How’s your horse today?

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?

Is your horse just slotted into a small space in your day?
Is your horse just slotted into a small space in your day?

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.

It’s nice to just spend time hanging out with your horse….   Even when she’s isn’t your horse!
It’s nice to just spend time hanging out with your horse…. Even when she’s isn’t your horse!

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…

Pushing the elephants up a hill

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.

Golden Marble, my very first horse, the one who started it all.)
Golden Marble, my very first horse, the one who started it all.

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.

 

How big is your why?

How big is your why?

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.

Made it up the little hill, but how much fitness work had I done?  Well, not much…
Made it up the little hill, but how much fitness work had I done? Well, not much…

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….

Mmmmm, the black coffee is a go, but can I give up the cake to go with it?
Mmmmm, the black coffee is a go, but can I give up the cake to go with it?

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 ….

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.

Tobogganing (off the Great Wall of China) teaches you about committing to the force of direction…
Tobogganing (off the Great Wall of China) teaches you about committing to the force of direction…

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).

Archery involves slowing your breathing to calm your mind, and allowing your fingers to let go, more than finding force
Archery involves slowing your breathing to calm your mind, and allowing your fingers to let go, more than finding force

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.

You have to dig deep to get up the stairs – not to be confused with, give up and sit down…
You have to dig deep to get up the stairs – not to be confused with, give up and sit down…

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.

Camel riding involves feeling a whole different way of moving
Camel riding involves feeling a whole different way of moving

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….

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Punishment Chair

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.

https://www.scotiana.com/scottish-castles-series-falkland-palace-part-2/

Sadly, photographs are not allowed within the palace, and the only image I can find of the chair, is this one that isn’t terribly clear…

https://www.flickr.com/photos/147846958@N06/46352902201/in/album-72157668431082618/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/147846958@N06/32480811208/in/album-72157668431082618/

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?

Just who is Kudaguru?

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

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

Teaching in Asia.
Teaching in Asia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uncomfortable experience of being a beginner

“The uncomfortable experience of being a beginner” is a Zen saying.  Learning something from zero is awkward and scratchy.  Whether driving a car, playing an instrument, cooking a meal or speaking a foreign language, you fumble through it, getting things wrong more often than getting them right. 

Driving is something I’ve done a few times, but only to the point of Conscious Incompetence – I know exactly how much of a beginner I am and how much I have to learn!
Driving is something I’ve done a few times, but only to the point of Conscious Incompetence – I know exactly how much of a beginner I am and how much I have to learn!

Put in a different way, you begin a new skill in unconscious competence.  You have no idea of just how much you don’t know.  You then, with a few lessons move to conscious incompetence.  Meaning, you now begin to understand what you’ve let yourself in for – just how much learning you have ahead of you.  Conscious competence follows after a lot of practice – you can do the new skill, but only if you really think about it.  And finally, unconscious competence – “Well, I can’t explain how, you just do it…”

How many times do you hear riders, athletes or trainers yelling at their pupils – just make it happen.  Make the horse rounder.  Make the horse more collected or more elevated.  And when asked how, they say, just make it happen.  Unconscious incompetence.  They don’t know what they know.

The problem comes in when an instructor doesn’t understand this. 

Many years ago, I was working with a young instructor.  He was a talented rider but hadn’t taught much.  I was watching him teach a group of beginner kids one day, and he was saying – it’s just trotting, all you have to do is go up and down – come on now, it’s not complicated, it’s just trotting, up and down. 

This was a problem.  No beginner at anything is going to progress by being told that it’s JUST A, B, C, and that they should be able to…  So, we came up with a plan, and took this young coach roller blading.  He’d never tried it before.  Once he’d hopped into his shoes, stood up and uh – fallen over, there were a couple of us yelling, come on, get up, what are you lying on the floor for?  It’s just standing on wheels, it’s easy, look, you just do it like this…

It didn’t take him long to get our point.  A few days later, I was watching him working with a group of young riders, and there he was, patiently explaining, this is what I want you to do, and this is how we are going to achieve it.  Lesson done. 

Scuba diving was a new skill for me a few years ago – and having my coach yell “just swim” wouldn’t have been useful…
Scuba diving was a new skill for me a few years ago – and having my coach yell “just swim” wouldn’t have been useful…

We can never lose sight of how uncomfortable and difficult it is to be a beginner.  It’s awkward and challenging, and it’s a time when we coaches need to be patient and explain, not be yelling, Just Get on With it, it’s EASY.  I try, all the time, to keep doing things that are new or challenging.  By learning new skills all the time, I keep the learning space in my brain open, and remember to be patient with novices. 

When was the last time you tried something for the first time?

Beethoven or Heavy Metal?

