair. Because of its height, with it’s extremely narrow base, it was already not terribly stable. Add to that the legs all being at different heights, and the whole thing was liable to topple over.
And this was the first naughty chair. If a young prince or princess was being naughty, they were put in the chair for a while. And while in the chair, they had to sit absolutely still, otherwise it would topple over. Quick fix for temper tantrums, right? The staff didn’t inflict any actual punishment, but the child very soon learnt to be still and quiet. Hmmm…. And what does that have to do with you, and why I’m writing this?
How often have you heard instructors yelling across arenas, just sit still, stop fidgeting, and relax, just sit there. There is nothing relaxing about sitting still – it takes a fair amount of physical effort to “just sit still”. Hello, it was a method of punishment… It takes physical and mental effort to be still. I bet those young royals learnt about using their core and stabilizing themselves in a hurry. It shouldn’t be torturous to sit still, but it certainly isn’t something to “just relax” about either.
(In a totally unrelated thought – follow me here – just think about normal school kids. They have to sit still in class, not get distracted, not move about, not make a noise, and if they don’t – straight onto Ritalin…. Hello, sitting still is torture!)
But, it also made me think about horses, and what we inflict upon them. Get your horse’s head down – put him in one position and keep him there…. How is this not a torturous punishment? Every living being, be it human, horse, cat, dog, any animal, needs to MOVE. You cannot tell a rider or a horse to sit still in one position and hold it. And yet, what do we spend much of our time doing?