I’m sitting cross legged on a veranda, in deepest darkest Africa as I write this.  In fact, here – look at my view.

The best way to start your day – early morning, before the day’s sun has burnt off the mist, enjoying the coffee tray that has been brought as a wake up call
The best way to start your day – early morning, before the day’s sun has burnt off the mist, enjoying the coffee tray that has been brought as a wake up call.

Not bad, huh?

And, why am I here?    Well, largely for a horseback safari.  Here, Sosian Lodge in Lakipia, Kenya, is one of the world’s premier horse-riding safari locations.  And, it’s simply magic.  There isn’t really another word for it.  But, it makes me think, why do you ride?  Why did you learn your skill?

Everyone learns a skill for a different reason.  Some people are happy reading nothing more than road signs, while others use that reading skill for Shakespeare, War and Peace and Lord of the Rings.  Some people learn to play music to simply practice doing scales, while others play Beethoven, Mozart and Vivaldi.  Some people learn to drive so they can go 2 blocks to the shops, while others undertake epic road trips across continents.  And riding for me?  Well, I didn’t learn to ride to go around and around for hours, “getting the horse’s head down”…  Riding (for me) is about getting out there, challenging myself, challenging the communication and bond with my horse.  Some riders are happier refining heir dressage skills, thinking that is the art form.  I started my competing mainly in three-day eventing, the ultimate test of training, fitness, stamina, endurance and rider stickability.  Now, I don’t compete anymore, but coming to places like this, this is where some of the greatest riding happens. 

It always makes me a little sad, when people say oh, sorry, I’m just a trail / hacking rider.  Why would you put your self down like that?  Trail riders face so many obstacles that riders who stay safely inside an arena fence wouldn’t even dream of.  Clamber down the bank and scramble up the other side.  Watch the bird who flaps across in front of you, or the dog (or lion) who leaps out of the bushes…  Leg yield out of the way of the oncoming car, and hold a straight line past the scary rock, or black plastic bin bag. 

Riding out challenges your balance in a way that arena riding just doesn’t come near.  It also, very definitely, tests the bond between you and your horse.  If something doesn’t quite go to plan in an arena, maybe your half pass doesn’t come off.  If your horse questions your timing or judgement out on a trail, you can come seriously unstuck.

Yes, those are elephants right there – big wild ones, and no, there isn’t a fence between us…
Yes, those are elephants right there – big wild ones, and no, there isn’t a fence between us…

I’m not knocking competitive riders, or riders who love schooling.  There is absolutely a place for it, and honestly, riding out is so much more pleasant on a well-trained, nicely balanced, thinking horse.  And if you are happy spending hours going around and around, go for it.  (As long as your horse agrees about going around and around for hours…) but to me, that is the practicing playing scales before you can play a concerto.  It’s a means to an end.  My horses had to be light, quick thinking and responsive, so they could clear a testing cross country course.  War horses were schooled in Haute Ecole so that they could be ridden into battle.  Fortunately, horses aren’t ridden into battle anymore, but dressage means training – training to enable them to do whatever their main job was.   Training to decapitate foot soldiers, or guard the king, or carry a lady out through the park for taking the air. 

Why do you school your horse?  Why do you ride?  Is it to improve your fitness?  Your non-verbal communication?  Your bond with a living, breathing, non-human being? Is it to do the party ticks, to tick the movements off a to do list?  Or is it so that you can go out for an adventure with a four-legged friend?

This morning I had a great ride out on a lovely mare called KQ.  She was light, balanced, easy and a pleasure to amble with.  She’s not overly confident when faced with a herd of giraffe, which is exactly what happened this morning, and yet she stayed with me, walking quietly, heart racing and snorting a bit, but staying in walk, paying attention.  Would her schooling be tested to that degree in an arena?  No.  Did she need training and schooling to do that?  Absolutely. 

How brave is KQ?

And watching our guide – controlling his horse with one hand, organising us visitors, watching a herd of elephant and reading their movements, and, at the right moment, cracking his stock whip to make sure that a young bull elephant stays back – all while not moving in his saddle – that is a massive skill. 

Is this heavy metal music compared to dressage riders playing Beethoven?  Who knows, but I do know which I love doing! 

So, how do you test your riding?

Have you heard of Body World?

Dr Gunther Von Hagens and Dr Angelina Whalley developed this incredible exhibition and opened it to the public in 1995.  Since then, it has travelled to over 130 cities, and been seen by more than 47 million people.  So, it’s a little bit popular then!

https://bodyworlds.com/

It is designed for (mainly) non-medical people, to teach them more about the human body, how different systems (skeletal, muscular, circulatory, respiratory etc) work together, and essentially how fragile and yet amazing it all is.  Their main reason for being is preventative health care.  Each exhibition is focused on something slightly different – stress, movement or bad diet choices etc.

So, um, how do they do it then?

All of the exhibits are real human bodies.  While alive, the owners of these bodies choose to donate their remains to science, for the good of our knowledge.  The Institute for Plastination where the work is done is in Germany, and the bulk of the remains used are German citizens.  On their death, the remains are sent to the institute.  Formaldehyde is pumped through the arteries to kill bacteria.    The body is then dissected to show what ever it is that the scientists feel it should be used for, possibly a diseased area, a pinned limb or a replaced hip etc, which can take up to 1,000 hours.  They are then placed in a bath of liquid polymer which, over a couple of weeks, impregnates every single cell.  Positioning is next, and, when you go to the exhibition, you will see a massive variety of poses, from dancers, musicians, athletes, chess players etc.    Finally, the remains are set, or hardened into this position.  The whole process takes about a year. 

So, why am I talking about it?  Well, I think its an awesome teaching tool.  I went to see it a couple of years ago in Johannesburg, and again last month in London, which is why it’s on my mind.  The first time, the biggest impact for me, was the strength of our hip flexors, and the massive dome of our diaphragm.  No wonder we battle with our knees drawing upwards while riding, or about the effect of our breathing.  This time, the thing that most impressed me, was how none of the remains where symmetrical.  All could be seen to be more developed through one side of their back more that the other, or one more developed arm or leg.  And we wonder why we ride in a one-sided way?

The other incredible thing to see at the current London exhibition is an actual horse, who was fully dissected, with an equally dissected human rider.  The horse can be seen to have suffered a tendon injury.

Body World Exhibition
Body World Exhibition

Yes, some people will find it morally wrong or offensive.  Some people will be squeamish about going.  But I highly recommend anyone who is interested in riding or teaching better, to keep an eye open for it to visit your country and go and have a wander around.  It really is quite extraordinary! 

 

Mirrors

There is an old story about two dogs who walk into a room….  The first one enters, and comes out wagging his tail, wearing a big sloppy grin on his face from what he has seen in the room.  The second dog enters, starts to growl, snarl and bare his teeth.  He comes out of the door angry and snappy.  What was in the room that provoked such a huge difference in these two dog’s reactions?  

Mirrors.  The first dog entered the room with a smile, saw a smiling dog who wagged their tail at him, and he was wagging his tail right back…  The second dog entered growling, and surprise surprise, the dog he met was growling too.

Larry would generally see the happy dog in the mirror!
Larry would generally see the happy dog in the mirror!

This story always sticks in my mind – what you think, expect, anticipate, you’re going to get back, double time.  

I spend a lot of time in airports and generally the poor staff there are harassed and complained at by irritated, tired travellers.  They are often defensive, and if you go in angry and defensive, guess what you get back?  If you go in laughing, happy, joking, it is generally what you get in return…

Why am I thinking about this now?  A while ago, I was working a horse.  I knew, well, not a lot about this horse.  He was about 10,  middle-aged, had done a fair amount, needed some work.  So, I worked with him.  Afterwards, I was chatting to the instructor who generally worked with the horse.  

“He’s a sweet little guy, isn’t he?”  I asked.  Stood while I got organised, went off when I said go, gave me exactly what I asked for at each moment, tried hard to understand and please, made some nice changes in the way he was carrying himself.  I was happy with the session; he and I left the arena both smiling.

I’m pleased to meet you – are you pleased to meet me?
I’m pleased to meet you – are you pleased to meet me?

“No”, the instructor replied, he’s difficult.  He’s stubborn, mean and has a nasty buck.  He doesn’t offer anything unless you push, and even then he is sulky and difficult…..  He’s a bully who needs bullying.

I clarified, had I worked the right horse?  The big grey in the paddock at the back?  Well yes, that horse.  The difficult one.  No, I corrected, the big grey, the easy one…

What happened?  Well, I believe that we were the two dogs entering the room.  I think she found the gelding that her boss had bought and assigned to her to bring on when she was already too busy, with too much on her plate.  I think she approached the horse with that attitude, so he responded in kind.  Oh horse, I hate riding you…  Oh human, I hate carrying you too…  And then, I walked in, with no pressure, no time constraints, no boss, no agenda, and said ooooh a horse…  A new friend…  Hello Pretty Horse, will you be my friend, will you carry me, will you play and dance with me?  And, the horse again responded in kind…..  Ohhh, hello human, yes, let’s explore, let’s play, what shall we offer each other….

Horses are a mirror to us – walk into their stable with what you expect and 99% of the time, they’ll prove you right…  

How will you approach your horse today?